In its (first) ten years, the Australian Room40 label has built up an impressively diverse catalogue of experimental music; it would be asking too much for this year’s Open Frame event, held for the second year at its spiritual home-from-home Cafe Oto, to do justice to that breadth. There was no place for Japanese avant-pop this year, or for abstract sound recordings, for example. Instead, the first night focused on the more improvisational end of their output, featuring percussionist Andrea Belfi, a quintet made up of the I/O3 trio with David Toop and Scanner, and Necks pianist Chris Abrahams. Friday night slipped deep into ambient and noise soundscapes as represented by Rafael Anton Irisarri, Lawrence English, and Grouper.
Andrea Belfi’s short set was an understated masterclass in the art of mixing percussion with electronics. His drum kit was quite a contraption, festooned with metal objects and with mics swinging on strings, and he made simple and effective use of it all. He sampled the sound of mallets softly caressing drums, looping and blending this with sine waves, and calling in voices from the ether, before finishing with some delicate gamelan, soft patterns repeating over and over, sending us gently into a trance.
The following set reunited the musicians from one of Room40’s earliest releases: A Picturesque View, Ignored. I/O3 (Room40 boss Lawrence English with Tam Patton and Heinz Riegler), Scanner and David Toop are from very different backgrounds: in particular, Toop’s fascination with the precise qualities of sound, and Scanner’s more rhythmic approach, led the ensemble into some very disparate, and quite unexpected spaces. Toop added a rich selection of sounds, the crunching of dried leaves, the snapping of twigs, and the dropping of mustard seeds into a metal dish. Scanner looped and sampled, finding patterns in the forest (it reminded me a little of Biosphere at one point), supplementing them with his own field recordings, and chopping at a chaos pad. Under this was a dark and ever-shifting carpet of ebowed guitar and electronic mulch from I/O3.
Chris Abrahams is a man possessed of an inquisitive mind. His recent album for the Room40 label, the excellent Play Scar, saw him straying from his more usual piano and exploring the sounds of Hammond organs, synths and a ruined church organ amongst others. For this Open Frame performance he was back on piano again, but retaining that sense of adventure. What if? What if I restricted myself to just one note for half of the set? After a slow introduction, huge sprawling gaps between the notes, Abrahams found himself drawn to his instrument’s high B. B. B. B. B. He began by playing it with one finger, speeding up, B, B, B, B, B, and then playing it with two, BBBBBBBB. The longer this went on, the more you noticed: harmonics emerged (someone with far better ears than me picked out a C sharp), while the increasingly powerful thud of his fingers on the keys added a percussive element. He got so much from so little, and had the audience so completely spellbound, that it was almost a shame that he had to break it, his left hand dominating in a pulsing, phasing, almost Reichian finale. After the set, I asked Abrahams about the note: it was a B, wasn’t it? “Of course”, he replied, “B is the best note”. Marvellous.
After that magnificent minimalism, day two was to offer something far lusher. And wetter. Rafael Anton Irisarri built on his Room40 release The North Bend with a set which drew on looped guitar and electronic drones, placing them amongst some damp-sounding field recordings, matching the prevailing atomospheric conditions outside. Grey, drizzly static gave way to the sound of footsteps in soggy mud, while slight bowed and ebowed guitar was followed with some overwhelmingly powerful bass frequencies. As this all collected in repetitive figures, it recalled the dreamy ambience of Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project, lacking the rhythmic impetus, but with the same serene sense of progression into ever darker spaces.
If we felt wet after Irisarri’s performance, then Lawrence English was to give us a good drenching in a set derived, it seemed, from knitting together his own recordings of a voyage to sea. Our journey started on the shore, with waves lapping at our feet, the sound pitching and lurching with increasing intensity as we were steered straight into the centre of an ocean storm. A dense mist of wind and water was whipped up around us, the ship’s mast and hull clanking and groaning under the strain, before we anchored up on the other side, our presence disturbing flocks of birds. After huge low waves of engine noise, English began to pump at his harmonium, swaying like he was standing on deck: this was a very physical performance, exhaustingly so. Even if you had seen him do something similar in the same venue last year, this was still an impressively evocative piece of work.
The dying waves of Lawrence’s harmonium spilt onto the grainy shore of Grouper cassette hiss. Liz Harris didn’t have a Walkman, she had a Walkarmy, six cassette players emitting a mixture of hum, distorted Basinski-like melody loops, and field recordings (traffic sounds, most recognisably). She added barely-there guitar arpeggios, only just disturbing the strings with her fingertips, before she began to whisper a soft vocal line. Everything was inhabiting the space on the very edge of perceptibility: this was by far the quietest Grouper performance I have witnessed, and possibly partly for that reason, also the best. More than ever these felt like mere ghosts of songs, haunted transmissions from the shadows; you had to work hard just to pick them up, and then to separate them from Dalston street sounds and Oto glass clinking. Just as it felt like our very lives were sublimating into the east London air, Lawrence English and Rafael Anton Irisarri returned to give us all a good hard boot up the arse, their bowed guitar and electronic drones rounding off this year’s Open Frame on a high note, almost as high as Chris Abrahams’s high C sharp from the previous night.