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Somnambule - Writing About Music

Si-cut.db + Pole

23rd September 2004, The Spitz

Si-cut.db is Douglas Benford’s musical nom-de-plume, the format of the name giving a clue to the style of music he produces from the iBook in front of him tonight. He’s dressed anonymously in dark clothing and stands head bent, focused on his bright lcd screen. The music is gentle, mellifluous and crests just above the level of chatter coming from the bar at the back of the Spitz’s top room. There’s something oddly muzak-like about the music, with sounds closer to presets than hard-won textures. The creation of smooth, warm bubbles within which musical structure and melody gradually become apparent is surely intentional, but it’s an approach which which risks dismissal because of its subtlety.

Stefan Betke takes to the stage after a short interval. His releases as Pole have delineated a territory in which dub, glitch, electronica and ambience meld into a convincing hybrid that acknowledges the dub roots of much contemporary music-making while exploiting the potential of digital technologies to contribute to that history. Betke’s engagement is intent and physical: energy appears to flow from the whole of his body through the tips of his fingers and into the instruments before him. These instruments comprise a small mixing desk, a keyboard and a Powerbook, each a different aspect of the music’s heritage and possibility. One moment he’s crouching down with the tabletop almost at eye-level, the next he’s playing melodica into a microphone or pausing to listen.

The music’s defining characteristic – apart from digidub plasticity - is its acute sense of dynamics. This is experienced both vertically in the interaction between the crackle and hiss of percussion with the infinite malleability of bass, and horizontally in the temporal exploration of repetition, tension and release. Unusually for a laptop performance, it seems as though the music might disintegrate at any moment - only Betke’s expertise and intense concentration keeps the music functioning to achieve an almost baroque-like complexity. Both Si-cut.db and Pole are done no favours by the graphics displayed on the videoscreen behind them. It’s the all too familiar clips of skateboarders, silent movies and animation: hideous in its moribund inanity. It does, however, do some of the audience the unintended favour of prompting them to close their eyes. The result is a greater concentration upon the movement of multiple event layers and a strong spatial sensation of floating past these elements as they move in four dimensions.

One piece is almost shockingly minimal, a brief figure alternating this way and that for minutes on end. Another sees a melody tiptoe carefully between big, threatening blocks of bass - Betke knows bass and one track centres around the foggy, mystical bass sound recognisable from Basic Channel’s Porter Ricks. Calls for encores prompt Pole to switch from digi-dub to two and a half tracks of electronica. That final piece is nothing more than a sketch, almost a failure but welcome as it confirms just how much Stefan Betke is actively experimenting rather than just running loops.

Colin Buttimer
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