The Michael Gordon Band & Max de Wardener

Works by Michael Gordon & Max de Wardener

The Michael Gordon Band
Max de Wardener
Various musicians

Reviewed by: Josh Meggitt

Reviewed: 11 May, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The music of composer Michael Gordon aims for the genre experimentation of Bang on a Can, the group he helped form in New York in 1986. This diversity should be on display at the free 10-hour “Bang on a Can Marathon” to be staged in New York’s World Financial Centre on 4 June and to include works by composers from Anthony Braxton to Aphex Twin.

None of that diversity or excitement was present in this concert. Performing on electric keyboard alongside a group comprising electric guitar, bass, drums, and violin, Gordon’s work sat in that lazy academic-minimalism-meets-rock category that plagues so much contemporary work for percussion; here the added voices dragged things further into monotony. Everything set in strict 4/4 time, backed by an uninventive rhythm section and spurred by Gordon’s embarrassingly cheesy keyboard patterns, it combined the dullest moments of John Adams with formulaic rock cliché.

The violinist (the musicians must remain nameless as no programme was provided) was a prominent feature in all of Gordon’s compositions, and his playing was strong, adding a folk element reminiscent of Mark O’Connor. The guitarist too had his moments, early spiky shards reminding us of the group’s New York pedigree, but all edge was soon blanched out; rather than downtown New York we found ourselves in the bar of a bad small-town Holiday Inn, entertained by the high-school music-teacher.

Visual stimulation by filmmaker Bill Morrison didn’t help – his rapid-cut sepia-hued MTV videos sapped all life from decayed archive footage that might have offered a poignant examination of time and decay; instead we were reminded of the loss suffered by the transferral to digital media. Three Apple powerbooks around the stage reminded that this is ‘the 21st-century’, but all they actually offered were poorly-synched drum pads, an amplified violin and an updated DX7.

It was ‘support’ act Max de Wardener who made the night one to remember. An English composer and multi-instrumentalist, de Wardener and his group were everything Gordon was not: understated, unpredictable and engaging. With de Wardener on bass and various other instruments (most noticeably Partch-inspired suspended tuned glass bowls), his group comprised drums, flute, saxophone, tuba and electronics. Their set sauntered seductively through progressive, jazzy freakouts to helplessly charming instrumental ambience, with clicks, tics and meandering drones spat out in beguilingly complex arrangements.

Evoking Takemitsu, microsound improvisors and post-rock, the group is not without influences, but strong material and musicianship helped create a sound very much the musicians’ own. While drummer Tom Skinner was particularly commanding, de Wardener and his whole troupe put on a wonderful performance.

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