Last week, the Guardian named Dalston’s Cafe Oto and the Vortex as two of the ten best music venues in London, and given how these two stand (so far) apart from the rest thanks to their laudable commitment to adventurous programming, I’m almost surprised that they managed to find eight more, to be honest. Cafe Oto was pretty full tonight for the sort of free-thinking lineup you really wouldn’t find anywhere else in the city: a Room40 night featuring the artists Stephan Mathieu, BJ Nilsen and TSU (Robert Curgenven and Jörg Maria Zeger). It led me to wonder whether anyone had come along to Cafe Oto as a result of the intrigue created by the Guardian’s article, and what they would make of a music venue which sets out to challenge the prevalent notions of what music actually is.
The duo of Curgenven and Zeger was the most conventionally musical act on the bill, which is saying something considering one of the key “instruments” they were using was a pair of amplified electric fans. Every so often, Curgenven would dash round from behind his turntables to turn the devices on or off, creating a satisfying base drone of variable intensity. And, no doubt, a lovely cooling breeze for himself and Zeger (why has no-one thought of this before at the notoriously sticky Cafe Oto?). He used his vinyl mainly to provide a grainy patina of crackle, mostly as reassuring as the sound of raindrops on a campfire, but at times so harsh that it sounded like he had the needle on the label rather than the groove. Zeger slowly applied pressure to one of his many pedals, and stroked at guitar strings, the sound accumulating in deep, unpredictable waves. Too unpredictable, perhaps, with some of the feedback crossing the line from being irritating to being painful, disrupting the narrative flow so often that it was a bit of a relief when they turned the pedals and fans off, leaving a wisp of a song smouldering from the turntables.
There were no such disruptions to the narrative of BJ Nilsen’s excellent set. His mix of field recordings and crystalline drone touched on some timbres and themes common to his recent work for Touch, heading out from the networks of The Invisible City, with their electrical chatter and neon buzz, and out towards the Storm, bitter winds threatening to tip some seals from the Arctic shelf into the sea. In between these was a long abstract mid section which built from muffled voices through the clanking of clocks, and up to a dense and dramatic crescendo (and Nilsen does dense and dramatic crescendo as well as anyone) containing organ drone and icy whines. The sections of the journey all seeped inexorably into one another, drawing the listener relentlessly forward through this familiar – if still dark and disconcerting – territory that Nilsen has made his own. His world is teeming.
Despite all this unconventionality that had gone before, it would perhaps have been the manner of Stephan Mathieu’s performance that would have been most surprising to the uninitiated. Watching him carefully place an e-bow on the string of a harp, stand back with hands on hips, and then eventually return to inch another towards it, he looked more like a man playing himself at chess than someone engaged in a musical performance. And the comparison is apposite: Mathieu’s work is very much based on logic, and a grandmaster’s understanding of age-old rules. One seemingly innocuous move from Mathieu could signal the start of a huge, pre-planned sonic onslaught, strong enough to overcome any known defence. Recent works such as his Virginals performances, and his superb A Static Place album, have dwelled on notions of obsolescence, but that notion perhaps obscures just how alive this music sounds. While completely devoid of such notions as melody and rhythm, it lacked for nothing in terms of resonance and texture. As he added layer upon layer, chiming note upon chiming note, it felt like the whole of Cafe Oto was vibrating in one glorious chord, and the more you listened, the more interesting its miniscule inflections became. As John Cage would have it: there is no noise, only sound.