Gig: Instal 08 Day 1 (The Arches / Stereo, Glasgow, 15/2/08)

Low expectations.

A few days ago I had a bit of a moan about the pretentiousness that surrounds Instal during a general rant on improv. Tonight’s theme of ‘self-cancellation’ was a case in point. What exactly was that supposed to mean, and don’t intellectualised concepts like that only serve to drive people away? On the whole, tonight was one of those occasions that are a joy to the natural pessimist – low expectations being confounded, and naysaying being proved wrong.

I’ve been going to Instal since 2002, and I was surprised that tonight’s audience was one of the largest and youngest for a few years. Especially since there was very little that could be conventionally described as music on show tonight, even in the widest terms. The two arches used at the Arches had small performance areas set up at various points making it look like an art installation before any of the musicians appeared. And after a while I began to have suspicions that the concept behind self-cancellation was that everybody had cancelled leaving a confused audience to mill about wondering what was supposed to happen.

When things did get underway, Arika head honcho and Instal curator Barry Esson explained the concept a little more clearly that basically tonight was about auto-destructive sound – of aural decay and musical collapse. See? I’m sounding pretentious now – it’s difficult to be conceptual without sounding a little arsey.

Sarah Washington’s idea of self-cancellation was to not listen to what she was doing by using ear-protectors. Unfortunately, although presenting a golden opportunity for me to make some snide remark about her being the lucky one, it was actually rather good – gentle oscillations and feedback tones redolent of some of Ryoji Ikeda’s stuff. Lee Patterson did a short piece which consisted of dropping sodium bicarbonate into water in various shaped vessels and mic-ing up the sound. I thought “yeah and”. Later, though, when he did a second piece involving the heavily amplified sound of burning nuts and seeds, I was at the front, and actually found myself transported back to a time when I was making regular visits to one of the Inner Hebrides, and the wild winter nights spent falling asleep to the sound of the crackle of a log fire.

John Butcher’s comments in the Wire had led me to write my previous tirade against British improv musicians. Of course, he had to be droll and self-deprecating in his introduction, and one of the musical highlights to boot. His set up of using the feedback obtained from a saxophone to create vibrations that, via piano wire and e-bow, played a guitar and snare drum was clever and effective. It was by far the most recognisably musical thing thus far. It segued perfectly into Benedict Drew’s piece using broken stereo leads, but really all that was was some feedback squeal interrupted by a few bursts of white noise. The interval in proceedings was preceded by nine of the musicians responding to a set of slides of super-imposed sudoko puzzles (from the Guardian, of course). Basically, as a pointer hit each number it was a signal for a musician to start or stop playing. Eventually as more puzzles were overlaid, the numbers became black blobs and the music petered out. The idea was better than the execution, I think.

Mark and John Bain’s “Archisonic” was easily the highlight of the first part of the evening. Using seismic sensors, the pair blasted out oscillator drones and picked up the feedback from the building itself to create a bass-heavy, bone-shaking noise that resembled Pan Sonic at their most extreme. You could almost dance to it, in a fashion, as there were some regularish beats under the noise. Although it was loud, it wasn’t uncomfortably so. The main impact of the sound was felt rather than heard. My whole skeleton seemed to vibrate as the soundwaves passed through me. It felt kind of weird, but it was a thrilling thing to witness.

There were other short sets. Michael Colligan amped up the vibrations caused by scraping and jamming metal objects into a big block of dry ice. It was weird watching aluminium plates become really animated as they came into contact with the material, and as such was much more of a visual piece than an aural one. I couldn’t really see what Rhodri Davies was doing with his customised harps, but it sounded like he was recording the sound of them being destroyed. Robin Hayward’s party trick involved an egg-timer like contraption leaking sand into the bell of his tuba until it couldn’t be played. The point was to illustrate the changes in the sound that resulted. I think it would have worked far better had he played some simple repetitive melody, rather like William Basinski’s Disintegration Tapes, rather than just blast out the occasional, random note. That way the changes in timbre would have been more apparent, and the piece more engaging.

The final performance consisted of slides of acid being dripped on to nylon, with the destruction amplified. Again, it was more of a visual spectacle than an aural one. It provided a good excuse to clear us all out of the building as there was “acid” in the air, and they didn’t want us to get it into our lungs. Barry obviously paid less attantion in chemistry lessons than me, because, as any fule no, hydrochloric acid gives off chlorine which is not an acid, but a particularly noxious gas.

On the whole, tonight was more sound art than music. It was one of the most enjoyable Instal nights yet, though.

Part two of the evening kicked off some 2-300 metres away at Stereo. Just three acts, and a far more conventional rock and roll setting. Michiyo Yagi’s koto (a kind of huge, elongated zither-cum-Hawaiian guitar contraption) was a weird instrument to behold, but her playing was stunning. Pure beauty isn’t something that often occurs at Instal, but this had it in spades. At one point I was thinking Debussy, at another classical guitar. One of the four tunes she played was much more atonal and drone-based as a contrast, but she was fantastic. Blood Stereo’s ouvre consists of wailed, unworldly vocals, eastern-tinged drone, violin and storms of electronic noise. I went through a cycle during their set of disliking them, liking them a lot, and then getting bored when they sailed passed the end of my attention span and into the far distance. The evening was rounded off by the lilting folk melodies of the Incapacitants. OK, total mayhem. I’ve seen them before, and they are a ridiculously extreme band: guitar, white noise and a ‘singer’ whose volume and pitch is incredible. What is even more incredible is her stamina. She barely lets up to breathe, it’s almost inhuman. I admit to fleeing before the end. The Incapacitants are a bit of an endurance test.

More musings tomorrow on Day 2. But so far, thumbs up.

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