Ikue Mori & Zeena Parkins
Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt
Reviewed: 19 March, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall & Purcell Room, London
The South Bank’s annual Ether events aim to explore the perimeters between established classical performance and contemporary experimental rock and electronic music. This concert’s varied programme found cohesion via a strong focus upon laptop-produced digital sounds. Running (frustratingly) like a festival, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room and the foyer were all utilised simultaneously; thus artists’ performances crossed paths at various points, forcing audience members to choose between rooms and performers.
Before the night officially commenced the foyer was immersed in lively birdsong emanating from the hidden laptop of Cyclobe, whose contributions served as ambient interludes between the performing spaces throughout the evening. While his performances were largely unobtrusive – birdsong-giving way to sampled trumpets, flutes and subtle digital squeaks – menacing bass swells, drum loops and harsh screeches occasionally interrupted. Meanwhile, the audience made its way either to the QEH for Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins or to queue outside the Purcell Room to await Charlemagne Palestine. I tried to do both, catching the first ten minutes in the QEH.
Mori and Parkins, while only recent collaborators, have performed in the same circles of avant-garde New York since the late 1970s. Their show here saw Mori immobile behind her laptop while Parkins stood beside an electric harp, laptop, mixing desk, effects pedals and an intriguing selection of pieces of white and gold cloth which appeared to have become detached from her trailing white gown. Their music began slowly with sharp, piercing tones emitted from both laptops, Parkins adding colours from a xylophone. Parkins opened the following piece with simple lines from a melodica, which picked up baggage as it was fed through Mori’s computer to emerge blurred, frayed and enticing. I then dashed over to the Purcell Room.
The stage was set for Charlemagne Palestine with his usual paraphernalia: paisley and leopard skin scarves and sheets covering his computer and Steinway grand piano, atop which were perched an assortment of cuddly stuffed toys. He emerged, after several sneaky peeks through the curtains, clutching glasses and thermos for his show-time cognac, his amusing preamble taking place over a thin, high-pitched drone. This actually formed part of the programme ‘My Favourite Things’, in which Palestine aimed to revisit and ‘remix’ some of his earlier works. Starting behind the laptop, Palestine worked away at the drone which gradually enveloped the room, subtly shifting in shape and gradually incorporating recordings of his own cloudy moans and rasps. Palestine then moved to the piano, rapidly depressing small, shifting repeated patterns, his live voice adding rich throaty overtones. The piece finished to a recording of John Coltrane’s “My Favourite Things”, Palestine gleefully dancing to the music – a joyful finish to a work much subtler, more focused, and less didactic than I had expected.
Technical problems beset Matmos, their video projector ironically malfunctioning (member Martin Schmidt is a lecturer in video technology!). Once it finally started, without sound, we were shown a large projection of four images of a male buttock being caressed and slapped. These images moved in and out of synch, functioning as a direct visual transfer of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. Without the sound, the audience began to improvise, attempting (with great difficulty!) to match the shifting beats of the images. Therein Schmidt admitted defeat, pulled down his suit trousers and threw himself over partner Drew Daniels’s knee, whose amplified spanks developed into a simple yet engaging 4/4 drum pattern.
The remainder of their performance explored these concerns in greater depth, building ‘music’ from everyday household objects. Matmos’s music is essentially rhythmic, based on dance-music structures, and constructed by Schmidt’s handling objects that are miked up, fed to Daniels’s computer, scrambled and reassembled live into musical patterns. Amongst the most engaging of these was the second piece involving balloons, which were blown into, the air expunged from, beaten, rubbed, popped and finally inflated with helium to be sent to the ceiling carrying a speaker with a high-pitched vocal recording emanating from it. Beer cans, sheet metal, steel rods, ball-bearings, liquid and assorted odds and ends produced a wealth of further sound gems. Schmidt and Daniels’s handling of their material is awe-inspiring, resulting in rich, truly ‘finished’ musical pieces. While positioning music of this sort in a concert hall enables a more critical examination of their working methods, the funkier moments would surely benefit from being performed in a club environment.
For an encore Mori and Parkins joined Matmos for a free-for-all that produced a mishmash of scrapes and pings from computers, harp and miscellaneous objects. Events like Ether deliver a sample of the wealth of new sounds being produced by some of today’s most experimental artists, and these performances reminded just how exciting and engaging new music can be.