The Whale Watching Tour, The Barbican, 27/09/10

Grey heron

There can’t be many labels with a more collaborative roster of artists than Bedroom Community. While Valgeir Sigurðsson may have founded the imprint, all four of the artists on this tour (Valgeir Sigurðsson, Nico Muhly, Ben Frost and Sam Amidon) have appeared on each others records, despite their seemingly very different musical reference points: Muhly’s modern classical, Amidon’s ancient folk, Frost’s dark noise, and Sigurðsson’s warm electronic soundscapes. Four musical elements; air, earth, fire and water. This collective spirit was further demonstrated tonight, all four spending most of the performance together on stage, supplemented by string trio and trombone, reworking tracks from each other’s albums. While sometimes this resulted in jarring contrasts (Frost’s scabrous textures probably didn’t need Muhly’s incongruously chirpy announcements), mostly these disparate elements came together to create something quite unique.

Nico Muhly’s arrangements of the pieces performed by Sam Amidon were stunning. Between the two of them they managed to entirely deconstruct old American folk songs, rebuilding them under a contemporary scaffolding. The apocalyptic “I See The Sign” featured Amidon repeatedly working on phrases, loosening them from their historical context, while Muhly scribbled jagged string accents on top. I’ve discussed the phenomenal “The Only Tune” before, but each time I hear it is seems to become more exquisitely detailed; as if the breastbone fiddle of the song’s theme is slowly becoming a Stradivarius. It is a perfect marriage of substance and form: lyrics about dismemberment and repurposing being themselves dissected and reassembled, the song dissolving to dust and being reconstituted from bare elements. Muhly’s arrangements achieve all this and more, with other members of the collective on hand to add dissonant, haunted howls and shrieks, the menacing-looking Ben Frost sharpening knives at the front of the stage.

The live collaboration also lent Frosts’s own pieces additional density and power. They opened the show with a sombre, creeping version of “Theory Of Machines”, Muhly hammering on one piano note and Amidon slashing at one guitar chord, before they dropped in strings and Frost’s bass. Even more intense were the tracks from his latest album By The Throat, at one point featuring a disconcertingly distorted double bass howling like an entire pack of wolves. “Hibakusja” was the evening’s highlight, and possibly the loudest thing I’ve ever heard at the Barbican (that he didn’t manage to set the speakers on fire again, as he did at The Luminaire a while back, was a little disappointing), Frost shaping and shifting huge blocks made of compressed shreds of sound, all above piano arpeggios and wailing trombone. I felt like I’d been to the dentist and had all of my teeth drilled, that precise mixture of pain and anaesthetic pleasure that the best noise music can give. I wished at times that Frost could have brought a little more of this abrasive quality to some of the other’s pieces; Ben Frost is a far less threatening proposition when he is merely shaking a maraca.

All of this leaves me with little room to mention the typically angular Reich-influenced compositions from Muhly (“Skip Town” featured him duetting with his own sampled piano lines) and some dramatic, cinematic electronica from Sigurðsson (strangely, mostly drawn from Ekvílibríum rather then the more recent Draumalandið soundtrack). There was just so much going on on that stage. While there was a sense of this being a celebration of Bedroom Community’s achievements to date, given the power of the elements at their disposal, and assuming they can continue to find new ways of combining them, I’ve no doubt that there will be some fascinating releases to come. I wait, with added interest.

Grey heron


2 thoughts on “The Whale Watching Tour, The Barbican, 27/09/10

  1. Brilliant review.

    I was there too and you’ve perfectly captured so many aspects of their music that I would struggle to put into word myself.

    I’d never seen any of them perform live myself before and I have to say, “the only tune” is possibly one of the most stunning live pieces I have ever seen before.
    Not only did it move so beautifully from choppy, deconstructed and isolated parts into a soaring folk anthem, but it really carried an emotional depth too, which blew me away. Can’t wait for more releases!

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