Given that it is now 22 releases old, and able to sell out a two day festival in London’s Cafe Oto, are we any closer to learning what the Berlin-based label PAN is trying to achieve? It is a difficult question given that it is a label of extreme diversity, from the dark empty spaces of John Wiese’s music to the whiteout noise of Florian Hecker, from the circuit bending of Keith Fullerton Whitman to the circular breathing of Andre Vida. The desirable two-part LP sleeves create further contrasts, by overlaying an image with something stark and geometric, at times almost an analogue and a digital element simultaneously. Perhaps this crossing of divisions is the essence of PAN – it is a project which is totally pan-border, pan-genre, straddling the gap between the human and the electronic, the audio and the visual, the improvised and the designed, the concert venue and the gallery. That it succeeds is down to some savvy curatorial choices by Bill Kouligas, in particular by focusing on artists with strong, singular vision. In the manner of Kouligas himself, the likes of Eli Keszler, Frieder Butzmann and Ghedalia Tazartes exist in worlds where notions of genre or style are pretty redundant, where there are no pre-conceived barriers to what their art could or should be.
The percussionist Eli Keszler, who released his Cold Pin LP on PAN last month (and who created an art installation of the same name), was first of seven artists from the label’s current and future orbit to take to the Oto stage. Keszler’s technique encompasses a mix of automation and improvisation, although until I saw this performance I had only a vague impression of where the boundary between the two lay. He began by bowing five metal discs which he had arranged on the edge of his snare, producing a mix of purity and distortion, piercing ringing tones and buzzing sounds, interspersing this with bursts of noise from a foot-triggered four stringed guitar-like contraption. As he began to toss these discs around and hit them with sticks, it became clear that my conception of how much was automated in Keszler’s music was pretty far from the mark. The previous night at Café Oto had seen a performance by the “fastest pianist in the world” Lubomyr Melnyk – well, I don’t know about the fastest percussionist in the world, but Keszler played with more speed and precision than I’d assumed humanly possible.
John Wiese seemed to pick up on where Keszler had left off, with the silence being interrupted by the sound of metal being scraped. Where Keszler’s work takes him into the field of art installation, Wiese’s work is almost akin to movie sound design. From the mixing desk at the back of the room, he began to throw sounds to the corners of the room via the quadraphonic setup. It started with some crisp instrumental slices (what sounded like a guitar, and plucked piano strings) but built to completely alien noises (unintelligible burble, monstrous crashes). It also alternated between ominously quiet passages and gargantuan blocks of moving noise, and the whole effect was disorientating, as if Wiese was creating sounds to accompany a movie set in a nightmarish and industrial future dystopia.
If that was scary, what Peter Rehberg and Marcus Schmickler did as R/S was terrifying. Like Wiese, they too performed from next to the mixing desk at the back of the room – if there is a criticism to make of this festival, it is that given the importance of the visual element to PAN’s ethos, there was a real lack of any visual narrative to the event. Unless you count the sight of Stephen O’Malley headbanging, that is. The fact he was doing that was testament to the brutal high volume onslaught of sound that Rehberg and Schmickler were producing. Much more so than their USA LP, this was a horrible, twisted mesh, like barbed wire being fed into your ears under high pressure. The closest comparison I’ve heard is Haswell and Hecker’s explorations of Xenakis’s graphical UPIC system, but this was denser and more unrelenting. Forget everything I’ve said about contrasts, this was all shade and no light (except they had turned the lights on before they started to play so, look, just forget everything), smears of synth noise being distorted and mangled, vague techno pulses being torn and shredded, minds being well and truly blown. Behind the two of them, a poster of Keiji Haino looked on approvingly.
Day two began as day one did, with another virtuoso solo display. Valerio Tricoli’s PAN collaboration with the modular synths and saxophones of Thomas Ankersmit on the Forma II record was a highlight of 2011, but here he gave a hands on demonstration of his extraordinary methods of composition. His set up was pretty much a museum exhibit of musical storage devices from the last half century, analogue to digital, from a tape loop running round a mic stand, to CD and Minidisc players, right up to a mobile phone he used to keep time (a squawk of interference from which resulted in an extra unplanned musical element). While Tricoli’s work is rooted in concrète, his ability to create a sense of temporal dislocation, and distinctly uncanny edge felt somewhat hauntological. He manipulated the tape in real time with his hands, slapping it, pulling on it, dragging it backwards through the tape heads; as it spooled round and round, spectral voices faded into an eerie haze of tape hiss and room resonance. This was a bewitching performance.
The festival closed with the pairing of a mathematician with an inventor, but there was nothing over-engineered about the performance of minimalist composer CC Hennix (her first ever UK appearance) with the instrument builder Werner Durand. The set was to take us out of London, through Berlin, to the Indian vocal raga of Pandit Pran Nath (of whom Hennix was a disciple), and beyond. A tambour drone rolled out from Durand’s laptop, while he added soft breaths through one of the many pipe contraptions assembled on stage like plumbing; he later switched to some longer devices, played via reeds, which produced a gentle didgeridoo-like buzz. Hennix’s microtonal singing floated on this breeze, fluctuating delicately, and gradually collecting in fine layers. After the speed and volume of much of what had gone before, that cumulative drone was a glorious contrast, a stillness and slowness, an unchanging same, where the only thing moving was us, through time, and across space. The two day festival may have taken us across all sorts of barriers, but it had left us in a beautiful place.