Monday, May 28, 2007

Another city, another concert.

After a week that seemed to go on forever I cut it short Friday lunchtime and after a lot of trouble involving someone trying to fraudulently use my debit card I got on a train into London, before transferring across to the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo to head over to Brussels for the Radu Malfatti et al concert I mentioned a couple of posts back.

I’d never travelled on the Eurostar before, and the trip was as much an excuse to fill that gap in my experience as anything, and I’m really glad I made the effort. The train itself was nothing much to write home about, but its been a while since I made a long rail journey and it was great to turn off the work phone, relax with a book and my iPod and watch the graffiti strewn decay of London slip away into the drab Kent countryside before dipping under the English Channel and reappearing twenty minutes later in France.
The experience of going under the channel was supremely unremarkable, and the fields of France don’t look that different to their counterparts in the garden of England. One thing struck me immediately, and slightly oddly though, and that was the different design of electric pylons stretching across France compared to those I had just seen in the UK. Odd how little things jump out at you on a journey like that.

On the way I finished Haruki Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman collection of short stories, not bad all round, and listened to another Bach CD, this time a burn of Janos Starker’s rendition of Six suites for solo cello made for me by a friend determined to get me listening to more varied music! Really enjoyed the recording though, and made for great travelling music.

As I didn’t have a lot of time before the concert I grabbed a taxi from the Gare de Midi station in Brussels to my hotel, and oh boy that was a journey. During the two or three mile trip the taxi left the ground on at least two occasions, the driver had several heart attacks and swore in the direction of at least ten other vehicles in several languages before we arrived, slightly shellshocked at our destination. On the return trip Saturday I made sure I left enough time to be able to walk…

As I stayed just a short walk from the venue I took a leisurely stroll around some beautiful backstreets along the way, and stumbled across a bustling square full of people watching an open air jazz festival. As I carried on walking the music hung in the air for a while before disappearing several corners later. The music wasn’t of much interest but I couldn’t help but think this just wouldn’t happen in the UK.

At the venue I met up with David Bauwens, an online friend and a photographer friend of his Eleen, who took some of the photos shown here, thanks Eleen.
The concert was divided into two halves of about 90 minutes each, with all six of the musicians involved for all of the sets, Radu Malfatti (Trombone), Taku Sugimoto (Guitar), Christian Kesten (Vocals), Julia Eckhardt (Violin), Toshimaru Nakamura (No-input mixing board) and Lucio Capece (Bass clarinet and soprano sax).

The group’s aim was to investigate the area between composition and improvisation, and this was most apparent in the first three pieces of the evening, all written by Kesten. I’m not sure of the exact nature of the scores, so I could be missing something important, but the first, Without title was very Malfattiesque in tone, with long silences broken up by timed patches of sound, mostly muted tones that rose very slightly, with Sugimoto plucking one deadened note from his electric guitar repeatedly in quick succession. I was impressed by Kesten’s input, which is an unusual thing for me to say about an improvising vocalist. He made understated hissing noises, quite literally the sound of escaping air that blended into the overall atmosphere nicely.
Throughout the first half of the performance, and particularly obvious during the first composition, a young, somewhat overweight girl played football in the street outside the venue, screaming out happily every so often, and occasionally blowing on a referee’s whistle, adding a distant, pleasing context for the music to take place in.

After the austerity of the first piece, the second and third added some further elements to proceedings.Dodger Stadium and Cypress Park seemed to be related works and included video elements that were projected onto the white wall behind the musicians, with the audio from the film filtered into the room via a couple of speakers. The films burst onto the wall at timed intervals. Each were static shots filmed at seemingly random locations, one for each composition (probably the locations that provided the works with their titles). Dodger Stadium featured a shot of what appeared to be an empty car park with grey buildings in the background. The accompanying audio kept a low profile, wind blowing softly over the mic and the occasional passing ‘plane blended beautifully into the music.

These pieces played with the audience perceptions of composition and improvisation. Whilst the musicians seemed to be following a score closely, with only two or three playing at one time, providing soft, restrained sounds, the film added another dimension, which blurred with the sounds coming into the hall from the street right outside the venue to create a nice mix of the accidental and intentional.

During the score, Lucio Capece suddenly on cue took an apple and started to peel it and then eat it (from the look on his face he didn’t enjoy it either!). at another point Erckhardt stopped and poured a glass of water from a bottle and took a drink, a moment that seemed like a natural intrusion on the music until two of the other musicians did the same in quick succession, changing what had just appeared to be a thirsty musician into part of the composition.

The film that appeared in places during Cypress Park was shot inside what looked like an empty restaurant, though every so often people would enter the room unaware of the filming, providing a loud burst of sound into the mix. Again the inclusion of this film seemed to play with ideas of chance and improvisation, yet placed these elements into a semi-composed scenario, blurring any distinction between the two. I really enjoyed these two works. I have quite possibly read them incorrectly and taken from them things that were not there, but they certainly set me thinking.

The final piece of the first half of the concert was a short composition by Taku Sugimoto entitled Doremilogy 1-12. I have to be honest this piece was lost on me. It consisted of the musicians playing short bursts of scales, (literally, Do, Re, Me) with short silences between them. The piece lasted about five minutes and just left me perplexed. Asking the great man about the composition afterwards didn’t shed much more light on the subject, so we shall move swiftly along!

After the break we received a real treat. The six musicians played a beautiful restrained improvisation filled with tension and calm at the same time, a warm, flowing study that put a massive smile on my face. Neither Malfatti or Sugimoto improvise very often, and this occasion was a joy to behold. All of the musicians seemed comfortable in the grouping, which generated a slowly evolving music that was very much informed by their compositional playing, yet at the same time very much free from the constraints.

Capece’s playing was particularly impressive, with cardboard tubes and other paraphernalia helping him produce deeply textured lines of sound that combined with Malfatti’s masterful use of grey colours and Kesten’s hissing vocalisations to great effect, with Sugimoto’s occasional chiming notes adding counterpoint.
The drive behind the set seemed to come from the combination of Eckhardt’s subtle use of circular bowing and Toshi Nakamura’s comparatively violent feedback outbursts that were the loudest element of the music and pulled proceedings along, keeping the music from falling into a murky stasis.
This set alone was well worth the trip, a superbly balanced performance by six exceptional musicians that seemed very comfortable in each other’s company.

The last performance of the evening consisted of a long composition by Radu Malfatti entitled Bruxelles Quartet +2. The night before in Ghent the group had played the same score that consisted of a set of timings within which all of the players played a restrained single sound together, with the silences between the notes differing in duration and the pitch of the notes altering only very slightly. Tonight although the same work was performed, the musicians were asked to each begin at a different time of their choosing, within five minutes of each other. This resulted in the patches of sound overlapping in places, with short silences peeking through here and there, giving the effect of shadows overlaid on each other and moving slowly across one another as time progressed.

Having spent a considerable amount of time with Malfatti’s compositional work in recent months this treatment of his piece provided a fascinating variation on his music. Watching the musicians having to concentrate alone on their own individual stopwatch controlled parts was interesting in itself, but the music that developed had the feel of Feldman’s later long works to it, a serene beauty formed from patterns in the music that exist but remain hard for the listener to pin down.

Wandering back through the city to my hotel much later on I passed by the jazz festival again, still as busy and active as before, the place buzzing with sound as people milled around chattering and shouting, yet the stage was now empty and the musicians’ chairs vacant. I smiled to myself at this situation as I bought one of the tastiest kebabs I’ve ever eaten from one of the surliest kebab sellers I’ve ever met and wandered on my way.

The next morning after a pretty bad breakfast I spent a few hours wandering the city with my camera, relaxing and enjoying the complete break from my usual surroundings. Some of the resulting pictures can be found here

A great short break all around. Many thanks to all of the musicians and the Qo-2 organisers who are doing some great work. I’m sure I’ll make the trip there again some time. Their future programme is here

Thanks also to Eleen for letting me use a couple of her photos above. More can be seen here

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Sound of 21st Century England

I recently bought a little Edirol audio recorder so that I could make recordings of concerts etc, merely for my own reference when writing reviews as the recording quality, whilst good is not of studio standards. Its also been fun to play about with it though grabbing off-the-cuff field recordings at opportune moments.

So here, just for fun are two low bitrate mp3's of a couple of recordings I've made that somehow capture something of the spirit of 21st century England. The first is an excerpt of the recordings I made from my hotel window in Newcastle last weekend at 2AM, the sound of England's new proletariate enjoying themselves, interspersed with cars passing by over wet roads, the thump of nightclub bass speakers and even the odd seagull. Vocals courtesy of Newcastle Brown Ale.

The second recording was made this morning in the back garden at Pinnell Towers. A far more restrained affair, birds twittering, dogs barking, 'planes passing over, lawns being mowed, the sound of everyday Oxfordshire suburbia on a Sunday morning, complete with added vocals by my younger brother, recovering from a major hangover singing (well, shouting) to himself from the kitchen...

Aaah, what it is to be English ... Enjoy!

Newcastle 12.05.07.

Garden 20.05.07.

Another 3AM moment

I'm not sure if it was something to do with the three quarters of a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc I drank last night, or more likely the chicken fajitas I cooked and devoured quite late in the evening, but at 3AM this morning I was sat bolt upright in bed, in something of a daze but in need of something to get me back to sleep.
I went downstairs and made myself a cup of Ovaltine Options Lite (formerly known as hot chocolate). The house was deathly still as my brother was out for the night and the very faintest of glows from the rising sun could be made out across the horizon through the kitchen window.
I felt the need for music, and for some reason I was in no doubt which CD to put on, and almost instinctively selected the New World reissue of Morton Feldman's The Viola in My Life that features Karen Phillips' viola and David Tudor's piano, directed by Feldman himself. With the volume turned right down I sat and watched clouds move slowly across the sky as this stunningly beautiful music unfolded into the room and I clutched my mug.

Before the three parts of The Viola... had ended half an hour later I think I was asleep again. For years I have used Feldman to lure me gently off into slumber, but not this disc before. Now, some six hours later the memory of that moment seems even clearer than it did last night, and I've pressed play on the CD deck again to remind me just how fantastic that piece of music is.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

How was your week?

Its been a pretty frustrating one here. Hopeful leads to resolve my stressful work situation have been painfully slow in coming to fruition, Julie has spent much of the week at the hospital as a close relative of hers is critically ill, and my Grandmother is in the process of being assessed as being incapable of living alone any longer. All of this has been coupled with further delays to the release of the fourth Cathnor CD caused by incompetent printers. Its not been the most fantastic of weeks.

Depressing stuff, so as ever I've been turning to music to distract me from the day to day trials and tribulations. This week the classical explorations have been put to one side to spend some time with a clutch of nice "EAI" related CDs that have graced the tray of my CD deck. Along with the Toshimaru Nakamura / Axel Dörner CD on the Ftarri label that I mentioned a couple of posts back I've been listening to a couple of related discs, the Dörner / Lucio Capece duo on the L'innomable label, and the trio of Dörner, Capece and Robin Hayward on Azul discografica. This trio of recordings were recorded over a couple of years (oddly though, all at Dörner's Berlin flat) yet have all appeared in a short period of time, with a fourth release in this 'series' the duo of Nakamura and Capece due on the Formed label any day now.
All three of these discs are great, and Pinnell Towers has resonated to the sound of spluttering brass and reeds all week as I've been getting my thoughts together for a review, to appear at ParisTransatlantic in a couple of weeks.

Another very strong CD I've been playing a lot is from the trio of Michael Renkel, Sabine Vogel and Magda Mayas who go by the collective name of Phono Phono, which also seems to be the title of their first album on the Absinth label. Another review planned for this one, which is a curious mix of guitar, piano, flute and electronics, ranging from very quiet Feldmanesque moments to quirky quickfire improv, but somehow all making sense as one big whole. I had no expectations for this disc when it arrived, but have been pleasantly surprised at how much I've enjoyed it.

As I type I am also feverishly planning another couple of music related trips, the first of which being this coming Friday and a possible Eurostar journey to Brussels to catch the intriguing quintet of Radu Malfatti, Lucio Capece, Taku Sugimoto, Toshimaru Nakamura, Julia Eckhardt and Christian Kesten, apparently performing Malfatti compositions. Its by no means certain I'll make the trip, but if not it won't be for lack of trying. The other possible musical expedition could be up to Aberdeen in the middle of June to catch Keith Rowe play a solo set. I haven't decided whether to drive or fly yet, but either way I'm looking forward to that one.

OK, back to the spluttering trumpets....

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Its grim up north (but the music's great)

A nice time was had at the weekend. I drove up to Gateshead for the Saturday night of the Music Lover's Field Companion festival, collecting improv archivist and man of great taste David Reid en route. I managed to watch the four sets I really wanted to see at the festival, that was held in the really quite impressive Sage Arts Centre, an enormous shiny metal cocoon-like structure that is less than eighteen months old and sits overlooking the equally impressive Millenium Bridge on the Tyne.

The first was the trio of Angharad Davies, Tisha Mukarji and Andrea Neumann, a group that promised great things and delivered most of them. Angharad and Tisha played acoustically, their respective violin and inside grand piano reflected around the high wooden walls of the room blending nicely with Andrea's amplified inside piano and electronics played softly through a stage monitor rather than the hall PA system. I'm very conscious of using clichéd descriptions of an all-female group as sensitive and beautiful, but those words do spring to mind as the trio played a considered set of slow chamber-like improv. Davies' violin work roamed between abrasive circular rhythms and plucked stacatto notes, merging with Neumann's sinetones, scrapes and hisses with Mukarji supplying quite beautiful interventions into the gaps in the sound. The set started a little slowly, but found its feet after a few moments, and ended with a captivating passage of gently brooding tension worth the five hour drive up the motorway alone.

I was helping David record and film the music, and a frantic, stressful rush to move his equipment from one hall to another meant that I spent the first few minutes of Los Glissandinos' set catching my breath, glad that I don't usually have to worry about that kind of thing. The ensuing set was very nice though, from one perspective standard Los G music, thick minimal sinetones from Klaus Filip's laptop criss-crossing with Kai Fagaschinski's long wavering clarinet notes, but compared to their set last year I caught in New York they hit a new level of intensity here. In places the music really tore at your eardums, the dense syrupy tones hanging heavily in the air at high volume, with Fagaschinski at one point blasting high register figures into Filip's already brain-fryingly high pitched sine until most of the audience clutched their ears in defence. Los Glissandinos have a sound very much their own that I have long enjoyed, and here in all its intense physicality it really gripped me.

The greatest pleasure of the weekend for me was the opportunity to buy Radu Malfatti a drink and spend some time with him discussing my recent review of his work. We then sat together in the circle of the Sage's Number Two Hall to watch the Northern Sinfonia tackle a specially comissioned Malfatti piece Gateshead 21.
The performance certainly divided the audience, and it seemed the performers also. As the ridiculously austere, quiet music went about its way around half the audience got up and left, the harsh, unforgiving acoustics of the hall amplifying every closed door into a massive event.
The nineteen musicians (two of the 21 that gave the title its name dropped out in advance) were divided into four groups sat on and in front of the stage. The music was then divided into four sections, each separated by an extended rest and silence even longer than the gaps already in the music. Each of the groups of players were instructed to play unbroken bowed sounds together, separated by timed lengthy silences. The instruction being that the return of the bow should not be audible, and that for each of the five sections a particular part of the body of the instrument would be bowed, with the strings never played.

During the first section of the composition, all of the players (all string instruments, violins, cello and double bass) bowed the body of their instrument slowly, beginning sharply at a sign from the conductor (not Malfatti) who, using a stopwatch then indicated the point where the sound was cut off abruptly. These lines of dry, hushed sound varied in length, with the gaps between each one varying also. For each following section of the music one group at a time moved to bowing just the head of their instruments, resulting in a slightly quieter sound each time, until for the final section all four groups had followed suit and the sound was at its most fragile.

This piece extended Malfatti's investigations into how our memory affects our perception of a piece of music. It took a great deal of effort to remain focussed on the music for its 45 minute duration, and the changes in the sound were spread over such a long period of time that without the visual element of the concert it may have appeared that the musicians made the same sound every time, yet for each section of the composition the music changed in a very subtle manner.
Watching this performance was a fascinating and thoughtful experience for me that was made all the more intruing by being able to watch the composer's reactions beside me as the music developed. The sad thing to me was the apparent disinterest of a few of the Sinfonia players, who seemed to smirk disdainfully throughout the performance and not give their full attention to the strict concentration the composition demanded. Radu seemed quite pleased with the performance however.

The last set of the evening came from Polwechsel, a group I last saw live when Radu Malfatti was a member, and have undergone considerable change since their inception nearly fifteen years ago. The music Polwechsel produced resembled that of their 2006 album Archives of the North, a tight, well crafted blend of mainly acoustic compositions that was as pleasing on the ear as it was perhaps a little predictably safe. Of the four pieces played tonight I think three were semi-composed works, with just the opener being fully improvised. The second and fourth pieces involved the group beginning with a rehearsed short section of music that was grabbed as a sample at the mixing desk and then fed back into the music via speakers at the rear of the stage as a loop that was treated as the piece went on, slowly degrading into an elctronic mass. The group played into and over this backdrop, making it hard to figure out which sounds were live and which the sampled loop. These two pieces were the most interesting to me in a set that was very pleasing on the ear yet perhaps a little too comfortable for its own good.

Overall the music of the sets I managed to catch was of a pretty high standard. I have less commendable things to say about Gateshead, a city only separated from Newcastle by the river Tyne, that David and I crossed over to go and find our hotel for the evening. At 1AM in the morning Newcastle is a frightening place, a mixture of booming nightclubs spewing out mini skirts into the drab streets and seedy looking kebab shops from which the drunken inhabitants shouted undecipherable exclamations at equally inebriated passers by. Oh and call me a snob but I've never seen so many shellsuits in all of my life!

When we reached the hotel (unsurprisingly situated above a teeming nightclub) sleep was impossible for a few hours, so David and I each took to recording the sounds and sights of urban England at 2AM from our hotel windows until exhausted enough to sleep through the din. Breakfast the next morning was pretty tasteless, grey in colour and curling up at the edges, serving as a lasting metaphor for Newcastle itself as we drove away, complete with a parking ticket as a souvenir!

The drive home was great however. Five hours in heavy rain would normally be a hellish journey, but having had David select music for the journey from his impressive CD collection, the soundtrack to a stormridden drive down the M1 was a joy. Modern improvisaion based on early music by Paulo Pandolfo, John Cage and David Tudor's spoken word and electronics Indeterminacy set and a stunningly beautiful rendition of Bach's Violin Concerto by Gidon Kremer provided a great accompaniment to David filming the journey home.

All in all a great, if rather tiring weekend.

Interior of the Sage photo by Alastair Wilson

Friday, May 11, 2007

Checking In

Just a quick update as I've not posted for a week, mainly because my listening over the past few days has been limited, and the music I have been listening to has been quite unusual, quite challenging for me, and I haven't even come close to processing my response to much of it, let alone become able to write anything salient here. The CDs Acquired link over on the left will show you what my recent purchases have been, but essentially quite a bit of composition from the early end of the 20th Century, an area I know little to nothing about, but my curiosity got the better of me.

One very great CD of a music I am much more at home with turned up amongst recent acquisitions though, the new duo recording of Toshimaru Nakamura and Axel Dörner on the Ftarri label, an offshoot of the Improvised Music from Japan label. This release is one of the best new pieces of music I've heard so far this year, so I'll save my thoughts for a proper review and evaluation, but its certainly one I recommend checking out if you can.

Tomorrow evening I head up to Derbyshire to hook up with my good friend David Reid before we follow on North to Gateshead and the Music Lovers Field Companion Festival on Saturday. Some great names on the bill, an Angharad Davies/Tisha Mukarji/Andrea Neumann trio, Los Glissandinos, Polwechsel, and a Radu Malfatti composition for a 27 piece orchestra. Looking forward to it.

All this and a new Cathnor release due any moment, about which I shall write at length here very soon.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Drivetime Drones

Driving home from work this evening, doing a steady sixty along a straight road I was taken by the gentle drones emanating from the car. The roar of the air conditioning fighting hard against the mini heatwave we are experiencing here at present filled the car, and blended nicely with the churning of the engine and the distant roar of tyres against tarmac. Tonight though there seemed to be an extra layer to this pleasant buzz, a rising and falling bass-like hum, that was very pleasing to the ear but seemed somehow to be rising in volume very gradually until reaching something of a crescendo. Turning off the air-con it suddenly occurred to me that this new and interesting layer to my 'Symphony for Audi A4' was in fact the sound of my front passenger side tyre deflating. Slowing down fast to pull over, the loud roar broke up into thunderous flapping sounds until I came to a halt and all that remained was the gentle purr of the engine.

OK, so I had to wait half an hour for someone to come and fit the spare as where I had stopped was a little too dangerous for me to attempt it myself, but as annoying breakdown experiences go, it didn't half sound good!

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Something I forgot to mention here, my review of the i and e Festival appeared here at ParisTransatlantic a few days ago. Up to my usual gushing standard...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Photo of the month No.2



Wet seaweed on the underside of a wooden tide break, early evening on a long forgotten English beach, sometime in 2005

Bloggin' all over the world (and I like it, I like it...)

The blog seems to be the internet age's eqivalent to the good old fanzine. Whilst I do actually miss the craft and creativity involved in cutting, pasting, photocopying and stapling 'zines in the past, the speed that blogs allow you to spread your thoughts around the world is scarily fast. Gone are the days of trawling the classified adverts in the back of the NME or wherever for the contact address of whatever lovingly created new title hit the streets that week, followed by sending off concealed cash and waiting for days for it to arrive. Today a quick google search brings instant gratification, no waiting, no payment, no stray staples stabbing you as you ripped the envelope open in excitement...

If I'm honest there is a nostalgic side to me that misses those good old days, when it took a lot of effort and love to be able to self publish whatever rubbish you had to foist upon the world. Nowadays its all too easy to throw your thoughts out there. Less effort is made to keep the quality high, and great publishing tools like Blogger remove the need for any technical ability, opening up the 'net to just about anyone, but also removing some of the creativity and individuality previously inherent to self publishing.

Having said all of this, there are a few blogs out there now that write about this area of music that are the online equivalent of the old fanzines, well written and put together with care. Along with steadfast favourites such as Brian Olewnick's Just Outside and Robert Kirkpatrick's A Spiral Cage the list of blogs I like over there on the left hand side has been bolstered by links to Dom Lash's fine (if infrequent) Force of Circumstance and JK Brogan's intriguing collections of quotes, links and questions Open this surface to clouds amongst others.

Today a new promising blog appeared that I think needs a mention (and not just because it carries a fine review of a Cathnor release :) Matt (otherwise known as Sound Plague from the I hate Music forum) from way down under in Oz launched the TAOMUD blog today with a flurry of initial reviews, a nice start, go take a look.

Edit: Just noticed J.K Broan's surname was incorrect here for best part of a month, corrected now, my apologies!