John Edwards and Okkyung Lee – White Cable Black Wires

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.

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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.

Freedom Of The City Festival 2010 Day 1, Conway Hall, 02/05/10

London Improvisers Orchestra

The Freedom Of The City festival is now as traditional a part of London’s May Day bank holiday celebrations as sitting in a dark pub watching the snooker world championship final on the big screen. OK, so maybe that is just me. Since 2001, percussionist Eddie Prévost and saxophonist Evan Parker have been putting together lineups containing some of the finest improvising musicians from all over the world, and the 2010 edition may well be the strongest yet. Curatorial duties this year were shared with Spring Heel Jack/Spiritualized’s John Coxon, a man who through his Treader label and related performances is as responsible as anyone for the current healthy state of improvised music in the capital. Continue reading