Oren Ambarchi’s concert with pianist Charlemagne Palestine will long be memorable for the moment when Palestine—an impish Ken Russell lookalike with a predilection for stuffed animals, a number of which returned the gaze of his audience from within a bight red suitcase—began to bark out a peremptory command for drums: “DRUMS … DRUMS … DRUMS … DRUMS … DRUMS …” as Ambarchi, engrossed in some refined knob-twisting, perfected a multi-layered and meticulously-constructed wall of guitar-sourced sound. Ambarchi initially reacted with just the flicker of a smile. But Palestine was insistent: “DRUMS … DRUMS … DRUMS … DRUMS … DRUMS …” Ambarchi distractedly gave one cymbal a finger flick. “DRUMS … DRUMS … DRUMS … DRUMS … DRUMS …” A tense standoff ensued, until eventually Ambarchi turned his attention away from his guitar and its accompanying array of effects boxes to an adjacent drum kit, finally picking up sticks to layer a percussion rhythm over Palestine’s insistent piano figures and his own unabated flood of processed sound.
Before the concert had started, the pair had sat chatting in Palestine’s area while a long queasy drone, laced with the sounds of what was probably a woman in the throes of long-protracted orgasm, but might equally have been fox cubs mewling, played out through the PA. Eventually they got the night proper under way with a duet for ringing wine glasses, wet fingers gently rubbed around rims, the more playful Palestine stealing the odd sip to wet the throat for initially timorous vocal keening, jigging up and down to add vibrato. It was a long time before the duo turned their attentions to piano and electric guitar. Palestine’s piano style was naïve though increasingly resolute as Ambarchi layered loops out of single-finger strums across the bridge pickup. Palestine alternated between the piano and the wineglass, sample-processing a vocal chant which he accompanied with semaphoric hand signals.
After the “DRUMS” face-off the set was charged with new tension, all parts locking together in a single fluctuating soundfield of deep, rich resonance. From the oscillatory quality of a Hammond organ, Ambarchi’s electronics settled into a deep-vibrating, didgeridoo-like pulse, while Palestine layered chant loops with further recordings of human voices, until Palestine suddenly cut out, leaving a previously buried Ambarchi machine rhythm exposed amid a steady trickle of sedimental drone.
The previous night, Oto hosted Ambarchi solo on the bill of one of the “Touch 30” label anniversary concerts, alongside label-mates Daniel Menche and BJ Nilsen.
Sound designer BJ Nilsen took the first set that night, playing a laptop solo that began with a series of extremely close-mic’d source recordings subject to a sequence of disconcertingly abrupt cuts, before settling down to a long, reverberant drone of indeterminate, haunted audio. Nilsen seemed distracted, visibly annoyed by the clicking of a too-close photographer, as he guided his laptop’s output through unsettling traces of clangour into the entropy of machine hum, and ultimate near silence.
Ambarchi took the second set, playing a single long-form weave of subtle textures and deep bass tones by micro-managing the extensive array of switches, faders and pedals through which his guitar was fed. His fretboard went unplayed as he simply strummed for FX, producing a rich Hammond-like sound which he increasingly fleshed out with amplifier hum and otherwise channelled electricity. Ambarchi, like Nilsen, ended his set on a long diminuendo, spinning a denuded mechanical whine from the rich, tremolo warmth of throbbing electrical currency.
Taking the closing set, Portland, Oregon native Daniel Menche performed hunkered down, squatting on a board that was laid across a stand that bore his own array of sound effects. His most visually arresting trick is to vocalise with the end of a long strip of metal, or perhaps hardened plastic with pickup mic attached jammed against his throat to produce a raw roar of vocal feedback. Sometimes he slapped his pickup wand to produce a loud, glottal rattle; when put to his lips it produced a tone halfway between a harmonica and a freight train.
Menche’s sanguinary exertions were amplified by red uplights that cast his features in a rather ghoulish aspect. His performance is a visually dramatic spectacle that’s matched by a tinnitus-threatening sonic aspect, and although the novelty of the effect becomes rather tiresome at length, Menche wrings all of the potential drama and raw noise from his novel setup. As the last traces of his stentorian roar dies to a throb, percussive effects reverberate amid washes of electronic wrack.
AS Menche came to the end of his set Palestine could be seen outside, looking on through the venue’s window. He signalled his approval by pounding his palms loudly against the plate glass, as Menche dropped to his feet. He had to clinging to an amplifier for support, because deadened legs could barely carry his own weight; silly man.