Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Keith Tippett and Ellen Fullman at the Bristol New Music Festival

The first Bristol New Music Festival took place over the weekend of the 21st to the 23rd of February. Events were distributed across the Western part of the city in buildings which reflected something of its rich history and culture; Georgian churches, harbourside warehouses, Victorian concert halls, arts centre attics and University rooms. Some prominent names from the new music canon were to be found in an eclectic and wide-ranging programme. The music of Frank Zappa, John Cage, Christian Marclay and Harry Partch was played in various contexts and configurations, with Ensemble Musikfabrik performing on reproductions of Partch’s incredible microtonal musical sculptures. Experimental music and improv stalwarts John Butcher and David Toop were also present. Butcher played, under the guise of Tarab Cuts, in a duet with Mark Sanders, both of them in turn duetting with old 78s of Sufi traditional music, recordings on a fragile, sonically weathered medium which is inherently ingrained with time and history. Toop collaborated with Emptyset, a Bristolian electronic duo, and with the Turkish artist Cevdet Erek, who also created an installation for the gallery at Spike Island, the arts space fashioned from a monumental old redbrick cube of a warehouse.

I travelled up through the flooded Somerset levels (the train looping of on a picturesque diversion past Westbury and Bath) to see Keith Tippett and Ellen Fullman. As a Bristol boy, born and raised, this was home turf for Tippett. He’s part of a significant lineage of adventurous Westcountry jazz and improvising musicians; a lineage which includes the likes of John Surman, Don Rendell, Andy Sheppard, Keith Rowe, and long term residents Lewis Riley, Lou Gare, Mike Westbrook (who studied art in Plymouth), and Kate Westbrook (who attended the artistically progressive Dartington Hall School). The New Music Festival could be seen as an elaboration of the Rare Music Clubs which Tippett organised in Bristol in the 80s and 90s (and which made it down to Exeter on a couple of memorable occasions). Deliberately setting out to dissolve preconceived generic boundaries, these were triple bills juxtaposing artists from the worlds of jazz and improv, classical and experimental, and folk and world musics. The idea was partly to expose people who came along to hear a particular artist to sounds they might not otherwise have entertained, offering familiar flavours alongside others untasted.

There was a certain echo of such open-eared syntheses in the festival performance, too. Tippett was performing in The Lantern, a recently refurbished Victorian theatre space adjoining the more imposing Colston Hall. The latter venue is very familiar to him. In an interview in the May 2001 issue of The Wire, he recalled having heard the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands there, experiences which had a profound effect on the young Keith’s musical education.

He was leading an octet in this late afternoon performance, and there was a definite sense that this was a new generation of musicians which he was nurturing. Tippett has long been involved in musical education, having run a jazz and improvisation course alongside Lewis Riley at the Dartington Summer Music School for many years. He shared the stage in comfortably familiar partnership with drummer Peter Fairclough, a regular collaborator over the years. The young bass player Tom McCredie completed the rhythm section, and to the right of the stage sat a five piece brass ensemble.

It was the compositional side of Tippett’s multi-faceted musical personality which was on display on this occasion, something made visually apparent by the multiple sheets of manuscript paper progressively concertinaed out across his piano stand. The octet were playing his suite The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon, which draws inspiration from Irish traditional music, culture and landscape. It began with a chaotic weave of fragmentary, staccato voices crossing and swooping in abstract, arrhythmic fashion. They were emulating the darting patterns of the subjects of the first section, which was entitled ‘The Dance of the Return of the Swallows’. There has always been a distinctly elemental cast to Tippett’s music, perhaps expressing the rural environs of the Westcountry in which he grew up. His solo piano improvisations seem to summon up the sounds of the weather – wind, rain and sun-dappled haze – alongside the complex whirl and eddie of riverrine flow and the upper-register trilling of birdsong. This evocation of the natural world goes hand in hand with a strong spiritual dimension. Whilst remaining at a far remove from blissed-out new age self-narcosis, Tippett has always been clear about the sacred aspect of his music, its indivisibility from the spiritual dimension of being. Joy and love are words which he is unafraid to use to distil its essence, and in the Wire interview, he summed up his musical mission by simply stating ‘I’m interested in moving an audience. That’s my job’. It’s a refreshing change from the distancing abstractions and affectlessly academic approach offered by many involved with supposedly ‘difficult’ music, which can serve to put off all but a dedicated hardcore of bold listeners. Such an openly spiritual outlook is reflected in the titles for some of the suite’s nine sections, such as ‘The Dance of the Intangible Touching’, ‘The Dance of the Sheer Joy of It All’, and ‘The Dance of the Day of Observance’.

The suite shifted through moods of quiet reflection and soft melancholy, bursting out at regular intervals into joyful, unsuppressible exuberance. The fragementary dabs and darts of the opening gradually coalesced into one such outburst. Here and at various points throughout, there were definite echoes of the Ellington and Basie bands which Tippett had heard next door (where Colston Hall is currently being refurbished), as if he were picking up on reverberations which had never quite died out. It was the lush Ellington and Strayhorn sound inflected with British and Irish accents. Elsewhere, there were elements of plangent brass bands, of pastoral English chamber and orchestral music, and of folk tunes and limpid Irish airs. At some points, emphatically stabbing Bartokian chords (with a dash of Monk and Stan Tracy blended in) powered driving off-kilter rhythms. Tippett rose from the piano stool at key moments to co-ordinate unison brass shouts with dramatic gestural conduction.

It all ended with Tippett’s piano voicing solo, Messiaen-like chords with whispered spaciousness, the last one left to drift off into the air. A few moments of silence settled, and then the audience showed how much they had been moved in the time-honoured fashion. Tippett generously directed praise towards his young musicians from his position at the side of the stage. He thanked us in turn, and finished by requesting that we didn’t reveal the rugby scores. He may regard his music with the utmost seriousness, as a matter of sacred trust and spiritual calling, but he is evidently also a refreshingly down to earth man.

Down the wires - the long string instrument
Ellen Fullman is an American musician who plays an instrument of her own devising and construction, which she has dubbed the long string instrument. In common with Harry Partch’s unconventional, self-constructed orchestra, it can be regarded as much as a sound-producing sculpture as a musical instrument in the generally accepted sense. Although in this case, given its unwieldy dimensions, it might be more appropriate to think of it as a sculptural installation. It’s designed to expand sonic possibilities, to produce tones and timbres which would be beyond the reach of the common range of instruments. It is a resonating machine which can accumulate multiple microtonal intervals along its length, amassing dense, lingering clouds of drone.

The Thekla illuminated
Anticipating a magical, semi-ritualistic experience, it has to be said that the initial impression was a little disheartening. The long string instrument was rigged up on the top floor of an undistinguished office and apartment block adjoining the Arnolfini Gallery which still seemed to be in the final stages of construction. A narrow, bare concrete staircase, which bore the builders’ chalk mark measurements, led past what looked like the corridors of student halls of residence to a fifth floor attic which had all the atmosphere and warmth of an empty open-plan office (which a large, rather forlorn cheese plant in the corner suggested it might indeed lately have been). There were only one or two chairs randomly scattered about, and the sizeable audience, who filled the space, milled about looking a little lost, some electing to squat on the hard concrete floor. Through the windows at one end, the lights strung along the permanently moored ship the Thekla (now itself a concert venue) glowed green, whilst on the other side, the harbour venues and casino sign provided seductively twinkling illumination.

The long string instrument itself was fascinating, though, and well-worth elbowing you way through the milling throng to inspect at close quarters. It took up one half of the room, stretching like twinned clusters of power lines from one end to the other, wooden boxes marking the termini and serving as resonators for the vibrations gathered in their hollow interiors. Fullman ducked into the space between and wandered up and down between the two arrays of wires. She coaxed drones from various points along the strings, rubbing them with fingers given added friction by a patina of rosin. She appeared like a curious alien giant on a desert road, looking quizzically to either side and playing the telegraph wires over which she loomed, listening with rapturous attention to the eerie sounds they produced. Her slow progress up and down the aisle was almost like a form of Tai Chi. Her fingers flexed infinitesimally, stretching out into new configurations to caress fresh harmonies from the strings on either side. It was visually very arresting. At certain junctures, a sudden swift stride to another sector of the instrument signified a shift in the shape of the drone – physical movement precipitating a new musical movement.

The drones which the long string instrument produced were not soporific, and didn’t offer a new age blanket. They were astringent, with overtones piling up in justly intoned masses, shifting in dense fogs of billowing sound. Overlaid on this sonic cloud mass, German musician and artist Konrad Sprenger (aka Jörg Hiller) sprinkled pointillistic showers of percussive notes from his virtual guitar. They were scattered in semi-chaotic flurries but more widely spaced into a patterned continuum of sound. They sounded a little bit like a cimbalom’s loosely springy jangle, with a metallic reverberation conjuring cavernous underground spaces. A steady run-off of seeping water dripping into a subterranean pool, maybe. It’s a sound environment which has been explored for real by The Deep Listening Band, adding pattering percussion to the pervasive watery splashing, as recorded on their 1990 LP Troglodyte’s Delight.

It was an effective melding of soundworlds, particulate digital bits floating like illuminated dust over the warm currents of the resonantly vibrating strings. At some point, the virtual element started to blur into smeared portamento swooshing, veering into synth-like sounds which headed towards Tangerine Dream territory. Sprenger soon reverted to his previous mode after this brief spacey interlude, however. He brought the piece to a close by systematically shifting down in key and tempo, giving the impression of strings being tuned until slack and flapping with unmusical non-resonance. Fullman slowed down in accordance, moving back towards the home base of the far resonating box (like the upper terminus at the end of cable car lines). Finally, she raised her hands from the strings, leaving the last hovering overtones to dissipate and dwindle into silence. A moment of suspension, and a bow indicated it was all over. It was an entrancing performance which, in spite of the underwhelming setting, benefited hugely from the visual experience of witnessing this remarkable instrumental sculpture tremble into living, singing motion beneath its creators shaping hands.

Neverwhere bus-stop - Brunel's underworld
After this, it was off to Bristol Temple Meads for a rather surreal journey back home, which involved descending into the labyrinthine stone underworld beneath Brunel’s grand station and waiting for a replacement bus service by a tunnel entrance and beneath a distinctly gothic railway building, above which Jupiter shone brightly. It was an atmospheric end to the day. The healthily-sized crowds at both events I went to suggest that this inaugural New Music Weekend was a success. Hopefully it marks the beginning of a long and fruitful tradition.

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