King's Place innovative practice of themed programming continued this week with an intriguing festival entitled and described as Arctic Circle: The Resonance of Music With Water. Maritime subjects have concerned writers of music drama immemorial, from Sibelius to Bryars to Vaughan Williams, but it is rather the physical and poetic permeability of music and water, each as a filter and swamp of memory and loss (and sound), that informs this festival.
Philip Jeck and Janek Schaefer played the Wednesday night of the series, the first debuting a bespoke work made explicitly on the theme, the second giving a performance of a recent piece that evoked it, alongside other inspirations. Jeck and Schaefer, the first a renowned turntablist and bassist whose crackle-laden dream-drone forms have inspired musicians from across the board of experimentalists and hauntologists, the second a sound artist whose practice ranges from tricksy conceptual pieces to home-furnished explorations of sonic/technological minutiae, make a convincing pair. Jeck has been an avowed inspiration to Schaefer, and their respective approaches connect and diverge in compelling ways. Both men, too, make art that in its immersive, playful, and tactile qualities fits the aquatic theme well.
Playing first to facilitate the clearing of the stage for Schaefer's piece, Jeck performed his new work An Ark for the Listener on two old turntables and records, casio keyboard, and overloaded and reverberant bass guitar. The work is inspired by Gerard Manley Hopkins' elegiac The Wreck of the Deutschland, to which theme its mesmerising video accompaniment (presumably by Jeck himself - the concert annoyingly lacked a programme) spoke at length. The piece was gripping from start to finish, with video and sound combining richly to evoke a world at the edge of consciousness, barely glimpsed and gleaned only in bewitching fragments.
Skeins of sampled celesta and glockenspiel emerged from static at the beginning, built in force, before a hypnotic bass ostinato increased energy levels amidst driving and funky (though scattered) rhythms. This early bass figure was much more scabrous in tone than the later mammoth sub-bass reverb that formed the immersive drone (the medieval dual patrimony of drown and drone never seemed so apt) mire of the latter stages. Echoes of Phill Niblock, Oren Ambarchi, Broadcast and others spread across the performance. The images provided both analogue and commentary to the music: the initial, misty entrees were echoed in the sky-dappled images of Jeck and a boundless sea in the background, whilst later, as texture and event became busier in the music, a projection of Jeck in action emerged uncannily (it took a while to discern human from machine) out of sea-arrays and eddying shadows. The film veered from queered ukiyo-e to Niblock anti-art (Jeck busy at his tools, accompanied by and accompanying heavy drone, called up this correspondence), before the final, terrifying images of distant passengers aboard some doomed cathedral-liner getting ever more speckled and gone in the haze of bass and visual feedback.
As the latter sections of the Hopkins poem boomed under the narrative of sound, the whole doubled ekphrasis climaxed in a harsh cracked speaker cone, shocking against the mournful dying away before it. A fragment of an event inspires new event, rotating records and looped time standing in for history, before the quiet dirge fades into the distant horizon that all of Jeck's work seems animated by.
Janek Schaefer's Phoenix and Phaedra Holding Patterns followed the masterful conjuring of memory (musical and poetic) of the Jeck with its own rich evocations of sonic imagery as refracted through ideas of space, indeterminacy, and narrative. Nine small FM radios were distributed amongst the audience by the affable Schaefer (who introduced and explained the piece beforehand), who sat at the back of the hall at the FM mixer, manipulating the radios and the sounds coming from the booming PA. Dedicated and named in part for his young son Phoenix, the work journeys along an imaginary Amazon full of bubbling and pulsing surfaces, expanding to incendiary colours and textures matched with shifting light arrays, before closing with gorgeous, almost orchestral ambience, luminous and dark by turns. Extracts from Richard Wilbur's Love Calls Us to the Things of This World are read underneath the shifting glissades of the closing passages (where the fissures of speaker cracking so prevalent earlier were largely dropped), reminding the listener of this artistís refreshing commitment to embodied engagement with the materials of his work. Here, it was the invisible architecture of sound, and control and indeterminacy in composition as decided by the listenerís placement in relation to the different radios, that enfolded the possibility of transcendence Schaefer searched for.
Photo: Philip Jeck
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