Sunday 12 February 2017


Kings Place, London, Fri 10th Feb

Cellist Maya Beiser was a founder member of New York based contemporary music ensemble Bang On a Can All-Stars, here playing solo. (The parent outfit still exist, and played London five years back.) As the programme looked interesting and I am known to like a good cello, I thought to happen by.

The folk singer June Tabor once stated that her talent was singing, so when it came to songwriting “I just ring up Richard Thompson, it's easier”. Beiser would seem to do a similar thing with composers. Three of the other All-Stars founders – Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang – were composers in their own right, and in the programme notes Beiser wrote of the interplay which occurs when compositions are written for specific players. I didn't know, until she mentioned seconds before launching into it, that Steve Reich's 'Cello Counterpoint' was also written for her. (In fact the programme featured only one non-New York based composer, the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov.)

'Classical' music is often assumed to spring fully formed from the mind of the genius savant, with the musicians merely assigned parts. But can't composers and musicians work within scenes, like rock music can? Isn't hearing a piece by the intended player the thing to do? Like hearing the Mothers of Invention play Frank Zappa? Certainly Beiser's spirited work-through of 'Cello Counterpoint' was stirring stuff.

If the gig was solo only for one piece was it unaccompanied, with the rest using at various points vocals, electronics, loops, multi-track recordings and film projections. One feature was how the projections worked so seamlessly with the music. 'Cello Counterpoint' for example is one of the Reich works where the musician plays over pre-recordings of themselves, here handily demonstrated by seven pieces of video evidence, lined up (according to the programme) “Warholian style”.

While Gordon's 'Light is Calling' was essentially a collaboration with Bill Morrison's visuals, effectively a sequel to the eerie and enthralling 'Decasia'. Warped electronics played alongside sonorous cello strokes, just as Morrison played warped and distressed footage from an old film – images appearing through the psychedelic corrosion, then dissolving again. At first it seemed that the sound and sight were perfect metaphors for one another, the electronics fuzzing the clear cello lines, but as the piece went on they seemed to overcome separation and morph together.

Wolfe's 'Emunah' featured etherial chanting, provided life by Beiser. I can find this sort of thing New Agey, so it perhaps wasn't my favourite Wolfe work. (That may be this.) Yet as with Gordon's electronics they made an effective counterpoint to the deeper, earthier cello sounds. I especially liked the ending, after the vocals faded out for a low bowed hum, verging on a drone.

'All Vows', the second Gordon composition, though not the longest piece was the album track of the evening. It not only featured solo cello but kept to a low range, taking a simple musical line and giving it quite subtle variations. Yet if it demanded close listening it certainly repaid it.

Lang's 'World To Come' was written shortly after the Twin Towers attack, but rather than a political response felt more existential. (Perhaps an understandable response to something like that hitting your home town.) The programme described it as “a kind of prayer”, and it was accompanied by a video by Irit Batsry focusing on water, a kind of matter without form. Creation, as the saying goes, is not a noun but a verb – an ongoing process.

Formally it was almost the opposite of 'Cello Counterpoint', cello and vocal phrases were looped as rich and resonant textures over which the 'live' cello part played the lead. The movements were ably matched by the video. Strongly rhythmic bowing was accompanied by fast pans across glistening waterways, a slower and more ethereal section by close-ups of rippling surfaces, and finally churning and frothing.

If stepping back for an encore seems more a rock music tradition, then Beiser surprised at least me with versions of 'Kashmir' and 'Back In Black' - surely any sensible person's favourite Zeppelin and AC/DC numbers. A constant guiding principle of Bang On A Can has been that rock music can be a source of inspiration, not just through taking elements from it but it's spirit. And what worked was they way these were not re-transcriptions for a more classical idiom but proper rock outs, with bow strings fraying. (Essentially the cello took over the function of lead guitar and vocals.)

Oddly, however, Bach's 'Air On a G String' was sandwiched between them. Which was not only a rupture of mood, but came to feel a little self-consciously eclectic. And I don't see how you can say, as Beiser rightly has, “all these boundaries we're created [are] so unnecessary” and then slap yourself on the back for audaciously mixing it all up. (To be clear, I enjoyed all three pieces, the problem was the programming.)

'Light Is Calling', albeit not from London...

The Hope & Ruin, Brighton, Sun 5th Feb

It's often said that noise music is the punk of today. And true enough it's one of the few music scenes to remain underground, not to be heard flogging designer jeans for middle-aged waists. But more to the point, it exhibits both the pros and cons of punk of old. There's no more learning two chords to form you own band, you can do it just by plugging in a laptop. But, as those of us who recall the hardcore scene of old can attest, anyone can do it is both boon and curse. There's a whole lot of bad electronic noise out there, pressbutton rage in a quite literal sense. But then the rest just makes it all the more important to track down the best...

Dilloway is formerly of noisemonger troupe Wolf Eyes. I would gather he was in the UK touring with Genesis P Orrdige, but was tonight solo. His set comprised a contact mike he placed in his mouth and, at one point, a long horn of what variety I do not know. But (from what I could tell) all the rest consisted of tape loops, treated, manipulated and overlapped.

And yet though that means the sounds were mostly pre-prepared there was something quite genuinely out of control about the set. Dilloway was like a Prospero who'd unleashed the storm on himself, elemental forces he was barely able to marshall. Unlike most electronica artists who barely move, he'd twist and convulse as though possessed by the music he himself was making.

And yet again, despite being for this sort of music a lengthy set (the best part of an hour) there were no longeurs, or klunky switches between sections. If it was like watching a man trying to conduct the weather, which it pretty much was, the success rate was surprisingly high. Several times it would build and build in intensity, breaching every barrier you had imagined existed, then suddenly breaking off into a new tangent.

I don't think there's much of a philosophy behind or real-world analogy to be applied to Dilloway. You're not supposed to think about urban alienation, commodity fetishism or Trump or whatever. (And in fact a night off having to think about the orange abhorrence is to be welcomed.) Which I suppose is the point, that he's found a way to say something which couldn't be said any other way. Which makes him a true original.

Here's a completely different set. It's all good...

Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, University of Sussex, Falmer, Fri 1st Feb

I knew almost nothing about this sound installation event from ”award-winning sound artist and composer” Ray Lee, except it was attached to a Stockhausen festival. (Which it turned out to have almost nothing to do with. But sometimes you need to go with your instincts, and sometimes they even work.

A series of sirens attached to revolving poles are switched on one by one, emittting pitches matching the height of their stands. As the sound starts to build up it first resembles the venue's description of “pulsing electronic drones” but transforms as it builds up into the electronic equivalent of pealing bells. The only other variant employed was occasional adjsutments to the spin speed, and yet the combination was richly resonant and quite mesermising. Who ever knew sirens could sound so serene? Certainly it brought up the alternate meaning of the term, a captivating sound source which draws you in.

Cool things about the event included the way it built up from a simple premise into a rich tapestry; the 'wires out' presentation, all processes on open display: (relatedly) the way the guys working the sirens seemed more workers or road crew than musicians or performers; your being encouraged to wander the space, effectively remixing the sound in your ears as you moved; and the way it didn't rely on the audience being smart or sophisticated, but merely open to what was going on. But perhaps best of all they way it was experiential, in our YouTubeable world it was something you had to be there for.

Con Club, Lewes, Thurs 26th Jan

Last time I saw Jah Wobble, as you might recall, I was much taken by much of it but found it at times straying too far into muso/fusion territory. This time he has a new album, 'Everything Is Nothing', which is essentially jazz fusion. (Improbably featuring Youth from Killing Joke and Nik Turner from Hawkwind. I bought a copy, played it once and probably will never again.) The trumpeter of that album (Sean Corby) has joined the line-up, improbably sporting a folded hankie in a smart jacket pocket, and at times they now even go in for relay soloing.

And yet, contrary soul that I am, I may have enjoyed this gig more than the last one. And I think that's down to having less of an emphasis on your actual songs, with the ones which survive counter-intuitively relegated to the second half of the set. The only Public Image song remaining is 'Public Image' itself. (Unless you count 'Fodderstompf', of which only the hook and one-line chorus are kept.) The songs that stay are mostly from the original Nineties Invaders of the Heart.

Which is really the band playing to it's strengths. As a singer Wobble is a great bass player, and the outfit simply work best not boxing themselves into song structures but spreading out. Besides, Wobble's patented patter between songs keeps the audience interaction flowing. (After one interjection the drummer bashed a cymbal.)

And the trumpeter's role proved positive. Rather than a wild card he became a calm card, pouring like cooling water over the more active bass and drums, and preventing everything getting too frenetic. I'm not sure many will have previously asked themselves what 'Socialist' would sound like with a cool jazz trumpet break in the middle of it, but the answer is surprisingly positive. Perhaps it worked through sparing use, Corby stepping to the back of the stage when not at work. You don't play all your cards at once.

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