Tuesday, 23 September 2008


September 2008, Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton

“Welcome to the third Colour Out of Space. Three days of unstructured, cross platform sound experimentation featuring concrete poetry, re-wired electronics, avant-noise, out-jazz, home-built instrumentation, Kabuki free-vocalists and more.”

...”and more” there was! After the first Colour Out of Space inexplicably passing me by, I can now only hope that this event becomes an annual fixture. Not only is the sort of music you never expect to hear now on for a reasonable price at a venue practically down the road from me, the event has a nice organic feel to it. There’s nothing reserved or stuffy about proceedings, nor is there much sense of avant-guarder-than-thou. In fact, intimate and dripping with camaraderie, it partly reminds me of the small press comics events I attend such as Caption. (As one example, all the acts seem to hang around the whole weekend to catch their fellow performers at flow. And I was particularly enamoured of the way acts were announced by the ringing of a school bell, whereupon we’d troop in from the garden for our next instalment of droning Berlinners.) I’m sure if I were to suggest that this festival rocks I would be immediately put to the torch by a posse of Finnish noisemongers. But...you know what I’m trying to say.

Of course with over thirty (count ‘em!) performances to blurt, screech and drone, the odds are you won’t like everything. In fact, with almost every act incorporating some degree of improvisation, this is almost inevitable. Improvising is something like mining, you strike out hoping to hit a seam of something rich. But one night can be a lot of labour for little gain, then the next you strike lucky straight away. That’s all to be expected, and even adds to the excitement of the moment. Want the handsome prince and you have to be prepared to kiss some frogs.

A classic example of the bounty of serendipity working would be In Camera’s set. As they launched into their delicate electronics and ethereal bowed strings, the marquee tent creaked in a sudden summer storm, the rain pattering accompanying percussion on its sides. Have you ever been tucked up in bed on a winter night, reading a tingling ghost story by candlelight? Well multiply that feeling by a factor of ten! It was perhaps the ultimate moment in an ambient set meeting and perfectly merging with the room ambience.

As a consequence of this essential unpredictability, there seems little point in making a nerdy little list of each troupe next to a mark out of ten. See the exact same acts another night, and the whole order might be re-thrown. (Unless of course In Camera have hired that storm to tour with them.) Instead let’s look for patterns, stuff which worked and which didn’t, upsides and downsides of this sort of music.

Despite my enthusiasm for all things bleep, I had spent some of last year hoping for a few more words. Of course there’d been lots of vocals, culminating in Phil Minton’s glorious feral choir. But only post-Dada prankster Jaap Blanc and a few others had incorporated discernablewords. Do some see improvisation as the opposite of storytelling? Surely we can make up a story as easily as we can a feedback guitar drone! David Thomas was to make a latter-day career out of it. But that’s not what I’m on about here...

There’s the scene in Donnie Darko where the ousted teacher writes ‘Cellar Door’ on the blackboard as a goodbye to her charges. She explains “an expert linguist” (actually Tolkien) claimed the phrase to be the most beautiful in the English language. Of course this has nothing to do with doors to cellars, it’s turning the sound of the phrase into a musical miniature in your mind. The fact it’s now removed from it’s meaning is precisely the point. It’s like the exercise of looking at a page of text (say this one), until all the letters turn back into shapes. The way the word is seen as such an epitome of cultured thought makes it fair game for such undoing.

Koichi Makigami took up Blanc’s ‘sound poet’ role this year, an excellent performance perhaps enhanced by our lack of understanding of Japanese. (The nonsense comes easier that way.) Byron Coley ran a workshop on the word I didn’t manage to make, but I didn’t enjoy his performance so perhaps I didn’t miss much. Overall, I’d say there were no more words than last time, but then there’s always next year...

One frequent critique of this sort of thing is that there’s nothing to look at, bar some spotty herbert doing some diffident tinkering. The Sound Projector’s Ed Pinsent has written before that this shouldn’t be seen as a failure of electronic music so much as its incompatibility with old-fashioned spectator-style venues, and he’s at least part right. Things often felt more natural in the outdoor marquee, where acts tended to play in the round, than the school assembly room that is the main hall. (While a recent Brighton Expo night of laptop music pretty much failed in the Concorde rock venue.)

However, in our modern multi-media world, you have to ask – why choose to stimulate only one sense at a time? It seems pointlessly restrictive, particularly in a venue which doubles as a cinema, which even separately shows films as part of this very festival! When, early on, some quite spectacular visuals erupted around Core of the Coal Man, hopes raised – only to be, for the main part, dashed. (It was even some effort to find an illo for this blog-piece, even with the assistance of Google Image!)

Of course other acts tried to overcome this problem in their own way. Leslie Keffer attempted to finish her set by stepping from behind the laptop to reveal an party skirt then dragging everybody up to boogie - a plan sadly scuppered by technical failures and English reserve. Dave Phillips and G*Park dimmed the house lights almost entirely, and performed a piece with such redolent sound design that your ears followed it around the room and you felt inside those cavernous sounds. The whole question of what to do with the room was thereby extinguished. Equally, groups such as Skullflower (see above) look and act more like regular bands (in every way except their sound) so that particular problem doesn’t arise.

Let’s emphasise what we need is some visuals or performance element which synaesthesiastically merges with the music. Coal Man’s great visuals wouldn’t have saved things if the music had been bad (which it wasn’t). It was notable that the two acts which most stressed the performance angle (HRT and Weirding Vessel) pushed the ritual element of performance but scrimped upon musical substance. Both came on with a huge splash. Less than five minutes later, you were bored. Closer to the mark would be Bruce McClure’s ‘projector performances’. From what I gathered, the musical element was pre-recorded to which McClure manually adjusted celluloid loops. But very soon in, you were no longer looking and listening, you’d lost your category distinction between the two things. You were just taking it in.

Another recurrent weakness... far too many acts seemed content as mere demonstrations of their instruments. The scene’s ceaseless faddishness for new gadgets and devices may be partly down to this. It sometimes felt like a new toy had arrived on Christmas Day, and the recipient was running through the menu to check out what it could do. New and unusual sound sources are, of course, all to the good. But this misses the essential point that all instruments are merely... guys... instrumental. This argument has nothing to do with proficiency, it’s of no importance whatsoever who is proficient in their instrument and who isn’t. You don’t get any sense of the personality of the performer coming through, just a tourist trip through some settings.

Step forward, Gastric Female Reflex, for your wooden spoon award in this regard. But perhaps a more interesting example was Limpe Fuchs, whose set was emblematic precisely because it danced upon this very dividing line. Fuchs came complete with some mouth-wateringly inventive home-made instruments (including a ten-foot glockenspiel made of slate) plus some equally inventive ways of approaching them (including dragging stones down those slate keys). But she’d flit restlessly from one instrument to another, abandoning it as soon as things seemed to be getting going. It was like watching a child in a playpen, jumping hyperactively between all the toys. But instant composition isn’t the same thing as non-composition. Fuchs needed to either make something with the toys or release them into a workshop situation where we all got a go. She should either have come out the pen, or invited us into it.

But perhaps these comments lead into one wider criticism. David Toop once complained the electro-acoustic scene was a genre without an audience, and thereby hermetically trapped.
The electro-acoustic influence was not rife here, but perhaps his words carried a warning. Indeed at its worst, you did feel that afore-mentioned spotty herbert was just doing on stage what he normally does in his bedroom. This might lead to a scene, but only a backslapping society where each and every new set is treated as a masterwork appreciable only to the elect few. (Impro music isn’t auto-innocculated against cliché, despite what some of its adherents like to claim.) Art needs some kind of outreach, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as showbiz.

Taking the same point the other way up, it has always amazed me how ‘outsiders’ assume all this is some cerebral affair where we applaud the clever innovations of the performer. Well me, I wouldn’t know Pro Tools from an effects pedal! As I have often argued, it’s abstract nature means music can have a more direct effect upon your emotions than other styles of art. Sad music doesn’t have to spin you yarns about dying dogs or orphan boys, it can just be sad. But, by cutting itself off from the more obviously man-made elements such as melody, this music has the opportunity to instill a more immediate and direct effect upon your emotions. It’s rawer than rock, and richer than symphonies. In the right hands, its power to affect you is immense - and absolutely not dependant upon specialised or rarified knowledge. It should not be consigned to the bedroom or kept in the conservatoire!

You may observe that even the organisers’ own attempt to label all this (quoted up top) ends up not as a term to pin all this to so much as a semi-tongue-in-cheek list. While non-afficonadoes lump all this stuff together, there is far more variety available here than at the most eclectic regular music festival. You could pick any two acts at random, and there’d be more space between them than, say, a speed metal and a roots reggae band.

Speed metal and roots reggae are, at least to some degree, still based in blues. It’s like all the other music you ever heard was some shade of blue or other, then suddenly the rest of the spectrum is supplied and you get to hear orange, green, scarlet and black. (There was definitely no shortage of black.) Extra colours, courtesy of outer space.

I expect most of these acts have websites of their own, in some capacity.The Colour site doesn’t list them either...

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