Touch 30 at Beaconsfield, December 2012

CMvH

“All these changes have crept up on us like imperceptible noise, like buzzing”. In his introduction to the London leg of Touch’s birthday celebrations, which have also taken in trips to New York, Glasgow and Madeira amongst others, Jon Wozencroft was referring to the authoritarian instincts of successive British governments since the 1980s. He might as well have been talking about the changes in technology which have impacted upon Touch over that period, from how graphics are designed, to how sound is recorded, and to how we as an audience consume and appreciate art.

I picked at a number of threads related to this in a discussion I had with Touch co-founders Wozencroft and Mike Harding for The Liminal this time last year, such as those that connect the analogue to the digital, the audio to the visual, and the sound to the place. This two day Touch 30 event, featuring panel discussions, films and performances from a number of artists and individuals linked to Touch, twisted these threads back together into a continuum, a thick rope that stretched back from the Beaconsfield Arts Centre in late 2012, all round the globe and back through time to the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead in 1982, where Harding and Wozencroft first met and began to work on what would become Touch.

There was a large element of reflection on that lengthy history across the two days, much of which was driven by Wozencroft. While this could come across as self-indulgent at times, such as during an unfocused chat with Edwin Pouncey (Savage Pencil) about their respective record collecting habits, you did get the impression that Wozencroft was a fan as much as a curator. He was keen to explore Touch’s relationship to all that was around it, and to assert its place in a cultural lineage that stretched from the Beatles (his first record purchase) through New Order (who featured on his first release) and beyond.

The connection to New Order and Factory Records who, like Touch, were another intersection between audio and visual art, was made even more explicit by the involvement of New Order’s sleeve designer Peter Saville in a discussion on the links between graphic design and art. While Saville was quick to refute the premise of there being a link at all (entirely separate worlds, he argued, drawing on his own difficulties in breaking into the art world), his own revelations about the need for tactility, and audience participation in his art did have echoes with much of Touch’s premise. In his musings on the relationship between his photography and Touch’s music, Wozencroft was to stress the importance of constructing parallel narratives that necessitated the active involvement of the audience.

Philip Jeck at Touch 30

To allow further light to illuminate the historical narrative, the two days were perforated by a series of sharp audio interventions, tracks and performances from Touch’s archives. A particular highlight was David Toop reading from the relevant chapter of his book Ocean Of Sound, over an audio backdrop of his recordings of Yanomamo shamans undergoing transformative (and seemingly rather painful) rituals, released on the Touch Travel compilation in 1984. It served to remind us how important not just narrative has always been in the Touch catalogue, but also, through the status afforded to field recordings, to that sense of time and place.

This archival nature of Touch 30 was picked up on by Philip Jeck. Jeck’s sets often reflect his surroundings – I have fond memories of him using a selection of jazz records as the basis for his performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival a few years back – so it was perhaps unsurprising that he was to utilise vinyl recordings by Touch artists, including a flexidisc of the cellist Hildur Gudnadottir. Her string parts were hauled from amidst grainy drones like a memory coming into focus, before fading once more into static. Underneath, he used a slowed down James Last hook to provide further emotional heft, as if in riposte to Wozencroft’s earlier dismissal of Last during his record collecting segment.

In contrast to this perception of Wozencroft as the preserver of Touch’s heritage, Mike Harding was more excited by the future, in particular by the possibilities of new technology. A discussion on future formats, with the University of York’s Tony Myatt and the audio designer Seb Jouan, entered the realm of surround sound, exploring these planes with a view to them becoming the format of the future. Some of the concepts Jouan raised were particularly startling, including the ability to recreate the precise sonic characteristics of places, even those that no longer exist, such as long-destroyed churches. Elsewhere, discussions on the role of the internet and mobile technology raised the (distant, I’d assume) possibility of a Touch album being released as an app.

Fennesz at Touch 30

We had brief glimpses of Touch’s (nearer) future with the debut of as yet unreleased work from Fennesz and Biosphere. Fennesz’s new material sounded like a slight step on from his Black Sea album, louder and more aggressive, destructive even, with loud, glitchy intrusions on a field of buzz and static sounding like trees being felled in a digital forest. However, to my ears Biosphere’s 4/4 reconfigurations of Schoenberg felt somewhat rigid and even dated given the freedoms and forward thinking practised by so much of the Touch repertoire elsewhere.

In their introductions to the event, Wozencroft and Harding made it clear that Touch was a partnership: it relied on the two of them doing the things that the other couldn’t (or at least didn’t want to) do. But any notion of this partnership requiring a strict division between, say, the creative and the administrative was comfortably dispelled by the nature of their curatorial contributions to this event. There is a meeting place between the two, and that place is Touch. It became apparent to me that this meeting place is the now: the celebration of where we (the artists, the listeners) are right now was not just the key motif of Touch 30, but perhaps of their entire 30 year history.

Hildur Gudnadottir at Touch 30

In the aforementioned panel discussion on future formats, Hildur Gudnadottir talked about the motivation for the hi-spec surround sound recording process of her luminous Leyfdu Ljosinu album: to capture not just a space, but a sense of movement within that space – and how it had to be recorded in one take so as not to “cheat” movement and space. She performed the piece over Beaconsfield’s quadrophonic sound system, using looped layers of voice and cello, building and swirling it from lullaby to hullabaloo. At times, the sawed, stacked rhythms clacked like a train, feeling like a reference, deliberate or not, to Beaconsfield’s railway arch location: the passing of a train had earlier caused her to pause and check her progress.

In Touch’s exploration of the now, the status of field recordings is key. Cheryl Tipp, curator of natural sound at the British Library, talked on a panel about the resurgence in “listening for listening’s sake” (along with the resulting problems this causes her in quality controlling thousands of birdsong submissions). It is in this way that the sound recordist’s Chris Watson’s work makes perfect sense in the context of more conventionally “musical” releases. An in absentia playback of his “Brussels-Nord” piece (as featured on the new Touch 30 compilation), recorded in the train station of that name, was the richest of delights in Beaconsfield, the low end train rumble that was a distraction for Gudnadottir working in perfect synergy with Watson’s own recordings.

Thomas Koner at Touch 30

A similar effect was observed during Thomas Köner’s set. Until their coming together for this year’s sombre Novaya Zemlya release, Köner’s exploration of (in his case, dark and remote) soundscapes had occurred in parallel to Touch’s. While he had been billed as performing a new work, Köner instead chose to reprise his 2003 masterpiece La Barca, a fantastical expedition across times and spaces, big on bass, Basinski-esque melodies, and buried echoes of the past. In the brick-clad Beaconsfield arch, he achieved something sublime: a haunting, ache-filled reach from our time and space back to others, ultimately merging them all with a deep resonance. In that, it felt like a continuation of the quest for a shared moment that both Wozencroft and Saville said they were searching for with their art, what Wozencroft had earlier described as “felt experiences in a particular time and place”.

Set against the likes of Köner, Fennesz, Biosphere, and Jeck, Carl Michael von Hausswolff may seem a relatively minor figure, having released just the one record through Touch. Von Hausswolff, however, is the obelisk who watches over many of the major landmarks in Touch’s history. For his set at Touch’s 25th anniversary he draped unadorned sine waves in the air for the audience to hang onto. Five years on, he was still producing these beautiful, precise low tones, but this time embellishing them with the sound of his own breath, sampling it and layering on top. You could tell that von Hausswolff really felt this, as he hung onto the knobs of his equipment as if his life depended on it, lost in the moment, this time, this sound, this place, but compelling us to come and find him. As an act of listening for listening’s sake, it felt like a compelling summation of the event, and a fitting reminder of what Touch are. Here’s to another 30 years of now.

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Freedom Of The City 2012

John Russell

At a panel discussion held in Café Oto last week, a number of improvising musicians were invited to answer the question “what do you think you are doing?” One of the recurring motifs in their answers (and I also heard Pauline Oliveros say something similar last week) was the notion that free improvisation is the means of musical expression which best reflects the way we experience life itself, with all its moments of unexpected joy, and all its imperfections. We don’t follow a script, we don’t travel in straight lines. As Steve Noble put it, in his musing on the improvising imperative, even if you want to get across London from west to east, by tube, bus, train or whatever, you are improvising – which is especially true on a May bank holiday weekend, traditional spot in the calendar of the Freedom Of The City festival.

The festival is now into its second decade, and into its second home, moving from Conway Hall to the equally historic residence of the English Folk, Dance and Song Society at Cecil Sharp House. Aside from being a beautiful space, high ceilinged and wonderfully resonant, it struck me that it was perhaps a fitting venue in another sense. Following the analogy above, improvisation shares a kinship with folk music. Both celebrate life, but in a different way: one lives lived, and the other lives being lived, the preservation of history versus the living in a perpetual now.

London Improviser's Orchestra

Judging from the festival’s lineups, over the course of its twelve year history, the improvising community is evolving and expanding (the London Improviser’s Orchestra alone numbered an impressive 39 on stage). Many of the same elder statesmen continue to populate the bill, from organisers Evan Parker and Eddie Prevost, to the guitarist John Russell and vocalist Phil Minton. New entrants have graduated from Prevost’s workshops (Jennifer Allum, Ross Lambert), or developed in incubators overseas (Okkyung Lee, Guillaume Viltard), but the imperative appears so strong that there is only one way to leave. The recent death of the great Tony Marsh left a gap in the bill, and there were to be tributes to the percussionist throughout the weekend. If there was a musician who epitomised the idea of improvising as life, it was Marsh, who visibly lived every note he played, his face lined with emotion. A single note from a playing companion could make his face light with joy as he mentally explored the sonic possibilities it presented, like a child being given its first yo-yo.

Guillaume Viltard

Fittingly, the festival was opened by a member of the young generation who knew Marsh well. Double bass player Guillaume Viltard began his set with a lament, a smeary, teary arco scraping. As he rubbed his bow and fingers all over his bass I felt I could hear every minute detail of its construction. In the vibrations, squeaks and buzzing, I could hear the grain of the wood, and the ridges of the strings, as if he was less playing the instrument, and more getting it to tell the audience about itself. As the set progressed, the additional percussive embellishment he provided, from tapping its neck, striking the body with the bow, and stamping his feet, made it seem like he wasn’t alone on that stage. He finished by creaking the tuning pegs rhythmically, slowing to silence like an old clock counting its few last seconds.

Okkyung Lee

Other young artists on the bill were showing that the scene continues to thrive and develop in exciting ways. The cellist Okkyung Lee is a very active and highly regarded member of this community, having recorded with Evan Parker and Phil Minton in recent years, but this solo performance had an unexpected incandescence about it. She seemed edgy or unhappy at the start, snapping brusquely (if rightly) at a photographer, but she managed to translate this emotion into a searing and raw performance. She began by playing so softly that it was if she was swimming in the sounds of traffic outside, but her fluid playing soon begat a torrent of notes, furiously fingering some extraordinary fast runs, before the stream finally snagged on a rock. She continually caught herself on these repetitive, sawing, grinding riffs, the music finally splintering and submerging – by the end, her bow was as ragged as her mood, and she marched off stage briskly, her mind still seemingly ablaze.

Han-Earl Park

I took much pleasure from the youthful energy and invention on display elsewhere. Han Earl-Park’s idiosyncratic guitar style was beguiling, his array of tiny, sharp sounds glinting like fragments of broken glass – the interplay between him and trumpeter Ian Smith was almost telepathic, changing directions as one, and the music coming to two seemingly unplanned and instinctive dead stops. Lee Patterson lit up a couple of ensemble sets – literally in one case, feeding the airy hiss of a close-mic’ed naked flame into the atmospheric mix of minute sounds being produced by Rhodri Davies, John Butcher and others in their group Common Objects. Only occasionally did it feel that there was invention for its own sake: the electronic experiments of Grundik Kasyanksy, while fun, seemed to bear no relationship to what anyone else was doing on stage, while the interjections of Ross Lambert (metronome, bowed goblets, vibrator) into his trio served to disrupt the little flow that there was. A few imperfections would, of course, be expected across 16 sets of improvised music.

Evan Parker and Eddie Prevost

Even the more long-standing members of the community showed signs that they were still seeking out and enjoying new experiences. John Russell’s duo with the trumpeter Jamie Coleman had plenty of quirkily enjoyable exchanges, close to call and response at times. Steve Noble’s pairing with the prepared piano and electronics of Sebastian Lexer was particularly inspired, keeping the drummer in textural and even harmonic areas rather than more traditional rhythmic ones. Lexer sampled and played back the sounds he was making, having Noble dance with his own shadow, while the sound of bowed piano strings and scraped cymbals mingled and filled the glorious space in the hall. Eddie Prevost and Evan Parker explored this receptive place further, the saxophonist tracing delicate spirals in the air while Prevost filled the room with deep resonance from his huge barrel of a drum.

Phil Minton and Christian Marclay

The vocalist Phil Minton was the one who best embodied that conjoining of improvisation and life. While Christian Marclay span records behind, Minton twisted his body corkscrew-like, feeling everything, his expressions pained and tortured (at one point, I’m sure Marclay looked over just to check he was OK), producing squeaks, howls and incredible split notes. This was a great duo set, in which at times it was impossible to tell who was making which sound: both were equally capable of producing pop and crackle. As Marclay juggled and cut into techno and jazz records, he brought many moments from the past into the now, spirits for Minton to inhabit and reanimate.

Jeb Bishop

In the Sunday evening slot that was originally due to host the Tony Marsh and Mark Sanders percussion duo, rather than leave a gap in the programme, Sanders picked an alternative band, featuring John Edwards on bass, Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone, and Jeb Bishop on trombone. In an earlier set with Caroline Kraabel, Edwards had reacted to a broken string by seizing it as an opportunity to try something different, savouring the buzz that the loose string made when held against his bass and bowed. Here, the group in which he featured turned a much more difficult (especially emotionally) situation into a triumph, with an upbeat and high energy session. They walked tantalisingly just on the free side of the in/out line, sounding like a lost 1969 BYG performance. The polyrhythmic Sanders was on supreme form throughout, and he and Edwards locked into a deep pulse in the backline, while up front Hutchings and Bishop gleefully engaged in animated close discussion, sharing melodic ideas, and completing each other’s phrases. Ultimately, this combination of masterful talent with infectious enthusiasm was possibly the best tribute to Marsh of the weekend. From sadness to joy in a heartbeat, so life goes, and in its improvisatory celebration of it, Freedom Of The City knows exactly what it is doing.

Tetras – Pareidolia

tetras4

The Dark Magus casts a long shadow. The work of Miles Davis between 1969 and 1975 is a crucial subset of musical history. The respective genres of rock, jazz, soul and classical had all made some huge strides forward in the 1960s, from the studio experimentation of psychedelia to the glorious headrush of free jazz, from the social awareness of funk to the minimalism of Reich and Riley. But it was in the combination of these forms that the black magic happened. From Miles’s cauldron was scooped the spectral ambience of Eno favourite “He Loved Him Madly”, the deep dark throb of the Jack Johnson sessions, the spooked textures of Live Evil, and the tectonic eruptions of Agharta/Pangaea. There was an urbanity to the music, it was a walk through the melting pot of a multicultural city, with all its clashing noises and politics. But what set Miles apart from many of the alchemists who were creating new forms at the time (from Can to Coleman), was this air of malevolence which permeated so much of his music. If this was an urban vision, it felt uniquely dystopian.

Davis’s ideas took him so far beyond what jazz was understood to be that it is perhaps unsurprising that they only took root there in a limited sense. Much of the subsequent jazz fusion explosion, while heavily influenced by Miles’s work, ignored so many of its inconvenient subtleties. Elements such as the radical consciousness, or the minimalism, at odds with jazz’s more traditional values, were too often jettisoned in any future developments. But Miles’s live evil was running in parallel to the nascent emergence of forms such as heavy metal, with all its occult references, and the image of Miles playing keyboard on stage with the back of his hand was punk rock before punk rock existed (“You ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” indeed). Places with strong, extreme rock scenes were probably more receptive territories for this music.

The result has been these sporadic, musically and geographically isolated pockets of this Miles-influenced mutant malevolent minimalism. It didn’t land in Britain during punk, but it certainly did during post-punk, in the urbanised loops and clatter of This Heat and 23 Skidoo. Post-rock too, with its subversion of traditional instrumental roles, and foregrounding of texture. Scandinavia’s dark skies seem to have provided suitable cover: some of the forbidding structures around the Rune Grammofon label, in particular the Supersilent canon, could have been constructed with Miles as architect. Sunn O)))’s recent work overtly draws upon the jazz of the era, but it is Stephen O’Malley’s Aethenor project, which found room for keyboard drone and improv percussion, which really danced with this particular devil. Japan, probably the only place where Agharta and Pangaea have never been out of print, is another locus, with the likes of Acid Mothers Temple (who wear their influences, from Miles to Black Sabbath to Terry Riley, somewhat heavily) and Keiji Haino who, along with his Miles-like penchant for oversized sunglasses on stage, seems to play the Sonny Sharrock role in whichever ensemble he crops up. A little further south, the ghostly guitar explorations of Australia’s Oren Ambarchi are black dust blown from a similar mine; Ambarchi also crops up in collaborations with the Rune Grammofon mob (a new Fire! with Oren Ambarchi record is due soon) and with the pairing of Stephen O’Malley and Keiji Haino – a collision which surely (re)creates the Pangaea of this particular musical world.

Tetras are another transcontinental and transgenre trio, with roots in the LA and Dutch punk scenes, via percussionist Jason Kahn (formerly on SST) and keyboard player Jerome Viesser (who has accompanied The Ex on their trips to Ethiopia), while bassist Christian Weber has both played conservatory classical and in groups with the likes of Japan’s Otomo Yoshihide. When I first heard their new double LP Pareidolia, I thought they sounded a lot like the Australian minimalist improvising trio the Necks. Like the Necks, they deal in lengthy pieces which transform themselves slowly, with plenty of hypnotic repetition, and with the precise role of the instruments undefined (responsibility for melody, or rhythm, or texture, is pleasingly fluid). But Pareidolia is heavier and grittier than the Necks’ darkest, rawest moments, and the more I listened to it, the more I began to hear traces of many of the other sorcerers I’ve mentioned.

The opening organ drones of ‘Pareidolia i’ remind me of the queasy varispeed fluctuations of early This Heat, but when they later blow through like cold winds they bring the creeping menace of solo Deathprod. The use of percussion in ‘Pareidolia iii’ – melodic gamelan and brushes – in this context brings to mind Steve Noble’s work in Aethenor, steering a ship through the squall of white noise. When the drone becomes anchored to a relentlessly repetitive drum beat, building to a tribal pummel, it is of one with Oren Ambarchi’s epic ‘Knots’ from his recent Audience Of One record. That isn’t to say that any of these individuals have in any way influenced Tetras, but more that they are all drawing from the same river. Somehow, if you stare into these watery ripples, you can glimpse the face of Miles Davis like the pareidolia of the album’s title. He is there in those one note bass ostinatos, the back of the hand keyboard discordance, that dark ambience, and the bleak, dystopian feel. That mutant malevolent minimalism which sprang from Miles in the 1970s continues to flow through music, its strong undercurrent occasionally dragging some treasure up to the surface.

Carl Ludwig Hübsch, Oren Marshall, John Butcher and John Edwards at Cafe Oto, 6/3/12

Hubsch

The fact that I don’t see many tubas in their natural habitats these days led me to wonder whether it had become some sort of endangered species. Let’s face it, it has never been the most practical of instruments – a bit too heavy for the marching band, too big for the gigging musician to take on public transport, too expensive to make it a suitable starting point for a learner musician, and perhaps too heavily outnumbered by the massed ranks of strings in the classical setting to make it a viable career proposition there. The butt of many an orchestra’s joke, that beast comes with a lot of baggage.

While they would once have been commonly used in jazz bands in lieu of a double bass, I’ve only seen it perform this function a couple of times myself, hence my sense that it may be falling into desuetude. If pressed, I could probably name just two jazz tubists…and both of them were playing here at Café Oto on the same bill. Carl Ludwig Hübsch stems from the German free jazz scene, where he hauls his huge horn alongside the likes of Alex Dorner in his Primordial Soup band. Oren Marshall, the other, is a semi-regular feature of the London music scene (through membership of the likes of Big Air, the Byron Wallen Quartet and Sons Of Kemet, as well as numerous solo improvisations), and is tuba professor for Trinity College of Music. They were joined at Café Oto by the saxophones of John Butcher and the sympathetic bass of John Edwards.

As discussed, the tuba has some not inconsiderable limitations. However, the paradox that limitations can encourage a greater degree of freedom proved very much to be the case at this concert. Not only were the instrument’s negatives (that immense size and lack of portability) turned into positives (physical humour), but both of these tubists are keen to explore some of the less obvious musical applications of the instrument. In doing so, they were encouraged by their companions – neither Edwards nor Butcher give much of a toss for convention, and have an interest in sounds which takes them way beyond the traditional melodic approach to their respective instruments.

A pair of opening duets between Hübsch and Edwards, then Hübsch and Butcher, were sonically fascinating. Instead of squabbling in the same melodic sound space as the bass player, Hübsch used some homemade mutes to distort his sound, the buzz of a biscuit tin disrupting Edwards’s crisper vibrations, and sending him chasing the crumbs in new directions. In response to some of Butcher’s magnificent textural constructions (his controlled split notes were sublime), Hübsch dismantled his instrument – off came the mouthpiece and valves, out came the slides – so he could blow airily through the pipes and clang bits of metal on the side of the dismembered instrument.

The duet between Hübsch and Marshall was extraordinary, as funny as it was technically impressive. The instrument’s more tangible characteristics were highlighted humorously, with Hübsch swinging the heavy instrument high above his head and poking his head into the bell, and Marshall wrestling with his larger version centre stage. At one point he took it for a walk, dragging it across Oto’s concrete floor, relishing the grinding noise it produced. Marshall’s un-professorial air, and physical approach, extended to him making some sounds through the instrument’s coiled bowels which sounded like less savoury bodily functions, and the set closed with him chuckling filthily to himself through the mouthpiece.

The closing ensemble performance was remarkable for its restraint. Given the collective weight of instrumentation on that stage, there was little volume – but lots of intensity. For the most part, this quietest of quartets explored texture and timbre: the sound of breath against brass, of hands against wood. Only at the end did Hübsch – who had been in danger of slipping into silence – erupt with a squall of noise, rasping through tubing to produce something like static, as if his horn was the amplifier for a disconcerting tangle of detuned radios. It was a fitting ending to a night which had done so much to challenge our preconceptions. Perhaps we need to call in the conservationists, for on this evidence, the tuba can still play a most vital role in the jazz ecosystem.

Ideologic Organ at Cafe Oto 4/2/12: Elodie and Jessica Kenney/Eyvind Kang

Jessica Kenney

After one of the mildest winters in history, a sudden chill came. The land turned white, the city’s sounds softened and muffled, and everything slowed down. As I watched the show fall onto the roof of a Dalston church from the queue outside Café Oto, I wondered whether Stephen O’Malley could have asked for a more perfect setting for the first of his Ideologic Organ events at that venue. While it is only four releases old, his curatorship of the Ideologic Organ imprint has steered him away from the lightning-cracked skies of Sunn O))), towards something quieter, softer and more austere. While doing so, he has pushed further out into an exploration of ancient musical forms and spiritualities, transposing his sonic interest in decay (death) and sustain (preservation) to other cultural settings.

Andrew Chalk

The reclusive Andrew Chalk rarely makes public appearances (or even utterances), so the chances of him playing live, in climatic circumstances which so complemented his music, were similar to those of finding two identical snowflakes. The common description of Chalk as a ‘drone’ artist would have been woefully inadequate for this: drone implies a constant something, but here there was almost a constant nothing. His Elodie duo, with the Finnish multi-instrumentalist Timo van Luijk, gave the sparsest, softest, slowest, quietest performance I’ve seen within these walls. Chalk stroked and caressed a few clipped notes from a close-mic’ed guitar sitting on his lap, while van Luijk barely blew through his flute, and only just touched a gong with a mallet. It was so hushed you could almost hear flecks of snow landing outside. The combination of the openness, processional pace and the focus on timbre reminded me of Japanese court music, like a gagaku composition set in a wintry oriental landscape. But there was a slight human presence in this scene, which lent it an emotional quality as well as an elegance: it was like watching someone disappear into the dark spaces. If these sounds were snowflakes, they were snowflakes made of frozen tears.

Kang

The work of Jessica Kenney and Eyvind Kang, as documented on their Aestuarium LP, draws more overtly from other places and languages, but there is something particularly haunting about their choices. Gaelic and Latin, Persian and Tibetan, these are dead or dying languages, and places you wouldn’t find on a modern atlas. The stark pizzicato viola of Kang and the ethereal voice of Kenney had a diaphonous, ghostly air which added to this sensation of listening to a vanishing past. They started in ritualistic mode, a one syllable call and response ceremony taking place amongst the crowd, before they marched through to their seats. The show continued to feel enjoyably unshackled from western conventions thereafter, full of long sliding glissandos and microtonal passages, moments of close harmony falling away to dissonance, but always retaining that austerity, slowness, softness, and spirituality. In the dark, silent space of Cafe Oto, “Dies Mej” sounded majestic in its delivery, but monastic in its purity. Setting this off against that all-white backdrop outside the venue’s windows made for a perfect introduction to this new series of shows, and not one that can be easily repeated. By the time we left, the snow had already started to melt.

PAN Festival at Cafe Oto, 27-28/1/12

CC Hennix

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.

Eli Keszler

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.

R/S

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.

Valerio

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.

Werner Durand

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.

Icarus – Fake Fish Distribution

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55 years have passed since John Cage spoke about the freedoms afforded to the composer thanks to technological advances – in his case, the invention of high fidelity magnetic tape. Yet even as we passed into the increasingly sophisticated era of laptops and audio software, these freedoms did not always manifest themselves in the live setting. The sight and sound of the artist standing behind their laptop, doing very little to very little effect, barely attempting to disguise the pre-ordained nature of their construction was all too common. Much in the way that a certain number of restrictions can, paradoxically, encourage invention, here was an example of freedom leading almost to paralysis, as if the work had become so complex that it could not be recreated, nor even reinterpreted – merely replayed.

Of course, this stasis was by no means universal. In the 15 years since they launched Icarus into the experimental end of the UK’s drum n bass scene with their Kamikaze album, Sam Britton and Ollie Bown have done more thinking than most about the flexibilities they have as composers within Cage’s sound space. In particular, they have concerned themselves with precisely where to draw the boundary between what they do and do not control, and the implications of this for the predictability or repeatability of their work.

Their Not Applicable label has afforded them the opportunity to engage fully with improvising musicians, while their creative tools have extended to take in Cageian ideas of chance and indeterminacy, as well as those of generative music. These concurrent developments progressed so far that by 2010, they were able to absent themselves physically from live performances entirely: a “quartet” performance with the trumpeter Tom Arthurs and clarinettist Lothar Ohlmeier occurred in which Britton and Bown were represented by a computer programme which was able to make musical decisions within set parameters on their behalf (as Long Division, it is now available as a free download from the Not Applicable website).

Given the increasing levels of variation which has resulted from these ways of working, not for nothing was the last Icarus album entitled All Is For The Best In All Possible Worlds: there was a real sense that they were thinking about new dimensions. Their latest release Fake Fish Distribution is a step further in that direction. Created after an extensive period of research and development at STEIM in the Netherlands, Fake Fish Distribution intrigues by virtue of the fact that all 1,000 copies are different: that is they each contain a unique variant of all 8 tracks. This, clearly, is not an album in the conventionally understood sense. Which presents some difficulties in the context of an album review.

For having heard ten versions of the album, they do indeed vary. At certain points, a certain musical event may or may not occur, a rhythm may choose to follow a different path at a junction, and a given section may last for a seemingly random duration (indeed the overall album length can vary by around ten per cent between versions). So I could tell you about the way ‘Two Mbiras’ gradually builds to its percussive centre, but I have no confidence that the one you hear will do so. Similarly, that evil swarm of noise that ‘Colour Field’ dissolves into may be entirely absent on version 893. And what point is there in me mentioning the intricate rhythmic section eleven minutes into ‘Old D’ when your version of the track is less than ten minutes long?

However that is not to say that your version of ‘Old D’ would be unrecognisable as still being, in a sense, ‘Old D’: decisions on timbre, volume and so on are still being made within parameters set by Britton and Bown, so the end results are only being given a certain amount of freedom to diverge. One way of thinking about the way that the percussive patterns on ‘MD Skillz’ vary between versions would be to consider that they had asked a drummer to improvise a complex solo on an extended kit. And then asked him to repeat it (of course they couldn’t ask him to repeat it 999 times, as it would ultimately tend towards some near singularity. It feels more like they have captured 999 of those second attempts, as impossible as that would be in practice).

Some of the sounds within those tracks, or sets of tracks with the same name, however we want to define them, are also recognisable as being things which belong to the grouping of Icarus sounds too. Over the course of their career, they have developed a strong sonic identity thanks to the way they process instrumental sounds – particularly strings and percussion, playing with their speed, reversing them, slicing them unforgivingly. On Fake Fish Distribution, with this digital enhancement it more than ever sounds like they are trying to add emphasis to the voice of this other active participant: the computer. To this catalogue they have added a number of new sounds, such as samples, including some snatched seemingly from the airwaves, Scanner-like and sinister. To a newcomer to their work (or possibly also someone who hadn’t heard anything since Kamikaze), their sound world would sound quite unfamiliar, and rather disconcerting.

Cornelius Cardew, famous for his groundbreaking graphical approach to the musical score, which gave considerable interpretative freedom to the performer, said he composed “systems”. Perhaps we should think of Fake Fish Distribution in a similar way, as a system, rather than just a set of compositions or as an album. It is clearly a larger subset of Cage’s sound space than the traditional album, being a system of parameters which can produce a family of 1,000 versions, each of which is unique but unmistakeably related. But why stop at 1,000? Why not 1,000,000? Indeed, why not an infinite number?

Icarus have pointedly imposed this numerical restriction on themselves, in order to accord with certain current conventions: the need for there to be a saleable physical product (and a saleable quantity of it), and the need for there to be something compatible with common current playback software (although it should be pointed out that they diverge from standard practice by giving purchasers some of the rights to their individual musical work, rather than retaining all the rights for all 1,000 themselves. In fact, the unique version is deleted from their servers when it is downloaded). It is entirely possible to imagine a future release of theirs being a piece of software complex enough to be able to generate far more than 1,000 copies of a work, on demand, and in precise forms that the human composers themselves could only have begun to have imagined. That is for tomorrow, perhaps. From where I stand today, I don’t see many who challenge our expectations of the role of the electronic music composer in the way Icarus do.