Friday 1 June 2012


Green Room Cafe, Phoenix Gallery, 4th, 11th + 25th May

Even fringes have fringes, it would seem. For this “micro festival” of improvised music set out it's stall as picking up where Colour Out of Space left off. That event gives acts a democratising set dose of twenty to thirty minutes, eschewing any notion of support slots and headlining. Which, while part of the spirit of the thing, can become something of a meaningless mean. Some acts, particularly of the novelty or comedy ilk, seem spent after ten minutes. While others can feel like they were just getting going after thirty.

But here we're specifically promised “long duration live performances”. Which makes a kind of sense. Impro is the 'slow food' of the music world, it takes time to simmer and stew and develop it's flavours, it doesn't just ping out ready for action. (When one of the performers shouts “one, two, three, four” at the start of his set, we all get the joke.) Making the performances longer makes the highs higher...

...and highs there were. Remember when your school teachers would tell you to think of sex as “a kind of beautiful conversation between two people”? And you'd snigger because you knew it was actually about Barbara Windsor's bra flying off in 'Carry On Camping.' Well, they were wrong. Because it's actually improvised music which is a kind of beautiful conversation between two people.

Actually, the crazy hipsters also experimented with solo stuff and even threesomes. But blush not gentle reader, for it tended to be the duos who impressed the best, and who we shall focus on here. For example the opening act, Gimlet-Eyed Mariners came with a mesmerising array of bows and strings, which they employed with alacrity. But I was most keen to see Mystery Dick, aka Ed Pinsent and Harley Richardson. I knew these gentlemen from their fine work in alternative comics and music fanzines, stretching right back to the Eighties. (Ed continues to run the mighty 'Sound Projector', “better listening through imagination since 1996”.) But not only had I never seen them live before, I'd not even heard their music. (I confessed this to Ed on the night, who commented “we're more under than underground.” I later read from their website the last time they performed in public was a decade ago!)

They started off with swirling organ and twangy feedback guitar, like a lost soundtrack to 'Carnival of Souls', before heading off into something more minimalist and droney. It felt like the longer they played the less they played, in terms of chords and notes, and the harder it was to tell one's contribution from the other. In other words, the better they played, as duration worked its magic. But by that point they'd left my meagre powers of description behind, which is probably best for all concerned.

...yet tribal loyalties were to be rent asunder because my favourite act were the Static Memories, who I could easily believe had been playing together since they were embryos. Their set was forever stuttering, building up and breaking apart again, but in a way that somehow sounded part of the plan. (Even though, clearly, there was no plan!) Even in it's quietest, most fractured-sounding moments it held the room, pulling at our attention like a super-magnet in a room of steel screws. It seemed the very opposite of virtuoso show-off music, where all egos were subsumed and creativity made a force for the common good. (I was probably getting carried away by that point.)

Yet what makes the highs higher inevitably makes the lows lower. The middle night in particular seemed like the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the trilogy. Of course you have to accept improvised music isn't going to serve up the hits every time. But I became reminded of the famous George Clinton line, “freedom is free of the need to be free.” There's times when this music sounds so unfree of the need to be free, furiously squarking and hitting hubcaps ever-harder when it doesn't seem to be working like it should. The noise can come to feel busy, like a stand-in for motion.

If I seem to have a love/hate relationship with the impro scene... well I probably have a love/hate relationship with everything I don't have a hate/hate relationship with. And I see scenes as by their nature defined by the contradictions, not as unified groups. Furthermore, there's something in the nature of impro music which, by removing the confines of song structures and scale systems, pulls away the safety net and throws things to the extremes.

But, perhaps notably, the only scene I have as much a love/hate relationship with is the hardcore punk scene. On the face of it the two styles couldn't be more different. The better hardcore bands tended to rehearse like mad things, streamlining their sound, and didn't improvise much on stage. But both scenes promise music as a means to break free.

Yet of course, ultimately I try to focus on the half-full side of the glass and am glad such scenes survive in corporate modern Brighton. Even if the main challenge seems to be finding a room small enough to fit us all in...

Not from any of the nights, but of similar ilk...

Not coming soon! I was really quite keen to get down something about the last Colour Out of Space. Particularly the series of performances I dubbed Deranged Projectionists, who mixed up and intervened with filmshows live in front of us, as if the projector was an instrument. Dirk de Bruyn remains the only cinema projectionist I have seen to fall into a shamanic trance and chant loudly while repeatedly putting his hand in front of the lens. (Though I for one would like the Odeon to adopt similar tactics.) But alas I have really left it too late even for me. Please content yourself with previous years (2009, 2008 and 2007 respectively) and the above...

(Hopefully) coming soon! The second part of the Brighton Festival write-ups...

No comments:

Post a Comment