Thomas Lehn’s instrument is a 60s Synthi A modular analogue synthesizer, played in combination with a keyboard. Sound is generated via the Synthi A‘s patch matrix and resistive, touch-sensitive pins. And if that means as little to you as it does to me, perhap’s you’ve heard one in action on a recording by Pink Floyd, Klaus Schulze, and/or Merzbow.
The remarkable thing, watching Lehn play in various instrumental combinations across two evenings, is the variety of his approach to the instrument, the way his gestures are translated into markedly different sounds, and the assurance with which he second-guesses the most appropriate musical response to any challenge.
Lehn was joined on the first night this two-night residency by Tim Hodgkinson on lap steel guitar/clarinet, Hannah Marshall on cello, and Philipp Wachsmann on violin/electronics, and on the second night by saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Roger Turner.
Lehn forms many ad hoc performance partnerships, but his trio with Hodgkinson and Turner, Konk Pack, has been active for fifteen years now.
Hodgkinson, who is best known as co-founder of radical 60s experimental rock group Henry Cow, now plays alongside Turner and Marshall in the trio Zinc. But with Hodgkinson and Marshall playing only on the first night of this residence, and Turner only on the second, neither the Konk Pack nor Zinc configurations come together during this residency.
For his part, Turner played alongside Lol Coxhill and Mike Cooper in 80s trio The Recedents, exploring improvised and electro-acoustic music and occasionally playing, like Lehn today, a Synthi A. But sadly, again, a Turner/Lehn Synthi A duet isn’t on the cards tonight.
Wachsmann and Butcher both have extensive experience in electro-acoustic music. For links to posts I’ve already written on Butcher’s music, see my review of his recent album with Lehn’s erstwhile sparring partner Toshimaru Nakamura, Dusted Machinery. Wachsmann studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in 1970, but I first came to know him via his involvement in Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble in the late 90s.
Tues: Lehn + Tim Hodgkinson, Phillip Wachsmann, and Hannah Marshall
The opening trio of Tuesday night, with Lehn accompanied by Hodgkinson and Wachsmann, drew its character primarily from Hodgkinson’s tabletop guitar, which he played with preparations and an e-bow.
In the following Lehn/Wachsmann duo, small percussive synth sounds matched with rich harmonies bled into glissandi, became frenetic, then merged tonaly with Reichian looped whorls of violin.
Hodgkinson and Wachsmann’s duo had the flavour of Appalachian Americana, a folksy sweetness undercut by dry bowed-steel tones matched to electric contact static.
The Lehn/Hodgkinson duo was a highlight of the residency, with Hodgkinson on clarinet playing deep, woody trills tongue-flecked with melodic shards, and Lehn’s synth emitting a digitally-bright, conversational chitter. This was close-grain listening for audio texturephiles.
After a long break, Hannah Marshall joined the others for a long quartet set.
While Wachsmann’s playing was lyrical and emotive, Marshall’s close-mic’d cello matched the low textural grain of Lehn’s synth rumblings until a series of tight detonations signalled a transition to a rapid pileup of small sonics, and a gradual increase in speed, tension and volume. Where the earlier duos and trio were spacious and meticulously finessed, the quartet, although proceeding with drift-consciousness, became dense, raw and all-absorbing.
Weds: Lehn + John Butcher and Roger Turner
The first set of Wednesday night was a trio performance characterised by stridency. Turner used bundled plastic forks to produce a deep, resonant rubbing to complement Lehn’s dubbed-out, detuned radio-sounds and synth-bass-like low-end pulse. He then scraped metal fork tines inside a pot lid to match Butcher’s sharp soprano sax trills. Butcher later became more strident and expansive, drawing Lehn to respond with blasts of raw noise.
In the Lehn/Turner duo, Turner used a foam pad across his drum had to muffle the sound of assorted manipulations on metal percussion objects. Lehn responded gesturally, flicking small glitches from his touch-sensitive instrument (his physical approach belying the synth’s image as a static anchor) into an abstract techno rhythm that threatened to devolve into chaos of microsound, but resolved instead in feathery sibilance. Turner responding by wafting bundled sticks through the air.
Butcher played full-blown tenor sax in his duo with Turner, but kept the valves tightly restricting output to an etiolated rasp. This prompted Turner to reply with hard-scrabble metal percussion and subtle use of the pedals on his dual floor toms for pitch control effects.
After the break there was a long duo from Butcher and Lehn, who have recently toured the American south together, evidently honing their mutual responsiveness. Butcher began with a full, assertive tonality, and Lehn responded with contrasting sliding, harp-like tones that grew raw and raucous. Butcher countered with deep, open-valve blats and resonant, throaty trills flecked with spittle rasp.
The concluding Lehn/Butcher/Turner trio began as so much apparently disjointed sonic rummaging before lapsing into a premature silence. Butcher then essayed one of those boldly melodic lines he keeps in reserve, to enliven a performance that might otherwise become too rigidly non-idiomatic. The initial response was a flurry of spartan electroacoustic percussives that steadily grew loudly clamorous, though the trio reacclimatised beautifully with soft mallet play on cymbals and toms, etiolated sax emanations, and nebulously fluttering synth.