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A comparison of the Disparate Bodies network performance (29th Nov 2007) and FAINT (11th Oct 2007), both in the Sonic Lab at SARC.

by Daniel Gillen

I find the Sonic Lab a bit disorienting at the best of times, due to a fairly debilitating fear of heights and fascination with shiny things which light up.  Combine this with a facet of music which to me was at that point entirely unexplored and attempting to review a gig for the first time made the FAINT performance a fairly daunting event to attend.  This was a stark contrast to my attitude when attending the Disparate Bodies performance which I attended almost entirely on a spur of the moment decision in order to see what the differences between it and FAINT would be, having originally intended to use another performance entirely to write about here.

This difference in attitude naturally resulted in experiences which were at odds with each other.  I was more readily able to accept the surreal aspects of Disparate Bodies than I had been at FAINT.  Surreal aspects such as secondlife.com’s alternate reality and the real-time interaction between musicians across a continent.  Whereas with FAINT, for an hour they improvised a simply staggering range of timbres and dynamics, creating such unusual sounds that at times it was hard to know who was making which sound and how they achieved it.  Bizarre techniques, such as Davis using a violin bow on the drum rims and Schroeder playing both a kazoo and a sax at the same time were used to great effect, generating a myriad of what ought to be dissonant sounds and yet somehow worked together brilliantly.  This same manic energy was present in the Disparate Bodies performance, but I was ready for it this time.

I think the same thought process can be applied to the thought process we as Performance Workshop students operate with when presented with the task of improvising music.  I know I all too often suffer from indecisiveness and ‘sheep’ syndrome and make few attempts to try to play something completely different or challenging.  By making affirmed decisions about what and how to play, much more is conveyed to the audience and the performance is made far more interesting.

The very nature of a distributed performance will likely mean the performers involved will have fewer opportunities to play together due to geographical separation.  Whilst a new slant on improvisation might make for some interesting and fresh sounds, there is always the possibility the performance will suffer as a result of the musicians’ inability to ‘read’ each other.

The location of the performers had a few other surprising consequences, chief among which was the predisposition present in the audience of Disparate Bodies to listen primarily to the artists present in the room.  At FAINT, the three performers had fairly equal prominence and dynamic shifts by an individual were much more noticeable to me then those of the performers in Hamburg and Graz in Disparate Bodies. 

Perhaps this concentration on the sound made by what we can see with our own eyes instead of on a TV screen is a side effect of TV itself? The audio of characters and/or actions on a screen in films are normally louder than ambient noise and back-round music added.  A teacher from my old school complained of this same trend in society; of how music and sounds are deemed less important than what we can see.  This was an unusual thing to hear an art teacher complain about, but I agreed with him.

There does seem to be a pattern in that modern media forms are becoming more and more visual-orientated.  Even what were once solely audio devices in the form of the telephone network have been usurped by text and picture messaging on mobile phones and e-mails and (how appropriate) blogs.  Its is entirely understandable too, as all the methods stated previously allows time for consideration of the response to be given and a ‘smart alec’ quip can be thought up in the time it takes to write a text or e-mail.

This is, of course, entirely opposite to improvised music.  There should be as little predetermined as possible. As much as I like the idea of a network performance, my mind seems almost unchangeably wired to want to see performers ‘in the flesh’.  It’s the reason why I would go see a band play live even if somewhat ropey rather than listen to the album at home or, perhaps more fittingly, watch them on YouTube.  An Mp3 player is to me more technically impressive than a guitar plugged into a Vox, and in the same way there was so many intriguing elements to the distributed improvisation in its implementation compared with having FAINT play together live.

I walked away from Disparate Bodies amazed at what I had seen.  I preferred FAINT because I walked away amazed at what I heard.  The tight-nit understanding between the members of FAINT was intangible, and as such technology was unable to recreate it, making all the difference.

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When I first arrived at queens, I did not know exactly what to expect from the weekly concerts that I had heard so much about in the music technology open days. I prepared myself to be open minded, to expect the unexpected and to appreciate the unconventional and as a consequence expand my mind. I’d like to think that this has happened because since coming here I have been exposed to new types of music that if anything, embody the concept of the unconventional. A strong emphasis has been put on exposing us all to performances of improvisation and I feel that it has eradicated my preconceptions of what music and in particular, improvisation entails. It dawned on me when I found myself being somewhat blown away by two performances in particular that six months prior, I would have merely sat in the audience confused whilst trying to work out a tempo or melody. The first of these two performances was “Faint” with Pedro Rebello on piano, Franziska Schroeder playing saxophones and Steve Davis sitting behind a drum kit and utilizing many other percussive items. The second performance was “Dialogic Music” with Paul Stapleton and seven other guest artists with interests and influences ranging from emo punk to medieval welsh harp to ring-tone design; an interesting mix to say the least! On my way to the faint concert I was telling myself to come with an open mindset and to interpret the entire concert as an improvisation. Before the performance even began it struck me that it had a set start time, performance location and I assumed, a time limitation which in a strange way, goes against the theme of improvisation. At the time I was trying to work out whether my analysis was overly pretentious or indeed true. I shall not deny that as a public performance to be enjoyed by the audience, a formal structure in the form of time and location would have to be established. I still could not help asking myself the question that because the performers had to perform at a particular set time and place, did it detract from the overall improvisation theme? As it is with all advertised concerts, the Dialogic Music performance had to conform to the same principles and obviously I cannot hold this against either performance as it would be ridiculous to do so, I am merely highlighting an aspect of improvisation and a topic that could be discussed in greater detail at a different time and place. I observed in amazement at the technical proficiency that was displayed at times during the Faint performance, however I was even more impressed by the creativity displayed during the improvisation which seemed to take the book of convention, shred it up and make it into confetti. Seeing Pedro Rebello playing the strings of an extremely expensive grand piano with a common drum stick was one of the many displays which took me by surprise as was the striking of tom toms by Steve Davis with what seemed to resemble a kitchen whisk. Both of these coupled with the, at times amazingly strange and always instantly engaging sounds which flowed from Franziska Schroeder’s saxophone made me feel immersed in a performance that was like nothing I had experienced before. Whilst the performers in faint played somewhat conventional instruments in a very unconventional fashion, the Dialogic Music performance consisted of instruments that where anything but conventional. On entering the room and seeing the performers sitting quietly and alert on stage, I felt that the performance had already started and consequently I felt instantly engaged and perhaps even a performer or contributor to the overall sonic performance. Paul Stapleton’s massive metallic square shaped musical construction seemed to be the centrepiece of the performance stage and throughout the performance the artists worked together in an almost effortless fashion playing the same or different instruments with an always extremely perceptive ear for the piece as one sound. The dynamics varied from the faint (no pun intended) sound of bare feet on the wooden stage to the thunderous striking of the metal construction with beaters by more than one artist at a time. Transitions between the different dynamic levels seemed to be seamless and communication between the artists, telepathic. However, one thought that crossed my mind during the performance was the layout of the stage and how it would affect the improvisation with different sound making devices scattered about the area. This applies not just to this performance only, but for any performance that has ever or will ever be performed by anyone. The thought was brought on when I observed a performer who whilst listening to the overall sound intently, suddenly looked about for a beater to strike his current instrument with. The beater was not within easy reach and he had to move to obtain it, after which he returned to his original position and struck the instrument to create the sound. I had to ask myself whether he struck the instrument because he felt he had to after obtaining the beater even though the moment may have passed or if he genuinely believed that the moment was still right for his action. Another small thought which crossed my mind was the use of pre-recorded sounds in each performance, through a lap top for the faint concert and a tape recorder for Dialogic Music. I wondered whether the pre-made sounds contradicted the improvisational nature of the performances as they were composed prior to the performance. However I felt that the timing of when these recorded sounds were played was significantly more important than the issue of them being pre-recorded since the idea of not allow oneself to use a sound source that is right for the moment just because it is pre-recorded is a limitation and therefore not desirable. Overall I felt engaged and enthralled during each of the performances and to be honest, I am not sure whether my experience of the two performances would have been as pleasurable for me a year ago or if I had not opened my mind to these new musical concepts. That being said, I’d like to think I have opened my mind as I did appreciate and to an extent feel part of both performances and their extremely influential displays of improvisation.

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Many world-class improvisers played around Queen’s University during this semester, from individual performers like Olaf Rupp and Atau Tanaka to group performers like Faint and MSG.

This review shall compare and contrast the performances of Faint and MSG. A group improvisation is much more difficult to perform tastefully as there are many more factors outside each individual performer’s control which greatly affect the performance. Even in a traditional performance, where the music usually has a strict structure, many factors can drastically alter the show. In an improvised show, these problems are further compounded by in-the-moment choices each performer may chose to indulge.

Faint

Faint are a trio consisting of pianist/composer Pedro Rebelo, percussionist/composer Steve Davis and saxophonist Franziska Schroeder who explore the two extremes of musical practice: the ideas of free improvisation and composition for a fixed medium. From an audience member’s point of view, it was very difficult to tell the difference between the two ideas the group wished to explore but arguably that is where the enjoyment comes from. This concert was unlike any other and left a deep impression; from the musical ideas presented, the timbres generated by each performer, the almost telepathic levels of musical communication and the audacity to push the preconceived notions of what it music to its very limits was breathtaking. Each performer used very unconventional methods to play his or her instrument. For example, Pedro paid as much attention to the tones he could reproduce from the insides of his piano as the outside while Franziska employed unusual articulation to emphasis her phrases and Steve chose to play his drum kit with a wide selection of sticks and focused much of his energy on playing the hardware as opposed to the skins of the drums.

This very different approach helped to shape much of the improvisation. From a listener’s perspective it was difficult to tell which parts of the performance had been previously rehearsed and any communication between the band members was too subtle to be noticed. This added a depth of excitement to the proceedings, as it was next to impossible to guess which direction the performance was going to take. This sense of adventure kept the listener enthralled and helped fuel the evening. While this reviewer had no love for the music presented, the extraordinarily level of musicianship, combined with the finely tuned ear and daring nature made for an enthralling show.

While there was some level of communication between the performers and the audience, it was never made clear what the music of the evening was about. There was no hint at a theme or of a musical direction. That said, the music at times felt very dark and foreboding with a great emphasis placed on building tension (through long periods of restrained and unusual playing) followed by a sharp release via frantic and chaotic playing. One unusual part of the show was the use of small amplifiers. Three of these hung down from the ceiling and played a variety of short musical ideas developed by Pedro. Were they meant to add another dimension to the playing or were they used as cues for the performers? Again, while this was unclear, it certainly added to the atmosphere and gave the listener another musical direction to ponder.

For those who missed the show, below is a video link:

http://www.sarc.qub.ac.uk/~prebelo/wp/faint/FaintLive1web.mov?id=43

MSG

MSG is another trio made up of saxophone player Rudresh Mahanthappa, drummer Chander Sardjoe and acoustic bassist Ronan Guilfoyle. Currently praised throughout the world for their virtually unheard Eastern take on jazz music, MSG are artists who are technically brilliant yet musically forceful. They take their name from the first letter of each musician’s surname.

This group also engaged in an improvised performance, but one that was radically different from that of Faint. This was a much more musical affair consisting of a more traditional structure and conventional timbres. There was also a greater focus on each player having their own part to show off their techniques and skill with many of the songs performed having a separate part for each performer to solo. From a listener’s point of view, this made it much easier to identify with the musical structure and work out the possible direction of the piece. While some would argue that with this approach the structure of each song might become predictable, one of the highlights of this performance was how the listener was always kept guessing. While you expected the solo it was never clear when it would happen and each one was radically different in terms of tempo and dynamics.

MSG approached improvisation from a different direction to Faint. While Faint’s performance was arguably entirely improvised, MSG had a more rigid and pre determined structure. Each of their songs had a theme and distinctive cues, which they explained before or after they had finished a piece. From this the audience was able to better understand and appreciate the message the group was trying to put across. The group seemed to improvise with how long they would play for, seemingly until the performer had exhausted their self after a difficult and complex solo demonstrating their talent. While one person was soloing the other performers took their cues from them. Each musician had incredibly quick ears and was able to compliment and predict each phrase produced in the spur of the moment but seemed to know when the person was going to finish leading to the idea of set cues within each solos.

One criticism that could be levelled at the performance was the occasionally directionless solos. For example, the performance ended with a 20-minute drum solo, which, while technically very impressive, left most of the audience bored. Even Mahanthappa seemed to be bored. A striking difference between MGS and Faint’s performance was the level of communication and the way each band member conducted themselves on stage. With Faint, each member was very into the music and concentrated entirely on what they were doing with little acknowledgement of the performers during each piece. With MGS, they all seemed to be really enjoying themselves with each member smiling and nodding congratulations at each other after they finished a particularly difficult passage.

In conclusion, both performances showcased incredible musicianship and the many different ways you can approach improvisation; whether it be in a more traditional set manner or in an explorative and daring manner. Both are different ways of expressing an idea and it is entirely up to the listener which they identify with more. It would be interesting to see the two groups perform again to see how similar each improvisation would be. To hazard a guess, Faint’s performance would be completely different each time while MGS would tend to play quite a familiar set.

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