Saturday 9 July 2016


The Forum, Kentish Town, London, Wed 6th July

Sleep are effectively the parent band whose original split begat the sublime and majestic Om, as caught at last year's Mutations festival.

Much heavier than Om... in fact much heavier than pretty much everyone else they're perhaps the band who took the Black Sabbath baton and decided to run with it the furthest. Unlike most copyists they had Sabbath's talent for compositional dynamics, knowing when to pile on the heavy riffing and when to throw in changes. The result is music which sounds like it's forever growing more and more intense without ever becoming predictable.

But while Sabbath never really burnt their boats to song structure, Sleep pushed further away. Vocals are less frequent and less foregrounded. Bass and guitar combine in their resonances, until you can hardly separate the heady stew of sound back into it's constituent parts. While tracks can stretch and stretch. They are after all the band whose best-regarded album is one seventy-five minute heavy riffing number. (Which left their label so aghast they initially refused to release it, effectively ending their first incarnation.)

But they're perhaps most unlike Sabbath in that they don't really have the same heady sense of ominousness. Despite commonly being tagged as doom metal (or as Wikipedia would have it 'stoner doom metal'), at least in retrospect the seeds of Om's cosmic odysseys are already present. Like one of those flowing yin/yang symbols, Sleep struck the point where heavy tips over into spacey. They're not a band for whom lyrics are necessarily importantly but notably, rather than Sabbath's... well blackness, the sun is a recurrent image. There was a Sabbath song called 'Warning'. There could be a Sleep track called 'Invitation'. (Alright, there isn't. But there could be.)

Their name, in the context of their sound, suggests astral flight. Or the Surrealist desire to break down the walls between the conscious and the unconscious, only by repeated riffing rather than anti-rational imagery. However much they might pummel your ears, Sleep will give you pleasant dreams.

It's almost perfect music to hear live. Push their cavernous sound through a powerful PA and it's less like hearing it than being placed inside it. The sound got so heavy the floor was vibrating beneath my feet. But more, like Damo Suzuki there's a ritual element to it, as if they're making music with the sensibilities of the stone age while merely adopting electric instruments.

The band are about as un-botheredby audience rapport as Godspeed, hair-bedraggled heads bent permanently over their instruments. But then the stage was so lowly lit at points all I could see were the lights of the on-stage amps. There was even a similar feedback howlaround ending, shrugging off the showbiz adage about closing on a high. And as with Godspeed taking away the sense of this being a performance just makes it more of an experience. The focus is on the music, and how far it can send you.

Like the recent Boredoms gig the audience ran the spectrum of types and, for a band who first split up over twenty years ago, ages – if anything weighted towards younger faces. It suggests there's life in the old band yet, and in fact rumour suggests there will be more recordings.

Sleep do turn out to be one of those bands you haven't really heard until you've heard them live. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to see both Om and Sleep within the same nine months was very heaven.

The opening of 'From Beyond', from the States...

...and if you liked that try this, seventy heavenly minutes from Hellfest...

Sunday 26th June
St John's, Smith Square, London

This event in its own words “celebrates music that takes its time, which envelops the listener in deep sound and leaves space for contemplation”. Of the three days, alas this non-metropolitan was only able to make the Sunday. And while some of minimalism's more cutting-edge composers were sadly not included on the... oh alright then! Of the seven names know-nothingeme had heard only of the two headliners. But sometimes you get a good feeling about stuff and you go with that...

Laurie Spiegel, a New York based electronic composer was represented by three pieces - from the Seventies, Nineties and whatever they're calling this decade. A short film about her was also shown, 'Little Doorways to Paths Not Yet Taken', in which she was keen to deny the notion that electronic music is dehumanising. The programme emphasised her involvement with Slow Change Music - “we wanted [music where] any sense of being sonically on guard against sudden change would fade away and we could be in the experience of the moment”. Two statements which made for a pretty good introduction to the whole day.

And the first piece, 'Return to Zero' (1971) exemplified them well, conjuring warm fuzzy sounds. Like the feeling of sun on your face this was music to bask in. I took the title to mean “back to the fundaments of sound-making”, to get on with some Yoda-style unlearning. 'Passage' (from 1990) was more of a sound collage but simultaneously more of a composition. It was based around the repeated tolling of a bell, the sort of sound that summons you, above electronic drones and hums. Despite the greater use of 'real' sounds it actually felt more like a dreamscape than 'Return to Zero', the 'unheimlich' sense of the familiar defamiliarised. It would work well as a soundtrack to a Surrealist film.

Spiegel seems to have been a pioneer of musical software and 'A Harmonic Algorithm' (2011) was based around a programme she'd written to reproduce the work of composers, here Bach. Like the binary version of one of those 'Futurama' heads, able to add to the Bach repository. Now I'll confess upfront I don't like this notion at all. In fact even before I'd finished reading this in the programme I had three issues with it!

First, it reminds me of the Great Upload notion popular in tech culture, that silicon version of the rapture where we'll get our consciousnesses uploaded to the cloud. I think it comes from the nerd desire to be on-line as much as possible, hence having to invent a device where your connection Facebook is no longer plagued by toilet breaks. But I like doing real-world things, including going to music events such as this.

Worse, the idea is consumerist – we want Bach on demand. It pretty much happens now anyway. Further material is released after a composer is dead, seemingly perpetually and often indifferent to quality or importance, like we've become so infantalised we can't adjust to the concept that story time might now be over.

Worst of all, it glosses over a vital element in music or art in general. An artwork is always a dialogue between the artist and the society he inhabits. Cut off the dialogue and you're left just with his tics and mannerisms – the nuts and bolts of his language not assembled into an actual mechanism. Spiegel's defence was that, as she'd written the algorithm, that it ends up as a de facto collaboration with her. (She spoke of this as an unforeseen consequence, but we can assume that's a poeticism.) But tics and mannerisms is exactly what we got. It's true I'm not a huge Bach fan to begin with, but it sounded like baroque music for New Agers.

I am often to be found arguing that the term minimalism is misplaced, that as soon as you actually listen to Reich or Glass you find it doesn't fit. But this wasn't a pressing problem with many of the pieces here. Any Reich/Glass influence was in fact conspicuous by its absence. For example with Eliane Radigue's OCCAM 1' (2011) for solo bowed harp, the minimalism got pretty deep indeed. The bows turned the notes into drones or near drones, one tone constantly blending into the next.

Radigue wrote in the programme of “the freedom to be immersed in the ambivalence of conscious modulation... the freedom to let yourself be submerged in a continuous sound from where perceptual activity is heightened...pulsations, breath”. It may well need the live context to work, as it may require a base level of commitment to sit and listen to such micro shifts. As the sounds build and fall, sometimes shimmering on the edge of hearing, it might too quickly get assigned as ambient music. But to hear it live, in a room full of people listening as intently as you, is both enthralling and exquisite.

In fact it may even be the piece itself is partly a means to an end, encouraging you to listen in a way our distraction-addled world usually prevents. You don't follow the grand sweep of the music, like taking in a view from a commanding hilltop. You get engaged in the nuts and bolts of the sound, like a botanist with his nose in a hedgerow. The way of looking at things you don't do in normal daily life. Really, this isn't just great music. It's a cure for what ails yer.

For Edmund Finnis' pieces, a cello, viola and violin lined up rather conventionally on a stage. But instead of playing together they consecutively provided a separate piece. Only with so much reverb to their sound, they were effectively playing along with themselves. It's rare and invigorating to hear such modern technology, so common in electric music, used with 'classical' instruments. But it was highly effective. Though perhaps it didn't work quite so well with the higher-register viola, which inevitably casted less of a sonic 'shadow'.

You know those songs which are merely strings of nonsense phrases, but somehow seem like they're forever on the cusp of making some kind of sense? (The White Stripes 'Seven Nation Army' would be a good example.) Catherine Lamb's 'String Quartet' (2015) did a similar thing with musical dynamics. Over forty minutes it sounded neither static or dynamic, but always about to resolve into one or the other. Think of those weird photons which are neither wave nor particle.

After vocals had only appeared via occasional samples, the final section was not only vocal-based but – with one exception – unaccompanied vocals. The first two Meredith Monk pieces were charming in themselves, but a little slight and even conventional compared to what had gone before. (They were sections from a longer work, 'Quarry', and perhaps don't withstand isolation from it.) 

But the final piece, 'Dawn' (1985), despite being from the same opera was much stronger. It combined 'churchy' singing, complete with the venue's organ, with a wailing Arabic vocal. There may be an attraction, given the way the world is currently, to hearing European and Arabic culture combined. Though I'd prefer to think that it arose naturally rather than schematically.

Pauline Oliveros' 'Lullaby for Daisy Pauline' (1980) was a process piece where the singers followed steps in a given process rather than recited from a fixed score. Which is always an appealing idea but the piece somehow didn't grab me.

Oliveros herself them appeared for a brief interview and to facilitate (not, she insisted, lead or direct) one of her Tuning Meditations. And we the audience would be performing it ourselves. This struck me with no small amount of dread, for as far as singing goes I am great at long-winded blog posts. Indeed, as Monk was made the actual finale, there may have been some similar nervousness among the organisers as to how this would turn out.

But Oliveros has that cheerily no-nonsense can-do attitude that Americans often exude, even when they're left-field composers. And she less talked us all into it than assumed we could all do it, to the extent that it just seemed easier to go along with her. The instructions were really just “sing a tone. A tone someone else is singing, or your own. Then again.” But through it's own volition, the crowd quickly created undulating waves and patterns of sound. It even came to a collective close. I'm fairly sure that, were you to listen to the audio, you'd be convinced someone was conducting. Yet I can attest that Oliveros simply sat and listened.

As the above recounts, the event managed a high hit rate. But perhaps it did even better than that suggests. Many of the composers were not only still composing but present, in fact several looked very young indeed. (Okay, most people look young to me.) It made it feel like a living, breathing scene. There was a laid-back, by-fans-for-fans atmosphere to the day which made it involving, made it more than the mere sum of its parts.

Despite being only a few minutes from bustling Parliament Square, the venue had a relaxed, open space feel. Performers played as often from the middle of the room as the stage, while people were invited to move about the room or lie on cushions. Some of the 'acts' were recordings (albeit with bespoke sound design), but it simply felt like someone had said “back to mine to listen to cool music” to a few hundred people. And the audience for the most part took advantage of all the informality, while still staying quiet and attentive while the music actually played. It was similar in mood to Cardew's 'Great Learning' at the Union Chapel, but perhaps even more so. We can only hope this becomes some sort of a fixture...

An excerpt from Radigue's 'OCCAM 1', not from the festival but with the same player, Rhodri Davies...

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