Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Some thoughts on Sunday evening's performance at the Rotunda in Philadelphia, probably at least somewhat in contradistinction to the majority opinion. I'm not being really critical here, just trying to figure out why certain things didn't click for me.

The opening set was a brief one, consisting of two songs by Weyes Bluhd (Natalie Mering) on vocals, keyboard and tapes. Brooding and cloudy, her voice rising from shimmering organ-tones, buffeted by rougher taped sounds, I liked it much more than I thought I might. Struck me as honest, if operating within a small sphere. Had she played for 30 minutes instead of ten and remained in that area, it might have begun to pall, but as was, I thought it was fine; made me curious to hear more.

nmperign was up next and was where my problems began. I guess I've seen them, in one context or another, seven or eight times over the years. I've found the performances to range from extraordinary (with Le Quan Ninh and Yukiko Nakamura in Nancy) to...disconnected. The latter may well have more to do with me than them; I think there are simply occasions when I'm not hearing the sound sequence properly, not translating it into a form that registers. The same thing occurred, by and large, at this event. It was almost all on the extremely quiet, sparsely distributed side of things. Both Rainey and Kelley demonstrated wonderful control over their instruments, especially the former when he elicited very soft, yet very pure tones from the soprano. There were moments, to be sure, when matters coalesced for several seconds, where each action, near-unison or otherwise, made a kind of poetic sense, but these evaporated more quickly than I would have liked. Again, this could all be me. It's always fascinating to me how/why one makes qualitative judgments with music this spacious; it careens more into the subjective, I think, than most judgment, which is of course subjective enough. I was talking about it with a friend yesterday and saying it was like looking at a Japanese rock garden and feeling that the placement of the stones wasn't working for one. That "feeling" may be quite real (if wrong); explicating it is another matter, as is the possibility that one is simply missing the gist of the art. The general reaction in the audience, from those I spoke with, was far more positive than my own, so I'm entirely willing to chalk this up to my cottony ears.

Lambkin and Lescalleet I also found somewhat problematic, but in a different sense. Unsurprisingly, their set was pretty loud and rambunctious and, not meaning it as a back-handed compliment, but I found the loudest, most rocking parts to be the most successful. There were a couple of sections where things gelled perfectly and the duo just soared, including the point where Lambkin iterated regularly rhythmic harsh breaths into the mic and Jason ramped things up to ear-threatening levels. It was quite amusing to see him pressing his laptop keys as hard as he could as though they were pressure-sensitive! :-) He's always a pleasure to watch as he restlessly roams around the stage, planting recorders here and there, stringing wires or threading tapes. Lambkin was far more calm, wandering to an area off-stage largely hidden by a curtain, breathing into a mic, injecting only one or two (that I could hear) CD samples of classical music into the mix. So there were several very fine stretches of music, very exciting. But...on the whole, looked back upon as a full set, I wasn't sure how well it cohered. It kind of hit me like a standard rock set, a series of pieces (though there were no breaks apart from an intentional, and beautifully maintained period of silence that seemed to last about five minutes, Lescalleet poised over the keys of an old tape recorder) some of which were wonderful, some awkward, some kind of...routinely good. Not that coherence need have been the point or not, of course, that it might have been the case that I missed out on any number of aspects. The crowd roared its approval. I thought it OK, more or less what I expected, but not quite up to the level of their show at Issue Project last year or that of any handful of Jason's performances I've been fortunate enough to have seen in years past which, if nothing else, tend to have had an intense concentratedness and singularity of purpose that appeals greatly to me.

Speaking of coherence, the above might not have much. Just thought I'd put it out there as honestly as I could, aware that I was in the minority that evening.

Great to see the Philly crew and, especially to see Al Jones after far too long a time. And extra thanks to Yuko, whose pre-trip pork buns made any further enjoyment of the day mere icing on the cake. Their gustatory traces couldn't even be quashed by the dreaded cheesesteaks eight hours later....


Jesse said...

brian - very nice to see your thoughts. i agree with you in many respects, despite maybe having enjoyed the sets more. the nmperign was certainly one of the more challenging sets of theirs i've seen in a while, and large space didn't help (especially when one was sitting the back). to me, part of the lambin/lescalleet aesthetic is the kind of casual messiness, which i think, yes, obtained a sort of transformative force in new york that was absent in philly. what we got instead was something more confident and much more physically powerful. i do greatly enjoy the sense of having no idea what could come next, seeing some surprising shifts and sound elements, etc., but i think i might agree with you that as a whole, it started to feel a bit adrift or maybe just overly long by the final section. i bet if they'd ended a bit earlier, i would have told you i loved it, though. definitely several great moments, combining both sound and "event," a la the unintended fake-ending, graham's wanderings, and so forth.

in any case, nice to see you (and everyone else), albeit pretty briefly.

Bhob Rainey said...

Hey Brian-
I completely appreciate the honest review and the thoughtfulness behind it. Regarding the nmperign set, given your openness and experience with this music, there really isn't a right or wrong perspective. I know I felt a rather strong, exciting groove right from the beginning of the set and was quite happy with the unexpected evolution of the music. While it may have seemed to fit into our (somewhat) typical gestalt, I can't recall doing a set quite like it before. I fully understand that the motives behind each sound/event may have been lost on any number of audience members, not only because of the so-called "difficulty" of the music, but because of how little context can be established by two soprano instruments using the language we do. Many tiny cues go into conveying rhythm and harmonic movement (when appropriate), and it's conceivable that the same sound event has other cues that would convey a different rhythm/harmony. In the end, it's somewhat our job to help highlight the continuum we've established to make our choices, but highlighting the vagueness is clearly part of our aesthetic as well. It's all a very delicate, risky business, as you know.

For the record, we recently played in Philadelphia and did a very different set. Though there was no discussion about attempting to contrast the two recent appearances, I wouldn't doubt that it was in the back of both of our minds.

Al said...

The L/L set was not without its blemishes, but that was part of its appeal for me. A faithful reproduction -- not that that's was you (or they) were seeking -- would have been far less enjoyable, so I found the space-filling between the choice passages from the record to be a good metric, maybe as an indicator of the potential (or bane) of equipment limitations in improvisation. Someone after the show was talking about positioning in the audience, but I didn't mind where we were sitting and appreciated the opportunity to see the engineering of the music up close, and the quirkiness of their interplay. It wasn't lost on me that the two were answering a loose, but structured script, and the transitioning of those areas were interesting indeed -- particularly some rather seamless negotiation of technical hiccups (very minor), and the occasional athleticism required by Lescalleet to keep things on the trajectory. Soundwise? The room accommodated everything nicely, but some of those field recordings from the record… well, they're best heard on record. Favorite moments: (1) the 5 or so minutes Lescalleet spent with strings of tape between reel decks while the autopilot laptops and prepared material took on booming lives of their own, and (2) Lambkin's wardrobe change in the final minutes of the set, appearing from behind the curtain in a very red Members' Only-esque windbreaker. Yes!

Nmperign. Glad to have had the occasion to hear them live. Here, being up close was profitable. Like you, I think, I was most dialed into Rainey when he was on the soprano with mouthpiece in place. Simply gorgeous intonation that would at times sneak into the air rather than just appear, and so delicate! Both Rainey and Kelley, it's impossible to dismiss the discipline that must go into their style of playing (and their developed language), be it conventional technique or the more unorthodox use of their instruments. That said, no one moment reached out and grabbed me as I was expecting from the entry of their piece. While most of their set was meant for dedicated ears and a hushed room, the music only struck me as occasionally pretty, and then never really attention-grabbing. Their set was a distant cousin, fwiw, to a very EFI-ish 25 minutes of music I once heard from Per-Åke Holmlander, Hannes Bauer, and Herb Robertson, the trio's music much different for the deliberate humor injected into it. Yet the nice thing about Nmperign is how easily their music can accommodate and accompany "harsher" instrumentation. Even in their quiet moments, Rainey and Kelley can transform their music to something of an almost mechanical nature, digital even, and I can't say that about anyone else behind a sax or a trumpet. Very attractive and thought-provoking. I'll certainly jump if they end up on my side of town in collaboration with someone, which is the way I prefer to hear them on record.

WB's music has been on my brain off and on since Sunday. I won't add much to your comments (with which I fully agree) about her set, other than to say how much I liked the contrast between the voice/keys and her looped, chaotic effects.

Very nice to spend the evening with you, Brian. I'd almost forgotten how much I enjoy your company! Great meeting you, too, Jesse.

Jon said...

wow, great input here, thanks to all for sharing their thoughts...

I really enjoyed the nmperign set, more than I expected to. like Al said, I also usually prefer them in trios, but this performance just seemed so confident and well-timed, never an uncomfortable pause while they were trying to figure out what to do next. they suspended time really nicely, the ending was unexpected (to me anyway), nothing life-changing but a really enjoyable set that prepared the ears and brain well for the marathon workout that we all knew was to follow.

as for Lambkin/Lescalleet, I agree that it was messy at points and a bit problematic. to me it was pretty clear that the duo was ready to move on from the Breadwinner material, and they're not quite totally clear on where they're going next, which is exciting but leaves the audience with the feeling of witnessing a work in progress maybe.

I've seen the duo three times in the last year now, the Issue Project set, which was pretty freeform and ironically maybe more focused because of that, since they didn't worry about referencing the Breadwinner material much, the Wesleyan set, which was more subdued and coherent as a whole, more successful but less adventurous, and this set, which I think was somewhere in between. I'm very glad I saw all three of them, especially since this duo is now done playing shows for a year or two.

nice seeing you all, and Yuko says "thank you!" for your pork bun praise, Brian.