Friday, 2 July 2010

The A Band / Sogabe Hidekazu @ Cafe Oto

Another day, another gig. This one promised to be a fascinating trip, the newly reformed improvisation troupe do not perform all that often.

Dalston on a sunny afternoon is perhaps not a place to sit indoors, and Oto's slightly muggy interior (and abundance of tea lights) was maybe anti-seasonal. Still, all this hot weather makes my skin itch, and I was happy to retreat into some darkness.

The concert started at 9 with an opening set by Sogabe Hidekazu, a young Japanese improviser who (as far as I can tell from his website) is primarily a visual artist (there are some works of his on the Saatchi gallery webpage). Playing an electric bass and a effects pedal, Hidekazu's opening ocean waves of no-input feedback noise - and the baseball cap - seemed like a nod to Toshi Nakamura; the ringing tones generated by the body of the bass suggested something more melodious however. On the whole, however, his playing did not sit easily with me - portions of the performance were spent tediously repeating cells of material (generated by the 'infinite delay' of the effects pedal) while Hidekazu toyed with his controls. This, plus the fizzing buzz of the Cafe Oto PA as it rattled on its assembly, the bedroomy feeling of the musical structure and the sonic content, and the enforced recapitulation at the end to the opening waves of noise, reinforced Hidekazu's admirable, but ultimately crude set.

It seemed at this point (when there was a short interval) many audience members decided they couldn't stand the heat (or, indeed, the noise), and made a break for it. A shame, because when the A band came on - tonight performing as " 'Allo Aloe" - we that remained witnessed a truly remarkable set of improvised music. I say this without exaggeration - I watched the whole of the Freedom of the City festival, and while much of the music played at the Conway Hall was well thought out and nuanced, nothing was intoxicating as this performance of the A band's.

The group was constituted of around 9 members, who all (as far as I could tell) played together at the opening - a blaze of 4/4 toms, cymbals, and wailing, call-to-prayer-like vocal layering. The opening had something of conventional 'indie' about it - but after maybe a minute and a half, the anarchic tendency the A band are known for came into the foreground. Members began to leave, jettison their roles as musicians and adopt honorary positions as audience members. The music disintegrated from its metered opening to an expanse of beautiful and evolving textures. The musicians let each other 'solo' - almost like jazz - but also conversed with each other and the sound technician, moved around the space, contributed when they felt it was necessary, and added absurdism to the situation by (for example) laying out duplo bricks on a table in front of the performers, and subsequently throwing them everywhere.

What was intriguing to me was that as a unified performance, so much of the music had such stability and expressive integrity - ideas were allowed to last for enough time to become established, but not too long as to become boring. Transitions were usually seamless, and without the moments of awkwardness present in the support set, and yet all the musicians seemed to perform 'haphazardly'. Even one player's failing instrument - a toy piano made on a roll of cloth, producing a beautifully mundane MIDI piano sound - contributed in an absurdist way by failing to work.

The A band's fluidity when it came to performing also helped solidify for me the usually edifying nature of performance; of an 'us and them' relationship between performers and audience. This was dismantled, casually, by the A band - instead, as an audience member, one felt a combination of involvement, inclusion, and voyeurism. One was watching a group at play (gaming, scheming, forming nexuses of activity and falling away again) - but a group at play with itself. The performance lacked the bourgeois ritual that made it necessary to clap at the end - so that the final applause (of the few audience members that remained after their hour or so of playing) seemed inappropriate and tokenistic.

And yet, in purely musical terms, the A band's performance was familiar - the music was 'sectional', it contained references (echoes) of other musics (a suitably postmodern stance), the delay pedals of the violin/theremin players created commonplace repetitive figures, there was a piano and a drum kit (both conspicuously 'non-unusual'). Perhaps these commonplace instruments were necessary - for if a music is to be truly democratic (as the A band's performance surely was), it cannot be formed on a principle of exclusion. A good thing indeed; for me, the A band's performance is certain proof that a nuanced and subtle music can exist without being rarified or exclusive.

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