Electronic Music Concert

Newcastle University Culture Lab

24 February 2007

Hard to describe this... it's not like anything I've been to before.

The hall was packed with electronic equipment — front, back, and in the middle of the fairly small and surprisingly young audience (mostly students, I would guess, with possibly the youngest average age of any concert I've ever been to). And the music was performed (if performed is the word) from the front, back, and middle...

I'll try to say something about each piece, though I'm going to struggle to describe it as I have no points of comparison and little understanding of the technical language of the music. Forgive me if I sound like I haven't got a clue what I'm talking about.

John Furguson and Paul Bell — Improvisation

The performers had a turntable each, plus some other hardware I couldn't identify, and used them to mix a variety of sounds. It was interesting to see how they used the technology and they seemed to be polished performers but I struggled to understand, musically, what they were doing. I couldn't see any form or structure in the music and my attention soon started to wander.

Valdimir Rannev — Komponistenliebe- und Leben

A solo tenor (part speaking and part singing) and a pianist (mostly atonal, I suppose) over an electronic backing track (various sounds and spoken passages). Accompanied by a projected film of somebody destroying the score of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony with a cheese grater, which I found hugely amusingly (though I could also see the relevance of the statement). Yes, it was weird. But it was also oddly gripping. It was more like watching a mini drama than a piece of music and it was... compelling. Of all the pieces tonight, this was the one which most caused an emotional response rather than an intellectual one. Yes, I liked it.

John Hails — Nocturn (Music for Bill, Part 1)

This was performed entirely by the composer sitting at a computer and manipulating a set of on-screen slide controls with his mouse. The result was a stream of sounds, faded in and out, repeated, layered, passed around multiple speakers, and always doing something interesting. Parts of it were quite beautiful, other parts just noisy but still interesting. It was fascinating on an intellectual level but because of the attention it demanded it was hard work to listen to. Consequently I felt it was too long (15 minutes I think) and it may have worked better if it was either shorter or structured into more obvious movements.

Mariam Rezaei — Beefevs and Routinedrum (though I couldn't tell where one piece ended and the next started).

One woman scratch-mixing sounds on a single turntable. The concept was similar to the first piece of the evening but I found this more enjoyable. The composition hung together better and though I still couldn't pick a rhythm or melody out of it I could find some sort of coherent structure. And her dexterity was quite amazing, though in that she was beaten by...

Sole 1 — Collection of Works '07

Another DJ with a pair of turntables. I suspect it was the most "conventional" of the pieces performed tonight, in that it's probably being repeated by thousands of club DJs all over the world — it's got a recognisable dance beat and a (comparatively) simple structure. But despite (or because of?) that, I think this was perhaps my favourite performance of the night. The DJ's skill was phenomenal, swapping disks without missing a beat, putting the needle down on the precise groove he needed, and flawlessly merging one sound into the next. It's not the sort of music I would normally listen to, and you'd certainly never catch me dead in a dance club, but it is an incredibly clever performance.

Mark Self — Discourse and Practice

This one didn't really work for me at all. I had hope when I realised it was going to be real instruments — guitars and percussion — but they were just making random sounds, and as soon as they started scratch-mixing Pinky & Perky's Greatest Hits (yes, I'm serious) on a turntable... well, it lost me. I just couldn't figure out what they were doing.

I suppose that they weren't all that far removed in intent from what Pink Floyd were experimenting with forty years ago. But the difference is, you knew that no matter how far "out there" Barrett headed, the jam was grounded in a song and they would eventually find their way back to the song. Mark Self was just "out there" for the sake of being out there, and I just couldn't follow him.

Didn't enjoy it. Sorry.

Kelcey Swain — Interactive Noiseboard

Now this was extremely clever, and perfect for a couple of geeks like me and my companion. The "noiseboard" was an electronic whiteboard (just like we use at work) with a piece of music software running on it. Swain literally "played" the software by clicking the controls on the whiteboard. It's hard to explain without describing the software, but it involved "drawing" waveforms in different windows then setting them to play, repeat, run through various transformations, etc. Absolutely fascinating, though more as a visual experience than a musical one — by which I mean, without watching the performer I don't think I would have made sense of the sounds I was hearing.

Trevor Wishart — Imago

Take the clink of two glasses. Sample it, repeat it, distort it, transform it, swirl it around umpteen speakers... and the result is beautiful and extremely engrossing. Similar in concept (or at least in technology) to John Hails's piece, I thought, but somehow easier listening. It was enjoyable without being too demanding and therefore made a good, relatively "peaceful", end to the evening.

And that was it. About two hours of music, very varied, showing off a wide variety of technology and techniques. I didn't like all of it but I liked a lot more of it than I was expecting to. It's not the kind of music I would listen to for pleasure or relaxation; it's too mentally demanding for that. But it was a fascinating and intellectually satisfying experience and I'm glad I decided to take a chance on it.