As enjoyable as I’m sure they were, I was troubled by the way in which the recent Kraftwerk concerts in London, both in the choice of setting and mode of delivery, presented their music as a museum piece. Performing their music in that gallery space, in chronological order, with little deviation from the canonical versions, it was as if they wished their catalogue to be preserved forever in amber. Where once their music had forward momentum (whether through mechanical engine or pedal power), and a beating human heart, they now seem to have stalled, and are absenting themselves more and more from the creative process.
Such thoughts send me scurrying towards releases such as White Cables Black Wires (released on the still young Fataka label) by the improvising musicians John Edwards and Okkyung Lee, a duo unlikely to be melting the phonelines at Tate Modern any time soon. Here, I find that life, instrumentation, emotion, music, communication and creativity are all tangled up in a dense knot. Whereas that Kraftwerk show (and I’m picking on them a little, I could instead have mentioned new records by My Bloody Valentine or David Bowie) committed the crime of being exactly what you’d expect, no more and no less, this is, as life itself is, unpredictable and ever-changing. Even knowing the instruments they play – John Edwards the double bass, and Okkyung Lee the cello – can’t prepare you for what is to follow, as the two of them do much to extend the possibilities of those instruments beyond their classical roles.
After a brief clickety-clack morse code interchange, like a sort of analogue handshake, there follows a relentless stream of information, with ideas being exchanged, discussed, and built upon on the fly, and at great speed. Within the first few minutes, there are sounds that suggest John Edwards is jamming his bow under his strings, playing it like a schoolchild twanging a ruler on the edge of a desk, and is squeaking the body of his bass with a wet finger. Lee has sliced and crunched her strings, producing sounds that are by turns vocal and industrial. Blink, and they’ve swapped hats, with Edwards up among his highest notes, and Lee churning away at her lowest. By the end of that frenetic (and at times almost funky, in a fractured sort of way) first piece it sounds like there is a percussionist in the room with them, playing a snare with brushes, rapping the edge of a tom with a drumstick. Already, I’m forced to confront the fact that I’m not sure who is doing what, or how.
But never mind, who, what or how: why are they doing this? In White Cable Black Wires, the improvisational imperative feels so tightly bound to self-preservation, you might as well ask why we breathe. You can hear the vital signs of life in the second track, where Edwards’s bass pounds symbolically, like a heart in love: WHAMWHAM WHAMWHAM WHAMWHAM. The exchanges between Edwards and Lee at times seem heated and argumentative; elsewhere they are in accord, at ease, as one: indeed, the way in which pieces build in intensity and rhythms synchronise feels almost sexual. In those moments when Lee and Edwards’s strings become entwined, they swoop and sing in one voice like a flock of birds, or creak and crack like the interconnected branches of a tree in the wind. Evolving, living, breathing, fighting, fucking, creating: this is as far from petrification as it is possible to get.