LAURIE ANDERSON'S SONG CONVERSATION
Brighton Dome, Tues 17th May
After a couple of Festival performances based around the spoken word, this - as the name might suggest - was Laurie Anderson in music mode. Pianist Nik Bartsch and guitarist Eivind Aarset provided slow, calm, meditative lines with only Anderson's violin holding tones, one piece blending seamlessly into the next. It's music which matches what I described, after her last Festival appearance, as her “measured, melodiously deadpan delivery” – always assured, never straining for effect. It's music which doesn't see the need of playing many notes when you can just play the right ones. It's music which makes you realise you much we live our lives on 45 by playing at 33.
Though melodic it can go through some quite free-form passages, particularly in the first half of the gig - Bartsch using the piano as a string and percussion instrument like some successor to John Cage. At one point he takes to actual drums, at another manages drum and piano at the same time. It's not all that far from recently seen Australian free improvisers the Necks, only less long-form and with more of a nodding acquaintanceship to song structure.
The music dominates the first half, Anderson sometimes speaking but very much as voice-overs – more conversation than song. Then at about half-way the monologues start to develop and extend. Just as I'm thinking this is the closest I've seen her to an actual gig, she breaks into 'Langue D'Amour'. (You know, the one about Eve and the snake with legs.) We're so used to her making music out of gadgets and gizmos. Here, beyond the voice filters and a little looping, it's all 'natural' instruments. And it works astonishingly well, turning her into something of a surrealist chanteuse.
The only weak points are the cover versions. There's a latter-day Lou Reed song using his recorded voice, and Leonard Cohen's 'Bird On a Wire'. A classic song of course, but covers aren't really Anderson's forte and Cohen's characteristic melancholy doesn't fit her well.
It's hard to say what's the best time I've seen Anderson. In some ways her working methods stymie the question even being asked. She always conveys the sense of something being implied, while at the same time leaving that thing up to you. But this was quite possibly the most successful.
Corn Exchange, Brighton, Wed 18th May
...and after a gig played at 33 what is there to do but rediscover the joys of 16?
Modern blues player Duke Garwood has a singing voice about as laconic and unassuming as his audience chat – it kind of settles back into the music around it. His guitar playing perhaps tops the mix, but only by a kind of default. His band, for the most part, look like various permutations of himself – just at different ages and with different hair and beard lengths. And they play so tightly you could almost believe that to be the case.
The music has a beguiling shuffle to it. And like a cardsharp it's able to stay deadpan while slipping jokers and aces into that shuffle at unexpected points. The twin percussionists in particular always seem to have some new sound-making contraption in hand, sometimes only for a couple of beats. It all sounds simple and straightforward but can never quite be pinned down. There's quite freeform sections which creep up on you unawares, the finale an example of that little-known genre the laid-back wig-out. I'm thinking of the old phrase “still waters run deep” even before Garwood's mumbled something about falling down a well.
It's reminiscent of Califone in the way it can be so rootsy and so out there at the same time, like it doesn't see the need to make a distinction between the two. But it's not as DIY. It's almost like a blues version of Can, it has that quiet assurance as if these are musicians so accomplished they see no reason to show off. Some talk about blues as though it's downbeat stuff, which I've never really understood. As with the great blues masters, in Garwood's hands it's something sublime.
I confess to never having heard of Garwood before his name showed up in the Festival programme. But in a way that's appropriate, it feels like music you should push open a door and stumble across rather than it appear with a splash and a viral marketing campaign. He's apparently been at this for over a decade, which is no mean feat. But shut your eyes and you could imagine it's been going on since 1972, impervious to fad and fashion.
Recent but from Cologne...
Corn Exchange, Brighton, Fri 20th May
This “icon-sonic opera”, written by contemporary composer Yuval Avital and performed by Israeli Ensemble Meitar, was something of a blind date for me. I may have only decided to attend because it announced it's subject as refugees, stubbornly sticking to the word in the face of more antagonistic and less accurate terms being perpetuated by a bunch of Tories. So it was something of a plus when it turned up trumps.
Over the course of the piece, Avital's style moves freely between melodic and dissonant. At one point emitting the sort of piercing drone you most associate with the Velvet Underground at their most unfriendly. Though there are at times sustained lines, the music's mostly assembled from parts – plucked strings, tapped piano notes – which you put together inside your head. The piano was even used as a string and percussion instrument, which after Laurie Anderson makes for twice in one week!
And it was this assemblage style which allowed the music to integrate so well with the other elements – the images, and the sounds and voices of the refugees. The images were projected onto gauze screens before and behind the ensemble, a handy visual metaphor for this integration. Which means that, so soon after I was saying that multi-media had become so over-used in gigs it wasgood to get a break from it, along comes an example of it working seamlessly!
Afterseeing the anti-fascist Hass composition 'In Vain', I questioned whether absolute music is a good vehicle for political concerns or whether like a Rorschach blotter its better employed when opening up to more metaphysical themes. Aren't forms such as the song, the cartoon or the photo-montage more directly connected to the everyday world and thereby more able to comment on it? However, at least when the icon is put with the sonic, this work did succeed. Here's how (at least as I reckon it)...
The earlier images tended to be the stuff we're familiar with from news broadcasts, such as the opening shot of a boat crammed with people. In some the figures were reduced to silhouette. But these yielded to a small number of refugees, named on screen, who we see in close-up. A pretty decent start. But there's more...
When they're introduced through their 'song' you naturally assume the term's being used as a musical corollary for 'story', both being able to convey a narrative. As it is they sing only a few bars, often in their own untranslated language. 'Theme' might be a better term, if you want to be operatic 'leitmotif' or perhaps even 'timbre' – something which conveys the essence of the person rather than their situation, the way an instrument has a signature sound.
There have of course been TV documentaries which have followed refugees, asking them to explain what it is they're fleeing from, why they are going where they're going and so on – attempting to humanise their situation. But here they're asked much more general questions, written on screen, such as about their childhood. Sometimes in response they say a few words, sometimes we see only their expression. And when they're asked such a thing, we look at that expression and of course we start to think of our own childhood.
In the post-show discussion Avital was adamant he wanted to avoid “the pornography of pain”. We've grown used to saying 'people with AIDS' over 'AIDS victim'. Similarly, perhaps even to insist refugees are refugees is not enough. These are people forced into a situation. But they are not reducible to that situation. The work doesn't humanise so much as universalise, doesn't tell stories but creates musical portraits which like all portraits become points of self-comparison. When it says in the programme the work “crosses the border between 'us' and 'them'” that might sound platitudinous, but actually feels earnt once you have watched the thing.
The programme was heavy on self-critique. (“Can art reflect the condition of refugees at all? Is there a danger that art reduces its human subjects to figures of the imagination?... Why risk making such an artistic work? What can artists do in such times of incredible violence and indifference?”) Yet ironically the audience response in the post-show discussion went to the other extreme of congratulatory, and ignored the fairly gargantuan elephant in the room.
This was an audio-visual experience you really need to experience live and in total, featuring the sort of music most people claim to find 'difficult'. And at the end of the day the Daily Mail's going to have more reach than that. Some tearjerker please-think-of-the-children ballad by Adele, while the last thing I would listen to, might have more of an effect overall. This is of course an obvious point. But obviousness doesn't make things go away.
Still, let's not focus on an over-excited audience but the success of the work itself. Even if that was only an artistic success...
...all part of the Brighton Festival