Guillaume Viltard opened the Freedom of the City festival with an unaccompanied solo on unamplified double bass. You might read that as a statement of the organizers’ conviction and intent. In any case the young Frenchman’s performance was exemplary. He coaxed music from his instrument with supple firmness, bowing in short, circular motions to produce a soft drone; skimming the bow with light contact on the strings; finger- and bow-tapping the instrument’s top; settling back into a low bowed grind; tapping out a delicate melody with the bow’s wood; producing string scrapes and aggressive percussive strikes with the bow’s end screw. The unforced, purely musical expression of this performance set the bar dauntingly high for the fifteen others that were to follow over the next 48 hours and four concerts.
Cellist Okkyung Lee also played solo. She seemed on edge, and played a much more strenuous and turbulent set. Her attack was fast, insistent and often harsh, an early sequence of fast runs on the high C string punctuated with arco interludes. Later she thrummed the low A string and rubbed vigorously on the c-bout before unleashing an agitation of scrabbled bowing. Dark waters.
An annual “festival of improvised and experimental music”, Freedom of the City is held at on the same bank holiday weekend on which indie kids descend en-mass on nearby Camden for the annual Crawl and the mainstream jazz audience decamps to Cheltenham Jazz Festival. In contrast to those inclusive, populist jamborees, Freedom is a single-minded and principled affair.
2012 was Freedom’s second year at Cecil Sharp House, the home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which is in some ways a more suitable residence than its former lodgings at the more obviously ideologically sympathetic Conway Hall (“a hub for free speech and independent thought”). The performances took place in a large, airy hall with wonderful natural light in the afternoons, but in the evenings the organizers draped the windows and cross-lit the performance space with high-mounted spotlights, making the lighting both harsh and stagey.
Terry Day would have been right at home at Conway Hall. In “around 1960”, according to Emanem’s Martin Davidson, Day was a member of “probably the first (trio) in London to perform free improvisation exclusively”. He went on to be a key member of the People Band. I was disappointed not to see Terry play his bamboo reed flute, but his solo set on tambourines and drums was by turns probing and idiosyncratic, fiery and forthright. He broke off mid set, first to play a surprising, conventionally pretty melody on the nearby piano, and then to declaim an energetic if naïve prose poem denouncing the West for the violence currently being perpetrated in Homs.
The festival was inevitably shadowed by the loss to cancer, just four weeks earlier, of another veteran, Tony Marsh. The drummer, age 72, had been on fine form only in March, when he played OTO with the great Roscoe Mitchell, and he was due to perform at Freedom in a percussion duet with Mark Sanders. He was greatly missed. In the event, Sanders played with John Edwards, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, and the Chicago-based trombonist Jeb Bishop, their set combining spirited freedom with the rhythmic snap of post-bop. Behind the well-honed Sanders/Edwards rhythm tag-team Hutchings and Bishop were equally well matched, entering into a garrulous, eloquent dialogue.
Solo, duo and trios dominated the festival, with just one quartet, a septet, and an orchestra of 30+ marshalling larger forces. The instrumentation of the Common Objects septet, convened by electric harpist Rhodri Davies, was shaped by flute and twin violins, and given texture with electronics and the subtle sounds of amplified objects. Saxophonist John Butcher proved most likely to disturb encroaching stasis with unexpected interventions.
Those amplified objects were played by Lee Patterson, who was one of the few artists to feature in two sets. Both here and in his trio with John Edwards and Caroline Kraabel, he produced a static ripple by amplifying a powder fizzling in water. In the septet set this enriched a pure electronic tone; for the trio he produced a seething billow of electro acoustics cut with bursts of raw and emphatic noise. Kraabel played with hesitant certainty, small saxophonic interjections and vocalized whimpering. An often volatile bassist, Edwards was also at his most restrained here, but he gradually drew Kraabel into a more loquacious dialogue.
The set by the London Improvisers Orchestra was perhaps the least satisfying of the festival, with a sense of uncertainty creeping into the conductions that was notably absent from any of the other performances (the orchestra were at their best between conductions, when playing by ear).
One of the punchiest performances was by Mathilde 253, a trio featuring ex-This Heat drummer Charles Hayward, electric guitarist Han-Earl Park and trumpeter Ian Smith. Hayward was playing at his most impressionistic, Smith’s trumpet correspondingly all smears and blurs, offset by Park’s scrabble of overlapping notes and smears. Along with Viltard, Park and Smith were the new discoveries of the festival for me; names to add to the must-see list, for future reference.
Three other trios featured electric guitarists. Alex Ward played with bassoonist Mick Beck and bass clarinetist Chris Cundy as Weavels, while Ross Lambert played with violinist Jennifer Allum and percussionist Seijiro Murayama. Ward can be as explosive as his occasional bandmate John Edwards, so it was similarly rewarding to see him too play with more delicacy. Beck played mostly in the bird-like upper register of his horn, all delicate flutters and trills, leaving it to Cundy to ruminate poetically in the lower registers.
Ward played cat among the birds, a stealthy but still unsettling presence. Lambert only came to his main instrument after first bowing and percussing the array of small objects at his disposal, primarily focusing on a pair of metal goblets. He’d also apply those objects to his guitar, before playing a relatively conventional flurry of chords and single finger-lifts and -rubs. Allum played a complementary combination of glancing bow-strikes, and feathery scrapes, while Murayama, famously minimalistic, contributed little more than sporadic snare hits, though he did add some deep wordless vocalizations to a melodic, unplugged set coda.
Another guitarist, John Russell played in his well-honed, austerely fluid semi-acoustic style, a wiry scrabble of muted resonance with occasional radiant tones, in a duo with trumpeter Jamie Coleman. For me, Coleman was another of the festival’s discoveries. He plays with touches of both Arve Henriksen’s delicacy and Miles Davis’ burnished tone on A Lift To The Scaffold, and Russell seemed to relax into the downy warmth of his sound.
Electronics were another theme at the festival, reflecting the current vogue for improvisers to cast their lot with noise artists. Steve Noble began with Rip Rig + Panic, and now keeps company with Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley, among others. But following the festival’s pattern of comparative restraint, he played Freedom partnered with pianist Sebastian Lexer. Lexer played mostly under the piano lid, sounding complex harmonics with a miniature bow applied between the harp’s strings and utilizing a variety of preparations and electronics of which the keyboard then became just an extension. Noble answered his watery ambient effects, magnet-induced vibrational resonances and percussive preparation-strikes with bowed and scraped cymbals, using his mallets only lightly.
The cello, electronics and percussion of Ute Kanngiesser, Grundik Kasyansky and Roger Turner were similarly combined in a gestural, percussive way, though Kanngiesser brought the poise of her instrument’s classical associations into play.
Although his sound was the least emphatic, Kasyansky really dominated this trio, answering the veteran Turner’s hand-held and -slapped metal percussion by dramatic slamming his own hand on the tabletop that supported his various cassette tape inputs and filters. He disturbed his own playback of orchestral recordings by overlaying and contact-miking the players, or simply by waving them in the air.
Christian Marclay was the only other performer to introduce pre-recorded sound, spinning and sometimes literally scratching a selection of old vinyl on manually-spun twin decks, reducing playback to a cartoonish blur. Phil Minton responded with his inimitable vocalizations and expressive facial contortions, though sadly the unrelenting multi-layered sound whipped up by Marclay narrowed his expressive options to a constant grizzling, purging, and gaping for air. He had to sit out to coax Marclay down to the point where his breathing could be heard. Their set ended with a burst of 50s kitsch film music and Minton’s responding vocal ejaculations.
One of the highlights of the festival for me was Pat Thomas, solo at the festival piano. He began playing with his left hand while reaching under the instrument’s lid to mute the reverberations, then plucked and lifted notes from the harp to a fast, rhythmic pulse. After settling back at the keyboard he was initially very delicate, but soon dropping violent chordal clusters. Ending with a playful cross-handed atonal passage, Thomas sounded some of the lost potentiality of Thelonious Monk.
Marclay and Minton were the last set on Saturday night. On Sunday, the festival was wrapped up after Pat Thomas’ set with a duo by two of Freedom’s organizers and presiding spirits, Evan Parker and Eddie Prévost. The percussionist played a large diameter pitched bass drum and a snare, but mostly used them as resonators, bowing a complex mix of tones from a hanging gong before rubbing the bass drum with mallets, sometimes playing with an assortment of cymbals spread across its skins. Parker, on tenor saxophone, was fastidiously tasteful in his responses, giving a quiet masterclass without grandstanding. It’s not that type of festival, after all.
Saturday 05 May, 2pm concert
+ Guillaume Viltard
+ Ute Kanngiesser / Grundik Kasyansky / Roger Turner
+ Jamie Coleman / John Russell
+ Jennifer Allum / Ross Lambert / Seijiro Murayama
+ Weavels: Mick Beck / Chris Cundy / Alex Ward
+ Sebastian Lexer / Steve Noble
+ Okkyung Lee
+ Christian Marclay / Phil Minton
Sunday 06 May, 2pm concert
+ John Edwards / Caroline Kraabel / Lee Patterson
+ Mathilde 253: Charles Hayward / Han-Earl Park / Ian Smith
+ Terry Day
+ London Improvisers Orchestra
+ Mark Sanders / John Edwards / Shabaka Hutchings / Jeb Bishop
+ Common Objects: John Butcher / Angharad Davies / Rhodri Davies / Heledd Francis / Lina Lapelyte / Matthew Lovett / Lee Patterson
+ Pat Thomas
+ Evan Parker / Eddie Prévost