Saturday 26 October 2013


Barbican, London, Fri 4th Oct
(Part of the Transcender festival of “ecstatic, devotional and psychedelic music from across the globe”)

”In C might not have been the first minimalist composition, nor the most minimal, but it was certainly the most influential”
- From the programme

Needless to say I wasn't there for the premiere of 'In C'; 1964 being before even I was born. But that may work for the best, for it long ago passed into legend. It's like those stories about the Sex Pistols playing the Lesser Free Trade Hall, and though few went all who did went on to form a band. Only with 'In C' they all formed the band there and then. With Steve Reich, Jon Gibson, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnick joining composer Terry Riley on stage, the audience was probably small only because there was no-one left to be in it.

With an intentionally unprescriptive score, it's indeterminate in length (with performances ranging from minutes to hours), in instrumentation (which is left entirely up to the ensemble) but also in form. Musical pieces, just like plays, get reworked over time. There's no real way they can't. But it often happens incrementally and unplanned, like the weather working on a statue and slowly changing its appearance. Whereas Riley wrote this piece precisely to morph, in opposition to the notion there must be one definitive version as intended by the composer.

The enabling principle is very simple, the score consisting of a single page of musical notation plus a fewcomments. The musicians are provided with a series of musical phrases, which each player passes through in the given order - but lingering on each as long as he or she chooses.

Why, you may ask? Well, what's the most important thing a musician can do? It's listening, of course. Playing comes second, for playing means nothing outside the context of listening. Of course the easiest, the most accordant, the best-fitting thing a musician could do would be to march in step with everybody else. Played like that, the piece would become like the applause after one of Stalin's speeches to the party faithful, where no-one wanted to be seen to stop first. No player would want to be first or last to jump between the sections.

Except of course that's not the way it works at all. The score is inherently an invite not to keep to the letter of the score, to bend it's rules, to do your own thing. Just listen to the other players as you do it.

Riley said himself in his comments “it is very important that performers listen very carefully to one another and this means occasionally to drop out and listen” in order to create “interaction of the players in polyrhythmic combinations that spontaneously arise between patterns. Some quite fantastic shapes will arise and disintegrate as the group moves through the piece when it is properly played.”

The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. The score becomes like a stem cell, able to lend itself to highly different versions. Yet with the heartbeat pulse at the centre of the piece, the single note C played repeatedly, it feels like the stem cell not just of Minimalism but of music in general. You hear just about everything else, somewhere in its shifting textures. For example the way the horns recall the rhapsodies of Gershwin.

People can comment they find it hard to listen to. But, in my finest Yoda voice, that's more to do with unlearning old ways of listening you never even knew you had. There's no background reading to do, no highfalutin' musical or mathematical theory to be picked up, just that simple score. It's not something cerebral, it's something sonorous and warm – like the feel of hot sun upon your face.

More than early Reich or Glass, you can hear its tonal shifts and surges and imagine its all building into something. But it's not going anywhere. Listening to it is like watching windblown sand, which sometimes will build up into ridges. And you can admire them while they're there, just don't expect them to stay.

But the problem with the above is that it doesn't really get carried away enough. For the first time I saw this piece performed, it seemed not just musically but even politically liberating. People don't have to get with the programme, they're given space to do their own thing - but within loose structures which allow them to play in accordance. Should we ever get out of this shitty situation we're in, wage labour and rental agreements and all the rest, maybe this could be our international anthem. What could work better? The theme tune to a free world, sounding different each and every time it's played.

Close on the original's fiftieth anniversary, this fresh performance was based around the giftedly bonkers notion to play the piece twice, two different ensembles sounding so different from one another as to prove its infinite flexibility. (Neither, incidentally, featuring the man himself. I've just stuck that photo of him up top because it looks cool.)

The first version, masterminded by Matthew Herbert, mixed more standard instrumentation (provided by Stargaze) with electronics and sampling (courtesy of Herbert and buddies). Though undreamt of when the piece was composed, when tape loops were still the freshest show in town, sampling fits it like it was intended to all along. If the piece is otherwise a game of Ludo with the competitiveness thrown out, players progressing at different paces along one path, sampling makes it into Snakes and Ladders – forever throwing things back to where they've been, adding to the polyrhythmic combinations.

Stage lights were dimmed, while Joshua White's psychedelic light show stole the eye. (The genuine article from back-in-the-day California, having previously been shone on Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.) This proved to be perfect staging, for there is something more to Riley which leans more to psychedelia than other minimalists. (Fun fact, the Who's Baba O'Riley' is part-named after him.) But it was also practical, by the simple expedient of making it almost impossible to check out which player was doing what, it threw you into responding to the piece as an ensemble work.

The recent South Bank retrospective on early minimalism lacked the all-important ritual element, and felt more of a recital. But here I had little notion of whether the piece had gone on for minutes or months, surely the best sign of all that it was working. It truly lived up to the name of the festival – it was transcending.

And then... again! This time with more adventurous instrumentation as German electronica artist Pantha Du Prince teamed up with percussion ensemble the Bell Laboratory. (Chiefly employing marimbas, steel drums and hand bells.)

The procession-like opening, with players arriving in matching aprons dinging intonatory handbells, boded well. But unfortunately the tragic flaw transpired early – the whole thing was to be set not to Riley's intended steady pulse but Du Prince's crunching electronic beats. I'd guess they were introduced as an audience-friendly measure, the equivalent of stabilisers on a bike. But their mechanistic marching dampened the free flow and harmonic interplay between the players. The piece worked better if you could block them from your attention, like a clamouring audience member. Helpfully, there were points where they were less dominant and you could hear what might have been.

Ironically the encore (nothing, insofar as I could tell, to do with 'In C') worked much better. The electronics were this time far more integrated with players, which led to a mesmerising finale. Though the piece bravely didn't build to a roaring crescendo but fell away, ending as it had begin. We left the venue with the pure, clear pealing of bells in our ears.

The Barbican seem somewhat strict on YouTube uploads, so instead (and as I've previously linked to the original) let's duplicate their experiment with several versions of the classic...

Hans Belmair's version takes it to the flutes...

...the Salt Lake Ensemble do it with laptops (probably my personal favourite)...

and finally, a version by Acid Mothers Temple...

Now, to prove we don't just throw this show together...

Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Sun 6th Oct

Only five months after the resplendent Uneven Eleven gig and a single week after Mainliner, and we already have the return of Kawabata Makoto, hardest working man not in showbiz. This time at the helm of his psychedelic mothership - Acid Mothers Temple.

Shortly before they took to the stage, a friend (Geoff of the ever-useful alternative gig guide Brighton Eyeball) commented he'd been forced to miss Mainliner, but would rather have had things the other way round. At the time, I nodded. Mainliner were something new to seek out, at least for our Brighton ears. While by this point Acid Mothers Temple are like old friends. Welcome back to be sure, but something already familiar. (In fact here's an account of one of their earlier visits.)

Luckily, with the crazy swirling lightshow, nobody could see the egg on my face.

Of their various manifestations, usually based in space rock to some degree, this was probably the most space rocky. Like some super-concentrate, like the dark matter of space rock. With their signature track 'Pink Lady Lemonade' they started out with the already-known version, then bent it from all shape. Tracks tended to start with sonic whispers, building into sturdy yet shifting metronomic riffs, complete with intonatory space-chant vocals and freewheeling theramin.

Not that I am one who would make idle or spurious comparisons between those of Japanese origin, but it reminded me much of old favourite Damo Suzuki. (Even if there's not the same degree of improvisation.) It's that feeling of folded time. This is clearly the music of now, with electric and amplified instruments. Yet at the same time it feels like the music of the stone age, its roots in the times where shamans chanted vibrations in caves while all assembled banged rocks. It's trance, not as a style to explore but as a tool for altered states of consciousness.

Some of the frenzied string-pummelling wig-outs perhaps went on a touch too long for me, and kept things shackled to the earth instead of heading into outer space. But what's the true measure of a good gig? Of course, its how many times it drives you to fear for your sanity. And I found myself afeared at multiple points, which must surely count as good value for money. One of my favourite live bands, in what may even have been my best sighting of them yet.

Nothing from the Brighton gig seems to have been YouTubed, so instead this is from neighbouring Taiwan... (Note there's also a second part.)

Will this spate of great gigs ever abate? I fear I am coming to sound like some muso equivalent of a luvvie, splattering the superlatives until praise hits hyper-inflation and we get the ensuing inevitable crash followed by austerity measures. But that night even the warm-up act should get their share of accolades.

The function of a support band is of course to be different from yet complementary to the main act. Which Eat Lights Become Lights succeeded at ably. (Even if I bumblingly missed the first half of their set.) They were really summed up by their respective light shows - Acid Mothers Temple the classic psychedelic swirl of colours, theirs clean black-and-white op art. The deranged shamans versus the mad scientists. They were highly Neu! influenced (thoughtheir Wikipedia page cites Kraftwerk) without ever falling into tribute act territory. Pulsing beats propelled by two drummers, rinky-dink synths, like being bathed in pure white light.

Now this time there is footage from the gig. Go figure. But first, go check 'em out...

Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 12th Oct

Kudos to the chaps from the Physics House Band to book a venue for Saturday night, put on a whole night of music then charge us punters bugger all. (Parties which, judging by the poster, they've now laid on three times.) Even if it did screw with the accustomed bedtimes of us old 'uns, and most bands on the bill were of passing interest only. But as the clock grew closer to the witching hour, and even beyond (I didn't even know it did that), things just got better.

Local Krautrockers AK/DK came up with a much more accomplished set then the last time I saw them, when they'd been supporting Damo Suzuki. (Their playing with Damo should probably be seen as a kettle of quite different fish.) Though, as ever, improvised throughout, this time they seemed much more in the driving seat - effortlessly in control.

It was a set which caused me to ruminate on the distinction between smart and quite smart people. Quite smart people are constantly pointing out where they stand on the smartometer, doing things to impress in case it ups their score. Which all ends up like Captain Beefheart's dictum, “somebody's had too much to think.” Whereas smart people are very happy not just to go stupid, but go native while they're there. And you need to be smart/stupid to play Krautrock, to keep up the same metronomic riff for ten minutes at a time just because you know it to be right. Happily for us, AK/DK are smart people.

While Krautrock itself remains an under-rated scene to this day, for a long while Neu! seemed one of it's most under-rated outfits. Yet, in terms of influence on contemporary bands, it now seems their stock is riding at an all-time high. While this is certainly something to welcome, it doesn't seem entirely clear why it should be. As mentioned last time I saw AK/DK, they are most likely looking backwards at Krautrock through the filter of dance music. And Neu!s propulsiveness lends itself to repetitive-beat-making very well indeed. But dance music itself is now some decades old, so there must be something else...

Not from the night, but from the Green Door Store earlier in the year. Still pretty smokin', I think you'll agree...

The night's hosts, the Physics House Band topped things off. It's a strange coincidence seeing them so soon after Mainliner, for the two are almost opposite poles. Both are rooted in the sound of '69, but Mainliner in the year that ended the Sixties and the Physics boys in the one that started the Seventies. Instead of psychedelia mixed with heavy riffing there's a heady stew of jazz, funk, rock and prog. I thought up the description 'quantum funk' for them then immediately felt pleased with myself, but it turns out there's already another band called that.

...which means, of course, I should now be taking Mainliner's side. But contradiction is the spice of life, and while I may have preferred the Japanese noise-nauts I found myself taking to this set as well. Smart people, sometimes they're allowed to be smart too. Just don't go making a habit of it.

Admittedly, I couldn't get into the whole of it. It sometimes felt like travelling up hill and down dale, only sometimes getting lost in the noodly thickets of the valleys. But they'd always bust out eventually, and when they reached them the views from those hilltops were exhilarating. I particularly enjoyed the guest trumpet sections, which felt like the beating heart of the music, with the other players arranged around them taking the part of the brains.

Also not from the right night but the Green Door Store, a saxophone where for us the trumpet stood. But damn fine coffee, for all of that...

Actually, you can never have too much of a good thing, so let's catch a longer clip. From last year, in that hotbed of crazy psychedelic action Lewes...

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