This Bonfire night I didn’t get to experience a firework display, although since it was a fairly wet evening perhaps this was a blessing. Instead I visited a small cafe in Hackney called Cafe Oto, for a very enjoyable evening of experimental music.
The line-up will have at least one recognisable name for any fan of drone/ambient/experimental music: Rafael Anton Arisarri, Lawrence English and Grouper.
Firstly one has to praise the venue for the excellent sound system. I’ve been to quite a few experimental music events in my time, and quite often the sound system just can’t cope. The last time I saw Grouper for instance it sounded like it was underwater. The venue there, St Giles Church, resulted in way too much reverb although the speakers themselves generally made the background drones that Liz plays over sound muddy and lacking in clarity. Not so at the Cafe Oto, there was a diverse variation in music throughout the evening: from Rafael’s crisp looping guitar played with a bow, to the crashing static in Lawrence’s set and Grouper’s gentle soft looping vocal melodies which the sound system all managed to cope with. It was probably the best sound system and venue for this type of music I’ve yet been to, so I’ll certainly be watching out for future gigs here.
Also of note was the plentiful seating within the cafe. Unlike more active music, ambient music does not lend itself to standing around or even moshing! Being able to relax, closing your eyes and sitting down is definitely how ambient music should be experienced (Sadly I don’t think my favourite way of listening tucked up in bed with my head beneath the covers isolated from the world visually and audibly can translate into a live setting!). Drink prices were sadly quite expensive, but this is a small venue in London so I shall not complain too much! A nice touch was the CD mixed by Lawrence English which was given out free to all who attended. I haven’t given it a proper listen yet but it seems to be a broad range of Room40 artists so I shall look forward to it.
On to a description of the three sets of the evening. Rafael’s set was a great surprise to me, I’d always assumed from listening to his music that his work was more computer synth based: Great sweeping strings crashing around. This is not the case! Rafael tended to start each piece with guitar and bow in hand, capturing and looping his playing through effect pedals resulting in the sound so characteristic of his music. There was still a lot of laptop fiddling, but the visual physical aspect of the work kept things interesting. The music itself was very relaxing and hopeful in tone. I’m not sure how long the set was, but I’d estimate 40 minutes or so which completely flew by. Rafael played at the right hand side of the stage, near to where I was sat so I got a good view of what was going on. Lawrence filmed the initial piece or two so hopefully I can find this on the internet at some point and edit it into this review!
Lawrence English’s set was the weakest of the evening for me and judging from some of the distracted crowd others felt the same. He opened his set with a field recording of some waves which gradually built into static. This lasted far too long and without a visual aspect to keep the mind occupied it got a little boring. Following this though the set became a lot more interesting and musical in nature. A fantastic demonic section in which Lawrence bellowed a musical accordion with intensity was very interesting. The highlight though was when Liz Harris joined him on stage. With mic in mouth Lawrence provided a static undercurrent to Liz’s gentle guitar plucking and barely perceptible singing. A wonderful end and it left me excited for the main set from Grouper herself.
Grouper’s sets are always very interesting. Four cassette players and dozens of cassettes are scattered around Liz and her guitar. The pre recorded drones, field recordings and looped vocal recordings are mixed together by Liz and accompanied over the top by Liz’s luscious soft vocals and her guitar. This is a great compromise between pre-recorded layers and a live set with the physical nature of the set, particularly when Liz ejects and reaches for another cassette adding a lot to the show. The finale of the set consisted with Grouper inviting everyone back to the stage. This is the great thing about experimental music, when a collaboration of seemingly improvised music can just come together and produce something new, exciting and emotionally engaging.
A great evening all in all and one which I hope will be representative of many musical adventures in London to come. Next up for me is Caspian and God Is An Astronaut this Friday at the O2 Islington followed by a very later 65daysofstatic set at CAMP which I’m hoping I won’t be too tired to enjoy (Also need to work out late night transport back, hmm..)