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.

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