Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Oxford: Koboku Senju / Farmer, Hughes, Cornford

Stephen Cornford with Toshimaru Nakamura listening (photo: Richard Pinnell)

Talking to David Grundy after this one (blogger and writer for web magazine Eartrip), we discussed whether its really possible to write a concert review at all. David used to take notes—I’m not sure I could. I did a bit of student paper work recently (hence lack of content here), all pretty mediocre stuff, to be expected, but one thing I did notice was a tendency for the reviewer (me) to construct narratives in the gallery or concert space itself. One is too preoccupied (or, at least, I was) with constructing some terrifically ‘apt’ remarks that one can distract oneself from addressing the work at hand with full attention. David’s position was the opposite—that the looming prospect of the review required one to listen harder, and that note-taking solidifies deep listening. I’m not sure.

Nevertheless, these misgivings about writing don’t detract from the fact that this concert was excellent and had some unusual dimensions. Art Jericho, which is fairly near to where I live, is not a particularly great art gallery. Actually, I’m sure the art gallery itself is fine, it’s just the work the directors insist on putting in it. Mostly local fair, its nothing to write home about—as far as I can remember my favourite bit of visual detritus was the ceiling. Improvised music of this calibre is pretty rare in Oxford, despite its being home to the well-regarded programme at Oxford Brookes; only recently has a swathe of festivals and concerts, including some music by Wandelweiser composers at Holywell Music Room in February, appeared on the scene (most of which I sadly couldn’t attend). [Edit: actually, this isn't true. Oxford Improvisers have run many great concerts in the past, and continue to do so. There's more good improvisation in Oxford than I let on here.]

Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes (of Compost and Height) are, amongst other people, behind this. This concert was put on by them in coalition with blogger and critic Richard Pinnell. Patrick and Sarah are themselves great improvisers—their set with Stephen Cornford (whose own output with Samuel Rodgers is worth a listen) was dextrous and quite varied. The style of predominantly close-miked acoustic sounds owes much to other British sound artists and improvisers (like Lee Patterson and Adam Bohlman). Though the sonic material is amplified, its texture differs in quality from sounds derived from electric or electronic instruments. Having this set paired with Toshi Nakamura—who played with Kobuku Senju in the second set of the evening—showed perhaps how these musical textures have developed as electroacoustic improvisation has flourished.

Nakamura is of course a pioneer, and there are many prevalent points of comparison with newer British improvisation and the established international style; nevertheless it was the differences which marked themselves out more to me. Patrick, Sarah and Stephen’s work had a kind of benign localism, there is something almost rural about it. Their work is much more akin to close-miking field recorders—Patterson, Peter Cusack perhaps also. Maybe this is because of the use of natural materials (Patrick deposited a pile of dead leaves on his turntable to conclude the set); more I think it is to do with the depiction of natural textures, textures that ‘sound’ natural. Of course this is just another kind of artifice (as Jonathan Meades has put it, ‘there’s nothing natural about nature’); but I think what I’m trying to get at is that Patrick’s turntable playing for example is not so much as ‘urban’ as other experimental turntablists (Marclay, Yoshihide). Anyway, maybe I’m grasping at straws.

Something else noticeable in Patrick, Sarah and Stephen’s set was the section where Sarah’s chorded zither was used to pluck out a decidedly modal collection of pitches. Much of this music does not reference pitch collections of such conventionality; this was an intriguing and perhaps adventurous thing to invoke in the midst of such abstractly textural music. This tendency towards modality, or even diatonicism, was something prevalent in Koboku Senju’s set that followed, and as Richard has pointed out, this is often a welcome relief. I don’t want that to sound like I don’t want to listen to abstract reductionist improvisation—I do, and when its done well it can be spectacularly rewarding. Nevertheless, an over-reliance on such gestures can lead to a slightly authoritarian aesthetic; like the minimalist trend in modernism, it can seem oddly stifling despite its tranquility (enforced tranquility, even subconsciously enforced tranquility, is hardly genuine). The majority of Koboku Senju’s playing was deliciously textural, with fascinating sounds produced by all of the brass instruments. Tetuzi Akiyama was, as one probably should expect, decidedly himself throughout—floppy hat (surely now something of a cliché), disjunctly melodious journeying. Akiyama offered some more ‘textural’ contributions towards the end, with a variety of metal and wooden implements used to rub the strings.

Nakamura’s offering was as well-honed as one would expect, it is a pleasure to watch him perform (not something I’ve been able to do before). Oddly though, there is something increasingly and bizarrely historic about his music. He hasn’t been around for long, but he has had such influence that his textures seem as much prototypical as archetypical. That doesn’t detract from their beauty—far from it, at one moment about one third of the way in, the rest of the musicians dropped out seamlessly leaving Toshi to explore an awesomely delicate texture, something almost lyrical.

There were weak moments in Koboku Senju’s performance no doubt. I’ve never been much a fan of embouchure percussion on the saxophone, those sounds seem rather old hat and uninteresting; but the saxophonist Espen Reinertsen also offered some wonderfully gossamer multiphonics as well, quite unlike anything I’ve heard from the instrument. Eivind Lønning produced some marvellously unusual sounds on the trumpet, and Martin Taxt’s tuba was also a resource for many fascinating sonorities. The unification of their playing resulted in musical textures that were difficult to aurally divide, despite the familiar instruments; their mutual responsivity was also such that, about two-thirds of the way in to the set, a spontaneously modal section was arrived at, something that referenced free jazz quite explicitly. Up until now electroacoustic improv has generally shunned reference to jazz—this isn’t a criticism, but it is interesting that the origin of the free improvisation movement, of which current electroacoustic improv is an offshoot, was jazz (and not, as it happens, experimental or avant-garde music). I personally can understand the loss of taste for jazz, but I also don’t think that its worth ignoring a piece of history for the sake of it.

In sum, this concert displayed a range of mellifluous and at times eclectic music; a measured eclecticism which, as much as that word is a bad cliché these days, is I think welcome. There were plenty of people in attendance who, as far as I could tell, did not walk out; I hope more improvised music in Oxford will happen, there seems to be an appetite.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Rie Nakajima - I can hear it

Soundfjord is a pretty striking place. As I stumbled through seven sisters I wasn't prepared for its utmost spareness - a small white room and two speakers. It seemed as if Nellie (who showed me in) was inviting me into her flat.

The piece on show there needed nothing else really. Rie Nakajima exhibits a recording of blind piano tuner Ken Bodden feeling and hearing his way around the inside of a piano. The absolute tactility of the sound belies any need for visual impulse. We hear the rattle and clicks of his tuning ratchet as it attacks and caresses the pegs; the muffled sound of children outside (unclear whether recorded or real); occasional breaths and sighs and the movement of fabric; and all the while this incessantly dry but peculiarly gentle striking of notes.

I've heard pianos being tuned before (I usually listen to the tuner when he does mine in my room in college), but there was something different at work here. Obviously, through recording and exhibition, the nature of the activity is changed somewhat. If, for example, my own piano is being tuned, there is a definite sense of social relation. The piano tuner is undertaking a task on my behalf, and with me listening is perhaps interested in getting it done quickly; conversely he maintains a certain amount of power, having the monopoly of skill in the situation. Nakajima's work, on the other hand, attempts to remove whatever social obligation might be otherwise present. It's not clear who Bodden is tuning 'for' - either for the purposes of Nakajima's recording; or else to just exercise his own skill. In many ways, Bodden's skill, and his pleasure in exercising it (and our pleasure in his pleasure, as it were) is the central aesthetic aspect of the piece.

Beyond that, from the point of view of Nakajima, the piece is almost a 'readymade' - something like a field recording of a human being. The functional nature of the piano tuning removes it initially from artistic climes, it is a 'craft' activity. It achieves the quantity of art through recording and exhibition. Nakajima exhibits a function (or a process-as-function) as object. The ending point of the process (its 'purpose') is redefined. Where the piano tuner is originally attempting to produce an 'in-tune-piano' (as I'm sure Bodden is doing in this case), Nakajima undermines this skill-function. The 'in-tune-piano' is the MacGuffin - it drives the process but is vacant from the object as-it-is when exhibited.

All of this is pretty illuminating when generalised, I think - because it shows what an enormous effect (aesthetically-contextually) the simple act of recording can have. It can redistribute the weight of an action - whatever that action was directed 'towards'; the action can find itself directed towards something quite different. In this sense recording can undermine as much as it can document; the status of the recorded activity is permanently changed ('cooked', even, to invoke Levi-Strauss). Though Nakajima's work is undoubtedly beautiful in depicting Bodden's tactile activity, there is a definite sense of unintentional betrayal. What does Bodden hear when he hears his process-as-function depicted as object? Does it, or might it lose its integrity? Like Kleist's youth in On the Marionette Theatre, who, when informed of the beauty of an action, might Bodden fail to reproduce his piano-tuning in its original, innocent virtuosity?

Like all good pieces, apart from being rather beautiful aesthetically, this one raises a good few questions. It's running until the 29th Jan.

EDIT: There's also a podcast documenting this exhibition here: http://www.frameworkradio.net/2010/12/310-2010-12-19/