Live Music: David Dunn and Jackson MacLow at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 13 October 2021

A double bill of American Buddhists, my god. At least if there’s any religious knowledge to be picked up here, it’s taught by example (as with Cage, the didactic element is present in parable). Back at Cafe Oto, the first gig in over 18 months with something like normal capacity and an audience all getting in surprisingly early to grab all the seats. This was the fourth gig I’ve been to this year and the third to feature the string quartet incarnation of Apartment House. I’d complain we were getting in a rut but not when they were presenting an hour-long work for string quartet and tape by David Dunn. Dunn is one of those names I’ve heard for years as part of the general millieu of the looser end of American experimental music and I’ve only just realised that I have never heard a note of music by the guy until now. Safe to assume he doesn’t get played enough: ‘The Great Liberation Through Hearing’ was composed in 1995 and received its premiere this weekend. For 25 years the piece has laid on the page as an acoustic experience to be imagined but never heard.

The quartet plays notes based on just-intonation harmonic overtones on a drone provided by a recording of Dunn’s voice, chanting slowed down until each word is stretched over several minutes. (The recording heard was a new software-enabled rendition, the original tape having been misplaced.) There’s a slow articulation of phonemes before each long, trailing drone of bass voice enmeshed with overlapping sibilants and fricatives. The cello plays in the low registers to augment the pitched sound while violins weave harmonics between the waves of hiss. Each prolonged moment takes on its own character. As a concept, it’s straightforward, using simple, strong materials imbued with natural acoustic qualities that work together in ways that continually create interest. Even at this most reductive level, away from any meditative or transcendental considerations, the piece succeeds and Apartment House have filled in another small gap in the post-war avant-garde.

The concert opened with Jackson Mac Low’s The Text on the Opposite Page from 1965. Mac Low’s reputation as a poet sadly confines too many of his pieces to the page when they are expressly meant to be performed, so this was a rare opportunity to hear his verbal abstractions. Apartment House were joined by Elaine Mitchener, who turned the atomised text into a sonic action painting of phonemes and punctuation matched by the strings’ instrumental gestures. Mitchener’s voice is ideally agile for such a mercurial score, supple enough to stretch and bend around each sound and then snap into focus at just the right places, with a presence that is always expressive without tempting the conventional avant-garde vocal attitudes of becoming grotesque or arch.