Things Seen, Heard (2)

Monday 10 September 2018

Just quickly, I’m trying to keep a record of gigs I’ve been to lately. There were a few last weekend, all at Cafe Oto. It’s close by and the weather’s nice enough to sit outside with a G&T. On Friday I finally saw my old nemesis Phill Niblock in action. It was as I expected and I was glad of it. It’s always a learning experience to watch the old masters in action. Four sections, or panels, of sound, each made of drones of like instruments, sampled and combined on two laptops. The old films were projected. The pieces seem busier now and they probably are; a combination of increased understanding of how to listen and increased technical possibilities.

There was craft, first and foremost, displayed in all these gigs. Tim Shaw opened for Niblock – I knew nothing about him but he put his impressive rig of electronic components and array of bullhorns to good use. The slowly evolving drone that transitions from time to time can easily become trite but Shaw’s sounds were pleasantly rich and well resolved, with textural details emerging out of held tones in an organic way and not just another boring crossfade once each sound is played out.

Saturday was a duet of Angharad Davies and Phil Julian – what could have been an awkward pairing of violin and analogue electronics went together beautifully, each exploiting the knowledge of their own instrument to accent, comment, elaborate, support and contrast the other. At time you couldn’t be sure which was which, and each could be either.

The same night, cellist Lucy Railton played a solo set. I’ve only heard her playing other people’s stuff before. As expected, cello with electronics. Not expected: cello was dropped after a while, briefly returned to later and then abandoned for good. Railton spent the rest of the time working with a small table of electronic devices. The timbres were suitably gritty at first, then went happily off-piste into collages of divergent sounds, sometimes rubbing up aganst each other hard, ending with a unintelligible conversation under a wash of electronic hail. The setup was ripe for musical and physical fumbling but this was mostly avoided in a way that inspired confidence for further work in this vein.

Monday night was supposed to be spent at home but I was lured out by more G&Ts and the chance to see electroacoustic composer Bryan Eubanks do his thing live. Turned out that he was playing soprano sax as part of a sort of free jazz trio. He had what appeared to be a homebrew stompbox which transformed his instrument from time to time, sometimes moving away from pitch and into pure timbre, at others slashing away like an overdriven guitar. It was a useful insight into what makes him tick. Thinking of his previous work using windows as speakers, I listened to the second set outside.

Organs, Inner and Outer: Thomas Ankersmit, Rohan Drape

Thursday 6 September 2018

I’m a sucker for feedback synthesis* and therefore I’m very happy with Thomas Ankersmit’s new CD Homage to Dick Raaijmakers. There are two things that stand out after the first listening. Most obviously, there is the utilisation of inner-ear phenomena (the notes advise against using headphones for this piece) that predominate at certain times, creating those satisfying shifts in texture and tone when you move your head around while an otherwise static sound is playing. Almost as striking is the compositional sense at work behind the sounds. This type of music making can so often result in an overwhelming torrent of sounds that never let up, a cataloguing of technical effects or an unvarying slice of sound sculpture. Homage to Dick Raaijmakers flows with an almost romantic feeling for the material as it rises and then ebbs away, the mood passing between tension and relaxation. Repeated listening reveals new details, reflecting the blend of different media put to use here: analogue feedback units and oscillators are combined with contact microphones and tape manipulation. Multiple strands of electronic sounds are often at work, creating subtleties not noticed at first. The psychoacoustic effects arrive in two plateaux during the course of the piece, and even there the pulsing and pitches change from time to time while the listener is head-bopping.

The whole high-pitched beating frequencies thing made me remember that I wanted to mention a recent CD by Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras. Ellesmere is apparently the first commercial release by Drape – an event I’ve waited a long time for. I’ve heard him play live, in groups and solo, on several occasions and always been wowed by his technical knowledge, particularly his understanding of software as a means for making music, beyond using it as a tool to achieve a desired outcome. This virtuosity shines through from within the music, not as a flashy surface, so perhaps it should be expected that Ellesmere ignores high-end technology and consists simply of two duets for old electric organs. In the shorter work, Harleian, the two keyboards focus on high pitches, with the differences of intonation and overtones between the two instruments creating plenty of activity to keep the cochlea buzzing. The long piece, St Johns Wood, is in a more sombre register, a slow chorale for organ played as a strange double image, the matched keyboards creating microtonal chords and ghostly harmonics. The otherwise simple organ sound becomes disembodied, without background or perspective the instrument becomes unreal.

*To the point of using it myself, with both analogue and digital electronics.