Liminal Concert Review – Praise for Jonny: Andy Stott, Cut Hands, Dalglish and Ship Canal at The Vortex, London (April 3rd, 2012)

Cut HandsThis concert marked the end of Exotic Pylon’s series of gigs at London’s prestigious jazz club The Vortex, and was the last of four nights that brought in a range of experimental and electronic artists, from Cindytalk to Black to Comm, Vindicatrix to Alexander Tucker. The end of Exotic Pylon’s association with The Vortex is a real shame, not just for the music but also because it means we won’t get to enjoy the enthusiastic and indefatigable personality that is Jonny Mugwump. This article serves as a lament to the end of this unique collaboration. As on previous occasions, this was a great line-up and a stirring show. I was left despondent that I’d not been able to attend the other three nights.

When I first saw him perform at this very same venue back in September or so, I had been rather underwhelmed by the laptop-based electronic music of Ship Canal. But time has allowed him to develop and intensify his sound, which is still reliant on his trusty PC, with clouds of electronic atmospheres drifting or edging into aural focus. Where he really has improved is in the use of beats, dropping edgy, dubstep-like percussion into the dense mix of synth lines, tape loops and uneasy samples. The juxtaposition between the beats and the electronics created an uneasy form of dilapidated techno that had the audience shaking in a disjointed parody of dance. My initial reservation about Ship Canal’s music, that he shifts too abruptly between different textures or sounds before the listener has had a chance to settle into what he or she is hearing, still stands, but this first set was a very solid amuse-bouche for what was to follow.

Dalglish’s Dalglish Benacah Drann Deachd was one of my favourite albums of last year, a haunting compilation of evocative post-techno traversed by the memories and emotions of its creator, coming across as a weird internal monologue re-calibrated for the dancefloor during the dying embers of a club night. At The Vortex, however, Chris Douglas proved to be a very different animal altogether. Yes, the gloomy synth ambience and moody crackle were still very much present, but everything was cranked up a notch, with near-IDM percussion driving everything with muted, yet strident, energy and each melody (track?) blended into the next to create a single wall of ever-shifting, troubled electronic mulch. It didn’t so much have a groove as wash over you like a sandstorm, with rugged details popping up here and there to punctuate the morass. Like Ship Canal, Dalglish remained seated behind his laptop, but his apocalyptic take on avant-techno packed a much more disquieting punch.

Judging by the heaving throng that massed into the venue (I’ve never seen The Vortex so packed), Cut Hands, aka ex-Whitehouse frontman William Bennett, was the star act on the bill, and he duly produced a beast of a set. He was actually more subdued than when I saw him last year at The Basing House, standing over his laptop and machines and only occasionally turning his gaze from them to jerk around like a possessed puppet or stare enigmatically at the audience. The sound was no less brutal, however, as deep, rumbling bass tones and nerve-jarring beats -sounding like a million djembes processed through the mother of all distortion pedals- assaulted the auditorium like machine gun bullets under brittle bursts of piercing synth tones. A track like “Stabbers Conspiracy”, from Afro Noise Vol.1, gained so much potency in a live setting, its shrill percussive clangs scattered around the room like sonic ball bearings. On slower-paced pieces, the bleak, oppressive nature of Cut Hands’ music really came to the fore, reinforcing its ties to the power electronics and industrial scenes of Bennett’s past. Beyond the music, what really stood out were the visuals. I’ve long lamented the lack of stage presence of many electro/dance/synth performers, and Bennett is the perfect antidote for many of his peers’ sanguinity: strange, unsettling footage of African people engaging in ancient rituals and struggling with the conditions of Imperialism enhanced the anti-colonial critique behind Cut Hands’ work. Typically with Bennett, though, his stance through these videos is unflinchingly ambiguous, with the ever-present images both haunting and disturbing.

After the full sensory assault of Cut Hands, it seemed Andy Stott was aiming to lighten the mood somewhat, although the audience was close to ecstatic as Bennett left the stage and many promptly headed for the door. I had always associated Stott with the sort of minimal, haunted electronica of Burial and Actress, but at The Vortex he seemed to head more into dub techno territory, with the bass heavier than any preceding act, its smooth, loping lines driving the synth melodies forward with palpable funkiness. This was a set apparently aimed to get the crowd dancing, and he surely succeeded. Stott’s strength is that he plays with melodies that, in the context of dancefloor music, are off-kilter and abstract, but allies them to rhythms that throb and pulsate with the energy of classic dubstep. It was a rousing, invigorating set to conclude a celebratory evening, and indeed – if what I’ve been told is true – a triumphant four days. A fitting farewell to Jonny Mugwump’s association with The Vortex. Thanks Jonny!

Cut Hands image by Scott McMillan

A Liminal Review: Earth by Black To Comm (March 12th, 2012)

For his first release on De Stijl, Black To Comm, aka Marc Richter decided to document his soundtrack to a short film by Korean artist Ho Tzu Nyen. It’s a typically leftfield concept from Richter, and it’s just a shame I haven’t been able to track down a copy of the film (also called Earth) to assess the merits of this album as a soundtrack. However, as a piece of music, despite the absence of its visual counterpart, Earth stands up very well on its own. As with his landmark Alphabet 1968 album, released in 2008, the musical focus on Earth is the use of found sounds, shellac record manipulation and hesitant electronic drones to create dense, yet elusive, sonic tapestries that slowly unfold to envelop the listener in a blanket of mystery and sensuality. On Earth, Richter achieves this with even more consistency than on Alphabet 1968, which is surely down to the fact that it’s a soundtrack.

Apart from his own experiments with ghostly shimmers of elusive atmospherics, Richter brings one particularly potent element to the fray on Earth, and that is the distinctive voice of David Aird, best known for his work as Vindicatrix, and who released one of my favourite electronic albums of the last two or three years in Die alten bösen Lieder on Mordant Music. Aird’s vocals are sensual and rather mannered, as befits someone with a penchant for traditional German folk song. On ‘Stickstoff II’, he comes on like a clone of Scott Walker, with a deep, enunciated croon that glides perfectly over the humming, droning and occasionally squalling musical background, bringing a palpable human edge to what otherwise could be an abstractly cold piece. And throughout Earth it’s of erstwhile pop star Walker that one thinks even when listening to the music, albeit the Scott of Tilt and The Drift rather than Scott 4. On ‘Stickstoff II’ and ‘Water’, Richter and his collaborators’ mixture of field noise, singing bowls and looped vinyl form the kind of “blocks of sound” Walker used to describe his most experimental work, albeit stretched slowly across entire tracks rather than dispersed across individual songs. Additionally, the scratchy vinyl loops and murky samples evoke the crackling ambience of Philip Jeck whilst the sudden surges of unusual found sounds had me thinking of Jason Lescalleet and Graham Lambkin’s Air Supply. Earth does not feel out of place alongside such avant-garde classics.

The concept behind Ho Tzu Nyen’s film -from what I can gather- is a cyclical exploration of sleep, awakening, decay, life, death and resurrection inspired by classical European painters such as Caravaggio and Delacroix, and Richter’s music on Earth is similarly circular and based on collage, with elements building uneasily up on top of one another, then slowly dissolving into further expanses of moody, haunted atmospherics. The twisted bodies locked in decrepit surroundings on the cover art (taken from the film) are refracted through Aird’s plaintive voice, his cries becoming the sound of despairing souls caught in some oblique post-apocalyptic landscape. Almost imperceptibly, Richter and Aird manage to suffuse Earth with substantial pathos, bringing it closer and closer to its cinematic inspiration.

For all that, Earth does leave you wishing you could see Ho Tzu Nyen’s film, but maybe that was to be expected. As a soundtrack, it appears tied to the duration and themes of the work that it reflects and it may seem a bit abstract without the visual reference for some. Yet it has to be said that Richter has managed to create something singular and worthwhile despite this slight impediment, and for that he deserves an awful lot of credit. Earth is a great addition to Black to Comm’s increasingly intriguing body of work.

A Liminal Review: Biokinetics by Porter Ricks (March 7th, 2012)

My first thought on hearing Biokinetics was quite simply “How the hell did I manage to miss this one?” Yes, it’s that good and, when you consider it was originally recorded in 1996, it should have been a landmark album of its day, and a cornerstone of nineties electronica. And indeed, the EPs and subsequent CD garner a bit of underground interest back then but, being a massive neophyte in terms of techno back then, I contrived to miss it altogether.

Luckily, the wonderful Type label has reissued Biokinetics on both CD and vinyl, meaning I was able to quickly right the wrong and absorb this groundbreaking album before singing its praises here. It’s defined in most columns as ‘dub techno’, perhaps mainly due to its release on Chain Reaction, and the bass is suitably massive on tracks like ‘Nautical Dub’ and ‘Port of Call’, pounding with room-shuddering intensity while rampaging beats drive each piece with frenetic energy. But, in truth, there is little to equate the material on Biokinetics, with its icy synths and futuristic undertones, with actual dub, and it has none of that genre’s earthy calm. Instead, Porter Ricks (a duo made up of Germans Andy Mellwig and Thomas Köener) were essentially blazing a trail into a style that would become more popular in the ensuing years: minimal techno. This is especially apparent on two of the album’s shortest tracks, ‘Biokinetics 1′ and ‘Port of Nuba’, where the components are stripped down to sparse, metronomic beats and stuttering oscillations on sequencers. Although undoubtedly busier and more soulful than, say, Alva Noto or Gas, the emphasis across the album is on repetition and delicateness, as patterns are paired down to their most insistent minimum, and then sustained over durations that, for dance music, are pretty long.

The two twelve-minute opuses that bookend the album are cases in point. On ‘Port Gentil’, a slinky beat is countered by repeated sequencer patterns with only the faintest of adornments from synthesizers and found sounds. The result owes almost as much to ambient music as it does to dancefloor techno or dub, hardly surprising given that Köener is one of the foremost (yet most enigmatic) figures in ambient. The atmosphere on ‘Port Gentil’ is ghostly and ephemeral, and while it certainly has a groove you can dance to, it somehow feels too esoteric for something so primal, while also prefiguring the more overtly psychedelic disco/techno crossovers of Lindstrøm and The Field, especially with its focus on looped motifs and repetition. Closer ‘Nautical Zone’, meanwhile, emerges gradually out of an ozone of synth drone, with shaky rhythms that always feel – perhaps appropriately, given the track’s title – submerged, as if heard underwater. Its a graceful and mystical approach that ties Biokinetics in less with minimal and dub techno than with the oddball electro of Detroit legends Drexciya, something heightened by the frequent references to water.

With so much happening in such an understated way (temporal and atmospheric shifts are undertaken gradually, almost to the point of being imperceptible), Biokinetics can be a strange beast to appreciate. You can easily hear how some of these tracks would rock a club audience, especially the raucous ‘Port of Call’, which feels tailor-made for Berlin’s Berghain super-club. On other tracks, the duo’s often bare bones take on techno feels positively oblique. But in between the lines, the atmosphere on each track primes, and you find yourself honing in on gentle waves of hypnotic drone and ambience. The end result is something not unlike the deeper moments of dubstep (such as Burial or King Midas Sound), a genre that Biokinetics surely anticipates. The haunting melodies under the beats flit around the edges of straight-ahead techno, drawing the album deep into more contemplative, reflective spaces akin to the dark explorations on Köener’s solo album Permafrost (also reissued recently by Type). This exquisite sense of poise and restraint means Biokinetics is not really a dancefloor album. Instead, like the most emotionally-resonant dubstep, it feels more like a soundtrack to the last few dances in the club followed by the bus ride home. It drifts and teases and pulls at the heart-strings, a graceful culmination of the disparate strands of post-modern, slightly alienated, urban music. That it was released back in 1996 makes it all the more remarkable and reinforces the fact that I was surely an idiot to have missed it at the time. Thanks to Type, all those like me can make up for lost time.

A Liminal Review: Keith Fullerton Whitman – Generators (February 20th, 2012)

I have to admit that for a while, I considered Keith Fullerton Whitman to be little more that a well-placed label owner. His online music website, Miramoglu, certainly included the cream of modern music, but was that enough to consider him as a truly great musician in his own right? His recent appearance at London’s CAMP soon showed me the error of my ways, as his mastery of intricate electronic sounds and technology blew me away, and left me wishing his phenomenal set has been longer. In truth, his 2010 Disingenuity/Disingenuousness album had already started to set the record straight, but Generators seems set to be a Tonight’s the Night or Berlin moment. Ok, that’s a bit of a silly claim, given this is a 35-minute long live recording of electronic experimentation, rather than a zeitgeist-defining rock opus; but somehow this feels like one of those moments when you realise that an artist has totally and completely tapped into whatever it is that makes his or her music intrinsically relevant and timeless.

Despite the above, it would be easy to lay the credit of Generators’ quality at the door of Eliane Radigue. After all, the first track, ‘Issue Generator’, is dedicated to her; and her aura has become almost impregnable in recent years, as the world re-discovers masterpieces like Triptych and Transmortem-Transmamorem. But where KFW may have wanted to send a credit out to the great French composer on ‘Issue Generator’, he quickly transcends her influence to start exploring new territories. He starts off with a low bass synth hum, in typical Radigue style, but gradually drops new and unexpected elements into the mix, from bouncing, chirpy electronic effects to hazy passages of sequenced drone rhythms. It may be busier than most of Eliane Radigue’s work, but ‘Issue Generator’ shares the great French composer’s patience, and you can almost hear the audience’s hushed breathing as they hang on every sound Whitman produces. Where my appreciation of Whitman had until now been guided by his propensity for abrasive, caustic electro-noise, on ‘Issue Generator’ he shows himself to be a master of texture, as he considerately moulds each sonic element into an elegant, cohesive whole. The whole point of influence is that it should encourage the influenced artist to take the elements of another artist he or she loves and explore them in new ways, as opposed to merely copying them. Keith Fullerton Whitman demonstrates that emphatically on ‘Issue Generator’, and it’s a truly wondrous piece of modern electronic drone.

‘High Zero Generator’, recorded on a separate night, pitches the album back into what, for me, feels like more familiar and abrasive territory. It’s ostensibly the same track, but recorded using different methods. Here, a percussive line that sounds like a basket ball bouncing on a court is captured, re-processed into Whitman’s machinery and then spat out like a pinball trapped in a gigantic arcade machine. Meanwhile, bursts of incoherent static and high-pitched noise erupt from the speakers like aggressive punctuation marks, piercing the senses and imbuing the piece with a heady, unsettling physicality. And yet, despite this, you still get the sense that Whitman is a composer (and I am not using the word lightly) with one eye on the avant-garde drone of the aforementioned Radigue and her Deep Listening peers. Some of the most intense moments on ‘High Zero Generator’ are the near-silences, when the gritty noises are pulled back and, as a listener, you are left hanging on the ensuing emptiness, unsure of the direction that Whitman is going to launch his music on. Like ‘Issue Generator’, ‘High Zero Generator’ evolves patiently and thoughtfully, with each noise or drone or pulsation expertly placed alongside the ones that preceded it. KFW approaches his music with the subtle dexterity of a molecular biologist, and in that respect he is as much of sound sculptor as, say, Florian Hecker.

So, it took me a while to realise that Keith Fullerton Whitman deserve a place amongst the true greats of electronic music. More fool me, and if you still harbour such doubts, I sincerely hope you’ll check out Generators. It may not quite be a Tonight’s the Night moment, but good heavens, it certainly comes close.

A Liminal Review: Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, Mesele Asmamaw – Baro 101 (February 15th, 2012)

Collaborations like this one are a dime a dozen in the world of free improv / free jazz, but few have the delightful energy of Baro 101, an impromptu session in a hotel room by Norwegian drummer extraordinaire Paal Nilssen-Love, Swedish sax legend Mats Gustafsson and Ethiopian krar virtuoso Mesele Asmamaw. Nilssen-Love and Gustafsson were in Addis Ababa with Dutch post-rock-turned-avant-garde outfit The Ex, and were so enamoured with the sounds they encountered in the East African country that they organised an impromptu recording session in The Ex’s hotel room at Hotel Baro. The results are astounding.

Of course, the element that elevates this collaboration above most of the rest of the current improv scene is Mesele Asmamaw’s krar, a bowled lyre-like stringed instrument that is amplified here to allow Asmamaw to compete with the raucous energy of his two compadres. It’s sound is positively random, in the sense used by today’s youth, a weird wah-ing warble that sashays and stumbles around the sax and drums, lending the album a curious, exotic quality.

The album kicks off in pretty typical improv fashion, with a metallic drum clatter, random honks on the sax and the krar sounding like a wire rope that’s being stretched to breaking point. But before long, ‘Baro 101 – A’ proves to be the jazziest of the two pieces, as Gustafsson leads the charge with some soulful and rambunctious repeated squalls and Nilssen-Love kicks up a veritable shit-storm of percussion over Asmamaw’s sliding lines on the krar. The trio then locks into a quasi-martial groove, coming on like a stripped-down and brittle version of Albert Ayler’s marching band take on free jazz, with insistent drums, and terrific call-and-response motifs from the sax and the krar. This being improv, things never settle for long, the grooves and melodies sliding in and out, moving between restrained silence punctuated by random dissonance (including ecstatic shouting from one of the musicians) and full-on hard-bop raucousness. The connection between the musicians feels positively telepathic, especially in the final coda, when they slowly and sensuously build into a jazz-funk finale, channeling the spirit of early Funkadelic, even, with Asmamaw’s hazy, abrupt krar solos sounding almost like Bootsy Collins’ keyboard.

The second piece is even more outlandish, throwing off jazz conventions for a full-blown collision of European improv and traditional Ethiopian music. Free improv is often considered to be the sole domain of Western (and Japanese) musicians, with “world” artists somewhat condescendingly considered to mostly be interested in their native folk and religious musics. Asmamaw puts the lie to this outdated notion with ease, matching his European peers in the improv stakes before jumping in with some impassioned vocals that upends the piece onto its head. Without Asmamaw, this could have been an album of excellent, but standard free jazz/improv. But with the Ethiopian on board, it ultimately breaks free of any conventions, almost creating a new form of music altogether. Credit to Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love for opening themselves up so completely, and of course you can only sit back and admire the sheer brilliance of all three musicians. Nilssen-Love’s drumming shifts effortlessly between delicate patters and full-blown thundering of the toms. Gustafsson is often noted for his firebrand approach to free jazz, but here he is impeccably subtle, wrenching soulful parps and bleats out of his horn before darting into elegant, Coltrane-ian solos and distorted blasts of sax noise. And Asmamaw gives the full range of his unusual instrument’s sound, from warbling riffs to humming bass lines.

Baro 101 totally undermines the notion that improv is a stale, overly-intellectualised genre for Western, coffee-swilling virtuosos. It’s warm and it swings, engaging and challenging at once. This is, to me, what improv should be, and I would happily place Baro 101 alongside the seminal works of Peter Brotzmann, AMM and John Russell. Time will tell if this has quite the impact those guys did, but I certainly hope so.

A Liminal Review: Visible Breath by Eyvind Kang (February 7th, 2012)

The (relative) recent surge in interest in the music of American composer and string player Eyvind Kang is no more than the man deserves. His phenomenal arrangements for SUNN O)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions (2009) helped elevate the robed doom-metal “cave-men”’s sound to new levels of expansiveness and atmosphere. It was therefore no surprise that SUNN guitarist Stephen O’Malley returned the favour by releasing Kang’s Aestuarium (recorded with wife Jessika Kenney) and now Visible Breath (solo, but also featuring Kenney, amongst others) on his Ideologic Organ imprint, both in 2011. Meanwhile, Ipecac will be issuing his latest release, The Narrow Garden, at the end of January. So a prolific few months for Mr Kang!

Of the two latest albums, Visible Breath, recorded most recently, is the most immediately arresting, despite being sparser and more experimental. On the opening title track, quiet horn and string drones emerge deliberately out of the speakers, drawn out and patient in the tradition of the just intonation of LaMonte Young or Pauline Oliveros. Jessika Kenney joins in on vocals, her high keen fooling me at first – I thought it was a trumpet such is her precision and control over her voice! “Visible Breath” evolves gently, building its atmospheres in patient layers; however, it is far from relaxing, as some of the deep drone by Oliveros or Eliane Radigue can be, with strains of unease and disquiet echoing through the mix. Midway through the pace drops off, as Kenney’s voice and occasional strident viola and violin lines swoop and pierce across the ether, with Kang the composer toying with silence as a means of building the tension. The piece gradually evolves and dissolves, never breaking the listless groove it inhabits, even as Cuong Vu engages in some brutal trumpet “solos” that lean towards free jazz. As the musicians gradually drop away, a silence falls over the session like a sheet laid over a corpse.

After a similarly unnerving short interlude, ‘Monadology’, which features fitful moans from Kenney and rumbling horn and piano motifs under sudden screes from Kang on viola and Timb Harris on violin, ‘Thick Tarragon’, recorded after the first two pieces, feels like a slight parting of the clouds, as Janel Leppin plucks away percussively at a modified cello and a pedal steel guitar slides to-and-fro like a graceful pendulum. The drones here are lighter, but no less mystical -especially as the percussive sounds make way for more drifting, mellow tones and excoriating vibrations of strings- and on Visible Breath you can’t help feeling that Eyvind Kang is living up to Stephen O’Malley’s description of his music as “spectral”.

The Narrow Garden is altogether sunnier than its cousin, and features a near-orchestra-sized group of musicians guided by Kang, who is only credited as conductor. Kang describes it as “a concept of love, of poetry, like a troubadour or ashugh, courtly love that goes in two directions – one the more ineffable, kind of delightful […] and the other direction is the implication of a kind of violence.” This dichotomy is not immediately perceptible, as ‘Forest Sama’i’ swoops forwards like a clear ray of sunshine, all loping hand percussion and elegant string and flute patterns. Atmospherically, the album crosses borders with confident ease, as Orient and Occident collide, a proper melting pot that throws up Middle Eastern rhythms alongside hints of the European psychedelic folk of Yatha Sidhra and The Incredible String Band. But later tracks return to the subtle malaise of Visible Breath, especially the title track and epic closer ‘Invisus Natalis’, with claustrophobic, atonal string drones and colliding textures. The effect is almost akin to a film score, with a subtle and involving progression that feels like a narrative, slowly escalating to its dramatic finale, with Kenney once again displaying her prodigious vocal dexterity. The Narrow Garden may not have Visible Breath’s stripped-down immediacy, but it remains a robust demonstration of Eyvind Kang’s epic ability to distill atmospheres and ambiance with the power of an alchemist. His vision pushes geographical, musical and conceptual boundaries in a way that grants his music endless mystique.

Everything that has made Eyvind Kang such a distinctive figure on the modern composition scene can be found in these two remarkably different albums. They can be fierce, quiet, unsettling, graceful and calming all in the space of a few bars. A remarkable talent unfolds in the grooves of these albums, one that’s exhilarating to engage with as a listener.

You can also read this review here

A Quietus Interview – Finding Out Something True: Eyvind Kang (February 3rd, 2012)

Eyvind Kang is a composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and performer who gained prominence in 2010 when he worked on arrangements for Sunn O)))’s much-celebrated Monoliths & Dimensions, helping the famed doom/drone unit transcend their guitar-based roots and connect with modern composition and experimental music. But beyond his numerous collaborations (which also include work with the likes of Bill Frisell, Laurie Anderson and John Zorn), Kang has established himself as a potent artist in his own right, as demonstrated by two albums released on Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint, Aestuarium (credited to Kang and his partner Jessika Kenney) and Visible Breath. He also has an upcoming release on Ipecac Records, The Narrow Garden. All three albums reflect the diversity of Eyvind Kang’s musical output, with none sounding at all like the others, but also his singular approach to tones and atmosphere.

On the eve of an O’Malley-organised concert at London’s Cafe Oto , as well as the  release of The Narrow Garden, the Quietus caught up with Eyvind Kang to discuss his interest in diverse sounds, upcoming projects, plans for the Oto show, and the themes and approaches behind his compositions and music.

Could you please provide us with a bit of information about your background? Were you always into music? How did your recording career start?

Eyvind Kang: I grew up in Canada, Winnipeg and Regina, and a little bit in Iceland. My ancestry’s a mixture of Icelandic, Danish and Korean. I was in awe of musical instruments. I’ve been taking different kinds of lessons and studying, practicing my whole life. As a kid, I noticed some other kids taking piano lessons, so that was my first impulse, but I started with violin, as a lot of Korean kids do in the US. I had an amazing teacher in elementary school, who introduced me, and everybody in the class, to orchestra music. In my teenage years, I got into reggae and played the bass with some friends in a band. We just learned music communally. And it just kept going – my God, it never ends!

By the time I went to college, I thought that I wouldn’t go into music, but somehow I was hooked, so I ended up sticking with it – that’s how I ended up in Seattle, actually, at Cornish, in the early nineties.

I started recording when I was in college. My first CD, 7 NADEs, was recorded around then, maybe in 1994. I’ve always been making music, from the get-go.

Do you want to know the names of some of my teachers? Every time I say their names, it hardens a shell around their teachings, so I prefer not to.

How are preparations going for your concert at Cafe Oto in London?

EK: Great. Me and Jessika are knee deep in that! We’re married, so we do this all the time. It’s really nice to bring it across the ocean. It’s going to be my first appearance at Cafe Oto. We’re excited to play there and be a part of the show.

What can we expect from you on the night? Will it be a more stripped-down show than the music on The Narrow Garden?

EK: Yes, but not as much as Aestuarium! It’s rather confusing, because a lot of things came out at the same time, recently, like The Narrow Garden and Visible Breath, and then there’s the duet with Jessika, Aestuarium, which is very stripped-down. There were eight or nine musicians on Visible Breath, and then on The Narrow Garden it was getting up to chamber orchestra size. The music we’re bringing to Oto is Jessika. [laughs] It’s not going to be as austere as Aestuarium, because that was recorded five years ago, and since then, a lot of plant-like tendrils have grown out of that, and we’ve gathered them up into one thing we can present.

I want to do a gig to release The Narrow Garden, but it’s kind of a conundrum. It was taken from a live gig I did in Barcelona, however… There will be some brand new pieces (at Oto) and we might want to revisit bits of Aestuarium, but I can’t imagine we would play it the same way. The stuff we’re preparing is very different to anything that we’ve done that came out. Aestuarium is one pole, and we have another pole involving a lot of electronics and ambience. I don’t know what the space of Oto is like, but we have a little tour coming up, so hopefully some of those rooms are appropriate.

Can you give me a bit of background on the recording of Aestuarium?

EK: Aestuarium was a bit like a shadow, a tone. Me and Jessika play together, and combine the sounds… O’Malley called it spectral music, which was a surprise, because I feel Jessika and I use phenomenology of sound and tone, so it’s kind of the opposite of “spectral”, as I understand. Spectral composers want to study the nature and interior of sound – the consciousness of sound – whereas when we did Aestuarium, we were going into ourselves, our own consciousness of sound, where there was no difference between hearing and making sound. Intention, like the old Aristotelian meaning of the word. So we went into ourselves, and found that the sound and its shadow are like twins, and we joined them in our piece. But five years later, even with being graced by the vinyl reissue – which is like an echo back – we realised the shadow and the tone had grown apart from each other in an interesting way. I’m riffing on Ibn Arabi, the great Sufi philosopher. He said that the object that casts a shadow and the shadow itself, are related, point-by-point. But the proportions in the shadow can change so much that you’re dealing with infinite proportions. The shadow can be infinitely large. That’s the kind of thing that I think we’re practicing. With the “marriage” of our tone, we can be shadows of each other. One can be finite, one can be shadow.

One of the other images is the stroke of the pen, the letter… The letter created by the stroke of the pen.

What was the theme behind the album? Water and nature seem very prominent, as well as the use of Latin lyrics…

EK: Yes, and Tibetan notation. I think Aestuarium was about consciousness, in a way. There was also the Latin text, which was very deep. Visible Breath was about nature and elements, wind and water; and The Narrow Garden is more about plants and animals. And stories…

At the time (of Aestuarium), we were living by the water on Puget Sound, and we recorded at our home. Our friend Mel Dettmer, a great recording engineer, came over and we just did it in a day or an afternoon. The composition too: everything just happened right there, nothing was pre-planned.

We were living on the water, and it’s a place where fresh-water and salt-water come together, the “aestuarium”. You can actually hear the water on the record! It’s an interesting place, where salt- and fresh-water meet, with a really interesting energy. There are salmon, a really important fish, and birds like the cormorant and the heron. So we were kind of entering into their realm.

The lyrics are from a Latin psalm. It’s about a pelican, it’s a lamentation, but it’s kind of unimportant, because we didn’t want to emphasise the biblical side… But when you’re dealing with the song, it’s so sacred. I’m really fond of Latin.

In contrast to Aestuarium‘s sparseness, The Narrow Garden is very lush, with a lot of musicians. How did you come to compose the music for that album, and was it a challenge working with so many collaborators?

EK: It is really different, but if you listen to the other two records that came out on Ipecac, it’s very much in the same ball-park. They were sort of one-offs, that went down somewhere in Europe, with art groups, and the results are documents of those experiences. But it took a long time to digest and mix. It was a challenge to work with a lot of collaborators

Again, what is the thematic background to the album, if any? Do all your albums work to a theme or narrative?

EK: My albums center on a polarity, a sort of yin-yang dynamic. So it’s a quasi-narrative, and actually, The Narrow Garden is a little more like that, because there’s the storytelling. I wanted it to be like a children’s story, so it kind of holds your hand and walks you through it at first, and then there’s a forest, where you kind of get lost… But those are metaphors. With Visible Breath and Aestuarium, you’re just in there, but in The Narrow Garden, there’s more formality, more manners, it’s mannered. But “narrative’ is another term I’m not totally crazy about, because it suggests that music is subservient, or following a form. I think that’s a particular phenomenon of film music. I’m glad when people say it’s like film music, because it kind of means that it was like a dream to them, that it evokes more; but when I’m working on it, I don’t like to think that it’s following a narrative outside of the sound, really. I think of dynamic states, and I always want to know where it’s going, that there’s a direction in the sound and that I’m following that.

Aestuarium seems to have a Celtic feel to it, whilst The Narrow Garden features more Eastern influences. Have you always been interested in musics from around the world?

EK: From one point of view, it’s an apt description, but I think of it in terms of time, more so. Like sound worlds, and time eras. The way human beings think of sound is like a language, so there are periods when different languages of sound are more dominant. I’m interested in thinking about what a person would have done in the year, say, 1000 Common Era, when they picked up an instrument and started singing. Everything changed after the so-called Renaissance era and then the Enlightenment. Your boy Francis Bacon, and all those cats, they just revised everything that was going on in music. But the symbols in music writing are really rich, more so than scientific writing or the alphabets, there’s more to work with. They’re sounds from old worlds, that are connected to the East… The Orient, which can refer to the Arab and Persian world, and to the Far East. From a composing point of view, I’m very interested in the Orient. I don’t prefer the term “melting pot”, because I don’t believe in the reductionist elements of that phrase. “Biosphere” is more fruitful.

You can talk about world music, but, to transition to that without going through Sun Ra, Michael White, would be impossible for me. I live in a colony, breakaway settler state. To think, like Aime Cesaire, about the pan-African as a door, which is called “world” but to deal with the means of valid knowledge, of language, translations, intuition, tradition where learning means receiving, composing/improvising means giving… There are a lot of musicians I met on the Arabic music scene in the States, and a few of them are on The Narrow Garden.

Visible Breath is very different to the other two albums, and feels darker. What was the context for composing that album? Do you plan the atmospheres in advance, or do they evolve organically.

EK: Visible Breath is the most recently-recorded of the latest releases. The atmospheres on all three albums just evolved. What you’re listening to sounds completely different to me, and I think it sounds completely different to someone else. And I think there are other possibilities, because there can be spirits, ghosts, and it would sound completely different to them. So I want to leave it completely open, I don’t want to say that [an album] is mournful or dark, because I don’t know how it sounds. But it’s interesting for me to hear… Visible Breath can be kind of dark, maybe, but I didn’t feel that. A lot of magic happens, but it’s a question of conscious and subconscious. What you think you’re going to do, consciously, is only the tip of the iceberg.

On Visible Breath and Aestuarium, you play viola, but you are credited as conductor “only” for The Narrow Garden. What was the thought-process behind the decision?

EK: Just because it was a large group of musicians with limited time to rehearse. As conductor, I could just make it happen and cue the people so they didn’t get too confused or lost, and just guide it. I think that’s the ethic of the music too, because it’s taking the listener and guiding them. A guided tour [laughs]. “Ethic” is a very strong word for conducting and organising. That and manners and there’s an image of courtly love that comes up in the lyrics, “courtoisie”, chivalry, Sufi chivalry, which is called futuhat.

You of course worked with Sunn O))) on Monoliths & Dimensions. How did that collaboration come about, and was it a challenge for you to work with a metal band?

EK: They have a Seattle connection, so I met them through Mel Dettmer and Randall Dunn, who both recorded Monoliths & Dimensions. Randall does live sound for Sunn O))), so he was the connector, really. He talked to Sunn O))) about me, and to me about Sunn O))). I think maybe Stephen [O’Malley] initiated it, but I don’t know. I got the long metal, doom tracks and they gave me free reign to draw and paint with their tracks. It was a great experience. For the choir, we went over to Vienna. Stephen and I met during those sessions, and we realised we had quite a lot to talk about. At that time, I was discovering the whole “spectral” music thing and Stephen went crazy with that, his own way of understanding that. Sunn O))) has touched a nerve with minimalist composers, and they’re teaching them in their classes! Stuart Dempster is also the great link, and Stephen O’Malley flipped out that he was on board. Dempster has all these links to Deep Listening, he’s just huge, and he was quite enthusiastic about Sunn O))). So you have all these composers who “get” Sunn O))), but in their own way, with all their background in contemporary music, and the terminology around that. Whereas Stephen and Greg (Anderson) call themselves cavemen.

It was challenging to work on Monoliths & Dimensions, because the envelopes of the sound – the attack, the decays, the swells – all those things that are lovely about Sunn O))) when they play, create another dynamic than acoustic instruments. So what I wanted to do was follow the dynamic curve that was implied in their sound through the unfolding of instrumentation. After a while, though, it wasn’t very intellectual – I became a caveman too [laughs].

How do you approach the composition of a piece or album? Do you have a set idea that you work to, or do you let the writing evolve organically?

EK: It writes itself usually. There’s a process of logic, finding out something true.

Finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2012? Are there any more releases on the horizon?

EK: We’re looking to come back to Europe in July, and hopefully to London. We’re doing these small shows for very small audiences. We performed at a zen centre on New Year’s Eve, where there were about ten or twenty people, but even performing to two, three, four, five people would be ideal. Where we could all sit together. It’s a completely different musical experience than a venue with microphones.

I’m working on some pieces right now. I just did a string quintet, a piano solo, and a duo for cello and oboe, so smaller pieces. I hope to include them on a record that I got the go ahead to do. The first rehearsal for the cello/oboe thing is tomorrow, so I’ve got to get my act together! I’m seriously psyched about the piano piece, so that’s the ongoing composing side. I’m also putting more time into just playing. I play hardcore jazz with Bill Frisell – he’s a serious dude, so that’s the jazz side, and I’m trying hard to come face-to-face with something like John Coltrane or Charlie Parker. That legacy. And then also Persian music has been crazy: I also have a concerto for Persian ney that I’m recording right now. We’re doing it like a student project. I’m hoping that will be completed this year. But the main work is practicing…

Photo by Bryce Davesne

A Quietus Interview: “The Horror In Music Comes From The Silence” – John Carpenter Interviewed (January 24th, 2012)

 In the world of horror and sci-fi cinema, few figures carry the prestige and cult status of John Carpenter. A proper cinematographic Renaissance man, Carpenter has been writing, producing, editing and directing films since his 1974 debut Dark Star. In 1978, he rocketed to global fame with the classic horror Halloween, which birthed the slasher genre whilst also setting the bar so high that none of the following copycats such as Friday The 13th could ever equal it. One of the highest-grossing films ever made, Halloween not only launched an indefatigable franchise (and one of the genre’s defining bad guys, Michael Myers), but it also featured a timeless score, composed and recorded by Carpenter himself. He has even appeared in numerous films as an actor.

After the huge success of Halloween, Carpenter would go on to direct classic sci-fi masterwork Escape From New York; the critically-lauded, but commercially unsuccessful, remake of horror/sci-fi classic The Thing; Stephen King adaptation Christine; the oddball comedy Big Trouble In Little China; such cult gems as Prince of Darkness, They Live and In The Mouth Of Madness; and more recent B-movie explorations like Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars.

With the exception of The Thing, each one featured an instantly-recognisable soundtrack composed by Carpenter himself.

If John Carpenter’s legendary status as a film director is indisputable, he has in recent years become cited as a major inspiration as a composer, with the current synth and noise underground, from Wolf Eyes alumni Nate Young (notably in Demons) and Mike Connelly to the likes of Hive Mind, Sun Araw and Oneohtrix Point Never, often referring to his scores in their own sonic explorations. Dark atmospheres, haunted effects and subtle drone textures have long been a staple of Carpenter’s musical oeuvre, and the magpie-like tendency of many modern synth wielders, in particular, was always bound to turn to him as they looked to create their own sonic landscapes.

It was in this capacity as a pioneering composer, particularly with synthesizers, that The Quietus spoke to John Carpenter about music and films.

First of all, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into making music? Your history as a groundbreaking filmmaker is well known, but what drew you to making music as well?

John Carpenter: I grew up with music. My father was a world class violinist, a college professor, composer and a session musician for recordings in Nashville, Tennessee. He tried to teach me the violin when I was eight. I had no talent. Then he pushed me into piano. I had middlebrow chops. Then I picked up the guitar when The Beatles crashed through in ’64. I was drawn to their music, and to that of The Rolling Stones, Procol Harum, The Supremes and The Doors. From there, I went to the bass guitar. A small local Bowling Green, Kentucky, rock & roll band followed. We were called Kaleidoscope, but never made any recordings.

What made you decide to start composing your own film scores? Was it out of financial necessity, or because you felt you could capture the atmosphere of your films better than someone else?

JC: I composed the score for my first film Dark Star because I was cheap and fast. I talked to a couple of other composers but they all seemed weird. One guy had glitter all over him. Not that wearing glitter is a bad thing… it just didn’t inspire confidence.

How do you set about creating a score for your films? Do you start with the visuals and then extrapolate the music from what you’ve shot, or is the process of making music for your films symbiotic with the shooting and editing of your films?

JC: For me scoring is all improvisational. After the movie is cut, I synch my synthesizer to the cut footage and just start playing. Mostly I play all the parts. Sometimes I get a line based on a sound I hear driving to work. Sometimes the tempo of the temp music track inspires me.

Can you explain what your equipment was when you started out, and how it has evolved over time?

JC: God, I don’t remember what gear I used in the beginning. For Assault On Precinct 13 and Halloween I worked with Dan Wyman. He taught synthesizers at USC and used old tube synths. He had to tune each one before I could play.

A lot of your earlier films were defined by their emphasis on electronic instruments. Can you tell us what drew you to electronic music?

JC: Simple. I could sound big and powerful and I could play all the parts.

How long does it usually take you to compose and record a film score?

JC: It usually takes me a month or two these days to record a score. The score for Assault On Precinct 13 was finished in one day. Halloween took three days.

What do you think electronic instruments brought to your films, in terms of atmosphere?

JC: There’s something about synthesizer sounds that drives and underlines certain moods and tempos. When the electric guitar was invented suddenly there was rock & roll. Check out the scores for The Exorcist and Sorcerer from the 1970s. They still sound modern.

A lot of people think your film scores sound “simple”, in terms of composition, but the theme for Halloween, for example, is in 5/4 time, so far from it! Did you have full reign to experiment with your scores? How did you integrate such explorations with the need to emphasis the dramatic nature of a film score?

JC: Most of my scores are simple. I would differ with this assessment on Big Trouble In Little China and In The Mouth Of Madness which I think demonstrate more complexity. The secret of scoring music for movies is to unify images, movement and sounds. And, yes, I have full reign to explore…

How do you feel about the fact that the Halloween score has become one of the most recognisable in film history?

JC: I didn’t expect it, but I feel great about it.

I’ve heard that they’ve now invented light sensitive novelty devices for halloween, where the movement of people in front of the device causes it to play the theme from Halloween. Somehow, that manages to be both amusing and scary. Where do you think the horror element of the score comes from? It obviously doesn’t follow the Hammer style of horror music. In the same way that your films often suggest horror as much as they show it, how do you think a film score can be used to suggest horror rather than overtly demonstrate it?

JC: First of all, I loved the Hammer scores of James Bernard, one of my musical heroes. His Quatermass and X: The Unknown scores are the greatest. His secret? He used to sing the title of the movie and that became the main melodic line. [His theme for 1958’s The Horror Of Dracula is derived from the rhythm of shouting, ‘Dra-cu-laaaaaa!’, Ed] The horror (scary) element in movie scoring comes from mood over complexity. Also from silence.

When it came to electronic music, were you aware of other electronic musicians, especially those involved in film scores, such as Giorgio Moroder or Vangelis? What sort of interaction did you have with those guys?

JC: I was aware of electronic musicians but had no interaction with them. Maybe I was scarred by the glitter-covered musician I met earlier.

The score for Escape From New York appears to draw inspiration from the music of Debussy. Can you describe the importance of classical music in the way you approach your film scores?

JC: There is actually a Debussy composition (‘Engulfed Cathedral’) used in Escape From New York. It is credited in the end title roll. For some reason a few disgruntled folk claim that I stole it without attribution. I consider this a crime against humanity. Todd Ramsay, the editor on Escape From New York, used ‘Engulfed Cathedral’ on the temp track. It worked well with the scene.

Horror cinema has long been characterised by its music, from Bernard Hermann’s theme to Psycho to John Williams’ iconic Jaws score, via the murky sound effects on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist‘s use of Tubular Bells. How do you feel your own scores fit in that canon, and were you inspired by how other composers worked on film scores before composing the music to Halloween?

JC: I was hugely influenced by Bernard Hermann. His science fiction/horror scores were simple and welded to the images. Also Dimitri Tiompkin. His score for the original The Thing was fabulous.

The music on The Thing was notable in that you brought in Ennio Morricone to do the score, rather than do it yourself, yet at the same time he seemed to borrow much from what you had done on earlier films. Was his presence a studio imposition, or did you want to leave one part of the creative process to someone else for a change?

JC: I got to work with Ennio Morricone! His film scores are seminal. My God, who wouldn’t want to work with him? Ennio was a kind man, a gentleman, very wise and talented. He was a dream to work with.

Since the mid-eighties, you seem to have changed your approach, musically, shifting away from electronics towards a more prominent use of guitars. Can you take us through the thought process behind this change?

JC: I used guitars on Vampires and Ghosts Of Mars (there are a couple guitar lines in Escape From L.A. and In The Mouth Of Madness). I don’t really see it as a major change in that most of my work was still done with synths. On Ghosts Of Mars I used Joe Bishara as a sound designer on some of my stuff. He brought an electronic depth to my stuff.

Do you think you will return to a greater emphasis on electronics in the future?

JC: As I said, I never left electronics in the first place!

Your scores have been cited by a lot of modern synth/ noise/ underground bands as a huge influence. Are you aware of this? What do you think of the resurgence in interest in your scores, as well as those of Goblin or Vangelis? Is it a case of people catching on belatedly to the innovations you spear-headed?

JC: I’m flattered by this. But there are also tribute bands to the scores from Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man video games so I try to keep this stuff in perspective

In the early days, you were pretty much the sole driving force behind the music of your films, but recently you’ve been known to collaborate with guys like Jim Lang. What was the creative decision behind these collaborations?

JC: I’ve had many collaborations: Dan Wyman, Alan Howarth, Jim Lang, Dave Davies, Shirley Walker, Bruce Robb. I need help.

A number of your films have been remade recently, from Halloween to your remake of The Thing, via The Fog. How much involvement do you have with these projects? Do you think the current Hollywood emphasis on remakes betrays a lack of invention? Do you think it would be possible for a maverick such as yourself to make a name for yourself today in the way you did back in the seventies?

JC: The movie business has changed so much since I got in and I’m glad I got in when I did. But Hollywood has always remade and recycled older movies. The cost of making movies has risen tremendously. Studios look for what is closest to a sure thing.

Finally, what are your projects for the future? Can we expect a new John Carpenter film – and score – to hit our screens in the not-too-distant future?

JC: Future projects? A couple scripts in development (writing, raising money). Weekly jams with my son on my Logic Pro setup. Lots of NBA basketball watching. Enjoying this fabulous life that happened to me.

You can also read this interview, complete with videos, here

A Liminal Review: Breaking Day by Cleared (January 23rd, 2012)

When the first tone of Breaking Day’s opening track, ‘Rogues’, emerges from the speakers, all static crackle and untethered white noise, I was thinking “Here we go again, another drone album that sounds exactly like nearly every other one released in the last five years”. Don’t get me wrong, I love drone with an unparalleled passion. It’s just that the advent of computers and sequencers, and the unrelenting desire of many a new act to “revolutionise” the genre in predictable ways, seems to have taken away a lot of the mystique and sense of exploration that made pioneers like Cluster and Klaus Schulze so exciting, their meticulous and slowly-unfolding piling up of tones and textures increasingly a thing of the past. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old git, but as more and more records come out inundated in drab synth drones, I’m left to constantly turn to mavericks like Eleh and Keith Fullerton Whitman, the harsh noise walls scene, and solid old-timers like Pauline Oliveros, Tony Conrad and Eliane Radigue if I want to get some good quality deep drone to lather my ears with.

But Cleared are made of more unusual stuff than most of their peers, and my initial reservation was wholly unfair. Don’t judge a book by its cover, and don’t judge an album on its first few bars. You’d think I’d have learnt that by now… Indeed, to call Breaking Day a drone album at all is to slightly misappropriate its varied and shifting musical palette. ‘Rogues’ is a case in point: as the white noise falters and drops in and out of the mix, a delicate pattering of cymbals and high-hat snakes forwards, soon bolstered by disjointed drum beats and sudden surges of screeching digital noise. Cleared’s sound is quite removed from the sunshine-y synth washes of many of their contemporaries, pitched instead on “Rogues” somewhere between uneasy trip-hop and the industrial clanging of Cabaret Voltaire’s Mix-Up album. Electronics gone beautifully wrong, shall we say.

A first look at Breaking Day’s artwork, added to its cheerful title, could have underlined my initial reticence, given it depicts a window looking out on a sunny garden. But as the music unfolds, from the near-metal rumble of ‘Sighted’ to the title track’s factory-floor take on Pocahaunted-esque dub pop, with a saw-toothed guitar slicing and swirling over reverbed polyrhythms, it’s clear that the album’s imagery rests in the foreground of the cover: dark shadows and oppressive interiors. At times I’m reminded of Brian Pyle’s Ensemble Economique project, minus the latter’s shamanistic approach to avant-pop. ‘No Path to Claim’, for example, builds up dense atmospherics using found sounds and chiming bells, coming on like a more stripped-down cousin of Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg’s KTL. ‘Quartz’, on the other hand, is almost minimalist: a ghostly organ drone that anchors Cleared back into the drone tradition mentioned above, and with some gusto.

Such boundary-pushing of course entails a risk that the resultant whole could become undermined by disjointed parts. Added to this, many of the tracks are rather short, failing to build on their creepy atmospheres. But Cleared have managed to steer clear of the kind of clichés and simplistic faux-experimentation that dogs so much of modern drone, instead toying with the boundaries of several genres, emphasising tones and atmospherics over simplistic synth noodling and looking back beyond the archetypes of drone into recesses that at times have been overlooked by similar acts. Breaking Day also takes it cues from the duo’s live shows, and in that context the power of these tracks would be indisputable, in the manner of Raime or Demdike Stare. Breaking Day may not be a defining new chapter in the history of drone or dark ambient, but it’s a deceptively challenging addition to the canon, and certainly looks at its diverse influences in smart and adventurous ways.

You can also read this article here

A Quietus Feature – Total Sensory Embrace: Hofesh Shechter & Antony Gormley’s Survivor (January 16th, 2012)

A gigantic metal curtain towers over the audience, sealing off the stage and reflecting every light like a vertical lake of oil. In front of it, a man stands absolutely still with his back to us, looking very much like one of Survivor co-creator Antony Gormley’s minimalist statues. As the lights dim, the curtain splits in two and retracts revealing a row of dimly-lit people who stare out and hum like Buddhist monks. The man in front of them remains impassive. One by one the ‘singers’ break away and run up ladders to towering scaffolds where instruments await them. The static man starts to jerk and spasm in a terrifying parody of classical dance. The musicians begin a pounding, drum-heavy rock motif. One man remains behind. Clutching a microphone, he hisses and shouts, also contorting his body like a possessed exorcist. The stage lights come on to reveal Shechter’s outlandish orchestra: two string quartets battling with a myriad drum kits, a gigantic gong, two electric guitarists and a man cranking out drones from a laptop and synths. The musicians lock into a sweeping, majestic post-rock groove, somewhere between Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Yndi Halda (I kid you not), building and building as our two protagonists seem lost in their own physical nightmare. At one point, dancers explode out of the stage floor, twisting and twirling to the music’s furious melody. When the piece comes crashing to a halt, the lights going off suddenly and the metal barrier closing once again, I am startled to find tears running down my cheeks. This was not what I expected.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure what I expected. There was much publicity around this meeting of minds, so the fact that the music was anchored at times in the ‘rock’ tradition should perhaps not come as a surprise. Conversely, Shechter and Gormley are renowned in their fields for their boundary-pushing approaches to their art, so the minimal decor and jerky, unusual dancing also felt apt.

Hofesh Shechter’s background is as a dancer and choreographer, but he has always composed his music. This, however, was his first shot at basing a piece on music first, and dance later. As with previous work, drums were the focal point of his music, with about twenty various percussive instruments dotting the scaffolding stages. At one point, nearly 100 community drummers crowd the stage, pounding out polyrhythmic beats under the exhorting direction of longtime Shechter collaborator Yaron Engler. In contrast, the string arrangements were often muted and mournful, emphasising the darker areas of Shechter and Gormley’s vision.

There’s a narrative to Survivor, albeit one that is elusive and mostly understated. There are frequent references to the Iraq war, at times about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the gut, but mostly restricted to hints and potent symbolism. Early on, footage of explosions over Baghdad is followed by a dancer dragging a bathtub across a stage. The man crawls into it and curls up like a foetus, his harsh breathing oppressively amplified. Later, five dancers march around the stage clutching or playing with heavy metal balls and hunched over like prisoners at Guantanamo. At the end, one dancer is carried onto the stage and laid down in front of a pit of light (Heaven or Hell?), one of the string quartets surrounding him and playing a suitably funereal tune. On a giant screen we see images of flocks of birds, waterfalls, the sea: they bring a sense both of permanence and finality, being both monolithic and impossible to grasp. It’s something I felt very strongly when I entered Antony Gormley’s mist-filled White Light installation room. The mist was there, surrounding me, inevitable, but at the same time I obviously couldn’t grasp it. Such visions of the eternal – tied into the word ‘Survivor’, the individual who suffers continually but still remains – gave force to the reflections on war and death, and were beautifully underscored by the music.

The moment when the drummers fill the front of the stage and play off Engler’s inchoate ranting is perhaps the most powerful of the entire performance, as the myriad drummers pound, tap and caress their drums, or shout in one voice in response to his unhinged directions. Shechter is seemingly alluding to jihadi training camps, something made all the more eerie by the fact that many of the drummers are children. There is a distinct sense of humour underneath a lot of what is going on onstage, but more often than not this is counterbalanced by undercurrents of unease and subtle menace. In the ‘Guantanamo’ scene, a projection of the dancers filmed from above is projected onto the giant screen as they lie on the floor and twist around the metal balls. The images bring titters from the audience as the perspective is screwed around with, but I can’t help but feel that it only enhances how small and trapped these men are. At times throughout the performance, the huge black ‘curtain’ closes, trapping the audience on the outside of the events behind, its weight and immovability a constant barrier to any sort of escape and release for those on the other side.

The use of these cameras and projections is a key element in Survivor, and one that floats on the edges of gimmick territory. At one point, a man in a boiler suit carrying a backpack made to look like a military radio, films the audience, honing in on various spectators whose discomfort or amusement is then played back on the screen for all to see. Again, this serves to make people laugh, but at the same time it feels like we were being drawn into the narrative and being implicated in the more troubling aspects of it. After all, are we not all partly responsible for allowing our politicians to wage senseless, illegal war in our names? In the last full orchestral musical movement, a tidal wave of drums bursts apart to make way for a rousing, haunting rendition on strings of ‘God Save the Queen’. But as the ‘dead’ soldier/jihadi/civilian/prisoner lies prostrate on the stage, the question remains: who really needs saving? Do we all?

It is fitting, therefore, that the last piece, featuring only acoustic guitar, vocal and choir, is subdued and despairingly melancholic, an unusual but totally apt finale. Throughout, Shechter and Gormley (and their performers) have toyed with the archetypes of performance in explosive fashion, through the lofty scaffold stages, metal barrier, trapdoors, cameras and unexpected appearances by cast members (at one point a man placed in the audience stands up and begins singing in near-hysterical fashion: facile, perhaps, but hugely effective). But at the end, when all had been expressed in joyful, exuberant, angry and despairing fashion, it is left to voices and the most common of musical instruments (and credit must go here to singer/guitarist Joel Harries, whose pristine voice and finger-picking carry more weight than their component parts suggest), to bid us farewell. At the end, all is quiet.

Survivor shows (and maybe David Cameron should pay attention to this) that there is space to balance ‘popular’ art such as rock music and dance with avant-garde tendencies and loose narratives. Huge credit must go to the creators, cast and to the Barbican, for daring to tread that line and coming away with a stirring result. In a world where ‘popular’ has come to be synonymous with ‘lowest common denominator’, this sold out work of art that transcended disciplines and genres shows just what can be achieved when you look at the familiar with new ideas.