Matthew Bourne + Icarus at Cafe Oto, 15 Feb 2012

In a pre-concert Tweet, Matthew Bourne said he was “looking forward to Icarus…and to playing @Cafeoto ‘s lovely old grand…”. He came to that lovely grand piano with two stubby glass bottles of water, and proceeded to slam them heavily into, and rub them in bold arcs across the piano’s steel strings. The piano’s ribs were also subject to vigorous blows, producing clouds of complex harmonics. The remarkable thing, putting aside the affront of Bourne’s indelicate treatment of such a venerable and expensive instrument, was the musicality of every gesture.

The next piece came only after an uncommonly chatty Bourne regaled us with tales of identity confusion, which he says he’s no longer inclined to clarify (his more famous namesake is a choreographer); lately he’s inclined to follow up any offers of work that come his way. When he settles to play his touch is sparing, the music he produces is reflective, and enriched by the dappled silence of decaying notes. The contrast with his introductory gambit couldn’t be more stark. (He later explained that this exercise-like rumination on just two chords resulted from “a place of despair”; an unproductive hour in the studio.)

In a particularly aching silence someone rudely straked a chair on the concrete floor. Bourne responded with a discordant thwack at the keyboard before resuming. After the piece, however, he said: “There’s a lot of squeaks and stuff at this venue. I love it”, before demonstrating just how volubly creaky the piano is, and inviting mass participation in a communal scraping and rasping of chairs.

The restlessness engendered by the audience participation was again redirected inside the piano, this time played with rapid finger taps and palm slaps, sometimes extremely rapid and hair-raisingly resonant. The following piece was characterised by the richness of soft, measured sustains. This polarity, between the bucolic and the percussive, was persisted throughout the evening.

The rapid, scampering note clusters and occasional detonations of Bourne’s next improvisation were interrupted when, having grabbed a towel to wipe away sweat, he playfully rubbed the towel along the keyboard for effect, then turned the lost momentum inward in a coda of crepuscular tranquility.

Next Bourne was attacking the block at the far right of the keyboard, repeatedly and aggressively thwacking it to produce a stack of simple multi-phonic reverberations, the effect as galvanising as the shower stabs in Psycho. Ultimately the block was wrested from the piano and unsuccessfully used as a ‘preparation’ on the piano’s strings.

At one point Bourne commented: “I feel like Jaggers out of Great Expectations; a highfalutin’ literary reference there.” And a cryptic one too. In contrast, the piece dedicated “to a new dad” was so tender, played so straight yet free of cliché, that the truth of the sentiment was evident.

As on the album officially launched this night, Montauk Variations, everything Bourne played before his encore was improvised. As on the album, that encore was Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”. Bourne mined beneath the tune’s maudlin exterior for its pathos and humanity.

At the end of his set, Matthew Bourne thanked Icarus, “whose music I love”, for the set which had opened the evening. Some in the audience, perhaps expecting something more directly in keeping with the solo acoustic setup of Bourne’s showcase, were rather nonplussed by Icarus. But anyone who knows Bourne from, for example, his Electric Dr. M incarnation, or his collaboration with Franck Vigroux (the “vintage analogue equipment (and) ear-splitting frequencies” of Call Me Madam) wouldn’t be surprised by the juxtaposition.

Icarus are one-time label mates of Bourne, laptop artists Ollie Bown and Sam Britton, though it’s been eight years since Leaf released the Icarus album I Tweet The Birdy Electric. More recently, Icarus’ Ollie Brown collaborated with Tom Arthurs (trumpet, flugelhorn), Lothar Ohlmeier (clarinet, bass clarinet), and Isambard Khroustaliov (autonomous electronics) on Long Division, where improvisation meets “elementary computational autonomy”. Their concert at London’s King’s Place in January was one I was sorry to miss, but the availability of a free download of highlights from Amsterdam and Berlin goes some way to compensate. You can download a free copy from their website, Not Applicable.

Icarus’s latest album, Fake Fish Distribution, was more representative of the music they played at Oto. To realise it, Icarus created not only music, but also software and scripting. A limited edition, it can be bought only as digital download, for which up to 1000 unique versions of the album’s musical content will be generated. (You can sample one version (and buy another) here.)

As with much live laptop music, the live version of the Icarus sound places more emphasis on momentum and polyrhythmic development than does their studio work. That said, the descriptions of their music that follow convey only simplifications of a more complex reality.

Icarus began by layering ‘tribal’ percussion loops, which soon came to resemble a hyper-Nyabingi (Rastafarian drumming) Dubstep variant. As the music became more frantic, however, it started to reveal its makers’ roots in the Drum/Drill‘n’Bass era. When the momentum slackened the weave became less coherent, but somehow, as new elements were piled on, the flowing, overlapping skeins of electronic sound and strata of eliding percussives clarified.

Icarus’ triggered sounds were constantly in flux, and the music remained inchoate despite its complexity. In curious ways that was a god thing: the set was seldom less than fully absorbing. Even so, a luminous, Oval-like hiatus crafted from sonorous metal percussion samples came as a welcome change of pace. Low string, and, possibly, clarinet samples further tempered the sound mix, and Icarus offset striated bursts of D&B with spacey echoes of electric piano. A thrumming deceleration to a calmer place sounded a prelude to the duo’s final delicate flourish.

Related Posts
Matthew Bourne’s Variations.
Born To Brew (Matthew Bourne and Sean Noonan) + N.E.W. at The Vortex, 16 April 2012.

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