Review: 'A Whispered Shout' (or Beer, Sandwiches & Experimental Music)

Last weekend (3 August) I had the pleasure of experiencing A Whispered Shout, described by its organiser as ‘an afternoon of contemporary and experimental music featuring a wide variety of different sounds and approaches’. Indeed! Part of my motivation for going was to catch-up with old friends and, I hoped, to meet some musicians in the flesh that I’d only had the chance to meet online in the past. Thankfully the whole day was a huge success on all fronts, especially when it came to the musical stimulation it offered, both aurally and… well, orally.

A B(l)ack Room in South London

I should begin by saying something about the venue. Matthew’sYard is a calm, airy, café-type space in the heart of Croydon built in the converted lower floor of a conference centre (at least that’s what I think it is). Away from the main area there’s a smaller, windowless room painted in black with a low stage running across the width of the space. There are a few stage lights scattered about, there’s a pokey sound engineer’s box and the leaning-post-of-choice was a wooden counter obviously designed to function as a bar should the need arise. It felt like the kind of place you’d go to watch your friend’s band play. You certainly wouldn’t pick it out as somewhere to hear anything ‘classical’. Which brings me to the first major success of the event: artistic neutrality. I mean that in the best way possible. So many experimental music concerts take place in non-standard spaces, or else take their cue from the traditional classical set-up hoping, I imagine, that the audience is more likely to revere the experimentalism if they’re coerced into watching it like a Beethoven performance. A Whispered Shout had no such baggage. Individual seats were set-out across the room, in vague rows but easily moved. There were no programmes or other such formalities. The room was spacious enough for a decent sound, but intimate enough to feel like you were really involved in every performance. And the space wasn’t so obviously wacky that it screamed ‘EXPERIMENTALISM’ like an obnoxious market seller desperately trying to flog his wares. Granted, it’s certainly the kind of space in which you might expect to hear laptop performances, and four artists on the billing were using laptops. That said, two of them sat to one side of the room, away from the stage entirely. In a really non-obvious way, everyone involved managed to subvert the loaded connotations of the most common performance set-ups, which (to my mind at least) helped the audience to relax and enter a neutral interpretative space. By being so comfortable – beers in-hand and sandwiches appearing from all directions – we were able to properly appreciate the artistic statements that were being shared. In short, I can’t think of a more perfect setting.

The Music

First to play was the event’s organiser, Sam Grinsell. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sam before (I used a poem of his in some of my music), but I’ve never heard him play live. He presented a composed piece and a live improvisation, both on slide guitar. It was nice to get to hear a solo slide guitar set – it’s really not often that you see one! Sam’s music was calming and unfussy but certainly not short on detail. There were inflections and devices apparently derived from all kinds of sources. I heard elements of western classical and popular musics (thankfully not much in the way of blues, which would’ve been a horrendous cliché) as well as pitch treatments drawn from traditional eastern musics (I’m not enough of an expert to say which or how many!). The fluidity and technical assuredness of Sam’s playing, as well as his highly attentive ear, made for a great start. What could’ve seemed like a genteel afternoon strum (much louder and more aggressive things were still to come) was, in fact a perfect mood-setter and musically intriguing. In fact, I was stimulated enough by what I heard to invite Sam to work with me on an upcoming theatre music project. Watch this space for more info!

Next up was Lauren Redhead who, uniquely, only performed music by other composers. She finished her set with a work for solo voice, building up to it with two pieces for voice and electronics. How do you build up to something more basic, you might wonder. I’ll explain in a moment. Lauren opened with Gudrun by Tina Krekels. A lot of technical expertise had obviously gone into the crafting of Gudrun, which involves live scoring elements. This means that the computer decides the order of events, presenting the performer with bits of score in a random order. Lauren was certainly kept on her toes and performed marvellously. Sadly, the computer decided not to have her sing for very much of the piece at all; that’s just the way the cookie crumbled on this occasion! Although the performance was very enjoyable and the craftsmanship of the composer clearly evident I must confess I didn’t really ‘get it’. At times I felt like I was watching a Max patch unfold, a fact perhaps compounded by the randomly determined lack of singing. At any rate, I found it difficult to arrive at any interpretative conclusion. I didn't feel as though I was being even encouraged to go away and think about what I’d heard either. Nice though it was, I couldn’t help feeling ‘was that it?’. Perhaps a programme note would’ve helped in this case. I'm sure there's a statement there that I'm just not grasping. I’d like to hear the piece again, perhaps in a different setting, before I make any firm judgements.

The second piece from Lauren was l’okki ppi kianciri by Sicilian composer Marcello Messina. I’ve known Marcello’s music for some time and it was great to hear more of it. The one thing you can guarantee with a piece of Messina is that you really have no idea what’s about to happen! I put him on a par with Larry Goves in that respect, though the outcome is very different stylistically. l’okki ppi kianciri should, by rights, have been too simple to work. The vocal and electronic elements are heard in alternation and never together. What might’ve been a banal binarism was, in fact, a highly versatile juggling act. Again, there was a live scoring element so Lauren had to be super-alert to ensure a successful performance. There’s a big difference between Marcello’s use of live scoring and that of Tina Krekels in Gudrun. This difference was very basic: the way each encourages the performer to react within the context created. In Marcello’s piece Lauren’s actions always felt spontaneous and energetic (matching the electronic interjections perfectly), which became a vital part of the performance itself. If I hadn’t known that both pieces used the same scoring technique I wouldn’t have guessed there was any similarity between them at all. Again, I don’t want to belittle Tina’s work – I need to spend more time with it.

Lauren’s set culminated with solo speaking by Alistair Zaldua. Having chatted with Alistair about this work (and knowing some of his music already) I can tell you it’s certainly a foray in a new direction for him, but no worse for it. I had a glance at the score before the event and, I must admit, I was sceptical. I saw lines of fragmented text – unrelated words and syllables either juxtaposed or running into one another. I wasn’t sceptical about the approach in itself; that kind of disruption of language, communication and understanding is potentially very powerful. But it’s so easy to do it badly. And I’ve seen it loads of times before. Perhaps now you can see why this piece needed working up to; despite using fewer resources (in almost all senses of the word) Alistair’s solo speaking had the potential to be the most focussed and powerful in terms of audience engagement. This doesn’t mean I thought it was the best piece. It was a very different piece, and one that demanded a certain kind of immediacy in performance. It would be easy to perform solo speaking badly. And, as a world premiere of a new kind of composition for Zaldua, it could equally easily have turned out to be a bit of a dud all-round. But the risks paid off. I was lucky enough to see the rehearsal, which allowed me to compare two versions of Lauren’s interpretation. Okay, rehearsals are never quite the same as performances, but, my God, did Lauren turn things around. solo speaking went from a decent work to an absolutely captivating one almost, it seemed, at the flick of a switch.

What made Alistair’s piece work so well was, I think, something that helped to distinguish Lauren’s vocal performance from so many others. Ordinarily, highly-trained singers from an operatic or a chamber music background are the people we find performing vocal works. Lauren, while definitely a singer, comes more from a choral background (as a chorister, organist and experimental musician). This has a huge impact on the kind of delivery she uses, which is very naturalistic. I could feel the benefit of her approach across the three works she performed, especially in Alistair’s, which relied heavily on the kind of immediacy that highly-trained singers often lose in the name of ‘good’ projection. Don’t get me wrong, I like both types of performance a lot, but it’s harder to find the kind that Lauren provided last weekend.

After the interval (more beer and sandwiches) came two back-to-back sets of laptop pieces. The first was from Carya Amara, a project of Kevin Busby’s. I became cynical quite quickly. We were told that the performance would be accompanied by images projected onto a wall that was awkward to see but that seeing them wasn’t very important anyway. My cynicism was compounded by curt ‘that was that one’ announcements made the very second each piece finished. That's before I get to the beguiling array of dissociated images that seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to the music we were hearing. I don’t want to sound too negative about the music. I’ll admit that it’s not exactly my thing, but I could certainly see an audience for it and the value of it. The way it was presented did it a disservice, though. So much so that my notes on the performance read like a list of bugbears: begins like opening of Sanctus from Britten’s War Requiem, bebop Aphex Twin, Joe 90 sound effects, changing textures casually overlayed on rhythmic pulses, etc. These observations are a little harsh, I must say. I heard shades of Christian Fennesz, an artist that I greatly admire. And, actually, some of my apparent bugbears would’ve felt right in a slightly different context.

How odd, then, that I earlier described the setting of the gig as ‘perfect’. Surely this proves otherwise? Well no. I thought that there was plenty of potential for the Carya Amara aesthetic to take an interesting direction, sitting alongside music that does similar things in very different ways. But, as it turned out, it was made to sound isolated and, consequently, out of place. I’m still not convinced by the slideshow of passport photos, wartime posters and pigeons. A comment on urban life perhaps? Or identity? Surveillance? I simply don’t know. This set had so much room to breathe, but Busby didn't seem to want to take it.

Next was Norah Lorway with more laptop music. Norah’s contribution, described as ‘live-coding with beats’, was, in essence, similar to what we’d just heard. However, the music sounded more organic, wasn’t framed by baffling comments (or pictures of pigeons) and, in my humble opinion, generally fitted the context better. Both Carya Amara’s and Lorway’s music can be seen to fit in that most slippery of musical genres: the one that straddles glitch, electronica and ambient. Of course, all three of those labels have, at different times and in different places, referred to specific things. But these days the intersection between all three seems to be where the most interesting (and sometimes least interesting) things happen. If Carya Amara began with music that had shades of Fennesz about it, Norah followed-up with shades of Oval and the better parts of Boards of Canada (I say this without irony – she is, after all, Canadian). One of the most remarkable sections of her performance I find difficult to describe in straight-up musical terms. The best description I can think of is this: Tarantino in sound. Tarantino movies are famous for those moments where the director’s choice of music comes blazing to the fore with a powerful unsettling feeling. Norah achieved this not with music and dramatic cinema, but with music and music. Absolutely remarkable.

We then left the domain of laptops, albeit briefly, and entered the world of Chrissie Caulfield. Chrissie has a powerful stage presence which makes no use of physical drama or laid-on theatrics. Why point this out? Well, her set-up might make you think otherwise. It’s obvious from the very beginning that Chrissie is coming at her music from a rock (or more specifically post-rock) background. I know a lot of good, diverse electric guitarists. Some of them have many pedals. Many many pedals. Next to Chrissie, though, they have none. But Chrissie’s instrument is not the guitar, it’s the electric violin. When you see a solo guitarist with an arsenal of pedals you expect the ensuing performance to be loud and brimming with loops, delays, distortions and probably a little bit of feedback every now and again. If I say Chrissie takes much the same approach I’m not really suggesting similitude at all. The difference in string instrument has profound results. There’s no need for strumming or repeated tapping. There’s no need to employ a bottleneck to get round the pitch divisions caused by frets. There’s a phenomenal amount of dynamic and timbral control you can get from the bow alone. All those differences are then magnified many times by the various pedal-triggered effects at Chrissie’s disposal. The poise of a violinist’s stance combined with that kind of raw, diverse and often abrasive sonic power is something to behold. And, as I said, Chrissie lets that sound speak for itself. There’s no rock-influenced leaping about or exaggerated arm movements. It’s all wonderfully noisy violin. It’s fantastic. 

Chrissie gave us two pieces. The first was a solo piece called Wrong Way Home, which she describes as “a pretty intense ‘ambient’ piece, if those two adjectives can be combined, with humongous amounts of reverb and some samples of boats and planes”. I can’t really top that description other than to say how very enjoyable it was. The second piece was a solo version of a piece by her band, Helicopter Quartet (interestingly enough a combination of her electric violin with electric guitars). I don’t think this worked quite as effectively in the context of the gig, but that might’ve been due to it being overshadowed somewhat by Wrong Way Home. Nevertheless, it was all extremely good fun.

Finally, Stuart Russell, who’d been beavering away as sound engineer up until this point, rounded-off proceedings with a few more laptop pieces.  The first of these crafted a bizarre kind of continuity out of disparate sound sources. To give you an example, I heard what I can only describe as the electronic version of woodwind multiphonics combined and sometimes juxtaposed with insistent beats and the sound of rain. If I’ve given the impression of something slightly hippyish there I apologise unreservedly; that’s really not what Stuart produced. I doubt a hippy would revel in the sound of apocalyptic triangle (my label, but one that I think really deserves to be common parlance). I was initially concerned that the sounds used were too disconnected, like isolated thoughts falsely consolidated. I was wrong. I’ll say that the opening of the first piece was its weakest part, but what followed made up for it.

The second piece continued the general aesthetic Stuart had established. The source material here was the sound of various different trains. My only complaint was that the ending would’ve been more effective if it came as soon as the mainline train hurtled past our ears (I think you’d have to experience the piece for that to make sense). As it was, Stuart played a short organ-like coda. I don’t think added very much, nice though it was. The last piece of the event was Stuart’s romping take on blind panic. Apparently, the piece is a response to having a tyre blow-out at high speed. Perhaps not his best piece, but certainly a stomping number to end with. And so we retired for more sandwiches and beer… but mainly beer.

Final Impressions

As you may be able to gather I was a big fan of A Whispered Shout. That kind of mixed-media format in an informal setting takes a lot of the perceived pretence out of experimental music. In this instance it allowed the distinctive voices of artists from diverse backgrounds to speak clearly and effectively. I’m not going to trump-it-up and say that everything was golden. There was the occasional bleeding of excessive noise from next door, for example. I don’t think all the pieces realised their full potential and/or made the best use of the space they were given to speak either. Nevertheless, they all had something to say, which is oddly rare.  I just wish I had a better idea of what that something was in the case of Carya Amara’s set and Krekels’ Gudrun. My lack of understanding may be my problem. I don’t know. I’d like to hear the music again, perhaps in another context, just to see what else it can do. But I’m glad I heard everything I heard in A Whispered Shout.

All in all, the event was, I think, a success and testament to the artistry of the people involved in it. I’d like to thank Sam for staging it in the first place and all the performers and composers for providing such a stimulating experience.