Saturday 29 September 2018


Newhaven Fort, Sat 22nd Sept

So happily, perhaps the only music and sound art festival to be held in a Napoleonic fort got a sequel. (Actually a second sequel, alas I gormlessly missed the first occurrence.) Again it promised to “cover the cornerstones of improv, experiments, dance and noise”. With multiple events going on simultaneously, I can only concentrate on a few highlights here. Someone else’s path might not have crossed mine at all.

Most accounts I read from the last event focused on how brilliantly inappropriate it was for such an event to take over a venue based around war defences. Perhaps “make weirdo music not war” could be its slogan. But as I watched a sound installation emit spectral bleeping from the fort’s ramparts(‘Arpeggi’ by Mike Blow, handily pictured) I think I find it more splendidly appropriate.

Perhaps I just spent too much of my seventies youth watching ’Doctor Who’ and the like. But those were the days when budgets for location shooting stretched no further than Surrey, while the Radiophonic Workshop was at the show’s disposal. So the alien was often conceived of as a sonic aesthetic, strange sounds that required decoding. While the military provided the role of controlling parents, locking the weird away from us, causing us to seek it out. (Perhaps significantly, another of Blow’s installations, ’Arpeggi’, “uses hacked ex-military hardware to create music.”)

Many installations worked interactively, as what Blow called “automatic music”, collaborating with either the audience or the venue. In Adam Bastana’s ’A Room Listening To Itself’ (also handily pictured) microphones were arranged radially, to pick up from speakers. To add some audience involvement I lightly tapped one speaker, to hear a drum roll slowly spread round the room.

At other times it was the other way, the venue seemed to interpret the work for you. The sub lows of Disinformation’s ’National Grid’ were smartly located in the deep Caponier tunnels. So, while the indicia spoke of links between the grid network and the human body, I thought more of the echoes and resonances in caves which are supposed to have stimulated the first human music.

Maria Marzaioli’s ’PWM’ used four audio loops culled from improvisations. With each loop of a different length, new combinations were constantly being created. But, particularly with the use of recognisable instruments, it was almost impossible not to listen to as a ‘real’ quartet. This time the work may have influenced the setting. For I found the sound bleed (particularly between the indoor works), not distracting but enhancing of the overall effect - as if the whole festival became one meta sound art work.

The programme described Ore as the “originator of the truly singular genre Tuba Doom”. Ah, those genre tags always start off as a gag! But give it six months and at a gig you’ll run into some bozo insisting he was into Tuba Doom before anyone else. In fact, he will probably turn out to be me.

Wandering, soaking stuff up, I stumbled upon their set mid-way. A tuba and trombone player were working just slightly out of time with one another, creating an enticingly ‘bent’ effect. Already pretty minimal, that actually proved the dynamic centre of the piece as they shifted into unison for the finale. It seemed forever half-emerging out of drone, as if something shifting into view. Minimalist in the Morton Feldman sense, where the sombre meets with the serene. If music like this doesn’t progress much, it’s because it marinades. Like a fermenting spirit its taste becomes stronger and stronger.

Franco-Finnish trio Ritual Extra were similarly minimal, in fact so slow to start you wondered if they’d resolved to play only for the super-patient. (Compared to these guys, the Necks plunge straight into the deep end.) Luckily, the wait was worth it. The drummer struck his cymbals softly but so rapidly as to produce a shimmering tone. While an acoustic guitar took up a more percussive role, strumming and thwacking, as clear-voiced folk chanting sailed across the both of them.

The absolute absence of any performance element was striking, each person’s movements economically concerned only with playing. The singer sat stock still, gazing into the middle distance, shifting only his mouth.

Alas this time I missed the ending, heading off as I was to see Rhys Chatham. Who marks a different strand of Minimalism again. Having previously worked with La Monte Young, Tony Conrad and Glenn Branca, tonight he was playing alongside only himself. In ’Pythagorean Dreams’, he’d switch between guitar, flute and some kind of mini-trumpet, looping down layers of himself as he went. The effect was rather like that game where you keep placing one hand atop another, ceaselessly giving off the effect of building up to some crescendo. Minimalist and musically rich at one and the same time.

I romantically imagined each loop had some in-built half-life, so nothing decayed away but each new element added to the expanding richness of the underlying sonic loam. He was probably just fading them down himself as he went, but that’s what I liked to think.

I’d watched some vidclips of AJA (above) before the day, which at the time I dismissed as “just a performance”. And true, her noise electronica is serviceable but bog-standard beat-bashing. (Certainly nothing to compare with Ewa Justka’s merciless intensity from the last event.) But, when you see it live, you can only conclude - what a performance! This time rather than work with the setting her act burst beyond its confines. Despite playing in a small and crowded room, lacking even the most basic stage, she came on as if she had Iggy Pop in her blood.

Noise music is notoriously for being ‘manpainy’. Think of the characteristic hunched pose under hoodie and over microphone. By way of cheery contrast, AJA sports - and fully inhabits - the most outrageously flamboyant costumes, from which she engages fully with the audience. After Tuba Doom perhaps we’ve hit on another new genre - Glam Noise.

In may day, women would often tell each other the expression “nothing better than having a good cry”. Yet of course there’s something better, and her whole act seems intent on proving the inherent value in having a good scream. So, despite all the volume, or more likely because of it, it’s a wholly uplifting experience to witness. The programme described her act as “cathartic”, not a word they were using in vain. And in this day and age, it’s often appealing to discover something where you do have to be there, which isn’t YouTubeable.

Overall Fort Process is one of those labours of love and (the right kind of) lunacy, put on by afficionados for afficionados, just to see the thing happen. It’s proof corporate crap hasn’t colonised the whole of our lives just yet.

Photo of AJA from the event’s website, other snaps mine. More where they came from here.

Some proper photos from Agata Urbaniak here

Last time I managed to post a video of the previous event. So let’s keep that tradition up…

Kings Place, London, Fri 21st Sept

This concert, part of the Time Unwrapped season, focused on string-based Minimalist music.

‘Shaker Loops’ (1978) , while an early work of John Adams’, is regarded as something of a classic, and rightly so. It contains many Minimalist elements, including a basis in a pulsing beat and an ability to keep things simple. In the second movement, a double bass plucks at a solitary string at regular intervals.

Yet, perhaps in retrospect, it’s easy to hear how he was already moving into Post-Minimalism. An earlier version in Adams’ own words “crashed and burned”, partly because it restricted itself to a string quartet. Adams responded by ramping up the number of players, first to a septet and (as performed here) a full string orchestra - “thereby adding a sonic mass and the potential for more acoustical power.”

But rather than Post-Minimalist it should be thought of as Just Romantic Enough. The reference to the Shakers, a religious group from the American Pioneer days, already gives the music more of specificity than normally found in Minimalism. What amounts to a violin solo appears midway. It very much builds to a climax, even though it continues from there and ends somewhere much closer to the beginning.

And what could be more Romantic than imitation of nature? Adams has said himself the first movement in particular was inspired by the rippling of water, the surface refracting the sunlight caught by those amassed shimmering strings.

But ultimately, as is typical of him, Adams makes the unlikely combination virtuous. Much like nature, the piece belies our constructed notions of what’s simple and what’s complex and involved.

Angel’s Share by the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur, was a UK premiere. As anyone who’s seen the Ken Loach film knows, the title refers to the amount of whiskey which evaporates during distilling.

The piece is full of ideas, and has some great sections. It opens etherially, with the violins and violas creating the most disembodied sounds. Quite late on, it suddenly breaks out into a folk dance rhythm. Yet overall it didn’t hold together. I found it kept slowly losing my interest, then doing something to suddenly grab it back, only to lose it again a short while later.

While the other three composers were still with us, Perotin’s ’Viderunt Omnes’ stems from the Twelfth Century. The ensemble entered from all four corners of the auditorium already playing, and segued surprisingly neatly into Philip Glass’s Third Symphony.

Symphonies may be antithetical to the strictures of high Minimalism, and indeed Glass didn’t embark on any until the Nineties when he was already leaving that behind. (This was composed in 1995.) It does make a good companion piece to ’Shaker Loops’, there’s even a violin lead in the third movement. (The programme uses Classical terms, such as “chaconne”, which I don’t claim to understand.)

But it remains a blend rather than a break, Glass finding a sweet spot where Minimalist mantras combine with rich and resonant melodies. And the Minimalist spirit may be retained most in it’s unhurried pace, creating something stately without any pomp.

Friday 14 September 2018


(If the concept applies to Existentialist novels first published in 1945, then PLOT SPOILERS)

”Let it come! Let war come at last, let it batter at my eyes and fill them with visions of tainted, wrecked, and bleeding bodies, save me from the eternal round, from those endless weak desires, from smiles, and greenery, from buzzing flies… a fiery geyser leaps into the sky. A flame that burns the face and eyes, and seems to tear the cheeks away: let it come at last.”

“They are being taken to the slaughterhouse and they don’t realise it. They regard war as an illness. War is not an illness. It’s an abomination because it is caused by men.”

”Through these murdered streets...”

Jean-Paul Sartre set this sequel a mere two years after ’The Age of Reason’.
(Which is, ironically, about the length of time it took me to get round to reading it.) As you might expect, many of the characters from the previous novel recur. And it works within the same dramatic unities. In fact, this time they’re even tighter – the whole novel takes place within the eight days of the ill-fated Munich conference, with chapters named diary-style after the successive dates.

But the cast list of ’Age of Reason’ was relatively narrow, with few secondary characters, and with everything taking place inside Paris. Here it ventures across the map of Europe, even extending to Morocco. And in so doing introduces a whole host of new faces. Some of these only show up once, others reappear throughout. New characters are still appearing, and old ones reappearing, in the penultimate chapters. Their presence essentially usurps the tight organising principles of the predecessor book. Matthieu, last time, was clearly the protagonist – the novel started and finished with him. This time, to quote Sartre himself, “we’ll find again all the characters of ‘The Age of Reason,’but now they are lost in a crowd.”

And this changes the structure. Previously (as said last time) Sartre had been “a serial monogamist of narrative perspective, switching from the viewpoint of one character in one chapter to their being framed by the viewpoint of another in the next… [it was] impossible to be in two places at once, any more than it's possible to be in two heads at once.”

Structured as a succession of duologues, you could relatively easily reformat ‘Age of Reason’as a play. (Pointlessly, it’s true. But formally, you could do it.) This time Sartre intercuts between those many characters without warning, from one paragraph to the next,within the same paragraph or even withinthe clauses of the same sentence.

True, the accumulation of all this can present what might charitably be called a challenge to the reader. Expect to have to pay attention. Expect to scratch your head somewhat even though you are paying attention. Expect to know when to read significance into semi-colons.

It helps that Sartre’s actual writing is sharp and clear. He’s evocative and yet precise, as if he’s always able to find just the right metaphor to convey the inner workings of each character. (For example “Mother Boningue would look at him with velvety eyes and talk to him about ‘the horror of shedding blood’, waving idealist hands.”)

But also, and more importantly, there’s purpose to this. Let’s sneak up on that one slowly…

If, structurally (albeit reductively)speaking,‘Age of Reason’could be compared to a play, the temptation is to describe ‘The Reprieve’as cinematic. But the main problem with this notion is that it leadsus to think of the rapid-fire editing and cross-cutting style of our time. Whereas it’s more similar to cinematic devices of it’s day, the cross-fade and montage. In both, objects from separate spaces overlap, share the screen -one scene blurring into another. The novel itself uses a similar metaphor, through from another media, of the dial turning on a radio:

“The war – ah yes! the war. No, said Zezette, not the radio, I don’t want it, I won’t think of the war. Well, let’s have a bit of music, said Maurice. Chersau, good-b – b-r-r-r – my star – here is the news – sombreroes and mantillas – I Will Wait, at the request of Huguette Arnal, Pierre Ducroc, his wife and two daughters, Roche Danillax, Mlle Eliane of Calvi and Jean-Francois Rouquette, for his little Marie-Medeleine, and a group of typists at Tulle for their soldier sweethearts, I Will Wait, day and night, have some more bouillabaisse, no thanks, said Mathieu, something can surely be arranged, the radio crackled, sped over the white, dead squares. Smashed the windows and penetrated into the dim, humid interiors of the houses.”

(And we should remember that radio, if seen by us as old-fashioned, perhaps even antiquated, was in 1945 a relatively modern medium.)

Though at the same time, it should be emphasised how much this work remains ‘literary’. There may be a temptation to compare it to Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’, as both are post-war works, albeit different wars. But Elliot is not only more fragmentary, that fragmentary nature – the way it’s only a series of parts – is central. The inchoateness is its point. This is more like a series of short stories shuffled together. While there are ellipses, they’re no greater gaps than you’d come across in a standard novel, and they’re easy enough for the reader to step over.

And the reason for this structural change is the change in circumstances. In fact it’s given away in the quote above – war is imminent .Events are suddenly bigger than Paris, so distances correspondingly shrink. War in Czechoslovakia means war in France. The bright white mobilisation posters going up across the countryact as an objective correlative of this.

As pointed out last time that, despite it’s title ‘Age of Reason’is not about a time period. This time, semi-suggested by the title, it very much is. ’The Reprieve’ is set within the brief period when the prospect of war is raised then seems averted by handing Hitler the Sudetenland. With the absurdity of mobilising for an event which doesn’t happen, married to the absurdity of preventing a war which merely comes a little later, plans go so hopelessly awry at points it almost becomes capital-A Absurdist. (This may not be a novel for those who like a story to go somewhere.)

And with this Sartre hands us back our hindsight.There’s nothing within ‘Age of Reason’,for those who didn’t already know, to tell you which way the war went in Spain. Here prominence is given to a Hitler speech where he promises the Sudetenland marks the limit of his ambitions. Previously,as he fought for the Republicans in Spain, Gomez had been kept offstage. Here he appears, just as a character who struggled for peace dies at the moment of being introduced. Peace, of course, dies alongside him.

True, some claim the thing’s avoidable. But while Sartre pointedly neither judges nor asks for sympathy with his characters, they’re clearly presented as clueless fools. Jacques was previously a minor figurewhose main function was to truth-tell his brother Matthias. Here he has more of a role, and makes a set-piece argument against Matthias’ “prejudices” about Hitler, a classic case of the main who mistakes pontificating for wisdom. Philippe the pacifist is a privileged idealist, keen to meet ‘real’ proletarians to whom he can impart his vital message. (His plans, above all, do not reach fruition.) Only Sarah, who sees with bitter eyes her young son playing at war, has integrity.

Instead, characters frequently picture the war as if they can already see it. War ismore than imminent, it’s immanent -there in things already present. War hasn’t cast its shadow over everything so much as saturated it, a stain that even now starts to show through. Nothing can resist it, remain the same or even hope to resume it’s earlier form:

“War had come: it was there, in the depths of that luminous haze, inscribed for all to see on the walls of that frail city: it was an arrested explosion that had split the rue Royale: people passed and did not see it: but Brunet saw it. It had always been there, but people were not yet aware of it. Brunet had thought: ’The sky will fall upon our heads’. The city was in the act of falling, he had seen the houses as they really were; petrified collapse. Above that elegant shop were tons of stone, and each stone, interlocking with the rest, had been falling steadily for fifty years past; a heavier thrust and the plate-glass windows would be smashed; cartloads of stone would hurtle into the cellar, and overwhelm the stores of merchandise. They have ten-thousand-pounder bombs.”

Given this, you might be tempted to think that War brings everyone out of their insularworlds of self-examined gestures and they finally set their eyes on the bigger picture. Of course that’s become the dominant narrative of the Second World War, that it was the war which had to be fought, which united everyone, the Nazis being so uniquely evil.

And characters do sometimes run into one another, or occupy the same space. But War, crucially, brings together but doesn’tunify. These narrative strands don’t tie into one. When their paths cross, rather than threading together characters either unknowingly overlap or collide and throw up friction. But more often they juxtapose. Perhaps my favourite moment is when the Munich negotiations segue into an invalid who needs to shit.

As ever with Sartre, the frequent crowd scenes just emphasise how the responses to War are unique and internalised.War doesn’t surmount subjective responses, it precipitates them. This is summed up by the response to that two-faced Hitler speech, and again it uses the radio as a metaphor. Ella, herself Jewish, does not receive it well:

”The voice was there, enormous, the very voice of hatred: this one man versus Ella. The great plain of Germany, the mountains of France, had dissolved, he confronted her as an absolute enemy, outside space, he was threshing about in that box of his – he’s looking at me, he sees me. She turned to her mother, to Ivy: but they had suddenly receded. She could still see them but not touch them. Paris had drifted out of reach, the light from the windows fell dead upon the carpet. Contacts between people and things were imperceptibly disintegrating, she was alone in the world with that voice… He was addressing her as though they two were alone, his eyes glaring into hers.”

To listen to the radio, your mind tunes into it and consequently tunes out of the room you’re in. The room’s still there but dissociated from the sound you hear, you regard it as peripheral. Other people may be there, but we listen as if we were alone. Form and content fuse. Radio is as isolating as Hitler’s murderous intent is for Ella.

And those subjective responses vary greatly between those separatingsemi-colons.Gomez, who can no longer see outside of war, not only sees its extension to France as inevitable but welcomes it. (“He needed shouts, shrill songs, swift and violent pains, he loathed the soft atmosphere in which he lived.”) Boris, made aware of his own mortality, picks a date for his death and starts to count down to it. Maurice, loyal Communist party member, looks forward to getting – and then keeping - his gun. Daniel reassures his new wife with pacific platitudes, while inside longing for the war to arrive, a conflagration to burn away “the eternal round” of his domestic bourgeois life. (See the opening quote.)

But most significant is Matthieu. Jacques mistakenly sees in him the opposite perspective to himself, a keenness to fight. Previously, he was acutely aware he had a life but was equally aware he had no notion of how to spend it, his considerations became self-perpetuating and ultimately paralysing. So the prospect of volunteering for Spain produced in him nothing but a(nother) existential crisis. Now,he feels lifeless, devoid of agency. Significantly, he no longer lives alone but as a house guest of his brother. So he phlegmatically accepts the call-up, one decision he won’t need to make himself. And, while he’s given personalised reasons for this resigned response, his being what passes for our protagonist gives it a greater weight.

Which is quite a bizarre twist. Normally, Existentialism presupposes that consciousness compels us to make choices, hence (in the infamous phrase) we’re condemned to be free. Fighting in Spain really just provides an instance for this. But here War overrides any such compulsion. Conscription makes us history’s passengers, obediently boarding conscript trains bearing correct papers, and so offers a kind of surrender that can be easeful.

This is made most clear not by Matthieu but when French negotiator Daladier succumbs to the inevitable like a warm bath:

”He thought: ‘Things are slipping out of my grasp’. It was a kind of relief. ‘I have done everything,’ he thought, ‘to avoid war: and now war and peace are out of my hands. There was no further decision to take, nothing to do but wait; like everybody else, like the loafer at a street-corner.’ He smiled, he was that loafer, he had been stripped of his responsibilities: the position of France is clearly defined… A relief.”

”There are eyes upon me”

Novels normally divide between external and internal perspectives. Some work as reportage, delineating what happens like a diligent eyewitness, while others are psychological. We see their world from inside a character’s head, filtered through their eyes. We even ‘see’ their thoughts and impulses, as if they’re somehow projected in front of us, like at a planetarium.

Traditionally novels stick to one or the other of these modes, not normally shifting the audience’s seats mid-show. Moreover, Sartre - and Existentialist writers in general - are considered psychological – less concerned with what happens than with their characters’ motivations. And indeed, page after page can go by where characters do nothing except think.

Yet, not content with just his sudden narrative leaps, Sartre shifts between these perspectives without warning. When Hannequin is called up, the novel faithfully reports his planning with his wife the minutiae of what he needs to take and what to carry it in. Yet after his wife leaves him alone in the train carriage, he becomes contemplative and the mode shifts...

“The young man and the woman are still on the platform… he too has been called up. They have ceased to talk; they are looking at each other. And I look at their hands, good hands that wear no wedding-rings…. Doors are slammed, they do not hear: they no longer look at each other, they no longer need to, in their inmost selves they are together.”

The empty fraudulence of his relationship is exposed by contrast to the truth of another. Only then can it be seen. And there’s a variant on this when Maurice and his girlfriend are talking to Party leader Brunet, and he catches sight of another group. Except this time it’s themselves he sees, reflected in glass:

“A dark window mirrored their reflections: Maurice saw a woman without a hat, and a tall strapping fellow with a cap on the back of his head, bursting out of his jacket, talking to a gentleman.”

In other words he becomes self-objectifying, he sees himself – and those he’s with – as though they were others. And the contemplated self inevitably becomes the split self, the contemplator detached from the contemplated. This is mostly developed in the returning character Daniel:

“He was sick of… looking at himself; especially as, when I look at myself, I am two people. I want to be: in the unseeing darkness.”

And this inevitably gets attached to notions of morality. We might be more loathe to, for example, push into a queue if we can picture ourselves as others would see us. And this in itself becomes bound up with the concept of an all-seeing God. And so, after no hint of this in the first book, we find he has taken to religion. (Notably when the day-derived chapters reach Sunday, he’s the only character to be found in Church.) He looks at another penitent:

“An eye sees him – sees his hard heart, as I see his hands, sees his greed, as I see his straggling hair, and the patch of pity that gleams through his avarice, as his skull gleams through his hair: all this he knows as he turns the thumbed pages of his missal, and says with a groan: ‘Lord, Lord, I am a miser.’ The Medusa’s petrifying gaze will fall upon him from above… Here am I as thou hast made me, a vile coward, irredeemable. Thou lookest at me, and all hope departs: I am weary of my efforts to escape myself. I shall enter, I shall stand along those kneeling women, like a monument of iniquity. I shall say: ‘I am Cain. Well? Thou hast made me, now sustain me.’ Marcelle’s look, Mathieu’s look, Bobby’s look, my cats’ look: they always stopped sort at my skin.”

Daniel’s philosophy distils into the Descartes-distorting “I am seen, therefore I am”: “I’ve always done everything for the benefit of an eye-witness. A man evaporates without an eye-witness.”

While Matthieu, very much an author surrogate, goes through a similar crisis but is specified as an atheist. There’s the same outside perspective, but no-one to inhabit it but himself:

“There lay his hands on the white parapet: bronze hands they seemed, as he looked at them. But, just because he could look at them, they were no longer his, they were the hands of another, they were outside, like the trees, like the reflection shimmering in the Seine: severed hands… ‘I am free for nothing,’ he reflected wearily. Not a sign in the sky, nor on the earth, the things of this world were too utterly immersed in the war that was theirs.”

Sartre wasn’t merely an atheist, he placed this at the heart of his philosophy. We are born not made, which means we do not come with any factory defaults. Whatever we do, it must come from our own choices. It’s from this basic, inescapable fact of life that the whole “condemned to be free” business stems. Deferring to God is not wrong because it feigns a presence out of an absence, but because it defers our responsibilities from ourselves out into the void.

And, particularly with ‘Age of Reason’ essentially being resolved by a conversation between Daniel and Matthieu, I wondered if this book would conclude with their finally meeting and engaging in some knock-out debate.

As it happens Daniel writes Matthieu a letter, which he doesn’t get round till reading till already aboard the conscript train. He reads  for a few pages about the gaze of God, before muttering “stale trash” and throwing the thing out the window.

I guess that settles that.

Coming in another two years! The third book of the trilogy...

Saturday 8 September 2018


The Green Door Store, Brighton, Thurs 6th Sept

Comprised of two cellos and a double bass, the basis of the Brain Dead Ensemble is drone-like strumming. Never a bad thing in the book of Lucid Frenzy. But, while never really breaking from that basis, they could throw the strangest things into the mix. At the time I had assumed the chap on laptop was live-processing the sounds, but it seems the three players were doing this themselves. As they explain...

“Two feedback cellos a feedback bass and a Threnoscope are plugged together to form a multi-instrument, multi-channel system. The feedback cellos and bass are DIY electro-acoustic-digital resonator instruments. Each instrument has pickups under each of its strings and transducers built into the acoustic instrument body, inducing electromagnetically-controlled feedback which can be digitally processed.”

(I hope someone else followed that. Me, they could have just said “because of magic”.) It leads to a visual as well as a sonic beguiling, you naturally expect standard-looking instruments to come up with standard sounds, and when they don’t that adds to the overall eerie effect. It sounded simultaneously a force of nature which would never end, and an ever-evolving and absolutely unpredictable series of shifts and changes. 

You soon didn’t feel like you were in the room listening to the music but were inside the music, with the room not reappearing till the end. At one point the strings seemed accompanied by organ swells which were almost churchy.

The Threnoscope, from what I gather, was providing a visual infographic of the music in real time. As coloured segments shifted and floated around inside concentric circles, I wasn’t really sure how it mapped the music, but that might not matter. Not being any kind of timeline, but more capturing moment-to-moment transitions, it caught the immediate spirit of the music. As well as the Ensemble’s… well, ensemble nature. As they put it, “No one is in control, although everyone is playing.”

And that Brian Dead part of the name? Though they don’t dress up as George Romero extras, it’s perfectly fitting. People seem strangely convinced dance music is the last possible word in anti-cerebralism, in abandon. Yet it’s based on keeping in time, which in practice means maths. Whereas this is the sort of music which most allows you to, in the time-honoured phrase, turn off your mind, relax and flat downstream.

This from an earlier gig of theirs…

Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 5th Sept

With his brother RZA, GZA was for all intents and purposes the backbone of the legendary Wu-Tang Clan. And ‘Liquid Swords’, effectively a collaboration but released as his solo album, is often thought of the finest Wu-Tang releases, and even one of the finest albums of hip-hop.

It’s appeal may be in the combination of obsessiveness with crazy, an almost blistering intensity runs with a willingness to throw together different sonic elements which is recklessly cavalier.(Just as it lyrically shifts from street life scenes from Staten Island to metaphysical ruminations about God, literally without missing a beat.)

The only other Wu-Tang member I’ve seen was Ghostface Killah, 
whose performance was very. To this day I am not sure exactly how it was very, but I do know it was very. Possibly very very. GZA, conversely, was not very.

The counter to Ghostface Killah’s circus of guest stars, this was a stripped-down affair which focused on him. Yet he seemed an uninvolved figure, with even the talking to the audience business delegated to an MC. It as almost as if he’d become his own karaoke tribute.

It was very much a classic tracks set. (I’ve heard little from recent years, and still knew most of it.) Whether GZA no longer feels attached to those old numbers, or whether he’s simply not a live act is more than I can tell you.

Yet he seemed to go down a storm with everyone else. I can’t help but wonder sometimes if popular music has become heraldic. Seeing the main man from the Wu-Tang Clan has become like those holidaymakers who trek to Angkor Wat, take a quick selfie of themselves in front of it then head to the nearest bar. It’s bucket list living, not about enjoying the experience but being able to say you were there. Alternately, it may just be me who’s a grumpy old git. Either seems possible...

An engaged-seeming audience from Bristol…

Saturday 1 September 2018


Concorde 2, Brighton, Thurs 23rd Aug

So I finally catch up with Ozomatli live, even if it took their twentieth anniversary tour for Mr. Tardy here to do it. Describing the band’s actually easy for once, as they’ve done it themselves and it’s even placed upfront on their Wikipedia page. Locating their sound in their native Los Angeles, they say:

’You drive down Sunset Boulevard and turn off your stereo and roll down your windows and all the music that comes out of each and every different car, whether it's salsa, cumbia, merengue, or Hip Hop, funk or whatever, it's that crazy blend that's going on between that cacophony of sound is Ozomatli, y’know?”

As band members ceaselessly swap instruments the shifts and turns in musical style make for a gig that always feels like it’s being propelled forward, while always coming across as organic and arising from the players rather than being self-consciously eclectic.

They have a reputation as a political outfit, initially intending to form (I kid not) a workers’ union. This doesn’t much come over live, bar the occasional quick intro to a song. It does seem a little strange to find that a band best known for their live shows should omit what seems an integral element. But then there is something appealing about music that’s political and good-timey. Given the state of things, there’s plenty to be angry about and of course we have a right to that anger. But we’ve got the right to celebrate resistance as well.

Though it’s quite a different style of music, the gig echoes something I came across when seeing Goat, 
unrelenting energy levels; “The gig's pretty much at… fever pitch the whole way through. They're quite unrelentingly up.” In fact so irrepressible is the band’s spirit, that when a phantom hum invades the PA they decide what key it’s in, and instantly start jamming around it. Complete with a vocal which plaintively wonders “where could that hum be coming from?” It actually proves a highlight of their set, so maybe they should request hums more often.

For the closer, as I believe is a tradition of their shows, they pick up their gear and relocate to various points in the auditorium. As they moved they’d trail audience members behind then, snaking in a great conga.

A slightly random clip, but a good one of the band on home turf…

Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Brighton, Mon 27th Aug

Qujaku are self-described as “Japanese rock band [playing] psychedelic gothic dark shoe gaze [with] post rock vibes”, and are fronted (slightly inexplicably) by a lookalike for late Seventies Bowie.

They seem to wait before starting up, as if channelling something. They then go into a slow, soundscapey intro with a bowed… uh, bowed something and rung bells. Though the thumping riffs then drop, this intro kind of permeates the rest of the gig and gives proceedings a ritual feel.

Riffs are somewhat like houseguests. They’re going to stick around for a while, so you want to be sure not to pick the wrong one. Qujaku display a talent for finding mantra riffs, the sort of riff you want to hear over and over again. Their riff repository is also satisfyingly varied, from the slow and pounding to the agitated.

But they’re also adept at curveballing riffs, first getting them white-hot and then bending them into different shapes. At such points the second guitarist then turns back to the bowing or starts to pound a drum. It’s the upside of heavy riffing married to the upside of post-rock, giving a shot to your reptile and a stimulus to your Cro-Magnon brain.

The Bowie lookalike concludes the noise-fest by blowing a kiss to the assembled throng. Slightly inexplicably. In a good way.

The only real drawback of the set - and I know I always say this - is that there wasn’t enough of it. These aren’t short, snappy songs, the numbers are like potions you need to leave stewing in the cauldron awhile. But, with two support acts, they played for less than an hour. Bands have a natural set length determined by their music, which can’t be reduced to a meaningless mean. Sunn O))) played for two hours, 
which didn’t seem too long. Qujaku don’t necessarily need that sort of length, but they operate on timescales which take more than an hour.

This vid starts just as the intro section ends…

Cafe Oto, London, Fri 31st Aug

So next I was off to see a gig dominated by electronic hums and pulses. If Ozomatli had intruded with their Latino-tuned trumpets, the circle would have been completed. But they must have been busy elsewhere…

To try and explain Tim Shaw by a distinction, he’s quiet different to Cosmo Sheldrake, 
who assigned samples the respective roles of instruments. In fact Sahw's set did not, I don’t think, include any musical samples. But it did, I think, include organic sounds, albeit heavily treated. The effect become more like coloured shapes on various pieces of transparency paper, being shifted, shuffled and overlaid in different combinations. It produces new shapes and colours, until you’ve forgotten what you started off with.

Shaw’ set wasn’t divided into movements, as in classical music, but passed through distinct sections. While Phill Niblock performed five quite separate pieces, even if he ran them all together. Though there are those who claim this music to be samey, each piece was quite distinct in character. (Some more than others, as we’ll get onto.)

Despite each piece inevitably being shorter, they were much slower to evolve - at times feeling like their evolution was happening in Darwinian time. Duration became part of the experience.

His music’s comprised of murky drones and rumbles he refers to collectively as “tones”. Each one seems straightforward in itself, though blurry at the edges. It’s in the interchange between then at the magic happens, as subtle shifts come to have magnified effects. It all seems poised at the borderline between the liminal and subliminal, where you can’t quite perceive what he’s doing.

Where people go wrong, I think, is assume this is some sonic backdrop, an aural mulch out of which flowers will appear if you wait. But it’s in that ‘backdrop’ where it all happens. The metaphor of stepping into a darkened room, and the initial monotone revealing more and more shades and distinctions the longer you stay, I’ve used that many times by this point. But it’s the best metaphor I can think of, so it’s getting recycled again!

As often with drone-based music, what sounds rough and atonal can tip over into the serene. In fact in his second piece this was given centre stage, and the effect was quite tranquil. The music seemed to shimmer rather than move. Some of those tones may even have started life as notes - yes, actual notes!

But it was the fourth piece which was the densest, and perhaps the most rewarding. Broad rumbles provided perhaps not a backdrop but a surround for sharper sounds. It became like a sandpaper raga.

These four pieces already lasting over an hour, I figured we’d had our lot. Yet Niiblock started a fifth. It commenced with rumbles so low, so faint they could have been coming from the next room. Fifteen minutes later, with the room now mostly empty, I started to wonder whether this was going anywhere after all, and cut my losses. Are those that persevered still there now? We may never know.

Nibloch, who started as a film-maker, normally plays to a film show. Apart from the somewhat eccentric closer, this was the night’s only weak point. Reportage film of what looked like South Sea Islanders was too distinct, too of something to work with the more mysterious, suggestive music. (And yes, with Johanna Bramli I liked the visual but not the music - truly, there’s no fully pleasing me!) Before the show, a series of stills which looked to be from the same source were flashed up. With their merest hints of narrative connection, they may have worked better than a continuous film.

Precisely what makes this music appealing is precisely what makes it challenging to review. If you heard these pieces at different times, you’d not just react differently you’d quite likely actually hear them in a different way. The effect becomes individual and introspective.

Again, a fairly random clip. But again, worth watching…