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Organised annually, this year by Derek Bailey and Nick Couldry, Company Week is a paradox, an institution yet also an enormous risk. Nobody knows if the often unrelated improvisors thrown together with no pre-performance preparation will produce good or bad results. The hope is always that the rewards will justify the risks. When people as diverse as speed-guitarist Buckethead or classical violinist Alexander Balanescu are involved, anything could (and does) happen.
For the first time, this year's Company Week featured three established British improvising groups to open three of the five performances. Wednesday's trio, Hession / Wilkinson / Fell, suggested that it would be a good idea, as their practiced energy provided a useful mark for the later groups to try and match. They opened with a travelogue taking us from macro to micro and back again: drones developing into pointillistic fibres into more obvious improv scratch'n'sniff skitters. Alan Wilkinson's sax tends to be the obvious focal point of a trio that somehow manages to sound like a compressed big band aeroplane, rumbles of vibrant texture overlain with emotive, colourful streaks of brass. The cliche that's used in describing them is the invented genre of "punkjazz", but on this night there were few traces of either, the music instead taking an interest in noise field interstices, textural congruences and incongruences.
Next up were the all-electronic duo of Nick Couldry and Ikue Mori. Company Week is all about taking risks, seeing what does and doesn't work, and this pairing didn't work. Mori's drum machines created dogged and unidentifiable pattern-blurs, which didn't sit at all well with Couldry's more violent keyboard stabs. Chalk it down to experience and pass straight on to the old guard: Derek Bailey and Phil Minton. Bailey was cheerily content to play the polite straight man to Minton's scratch acid Mel Blanc impersonations. Cartoon expressionism works well against dry, wry plucking: Minton's upfront sense of humour was one of the continuing highlights of the week. Paired next with Couldry, it's easy to imagine him as an Ubu-esque puppet controlled by electrical keyboard impulses which make him jump and shout. Just when I began to wish he'd sing a little melody for variety, he whistles a tune and it ends.
The night's four performers teamed up for three final improvisations, which although less successful than some of the earlier moments highlight the effect of group size on the improvised sound. The simpler, more conversational interactions tended to disappear, and the more dynamic musicians were forced to adopt a more consistent sound by the need to interact with three rather than one other. The music that resulted is dramatic but nervous, full of contrast but rather tentative. Only on the third piece do things gel, with greater restraint and purpose combining. From a cod-Ligeti opening, trills and trickles of sound grow into a cacophony of shrieking, before collapsing into near-silence, nighttime noises, kissing, and tinny Casio-tone.
All ten performers were present on the Friday night, and the numbers ensured more of a party atmosphere than before. By this stage of the week, the musicians were obviously relaxing more and understanding each other's needs better. The opening quartet, featuring Mori, Couldry, Martin Klapper and Alan Wilkinson, was better than any of Wednesday's improvisations. Beginning and ending with careful ambiences, the improvisation progressed through a variety of moods, including some particularly lyrical stretches courtesy mainly of Wilkinson's sax but also helped by Couldry's transfer to a proper piano. Despite the very different musical elements, this piece seemed more cooperative and as a result consistent than anything that had gone before.
The trio of Minton, Bailey and Robyn Shulkowsky that came next was considerably less interesting: I'm not a lover of the squitchy-squeak school of improvisation, and Phil Minton's vocal gymnastics were by now beginning to seem limited. The quartet that followed (Wilkinson, Thierry Madiot, Andy Diagram and Mori) were much more impressive, with the drum machine providing great support to the intertwining noise and melody of the three brass-blowers. The three different approaches to similar-sounding instruments proved particularly listenable together.
Andy Diagram stayed on for the final quartet before the interval, abandoning the melody for cut-up music using live sampling and effects pedals to tag along with Don Byron, Klapper and Minton. Klapper's squeaky toys steal some of Minton's opportunities.
After the interval it's time for a couple of duets. Nick Couldry and Andy Diagram give a game of two halves, the first sounding suspiciously like jazz, the second all atonal abstraction. Then Klapper and Minton get to compare notes, a brief haiku for table, chair and groaning. The amplified objects seem at first like a Hanna Barbera Cartridge Music, expanding tiny sounds while Minton simultaneously takes language and reduces it to component sounds and syllables.
There's another quartet next, Byron, Wilkinson and Shulkowsky rejoining Minton on stage. The percussionist shows she's not afraid of rhythm and it's her energetic drumming that keeps things flowing smoothly between cerebral scat and honk-frenzy noise stretches. Byron and Wilkinson join Minton for an unexpected sing-along and the audience remembers why they came along.
The final performance grows from a planned quintet to seven and eventually all ten musicians. Of the latecomers, Don Byron is the most amusing, walking on from the back, shouting like a man from the Noise Abatement Society. It exemplified Company at its best, a surprisingly successful blend of very varied elements, where the result isn't always successful, but is occasionally astounding. According to Derek Bailey, this year's event (25th to 30th July) may well be the last in its present form, so watch The Wire for details, and don't miss it.
The important, interesting part of the Sound / Works Exchange is the part that remains hidden from the public: the workshops for invited composers. The event brought together five British and seven German musicians involved in "sound composition" (whatever that may be), primarily to inspire collaboration, networking and discussion of working methods that rarely occurs given the isolation of most experimental composers. The participants also presented a series of tape recordings and live performances for the audience, and these were interesting in pointing out the differences and similarities between the various musicians.
The main thing that held them together is a common location in a post-Cage, post-musique concrete tradition that values texture and timbre as more important than melody or harmony (although it was nice to see Ben Ponton of Zoviet France dedicate his tape to an even earlier ancestor, Luigi Russolo). Beyond this common starting point the differences were many.
The German duos Klangkrieg and Paranoise Terminal share a common "post-industrial" background, but otherwise seemed poles apart. Klangkrieg's tape piece set a multi-voice narration of Beckett's Bing against a soundtrack that hold fast to all the dear principles of ambient-industrial music, albeit with more dynamics than most. They made very effective use of rapid-fire electronic percussion to provide punctuation rather than a constant rhythmic bed. Paranoise Terminal performed live instead, and produced an ambient piece that owed something to Christian Wolff's meditative tonality, something to Zoviet France's self-effacing performance techniques, and something to the tradition of hugely amplified tiny noises. Despite all this, it was the dullest piece of the event, completely failing to engage the audience's attention.
Asmus Tietchens and Evelyn Ficarra both presented only tapes; in Asmus' case one of the two pieces he played was simply a tape of Seuchengebiete 2, his notorious musique concrete derived from the sounds of water in plumbing. Asmus' complete transfiguration of his material ensured that the musical results were unpredictable, and his second piece was brilliant in its ugliness. Ficarra's piece used a Buchla synth to mix waves of oscillating ambience with typical computer music squeaks and burbles, and was notable for having more of a sense of humour than most other contributions. This was a definite advantage given the otherwise serious-minded nature of the event.
Kurt Dahlke seems a bit schizophrenic; the basic gimmick of his music is that it is controlled by two "magic" wands, which by their position control pitch and volume and by their speed trigger percussive and rhythmic effects. The lengthy ambient opening to his piece was enjoyable, but the material that followed, which mixed upbeat electronic rhythms together was less satisfactory. His emphasis on the means of controlling his generated sound was unique at the event, and helped make clear a distinction between those who are devoted to their sounds only and those who are also interested in methods of performance; on the evidence of Dahlke and Paranoise Terminal, the interest in performance is to the detriment of musical quality.
Philip Jeck is also very much at home in the performance situation, although his multi-turntable mixing of scratched records (by Liszt, The Beatles etc) is an interesting avant-garde version of more popular dj-ing and scratching techniques. His music blended together very effectively however, and he was one of only two musicians who dealt with conventional instrumental sounds rather than abstract sounds. The other was Jon Lever, who mixed tapes of instrumental phrases, rhythms and improvisations, and produced a sort of cut-up improv music with obvious parallels to Bob Ostertag's music, at times very lyrical and at times extremely intense.
I hate to lump together Zoviet France and the Hafler Trio (represented at the event by Ben Ponton and Andrew McKenzie) in the same paragraph, but needs must. Ben's contribution consisted of a live recording and a light projection, and I have to confess to finding the projected evolving viral fingerprints more interesting than the music. Andrew McKenzie's piece, however, was one of the best contributions, featuring an unusually intense barrage of frequencies, rhythms and noise, accompanied by a triple slide projection and McKenzie melodramatically slashing apart the projecting screen like a psychotic cross between Norman Bates and Alexei Sayle.
The most interesting of all the musicians was the only one to show much concern for the contribution the audience can make to the music. Christina Kubisch presented a slide-show and several tapes illustrating her installations from France, Germany, Japan and elsewhere, and it was thoroughly fascinating. One installation used electric cables and simple magnetic induction to create an environment where the sound the visitors heard varied according to how they positioned themselves next to the cable loops; in places the effect was like hearing ghostly voices through the building's walls. Another event featured a maze that the audience walked through, while wearing headphones which again played music varying according to their spatial position. My personal favourite consisted of several giant masts in a sculpture park, topped by differently angled solar cells, and playing a different mixture of animal-like noises according to the intensity and direction of the sun. According to Kubisch, after it had been running for a while, it became difficult to separate the artificial sounds from real wildlife. Kubisch's sensistivity to the space she works in, and her concern for an active role on the part of the listener, mark her out as the most innovative of all those present; her music is every bit as good as the others' and the added focus on interactivity and the environment are very inspiring.
Overall, I think the Sound / Works Exchange suffered from the diversity of those present. The similarity of musical interests was in several cases extremely tenuous and the field of "sound composition" appears to be little more than a meaningless buzzword used as an excuse for a good shindig. On the other hand, it was a welcome opportunity for artists who might never otherwise communicate to be thrown into contact with each other, with those I spoke to very much enjoying the experience. Of course, it was also a good opportunity for the fans to meet and hear the music of artists who are all-too-rarely afforded an opportunity to present their work. More importantly, there are plans for future Sound / Works event, and you can write to Shinkansen, 5E Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE, if you want to be put on the mailing list for them.
Your faithful EST reporter has also managed to catch the likes of the Michael Nyman Band, Caspar Brötzmann Massaker, Main, Nicolas Collins & Ben Neill, Dead Can Dance, Les Tambours du Bronx, Sylvian & Fripp, Michael Brook, Balanescu Quartet, Bruce Gilbert, Paul Schütze, Jim O'Rourke & Eddie Prévost & Michael Prime since last issue, amongst others, which is surely proof that live new music is thriving in London at least. The reception for most of these musicians is enthusiastic, which suggests either a suppressed thirst for their music, or perhaps just an uncritical audience.
While the pop minimalists like Nyman and the Balanescu Quartet continue to provide high-quality home-grown alternatives to yet more Mozart and Haydn in the concert halls, most of the bands still have problems finding appropriate venues. Names from the past, like David Sylvian and Robert Fripp, can sell out large halls (in this case the Royal Albert Hall, and they were rubbish), the likes of Massaker and Bruce Gilbert can only survive in odd nooks and crannies. Massaker's London appearance was as support to Helmet, who despite featuring Page Hamilton, ex-Glenn Branca Ensemble, and ex-Band of Susans, are pretty dull; and subsequently they were linked to Steve Albini's new band Shellac. The quality difference is obvious; superb musicians having to play second fiddle to yawn-inducing indie bands thanks to an audience that seems unable to look beyond weekly rock paper headlines.
Similarly, Gilbert's appearances included DJing spots at Blast First's new monthly club Disobey and at a gig by Put Put (featuring These Records' Jacques bros., and Jim O'Rourke), Skree and Mind The Gap (featuring Hayward and Williams, ex-This Heat); and as support to the Balanescu Quartet at a free performance in Tower Records. Given how astonishingly powerful his music was at the latter event, it's a real disappointment that such a musician can't get gigs on his own merit.
On the plus side, the great reception given to the improv trio of Jim O'Rourke, Michael Prime and Eddie Prevost at a rock gig (Main) suggest that, given the opportunity, avant-garde music can win over an even more mainstream audience.
An audience for the likes of Nicholas Collins and Ben Neill was guaranteed by their gig's sponsors, the L.M.C., but again this sort of audience is limited. It consists predominantly of those already "in the know", and even then, many of the people who may know Nicholas Collins work (perhaps thanks to his acclaimed CD, It Was A Dark And Stormy Night) would remain unaware of the fact that the gig had happened due to the problems with publicity for the experimental scene and its strongly London-dominated nature. The Free Information Network (FIN) newsletters act as a monthly list of alternative gigs and events, and something similar for the experimental music scene(s) would still be a very valuable step forward.
By and © copyright Brian Duguid.