I’m rather ashamed to admit that this represented my first visit to Dalston’s much-admired Vortex. I suppose an evening of electro-acoustic drone, ambient and noise may have been an odd choice for a baptism, given the venue’s status as London’s premier experimental jazz location, but any chance to catch the great Philip Jeck live can never be missed. Deserved winner of The Liminal’s Uranus Prize earlier this year, Jeck is a true gem among Britain’s experimental composers and musicians, and it was a delight that erstwhile The Wire contributor Jonny Mugwump’s Exotic Pylon were able to secure him. Especially given that much of the rest of the line-up was somewhat underwhelming, if I’m brutally honest.
I must admit to a certain degree of scepticism when it comes to live solo laptop-only music. While I did appreciate the aesthetically-pleasing -if a tad rote- visuals playing behind opening act Ship Canal – who at times conjured up some dense, throbbing drones – nothing really captured my imagination.
Kemper Norton’s set was also a little frustrating, especially as he lost all momentum by interrupting himself part-way through to fiddle with his set-up. He had a somewhat baffling array of tools at his disposal, including a PC, synths and harmonium, which he flitted between with almost distracting frequency. Again, there were quite a few good elements in the set, especially the harmonium, but by constantly jumping between sounds, with jarring transitions, they became so disparate and rarely sat cohesively as a whole. The second portion of his set was actually more entrancing, culminating in a bizarre, off-key and affecting vocal piece, but a lot of the wind had gone out of his sails by this point, with most of the audience no longer listening, and I was left scratching my head.
I should at this point mention that, while a lot of what was going onstage up to this point left me nonplussed, we were at least treated to some mind-frazzling tunes between sets courtesy of DJ Beekeeper, aka Bruce Gilbert, formerly of art-punks Wire and still a hugely relevant musical force. It goes without saying that I probably would have preferred to have him perform than merely DJ, but his leftfield choices certainly made the intervals between sets more interesting than the norm.
Where Ship Canal and Kemper Norton had been all over the shop, third act Time Attendant presented electronic noise/drone of the first order: dense, compact slabs of digital musique concrete that managed to be both busy and monolithic, as waves of synth mess segued into pounding techno beats, all mixed in time to a slide-show of what appeared to be the artist’s own paintings and photos. A bit of an ego trip, perhaps, but Time Attendant showed a clarity of vision and musical cohesion that dwarfed those of his two predecessors. And I happily forgive any arrogance when the bass notes are that heavy.
But if the first two acts were uneven, and the third rock solid, the evening’s piece de resistance, Philip Jeck, was simply on another planet, to use an exhausted cliche (might not be the only one – Jeck’s music has the ability to make me lose my linguistic dexterity somewhat). In comparison to the videos, darting around and occasional posturing of the preceding trio, the Liverpool-based artist’s performance was understated, as he remained seated throughout in front of his mixing console, effects pedals and pair of battered-looking turntables. Eyes half-closed, seemingly lost in his music from the off, Jeck projected an aura of calmness and contemplation that had the audience, certainly me, rapt.
Comparisons to current The Wire cover star Christian Marclay are misleading but inevitable, given their common use of weathered vinyl to create avant-garde compositions, but for my money (and having seen both live), there is something so much more seductive and powerful about the Briton’s compositions, which is saying something. As the LPs wobbled and span on themselves, Jeck delicately twisted knobs and pressed buttons in front of him, creating an almost solid cloud of sound that poured into the room, filling every space around me, and inside me, unfathomable crackles, wooshes, haunting half-melodies and troubled drones engulfing me with every twist of his wrists or toggle of the stylus. This was sound not so much being played as sculpted, Jeck’s thoughtful manipulations smoothing out rough edges or creating unexpected jagged ones with an intuition worthy of Michelangelo faced with a slab of marble. Hyperbole? Maybe, but it’s hard not to when hearing and seeing Philip Jeck live.
Above all, where Philip Jeck elevates himself above the night’s other performers, and indeed over a great many modern British and international improvisers, is the unfettered emotion he brings to what could, in other hands, be overly cerebral, even cold, music. Part of this is surely down to the records he chooses, but more than that it’s Jeck’s apparently innate sense of flow, as he slowly builds up layers of sound, before dissipating them into waves of new, quieter ones, and so on.
As Jeck’s immaculate sounds rolled out of the speakers and over my senses, I found myself detaching my eyes from the stage to stare out of the window at the rapidly emptying square outside The Vortex. Something in the way the quiet, lamp-lit space glowed in the night, surrounded by darkened buildings and silent vehicles, seemed to reflect the stark, crepuscular music being sculpted in front of me: something melancholic, lonely and beautiful. When I later found myself wandering those streets, with the echoes of crumbling vinyl and quiet distortion still drifting through my head, I felt a strange sort of inchoate peace. Philip Jeck’s music will do that to you. It makes it hard to describe properly in words, which I guess should be your cue to track down his records or go to his next gig. Lucky you.
Philip Jeck image by Scott McMillan.
You can also read this concert review here: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/09/philip-jeck-time-attendant-kemper-norton-ship-canal-and-bruce-gilbert-london-vortex-friday-september-16th-2011/