London Contemporary Music Festival 2013, Weekend #1 – Bold Tendencies, Peckham Car Park, London, 27th – 29th July

Unfortunately missing the ‘To a New Definition of Opera‘ and ‘Lachenmann/Morricone‘ nights, the London Contemporary Music Festival began for me with the Saturday night premiere of Glenn Branca‘s ‘Twisting in Space‘.  The performance felt close and tense with curtains of rain enclosing the sides of the building.  The crashing thunder and dramatic weather outside was easily dragged in by Glenn Branca and his guitar ensemble.  Creating a broiling froth of discordant clangs from massed guitars, the venue was filled with a rumbling, thrashing noise, structured with numbing repetition.  Violent and eventful, the music was packed with screaming peaks and savage caustic troughs, the rhythm section building Godspeed-like tension ramps for the guitar wall to launch off.  At one point, the lights were blown, plunging the group into darkness.  Branca later complained and shouted about technical difficulties before storming off.  His outburst was a satisfying crescendo to the evening in itself.  An awesome introduction to what would prove to be an amazing festival

Glenn Branca’s Guitar Ensemble
Programmed for the Sunday was a full afternoon and evening entitled Drone Day; split into two sessions and a number of pieces relating to the “possibilities of static resonance”.  Jem Finer began the day with ‘Slowplayer’, a lengthy set that saw a number of records played at 3rpm or slower, radically altering their sound; a fascinating exhibition of time-suspending drone-hypnosis.  Ornette Coleman’s ‘Tomorrow is the Question’ excavated buried detail: bass roars, carnivorous growls, sharp magnified vinyl crackle, deep aquatic grumble; the music flattened into a crackling, rubble-strewn, undulating moan, like lowing whale-song.  A record of bird song was transformed into alien hoots and mysterious grunts.  Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ was squashed into repetitive explosions and gusts of low hum.  Melt Banana’s ‘Cactuses Come in Flocks’, a clanging nightmare of foghorn and rusty gongs, throbbing obscenely.  The subtle intricacies of Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ smeared into a slumberous calm in place of its usual prancing energy.  Eric Dolphy’s ‘Out to Lunch’ sounded like the final creaking moments of a sinking ship, its hull compressing, settling on the floor of an oceanic trench.  ‘Slowplayer’ was an enthralling bathysphere dive into deep and murky sonic waters, full of crushing pressure and strange fish.  It resembled a longer form version of Lee Gamble’s ‘Deviation’ album, in which Jungle tracks are shorn of beats and bass lines, leaving everything a haunted ambient ruin.
Jem Finer

Elaine Radigue‘s early electronic work ‘Chry-ptus‘ was a rapid strobing flicker of clicks buried in a bass morass of fluctuating drone.  Several minutes in a slow cropped beep was introduced, like an ineffectual siren, lost among the rumble.  The piece evolved over time, individual beats and sounds melted into a single whistling tone, bouncing around the walls, filling the space with white aural light.

Steve Mackay performing Elaine Radigue’s ‘Cry-ptus’

The subtle segue from ‘Chry-ptus’ to James Tenney‘s ‘Postal Piece No 10: Having Never Written A Note For Percussion‘ was undermined a little by applause and the chatter of an audience unaware something had begun elsewhere.  A lone percussionist seated at a gong charted a swelling bubble of metallic sound, gradually increasing in volume and harshness.  This was an ultra-austere tour of extended gong manipulation, the performer cresting slow waves of drones, before reaching a screaming, deafening peak; the venue vibrating with harsh frequencies and walls of feedback.  The piece showed the drone at its most savage; a bright, bursting scream, fading into nothing.

Daniel Bradley performing James Tenney’s ‘Having Never Written a Note for Percussion’

The following piece could not have offered more of a contrast, Brian Eno‘s sublime ‘Music for Airports‘.  Its delicacy and beauty was a soothing skull-bandage after the previous trepanning; the four sections were performed with a delicacy and subtlety that was utterly beguiling.  The beautiful ebbs and flows; the celestial angelic sighs and washes of bass; individual clusters of notes anchored within bowed cello and bass; the cooling electronics: the afternoon was stilled and calmed.

Music for Airports

The evening portion of Drone Day kicked off with ‘Ma la Pert’ and a duo of Tony Conrad and Jennifer Walshe.  This inspired pairing welded the sparks of Conrad’s electric viola scraping with Walshe’s incredible vocals and measured cello playing.  Walshe started with long elongated “ooo”s, splitting later into babble, interspersed with upper register howls and low bass growls; the bowed noise of cello and viola operating in perfect concert.  At one point, her voice developed a flickering tape-loop effect, a flutter of vowel sounds and rapid trills contrasting with Conrad’s sustained rasping buzz.  This was a challenging and confrontational piece, the sound relationship between the performers not at first totally apparent but becoming increasingly clear as they progressed; their music weaved and tangled, knotted and clogged.  The two were hypnotic in unison; a lifting, mind-opening performance.

Tony Conrad and Jennifer Walshe

The day climaxed with Charlemagne Palestine and a cornucopia of stuffed animals.  Performing ‘In the Strumming Style‘ he smeared bass and clusters of high notes together, the extreme rippling repetition running individual chords into a contiguous mass.  Its ever-rolling nature was enrapturing, almost pulse slowing; it filtered out the world.  At the end, Palestine paused, in silence, hands hovering over the keys.  The sound of the venue, and Peckham outside, filled the vacuum; an appropriate end to Drone Day: the background hum of the city, an ever present drone, never ending, ringing down the centuries; incorporated as an ambient crescendo.

Charlemagne Palestine and friends

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