Saturday, April 25, 2009

Notes from the Fold

On one Thursday from each of the past two months, the historic church of St Audeon’s in Dublin has played host to The Fold, a series of concerts featuring some of Ireland’s contemporary experimental and alternative musicians. More information on the Fold (and upcoming concerts) can be found here.
Fold 1 (on March 26th) featured saxophonist Sean Óg in a solo performance, while Fold 2 (April 21st) had him in the group Morla (essentially a duo with guitarist Simon Jermyn, augmented on this night by drummer Shane O’Donovan). More info on Óg and his many projects here and here (with samples); more info on Jermyn here and here, and on Morla here.
For his solo project Óg played alto and bass clarinet, supplemented with electronic gizmos that repeated what he’d just played back at him as well as creating rhythms and textures. Óg seems to enjoy taking chances live (the mark of a good improviser) and at times it seemed that the electronics weren’t behaving themselves as well as they should, but in the main they worked very well and gave his already focused and thoughtful performance an exciting extra element. Opening with a piece by Hildegard of Bingen (which was wonderfully suited to the chapel we were in, red-lit by the heat lamps fixed high on the old walls) he played a continuous improvisation which was rarely less than gripping, and only occasionally wandering into the wilder extremes of contemporary sax playing (something I would have preferred, which is not to knock his performance here, but I would like to see this guy use his electronics and imagination to really let rip). One bold choice was to throw in Prince’s ‘Ballad of Dorothy Parker’, complete with seriously eighties backing track; I didn’t recognise the song at first, and thought he was doing a weird homage to Miles Davis’s Tutu period. I’m not sure if it worked, to be honest; the contrast with what he was doing before was so great that it seemed incongruous, but it shows his enthusiasm for throwing wild cards into the mix, not a trait to be criticised. He ended with a soft lullaby. All in all, it was a compelling and enjoyable performance, even if, as I’ve said before, I prefer my solo sax a lot more experimental and abrasive.
I’m not fully convinced by Morla’s recordings (at least by what I’ve heard on their MySpace page). While one can’t fault their playing, or their sense of texture or melody, I find that at times their music, which seems more about evoking atmosphere than anything else, a little too smooth and pleasant, almost like avant-garde mood music, and lacks a certain amount of bite. In performance here, with the added element of percussion – O’Donovan’s skittery, restless playing kept a fire burning under the two leads – they were a lot more compelling, and during a continuous performance they created an involving, intense, and textured sound which often had a Eastern tinge and was at times mesmerising, and powerfully atmospheric. There was a sense of underlying turbulence, and a willingness to take risks, that kept it interesting throughout, and all three played with skill and empathy. One of Óg’s habits is to intone wordlessly through his sax, which creates quite an odd, haunting effect that works very well here. If I have a criticism, it’s that I’d like to see them add harsher elements to their sound, as increasing its edge could only improve it more. Still, it was another enjoyable performance, and Óg is definitely a talent to watch (I hope to get to see Trihornophone soon!) Here's some videos:

Fold 1 also featured Karl Him, Fergus Cullen and Gavin Duffy in a guitar-led group improvisation which, considering the calibre of the performers involved, was to my ear a bit of a noisy mess which never quite cohered into a substantial musical vision. A lot of it seemed to be playing around with effects rather than anything else, which is fun to watch, but it never really went anywhere interesting. Fold 2 had Rainfear, a duo comprising long-established Dublin musicians and artists David Donohue (on synth and electronics) and Peter Maybury (on drums and processing); unfortunately, the drums were so loud that they completely dominated the proceedings and destroyed any chance of interplay or subtlety, like watching a version of Waiting for Godot where one character shouts all his lines through a megaphone. At times Maybury seemed to be channeling Kraftwerk, at other times he created walls of electronic sludge, and towards the end he played an improvisation against a picky-pocky background riff which bordered on being exciting, but the volume of the percussion just drowned any pleasure. I couldn’t help being reminded of Thomas Lehn and Paul Lovens at the i-and-e festival recently, who used a similar set-up to produce much more exciting and inventive music (see here). If they had turned the drums down and the synths up, I might have been able to give a more accurate description of what Rainfear are trying to do. Sorry, lads!
One of the problems I had with both of the above groups is that they seemed to be trying to keep their feet in two camps simultaneously: going a bit of the way towards really experimental, yet not going too far and alienating the more conservative elements in the audience. But this kind of compromising bodes ill for the music, as it ends up being neither one thing nor the other, and satisfies nobody. As I said to my companion on the first night, I’d like to give these guys a good feed of strong drink and let them wail on their instruments; they’ve nothing to lose by seriously loosening up, and just making a good old-fashioned racket that has people fleeing the church clutching their ears. I’d definitely stay, and applaud at the end!

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