Human, object, machine: Marginal Consort

There is not one Marginal Consort show but many. The Japanese four piece play once a year, in the round, each with a cluttered table of objects and instruments. Theirs are reckless mixtures of the acoustic and electronic, of Rube Goldberg sound-making machines and traditional stringed instruments, lengths of timber and metal piping, contact mics and percussion, bamboo sticks and grey drainpipes, sex toys and taiko.  

There is never a right place to stand in a Marginal Consort show, no sweet spot, but many sweet spots. It is a completist’s nightmare: even in the middle you miss something. One member of the audience sleeps under a table, others walk in loops around the room, some stand, some sit along the back wall, eyes closed.   

This final part of the Critical Writing Workshop is an experiment in representing the performance’s plurality through a group writing exercise, which reflects the collective spirit of Marginal Consort. There is not one leader, and here there is not one author. Each participant was given a 30-minute slot in the three hour performance, and was briefed to experiment with descriptive forms of writing about sound.

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The performance begins with a bang – a giant origami paper banger that requires a full-bodied swipe from Kazuo Imai, like he’s serving tennis. Elsewhere in the room, Tomonao Koshikawa slowly tilts a rain stick back and forward. Kei Shii stands nonchalantly under a long stretched wire that runs high over the room, bowing a second piece of wire pulled down, creating a resonant metal sound. Masami Tada is understated, manipulating and making sounds with a contact microphone in his mouth.

The set-up is like a kids science fair, but in place of chatter there are these four enthusiasts playing with an assemblage of objects and instruments. (Jenny Soep)

There is no stage in the wooden-floored concert hall. There are a few black chairs against the walls and black padded benches in the centre. We can walk, sit, slouch, move, lie, stand up, “do anything within Swedish decency laws” as festival organiser John Chantler puts it. Low blue spotlights illuminate the otherwise dark room. They are not necessarily directed towards the four corners of the room where the musicians stand behind their table. 

On my right Kei Shii is sitting calmly, grating his stringed instrument with fervour. On my left Masami Tada is engaging his whole body in banging the edges of a drum. Tomonao Koshikawa is blowing in a small flute and Kazuo Imai is agitating two metal springs. Both have their heads down.

The absurd is present from the start, but this performance is also physically demanding. The musicians are playing, literally. They are disturbing silence, throwing things – objects are breaking. We are forced to move around if we want to observe each of them, to understand which thing is creating which sound.

Yet, even with this movement we seem physically restrained. When freedom of movement is explicitly encouraged, why does it seem that we hold on to conformity? Is it because even standing partly in the light means it is hard to let go? Or is it because we still can’t break the reverence of a concert hall, even when the stage is removed? (Charlie-Camille Thomas)

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The Scrapman, the Raven, the Craftsman and the Minimalist are stirring their instruments and activating their objects. The performer to my left is playing a triangular shaped box with a mallet. The instrument is being stirred. This performer is the Craftsman. On the table in front of him is a series of carved instruments. There is a mini-bass the size of a ukulele and a slender one-string instrument, a measuring tape and long wires framing the set. He has strings, straps and buttons to pull, pluck or push.

To his right, is the Scrapman. His table contains large tubes and cables, paper and metal sheets. Items come in pairs: bowls, balls and circular tubes. A test tube percolates throughout the set. In his scrapyard a metal lid becomes a colony of screaming seagulls.

On the opposite side is the Raven, the bad omen. He brings high-pitched squeaks like gravel in machinery. Under clinical lights, his table holds objects salvaged from the oceanic currents of rubbish: a porcelain cup, a plastic panda, a child’s aluminium xylophone, a parrot whistle, a set of flutes and an electric violin. He sings a trumpet sound – a blues.

To the left of him is the Minimalist. He is wearing a sports outfit; light shoes with thin soles and a tracksuit. He builds patterns of repetition. Stacked and piled, spread all around are sticks of bamboo. Strapped to the side of the table is a structure that is part dream-catcher, part antennae-rack, with loops of wire and beads.

The Scrapman, The Raven, The Craftsman and the Minimalist weave together sounds that obliterate the individual. (Nathalie Wuerth)

From Imai’s corner comes first a soft crackling of paper, then a thunderous song is bellowed through paper tightly wrapped around his head. The paper reverberates creating something close to throat singing, only much stronger. He is a siren conjuring a storm, while shrill thunder from an extended steel tape measure is thrown again and again by Shii.

The bellowed song and thunder gives way to a brief lull of electronic arpeggios and dark melodic steel chimes. Koshiwaka replies to the previous song, filling the room with an amplified reed flute, briefly trilling, and accompanied by increasingly distorted synth arpeggios from Tada and a soft stringed bass by Shii.

Imai plays drums on a drainpipe, drops wooden beams to the ground in clattering rhythm. As he drums he sings, now free from the paper, he duets with Koshiwaka on flute. I desperately try to see and explain everything, but the performance starts to evade me. Only then does it make sense: I must let it wash over me. (Ivar Järnefors)

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While some of the sounds are outbursts, some crunch as if someone is chewing wood, they soften, like they are getting wet, until they are almost unheard. From here the sound is reshaped, spreading all over the floor and dispersing into the mouth of the listener. When the room finds a balance, it is torn down. That’s why people continue to move: they have to.

When walking, you cannot fall. Discourse only has its place below the soles of your shoes. Stop thinking, and I promise you will experience the vibrations of the wooden floor better. But don’t forget to sit down once a while. It’s like the drum, you know. One has to leave it to be able to return back to it. This is the loop, it functions like the small instruments inside your ear, the heart of acoustics. It is not you who is sounding, but you are needed for the sound to go on. (Frida Sandström)

Is one instrument not enough for you? I ask myself. Could these sounds be different? Marginal Consort are talking through texture. Like changing all a´s to b´s, they set up sounds and then use them in any way possible.

The glass cone is giving birth to the fog. The melodic lines are not endless. The dead choir chants in the old city. Someone screams, in pain I think. The sounds from the city transform into mockery. I cannot explain why it moves. It is a tree. The axis is abstract. Someone tells me his chin is sore. Butterflies are breathing and someone is sawing wood at a distance, the wind flows and everything ends with water in a glass.

The sound is all that matters. (Daniel Palmberg)

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The above animation of drawings by Jenny Soep documents the entire three hour performance. Placement of drawings are – Top left corner: Kazuo Imai – Top right corner: Kei Shii – Bottom left corner: Tomonao Koshikawa – Bottom right corner: Masami Tada.

 

Anchored by shadows: Leila Bordreuil & Zach Rowden

At Fylkingen, the walls are black, the chairs are black and the floor is black. Behind Leila Bordreuil and Zach Rowden the white projection screen is off. Rowden, on double-bass, is looking down and Bordreuil, on cello, has her eyes closed. The atmosphere is contemplative. The last few people are still entering the room, and the music hasn’t started. The person sitting in front of me, bent back, shoulders hunched up, his finger hovering over his screen, not yet touching it, is ready to hit record on a video.

But as Leila and Zach begin to scratch out chords with their bows, he very quickly gives up his phone. Almost inaudible first, the sound slowly amplifies. It’s vibrating, whirring in the space’s four walls. There is something about this performance that can’t be captured in a video.

In the darkness I am reminded of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows”, where it is the absence of light that allows us to observe the moment, in contrast to the white, light aesthetic of Western culture. Even the ceiling, a black and white grid, reminds me of its 1970s cover.

Attractive in one a second, then repulsive in the next, the sonic escalation contains a cinematic tension. It forces our brain to create images. Like witnessing an accident I am unable to move, frozen, locked in a conversation with myself. My terror is visceral. This is the soundtrack of a collapsing mind.

The Tyshawn Sorey Trio concert challenges me similarly. The sound levels and the long performance bring a physical pain from standing in one spot. My back aches, but the shadow thrown on the wall, of double-bass player Nicholas Dunston, absorbs my attention. Like the play of candlelight on lacquerware that fascinates Tanizaki, the shadow is what anchored me.

Leila and Zach, when coming to the end of the show, capture the sudden moment of being thrown back to reality after gazing into the space, in such a way that we are forced to be here now.

(Charlie-Camille Thomas)

The above animation of drawings is by Jenny Soep

What makes a drone? Sean McCann, Sarah Davachi & Ellen Arkbro

A single spoken voice starts, within moments followed by a second, then one by one the rest of the ensemble joins in. When Sean McCann’s piece New Music For Ensemble speaks, Fylkingen is filled with a clutter of softly pronounced vowels and consonants that coalesce into something different, something more than just separate voices. There is no coherent narrative, but there are words clearly spoken.

I automatically try to piece them together. But instead of a story forming the voices pool into a droning backdrop. When I stop trying to make sense of the words and listen to the voices together as one, my mind calms. Even when the ensemble start playing their instruments or sing, they fall within the same range, parts of the same grounding harmonics. This is perhaps not typical drone music. McCann is known as a drone musician for much of his earlier works, but this piece takes the drone further.

The collaborative performance by Sarah Davachi and Ellen Arkbro is based on music from the 17th century and performed using one of Western music’s most celebrated drones: a large pipe organ reverberating in an even larger stone building, a church.

In contrast to McCann, this falls squarely within traditional Western drone music, and instead of words and people we now have pipes and pitch. Humming as air is pushed through them, they create single pitches one by one. Grouped together they form something much grander, losing their individuality and creating a single whole from the multitude: a massive drone.

In its simplest definition a drone is a continuous tone, but this is rarely how we use the word when describing music. A drone can be formed of more than just one tone, and for it to work we want it to be fulfilling, we want it to evoke something within us. It must be both simple enough to not impose, but still hold our attention. Quick changes are usually best avoided. Like a hummed ohm, a drone is the bagpipes played by the busker outside your workplace, or even the air conditioner keeping you awake at night. A drone amplifies your sense of being without words. Not all drones are necessarily good for you.

In the church of Gustav Adolf, Davachi and Arkbro play sublime music. Faces with eyes closed and tranquil expressions fill the pews. The piece moves, as do my thoughts, although I am hard pressed to remember what those thoughts were. It is an hour-long collective meditation session, the sound from the pipes forming ground for us to ruminate from, or help us empty our minds completely.

Towards the end I barely notice Davachi walking up the aisle playing a small accordion. She approaches a smaller organ near the altar, and plays a finale. Drones are played within drones, are played within drones.

As the music slowly dissipates through out the vast space of the church the audience awakes, stretching and blinking. The voices of the pipes are gone, and still dazed, we walk silently out into a chilly February evening.

(Ivar Järnefors)

 

What triggers the imagination: Ahti & Ahti

As I watched Ahti & Ahti, with their mundane choices of sound objects, I felt a familiar, but increasingly rare, child-like curiosity rise in me. During their 30-minute concert in the dimly lit puppet theatre Pygméteatern in Stockholm, they gently pulled sounds out of a bicycle tube, plate, fork, polystyrene foam and a modular synthesizer. Pointing the open valve of the bicycle tube carefully towards a microphone, the whistling air rushing through it made a ful, low-pitched howling, as the wind on a stormy day. With simple tools and careful choices, Niko-Matti and Marja activated these everyday objects through amplification and processing.

Their music is a slow-moving one, with Niko-Matti carefully deciding what sound to make next, Marja’s black suitcase of synthesizer modules resting on her lap, sampling Niko-Matti as well as utilizing pre-recorded electronic sounds and field recordings as sources for manipulation. Together they take me on an adventure which quickly shifts, depending on whether I have my eyes open or closed. They use the line between the acoustic and the acousmatic, sounds where the source is hidden, as a way of navigating the listeners through their soundscapes.

It is impossible for a curious listener not trying to assign the sounds to their sources, and yet I find that the very tactile fork-on-plate screech or rubbing of polystyrene foam becomes surprisingly soothing when I’m not looking. Though recognizable, the sound no longer makes me flinch when it is disassociated with the involuntary scrapes around a dinner table, and furthermore used in combination with electronic tones and drones. As I close my eyes I wonder wether I could guess the object for the sound if I hadn’t seen it — and so my imagination is triggered to create a different narrative in my mind. 

Ahti & Ahti manage to construct an invented imagined language through their transformation of the familiar into the abstract. In the midst of a sustained, tranquil texture, I suddenly hear footsteps and a person whistling — my focus shifts, giving me the sensation of having super hearing. When Niko-Matti then turns his microphone towards Marja, so that she can blow a low note from an empty glass bottle, I start to wonder wether they are improvising or guiding us through a planned route. It could be both, like taking a walk on familiar grounds, choosing paths as they come up. After carefully picking up leftover bits of polystyrene now dusted on his trousers, Niko-Matti starts to walk slowly around the room, bringing my attention back to here and now.

It was through this — the balancing between what is here, and what is somewhere else — that the duo managed to draw auditive narratives that transported me to a parallel reality. Ahti and Ahti’s use of existing places and seamless transitions revealed multiple layers behind the drop curtain of Pygméteatern.

(Jenny Berger Myhre)