So. All done and dusted for another year. As ever, it was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Perhaps even more so this year.
Wit, invention, humour, imagination, character, melody, originality, unpredictability. Just some of the things that last night’s debacle completely lacked. Today kicked off with another three hour improvised set, but this time it had all the above and more in spades.
The Tokyo quartet Marginal Consort specialize in playing very long pieces. Three hours was by no means a stretch for them. They were each sat at their own table, in the four corners of the room, armed with mixers, all manner of effects pedals, customised instruments and a bizarre array of household implements, toys, hardware and plain old junk. Because of the way the performance area was set up, none had any means of communication with the others since the audience were all in between them. The only way they could respond to each other was through the music they were making.
Three hours. That’s a bum-numbing duration at the cinema. For a single piece of music, it’s a ridiculous length of time. But it worked, and at no time did it get boring. The whole thing was a seamless flow, and yet constantly changing, constantly unpredictable, constantly anything but constant. Musical references? Test Department, early Tangerine Dream, Can, Merzbow, Supersilent, the soundtrack to Kurosawa films, a noisy day in Toys R Us. I couldn’t even begin to describe it. OK, I could begin, but wouldn’t get very far. There were passages of drone, passages of noise, but also plenty of melody; bamboo, wood and metal percussion, bizarre sounds fashioned from paper cups and pipes – even gargling and a mini display of martial arts using sticks, and a dirty great log. It was everything that improvised music can and should be. It constantly shifted in tone and mood, and never stood in the same place too long. The process, and its use of instruments and junk, was equally fascinating. At one point I was thinking how great it would go down (or at least an abridged version) with an audience of eight year olds. There was something very Blue Peter about it in many ways. If you ever get the chance to see them, and I guess they don’t come around very often, don’t let it go begging. A contender for my gig of the year already.
As yesterday, Instal Sunday was divided into two. An hour’s break for food, and a nose buried in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was followed by something called the Cherry Blossom Ball. Of all the Instal’s I’ve ever been to, this was definitely the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. Simply because it was so un-bizarre. Instal’s motto is Brave New Music. Quite how this fitted into that remit is beyond me. First up, though, Richard Youngs played us a video and got us to sing along in the gaps of the song. That was jolly, even if it felt like being at school. The main part of the Cherry Blossom ball consisted of two bands – the Cherry Blossoms and the Golden Road who each did two sets, bookending them with collaborative tunes that included both bands. The Cherry Blossoms are a Nashville outfit, and are definitely the more Instal-friendly of the two. Taking an old timey Carter Family / jug band vibe, they mixed in elements of improvisation and Sesame Street like singalongs. In parts it was great, in parts chaotic. At its worst, it sounded like a hippie peace camp sing song, at its best a heartfelt modern take on the prewar Americana tradition. The Golden Road, on the other hand, were utterly perplexing. Basically, this was a band straight out of the Neil Young & Crazy Horse / Allman Brothers / American Beauty era Grateful Dead tradition. No angle, unless you count a female lead guitarist as an angle. I liked them a lot, but then I like the aforementioned bands. I think the general audience reaction was split between people who just liked them for what they were, people who were genuinely annoyed at something so ‘trad’ being at Instal, and people who didn’t seem to know nor care how avant-garde they were or were not. Like I say, I liked ’em, even if they ripped off “Down by The River” wholesale on one of their tunes.
So, Instal 08. It was definitely the most extreme one yet in terms of the range of material presented, and in terms of its quality. Saturday was a downer, to be sure, but Friday and Sunday more than made up for it. It’s the only festival that can both fill me with wonder, and have me bristling with rage. Like life, it’s the shit that helps make the shinola seem so much better.