Leafcutter John (electronics) & Max Baillie (viola) with Percival
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 10 July, 2013
Venue: St Lawrence Jewry, Gresham Street, London EC2
The last time Leafcutter John performed at the City of London Festival, he could be found manipulating sounds from two mineral-water bottles in accompaniment to a jazz trio led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. This time the electronics artist took the lead in his partnership with Aurora Orchestra violist Max Baillie – and the two sat either side of another living thing! The object for manipulation was a small lemon tree called Percival. Lemmy, surely! With the acoustics of a church to contend with, it was obvious this was not to be a performance of complex rhythms – rather, the focus was on colour and shade. Throughout there was fascinating discourse.
Securing sounds from flora and fauna is a discipline for which John Cage showed aptitude in his compositions, and indeed a number of cacti were star performers in the John Cage Centenary Concert at last year’s BBC Proms. Here the manipulation was rather more subtle and varied, for the lemon tree had an electrical contact attached to its stem, whereby any vibrations applied to it through light shaking or a flicking of the fingers could pass into Leafcutter John’s laptop. A small tool with a ‘beak’ ensured the noises could travel the other way if required. Rather intriguingly some of the sounds were secured by way of Baillie’s bow, so that he was playing two wooden instruments. This parallel was fully drawn when he bowed the wood of the viola, stressing the material similarity between the two.
Although the focus of the 47-minute improvisation was on colour and texture, there were some pleasing melodic moments that helped divide the performance into sections. Some energetic double-stopping from Baillie provided the basis for a Reichian passage around 10 minutes in as Leafcutter John grabbed the source material on his computer with impressive speed before relocating, mottling and amplifying it as counterpoint to the viola.
Around 27 minutes the computer introduced a pre-programmed section with floated chords whose patterns drew similarities to Pink Floyd in their slow, almost timeless shifts. The atmospheric textures were like weather systems to which Baillie added some strong, ornamented melodies that could have been Eastern European in origin. As the rendition progressed Baillie explored the pizzicato tones of his instrument, with some plaintive strumming that took the viola closer to the timbre of a mandolin, and more heavily treated by Leafcutter John, whose processing created some unexpectedly shrill sounds. When Percival returned to the action the bass end was so heavily manipulated that strong vibrations passed through the floor of the church.
That time passed quickly says much for the imagination and originality of this presentation, which held the visual attention as much as the aural, meditative and involving, calm eventually settling over the church.