Leon Michener and group at King’s Place

Knowledge of Cult

Leon Michener – piano
Seaming To – voice
Aleks Kolkowski – Stroh violin, gramophone, phonograph, musical saw
Olie Brice – bass
Mark Sanders – drums

King’s Place, 18 January 2010

This concert really (really) took off in the second half. But the way it did so made me appreciate certain aspects of the first that I didn’t fully grasp first time around. Not least of which: Leon Michener is an amazingly flexible pianist. The second set was broadly of the free improv ilk that I’d been expecting (although full of unexpected things), so the first half of solo piano threw me a little. Michener barely strayed away from straight keyboard playing. There were a few taps on the piano body and a couple of thunks of the sustain pedal, but that was it.

His first piece – quite lengthy, no prepared materials, just a cribsheet of events (‘Ives’, ’10ths’, ‘Rolf ostinato’) – was a little like an improvised Ravel toccata. The second was again toccata-like, but with a visual twist. Using a trigger mechanism inside the piano, each note was associated with a single image that was projected onto a screen whenever it was played. Most of the images were black and white mandala drawings by the artist Barbara Miller and, with the notes flying past quickly, the buzzing strobe effect was eyeball-searingly hypnotic. The music gradually moved up the keyboard, continually shifting the window of available notes. As new notes entered the mix, so did new images, and one became more aware than usual of the way that the musical envelope was expanding and contracting. Although the mandala images were predominant, there were a few inserts of black and white photos of helicopters, shot from below: visually similar to the mandalas with the symmetrical cross of the blades, the helicopter pictures nevertheless injected whole new dimensions of menace into the work’s effect. As the piece progressed, and the hypnosis of the images had taken full effect, colour was introduced too – these images were all of religious icons (mostly Buddhist and Christian). Once again, whole new associative complexes were tapped into. There was no ‘message’ as such, but it was clearly designed to provoke thought of some kind, whilst remaining fixed to the music itself. There are perhaps subtler ways to do this, but it was a striking piece nonetheless.

On to that second half.  Michener was joined by Seaming To, Aleks Kolkowski, Olie Brice and Mark Sanders. Rather than one or two extended improvisations, the group played a series of short pieces in what must be described as a song cycle by directed group improvisation. Kolkowski’s gramophones and wax cylinders dominated both sound and space: the giant horn of the Edison phonograph loomed out of the stage gloom like some strange and menacing plant. They invested the ensemble sound with crackles, ghostly echoes of music of other times and places, and a sonic template that bloomed into the space like that outsized horn. This wasn’t some trendy ‘hauntological’ schtick but a mutual revitalisation – who was breathing life into whom? As Michener’s live piano articulated one sort of reality against the alternative recorded on Kolkowski’s wax it became clear that this wasn’t a cheap bid for easy nostalgia, but genuine musical archaeology.

Nevertheless, it was notable how none of the instruments really dominated: they were all content two or three steps back from the limelight, giving the music a fading quality, impressing itself only lightly on the air, like the styluses on Edison’s cylinders. In opposition to contemporary production techniques, in which the sounds are overdriven to fill all the available information space on a disc, the potential sonic space was conspicuously not maximised. A nod to alternative ways of doing things, and of what we stand to lose?

For one number Kolkowski and Seaming To – a captivating singer, and the other main onstage focus – dropped out completely as the ‘jazz’ trio took over for a five-minute wig-out. They both sat, eyes on their colleagues, a beautifully staged reflection of the listening we were ourselves taking part in. A musical fourth wall dissolved, to join the others between space and time that had already vanished before our ears.

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