And so this two-day long event, with the finest exponents from all over the world, drew to an exciting finale in front of an extremely knowledgeable crowd. Yes, I’m still talking about the world snooker final, when I should be talking about the Freedom Of The City festival. Twelve hours of snooker, er, I mean, improvised music may be quite a daunting thought, but there was enough variation in the programme in terms of instrumentation and approach to keep interest levels high throughout both days.
You had to be there in time for the first session. The opening exchanges between saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Mark Sanders were possibly the most anticipated of the entire festival, and rightly so. There was no safety, all attack. And plenty of close listening. The constant ability of the duo to quickly react and pick sounds that complemented each other was extraordinary, from harmonics with bowed cymbals, to saxophone pops with bells, to breath with brushed snare. The last of those was a real moment, with a quiet eastern-flavoured soprano melody buried deep within the airy rush. A magnificent performance, I’d love to hear a recording.
A number of sets featured electronics today, starting with the performance of Eddie Prevost with Jennifer Allum, Grundik Kasyansky and David O’Connor. This was a real surprise; with Prevost restricting himself to bowing cymbals and gong, Allum scraping at her violin, O’Connor mainly adding breathy textures, and Kasyansky playing with contact mics and rubble, this sounded like an excellent slice of dark ambient. When grainy clips of short wave radio burst into the mix, this sounded totally haunted and even like something that the Miasmah label would release.
More electronics: after an interminable wait while they set up their equipment, the performance of FURT was notable for drummer Philip Marks’s hyperkinetic fit on the drumstool (imagine George Dawes but with…actually, just imagine George Dawes), for Adam Bohman’s mad scientist air (a brick being rubbed on a can of Special Brew was my favourite “found sound” of the weekend), for Ute Wasserman’s incredible vocal dexterity (operative wail to harmonics and back) but above all for the overpowering volume of the crunching sound emanating from Paul Obermayer’s laptop. The Paul Abbott/Frédéric Blondy/Ute Kanngiesser trio started (thankfully) quietly, but ended up setting cello drone and bowed piano strings against vibrating and whining electronics in a manner which pleased me greatly. The following performance was dominated by the capers of Pascal Battus, holding microphones up to his neck to record a pulse, adding to the horror-movie effect created by ghastly metallic sounds and spooked fragments of piano.
A couple of stellar lineups bookended the afternoon session, which began with the Stellari String Quartet. John Edwards was a name conspicuous by its absence in the programme so far, given the way he’ll drag his bass around London to improvise with pretty much anyone; but finally here he was, along with violinist Philip Wachsmann (who I’d recently seen perform with Mats Gustafsson), Charlotte Hug on viola and Marcio Mattos on cello. Given the instrumentation used, this drew as much from classical as jazz traditions, with thoughtfully intertwined violin and viola lines supported by substantial foundations provided by the bigger instruments. However on a couple of occasions Edwards propelled them to frustratingly brief sections of frantic interplay, thumping on his bass as he did so.
The festival was brought to a close by a second, and very different performance by Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith. The melancholic mood of the previous night was replaced by fiery improvisation in a large group context, with fractured guitar eruptions from John Coxon, piano and cosmic electronics from Pat Thomas, clarinet from Alex Ward (who looked like he had wandered on stage from the set of a John Hughes film), and some slightly more conventional drumming from Paul Lytton after his junkshop rummage yesterday. All were keen to push each other into strange new places, with Ward sucking on mouthpieces while Coxon banged on the back of his guitar, Lytton scraping on metal while Thomas added shimmering drones. From nowhere, after hours of hearing people striving to avoid conventionality, Coxon happened upon a chord sequence, and Thomas a piano melody, and Wadada sailed in on top with a lovely section of muted trumpet. My ears soaked this up like a dried sponge does water. This was a good place for the event to end – for not even Freedom Of The City can escape the clutches of THE MAN and his rules with a strictly enforced 11pm curfew limiting the encore to a one second burst of ruptured noise. Perhaps THE MAN was concerned for our mental health after having heard so much challenging, sometimes perplexing, and sometimes mindblowing music. Or perhaps THE MAN was just very keen to make sure that we got home in time for the end of the snooker final (I did, thanks).