Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet at Cafe Oto, 20/4/11

Peter Brotzmann

Ever the contrarian, there were in fact eleven members of Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet for their three day residency at Cafe Oto. Eleven. This was more than an attempt to simply be “one louder”: in an interview conducted for the BBC beforehand, tentet member Ken Vandermark was rightly insisting Brötzmann’s reputation as the crazy shrieking sax player was – at least in part – a lazy journalistic invention. There is so much more to him than this; even when paired with Japanese noise guitarist Keiji Haino at Oto the previous week, the subtler side of his talents was still apparent. What the big band format in fact gives Brötzmann, aside from a financial headache, is sonic possibilities, different formations of musicians, from solos, duos, trios, quartets, right up to and including the full force of all eleven blasting away at once. Over the three days, the formal lineups included, as well as the tentet+1, Joe McPhee’s Survival Unit, a brass quartet, the Sonore saxophone trio, as well as solo sets from tuba player Per Åke Holmlander, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and the bass player Kent Kessler. And that is before we get to the countless combinations which assembled and disassembled organically during the course of the big band sets.


Tonight’s warm-up sets – as if we needed warming up in a busy Cafe Oto with temperatures of 25 degrees celsius outside – were to come from Kent Kessler, and the heavyweight Sonore trio of Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson and Peter Brötzmann himself. Vandermark, Gustafsson, Brötzmann: does it get any better than this? Their styles complement each other so well: Vandermark the more cerebral and technical, Gustafsson entirely visceral and all extended technique, with Brötzmann’s filling the space in between with his own light and shade, from melodic runs to huge, growling vibrato.

Vandermark and Gustafsson

Unusual textures abounded, from some eastern-sounding clarinet scales from Brötzmann (his instrument sounded like a whole troupe of Moroccan double reed instrumentalists) to notes from Gustafsson which sounded like they were split four ways. But it was their ability to respond to these that made this performance so special, taking them as trio into some really unpredictable spaces. For example, their first piece saw them all converging around some squealing, fluttering high notes, sounding like a whole flock of birds; this was easier for Ken Vandermark on the top end of his clarinet, but how the hell Gustafsson reached those notes on a baritone saxophone is completely beyond me. Later, when Brötzmann and Vandermark meshed two high-pitched sax and clarinet melody lines like two giant, fast-spinning cogs, he counterintuitively came in with the lowest, slowest drones he could find. It ended with all three back on sax, Vandermark and Gustafsson kicking and spitting, before Brötzmann entered with glorious song-like melody which harked back to his hard bop heroes. To answer my earlier question: based on this hugely entertaining set, no, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

Kent Kessler

Kent Kessler’s short bass solo was a welcome relief after the dizzying Sonore: from some sombre arco with knuckles dragged down strings, to some light, dancing pizzicato, there was suddenly just so much air and so much room to breathe. If you closed your eyes at times you could have sworn he was playing a violin, so high-pitched and fluid was the sound; while towards the end of the set, all creaks and arco groans, you might have though he was bowing the bow of a centuries-old boat.

Gustafsson and Nilsen Love

And so to the endless permutations of the eleven-man tentet. Over the course of this hour-long performance (an hour which flew by, it has to be said), we heard Peter Brötzmann playing with the two trombonists Johannes Andreas Bauer and Jeb Bishop; Mats Gustafsson playing with the drummers Paal Nilsen-Love and Michael Zerang; Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet in a unit with Nilsen-Love and Fred Lomberg-Holm’s cello; a bass and two trombone trio; a Brötzmann/Nilsen-Love face-off; Lomberg-Holm up against Brötzmann on clarinet; Gustafsson sparring with cello and drums, and solos from Bauer, Vandermark and Brötzmann. So many great bands, all within one large grouping. Brötzmann always led off each piece, setting the initial tone, usually returning towards the end to sum up; but in between Gustafsson had a role in organising and cajoling the brass, conjuring order from a situation designed to encourage the opposite.

Gustafsson and vandermark

Regardless of who was playing, the others were always listening intently – with that many people on stage you had to work hard to find your opening. Just watching Gustafsson when Brötzmann or Vandermark played was a masterclass in the art: eyes closed, gritted teeth chewing on their sound, rocking back and forth to feel the pulse, coiling like a spring before finally spiralling upwards to interject forcefully and idiosyncratically. As he did, even his long-time foil Nilsen-Love (whose polyrhythms sometimes rendered Zerang surplus to requirements, playing like two drummers on his own) was listening, laughing and wincing at what he was hearing from his colleague, as he realised he’d have to respond to it in turn. One short phrase from a long Peter Brötzmann exposition was picked up and echoed seemingly by all at once, like starlings all changing flight path simultaneously. Despite the repeated fragmentation into smaller groups, the unity amongst the eleven was unshakeable, and the residency fittingly ended with the brass and reeds all being pulled together towards the centre of the stage to blast out a song in unison. Let’s hope that sense of harmony persisted when they had to split the takings from the three days into eleven undeservedly underproportioned slivers…

the tentet

There are more photos from the evening here.


Keiji Haino and Voltigeurs at Cafe Oto, 9/4/11

Keiji Haino

In the run up to this show, someone told me that Keiji Haino once insisted upon playing so loud that the sound engineer at the gig quit in disgust. Someone else told me that, despite the volume he plays at, he thinks earplugs should be banned at his shows (Oto, having somewhat more sense, dispensed them for free). What is the purpose of this merciless pursuit of maximum volume? And why does the audience willingly submit to it? Despite the forewarnings, I parted with my cash for the first of two sold out nights of a mini-residency which were to match the Japanese avant-garde guitarist with two rather different practitioners of the loud arts: Matthew Bowers’s Voltigeurs project, and on the next night the fiery German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann. The evening which paired him with Bower was to show just how important a weapon volume can be, both in the form of a sustained barrage of noise and in short, dramatic explosions, but also how it can be so easily sapped of its power if handled carelessly.


Last time I saw Matthew Bower play, it was in St Giles-in-the-fields, where he proceeded to enact all manner of strange pagan ceremonies in the historic church, drawing symbols on bedsheets, dripping candle wax, and spitting red wine. Even in this new slimmed down lineup, featuring just him, Samantha Davis and a wall of amps, it felt like an act of worship rather than a musical performance. With us all facing the same way, turning their backs on the audience seemed not like a rejection, but more like an invitation to share in a communal experience along with them. When Bower sank to his knees mid-set, it look like rock star posturing at all, he was prostrating himself before the source of the sound. And what a sound it was. Layer upon layer of unrecognisably disfigured guitar built up, merging with the feedback, the shards collecting together into dense shapes, pulses and frequencies surfacing before being subsumed back into the tangled mass. With earplugs in this would have sounded dull and lifeless, but without them it was rich and immersive, transcending the point of pain until it became strangely euphoric.

Keiji Haino

Keiji Haino is clearly in thrall to the guitar; not just to its sound, but to all that in represents. At times during this lengthy – very lengthy in fact – performance it felt like he was taking us on a journey through the instrument’s history, touching on its use in rock, blues, metal and jazz. These wild contrasts in mood were matched with extremes of volume. The beginning of the set was extraordinarily intense, with Haino playing some soft, deft, improvised guitar, reminiscent of his former collaborator Derek Bailey in its unconventional timbre and construction, letting the sounds die out into the room, before SCREAMING into the mic. He was soon to do the opposite: sections of sweet vocal melody being rent asunder by a savage six string eruption. The set’s diverse intro also featured him growling whilst playing Kaoss Pads in theatrical fashion, looking and sounding like a sorcerer conjuring spells. After around half an hour he switched back to guitar, for what I assumed was to be another similarly brief interlude. He was still playing it well over an hour later, alternating again and again (and again and again) between musings on jazz figures, blues licks and rock riffs as dumb as they come (think “Paranoid” or “Helter-Skelter”), and hair-flailing, string-snapping white noise freakouts. Through repetition, the power of the contrast between melody and noise, and between quiet and loud became entirely diminished, the set ultimately becoming as grey and overlong as Haino’s mane itself.

Entr’acte label showcase at Cafe Oto, 31/3/11

Entr'acte E31

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.

Keith Moline

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.

Olivia Block

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.

Adam Sonderberg

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.

Ghédalia Tazartès and Rashad Becker at Cafe Oto, 25/3/11

Ghedalia Tazartes by Scott McMillan

The London public’s appetite for being challenged seems to know no boundaries: at Cafe Oto this week we had two consecutive sold out, well-received nights of avant garde music from relatively unheralded French musicians. Michel Chion (who played the previous night in what I’ve heard was an immersive ten speaker musique concrete experience) and Ghédalia Tazartès are two outsider figures who have been known to each other for decades, if not necessarily to the wider public. Thanks to a reissue programme by the Italian label Alga Marghen, Tazartès, probably the more obscure of the two, has had an increased level of attention in recent years, but none of the people I talked to before this show really knew quite what to expect.

Rashad Becker

That also applied to support act Rashad Becker, but for very different reasons. Becker’s name will be known to a lot of people – indeed it appears on many, many records – but his music won’t be. His day job is as the mastering and cutting engineer in Berlin’s world-famous Dubplates and Mastering, where his role involves entering into a creative dialogue with the music of others, helping them to achieve what they set out to with their compositions in the final product. Before he got the D&M gig, he was originally a musician in his own right, and he continues with this as an irregular sideline, making and manipulating loops and electronic sounds. What wasn’t a surprise about his performance at Cafe Oto was how precise it all looked and sounded as he carefully twisted dials to produce a sequence of very crisp and discrete tones, sparse and improvisational (if you had to pick something from Becker’s other work to compare this to, it sounded like an early, experimental, Mego, a less harsh Pita or Hecker). What was more unexpected was just how conversational it all sounded. Aside from the samples of human voices that he dissected and looped, most of the other frequencies used were within the range of the human voice – it sounded like a long stream-of-consciousness sentence made up short syllables, electronic oohs and wahs, sections of muttering, and occasionally bickering. Whatever he does, it seems Becker has the knack of giving sound its voice.

Ghedalia Tazartes

Conversely, Ghédalia Tazartès uses voice for its sound. He sings in his own personal made up language over an ever-shifting backdrop, a collage of the aforementioned musique concrète, industrial rhythms, samples, and even what at one point sounded like a loop from an old soul record. So essentially, it is just a man singing over a CD backing track… but what a voice he has. None of the Ghédalia Tazartès records that I’ve heard prepared me for just how good it is; at this Cafe Oto show, it was an absolute revelation: strong, beautiful and restlessly itinerant, ranging from French chanson (supplemented by occasional bursts of accordion) to the call of a muezzin to the split notes of Tuvan throat singing. Regardless of the level of artifice involved, the emotions involved always felt real, as if Tazartès was tapping into something deep within himself. However, with a man in a wide-brimmed hat with a necklace made of seashells singing in an unintelligible language, the ultimate sense of reality was very Lynchian, with that same strange, constantly surprising and very dreamlike quality. And while those hats and necklaces aren’t quite yet the uniform of choice round Dalston way, Tazartès seemed to really speak to this crowd: at the end, the ovation was huge. Which really did say it all.


Arthur Doyle and Steve Noble at Cafe Oto, 13/3/11

Arthur Doyle, by Scott McMillan

Noah Howard’s 1969 album The Black Ark begins with a bouncing bass and piano groove, before massed horns assemble loosely around a melody. It doesn’t last long, as a succession of solos lead the track “Domiabra” into increasingly free areas. However, nothing can prepare you for the extraordinary entrance of saxophonist Arthur Doyle five minutes in, cutting short the trumpet solo with a devastating solo which builds on (if something so destructive can really be said to “build on” anything) the more brutal developments made elsewhere by the likes of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders. In the liner notes to the Bo’Weavil reissue of the LP, Oren Ambarchi describes his playing on the track as “incoherent rage…a chaotic and murderous sound”. It is a truly shocking moment. As was Doyle’s entrance onto the Cafe Oto stage for this rare live performance, but shocking in a very different way. I’d seen video clips of him playing with Sunny Murray or Han Bennink over the last decade, and he seemed in reasonable nick, so the suddenness of the decline in his physical condition was quite upsetting. Now without his dreadlocks and his teeth, he looked almost unrecognisable, and worryingly gaunt and frail. During a particularly violent warm-up set of solo drumming by Steve Noble, Doyle could be glimpsed at the side of the stage, bent double, coughing feebly. When it was his turn to finally play himself, he shuffled uneasily to his seat, and we fell quiet to hear his spoken introduction. Which was, owing to the lack of teeth, entirely indecipherable.

Arthur Doyle, by Scott McMillan

And when he did put his tenor to his mouth, the signs were little better – he played a succession of very short phrases punctuated by pauses and gasps for breath, as if that was all his current condition would allow him to contribute – indeed, he quickly discarded that instrument, almost as if it was just too much effort for him to play it at all. And so he began to sing. After a fashion. Singing has been a feature of Doyle’s live sets for some time, but it can never have sounded quite like this. I’ve probably heard hundreds of versions of Gershwin’s “Summertime”, but this one was extraordinary – lyrics implied, melody merely hinted at, all suffused in a deep moan, the song seemingly being no more than fragments dragged up from the depths of not just his memory, but from a collective, generational, and geographical one. It felt like the gradual disintegration of the song itself, even the songbook (we got “Bye Bye Blackbird” too), even the jazz tradition. We’ve had a succession of the music’s greatest pass away in recent years, and with each one that goes, we become further and further away from the source, from that first hand connection to the music’s roots. Watching and listening to Arthur Doyle tonight (his most famous is called Alabama Feeling, after all) was a stark reminder of just how much we stand to lose.

Steve Noble and Arthur Doyle, by Scott McMillan

And if it wasn’t obvious quite how much we’d lose in Doyle’s case, he hammered the point home during the duo performance with Steve Noble. It took a while to get going, despite the drummer’s supportive efforts (Noble deserves huge plaudits for his efforts tonight; I’ll be returning to talk more about him soon) to build some deep rhythms around Doyle’s clipped lines, answering and echoing, even switching to playing the drums with his hands to give him something with a common African root. Gradually, Doyle’s excursions were becoming longer, that familiar growl, and the Roland Kirk-like simultaneous singing and playing, becoming stronger and more confident. Noble obviously sensed this, persuading Doyle to do one more piece, which was to be the best of the night by far. The tone was bluesy and magnificently raw, and egged on by some thunderous drumming, he soared upwards to play a section as high as the solo during “Mount Fuji” from The Black Ark. Close your eyes, and you’d recognise this as being Arthur Doyle again. Which, after the preceding hour, was something of a shock.

Arthur Doyle by Scott McMillan

Matana Roberts and Seb Rochford at Cafe Oto, 7/3/11

Matana Roberts and Seb Rochford by Scott McMillan

“It is a good thing there isn’t a microphone up here,” said saxophonist Matana Roberts early on in this performance, “as if you’ve seen me before you’ll know it can be dangerous to give me a microphone”. Indeed – for Matana Roberts has a lot to say. Her live sets will be interrupted with stories, with Q&A sessions, with calls for comments and requests. But her music too feels like a continuation of this side of her personality. Solo, she is a raconteur, telling tales from her Chicago roots and her Harlem home. In a group setting there is a full and frank exchange of opinions. So in a duo, as in tonight’s set with Polar Bear drummer Seb Rochford (for a change, Roberts didn’t have the most eye-catching hairstyle on the stage), I was expecting something akin to a conversation. It didn’t always feel that way.

Matana Roberts by Scott McMillan

Roberts began this improvised set at her bluesy best, spinning slow lyrical phrases, punctuated by the occasional “huh”. Or, rather, “huh?”, as in “what do YOU reckon?”: even these vocal interjections seemed chatty. Rochford did join in, but his comments felt somewhat diffident and off-point to begin with, fractures which didn’t seem to connect. Via experimentation, he found a common language: beguiling rhythms played on tiny sticks seemed to be responding to the clicks of Matana’s keys, some glorious long split notes were met with scraped cymbals, while an extended section in which he played the drums with his hands seemed to be an attempt to find a common root. But despite all this evident technique, he seemed content to remain in reflective mode for most of the show, playing back ideas, checking understanding, rather than adding to the story himself.

Seb Rochford by Scott McMillan

At the start of the second set, Roberts encouraged the drummer to lead off, and he built an impressive introduction, again without sticks, all fingers and palms. It seemed to lead Roberts into looser territory, the duo quarreling with each other in some raucous free improvisation, before the page turned and she was back in storyteller mode – a musical “so, anyway, as I was saying”. This musical squabbling seemed to attract the attention of some upstairs neighbours (Oto has upstairs neighbours?) who began banging on the floor. “Like a New York apartment”, mused Roberts, while Rochford too found in this intrusion something he could relate to. Echoing the THUMP THUMP THUMP on his kit, this new trio found a whole new level of energy, a brutal rhythmic power combining with some gnarly blowing. At the end, when Roberts asked for “comments and considerations”, the audience appeared stunned into silence. She smiled. “I guess sometimes the music speaks for itself, huh?”.

Matana Roberts's saxophone, by Scott McMillan

Oval and Imbogobom at Cafe Oto, January 2011

Oval by Scott McMillan

“Natural events such as the collision of hail or rain with hard surfaces, or the song of cicadas in a summer field…these sonic events are made out of thousands of isolated sounds; this multitude of sounds, seen as a totality, is a new sonic event. This mass event is articulated and forms a plastic mold of time”. That quote from Xenakis was used by support act Rogers and Jones to illustrate the ambitions of their piece, a musing on the relationship between our perceptions of time and sound; however it seems much more apt in the context of Oval’s recent work. Markus Popp’s O album was a veritable barrage of tiny sounds, all individually clipped and cleaved from context, scattered like rain from seeded clouds. The pristine precision of this new sound, or sounds, showed a huge progression from his equally innovative smudged glitch; this gig was to show that he’d applied some thought to changing how we perceive the Popp live performance.

Alexander Tucker, by Scott McMillan

Popp’s Thrill Jockey label mate Alexander Tucker appeared before him as Imbogodom. A different beast to his usual guitar and cello loop creations, the Imbogodom album was made with Daniel Beban, a New Zealander who worked for the BBC’s World Service. Given their respective backgrounds, the resulting album neatly knitted Tucker’s dark drones into a Radiophonic framework, using tape loops and effects. Tucker attempted to recreate that sound here on stage using samples of the recordings and a battery of pedals. Clever stuff. He opted to do this, as any serious experimental musician in the circumstances would, whilst dressed as a yeti. A yeti with white glowing eyes. More typically for Tucker, however, the set was excellent, his deep moans building an occult atmosphere, while he summoned ghostly apparitions of guitars and synths, this one long continuous piece becoming increasingly immersive. Yet not immersive enough for Tucker: there were a couple of complaints from him during and after the performance about the lack of volume. And while I felt sorry for him in that the set didn’t turn out exactly as he planned, it’s hard not to laugh when you see and hear a yeti whinging about his “levels”.

Oval, by Scott McMillan

I saw Markus Popp emerging from his sonic chrysalis in April 2009 in Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, to gingerly test out the strength of his new wings. And while the beauty of the new material was instantly apparent, he hadn’t quite perfected the performance aspect: one track simply crossfaded into the next, and he displayed all the emotion of the man from the IT department who comes round to have a look at your laptop when you’ve spilled coffee all over it (again). This Oto show was, well, rather different. For one thing, he tied the tracks together neatly with some great sections of textural bass exploration, like Eleh fragments. But the biggest revelation was his physical performance: every individual sound seemed to elicit an accompanying facial expression: lips would pucker for a “boip”, he’d grimace for a “brrrrrip”, and he’d look lovingly at a “gdooooo”. And the drum drops – and there were a lot of drum drops, far more than on O – would have him throwing his hands in the air excitedly. I’m still not sure how much of the set, other than perhaps those growling interstitials, is actually live – it all seems too intricate for him to be spinning these shapes on the fly. But with eyes closed, and without the, er visual element, these wonderful noises just seemed to dance from the Oto sound system. So light and crisp, the extreme separation turning them into tiny specks of smouldering silver foil, floating and swirling into sequences and patterns, forming lengthy new sonic events as much as they formed new events of light and colour.

The Tapeworm – Unleashed In The East, Cafe Oto 09/12/2010

Philip Jeck // Scott McMillan

Philip Jeck // Scott McMillan

Stop. Rewind. The Tapeworm have only been around for just over a year, but in that time they have done so much to raise the profile of a format which has been teetering on the edge of respect ability for sometime. By no means are they the only label committed to the format, but just look at some of the names already in their catalogue: Fennesz, Pita, Daniel Menche, John Butcher, Lasse Marhaug, Stephen O’Malley and, on their very first cassette, Philip Jeck. It isn’t all experimental music, though: the label has released pop music and spoken word too. Inevitably, it doesn’t all hit the mark. Perhaps the best way to think of their roster is that it too is a very eclectic mix tape compiled for you by a person wildly indifferent to your taste in music. No-one can possibly like all of this. Can they?

Cathi Unsworth // Scott McMillan

Cathi Unsworth // Scott McMillan

Given that, it is to be expected that a Tapeworm event actually feels as much variety show as conventional gig; you almost want to hold up scores at the end of a “turn”, doing your best Nina Myskow sucking-on-a-lemon face. Look at the lineup for this one: an interview, solo piano, spoken word, more solo piano, pop, hauntological turntablism, and minimalist drone. I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed Cathi Unsworth reading from her book Bad Penny Blues, but was never likely take to Zerocrop’s relatively straight (in a musical sense) slightly industrial-tinged pop, despite the presence of a backing singer hiding under the magnificent pseudonym Olivia Neubauten John. From the serious to the profane and back. All these bewildering shifts in mood made me feel like I was watching a Dalston-set David Lynch film; camp cowboys and East End hookers, nightmarish noisescapes and dissonant drone.

Philip Jeck // Scott McMillan

Philip Jeck // Scott McMillan

And then, amongst all of this oddness, you have Philip Jeck. I’ve seen him play three times in the space of a week (at ATP, in the Resonance FM studios, and then here at Oto), and it has shed a little light into how he works. I know that at Oto he was using a fair bit of the same source material as he did for us at Resonance FM (some Sibelius, James Last, his own London Tenderberries single, a recording of his own bass, some bagpipes, a German baroque composer whose name I can’t remember), but it sounded entirely different. When you watch Philip Jeck playing live, and he looks so lost in the music, so deep in concentration, it isn’t just theatre, it is because he is doing this on the fly; reacting not just to what he is hearing but to the situation. For example, just a week ago at the Godspeed ATP he was purposely creating some aggressive sounding glitch by dropping the stylus on the record, and leaving extended sections of looped drones, but here it had a constant, flowing movement, emotions just seeping through time, and into one another. Three times in one week? I could listen to this every night.

The evening closed with a performance by Randy Gibson, who had flown over from New York, where he is a student of minimalist composer La Monte Young. Tonight he played a tiny organ, gradually adding notes one by one until he had constructed a room filling (and, sadly but inevitably given the late hour, room-clearing) drone, and chanting over the top. It is probably fair to say that Gibson doesn’t quite have the voice of a Pandit Pran Nath, and I’m not entirely sure what was being added by the two others on stage playing boomboxes (I think it was meant to recreate his excellent Tapeworm tape, in which the sound of him stopping and starting the tape recording to build layers creates a percussive subtext) but to end this wildly oscillating night on a moment of relative calm, of stillness, and of pleasingly soporific and mind-emptying purity, was highly welcome. This was no fast forward, just a long, slow slide into nothingness. After the Jeck set which at times felt like it was bout everything, this felt like such a contrast. Such is the beauty of the mixtape. As the Tapeworm have been known to holler, long live the cassette!

Japanese New Music Festival, Cafe Oto, 14/11/10

Tsuyama Atsushi

This performance at Cafe Oto had everything. And I mean everything. Solo sets. Duo sets. Trio sets. Songs. Instrumentals. Cover versions. Fanfares. Improvisation. Folk. Blues. Prog. Psych. Jazz. Drone. Throat singing. Guitar solos. Singing bowl solos. Bottle solos. Trouser zip solos. Miles Davis impersonations. Grown men wearing furniture on their heads. I swear I’m not making any of this up. This actually happened, at Cafe Oto. Most of all, however, this night had fun. Lots and lots of fun. Continue reading

Room40 Open Frame at Cafe Oto, 4-5 November 2010


In its (first) ten years, the Australian Room40 label has built up an impressively diverse catalogue of experimental music; it would be asking too much for this year’s Open Frame event, held for the second year at its spiritual home-from-home Cafe Oto, to do justice to that breadth. There was no place for Japanese avant-pop this year, or for abstract sound recordings, for example. Instead, the first night focused on the more improvisational end of their output, featuring percussionist Andrea Belfi, a quintet made up of the I/O3 trio with David Toop and Scanner, and Necks pianist Chris Abrahams. Friday night slipped deep into ambient and noise soundscapes as represented by Rafael Anton Irisarri, Lawrence English, and Grouper.

Andrea Belfi

Andrea Belfi’s short set was an understated masterclass in the art of mixing percussion with electronics. His drum kit was quite a contraption, festooned with metal objects and with mics swinging on strings, and he made simple and effective use of it all. He sampled the sound of mallets softly caressing drums, looping and blending this with sine waves, and calling in voices from the ether, before finishing with some delicate gamelan, soft patterns repeating over and over, sending us gently into a trance.

David Toop

The following set reunited the musicians from one of Room40’s earliest releases: A Picturesque View, Ignored. I/O3 (Room40 boss Lawrence English with Tam Patton and Heinz Riegler), Scanner and David Toop are from very different backgrounds: in particular, Toop’s fascination with the precise qualities of sound, and Scanner’s more rhythmic approach, led the ensemble into some very disparate, and quite unexpected spaces. Toop added a rich selection of sounds, the crunching of dried leaves, the snapping of twigs, and the dropping of mustard seeds into a metal dish. Scanner looped and sampled, finding patterns in the forest (it reminded me a little of Biosphere at one point), supplementing them with his own field recordings, and chopping at a chaos pad. Under this was a dark and ever-shifting carpet of ebowed guitar and electronic mulch from I/O3.

Chris Abrahams

Chris Abrahams is a man possessed of an inquisitive mind. His recent album for the Room40 label, the excellent Play Scar, saw him straying from his more usual piano and exploring the sounds of Hammond organs, synths and a ruined church organ amongst others. For this Open Frame performance he was back on piano again, but retaining that sense of adventure. What if? What if I restricted myself to just one note for half of the set? After a slow introduction, huge sprawling gaps between the notes, Abrahams found himself drawn to his instrument’s high B. B. B. B. B. He began by playing it with one finger, speeding up, B, B, B, B, B, and then playing it with two, BBBBBBBB. The longer this went on, the more you noticed: harmonics emerged (someone with far better ears than me picked out a C sharp), while the increasingly powerful thud of his fingers on the keys added a percussive element. He got so much from so little, and had the audience so completely spellbound, that it was almost a shame that he had to break it, his left hand dominating in a pulsing, phasing, almost Reichian finale. After the set, I asked Abrahams about the note: it was a B, wasn’t it? “Of course”, he replied, “B is the best note”. Marvellous.

Rafael Anton Irisarri

After that magnificent minimalism, day two was to offer something far lusher. And wetter. Rafael Anton Irisarri built on his Room40 release The North Bend with a set which drew on looped guitar and electronic drones, placing them amongst some damp-sounding field recordings, matching the prevailing atomospheric conditions outside. Grey, drizzly static gave way to the sound of footsteps in soggy mud, while slight bowed and ebowed guitar was followed with some overwhelmingly powerful bass frequencies. As this all collected in repetitive figures, it recalled the dreamy ambience of Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project, lacking the rhythmic impetus, but with the same serene sense of progression into ever darker spaces.

Lawrence English

If we felt wet after Irisarri’s performance, then Lawrence English was to give us a good drenching in a set derived, it seemed, from knitting together his own recordings of a voyage to sea. Our journey started on the shore, with waves lapping at our feet, the sound pitching and lurching with increasing intensity as we were steered straight into the centre of an ocean storm. A dense mist of wind and water was whipped up around us, the ship’s mast and hull clanking and groaning under the strain, before we anchored up on the other side, our presence disturbing flocks of birds. After huge low waves of engine noise, English began to pump at his harmonium, swaying like he was standing on deck: this was a very physical performance, exhaustingly so. Even if you had seen him do something similar in the same venue last year, this was still an impressively evocative piece of work.


The dying waves of Lawrence’s harmonium spilt onto the grainy shore of Grouper cassette hiss. Liz Harris didn’t have a Walkman, she had a Walkarmy, six cassette players emitting a mixture of hum, distorted Basinski-like melody loops, and field recordings (traffic sounds, most recognisably). She added barely-there guitar arpeggios, only just disturbing the strings with her fingertips, before she began to whisper a soft vocal line. Everything was inhabiting the space on the very edge of perceptibility: this was by far the quietest Grouper performance I have witnessed, and possibly partly for that reason, also the best. More than ever these felt like mere ghosts of songs, haunted transmissions from the shadows; you had to work hard just to pick them up, and then to separate them from Dalston street sounds and Oto glass clinking. Just as it felt like our very lives were sublimating into the east London air, Lawrence English and Rafael Anton Irisarri returned to give us all a good hard boot up the arse, their bowed guitar and electronic drones rounding off this year’s Open Frame on a high note, almost as high as Chris Abrahams’s high C sharp from the previous night.