Hauschka with Hildur Gudnadottir and ISAN at Kings Place 26/02/10

Bubbly Blue and Green

When I arrived at Kings Place the walls had been freshly decorated with fish and bubbles. I was entering the venue on day two of Arctic Circle‘s Bubbly Blue and Green festival, day one having already seen the venue play host to the combined talents of Philip Jeck and Janek Schaefer. For this second event, German pianist Hauschka was to be paired with the sublime cellist (and now Touch artist) Hildur Gudnadottir, with support provided by ISAN.

Given that the members of ISAN operate out of Copenhagen and, erm, Southend, you can imagine that they don’t play together very often. In fact last time I saw them/him they/he were/was a one-piece, with Robin Saville commandeering the name for his own ambient purposes. Tonight as a duo they were responding to the watery theme via their use of a “dripsaphone” in the construction of their music. This was a device which dripped water onto…well I couldn’t see exactly, but it sounded like a lovely amplified boink of water on china to me. At about this point I realised that this was the first time I’ve actually been in Kings Place’s Hall One. I’m usually in Hall Two or some tiny wee room (by wee room I don’t mean toilet, although some are not much bigger than that) watching skronky improv or something. With its lights glowing through slatted wood it looks like a (very) scaled down version of Amsterdam’s marvellous Muziekgebouw, with a similar attention to acoustic detail. Every sound ISAN produced was rendered so crisply, I started to feel I was in a nice bath, with the hot water tap dripping on my toe. And, I guess, that was the problem with the set – it was just too warm and too nice. The only cold, hard edges were those on the visuals, with rusting ferries and industrial complexes looming large amongst icy landscapes. Half way through they dispensed with the dripsaphone, as it required them to play too quietly, but even after that they didn’t manage to scale any snow-covered heights, just snowploughed gently along in retro-tinged electronica furrows, with only the occasional flurry of gentle glitch or woozy synth raising the heartbeat.

Those familiar with Volker Bertelmann’s recorded works as Hauschka may have been not entirely prepared for the darkness that was to follow, but I thought that the combination of his prepared piano with Hildur Gudnadottir’s cello was very special indeed. Bertelmann played a few solo pieces first, scattering all manner of devices across the strings, deadening the sound and turning his instrument into something more like a tuned percussion device. Delicious metallic rattles pervaded the pieces, like tiny men being woken by alarm clocks to start their jobs as tiny pneumatic drillers. Bertelmann reached into the back of his instrument like a mechanic under the bonnet, fiddling with strings, before sitting back down to play frantic cross-handed sections which sent notes flapping into the auditorium like shredded fan belt sections.

Before Hauschka was joined on stage by Hildur, Bertelmann took the time to explain how the aquatic theme had influenced what they were about to do. Apparently they decided to work from a set of Pantone colours which they had picked to represent the sea, using them as diving boards from which to leap off into their collaborative waters: blues, greens, turquoise and white. Right from the first of their six pieces, the influence of the cellist was apparent: she was to drag Hauschka out into much darker, more threatening waters. Swaying from side to side, her bow carved a wave across the strings. Her cello had a mournful voice-like quality, a sailor talking about the the loss of his ship in a storm perhaps, and forced Bertellman to take a different approach to his instrument; slower and more textural. Playing soft, pulsing patterns he rocked the boat with extra notes and missing notes, and caressed the strings with strands of cat gut or mermaid hair or something. Back inside his piano he produced some splintering-hull creaks, before unleashing a torrent of raindrops from the keys. While the preceding pieces were no more than semi-improvised, the closing encore piece (an homage to a death scene in Luc Besson’s Big Blue) was clearly very new to both, yet was all the better for it. It benefitted from a sense of mutual support, that their long, deep notes had limbs entwined around each other, that if either of them faltered they would be lost to the depths; it was so intense that I almost forgot to breathe. A magnificent end to a suitably deep, dark and mysterious performance.

Matthew Shipp with J Spaceman, John Coxon and Steve Noble at Cafe Oto, 13/02/10

Matthew Shipp

Over the years, New York pianist Matthew Shipp has been involved with such a diverse set of projects that a three night residency at Cafe Oto could barely scratch the surface. From his experimentations with electronics and hip-hop on his own Blue Series label, to the avant-garde improvisations with the Treader collective helmed by Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, through collaborations with masters such as David S Ware and Roscoe Mitchell, he has covered more ground than most. The other two nights of this London stay was to take in performances with great local improvisers such as Paul Dunmall, John Edwards, Mark Sanders and John Butcher, while this second night featured the Spiritualized pairing of Jason Pierce and John Coxon, with the commanding figure of Steve Noble on drums

This night was something of an oddity in that Shipp wasn’t billed as playing piano. Instead, he spent the entire set – or rather, two sets with no gap in between – behind a Farfisa. He opened in a duo with Jason Pierce, or J Spaceman as he likes to call himself, on guitar. Reprising ideas from their SpaceShipp project, they were to spend around half an hour producing unrelenting waves of wah-wah and keyboard drone. This quickly went from enjoyable to Tony Conrad-style endurance test, before ending up being actually quite interesting – the subtle inflections in tone, slight shifts of feet on pedals, infrequent chord changes began to take on the status of significant events. There was a real sense of scientific exploration, colliding tones and clusters against each other to see what would spark off. As Shipp kneaded away at his keys, like a cat padding a blanket, it made me think of those Miles Davis gigs where he wouldn’t play trumpet, and would instead just bang on a keyboard with his elbow. And like those Miles Davis experiments, you have to lay aside your preconceptions and accept it for what it is – sure, you’re not seeing one of the world’s greatest trumpeters or pianists demonstrating the full spectrum of their talents – but is it, on its own terms, something worth hearing? In both cases, the answer is an undoubted yes.

John Coxon

When Noble and Coxon entered, I was very interested to see how they would get involved with this monolithic slab of noise and take it somewhere else. Sadly they didn’t get a chance to engage; Shipp brought the edifice crashing down with a flurry of chords. For the rest of the set, he was to lock horns with the energetic Noble, who was remarkably keen to push the piece into highly rhythmic places – being bass free, it never really swung or got funky, just pulsed frantically. Noble was to dig into his bag of toys, scattering cymbals and bells on his kit to give them some new sounds to work against. The squalling guitars of Coxon and Pierce were mainly providing texture, filling in the space between the deep organ drone and the high-pitched salvo of cymbal and rimshots which the drummer was tossing out. Pierce continued to scrub at his strings, while Coxon was the more experimental, scraping his fingers down the strings and producing some unconventional Bailey-like noises. At the centre of all this, Shipp was rampaging all over his keys, clearly relishing the way that the choice of instrument – and Noble in particular – was pushing him into places outside his comfort zone.

J Spaceman, Steve Noble, John Coxon

Carl Craig with Francesco Tristano, Moritz von Oswald and David Brutti; Matmos; and Bugge Wesseltoft with Henrik Schwarz at the Royal Festival Hall, 12/02/10

Moritz von Oswald

What an extraordinarily heavyweight lineup for an event, and what a place to hold it. The choice of the Royal Festival Hall for this Red Bull Music Academy show seemed to be an overt indication that this was not to be your typical dance music event. In fact quite often this couldn’t even be described as dance music at all, which certainly seemed to confuse a number of those present, many of whom got a bit over excited on the very few occasions someone triggered a straight rhythm. Over the course of the evening, innovators mixed techno and electronica with jazz, avant-garde classical and art-rock, as if this was the most natural thing in the world, resulting in fascinating new forms which – naturally – appealed to me very much indeed.

Bugge Wesseltoft

The opening set from Bugge Wesseltoft and Henrik Schwarz was as conventional as it got, which is saying something given that it began with Wesseltoft up to his elbows inside his piano, grabbing handfuls of strings. It settled nicely into something akin to a Biosphere piece, with Schwarz adding unusual textures and repetitive rhythms. The second piece collected some improvised piano and a rubbery kraut-funk, with echoes of early Tortoise, before Schwarz, to the delight of a whooping audience, dropped a whopping 4/4 beat. From here on in, it all felt like it was lacking a bit of subtlety, and even Wesseltoft’s switch to Fender Rhodes sounded like an obvious attempt to order some Bitches Brew on draught.

Matmos

There was nothing obvious about Matmos as they set about constructing a piece from cymbals, sampled breath and handclaps in front a backdrop of squirming body horror. Nor about their cover of Terry Riley’s Sunrise Of The Planetary Dream Collector made from bells, whistles and tuning forks – oh, and then guitar. Their intelligent blend of classical and electronics, with a joyous New York post-disco pop savvy, at times brought to mind Arthur Russell, but the astonishing and unexpected finale was straight from that same city’s Glenn Branca/Sonic Youth school, with M.C Schmidt slapping at the instrument on the table, producing crunching waves of feedback. Into this, Drew Daniel fed a variety of abstract synth shapes and squiggles, the piece finally fracturing and decaying into the vast hall. There was something commendably contrary, even subversive, in the way that the pair defied the expectations of the audience, creating something at once unrecognisable and yet unmistakably Matmos.

Carl Craig and David Brutti

Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald’s superb Recomposed, in which they reconfigure pieces by Ravel and Mussorgsky, is a record which has gradually forced its way into my affections in the years since its release. Its clever use of non-obvious samples from the famous Bolero and Pictures From An Exhibition, and its binding of them onto their techno templates, resulted in an intelligent and slow-building suite which seemed to be breaking new ground. This set demonstrated a determination to push on even further, by adding the classical pianist Francesco Tristano and the saxophonist David Brutti to their lineup. What followed mixed the pre-determined classical progressions of Recomposed with the looser, improvisational feel of last year’s Moritz von Oswald Trio record, to create a sound world wholly unfamiliar. It flowed compellingly from an introduction of hushed electronics through sections of growling free jazz, piano improvisations and minimalist rhythms, lingering delightfully in the boundaries. Everything was subsumed into this collective newness: apart from some MPC stabs from Craig, it was impossible to tell where he ended and where the statuesque von Oswald began, their Detroit and Berlin sounds truly blurred; likewise any time Brutti or Tristano began to dominate, they would be instantly thrown a curve ball, an off-kilter bassline or some strange syncopation dragging them back in. Though by no means inaccessible, indeed one rhythmic drop accompanied by some left-hand funk from Tristano had someone scurrying from their seat to dance at the feet of the disdainful-looking von Oswald, the piece’s many subtleties felt too much to take in one sitting. I hope someone was recording this.

Far too soon, someone appeared on stage to tell them to start winding things up, to be answered with a burst of angry electronics and some ferocious sax skronk, before Craig and von Oswald wound the piece to a delicate resolution. Craig, Tristano and Brutti took applause centre stage, while a fragile-looking von Oswald beamed from the side of the stage. Regardless of their expectations, it seemed that all present agreed that it had been a privilege to watch these innovators in the act of invention.

A Broken Consort, Crow Autumn (Tompkins Square); Autumn Grieve, Stray Birds (Corbelstone Press)

Crow AutumnStray Birds

The version of A Broken Consort’s Crow Autumn just released by Tompkins Square is a new version of Richard Skelton’s Crow Autumn, or rather it’s a new version of the Crow Autumn and Crow Autumn 2 recordings (previously released on his own Sustain Release label), reworked into a cohesive and well-balanced whole, with a new piece on the end. While I’ve already eulogised about the Crow Autumn 2 tracks, their successful repackaging and recontextualising here as part of a bigger work makes the new LP edition a must-have for me. In marked contrast to this dense instrumental fare, the music and poetry label which Skelton runs with Canadian singer-songwriter Autumn Grieve has just released a marvellous and delicate slice of folk music by Grieve; one which should have appeal beyond those with an interest in the Skelton catalogue.

It was under the A Broken Consort name that Skelton released his Box Of Birch masterpiece (although even that was probably topped by the recent Landings), and Crow Autumn continues down the same dark, thicketed path. Raw violin drones drift slowly, snagging additional layers of strings (and earth, and wood), parting to reveal elegiac themes, which are worked to the point of fragmentation. The original Crow Autumn was one haunting twenty-minute track, full of ghostly echo and traces of voice, but here it has been pared down to half of that length and divided into three sections. It serves as a gradual lead-in to the bracing heights of the latter part of the album, the hopeful “Day Reveals” giving way to the quivering, weeping “A Mercy Kill”. After this, the three (previously) Crow Autumn 2 tracks have an unsettling intensity, feeling like an obsessive revisiting of old ground, still digging for meaning, walking in circles in search of an elusive release. Scraped violin lines repeat and repeat and repeat, while a piano remorselessly marks time in the background. It builds to a crescendo during the centrepiece “The River”, in which a cello wails a three note phrase across the moors, before gradually descending back down. There is no better guide to these landscapes, physical and emotional, than Richard Skelton.

I recently took possession of another intriguing package: an edition of 31, personalised, wrapped in straw, sealed with wax, containing music and a book of poetry. Despite outward appearances, this isn’t a new Richard Skelton album, although he has added piano and strings to it – and, clearly had some input into the packaging. This is a new album by Autumn Grieve on her and Skelton’s Corbelstone Press label. Packaging aside, if it weren’t for that nagging, tolling piano in “Within Hollows”, and an occasional violin squeak, you wouldn’t have guessed Skelton was involved at all. Understated arrangements rightly leave the focus on the voice of Canadian singer-songwriter Grieve, a voice which tends to the gossamer-light end of the folk spectrum – I’ve read comparisons to Sandy Denny, but Linda Perhacs or Vashti Bunyan would be closer to the mark (luckily, I’m a big fan of both). Stray Birds is the second release in an elemental suite, focusing loosely this time on air, after the earth of Terra Infinita, and the six tracks have a suitably open, minimalist feel to them. In fact, the more minimalist the better, as the sparsest piece on here, “Shades” is the most affecting, Grieve’s fragile voice leaping up to hang on some delicate high notes. I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve done Grieve some disservice by lazily bolting this review onto the back of something about a very different Skelton piece: this is something worthy of investigation on its own beguiling terms.

Peter Brötzmann, John Edwards and Steve Noble at Cafe Oto, 30/01/10

Peter Brotzmann

Just look at a partial section of the list of people that Peter Brötzmann has played with over the course of his career to date: Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, Derek Bailey, Sonny Sharrock, Andrew Cyrille, Keiji Haino, Rashied Ali, John Zorn, Evan Parker…the very best of the very best. To that list can now be added the London-based rhythm engine of John Edwards and Steve Noble. Edwards was the fulcrum of the first two nights of Brötzmann’s three day residency at Cafe Oto, which also saw Tony Marsh, Pat Thomas and Roland Ramanan sharing the stage with the legendary German saxophonist. He must be one of the most in-demand bass players in the world, and he seems to relish the challenge of being dropped in against absolutely anyone, but Edwards’s long-standing partnership with Noble really seems to bring out the best in their respective games. That was to be the case tonight, with even the fiery Brötzmann at times having to stand back and admire the quality of their work.

It wasn’t obvious that that was going to be how it would pan out when Brötzmann opened on tenor, with the first of several torrential solos reducing Noble and Edwards to mere background rumble. The timbre was typically (and gloriously) ragged, with huge reed-gnawing vibrato and excursions way off the top of the instrument’s natural register. But it was when Brötzmann took his first breather that things began to change. Edwards stepped up to take a masterful solo, grabbing huge handfuls of string, and singing along to accompany his playing. When Noble joined him, he displayed the full wealth of his experience (he studied with a Nigerian master drummer, and played in a gamelan ensemble), beating the drums with his hands, scattering cymbals on his kit, and then launching into an astonishing display of African polyrhythms. The two knitted back together instinctively into some call and response phrases and lurching, abstract shapes that recalled Autechre more than jazz. It was a relief that when Brötzmann returned to finish the first half that he did so on clarinet which, even though he played it far louder than anyone else probably can, allowed us to hear the pair behind him. Some bent notes and exotic-sounding scales on that instrument merged with the drones of Edwards’s arco bass-playing to end the first set on a fascinating low-key note.

The second set was very different and allowed Brötzmann to demonstrate why he belongs in the premier league of post-Ayler saxophonists. It began with Noble lazily tapping out patterns on cymbals with the end of his drumsticks, and Edwards swaying with his eyes closed, before Brötzmann kicked the piece into a higher gear, wailing away on clarinet like a flock of panicked geese. The rhythm section locked together in a deep groove, rolling through to a duo section of tight near-funk. Brötzmann heightened the atmosphere further by switching back to some rasping tenor blasts, Noble and Edwards scurrying to keep up, before they dropped out altogether. This left Brötzmann to demonstrate that – as was the case with Ayler – behind all the storm and bluster resides a saxophonist who can really play. He delivered a stunning solo of growling melody and searing emotion, humming along in harmony as he did. The response from the crowd was rapturous, which seemed to humble even this most intimidating of musicians. His brief visit to London may be over, but I suspect he’ll be back before too long – not just because of the deserved ovation he received, but because there can’t be too many pick-up rhythm sections of the calibre of Edwards and Noble around the world.

Noble, Edwards, Brotzmann