I don’t know who St Leonard was, but I can only imagine he was the patron saint of the bloody freezing cold. I’ve never seen a web page advertising a concert before which advises those attending to “bring blankets”. Heating was “limited” in St Leonard’s Church, it said, which was a huge understatement. London did its best to prove them right by dropping the temperature down to a few degrees celcius, and swirling a freezing mist through the Shoreditch streets, just in time for this evening of icy drone from Phil Niblock and Thomas Ankersmit. Hats, scarves and gloves, if not actually blankets, were donned in preparation.
I’ve seen Thomas Ankersmit perform before, and heard his recorded output, but tonight was different: he didn’t touch his saxophone throughout. Despite having it by his side, he restricted himself to modular synthesizer and laptop. This was actually plenty; the range of sounds and frequencies he created was more than enough to fill the huge space inside this old church. It began with pure sounds, sine waves and bass drone, but more organic sounds found their way into the mix, from serrated, shredded noises to jet engine roar to crickety chirps to wooden creaks (admittedly, the last of these may have been coming from the church pews). He built all this up until it was a solid block of sound, and then started panning it from left to right; it actually felt like the combination of this motion with all this weight was going to tip the church right over. This was a proper workout for the ears.
A break had been advertised between sets, but Phil Niblock was having none of it. After a cursory inspection of his equipment with a torch, he began the first of his three pieces, this one for layer upon layer upon layer of cello, all shifting and pulsing and shimmering. Behind him, two screen displayed films from his “Movement of People Working” series, focusing on labourers in the the far East. The films were interesting enough in their own right (have you ever seen people fishing for sea urchins before? Amazing) but inevitably I’d start to find links to the sound, for example when a pulse in the music seemed to coincide with some people sawing wood. Such occurrences seemed more likely to be coincidental – we certainly wouldn’t expect the images of fishing in the left screen to coincide with the images of grain harvesting in the right screen, it was perhaps better to think of Niblock’s sound as the third panel in a triptych, as seemingly repetitive and monotonous on the surface, but equally teeming with life and variety the more you looked. Or listened. The second piece, for saxophone drone, was comparatively lacking in that variety, the contribution of Thomas Ankersmit, wandering round the perimeter of the church whilst playing his instrument, didn’t seem to add a great deal sonically until the very dying notes. However, the final piece, for guitar, was truly magnificent, with the sound of ebowed strings, and all their attendant overtones collecting and freezing in the increasingly cold St Leonards. While the screens showed men in fridges hacking at bloody animal corpses and spraying blood into the air, Niblock’s strangely beautiful and icy harmonics seemed to glisten in the atmosphere.