'MINIMALISM UNWRAPPED': THE GAVIN BRYARS ENSEMBLE
Kings College, London, Sat 24th Oct
'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet' is perhaps Gavin Bryars' other classic composition, a companion to the afore-seen 'Sinking of the Titanic', perhaps equivalent to Steve Reich's early pairing 'Come Out' and 'It's Gonna Rain'. There are strong similarities between the two, both wrapping indeterminate compositions around ghost voices. 'Titanic' used the tune the band famously played as the ship went down. With 'Jesus' Blood', as Bryars explained in the pre-show talk, finding the originating voice was much more the product of synchronicity.
Helping to sound-edit a film on London's homeless, he happened upon a recording of a frail old man singing. Deciding to create music around the voice, he went back to try and find the fellow - but could not. Similarly attempts to source the original hymn drew a blank, and only then was it realised the old man had made it up himself. More, despite being recorded for a film, there were no images of him. All paths led back to him then came to an abrupt halt. The tape was simply all there was, making it almost ;literally a ghost voice. In the performance the conductor would signal to an off-stage tape operator, as if gesturing to spirits.
Despite the M-word being used in the title for the programme, Bryars confessed to feeling somewhat saddled with the term. And indeed in our last look at him we saw how different to Reich and Glass he really was. Reich's 'Different Trains' is set to human speech, but captures brief utterances to let their cadence create a rhythm. (In that pre-show talk, Bryars suggested “pulse-pattern music” as a more apt term for this.) Bryars lets the whole recording play out, creating surrounding music as the sonic equivalent of a highlighter pen, bathing it in response. The music somehow always appears to be swelling, new instruments and new elements joining in. (In fact, like extras in one of those old BBC battle scenes, they fade out and then reappear in new guise.)
Like many great works, it succeeds in straddling a contradiction. Bryars spoke of how he considered John Cage and Marcel Duchamp as influences, and the piece has some of Cage's sonic audaciousness – as if you can make music from any old thing, even the barely tuneful utterances of a tramp. And yet the music always works in response, never overpowers that original recording. There's no sense that Bryars has done something terribly sophisticated to a naïve source, so we should all now toast his cleverness with our wine glasses. It always feels like a collaboration, even if it is with a ghost. Bryars has said he intended to create a work “that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith... the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.”
It partly achieves this through the music itself being so hymnal. Bryars made a point of noting his chosen instrument was the double bass, and his compositions tending to low sonority. Perhaps, rather than Reich or Glass, the closest comparison would actually be the most recent – Feldman's 'For Samuel Beckett'. Even if Bryars is much more melodious than Feldman's austerity, there's the same combination of the sombre with the rapturous. However, as commented last time and a point taken up by Bryars in the talk, he is much more of an English composer. If there's a quietness and simplicity to Feldman, there's also an austere epicness to him. With Bryars there's the word he used in the quote above - an inherent understatedness. And this places him, in every sense, in tune with an old man singing with a frail voice. It's the combination of that understatedness with indeterminacy that earns the piece's title – a softly spoken power which never stops.
'Jesus' Blood' was the only Seventies work of the programme and, with one other exception, all else was post-millennial. Bryars has kept that keen melodic sense over the years, and the more recent works incorporated subtle shifts. Alas, however, in that time he's also become more conventional. 'Jesus' Blood' left me thinking “genuinely hymnal”. While with the other pieces my thoughts were more along the lines of “very tasteful, very sophisticated”. Bryars spoke of how he has extended the length of 'Jesus' Blood' as technology has allowed, from LP-side to CD length. And at times I found myself wishing they'd sacrificed some of the other pieces and chosen something longer than the half-hour they gave it here.
It may be the paradox of 'Jesus' Blood' has become a trade-off. Some of his other Seventies works were much closer to Cage's Dada iconoclasm, much more anti-music. With his signature works, the balance was struck just right. While now that side is almost absent.
My favourites among these tended towards the smaller ensembles, perhaps best retaining that understatedness. 'The Flower of Friendship' in particular seemed to justify its title with some mutually supportive playing. It also epitomised Bryars' singular use of the electric guitar. If it looked strangely incongruous among the other 'classical' instruments on stage, it was played in so un rock-and-roll way it could almost be a brand new instrument. Its timbre was somewhere between a steel guitar and an electric piano, with a radiating rather than a strident sound.
And from one bass player to another...
SHOBALEADER ONE (aka SQUAREPUSHER)
Concorde 2, Brighton, Fri 23rd October
Only six months after seeing Squarepusher's solo set, he's here again with a live band. This is apparently their first live outing, despite releasing an album five years ago.
Both are deranged, freak-out dance music. But its remarkable how different the two things are. Less polar opposites than chalk and cheese, two things you couldn't get close enough together to compare.
With bands, its normally not a matter of how well they're playing but how well they're playing together. That's why the concept of a supergroup, where you just place the best bassist next to the best drummer and so on, was always such a bozo notion. If you want a visual image to pin it to, at the recent Melvins gig the twin drummers played on a conjoined kit. But of course that was just a microcosm of the conjoined way the whole band played, as if they'd become one entity. And seeing a whole band in Jenkinson's patented fencing masks, never one speaking to the audience, that seemed to similarly enhance the feeling of groupthink.
Whereas if you want a visual image of the Squarepusher solo gig... well the move 'Inside Out' might be close. Its like its finally become possible to go inside someone's head, and finding inside it an infinite space filled with impossibly grand and huge architectural constructs. Like there's no intermediaries between thought and action.
The live set picked up and discarded genres like it had music history on speed dial, opening with roots reggae but within minutes morphing away from it. The predominant style was probably muscly Seventies funk shot through with frenetic jazz, bass lines skittering around the number rather than just lying in place. The best track, perhaps strangely for so noted a bass player was led by a hauntingly ambient guitar line.
And as a band they work very well indeed. Had this been my first experience of Squarepusher's music, I would have been very much impressed. But compared to the solo set it felt more rooted, more regular, easier to relate to music you'd heard before. It was like Jenkinson trying to channel his mind through group consensus involved taking on a standard language, which stopped his thoughts being so singular. Maybe not all kids play better with others. It was also a strangely short set, perhaps about fifty minutes – leading to some audience disbelief.
Should anyone reading this know more about Squarepusher's back catalogue than me, what was the set mainly composed of? I listened to a few tracks from the one album on-line, which didn't sound so much like the gig. (More song-like than groove-based.) But many tracks seemed to get instant audience recognition, so I'd guess it was mostly old solo stuff reworked.
Mentioned in dispatches! Having previously enthused over Acid Mothers Temple not once but twice, Hey Colossus and the Melvins I don't really have much to add from seeing them again. Apart from an hour being too short a time for AMT's immersive psychedelic soundscapes, to the point where I thought the audience might collectively refuse to go home. But instead of overlooking such good gigs altogether, let's at least celebrate them with some YouTube clips. (The first two, usually enough, actually from Brighton.)
Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...