Somnambule - Writing About Music

Open at Back In Your Town 7

at The Red Rose Club, 17 June 2004

Open deliver the second of Back In Your Town’s three sets. This evening is a monthly gathering of improvisors curated by Ashley Wales and Ian R. Watson. Open is made up of Matt Davis on trumpet, field recordings and electronics (the latter looking suspiciously like an iBook to me), Mark Wastell on amplified textures (channeled through a tiny mixing desk) and Phil Durrant on software synths and treatments (managed by a Lombard G3 Powerbook). The trio are seated in line at a table in front of the stage and facing an audience who are likewise seated at tables. At the end of the preceding set I’d had the uncomfortable feeling that, sat like this, I should be holding up a scorecard. Now that the performers are sat at tables, will there be a face-off of some kind? Perhaps the group before us will judge our performance as an audience.

Open begin their set after a brief interval from which not all members of the audience have returned. As a result chair scrapings, footsteps and the clanking of the chain on the door, which separates the hall from the bar, merge with the beginning of the performance. Initially this blurring of the two worlds is a pleasurable experience, but as Open continue, the ambient noises become increasingly intrusive. Thankfully they subside after a few minutes and allow concentration on the music (though the scrape of my pen as I take notes is worryingly loud). I said music... It’s difficult to apply that description to these sounds. Organised sound might be better. In terms of volume this is the inverse of Futurism’s noise machines: this is a very quiet performance. The sounds are an electronic bricolage of successive hums, white noise and slow squeaks. It’s there and it’s almost not there.
a friend is smoking a pipe, I worry that the strong, sweet smell of his tobacco may be too loud in this enclosed space...

Davis, Wastell and Durrant sit almost motionless – the possibility occurs to me that they might not be producing the sounds we’re hearing. Manipulation of a laptop requires very little physical movement and the screen almost entirely hides those miniscule actions anyway. Their faces are as impassive as the reverse of their screens. I’m reminded of Kraftwerk’s description of themselves as ‘musik-arbeiter’. Open’s physical passivity means that it quickly becomes uncomfortable to watch them. Initially I close my eyes, then take refuge in my notebook. In fact there is an element of performance, however reduced: Mark Wastell twists knobs on his small mixing desk with a flourish. This feels however, like a last dramatic vestige that might soon be shed, unnoticed. A little later Matt Davis turns from his laptop and plays some tiny high pitched squeals from a mouthpiece-less trumpet. Moments later the instrument is quietly returned to the tabletop: this might almost be interpreted as an ironic signal of the distance travelled from traditional musical performance, but this is more personal projection than deliberate intention. (Later, as if in furtherance of the non-joke, Davis rubs a trumpet mute against what looks like a sander disc, though no sound is audible.)

another friend is rolling a cigarette, there’s an enormous crackle as he extracts the tobacco from the plastic pouch, the rasp of his tongue on the cigarette paper is deafening, the click of his lighter is the the report of nearby artillery...

This performance raises any number of questions: what criteria should be used in its assessmment? How best to describe this quiet minimalism? (Perhaps this review should be rendered in 5 point, readers handed a magnifying glass.) And how to delineate such anonymity, to compare and contrast performers. Is this one possible end of ego? How long will these strategies satisfy? What is so mesmerising about these electrical hums and crackles – are they approaching the source of something?

I need to turn the page of my notebook, the page is full, nervously I undertake the operation in slow, careful motion – to my relief the mission is a silent success...

Although likeminded endeavours are familiar from recordings, this is my first concert experience of this style of soundmaking. Hence, surely, the plethora of questions. Perhaps it’s that the experience prompts such questioning or that the contrast between this brief contemplative space and the noise of traditional media, but the set is an extremely pleasing one. The very lack of performative drama contributes to a sense of candour: these sounds appear to delineate a space that it feels possible to enter or depart from at will. It’s a space which is singularly unimposing and the freedom it confers is what makes access to it so pleasurable. The lack of tension and release, of cumulative form or ultimately of music itself feels like a relief, a blessing or absolution (though from what is unclear).

Colin Buttimer
Published by Me