Monday, April 10, 2006

I and E Festival, Dublin, 31 March-1st April 2006... review











The main venue for the Irish Improvisation Festival is the Printing House, part of the Trinity campus in Dublin city centre, a long, narrow, high-ceilinged room. With the musicians playing at the side rather than at the front, the sitelines are a bit distorted – if you sat like I did right on the end of the row. I couldn't hear much of the rather muttered introduction either – some more pro-active compering would have been a bonus – but small criticisms: the sound was exceptionally good, the audience quietly attentive – and young, in the main. And the place was packed to the doors...

First up Jurgen Simpson – laptop/electronics. If, with due homage to Paul Klee, improvisation is 'taking the note for a walk,' this set offered a succinct example of the process. A compact definition of improvisation as a journey. Simpson started with a single pure tone and proceeded to mutate it and warp it outwards in a variety of timbral/granular variations – going through a broadening out that sounded like the washing/rushing of sea on a beach as the tone slowly disappeared and a denser, levelled progression of sounds took over – at one point what seemed a two bar motif with a sturdy engine-like hum in front. This double-level of sounds was maintained, a bass-like drone underpinning more granular, glitchy sounds, for example. The original tone returned, fading and swelling to end the piece. Simpson displays his composer's sense of form in this improvisation, playing off the granular and the pure sounds and essaying in the true sense. I thought he was very good and so did the audience, who followed him throughout with rapt attention and applauded enthusiastically.

Second: Mathias Forge, Birgit Ulher and Paul Vogel. Trombone, trumpet and clarinet plus laptop manipulations – a contrast to the purely electronic music that had just preceded them. This set was concerned with the movement of breath (and spit) across and through mouthpieces and the metal and wood tubes of the intruments with occasional minimal computer manipulation from Vogel. Music of chamber intensity and understatement played at very low volume. An irony - that the instruments represent the archetypal New Orleans front line, the musicians at one point almost making me laugh out loud as the trombone and trumpet pointed downwards while Paul Vogel lifted his clarinet and pointed it at the ceiling – an almost archetypal image from New Orleans/Dixieland jazz.










One was tempted to shout 'Oh, play that thing!' But no tailgate tromboning, fast arpeggiated counter-melodies or ripping trumpet calling the people home here - collectively they made the barest audible minimum of sound. I noticed that the music was so quiet in parts my scribbled notes were clearly audible as the pen scratched across the paper. An unintended jam with the trio and a further tribute to the sonic qualities of the room... Yet this music is not as abstract – or precious - as it may seem on reading my somewhat facetious comments. It is much concerned with the materiality of improvisation – the physical zones of contact between lips, breath and instrument. Almost an exploration of the origins of notes before they become contextualised in the wider stream of musical creation. On one level: very intense. On another: quite amusing as the iconic presence of the trio's brass and woodwind instruments is suppressed and subverted(as already mentioned) into different channels of intention. The use of mutes, for example, by both trumpet and trombonist, Mathias Forge at one point producing a faint popping sound with a plunger mute over the bell of his instrument – Tricky Sam Nanton this wasn't... Maybe playing with the idea of mute? Again – a brilliant and thought-provoking piece – which can only work with such extremely good acoustics, subtle miking and an audience prepared to go along with the gambit. Which they did. After all, this music, for it to succeed, demands an active partipation in listening... which was duly given...

Annette Krebs. Similar ethic involved here – bypassing the traditional sonic possibilities of the instrument and using scraping, bowing, electronic processing and the occasional plucking of the guitar (to produce small and abrupt notes that were warped into other sonic dimensions). Subverting/disregarding the visual imperatives - the guitar is such a strong icon – here it is strapped to the table and surrounded with wires, leads and other modes of sound processing and only sporadically used as a sound source – again an intense but also amusing strategy. Krebs works at varying levels of volume, using abrupt pauses and jump-cut changes of direction to create a jagged and at times harsh sound world that embraces the materiality of the origins of the sound. Fascinating and abrasively brilliant.

Keith Rowe and Mark Wastell. This last performance balanced the evening well. Louder, more gestural, bringing the evening to a climax in two ways – the temporal one and also by taking the audience on a long journey to the satisfactory end of the piece – more musically referential towards the end especially as Rowe dropped in a distinct seesawing 6/4 rhythm. Theme and statement and variations... all here but not under the figure of traditional moves. But the strategies are very much the same. They just require a shift in the mode of listening. The audience were prepared to do that, consequently enjoyed the music and gave them warm applause. Deservedly. (Interestingly, both these guys are string players originally – Rowe a guitarist, Wastell a cello player – who now use a variety of electronic apparatus to generate sound and to process their other chosen sources: short wave radio, cymbal (tam-tam?) and metal bowls bowed and struck).

Saturday Afternoon: Unitarian Church, Dublin.


David Lacey, Paul Vogel and Mark Wastell.

An impressive venue, light-filled and dominated by the rather beautiful stained glass windows, it seemed a (more?) appropriate place for this brand of improv which at times seems to embrace an austere albeit antinomian search for purity, whether coincidental or intentional – or whose strategies contain fluctuating incidences of both. (More appropriate because of the space as well – the long room at Trinity while possessing great acoustics was a bit too cramped and the sitelines were not that great accordingly). A good crowd of about fifty or more... I had no idea what the guy who introduced the afternoon was saying (again) as his voice didn't carry beyond the first couple of pew rows – this could have been remedied easily enough with a microphone. (If I hadn't printed off a program before leaving England I would have had no idea who some of the musicians were). The first cohort of improvisers: David Lacey, Paul Vogel and Mark Wastell. Their performance commenced with a barely-audible sustained tone – (signature of the festival?) the occasional slight rustling in the audience and the scratching of my pen on pad again were as easily heard – a democracy of sound. As the volume of the tone rose, it seemed to fill the air. When other elements slowly came into the mix I became further aware of the space of the church – at these low levels of sound, the constituent elements have considerable acoustic room to move through. When the volume increased, I could tangibly register the individual expansion and collective contraction as the constituent musics proceeded to fill the space, rubbing up against each other. As the piece develops, I became aware of three motival distinct levels- a deep, remote bass tone, a rushing granular sound in the middle and a high, pure sine wave overall. The bass provided an approximation of rhythmic pulse, the reverberating granularity of cymbals a thickening centre and the woody clarinet mutated by laptop manipulation becoming an actual slow moving harmony when additional clarinet notes were added in real time. They built quite a head of steam, rising in volume as reverberating cymbal(?) set up cross-rhythms, susurrations that evoked a sea washing over a beach. Stunning.

Keith Rowe and Sean Meehan.














Their performance started with an insistent but very quiet ticking – like a count-in except lasting for a couple of minutes. Low level noises and what seemed to be distant footsteps... Meehan attended to his cymbal placed on top of a snare drum with some kind of long thin stick(?) which was placed on the cymbal and stroked slowly by both hands – resembling (bizarrely) someone climbing a rope – producing very quiet sounds. I felt that this duet was disjointed and going nowhere at first – then it started to build in an oddly tangental manner. Playing at such a low volume, the sounds produced by Rowe at times could have been coming in from outside on the busy St. Stephens Green. The piece evolved into a demonstration of the way we perceive sound and interpret it back as 'music.' Outside equates with 'noise' - inside with 'music' because we observe musicians producing it – the intentionality of the act. Cue John Cage... and in a Cageian sense, it didn't matter – we were all involved in the creation of a democracy of sound.Which I suppose was one of the dominant themes of the weekend. Subversion and displacement... drums were hardly ever sounded as conventional drums, guitar as conventional guitar, brass or wood wind as ... you follow my drift...













I could only attend the first half of the Saturday night performance due to various external factors. Just before the start, Keith Rowe conjured up The Carpenters' singing 'Yesterday Once More' on his radio – a welcome bit of serendipitous fun. Starting with a quartet – Annette Krebs, David Lacey, Keith Rowe and Paul Vogel. With all the massed tables of laptops, instruments and electronics the room resembled some kind of surreal jumble sale! A tentative beginning, preliminary skirmishes and flirtations, Krebs creating a distant low rumbling thunderstorm, a slow soundscape evolving – disrupted by a sudden sharply plucked bass note on the guitar which was bent off into various electronic processed shapes. The volume rose steadily, due no doubt to the numbers involved. And which kept the balance between the extremes of silence. This is abrasive music – literally – rubbling, scratching, bows applied to surfaces and the resultant sounds changed and distorted and bounced round the mix. Short wave radio cutting in abruptly in a crackling chatter of foreign voices – letting the wider world enter the proceedings. Disturbance and sudden breaks in the overall journey, disrupting and adding texture. Towards the end they managed to wrongfoot my expectations when they paused on a long high tone – which seemed to signal the end of the set - then continued to play to another climax – short wave radio - roaring, like a wind - a clattering, as if a drawer of cutlery was being thrown downstairs – bass throb – electric crackling – sea on pebbles – distant rubbing bass sound... Wow. Superb...

The last set before the break (and my departure) was a trio: Dennis McNulty, Sean Meehan and Mark Wastell. They started quietly – as did all of the sets – as the three found their spaces in the narrative to slowly take the volume up. Low siren-like noises – distant gunfire – Mark Wastell's bowed and struck metal bowls contributed fascinating and beautiful timbres. Again - a brilliant set.

Conclusions? I go over to Dublin a lot and will certainly try to get to more of these gigs. The overall standard of creativity was excellent Рnothing that dragged or drifted (even my initial misgivings about the second set at the Unitarian Church dissipated during what became a fascinating performance). The mainly young audience (and how important that is!) were attentive throughout Рwhich meant that the musicians could wring every low volume nuance out of their material and be heard. An intense experience, indeed, low-key but not too over-serious (well, on my part anyway...). The presentation could perhaps be a more professional without compromising anyone's visions of purityРit was a little at times like being in some old school folk club without the beer and the bad jokes (which might actually have provided a bit of levity to balance the austerity) Рbut that is a criticism one could level at many improv gigs I've been to. Maybe the size of the audience threw the organisers? A very small quibble Рthe music did the talking, as the old clich̩ goes - from the slightest puff of breath on a trumpet mouthpiece to soaring electronics. The acoustics were superb and allowed the participants to probe effectively both of the sonic architectures of the venues. This was subtle music, quiet in the main, rigorous, but played with passion. Fire music it wasn't, in the gestural/rhetorical sense Рbut it gave me much food for thought about the utilisation of low volumes, silence and space in improvised performance. A final point: the way silence was used and explored, the zone between the level at which silence can be defined Рas a complete zero level lack of sound, which is perhaps impossible except in those legendary anechoic chambers Рor outer space Рand intentional musical sound is created.

So: Congratulations to all who made it such an interesting and exciting event... I can't really single out one musician or group (although I suppose my favourites by a very short head were the first set at the church on Saturday and Annette Krebs' solo spot on Friday – just for the record...) as I enjoyed it all immensely...


There are links for many of the featured musicians here...

6 comments:

Molly Bloom said...

I enjoyed reading about all of the musicians. It was interesting to hear music being described in such detail so that you can imagine it. I suppose I can do that as I am a self-taught pianist and so I am able to visualise music. You write very eloquently about the experience. It's great to read something that isn't just 'Oh, well, it was quite good' - detailed responses are much more interesting. It is like a creative piece rather than a review. I have very fond memories of Dublin and I love the part where you describe that the music could almost be part of St.Stephen's. I think the improvisation seems very interesting. I'm not very good at improvising myself, but I do make up lots of tunes, although I haven't got a piano at the moment. :( I had to leave it behind when I moved house. I'm sure I'll be able to afford another one...eventually.
I think I may have to go back to work soon as I'm feeling a lot better now, so I'm going to miss having the freedom to blog as much. Still, I've got a couple of weeks left. Keep up the good work!

Rod... said...

I know Dublin well from living there years back and have registered the massive transformation that has happened there - and throughout the rest of the republic. At £25 pop return from East Midlands Airport down the road it's an easy ride for me - I've old friends I stay with there, my friend Jon (who I played with - musically - years ago) and his wife. He's English she's Irish and provide an interesting insight into the owld place. I prefer Dublin now as I don't go in for sentimental yearnings of yesteryear - plus there is a youthful vibe about the place that reminds of what Paris was a long time back - Glad you're feeling better - but it's a drag going back to work unless you enjoy tyour job. I escaped the straight life for a very long time only falling into respectable employment the last few years - and looking for the door out at the moment! Better get back an edit the damn review - - just noticed some mistakes... later...

Molly Bloom said...

I didn't notice any mistakes.

Molly Bloom said...

That must have been nice living in Dublin. I am a huge James Joyce fan and loved going to all of the places mentioned in Ulysses, but not in a touristy way. I did try and swim in the sea at the Martello Tower, but it was even too cold for me and I love swimming in the sea. It was freezing! I used to live in the Midlands, near Peterborough. Not any more though. It was very dull, although there were some interesting people in The Fens! I, too, used to play in a band. It was very good fun, but I could never remember the words!! So I stuck them to my keyboard. He he. They're still going, but I left after needing time to study for finals. I wish I could get Royalties for some of the songs they've put out on a CD though!! Ha ha. That'll learn me.

Rod... said...

I miss-spelt 'succeeded' in one place and corrected a clumsy bit of grammar. Writing about something as different as this is a challenge - it's something I've been working at the last year or so, with varying degrees of success - what I really fancy is doing some art criticism - done a couple of small pieces but they weren't very satisfactory and meant to do on Bruce Naumann the last time I was in London but never got round to it- and some more book crit stuff - I enjoy the blogger's freedom!

Rod... said...

I used to go out with a girl in Dublin who took me to a chip shop in Donnybrook which she swore blind and with a straight face was the one that JJ used to use... I like the idea, even if not true - the Beckett extravaganza was in full swing when I was over but didn't get out much (apart from festival) which was a drag but too knackered! I love Joyce as well - I always say to English people who want to get a handle on Ireland that the beginning of Portrait of the Artist will tell you more than any pundit - anyway - must roll - have had a surge of energy so off to explore a wet monday night - which I suspect won't take long...