One of the nicest things about live music is the way it brings together music fans in the mutual admiration or, at times, discovery of a recording artist. It’s a pretty fundamental part of the musical experience: you can share stories on artists or previous gigs, compare thoughts on what you’ve witnessed, and argue over the merits of whatever record or show has pleased or irked you in the past, even the immediate past you’ve just experienced. Sometimes, you can do this with complete strangers, which is even more invigorating and pleasing. This happens to me a lot at Cafe Oto, maybe because it’s such an intimate venue. So, while I am generally disinclined to comment on the antics of fellow concert-goers, the fact that Mats Lindström’s set on this occasion was severely blighted by five boorish idiots had me so incensed that I feel the need to express my irritation. I’m not sure who they were (rumour at the urinals suggested they were radio journalists), but they made it clear in loud voices throughout his three pieces that they thought he was, in their terms, “shit”, before loudly proclaiming “We thought that was bollocks, mate!” at the set’s conclusion. I’m all for people expressing their displeasure at a musician if they, for some reason, are so annoyed as to need to comment, even to the person’s face, but I’ve never before witnessed such rudeness directed towards an artist or an audience. That it occurred at Oto was even more incredible. Here’s hoping I (and any Liminal readers) never have the misfortune of sitting in the same audience as this moronic quintet again.
It was all the more displeasing, however, because the music on this cold January night was at times, and from all artists, pretty stellar. This was the third showcase from Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ sub-label, and one hopes it’s a sign that Dumitrescu and Avram will shortly be releasing one or more records for the erstwhile SUNN O))) guitarist. Lindström has, of course, already done so, but I was very curious as to how he would translate the abstract electronic works on МИГ into a live format. His three pieces were subtly varied and often bizarre, starting with a touching tribute to the late British composer Hugh Davies, which took samples of Winston Churchill making speeches and news announcements of his death and mashed them together with snippets of patriotic British music (‘Rule Britannia’, for example), gnarly electronic static and throbbing bass oscillations alluding somewhat to dub. Lindström’s approach is minimalist in many ways, as if he’s dedicated to stripping the conventions of electro genres such as techno or dance to their bare bones, but maximalist in his commitment to abrasion and dissonance. Plus, in the context of this current, most cynical of UK governments, Churchill’s ghostly reflections on his empathy for the poor carried quite a bit more weight.
The second piece was altogether less interesting. Set against the backdrop of a commercial video produced by Russia’s major fighter plane company, MIG, Lindström used heavily-processed recordings of jet engines soaring and powering up (I assume taken from the video itself) to build up a dense industrial noise wall that flickered and faltered on its way to joining the dots between Throbbing Gristle and Keith Fullerton Whitman. Nothing remarkable, really, although more irritation (and some amusement) was caused as the aforementioned brain-dead brigade missed the quite blatant irony in the composer’s use of Russian propaganda, falling over themselves to loudly decry his “communist” worldview.
The Swede saved the best piece for last, rigging a series of strobe lights to contact mics and using them to generate (I think randomly) percussive blasts of noise around a series of intricately-placed synth textures, like a techno producer gone mad. Indeed, his live approach is very similar in focus and thoughtfulness to many dubstep or electro-dance producers I’ve seen over the years, but the results are, if this concert is anything to go by, much more abrasive. “Don’t try this at home” he said with a wry smile when introducing the third track – don’t worry, Mats, I wouldn’t even know how!
Lindström’s set wasn’t brilliant or transcendent, with the second piece erring on the dull side, but his humanity and sly humour were clear and refreshing in a domain that can often be a bit dry. Plus, he could have been as awful as a chorus of freshly-castrated pigs backing up Justin Bieber, that doesn’t mean he deserved the abuse he got. And those of us curious enough to give him a fair hearing deserved the chance to do so.
Still, the gormless gang were at least much more enthused by Iancu Dumitrescu, although I imagine even they were a bit thrown as technical issues initially interrupted the first piece, ‘Tectonics’ just as it got started. Dumitrescu and Avram each premiered a new composition, but both of them suffered due to overbearing use of laptops. Dumitrescu’s, the aforementioned ‘Tectonics’, was built around the tense interplay between the laptop’s caustic drones and the Hyperion Ensemble, made up tonight of former Henry Cow members Ian Hodgkinson on bass clarinet and Chris Cutler on percussion, with Stephen O’Malley on guitar. The computer, featuring a pre-recorded track, dominated the early stages, with Hodgkinson uttering gentle notes and Cutler pattering, brushing and bowing quietly on contact mic-ed cymbals and drums. O’Malley’s contributions were rumbling low notes serving to accentuate the laptop’s spacious, industrial noise. For all the processing involved, the music felt as organic and body-centred as Dumitrescu classics such as ‘Pierres Sacrees’, and the sudden emergence of crunching sounds that ebbed and flowed over the audience between passages of near-silence evoked the “blocks of sound” on Scott Walker’s recent The Drift and Bish Bosch albums, only more single-minded and minimal. As ‘Tectonics’ built to a close in a maelstrom of O’Malley’s doom-like riffs, consumptive bleats from Hodgkinson and almost imperceptible percussive scrapes from Cutler, the spirit of Dumitrescu had effectively taken up residence inside Cafe Oto. Almost. The laptop was, however, so high up in the mix that it often masked a lot of the other sounds, robbing the piece of the kind of dynamics that characterise Dumitrescu’s best works. It certainly shared the kind of spectral power of ‘Pierres Sacrees’ and ‘Grande Ourse’, but perhaps not their deceptive grace.
“Spectral” or “haunting” are apt terms to refer to Ana-Maria Avram’s first piece, ‘Nouvelle Axe’, in which she filtered her voice through a variety of effects on her laptop: loops, delays, choruses and reverb were all layered on her bizarre series of utterances, moans, wails and chants, but in a way that never at any point became intrusive or distracting. Instead, what caught the attention was Avram’s remarkable range, her progressions from low moans to impassioned cries demonstrating remarkable dexterity, with the various loops and delays combining to produce a creepy phantom chorus. At times, she veered into clever borborygmi and percussive bleats, Phil Minton-style, but it was clear that she stems from a very different tradition to the Briton, her ululations imbued with the kind of primordial, shamanic mysticism I have only ever encountered in Eastern European and Asian vocal music. For anyone who has ever marvelled at the beautifully austere landscapes in films such as Katalin Varga or Mayak, Ana-Maria Avram’s singular vocalisations represent the perfect soundtrack to such captivating vistas.
For his second piece, Iancu Dumitrescu stepped to the front of the stage (after spending the first monitoring the sound levels) to conduct the Hyperion Ensemble, with Avram taking a seat at the piano. Dumitrescu is an imposing figure, and his presence immediately gave impetus to the proceedings before a note had even been sounded. There was a palpable tension as Dumitrescu led the musicians – all eyes fixed on the Romanian’s black-clad frame – through fitful bursts of discordant noise that bordered on rambunctious rock. Dumitrescu’s music works with sustain and release: distorted bowed guitar notes, scatter-shot drum fills, cavernous manipulations of the piano strings and fluttering clarinet parps all piled up, to be followed, with one sweep of the conductor’s arm, by heavy near-silence punctuated by the omnipresent digital rustles from the laptop. Despite not playing, Dumitrescu remained the focal point, his twisted, rapt facial expression the mark of a man inhabited by his music.
The last performance was the world première of Avram’s ‘Metal Storm’ and, like with ‘Tectonics’, I was again put off by the bludgeoning volume of the laptop’s pre-recorded track. Hodgkinson was the brightest spot, his tone here more strident, even free-jazzy, in the style of a Jimmy Giuffre or a Perry Robinson, which was mirrored nicely by Cutler’s sporadic percussion and occasional Haino-esque blasts from O’Malley. Sadly, the chunks of computer noise often obscured much of what the musicians were playing, to the point that they seemed a bit confused by what was being asked of them by Avram’s flurry of gestures. It took until the final stages for the ensemble to build a righteous head of steam that matched the laptop noise for energy, if not volume, with pleasing weeps on the clarinet, gong-like guitar eruptions and schizophrenically unpredictable percussion. It all came a bit too late, but it was a fittingly stirring end to a fascinating and unusual evening that even the five twats couldn’t ruin, despite their best attempts.