Cafe Oto, Dalston, London, 1st May 2009
What I always admired about Sonic Youth was their blatant disregard for the sacred cow of rock‘n’roll convention. Surely Mr Tambourine Man would sound better with all the strings tuned to D and a brick on the 8th fret? Likewise, tonight’s assembled cast of improv luminaries, Okkyung Lee, SY-collaborator Christian Marclay, Steve Beresford and John Butcher, do their utmost to run as far away from concord (and a tune) as is humanly possible. Anyone wandering in off the street would no doubt consider this a bloody racket but, as a packed Cafe Oto would attest, there’s not only much underlying rhyme and reason to improvised music but also the potential for boundless fun.
As with wrestling, the night begins with a straight one-on-one. Korean cellist Okkyung Lee, whose I Saw The Ghost Of An Unknown Soul And It Said album was released on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label last year, locks horns with British improv heavyweight Steve Beresford, on piano. What ensues is a battle of wits; each vying to stretch their chosen instrument as far away from its ‘common’ range as possible. What begins as a fairly graceful call-and-response gradually deteriorates into a no-holds- barred spat. There’s not so much eye contact as ear contact, Beresford echoing Lee’s quick- fire, caterwauling cello with ever-more frantic fortissimos. Amidst this cacophony Beresford, exasperated, seems to be thinking, “Damn, this bloody thing! Why aren’t there more octaves?!”
Octaves aren’t uppermost in Christian Marclay’s scheme of things. His chosen weapons, junkstore vinyl records and foot-pumped turntables, connect near seamlessly with John Butcher’s stuttering alto sax. There are no headphones in sight, but Marclay knows his armoury like the back of his hand. There’s something of the cocktail bartender in the way he flips and spins vinyl from the table behind him onto the decks without so much as checking the label. Butcher, meanwhile, is pushing his sax to its absolute extremes, wrenching out sounds that knit tightly with Marclay’s amplified static and bastardised loops; a mockingbird effect.

© Tim Ferguson

© Tim Ferguson

Up to this point, these improv pairings have been akin to rather serious chemistry experiments, but when Marclay is teamed with Beresford things lighten and liven up immeasurably. Beresford, seated at a table choked by a smorgasbord of effects pedals, pulls sounds out of thin air and with a sleight of hand; loops, stretches and reverses them until, voila! A balloon giraffe! Well, not exactly, but there is an element of Carl Stalling’s famous cartoon soundtracks, albeit warped to the point at which Bugs Bunny is no longer recognisable. It’s here that the seated, silhouetted audience blossom into laughter, and these looney tunes are arguably the high point of the night.
At its worst, improvised music is loaded with a disquieting gravitas that threatens to alienate all but the most esoterically attuned audience. At its best (see John Zorn, Sonic Youth or even tonight’s Beresford/Marclay game of tag), the ride can be both all-inclusive and a blast. For the finale, all four performers take the stage, but without an obvious ringleader there’s a noticeable lack of direction to what they produce. Whether that’s reverence or just polite reserve is hard to tell, but this masterclass in freeform sonic engineering, although impressive, could have used a little less self-absorption and a little more of that cartoon playfulness.

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