The name of the Entr’acte record label translates as between acts: the gap between parts of a play, the precisely measured silence, the purposeful incidental. The label shares that mixture of the seemingly unassuming with the highly designed, inviting the listener to pay close attention to a microscopic level of detail. Just look at the releases: the typography may initially appear like an unremarkable monospace font, but examine it more closely: it is a customised version specifically created for the job by label boss Allon Kaye. The packaging too is unusual, vacuum-sealed so that the foil and plastic cling to the LP/CD/cassette; at first glance there isn’t a lot to see other than the shape of the medium, but then you notice the beauty, the way the silver sinks into the spindle hole, or that the sticker on the side of a cassette bulges through. But above all, consider the effort that must go into producing these, of forcefully squeezing out every last drop of air, and think about why they bother. There seems to be a comment on the freshness of the contents, and even almost on the futility and artificiality of the process of recording improvised music: this was a one-time only event, which just happens to have been captured and preserved for eternity. This sort of music is therefore arguably best experienced in a live setting. And so to this Entr’acte label showcase at Cafe Oto, with performances by Adam Sonderberg, Olivia Block, Lee Gamble, John Wall and Alex Rodgers, where such was the level of attention to detail that even the traditional Cafe Oto marker-pen-scribble-on-the-back-of-the-hand-on-entry had been replaced by a custom produced E31 label/date stamp.
I’m going to gloss over the fact that many of the same problems which apply to recording this music apply to writing about it, in trying to capture something that vanishes into the atmosphere so quickly. What sort of conclusions do we draw from something which isn’t meant to be a final product, which is by its nature unrepeatable? These issues are well known to Pere Ubu guitarist and Wire Magazine journalist Keith Moliné, and his performance alluded to the inherent ludicrousness of music journalism. His set was constructed around samples of a music journalist asking questions of a musician (I’m unsure whether Moliné was interviewer or interviewee), stammering and giggling self-consciously. “You’ve been planning to release a piece for some time that was spontaneously composed (voice trails off…)”. “Er, have you ever used a turntable in a live setting before?” As this went on, the voice became increasingly disfigured, and Moliné – perched behind a chair like the tough cop in an interrogation room – began to ask questions of his guitar instead, slapping at the strings and grabbing at the whammy bar. This led into a section of improvised and abstract guitar noise, Moliné scrubbing at the strings with a £2 coin, which perhaps went on a little too long – I was relieved to hear the interviewer’s voice gradually coming back into focus, leading us gradually back out of confusion, and providing the set once more with a relative sense of purpose.
By contrast, the two sets by the Chicago-based electroacoustic composer Olivia Block felt tantalisingly short. The first featured her playing prepared piano, placing ebows on the strings, and tracing lines down them with mallets. Summer may finally be arriving in London, but this felt as soft as snow, all delicate and low impact, with huge, flat open spaces. Like snow, the closer you look, the more detail you find; as the sound of a gentle tap on a string melted away I was lured into deep silences where some quiet drone mingled with a beautiful resonance. Her second piece was more akin to what I’d have expected based on her recorded output, featuring her deftly mixing together taped field recordings and electronic sounds from her laptop. From an intro of wind and radio static emerged a temporally compressed sonic city. The recordings were at once evocative and pleasingly discrete, from birdsong, to the squeak of shoes on a basketball court, to the shattered shards of dropped china. Such crisp and precise sounds could only be chosen and arranged by someone with such a good ear.
The performance of Haptic’s Adam Sonderberg also came in two clearly identifiable sections. Like Block, he was mixing some pre-recorded sounds, dropping specific elements in and out over the duration. And it felt very elemental, from the diffuse spray of grey drizzle in the first half, to the smouldering fire of the second, all pops, creaks and splintering cracks. It felt like the most pre-determined of tonight’s performances, though nonetheless immersive and enjoyable. Equally immersive, though you’d struggle to call it enjoyable, was Lee Gamble’s aggressive and ear-splittingly loud and aggressive laptop set. Harsh, menacing sounds swarmed all around, like taking shelter in an electrical substation during a storm. Static built through sparks to lightning flashes and ultimately to full-scale meltdown, the malevolent charge scampering down wires to distant pylons.
There was a similarly unsettling end to the evening, with the disharmonious spoken word and soundscapes of John Wall and Alex Rodgers. Rodgers seemed to be engaged in perpetual conflict: with others (“Nutters! Nutters!” he railed at one point), with Wall (a minor disagreement over relative volume levels), but ultimately with himself – the performance felt deliberately unstable, verging upon schizophrenic. The lateness of the hour meant that not only was this was drifting into nightmare, but also that I had to start to negotiate my way back across London. An overrun is nothing unusual at Cafe Oto, but in the context of the meticulous Entr’acte, like a particularly uncharacteristic loss of control over the tiniest of details. This had been a fascinating live interlude from a label which always demands your close attention – but only in the most undemonstrative of ways.