HCMF 2017: Gęba Vocal Ensemble, Zwerm

by 5:4

A few days ago, in relation to the (non-)performance at HCMF of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, i considered the question of what noise might be the opposite of, as a means to help defining what noise can actually be. But noise doesn’t have to be regarded as an opposite, or a polar extreme of a particular quality or characteristic, it can simply be something heard in relation to itself. i’m sure the late, great Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski would have concurred with this. His unique take on noise seems to me to have been articulated primarily in two ways, either regarding and treating it almost like a physical substance, focused upon with a laser-like intensity, or to set it up as a kind of ‘default condition’, the starting point from which – and within which – development and exploration take place. From this latter perspective (pace Shakespeare and Alex Ross) the rest is neither silence nor noise: practically speaking, there is no “rest”, noise is all there is. We use a word like ‘atmosphere’ to refer to the general mood created by a piece of music, but in Karkowski’s case it’s a much more literal atmosphere, an environment in which noise is as ubiquitous as air.

Two of yesterday’s concerts grappled with noise, not always as absolutely as this, but with varying degrees of totality. In the evening, Belgian electric guitar quartet Zwerm – housed within a large cylindrical stage kitted out with semi-transparent curtains and lighting – presented three works that each employed noise to different ends. In Joanna Bailie‘s Last Song from Charleroi, it was a bedrock, initially bass-focused, beneath slowly evolving sustained pitches (the players wielding ebows), emanating from the field recording upon which the work is based. One’s interest waned after a time, though when the work finally progressed into its apotheosis, a seriously powerful overabundance of noise, while the nature of this onslaught was somewhat interesting in its own right – particularly in the way sounds from the original recording occasionally made their presence felt – the musical rewards ultimately felt insufficient to have justified such a taxing experience. Unsurprisingly the work prompted a large number of walkouts. In Alexander Schubert‘s Wavelet A Societies / Sciences, having started out in a place of apparent tranquility, a momentous expansion began to take place, an episode of protracted elation that almost became pure noise from its sheer accreted mass. This proved too much for another section of the audience, which swiftly departed, though this was unfortunate as what followed was very striking. Sound and light were now closely synchronised to create an irregular pulsing and agitation within the cylindrical stage, which resembled by turns a test tube, a crucible and a chrysalis, a place within which things were being dramatically broken down and flamboyantly recreated. It was a shame the work ended so anticlimactically, essentially just fizzling out, but it was worth it to have experienced the progression towards and through its mesmerising centre. But the piece i’ve been continually revisiting and remembering most was Christopher Trapani‘s Shotgun Schoegaze, a 20-minute foray into the most incredibly heady, sweaty and downright hypnotic musical soundworld. Horizontally, the piece (as its title implies) has its origins in shoegaze, fixed to and focused on the ground; vertically, it was informed by bottleneck slides, creating large dives, swoops and sighs which, despite the potential for music like this to collapse under its own weight, emerged with the lightness of feathers kissed around by gusts of air. Far from prompting walkouts, not only did this piece command rapt attention throughout, but the imposing cylinder before us – its curtain, completely hiding the players, slowly changing colour – came to resemble some sort of alien god, emitting a sonic sermon to its gathered acolytes. Trapani slowly added more and more into the work’s mix, until beautiful climactic crashing waves of noise filled the space, vestiges of pitch emerging like froth and spray. It really was stupefyingly exciting and wonderful.

Earlier in the day Polish group Gęba Vocal Ensemble came to St Paul’s Hall to present three works that explored noise from a different direction. Baskak‘s short Delightful Buzz was an entertaining amuse-bouche that took a pre-war Polish song – ‘Ta mała jest wstawiona’, apparently about “a tipsy lady and her all-embracing attitude” – as the basis for a series of stop-start blocks of material, one featuring very high and low sustained pitches, another just a low drone, and another a pell-mell pile-up of vocal sounds, heard in conjunction with echoes of the original song. Its coarse, unrefined character – the performance would arguably have worked even better if staged in the local pub – only made it more engaging and entertaining. The voices were silent in Norcet II by Krzysztof Knittel, a four-channel electronic study of environmental sounds. Grey and gritty, initially the sounds seemed relatively untreated, but as it progressed this changed to the point where it became an engrossingly-controlled, robust and dense but detailed soundscape – lovely to behold – that eventually dissolved into wind and hiss and, at the last, undulating bass throbs. And then came Encumbrance. Perhaps it’s just me, but there’s a very particular sensation i have prior to hearing any work of Zbigniew Karkowski‘s performed live, a disconcerting mixture of excitement, fear, anticipation and trepidation. As i said at the start, his music creates an intensely vibrant all-encompassing atmosphere: you don’t just listen to it, you’re swathed and swamped by it. In the case of Encumbrance, it’s more accurately a series of atmospheres, as its 40-minute span is sharply divided into highly differentiated sections, each of which involves a different relationship between the voices and the electronics. The importance (and, indeed, audibility) of the voices was at times negligible, lost amidst the thundering muscularity of Karkowski’s impossibly energetic bass activity – so powerful one’s tempted to call it ‘omnipotent’ – or eroded into oblivion by the complexity of its noise, broken and glitched with rapid ripples and undulations constantly running throughout its internal structures. Elsewhere, though, they blended seamlessly into a single sonic entity, most memorably in an episode where the voices entered one at a time over a heavyweight drone, forming a gorgeous, rich chord reinforced by the electronics, before everything splintered into overlapping rising glissandi, forming a homogeneous electroacoustic sequence of Shepard tones. A special shout-out must be made for Thomas Lehn, who not only guided the electronic part but, in one remarkable section, let fly the equivalent of an acrobatic jazz solo, using a small keyboard to manipulate, shade and cascade the noise through a variety of colourations and shapes. Encumbrance, like most of Karkowski’s compositions, was like a double session at the gym: draining and exhausting, maybe even a bit punishing, but leaving one feeling incredibly energised and refreshed afterwards. i suspect the rest of HCMF is going to sound relatively quiet and tame in its wake.

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Hi! Many thanks for this wonderful insight. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning, that Karkowski’s composition consists generally of diagrams, written instruction, vocal techniques and some sample tones/effects. Electronics-wise everything you heard, apart from that, was Thomas Lehn. Every performer gets it differently, as was the case with Karkowski himself (in 2009), Constantin Popp (2011, 2016) and Wolfram (2014). Cheers!

[…] of the most striking performances from HCMF 2017 (which i somewhat raved about at the time) was given by Gęba Vocal Ensemble. The concert included Encumbrance, a half-hour work by Karkowski […]

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