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.
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.
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 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.