Gig Reviews – Issue 6


Port Mahon, Oxford (April 2010)


Conway Hall, London (May 2010)


Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford (May 2010)


Oxford (June 2010)


Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford (September 2010)


The Nunnery, London (February 2011)


Holywell Music Room, Oxford (February 2011)

Port Mahon, Oxford, Tuesday 20th April 2010

Phil Wachsmann, Eric Clarke: violins; Jill Elliott: viola; Bruno Guastalla: cello, bandoneon; Dominic Lash: double-bass

There were moments when one might have said that Squint’s improvisations sounded a little like composed pieces by Lachenmann or Per Norgard. This was primarily due to the particular instrumentation, to the use of extended techniques (with the whole body of the instrument as sound-making device) by an all-strings ensemble, which one would not associate with the more jazz-associated aspects of free improvisation as much as with ‘modern classical’. That said, the fact that things were completely improvised ensured a more fractured approach than that allowed by written material; the players were less likely to work in and around the same melodic material for lengthy periods, more likely to move on to another section if they felt that the music had begun to stagnate in any one kind of sonic area for too long.

One might also note the fairly considerable diversity in the backgrounds of those playing: Wachsmann studied with Nadia Boulanger and emerged initially from an indeterminate/ Cageian/ art music context; Clarke is a professor at the University of Oxford with extensive academic research on music under his belt; Elliott has been involved in classical, folk and contemporary music in Oxford for 20 years; Guastalla works as a maker and restorer of violins and cellos, as well as playing in a number of Oxford-based free improvising groups; Lash has played with the late Steve Reid, droned with Tony Conrad, plucked in straightahead jazz contexts, scrabbled away in free jazz settings, and participated in quiet textural improvisations. Such diversity by no means led to a clash of approaches: motifs and techniques were passed round in overlapping relays and leaping exchanges.

At times, one might think that one had pinned down the ‘role’ someone was playing in the group – Clarke as the most melodic player, tending to focus on longer bowed notes and lengthier phrases; Wachsmann as the one keeping things on edge, abrasive, physically engaged; Elliott plucking round the spaces left by other players; Lash providing the lower end of the music in a supportive role, bowing secure underpinnings or plucking harmonies; Guastalla laying out for a few seconds and then launching in with ferocious energy onto a particular idea or type of sound (notable in this regard was his use of a piece of wood against the strings to create a fantastic loud groaning that sounded as if it could almost have been electronically manipulated). But this was most definitely not a music where one could pin down any one player to any one role. Sometimes two musicians would play in near-concord, shifting echoes of one another’s phrases, edging round a tonal centre, soon snapped out of it by someone (often Wachsmann) scraping or unleashing plucked flurries. Sometimes there would be contrasts across the ensemble, players dividing into short-lived separate groupings, pairings: Clarke’s groaning ship’s mast over brief violin harmony, Elliot and Wachsmann tapping out quiet motifs in the midst of the lower instruments’ thunder. At other times, the whole ensemble would dig with slow bowed drones, or some would drop out to leave near silence, the thread of the music hanging on a wisp of sound from bow on wood or string.

This was the group’s first gig (though there had been a few private sessions beforehand – it wasn’t one of the ad-hoc blowing groups you sometimes find in free jazz contexts) and there were perhaps times when things felt a little tentative: the division into separate pieces (of roughly ten minutes in length) diffused the intense concentration that a single, longer piece would have yielded, for applause means you have to build things back up again, in the process losing the atmosphere and focus of the previous minutes. It must be noted, however, that little hesitation was shown on the re-starts, and furthermore, any sacrifices in terms of total cohesion were more than made up for by the variety of sounds, levels of volume, types of interaction, and musical alliances across the group. The result was intensely absorbing, and it is to be hoped that this group might further develop the many interesting directions they created for themselves during this debut public performance.

Conway Hall, London, Sunday 2nd & Monday 3rd May 2010

My previous visits to the annual Freedom of the City festival have been limited to just the one, back in 2007. Back then, it was a smaller affair, held in the back room of the Red Rose pub, with a relatively modest number of artists performing. After a year’s absence, due to the termination of the Red Rose as an improv venue, it came back all the stronger in 2009, relocating to the more centrally-placed Conway Hall – a far roomier space – and attracting a number of improvisers from abroad to join the mainly British-based line-up. Organizers Evan Parker, Eddie Prévost and Trevor Brent had achieved even more of a coup this year, persuading trumpeter Leo Smith to headline both days of the festival. This was not, of course, the first time that Smith had joined with European improvisers, or, indeed, with those specifically based in England – he played in Bristol back in the 70s, and has recently teamed up with the small ‘stable’ of musicians associated with Treader, the improv label run by John Coxon and Ashley Wales (a.k.a. dance music duo Spring Heel Jack). It was in something approaching this latter configuration that he closed the festival, holding his own in a noisy quintet featuring Coxon on guitar and the priceless Pat Thomas on piano and electronics; but perhaps the finest moments of the whole weekend occurred during his performances on the first day, playing an electrifying improvised concerto with the London Improvisers Orchestra, then engaging with the double-drum duo of Steve Noble and Louis Moholo-Moholo in an ecstaticallyreceived set that, at its best, was perhaps as fine as improvised music gets.

But this was by no means all that the festival had to offer. I’ve opted, on the whole, for a blow-by-blow account of the various different set-ups, though it would probably be unfair to set down detailed analysis of performances which I did not find wholly satisfying, for one reason or another. Consequently, I’m not going to review every act. During such a packed schedule (well over ten hours in total), attention can wander, and dissatisfactions which may have very little or nothing to do with the music as such can intrude on critical facilities. I might perhaps make the criticism that the presentation was uniform: one group set up and play, people clap, there’s an announcement and a short break, then another group set up and play, people clap, etc. This may be due to my ongoing dissatisfactions with the concert presentation of free improvisation, which I feel could be (needs to be) shaken up in some way – otherwise we approach the deadened sterility of the classical concert hall, against which the vitality of both jazz and free improvisation can set themselves in their finest moments. Perhaps there’s no way round the sense of déjà-vu, the almost by-rote effect of so many performers coming up on stage in succession; festival fatigue is the inevitable drawback of bringing so many musicians into the same space, on the same occasion. And of course I’d rather hear eight groups in a respectful atmosphere and a conducive setting, than two groups in a dingy pub. In any case, FOTC remains pretty much a unique event in the British improv scene, & needs all the support it can get, given well-documented difficulties in securing funding and cultural acceptance in the UK (surely, as Evan Parker opined in one of his microphone ‘rants’ between acts, something like this deserves at least a mention in Time Out).


Before getting onto the music, it might be worthwhile offering some preliminary notes on the venue. The Conway Hall is a fairly large space, and attendance must have reached 100 or so on the Sunday, the better-attended of the two days; it never dwindled down to less than 50. The décor is a little quaint (my eyes kept flicking to the motto inscribed over the stage: “to thine own self be true”), exhibiting a kind of early twentieth-century liberal ethos (one of the rooms in the building is named after Bertrand Russell, and, on further research, it turns out that the Hall was built as headquarters for the South Place Ethical Society, the oldest free-thought association in the world). The acoustic isn’t that resonant, but this probably suited players like Peter Evans and, in particular, Leo Smith,whose sound is so massive that it might become deafening elsewhere! Upper galleries and plenty of space for seats meant that there was capacity for the audience to move around, rather than having to stick to the same seat for hours at a time, while corridors outside the main stage space gave plenty of space for mingling in between acts. All a far cry from the Red Rose…

The Sunday afternoon session (lasting from 2pm until around 6) opened with a solo set from Peter Evans, who is a very fine jazz left-field jazz musician (‘The Peter Evans Quartet’, from 2007, contains a happy blend of old-fashioned melodies and chord sequences with noise-rock guitar eruptions); he is also, as this performance indicated, an exceptional free improviser. Though based in New York, he has released a solo record on Martin Davidson’s Emanem and worked with that label’s stalwart, Evan Parker. Nonetheless, it seemed that not everyone in attendance was familiar with his work, and they were pleasantly surprised by what transpired. The performance split into roughly two halves, though it was a continuous forty-minute set: the first half found the trumpeter concentrating on circular breathing, amplifying breath noises through a volume pedal, extending the possibilities of the instrument with the use of subtle electronics as John Butcher has done with the saxophone. The second half, in which Evans switched to cornet, was mostly acoustic, with more ‘notes’ in play: jazzy inflections combined with repeated, almost brash minimalist phrases (like tougher versions of John Adams’ fanfares). The latter were perhaps rather over-done (there could have been more of the textural investigations with which Evans began), but they were certainly impressive in a technical sense.

Cellist Okkyung Lee, like Evans, had travelled over from New York to play here; on this evidence, she struck me as a somewhat limited player, especially having seen Hannah Marshall’s superb duo with Mick Beck at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival the preceding Friday. I don’t doubt her technical skill, and it’s clearly unfair to definitively label any musician on the result of one performance; however, the duo with Lytton didn’t really come off. Lee tended to bow with one hand while sliding the other up and down the strings, without pressing down onto the fingerboard. The cello can do more than this: use of the instrument’s body, plucking, and even melodic phrases. Lee’s approach worked as generalized atmosphere in the later trio with Evans and Evan Parker, but she seemed crowded out by Lytton, unable to fully respond to his energetic twitching round Dalek drums, and an encore, which might have provided the chance to find another angle on things, never really took off either.

By contrast, Lol Coxhill, Tania Chen and Dominic Lash demonstrated a clear mutual understanding from the git-go. Coxhill, as ever, was tartly melodic, spinning out flowing lines or thinning out his sound to almost nothing in breathy textural complement to Lash’s multi-hued bass and Chen’s rumbling on the lower reaches of the Bosendorfer. The music had a kind of jazz aura to it, but never through overt referentiality, and Chen’s sound could be said to owe as much to contemporary classical as to jazz. She left plenty of gaps so that her phrases acquired a certain weight around them, but the music wasn’t heavy or sluggish – rather, it had a substantial delicacy to it that, in away, harkened back to Jimmy Giuffre’s groups of the early 60s.

The afternoon seemed to have been constructed, whether by design or accident, in a kind of ascending approach: from solo to duo to trio, and then to a full-blown big band, as the London Improvisers Orchestra took to the stage and beyond, sprawling out onto the floor below. Two hours might have seemed like overkill, given the usual chaotic nature of such large groupings, and the tendency to resort to conduction clichés in order to tame the unruly beast. In fact, though, the performance remained at a high standard throughout, the various conductors picking out particular players and groups of instruments and letting them do their thing for extended periods, rather than cutting them short before they’d had a chance to develop something. Choice combinations included the two-piano interplay of Steve Beresford and Veryan Weston, placed on either side of the stage, and the raucous trombones of Alan Tomlinson and Robin Jarvis. It all built up to the big climax, a short concerto for the festival’s ‘star performer’ Wadada Leo Smith, Dave Tucker stepping out of the orchestra ranks, where he’d been grinding out fierce swirls of sound from his guitar, to conduct. Any doubts as to whether Smith would be audible over the orchestra were soon dispelled; the question was more, would one be able hear the orchestra over his trumpet! His sound bounced off the space with a clarion force, but this wasn’t a tasteless, Maynard Ferguson display, for he played with an abundance of considered space between phrases, ending with a gorgeous muted passage over sombre, full ensemble chords. Great too to hear him sing and soar out over orchestral sections – strings, winds, horns – in passages reminiscent of the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra’s fantastic 2LP-set ‘Communications’. Louis Moholo-Moholo, in a corner with Javier Carmona (third drummer Tony Marsh was on the other side of the room) could be heard thumping with huge vigour, even when he hadn’t been cued in, as if anticipating his small-group set with Smith later on that day.

By now it was early evening, and there was, it seemed, hardly time to catch breath before proceedings resumed again. One of John Russell’s QuaQua groups – on this occasion, a septet – played mostly textural music, Chris Burn controlling his inside-piano rustlings with a volume pedal, saxophonist Stefan Keune concentrating on held, altissimo notes, and Satoko Fukada scratching away on violin (in contrast to her more classically-inflected work with Veryan Weston and Steve Beresford), though Henry Lowther plotted a more exclusively melodic course through things. The following trio was an enticing prospect: Leo Smith in an unusual pairing with two drummers, Louis Moholo and Steve Noble. There was potential here for a more overtly rhythmic approach than that we’d been hearing so far. Noble, is, of course, adaptable to pretty much any style, his undoubted improv pedigree mixed with the ability to play highly attractive rhythmic music that may or may not reference particular genres, while Moholo always brings an exuberance and enthusiasm to his playing, in whatever context. It may have taken a while for things to settle – this was, after all, a first-time musical meeting for the three men – but, by the time they’d all locked-in to eachother’s playing, they were able to create something very special indeed. Noble likes gongs and crashes and colour with bursts of on-the-beat playing; Moholo is content to stick to one aspect of his kit, or to click claves and whisper out loud to Smith, “no baby, no.” Smith puts his hand in his mouth and makes clicking, clucking noises, else crouches like the electric Miles, silhouetted black against the red back-light, surely deafening the front row with that sound…The first piece finishes on a note of perfect satisfaction, there has to be more: Smith announces music “to make the stars go to sleep,” then unfurls the most beautiful muted melodies. And it’s a melodicism that’s totally free of clichés, jazz or otherwise – a rare gift.

After such a superb set, what followed was bound to seem something of a let-down, but things went downhill quicker than expected. It has said that, in science, only the experiment that proves the hypothesis is ‘valid’, whereas in music, all experiments are valid. There are, though, occasions when things clearly just do not work, and the performance by SUM was one of these. Eddie Prévost on freebop drums, Ross Lambert on bull-headed guitar, and Seymour Wright actually producing recognisable notes from his saxophone, attempted a sort of skewed, improv look at jazz (they describe the group as a ‘total jazz trio’), but, this time at least, their playing ended up lacking the best qualities of bothjazz and improv. Wright stubbornly stuck to a very small selection of notes, obsessively honking the simplest of motifs or shrieking in the extreme upper register of his instrument – free jazz with no sense of momentum, energy or intensity – while Lambert seemed unable to commit to any particular approach, sometimes throwing in jazz chords, sometimes throwing in a few Bailey-like harmonics, but, most crucially, leaving very little space in the music. Prévost came off best, manfully negotiating round the edges of bebop rhythms, but the music as a whole came across as ugly, static, stagnant – a real disappointment, given Wright’s superb, and very different, solo work, and the undoubted philosophical effort that all three players put into what they are doing. Perhaps that was the problem here: a kind of thought experiment with regards to the jazz tradition that didn’t translate into compelling music.

The final trio of Okkyung Lee, Peter Evans and Evan Parker was as expected: one felt that Evans was rather constricted by the kind of phrases Parker played, never really able to propel himself into the bold timbral investigations that had made his solo set so fascinating, while Lee was undermiked and, as in her duo with Lytton, rather pushed into the background of the music. Perhaps a circular-breathing duo, with Parker on soprano and Evans on trumpet, might have offered wider textural possibilities; on the other hand, it would have risked being even more predictable than the trio that did play. Perhaps I’m judging things by the wrong criteria, and as a technical exercise the set was impressive – but it never felt edge-of-the-seat enough for my liking. The musicians were listening to each other, but not pushing each other, not leaving the safe middle-ground which had been established from the outset.


I made my way back to the Conway Hall for the second day, having marked out as potential highlights sets by John Butcher, fURT with Adam Bohman and Ute Wassermann, and the return of Wadada Leo Smith. There were noticeably less audience members than on Sunday (though one might bear in mind that the massed ranks of the London Improvisers Orchestra probably bumped up the numbers significantly when they weren’t playing); nonetheless, the turnout was respectable.

Butcher was up first, paired with Mark Sanders. Anytime he plays, something absorbing is bound to happen, such is his control of his instrument and sense of the minute detail of the unfolding soundscape, and this performance did not disappoint. Given the history of saxophone/drum duos, it was refreshing that the music here never felt like free jazz, achieving its gripping pull on the listener through clarity of ideas rather than speed of execution or the laying down of virtuosic mountains of notes. Butcher opened on tenor, multiphonics imbuing the saxophone with an almost glowing sound, the upper reaches tempered by the lower notes’ burnished undertones. At first he played what was not quite a full melody, but a definite motif nonetheless, carefully structuring things by twice alternating this motif with another figure, before proceeding: a kind of opening invocation, a preliminary statement, a preparation. The performance then unfolded at a pace which one could almost describe as unhurried; but that turn of phrase suggests a kind of lazy relaxation very far from the close-listening, focussed intensity displayed by both musicians. Sanders used bells, bowls, mallets, displaying an often non-linear sense of rhythm that, given the context, was entirely appropriate, working in tandem with Butcher’s smearing, hovering, overlapping frequencies and textures.

After a ten-minute tenor section containing a sustained, crescendoing trill which played with space in a similar manner to Peter Evans the day before, Butcher switched to soprano, an instrument on which he adopted a number of sonic approaches: tongued, finger-slapped, almost percussive sounds that turned the notes away from their harmonic implications, while leaving tonal possibilities within reach; supple strings of notes, which might even have had some connection to conventional soprano sax jazz-isms, but which were peppered with harmonics; and, most strikingly, whistle-frequency sounds that called out with the force of wind, full of shrill urgency and near-physical presence.

The changeable weather outside came peeping through the partially-covered glass roof, the sun’s appearances and disappearances behind clouds seeming at times to mirror Butchers’ and Sanders’ alternations, entrances, and exits – as if in some subliminal or more overtly conscious way environmental conditions outside the building had influenced the performance (or maybe, thinking mystically, the improvisations influenced the weather!). That doesn’t mean that the performance was reduced to the merely imitative or illustrative modes of Romantic classical music, for improvisation’s concentration is on sound as sound, and on human interaction with instruments and with other humans playing them (rather than the translation into music of a lone composers’ inner feelings on seeing a landscape). Yet Butcher and Sanders did create a kind of tone poem, if we take that phrase up on its poetic implications, rather than as musical terminology: obliquely echoing, returning, departing, unfolding within a structure that seemed almost to create itself, participating in its own making rather than forcing more mobile elements into a restrictive, pre-existent mould. Their dialogue was respectful but not ‘polite’ : ‘solos’ , individual statements, were not look-at-me virtuoso displays arising from a false structural obligation, but appropriate opportunities for particular sonorities to be explored, new directions to emerge. One of the best performances of the festival.

A group who’d initially assembled at Eddie Prévost’s workshop were next to take the stage. These were not, in fact, some of its better-known participants – Prévost was the only musician on stage that I’d seen or heard of previously – but they appeared to share a dogged determination to avoid the timbral clichés associated with their respective instruments. Whereas Prévost was in ‘out jazz’ mode the previous day, here he was functioning as percussionist rather than drummer. Indeed, he could barely be called a percussionist as such, spending almost the entire set bowing a gong to produce ringing, sonorously eerie tones; his snare, the sole survivor of his drum kit, remained unused except when he unfastened it, turned it upside down and used the faint wash of its sympathetic vibrations to feather another bowed metal surface he’d placed atop it. The group’s performance refused the sort of structure that was clearly in play even in Butcher’s radical re-examination of the possibilities of his instrument (though baritone saxophonist Dave O’Connor was surely influenced by Butcher at least in part; in fact, his playing was even more stripped down to the essentials of breath and tongue and flesh on metal, in and through air). Instead, there was very little linear movement through and towards narrative or signposted ‘event’, even if there was an almost continuous succession of sounds, with little actual silence.

Though overt ‘interaction’ was avoided (in the sort of call and response, mimicking-of-each-other’s lines approach that comes more out of jazz), the music was still about exchange: Jennifer Allum seemed to play her violin more as tapped, scratched percussion than as a stringed instrument, while Prévost played his ‘percussion’ like a droning string. Grundik Kasyansky’s electronics were the loudest element in the mix, but sudden bursts of noise, indicative of the approach he could have taken, were held back for the most part, emerging as sporadic spasms and muffled radio string music. A pebble dropped off the edge of the stage after an age during which he held it poised in the air imparted a rather desultory moment of ‘drama’; the players’ stillness and tight-lipped expressions have become de rigueur for such music-making, it seems, and there is at times a slight feeling of stasis, the lack of a certain momentum. By this I don’t mean momentum in the overt free jazz sense, which is irrelevant here, but I do feel that the music can become poised rather uneasily between quietude and something more wrenchingly physical. Perhaps such music is not best suited to the concert environment, more to a small, private (workshop) space, where there’s less pressure for something to ‘happen’. And the aim of such art is not to create a ‘work’ but to be part of a continuing dialogue, the continuing exploration of sound for which Prévost’s workshop has become such an essential part.

The following set was billed as fURT with Ute Wassermann and Adam Bohman – an enticing prospect, given fURT’s wrenching, sped-up electronics, Bohman’s maverick table-top assemblage of crunchy junk and resonant bowed glass, and Wassermann’s ‘birdtalking’ (neither quite like speech nor quite like traditional ‘singing’, the latter is a truly expressive use of the voice, retaining its ‘otherness’ from man-made instruments, but with a versatility more generally associated with instruments than with the pure power of the lungs). In the event, Richard Barrett wasn’t able to make the gig, and was replaced by Paul Obemayer’s band-mate from Bark!, the drummer Phil Marks. Ironically, the drum-set didn’t have quite the same percussiveness the extra electronics would have provided – the sounds are more conventional, less abrasive – though Marks did have an infectious kid-on-a-candy-rush energy which fitted well with the music’s jagged sound-worlds and scampering, flittering, manic intensity. On this second day, much of the afternoon session (and indeed the evening as well) was dominated by inside-piano players: we had three or four pianists all‘working to extend the parameters of the instrument’ (Sebastian Lexer is always billed as ‘piano+’), in a manner documented by a recent series on the Another Timbre record label. Yet what resulted seemed to be that they all used the same bag of tricks, seduced by the growling, very lowest notes of the Bosendorfer (so low they have a kind of electronic, clanging sound to them, which must surelyhave been attractive to players interested in the interplay between acoustic and electric sounds), and by the harmonious, high-pitched hum of e-bows held overpiano strings (which tend to create a rather deadening ambient cloud that sets the direction for several minutes at least, rendering interaction and change less easy to facilitate, and the texture as a whole more predictable, if superficially quite attractive). To play notes or even phrases on the keyboard itself would have seemed more unconventional in such a context. Lexer probably had the best of it, his bell-like tones and occasional, vaguely Feldmanesque chords, modulated with a faint touch of lingering electronic echo, slotting quite nicely with Jamie Coleman’s inward trumpet, which, though always on the verge of melancholy, never wallowed in it or meandered through a generalised ‘blueness’. Meanwhile, electronics man Pascal Battus both functioned as percussionist (banging his hands on a mic’d-up table to create a propulsive crescendo, and amplifying his own neck pulse via contact mic, for example) and filled the more expected role of noise-maker/scrabbling texturalist. I do have some reservations about the (over)use of contact mics by electronic practitioners – it gives an edge to its amplified sounds which can become rather wearing – but Battus mostly steered clear of cliché.

The Stellari String Quartet (Philipp Waschmann/ Charlotte Hug/ Marcio Mattios/ John Edwards) were very fine, as expected. Interesting to note this group alongside another all-string ensemble featuring Waschmann, the Oxford-based quintet Squint, who I also heard at a recent gig; both set-ups obviously have a strong textural similarity with contemporary classical music, with the Stellaris perhaps less inclined to linger over melodic sections, more inclined to spark simultaneous firing-on-all-cylinders from each musician. Edwards forsook his more usual snapping, roaring hardman free jazz role (at which he excels) for sympathetic bowing alongside Mattos (whose approach I found much more nuanced and varied than that of Okkyung Lee); Hug, the group’s founder, seemed to favour sustained playing of all the viola’s strings at once, using a speciallydeveloped bow that curves over and round the instrument’s body. Waschmann, meanwhile, came out with half-melodic suggestions, reminiscent of 12-tone contours, that did not preclude insistent scrapes and glissandi; at one point, he moved the violin away from his neck and held it slightly forward from his body, furiously bowing with greater and greater ferocity as he leaned towards the other members of the group, as if attempting to force – indeed, insisting on – a collective change of direction. Textural meshes and overall cohesion did not preclude individuals suddenly launching off into new directions, even bullish ones, such as this, and the Quartet held one’s interest throughout their performance.

It was Leo Smith’s return that rounded out the evening, and once more he proceeded to play some of the best music of the night. The quintet in which he was involved mixed players from several different generations and traditions, and it wasn’t at all clear beforehand what strategies they might try and find to negotiate these: the programme notes, in their attempt to predict what might happen, tried to place Alex Ward and John Coxon as ‘post-modern’ improvisers, liable to reference any number of genres in their playing, with Smith and Pat Thomas as more connected to a tonal, American jazz tradition. (I’m not sure that description doesn’t fall victim to some kind of unconscious racial-musical stereotyping, dividing up the younger, white players from the older, black ones. In any case, attempts to draw lines between the musicians in this way will inevitably be inaccurate, race or not: for example, Thomas’ electronics are more in line with Coxon’s noisy guitar than with jazz, and his piano playing has a good deal of ‘contemporary classical’ to it.) None of these players (the fifth member of the group was Paul Lytton) are known as anything other than confident, individualistic musicians, and the results were consequently loud and raucous, as every one went for it at once, forcing each-other to a potentially dangerous level of noise from the off and barely letting up. Particularly by the rousing climax of the second piece, Ward had joined up with Smith’s trumpet to form a kind of crazy New Orleans combo, though more as part of the overall texture than as any kind of frontline (Ward’s playing also had a touch of klezmer to it, while Smith seemed intent on bringing down the walls of Jericho). Coxon’s guitar was used in all manner of different ways: turned on its back and tapped as an impromptu drum, scratched and scraped, noise-rock style, wrapped in carefully-controlled feedback, treated to ringing harmonic chords from the Bailey school, and unexpectedly, sounding out strongly melodic propositions that were quickly joined by Thomas’ piano: a fine use of neo-idiomatic texture in a way that felt genuine, arising from the music and the moment rather than from any kind of superficial ‘post-modernity’. And Lytton, of course, was right there with them all. On being informed that everyone had to be out of the building by 11, Smith fulfilled the audience’s requests for an encore by playing what may be the shortest piece ever heard at a free improv concert: “1/2 a second” in his words. One brief stab from the full ensemble, then – BOOM – Freedom of the City was over for 2010. And worthwhile it was too. Bring on 2011!

Note on Youtube Footage of Freedom of the City performances

Several individuals were filming and taking photographs of the event; it was also recorded for the BBC (presumably to be broadcast on the show’s more left-field jazz show, Jazz on 3, probably in excerpt form), and, we may hope that some of the performances might also make their way onto CD releases by Emanem, Matchless or Treader. The footage that’s made its way onto youtube generally has fairly decent sound quality, though the picture quality does leave something to be desired. With several different people uploading the videos they’ve taken, there’s inevitably going to be some overlap: for example, at least ten different videos of the Leo Smith sets are available. Probably the easiest way to go about things is to click on the user accounts of those who’ve uploaded the videos (for which see links below), and to work one’s way through what’s available.

Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford, Tuesday 11th May 2010

‘Atmospheres’, a four-piece, made some compelling music during their continuous one-hour set; unburdened by the presence of a drummer, what they played had a looseness and flowing quality to it quite different from the stop-start interjections of much free improv. Trevor Taylor’s credit as percussionist didn’t capture the harmonic spectrum of his contribution: using drumsticks on the pads of a MalletKat, a “MIDI percussion mallet controller” which sounds like a cross between a vibraphone, a marimba, and a xylophone, the sounds that he produced were metallic and bright, giving the music something of a rhythmic punch, as well as suddenly leaping out with electronic whooshes which merged with the phaser effects and repeated note sequences of Phil Gibb’s guitar. Nick Stephens got a twangy, percussive sound of his own by using brushes and mallets to strike or stick under the strings of his bass; would switch to bowed drones or harmonics when he sensed a change in the mood of the music; and or even fall into standard jazz accompaniment patterns – but in ways that rendered them more than clichés, playing them arco or slightly out of time to create a lopsided effect. Paul Dunmall, on soprano for this performance, sat on top of things, taking short pauses between phrases and entries, rather than ‘soloing’ continuously, even if the sound quality of his instrument tended to carry over the rest of the group in the manner of a ‘lead voice’. As befitted the band-name, things were often a little pensive, but Dunmall’s playing had some bite to it too, his streams of notes never quite reaching free jazz ferocity, but with an edginess to them that prevented the music from wandering into ECM territory.


Red Square have been going since the 1970s, and though their reputation suggested a much noisier, more ‘in-yer-face’ approach than Atmospheres, there were more similarities than might have been imagined. In particular, both bands featured soprano players with strong jazz capabilities, neither of whom went for the ‘exotic’, Oriental sound popularized by Coltrane; nor for the kind of hyperactive squawking that resulted when the instrument became popular with fusion players; nor for the syrupy smoothness of Jan Garbarek and smooth jazz. Both Dunmall and Jon Seagroatt played with a well-defined tone, a real clarity of ideas, and consistently strong melodic invention. Similarly, the rock elements in Red Square don’t involve the tendency to straight-forward time-keeping that characterized even Last Exit, at least in part. Roger Telford’s approach to his kit is resolutely free, while Ian Staples takes his cue from the volume and timbral qualities of the electric guitar, rather than from any set of punk chords or grandstanding ‘guitar hero’ clichés; his playing is grungily distorted, sometimes sliding into metal-style riffs (which he was playing even before metal had become part of the musical landscape), and very rarely simply settling into mere slabs of noise.  Seagroatt’s sax spins through riff-like and looping figures, but he never seems to repeat himself to the extent that one could identify recurring licks, and his style never feels like artificial excitement building, as its affinities with prog-rock and jazz fusion might have suggested. On occasion, the instrument is treated with electronic effects, so that it becomes oddly mechanical in sound, adding a whole new, eerie texture to the music; as does the Kaoss pad, which combines with Telford’s bowing of each cymbal in his kit, in turn, and with pedaltreated guitar, for relatively brief sections that are less about the articulation of individual notes, more about the general texture and quality of sound. Seagroatt’s bass clarinet really cuts deep, smoothly swooping from low-end droning vibrations to upper register figures with none of the shrill squawks emitted by free jazzers – the instrument sounds particularly ominous, turning the tone of the music to a kind of volatile melancholy. What’s nice about Red Square is that what they play feels so fresh, even now; they don’t sacrifice rock grunginess for tricksy fusion- or jazz-isms, and don’t sacrifice jazz clarity and skill for simple, obvious beats or noise aggression (though they are certainly loud!). The music feels very open, setting out a particular kind of sound, but with plenty of scope within that sound – jazz, even (and this is something I thought I could also detect with Dunmall) hints of folk (Seagroatt is a member of the re-formed Comus, and is married to Bobbie Watson, one of the band’s vocalists). I’m reminded, if anything, of those vital ’60s and ’70s cross-overs between ancient traditions and modern innovations, folk materials and new musical technologies, that just happened to take place in England, involving Soft Machine, Comus, John Stevens, and The Third Ear Band, to name a few. It’s certainly encouraging to know that that spirit lives on: not overly indebted to jazz or rock, but free to use both genres’ freshest and most interesting elements within a freely improvised context, in a manner that is both organic and engaging.

Performed by Dominic Lash – Contrabass. Oxford, 13th June 2010.

The first in a series dedicated to the music of the Wandelweiser group, this was intriguingly set up as Dom Lash performing a ‘gig’ in his house: chamber music in the original sense of that term. So no stuffed-shirt concert-hall aesthetics here, as the cold summer air (yes, this is Britain) blows in from the garden and a tap drips, somewhere off to ‘stage left’.

One piece on the programme – an hour-long Eva-Maria Houben composition for solo bass which, while not exclusively quiet, does feature frequent silences, the most delicate of high pitched-harmonics, and an extremely ‘stripped-down’ range of material. The piece is not exclusively about the creation of sound (making a noise); rather, that aspect exists alongside the equally important element of listening, hehearing. As Houben puts it, Nachtstück “allows hearing to take place.”

That phrase is from her short programme note for the piece, in which she also describes “music happen[ing] all by itself, seemingly uncomposed – like the sound of the Aeolian harp, its strings set in motion by a passing wind.” Of course, one immediately feels like quibbling that this is a composition; furthermore, the problem with Aeolian harps (as evidenced by the selection on the obscure LP ‘Songs of the Wind Harp’) is that there is no discrimination between sounds, no decision-making process, no shaping of material – in other words, no sense of human agency – and it is human agency which, ultimately, does drive Houben’s piece, which makes it an involving and rewarding experience, a piece of human interaction. So is the Aeolian Harp analogy simply a ‘poetic’ image – something which sounds nice written as a programme note but doesn’t mean too much when you ponder what it means? Well, no, I would argue that there is something important in the choice of simile, perhaps as a gesture towards a certain looseness, by means of contrast with the stereotype of the controlling composer who is not willing, as Houben is, to give the performer, the audience, or the sounds themselves, a certain freedom. (Note that this looseness, this freedom is by no means absolute, for control and limitation are vital factors here.) In addition, the notion of ‘uncomposition’ is perhaps meant to hint at the extreme simplicity of the material (the hour long piece almost exclusively uses natural harmonics and one particular droning string, punctuated by long silences; this is even more ‘minimal’ in terms of melodic material than late Feldman), which lends it a certain ‘anonymous’ quality (on which more below). At the same time, the degree of virtuosity required is very great – but this is virtuosity not for its own sake, for display, for showing off, but in the service of a radically limited and focussed selection of material that, while it may inspire admiration for the performer’s abilities, does not take this as a raison d’etre, does not make it the primary element.

While it might be going too far to speak of ‘melody’ as such, the piece does have a melodic quality, with its repeated, returning progression of notes; and the return of the low drone after a passage of exquisitely delicate, high-pitched harmonics, resounds (almost) like a grandly returning main theme at the climax of a symphony. One could see this as essentially Webernian – the compression of extreme drama, extreme event, into tiny spaces. But, in fact, the opposite is true of this piece: ‘Nachtstück’ actually concerns the expansion of extremely limited material into a large space, a large time span. Or maybe it’s about the eradication of time, about achieving a state akin to the ecstatic, a-temporal moment aimed at in meditation. By this I don’t mean to imply that the music is simply some piece of hip, arty Zen (or even a genuinely Buddhist experience, which is perhaps something aspired to in the music of Eliane Radigue). It does not aspire to levitate from the body, to abandon the earthly delusions of maya for disembodied bliss; rather, it makes one profoundly aware of one’s surroundings and of one’s body – the sound of one’s own stomach gurgling, even the sound of one’s own breath. (This is true of ‘reductionist’ music in general, but I don’t think that makes it any less relevant to this particular performance). It’s a kind of framing of environment, I guess – the music transforms the ‘background sounds’, and these sounds transform the music; something is shared between performer and composer, performer and audience, audience and performer, environment and music, music and environment, the connections, the loops, the interlinking chains, forming a kind of exquisite slow dance.

As such language indicates, this music is far from ‘sterile’ or ‘cerebral’; on the contrary, it tempts one to utopian generalisation. Because a fair portion of the piece is devoted to ‘silences’ (when the performer is not making any sound), the audience must assume an ‘active’ role (audience participation without the awkward sense of obligation it can sometimes assume in a theatrical context). They must collaborate with the composer and performer in ‘creating’, or shaping the silences, through bringing a certain quality of attention to them (although that itself is coloured by the notes that have sounded before). In the end though, these things are out of the audience’s hands as much as they are out of the composer’s or performer’s; in this performance, we had a duet for buzzing flies, birdcalls, a jet engine meshing with a particular droning bass frequency, a brief snatch of ‘O Sole Mio’ via an ice-cream van, occasional voices and shouts from distant gardens, and, towards the end of the piece, a non-metric rhythm provided by a summer rain shower (shades of Taku Sugimoto’s ‘Live in Australia’ – can a natural occurrence be said to ‘refer’ to a previous work of art?). One could even go
so far as to say that both ‘composer’ and ‘performer’ are virtually eradicated – the composer because they are concentrating on sounds so ‘simple’ that they might be said to resonate with the anonymous, primal resonance of folk music: sounds that, because they belongs to no one author, belong to everyone, as their shared possession. (I’m not so much thinking here of ‘folk tunes’ as such, but of that most crucial element of folk music, the drone; ‘Nachtstück’ reminded me, in terms of a certain limitation of sonority, extremely powerful in its impact, of the Khazakstany one-stringed viol, the kobyz.) As for the performer, their ‘eradication’ comes about because the material cannot be ‘emotionally interpreted’ as most of the ‘great works’ of classical music can; rather, it must be played with an almost overwhelming focus on accuracy (or as much accuracy as is possible). In addition, neither the performer nor the composer can control the silences (nor, for that matter, can the audience, but they can choose to shape the silences by the kind of attention they pay to them, as discussed above). This makes it sound as if I’m saying that the audience shape the music more than either the composer or the performer, which is simply not true. But there is a kind of sharing here which is more common, perhaps, to improvised music: an interpretation of post-Cageian attitudes to ‘silence’ which I will not taint through the utopian generalisations I threatened above. So perhaps now would be a good point to stop writing – and to congratulate Dominic Lash on hosting, and giving, this very fine performance.

Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford, Thursday 23rd September 2010

One might not think of the still yawning gulf between the quality of the music and the size of the audience in the world of improvised music as particularly advantageous, and, broadly speaking, one would be entirely correct. Nonetheless, there is a more fortunate side effect resulting from this state of affairs: because of the music’s low profile, one can get to see such superlative practitioners of the art as John Tchicai in settings such as that in which he performed on this night – unamplified and close, not barking down at the audience from a stage on-high, his instrumental voice (mis-)translated through the electronic boom of a PA system, but at the same level as the audience, on the same floor, just a few feet away from the front-row chairs – where a movement from one side of the room to the other can create a perceptible shift in dynamics, in the weight of sound, where the ‘accidentals’ (the thwack and thud of feet on floor, the sound of breath, of the exertion evinced by total mental/physical commitment to the music) are not drowned out, but can take their place as a vital part of the music’s continuing argument, a kind of sub-plot to the main drama taking place in the world of notes, tones and harmonies.

I say ‘exertion’, and I have in mind Tchicai’s two accompaniments on this occasion, the English drum and bass pairing of John Edwards and Tony Marsh. Both Edwards, who at times let out a mumbling vocal murmur in accompaniment to his bass playing, Jimmy-Garrison style, and Marsh, who, like Tchicai, spent most of the performance with his eyes closed (so well does he know his way round his kit), dropped musical implements (Edwards his bow, Marsh a drumstick), during moments where their physical involvement with the music had reached its most fevered pitch. Tchicai himself, a striking figure with an elegant six-foot-plus frame, showed his involvement for the most part simply by playing beautiful, engaging and engaged music, though there were occasions where his knees bent in the kind of calisthenics for which John Coltrane became known in his later performances. His main instrument of choice since the 1980s has been the tenor saxophone, rather than the alto for which he became known in the 1960s: nonetheless, the particular quality of tone he extracts from both members of the saxophone family is remarkably similar, piquant and individual, like an extension of, or a musical complement and alternative to his speaking and singing voice (which he may also deploy in the course of an improvisation). Whereas many free jazz players emphasize the growling, honking lower register potential of the tenor, Tchicai mostly avoids such sounds, and even the multiphonics and altissimo that mark the opposite, high-register extreme. Instead, he plays inventively melodic and captivatingly open improvisations: lots of phrases are repeated, sometimes with shades of the ecstatic driving-to-abandon of the blues ‘gut-bucket’ honkers, though more often as if to tease out the full implications of the repeated phrase until it springs into a new phrase, a new area of investigation. He is no hurry, willing to let the music evolve and do its work at a speed which will do it justice, with no shortage of ideas but no need or wish to rush headlong through them all at lightning-speed.

There were a couple of sheet-music stands on ‘stage’, but the music was never governed by a simple theme/solos/theme structural template – Ornette Coleman’s great innovation in the 50s, playing on the ‘mood’ of the song rather than its chord-change structure bears fruit still, half-a-century later, in such contexts as these: melodic yet open, rehearsed yet elastic. ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ made a brief appearance in the first piece; the second was a calypso, Tchicai emphasizing with relish and almost humorous exaggeration the long, deliciously extended downwards smear that ended the melody. Edwards was – once again! – outstanding, his playing displaying, perhaps more than usual, overt jazz touches that meshed well with Tchicai’s vocabulary, but also plenty of ‘out’ techniques, all adapted to and from the emotional, colouristic and textural needs of the moment. Thus, we had strummed double-stops, punchy thwacks, and buzzing, vibrating strings, walking bass patterns, careening figures produced by sliding both hands in succession over the neck of the bass, and muted accompaniment, produced through variation in finger pressure on the strings, to Tchicai’s flute playing. Some of this was displayed in group work, some in solo spots, and Marsh was also afforded some solo time, his playing radiating a joyous sense of possibility and a sense of melodic invention, as he developed engrossing solo patterns on the kit and traded playful fours (or near-fours) with Tchicai. There was no supporting act on the evening, which seemed just right: wonderful that a band like this should be able to expand and develop their interplay over the course of a whole gig, rather than being squeezed into a single slot where everything has to coalesce instantly and at speed.

After an interval, the second set found Tchicai playing flute as well as saxophone (he brought things to a quiet close on this instrument, his repeated incantation shadowed by bowed bass), and reciting some lines of poetry. “Truth is found/ in between / the mother of all recipes” – these were lines intoned, almost song-like, which seemed to spur on a particular vigorous section of saxophone playing; later, some words about geography and direction (movements north, south, east, west), with a Coltrane reference (Giant Steps – though this was fleeting, and the poem was, thankfully, not another ‘Coltrane’ poem bulked up by quotations of song and album titles), and then a speculation on what it would be like if all those humans and animals whose feet and claws made marks on a beach were brought together at the same time, in that same place. Like Cecil Taylor, Tchicai has not had books or even pamphlets of his work published, though a poem does appear in the recent anthology ‘Silent Solos: Improvisers Speak’: like that recited in Oxford, it concerns itself with speculative and only half-rhetorical questions, dreams, imaginings – in this latter case, a visit to “that/ strange looking star in the lower Milky Way.” “On arriving,” continues Tchicai, “I put my ear to the rubbery surface of the star/ and I heard a sound as if a great crowd of people came toward me.” [1] The poetic concern in both cases seems to be with the imprints left by people in physical space, on physical surfaces, the history embedded in sand or soil or star, the sense that, in some way, the earth itself is voiced, in exchange with the multitude of speaking and singing humans who inhabit it: that travel is not simply a matter of temporal and geographic progress (though the lines about geography do indicate this as a thematic concern), but something that can be accomplished in the present moment, as a means of communication with the past, with ‘other worlds’ (other spheres of experience, modes of being and apprehension). The ‘here and now’ is thus revealed as more than just a banal present-ness in which we are trapped by routine and the force of circumstance: rather, it is a world of possibilities, echoes, prophecies, borrowings, sharings. Which transfers appropriately to this trio’s performance: it was all about communication with the audience, with each other, with the history, present and future of the music. “The mother of all recipes,” in/deed.

[1] John Tchicai, ‘untitled’ (pp.145-6),  in ‘silent solos: improvisers speak’ (ed. Renate de Rin) (buddy’s knife jazzeditions, 2010)

The Nunnery (Bow Arts Centre), London, 12th February 2011

Jennifer Allum (violin), Rebecca Dixon (cello), Dominic Lash (double bass), Henri Växby (guitar), Jamie Coleman (trumpet), Tim Parkinson (voice).

Michael Pisaro’s star has been rising recently – at least, his work has become a frequent subject of discussion within improv circles, and there’s been an increase in the frequency with which his works are performed (albeit in small and sparsely-attended venues). What this means in relation to the usual connotations of ‘rising stars’ is harder to judge; and, indeed, one of the main points of interest with Pisaro, and other composers and performers associated with the Wandelweiser group, is the fact that they are hard to place within predetermined narratives and positions. Thus, Radu Malfatti comes from a background playing ‘high-energy’ free jazz, while Pisaro assumes the role of ‘academic composer’ (he teaches at CalArts); but it doesn’t seem strange to discuss their works in the same sentence. Of course, this closeness has always existed (AMM, Musica Elettronica Viva and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza come to mind), contra the journalistic method of building up and stratifying divisions which are not nearly as important to the practitioners of the music themselves as to critics and ‘taste-makers’. Nonetheless, there is a definite sense that something new is afoot, given the way that Malfatti, Pisaro et al straddle clear-cut lines between ‘modern classical composition’ and ‘free improvisation’, finding common aesthetic ground within both camps.

The ‘Mind is Moving’ series is actually a fairly early work, dating from 1996, and it’s interesting to come to it, in a new ensemble ‘arrangement’, on the back of the ‘hype’ of the past couple of years. At the same time, it’s hard to disentangle serious critical consideration from what might seem almost petty concerns relating to the physical circumstances of attending a continuous three-hour concert performance on a British winter’s evening.

Performances like these come to seem like endurance tests, not just because of the extreme length, but because of the details of the music itself, which, rather than ‘moving forward’, alternates between non-developmental drones, staccato plucks and bursts, and lengthy silences, or near-silences. Furthermore, the fact that what we were actually witnessing was the simultaneous performance of several separate solo works added to the ‘severity’ of the aesthetic: just as a particularly gorgeous swelling concord between several different instruments was reached, one voice would suddenly drop out, introducing an abrupt change in texture. This was not music that one could easily relax into, as can be the case with more ‘blissed-out’ drone material, but neither was it an exuberant, chaotic Fluxus happening. Despite the softness and the quietness, the simultaneity was something jagged and uncompromising, to which the listener had to adjust themselves –to move their minds to the movement of the music. Once this happens, once that shift occurs and everything clicks into place, it’s amazing – but it may take a slightly uncomfortable half-hour or more for that to happen.

Yesterday’s performance, as I experienced it, fell into something like three sections, one for each hour. The first contained more ‘ensemble’ playing – overlapping drones in concord and gentle discord, the preponderance of stringed instruments giving something of the feel of La Monte Young’s early Trio for Strings. The second saw the piece start to unravel, to spread and splay out, to become more sparse – and at the same time, the audience began to grow more fidgety, people moving about and leaving or arriving, the ritual of creaking wooden floorboards and the shuffling retrieval of bags from under seats coming to take on the feel, almost, of a kind of slow-motion dance, an integral part of the piece. Ross Lambert’s uncorking of the lid of his thermos flask, and subsequent pouring of small portions of steaming coffee, seemed deliberate, even staged, as if the music was there to accompany a kind of updated, low-key tea ceremony. In some ways this was welcome, imbuing the audience with a sense of participation, heightening the sense of occasion and the social/ ritualistic function of the music; but it was also the section I enjoyed the least, finding it hard to get into the lengthening silences, irritation at the way these silences were filled with the distant echo of voices and various other creaks and thuds, visual disjunct between the sounds I was hearing and the garish, Pop-Arty exhibition pieces on the walls and floor (a pink canvas with silver lettering that read ‘my subconscious drove me’; a giant free-standing cut-out decorated with the Stars and Stripes), and, most importantly (perhaps leading to all of the above), physical discomfort from sitting for hours in a hard plastic chair as the room got steadily colder. This stage is probably inevitable when one is faced with a concert ‘marathon’ (I’ve no idea how audience and performers coped with the 12-hour Wandelweiser show up in Glasgow last month) – and it was, arguably, the necessary preamble to the final section on the night, filled with long, long silences in which the audience finally breathed in unison with the performers, even the traffic outside dying away to just a murmur. Eyes closed; bass plucks giving a body to various drones, only to echo out again, leaving the initial sound modified, yet the same; guitar strings maintaining and sustaining their sounds as they were struck with a vibrating HB pencil; a cello tone held for a beautiful age, harmonics ringing and singing and mourning and keening; Jamie Coleman’s trumpet now muted, lending a plaintive jazz inflection (through single notes and timbre rather than through any specifically jazz phrases); rougher violin bow scrape; spoken words, sounded single and separate, sometimes coalescing into a story or poem, or a suggestion of such – names – hints at phrases – ‘historicism’, ‘angel’, ‘Louis’ – often audible only as acoustic presence, as a half-heard signifier without the signified; vocality as only semi-linguistic expression, semantic in a musical sense.

Applause followed quickly on the end of the piece, and everyone had to hurry out of the building (some people probably wanted to get away as soon as they could in any case); one almost felt that it would have been more appropriate simply to end in silence and drift away more quietly, rather than snapping out of that mood which the room had shared during that final hour or so. I’ve no idea how the event would come out on a recording (I noticed a Zoom tucked away behind a chair, so presumably some sort of permanent document does exist); to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have much patience listening back on a home stereo, but it felt important to make the step up from the hour-long live Wandelweiser performances I’d heard previously, to one of three times the length.

That’s the main body of the report out of the way, I suppose, but there are still a few more questions, raised by the concert, which I’d like to consider before concluding. In his liner notes to the CD release of ‘Mind is Moving I’ (as played by Pisaro himself on guitar), Jürg Frey notes that, apart from the ‘regular’ guitar notes themselves, “in this music other things quite simply turn up: like the occasional whistling or soft scraping of the strings; not effects, but pure matters of course. Perhaps there is here the faintest reminiscence of the image of a folk singer, who whistles along with his guitar playing, and uses the noises to clarify the rhythm.” For me, that kind of idiomatic register wasn’t really present in the realisation of the work that I heard yesterday, and what struck me about the whistling was the fact that it was part of the written score: the notation of accident, or, if not precisely of accident, of material that might normally be considered ‘incidental’ to the ‘proper musical substance’, the ‘meat’ of a piece. One might say that there are two levels to the score: first, the notated material, which, though it will vary according to the musicians’ control in playing – for example, how well they can sustain a held forty-second tone on trumpet – remains broadly the same, set up, as it is, within certain, fairly strict parameters; and secondly, the material that arises from the physical circumstances of the performance location. This latter element may only emerge at certain, relatively brief moments (and can be edited out entirely during studio recordings); nonetheless, it can prove important. During yesterday’s performance, for example, there were plenty of low volume sections in which the score actually took a back seat to the environment accidentals around it. Some of the very quiet sounds that peppered the near-silent portions of the collective realisation (short, pp or ppp single notes) were barely louder than the ‘incidental’ sounds which invariably fill such silences in live performances of Wandelweiser material (muffled traffic roar, people’s chairs and clothes creaking and rustling, their stomachs rumbling, their throats clearing), and one might argue that the (notated) whistling had, at times, less of a presence than audience member Eddie Prévost’s rhythmic rubbing-together of his hands to keep them warm. Prévost is, of course, a musician, and perhaps this hand-rubbing (which occurred several times throughout the concert) was a kind of cheeky musical contribution, smuggled into the space on the sly. After all, the lesson we’ve learned from Cage’s 4’33” is that all the material, sonic and otherwise, that is present within the performing space, is part of that particular interpretation of the piece. Of course, there are ‘undesirables’ which one might want to filter out (the excessive coughing that marks concerts of classical music during any moment of quiet, for example) – and yet, perhaps, the attitude towards this has remained somewhat uncritical. For every moment of coincidental magic (rain on a resonant roof, a strategically-placed police siren) there are numerous other longueurs, in which the typical sounds of an urban environment come to seem clichés of the music, despite the fact that they all come from ‘outside’ the control of the performers.

Frey, once more, seems to disagree: “Many pieces created today are written for specific places or opportunities (whether for the concert hall or a special performance), and then fulfill the function intended for them in that place. However, in a piece like mind is moving (I) the prevailing impression is that the piece itself must first create the site where it can sound[…] The piece[…] creates, all by itself, over the course of its long resounding, its own site: a place where it can Jive.” Maybe this is true when referring to a recording, but it hardly seems realistic when one considers the typical circumstances of a live performance – and, indeed, even the circumstances of listening back to a recording (where does one listen? in a comfortable arm-chair with noise-reducing headphones? on a walkman in a crowded street? in the background while surfing the internet?). There is no such thing as the ‘pure’ work, only something that exists in the world, which it modifies and is modified by. Perhaps, then, it would make more sense to come to a synthesis of the two positions: what occurs is not exactly the creation of a new site (a bloody-minded imposition on a previously-existing space), nor is it a situation in which the music is placed helplessly at the whims of environmental accident. Instead, it is a play, a dialogue, an argument or collaboration between the space and the music that takes place within it. And while I’m a little uncomfortable with the way in which experimental work like this gets sequestered away into the pristine, cloistered space of the white-walled art-gallery and arts venue, I must admit that the Nunnery proved very much conducive to such spatial exploration.

Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 17th February 2011

Angharad Davies (violin) Rhodri Davies (electronic harp, nutcracker, paper) Tim Parkinson (piano) / The SET Ensemble: Dominic Lash (bass, nutcracker, paper), David Stent (electric guitar, paper), Bruno Guastalla (cello, nutcracker, paper), Paul Whitty (accordion, nutcracker, paper), Patrick Farmer (drum, acoustic guitar, nutcracker), Sarah Hughes (autoharp, nutcracker)

After attending this gig, I was away for a few days; perhaps beneficial on this occasion, as it allowed my thoughts to settle, even if I might have lost some of the more specific details of my immediate impressions. The slight time lag also enabled to research some of the conceptual pieces that were performed on the night, tracking down the instructions/scores (although, in the end, most of the ‘information’ needed came across in the performances – it’s not as if there was some magical ‘key’ that allows one to unlock the puzzling ‘mystery’ of the pieces, and they seem fairly transparent/accessible in any case). And finally, those extra few days allowed me to read Richard Pinnell’s review of the gig (posted at ‘The Watchful Ear’). As with his review of the Michael Pisaro ‘Mind is Moving’ event, we both appeared to have noticed similar details and moments in the music, so it might seem rather pointless for me to go over the same ground. In fact, though, I’d like to draw out elements of Richard’s analysis into some broader argumentative threads which will, hopefully, prove useful ground for debate.

That will take us down some side-tracks, however, so I’ll begin by examining the concert itself. Part of a three-day festival organized by the Sonic Art Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University, it paired Fluxus scores from the 60s with modern-day conceptual pieces by composers associated with the Wandelweiser group. This marked only the second time that the full version of the SET Ensemble had performed in a public location, having previously concentrated on private house concerts; on this occasion their ranks were further swelled by the addition of Rhodri and Angharad Davies and Tim Parkinson. Consequently, there was a fairly sizeable ensemble on stage (as well as the smaller configurations within this); nonetheless, things remained quiet throughout, and the ‘loudest’ part of the evening – a composition for violin and piano by Tim Parkinson – occupied nothing more than the decibel levels of an average classical concert.

There’s a particular kind of tension about enforcing restraint within larger groups, and, at times, one senses that a kind of competition is taking place, to see not who can play hardest, fastest, longest, loudest, but who can play least, quietest, last. This became particularly apparent in the more conceptual pieces; the first item on the programme, a new composition by Radu Malfatti, focused more on a collective ensemble sound, taking full advantage of the range of instrumental textures available. Strings merged with e-bowed guitar and electronic harp, Tim Parkinson’s strummed strings down at the lower end of the piano adding an undulating, palpable background shimmer that was almost as much sensed at the edge of perception as heard outright. Given the title (‘Heikou’), I thought we might have some arrangement that reflected the structure of haiku poetry; as it was, the relation of title to composition remained more cryptic, drones alternating with silences in four barely movements differentiated by little other than the musicians turning the pages in their scores. It was a nice-sounding piece, if conceptually rather too well-worn to make much of an impression; nonetheless, it functioned well as an introduction, establishing a particular atmosphere and necessitating a particular mode of listening.

Following this came the first of the evening’s Fluxus performances, Bengt af Klintberg’s ‘Orange Event Number 24’. Less reverential, more consciously absurd than the Malfatti, it nonetheless took place within the same aesthetic, perhaps due to the score’s focus on silence: “Stay for a long time in a room in which there is silence. Breathe silently, move silently if you choose. At a time that you choose yourself, crack a nut.” In this realization, the performers moved off the stage to come and sit amongst and near the audience. Having taken up various individual positions (Whitty standing in the passage between main floor and doorway; Lash and Hughes on opposite sides of the stage; Davies higher up in the hall; etc), they then remained in poses of concentration and stillness, each eventually taking up the nutcracker they had placed beside them and fulfilling the score’s instructions. Here we saw the competitive aspect for the first time: who would be the last to ‘crack’, who could remain the longest time without making a sound? One sensed also that this was a kind of social experiment, testing the politeness of the audience (a prominent cough at the start of the Malfatti had been loudly shhh’d), as well as the tendency for serious contemplation to descend into giggles and absurdity. It’s that fine line, between the respectful and the ridiculous, that perhaps differentiates Wandelweiser from Fluxus, which has room for the former, but tends towards the latter (and towards the one-liner) – thus, it felt more appropriate to sneak a smile and a side-ways glance during this, and the following George Brecht piece, than it did during the Wandelweiser works. Nonetheless, the room did not descend into giggles, and the silence was maintained, as it turned out, for a further ten minutes, as Rhodri Davies and Lash took to the stage to perform Sarah Hughes’ ‘for Rilke’. Lash’s impressive ability to stand stock-still while holding his bass has been refined through the several SET Ensemble performances of the last year or so; Davies was similarly immobile for the most part, although he did occasionally glance across at his duo partner, as if questioning who should make the first sonic move. Eventually, he let slip a single e-bowed tone, sustained and rising in volume (but not too much) for several minutes; Lash, meanwhile, plucked a smaller sound from his bass that echoed in the naturally reverberant, high-ceiling’d acoustic of the Holywell before vanishing again, as if enveloped by the higher-pitched drone. I guess there’s a certain fragility to these kind of conceptual pieces that depends very much on the particular circumstances of the performance; nonetheless, and though I’m not sure for precisely what reasons, this one came off well.

One other segment before the interval; this being in some ways, and and despite appearances, the most conventionally ‘musical’ item of the night, as well as one of the most visually arresting and jokily amusing. George Brecht’s ‘for a drummer (fluxusversion 2’) reads: “Drum with sticks over a leaking feather pillow, making the feathers escape the pillow.” Patrick Farmer placed a small table in the middle of the floor; on the table was the pillow, and in the pillow were two vertical rips, out of which peaked handfuls of feathers. The setup was completed by the pair of drumsticks in Farmer’s hands, with which he proceeded to unleash a virtuoso drumming display, keeping up fast rhythms while also striving to strike the pillow at points which would cause the maximum possible number of feathers to escape onto the floor. The sonic qualities of a pillow are, as one might expect, rather muffled and dead, but the feathers billowed out nicely, and one got enough of a sense of the kind of patterns that were being played for satisfactory listening. This was a piece that didn’t outstay its welcome; soon the pillow was emptied, falling upended on the floor to reveal the copy of The Guardian newspaper which had been protecting the wooden table underneath. Upon reflection, it had been a well-balanced first half, offsetting the seriousness of the Malfatti and Hughes with the more playful elements of the 60s Fluxus scores – and the Brecht was a nicely ‘upbeat’ way to finish it.

In total, this was a fairly lengthy concert – a good 90 minutes, at least; not too much of a surprise, then, to see the auditorium empty by more than half during the intermission. Tim Parkinson’s piece for violin and piano, played by the composer and his wife, Angharad Davies, seemed less broadly conceptual, more thoroughly through-composed, than anything else we’d heard on the evening; presumably, however, it was based on some kind of specific (mathematical?) system. Figures that sounded something like scales and exercises were played in unison and alternation by both instruments, with lengthier solo episodes for violin taking on a slightly more expansive melodic edge. On the whole, the music was played with a rather dry quality that seemed to amount to a deliberate avoidance of emotional connotations, even if its tonality was more conventional than the post-12-tone language of much modern classical music. A few minutes of this were attractive enough, but as similar patterns and figures kept recurring, it felt as if space was being filled without much new being said; for me, the piece could have done with being half the length, and it lacked the improvisational edge of the more open conceptual pieces with which it shared the programme. During Ben Patterson’s ‘Paper Piece’, I benefited from being able to peek at the score as it was being performed; thus, a random spectacle of grave-looking men tearing up strips of paper one by one was transformed into an interplay between system and interpretation, and a study of group dynamics. Each of the five performers is given a specific number of pieces of newspaper, tissue paper, card, etc; they then select items from a list of different ways of tearing and manipulating the paper, mark these on their sheets, and then go through the list at their individual chosen pace. The consequence of this freedom was that, while four of the musicians finished at roughly the same time, Bruno Guastalla suddenly found himself alone, with half his pile to complete. He continued, however, at the same pace, apparently unworried by suddenly being the centre of attention, which made for a rather dignified ending. Hard to judge the piece in terms of its sonic quality, though this was probably as wide a variety of sounds as is possible to get from sheets of paper; nonetheless, if one took it on terms of spectacle and ‘performance’ as a general category, it was, again, a nicely-done piece.

The final item on the programme: Stephan Thut’s ‘many 1-4’. I believe this is a variation on an earlier text score, entitled ‘some’: the musicians can choose any two combinations of ‘x’ and ‘y’, where x=sound and y=noise, playing these at ‘some’ point over an unspecified period. The SET ensemble took this to mean very long silences, pin-pricked with tiny sounds (although there were some more sustained moments, such as Paul Whitty’s held accordion note and Angharad Davies’ slow sliding of her violin bow along the wooden surface of her instrument).

I’m not going to comment on the work as such, which was, as it turns out, rather overshadowed by the environmental sounds that took place behind/within/alongside it; instead, it’s here that I’d like to take up a point made by Richard Pinnell in relation to this particular realization of the piece. In particular, I’d like to address the contrast he draws between beautiful, minimal sounds and silence, and the crass, noisy, brutal world outside.

“It wasn’t that external sounds were present as much as precisely which external sounds. It seemed as if this little group of musicians, and the few of us watching were a little bubble of calm and consideration in a world full of ugly, vociferous crudeness. It wasn’t too difficult to bring myself to bear on the contributions of the musicians and try and zone out the intrusions, but for a while at least this fifteen minute or so experience seemed to sum up so much of what I feel about modern life.”

This notion of art as cocoon or contrast to the nasty outside world is one I have some problems with, for I believe that art is more implicated and caught within the webs and structures of that world than is often acknowledged; indeed, one might ask what, precisely, it is that this world is ‘outside’ (outside us in our little nooks and crannies and cubby-holes?), and argue that there is no world ‘outside’ that world in which music, and art, is created, in which we have our social being – art does not have access to ‘eternal’ truths in some supernatural, asocial sense (though of course it does have changing meanings over time).

After the student protests of late 2010, I mulled over some ideas about how art might tie in with the spirit of resistance and excitement that briefly flared during those months (and which is currently flaring, far more brightly, in Egypt and across the Arab world), concluding that one might view the separate studio and performance spaces in which ‘avant-garde art’ happens as laboratories, sites for experiment in which new modes and ways of being and relating and creating and making and sharing can be explored, can be tested out, away from the strictures and routines of the world of work and routine and the triumph of neoliberalism. In that sense, my view would seem to tie in with Richard’s; at the same time (and I think this ties in with some of the points I was beginning to articulate in my previous post on the Pisaro gig), I’m a little worried by the way in which critics and fans of the Wandelweiser group, and related tendencies in free improvisation/composition, seem at times to espouse something approaching dangerously close to an ivory-tower aesthetic in some of their statements. I half-wonder if this is because much of the impetus behind Wandelweiser et al comes from the classical world, rather than the jazz lineage of, for want of a better term, European Free Improvisation. Of course, the historical lineage is not that simple, as I’ve argued before; furthermore, Wandelweiser is still quite a small movement, relatively speaking, both in terms of widespread critical attention and in terms of size of venues, audiences, numbers of record-buyers, etc. Nonetheless, free improv, with its background in the back-rooms of pubs, its working-class, entertainment-industry-schooled pioneers (Derek Bailey), and its connections to African-American musical traditions and all the political and racial connotations that brings, seems to me to have a ‘grit’ to it that the newer, post-Cageian, silence-focused musics do not. At times they can seem almost prissy, which is certainly not the case with Cage’s own work: think of the uproarious Musicircus, or the connections to Fluxus and its anarchic political visions, or the babble and chatter of the radio music. (For that reason, bringing together Wandelweiser and Fluxus and showing what they have in common, as the concert under consideration did, was a particularly valuable manoeuvre. And yet, and yet…)

I admire the way that much recent criticism (Richard’s in particular) exhibits a determination to be honest about the role played by one’s personal preferences in making critical judgments. This does not mean a simple ‘I like record X because it like sine tones, and I don’t like record Y because I don’t like free jazz’; instead, an attempt is made to grasp and understand one’s preferences, even as one does not simply pretend they do not exist and play some role in one’s listening. Neither does one pretend to a standard of objectivity which is actually just personal preference smuggled in under an ideological or taste-making guise (I’m thinking here of the sort of borderline racist jazz criticism analyzed by LeRoi Jones in ‘Jazz and the White Critic’). At the same time, there is a danger that such honesty can at times shade over into ideological judgments which might do with some further examination. While the inclusion of silence would seem to follow from Cage’s 4’33”, along with the attendant focus on environmental, ‘accidental’ and found sounds as a valid and valuable part of the musical experience (which renders 4’33” as much a piece of ‘noise music’ as a ‘silent piece’), it seems that a grammar, or vocabulary has developed in the past fifteen years or so, as to precisely which extraneous sounds are allowed in silences. Permitted human sounds, or sounds associated with human activity are sirens, the muffled rumble of urban traffic, creaking chairs, the occasional sounds of movement to let us know that the audience is still alive and breathing; permitted natural sounds are things like rain or hail or wind. This is a space oddly poised between being a separated, sealed-off, isolation chamber in which beautiful sounds and silences can unfold in peace, and being somewhere in which the door is left half open to let certain ‘ambient’ sounds trickle in, something of the ‘outside world’ to emerge (though nothing to frighten the horses).

Silence, as much as it exists at all (remember Cage’s visit to the the anechoic chamber? (“until I die there will be sounds”)), and as it is used in music, contains a dialectic. It at once forces a focus on specific, physical details of being human – breathing, bodily rhythm – and demands a reduction, or exclusion, of the more social and noisier elements of living. It is a shared experience for the devoted few, creating, to some extent, a communal space in which relations that are social as much as musical can be explored and created, but also excluding those people who lack the ‘sophistication’ to appreciate the virtues of quiet, sustained drones and ten-minute motionless pauses. There is always a danger point in artistic, cultural, political movements, in which the initial rush of creation and discovery and innovation risks stalling, going no further, becoming just as entrenched as that which it sought to replace; and thus, though I enjoyed Thursday’s concert, finding it valuable, and inspiring, and exciting in many respects, I also find myself wary of certain aspects of Wandelweiser that I feel may be too easily overlooked in the almost overwhelmingly positive coverage that this music has been receiving. Returning to Richard’s point, I would have to admit that I, too, would have preferred the final piece if it had not been accompanied throughout by drunken pub sing-alongs. But at the same time I find myself thinking of music as a valuably social, communal thing in which collective singing, familiar melody, the sense of camaraderie and shared experience, are an essential and vital part of folk traditions; yes, of course, that feeling can be co-opted by undesirable elements, and yes, manufactured pop songs might not be quite the same thing as the oral inheritance of anonymous ballads and tales, but I’m pretty sure we weren’t listening to an EDL or BNP rally next-door – it was just a pub sing-along. In any case, how were the ‘singers’ to know that a roomful of 30 people or so were busily trying to listen to long silences, just across the road? Such a question may seem trivial; yet it forces us to ask one that’s far more difficult: namely, ‘just where exactly is it that this music is situated?’, and that’s a hard nut to crack.

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