Saturday 7 March 2015


Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London, Fri 27th Feb

Contemporary composers, of all the things I dabble in, may be the most dabbled of all. And if I ever need reminding that all I am to this scene is an interested if occasionally befuddled outsider, I just need to read some of the theory that surrounds this stuff. Even when it doesn't actually feature equations, its less layman challenge than full-on anxiety dream.

But I'm not convinced that you really need to digest any of that theory to enjoy some of this music. As Georg Haas, one of the featured composers, says in the programme: “I want to compose expressive, emotional music which moves and takes hold of people.” It's less important to learn about it than it is to unlearn the habits you picked up from hearing more popular styles. (You can, should you wish, imagine I said that in a Yoda voice.)

At least that's my standard position. But sometimes the Zen exercise of taking in some of that theory can get you somewhere. Take another programme quote from another featured composer, Iannis Xenakis: “A cluster of phenomena assembled by the laws of finite or infinite groups is a texture... the result is experienced primarily as a texture and moreover as an interesting one. We are therefore faced with substances – textures – more complex and complicated than the phenomena of which they are composed... Because of their complexity, the textures are on a higher level than the elements of which they consist.”

Sounds all Greek? While I've no real idea whether this is what the man meant himself, it makes me think of something like sonic clusters. It's normally small bands who make popular music, and you listen to the interplay between the players like they were actors or acrobats on the stage. It all gets added together in your mind. Whereas the larger ensembles who perform this music play parts rather than lines – what Mark Berry describes as “swarming sounds”. You listen in the way you'd look at the leaves rustling on a tree, or the murmuration of birds massing in the sky. You're aware its made up of individual units, but what you take away from it is the composite form.

Ironically then, if Xenakis gave us the key to hear this music, his own piece 'Aroura' turned out to be the biggest musical obstacle course of the night. The full first third was a series of musical fragments, like a bunch of jigsaw pieces thrown from the box, only later forming up into shapes. While some of these fragments did come to be developed, others (as far as my ears could figure) were just kind of left latent. If Xenakis has a reputation as a challenging composer, I find I can take to some of his pieces with relative ease. 'Aroura', however, seems a text for the advanced class.

Whereas his quote came in much more useful for the Haas piece, 'Open Spaces', (in its UK premiere). Even the two percussionists often seemed designed to blend in with the sonic clusters than provide a contrast. As the record shows, I'd previously been much taken by the Sinfonietta's previous performance of Haas's 'In Vain', particularly it's great tonal range. And such a range was back, fading to the borders of hearing then swelling back and surging into waves of sound.

But the piece (and night in general) did more than explore the edges of music. Their tag line was “the music between the notes”, announcing an intent to break the conventions of musical notation into microtones - like physicists splitting the atom. As Dr John Dack comments (again in the programme) “it has long been recognised that our ears have remarkable powers of discrimination”. In other words, we have been closing our own ears up all these years and are better equipped to travel off the familiar symbols of the standard musical map than we give ourselves credit for. I may well be starting to find Haas performances unmissable…

Interviewed before her piece was performed, Mica Levi seemed the very opposite to all that high-faultin' theory bandied about elsewhere. Youthful enough to look like a child called to the front of the class, and correspondingly awkward and fidgety, she seemed unaccustomed to the business of translating her music into words. I am entirely ignorant of her work with the band Michacu and the Shapes, but do know her award-winning and quite splendid soundtrack to the Jonathan Grazer film 'Under The Skin'.

'Greezy' (this time a world premiere) had some relationship to the edgy angularity of that soundtrack, which gave the film so much of its unsettling mood of defamiliarisation. But only just enough for you to guess it came from the same hand. The most conventionally melodic of the pieces performed, it seemed at times even reminiscent of Beethoven's string works. There was the same rich, sonorous sense of melody, the same stately pace. Unexpected in this context perhaps, but still something of a plus. After all, some of us still like Beethoven!

It was built around the heartbeat of a simple viola motif, the player placed centrally on stage, a part almost as minimal as in Riley's 'In C'. Around this the piece ebbed and flowed between the melodic and the tense, one sometimes overlaid above the other. The title, so it says in the programme, refers to a state of remorselessness. For someone still in their Twenties to be producing such effective pieces, Levi suggests contemporary composers will be staying contemporary for some time yet.

Claude Vivier was the wild card of the programme, not a name I even knew before. He was introduced as “another composer interested in melody”, meaning they'd saved the more tuneful stuff for after the interval, like a sweet dish served after a savoury. Like Levi, 'Zipangu' seemed neither insisting on a complete break from music's past, nor entirely in thrall to it. Its, to again quote the programme, “blurring harmonic structures” segued with seeming ease between the harmonious and the adventurous. You get the sense of a composer with the whole of musical history at his disposal, without anything ever falling into post-modern pastiche.

The venue was encouragingly full of punters, in anything weighted towards younger folk, and all of whom seemed appreciative of such adventurous music. I've purloined a ticket to the second part next month (which includes another Haas permiere), so let's see what that brings...

The Green Door Store, Brighton, Sat 14th Feb

When Hey Colossus take to the stage with no less than three guitarists, you're already guessing this is not a band to do things by halves.

They sound not unlike a more psychedelic version of the Ex; tight, taunt, pulsing riffs, guitars often neatly interlocking and as often each taking to their own tangent. The effect is something like watching an overlaid multi-image video, you see from the stage three separate players, but your ears hear one composite sound, shifting as if its elements are sliding beneath the surface. Yet while the (for want of a better term) lead guitarist has a penchant for shimmering Sixties riffs, there's also a grittier, garagier sound to them. Try the Ex overlaid over the Fall or the Melvins. Or something like that anyway.

Then just when you think you have their style pegged, they morph into much meatier fare, taking up a metal edge – heads are lowered, the noiseometer hits the red and they start to sound like the behemoth of their name. Notably these tracks coincide with the (for want of a better term) second guitarist coming in on more guttural vocals, perhaps suggesting the band houses two chief songwriters. (Befitting this change in sound, the chap is – tonight, Matthew - sporting a Slayer T-shirt.)

They focus on riffs and pack changes so neatly and adeptly it takes you a while to notice they're doing it. With the distorted vocals and infrequent audience comments, they come across like a band good enough they don't need to brag about it. Apparently they have been striding stages for a decade now. And in all honesty I'm not even sure I'd even heard their name before; I thought to check them out due to the standard desert of gigs this time of year. Sometimes it takes me a while to catch up with these things.

The only criticism, which seems a common occurrence nowadays, is that many of the tracks get taken in just when they seem to be taking flight. Okay, the band have a seeming wealth of material they want to get over. But it feels like the rule of internet browsing, where nothing is allowed to run longer than three or four minutes lest folk start clicking on that next YouTube link, now seems so entrenched it even decrees what can happen in live gigs. Guys, when you've got wings – fly!

If you like this (new track 'Sisters And Brothers')...

...try this. Over half an hour from Camden's Underworld last year...

Prince Albert, Brighton, Wed 25th February

While Russell Walker was a name previously bereft of connections to me, Dan Melchior had raised a rumpus with both Billy Childish and Holly Golightly. (And according to a reliable source of gossip is of a garage rock persuasion.) They arrived together on our southern shores under the tag line “outsider power duo o-clock”.

Though with only a drummer for accompaniment, Melchior's guitar was so raw and fuzzy you probably wouldn't have heard the bass parts beneath it anyway. Their set seemed based around two notions; Mark E Smith's celebrated “R+R as primal scream”, tracks as stream-of-consciousness torrents rather than compositions, combined with a play on the inherent absurdity of the English playing music so raw.

And the two work together surprisingly well. English reserve is normally played up for the sake of the gag, clipped annunciated vocals contrasting with the driving beat. But here the awkwardness and the abandon collided in the figure of singer Walker; hunched over the mike, eyes closed in both shyness and reverie – Englishness on edge. Setting out his stall, two Syd Barratt covers were played early on. It was a blend of the heartfelt and the humourous, at one point bewailing being banned from the Bull and Bush and not being able to go back for Sunday lunch. And after all, don't us uptight English need such moments of release more than anybody else, the microphone as the valve on the pressure cooker?

But overall, all that makes it sound better than it actually was. This naiveté business can be harder than it looks. Outsider music has as much artifice to it as any other kind of art. You need to maintain a surface of impassioned bumbling while keeping the proficiency under the hood, enough of an arrangement to be able to appreciate the derangement. This gig felt like it had gone a little too native to its outsiderness. Ironically this studio track, 'I Could Sit Here Forever' pulls off the trick much better. It's so dreary it quickly becomes etherial...

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