Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt
Reviewed: 25 November, 2006
Venue: St Giles Cripplegate, London
The incongruity of the Atlantic Waves “Exploratory Music From Portugal” festival being dominated by non-Portuguese musicians was tempered by thoughtful, if not wholly successful, programming. Much like the previous evening’s concert in the Purcell Room, this presentation at St Giles saw two Portuguese musicians pitted, in various configurations, against similarly experimental performers from Europe and America. The musical approaches also fell into one of two camps: those that favoured textured, electronically produced drones (Koner, Maranha, Tietchens) versus those performing on self-made instruments of varying sorts (Gama, Z’ev, Rutman, Eastley). Perhaps indirectly, each performance then set about exploring these contrasts.
While the performances were improvised to a large degree, each artist seemed careful not to disrupt another’s work, making for an overly polite series of events. Rather than come together and potentially clash, most performers were happy to stand aside, passing the baton or, as in American jazz, giving another the spotlight. This tends to be rare in European improvisation or electronic collaborations, where the mystery of combining disparate elements and discovering something new seems of greater concern. While there were moments of inspired sound-meshes it was too often merely a collection of individuals.
The show began with a duet involving German musician Thomas Koner on laptop and Angolan-born Portuguese instrument-maker Victor Gama, performing here on a stacked series of plucked dishes which visually resembled some kind of retro-futurist table-setting. Koner, a veteran on the experimental techno scene, is more recently known for producing dense clouds of indistinct arctic haze, like radio static bleached of all edge. Against this vague yet enveloping hum Gama’s tactile clattering was too disparate; where Koner’s sounds drifted off the canvas Gama’s were alive but short-lived. Occasionally, however, things gelled: Koner’s ghostly radio voices and deep-sea bass pulses, bobbing beautifully beside Gama’s bells and ceramic clinks, all aided by the gentle creaking of the audience shifting in the pews, sent us out on a lonely fishing expedition. Elsewhere Koner’s demonstration of his computer’s low-end capabilities threatened to bring back the blitz, leaving the whole church throbbing. Visually it was tedious: Gama’s eye-catching device was invisible to all but the front row, so all we were left with was Koner staring into his laptop.
As we returned for the second performance the stage was set to guarantee a greater visual spectacle. German-born, American-educated Robert Ruttman makes big metal objects with strings and plays them with a bow. He started the show by serving up some sinuous drones from long pipes attached to one of the two bulbous contraptions situated on each side of the stage. Behind him stood a large steel sheet, part Frank Gehry and part Harry Partch, with a further string to be bowed. As Ruttman changed strings, instruments and also pitch, American industrial-percussionist Z’ev joined in, battering carefully away at a collection of small drums, gongs and cymbals surrounding him left of the stage. Almost imperceptibly, Portuguese ‘drone-specialist’ David Maranha introduced a high-pitched organ drone, heralding the mad growls of Ruttman: “This trip to London, where I spent my youth, was a nightmare”. On went the bowing, the rattling and the mutterings, Ruttman concluding with repeated rants of school-yard smut-poetry that was both unpleasant and embarrassing. Maranha’s subtlety was marooned by Ruttman’s crassness. Both he and Z’ev deserve to be heard in greater company.
The final quartet saw Koner and Gama return to perform alongside German laptop musician Asmus Tietchens and English painter and instrument maker Max Eastley, the latter performing on a sort of metallic resonating cello and opening with pings and bowed scrapings rich in overtones, beside which Gama suitably assisted with bell-like chimes and short melodic cells. Koner swept in, shading every cavity in grey smudge, Tietchens provided more clearly delineated bubbling and crackling, sending everything into more menacing and frantic shudders. The whole troupe was soon rattling and wheezing madly, like the breaths of some bejewelled giant, before the two laptops overwhelmed with painfully loud swathes of heavy volume, Eastley adding fragmented shards of panic. As the portent subsided all elements were reined in, concluding the strongest and most cohesive grouping of the evening.