Instal 09. Day Two (Glasgow Arches, 21/3/09)

To the Arches then.

One thing that has struck me, having been coming to Instal since its second year in 2002, is the festival’s move away from what can broadly be described as traditional music making towards a more conceptual sound art that is more interested in process than in form. By traditional music making, I don’t mean mainstream – but certainly using accepted instrumentation to produce forms that are recognisably musical to the untutored ear. The likes of Jandek, Loren Connors, Carsten Nicolai, Keiji Haino and Ryoji Ikeda couldn’t be described as mainstream artists by any stretch of the imagination, but they use musical forms that are not so very far from more commercially minded music to twist new shapes and sounds.

Anyone with a hankering for rhythm or melody – two standard building blocks of music – would have found very little to grab hold of tonight. The themes, if there were any, were explorations of pitch, timbre and process. This is all well and good, but it makes for an intellectual experience that can be dry, lacking heart, soul and emotional connection. And frankly it can be tedious.

Two of tonight’s more successful conceptual pieces were provided Tetsuo Kogawa and Nikos Veliotis. Kogawa used four radios, three transistors, his hands and a few glass slides to manipulate radio waves. The resultant sound was a symphony of pitch and crackle. But by having a close up camera on what he was doing projected on to a screen, we could observe a fascinating process, even if the sound wasn’t particularly musical in any accepted sense. Veliotis’s “Cello Powder” consisted of the playback of a CD of looped cello drones that he’d recorded, while he and an assistant destroyed the instrument he used using an axe, electric saw, wood chipper and finally food blender to turn it into sawdust. This was then put into jars, and each CD would be sold with an accompanying jar holding part of the cello. A power failure half way through didn’t help, but although the drones were fairly captivating, the visual element of watching wood chips being ground to powder did get a bit boring after a while.

Drones are good. I like my drones. They do seem to have become totally ubiquitous in experimental music making, to the point of being about as experimental and avant-garde as a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pop song. Used in conjunction with other elements, drones have a contemplative power. Used on their own, there has to be something other than empty pitch to make them interesting. Veliotis’s use of drone at least had other things going on, even if they were merely visual. Rad Malfatti and Klaus Filip used trombone and laptop and very low volume to produce a 40 odd minute piece that went precisely nowhere. Michael Pisaro‘s “An Unrhymed Chord” used twelve musicians, grouped in three quartets, on instruments as varied as trombone, guitar, laptop, sax, cello and piano, to produce a long, quiet drone that altered only as the various players came in and out. The piano (which obviously is incapable of producing long, sustained notes) occasionally chimed in with a single note repeated at intervals. This went on for over an hour, with a five minute pause of silence in the middle. Why oh why does everything always have to be so damn long? Is there special merits given for testing the listener’s patience? Is it some kind of statement against the attention deficient pace of modern life?

There were two vocal pieces tonight. I cannot begin to describe how much I hated Steve McCaffrey‘s “Carnival”. The concept was cut up poetry, with every symbol, punctuation mark and string of random consonants and vowels vocalised. Technically, it was good. But as a piece it just sounded like a random spiel of gutteral noises and occasional phrases (some done in ridiculous comedy accents) – like a four year old with severe Tourette’s. Horrible. I thought I would hate Joan La Barbara‘s wordless vocalising, too. I’m not a fan of vocal gymnastics, and scat singing makes me want to fill my ears with concrete. And I didn’t really enjoy her first few pieces that explored single pitch and circular singing (ie singing whilst inhaling as well as exhaling) although they were done well. Her “Conversations” used made up language but done in a sing-song conversational style in a variety of voices and accents that was both dazzlingly skillful, but also witty and charming. Her final piece “Rothko”, accompanied by a CD of droning bowed piano and multi-tracks of her own voice, was dark and mesmerising, much like the artist’s ouevre itself. It was easily the best thing on offer tonight.

Things finished with Tamio Shiraishi, Mico and Fritz Welch – a trio using sax, percussion, vocal spasms and piano to create a random improv soup of noise and clatter. At least it had energy, but I can’t say I was that thrilled by it. There were also performances running in the small Studio Theatre at the venue, which often ran concurrently with the main stuff. I missed most of them – perhaps I missed some of the best stuff. I did catch five minutes of Smack Insecten – a sonic stew using a myriad of mixers to create a symphony of feedback. That sounded like it might have been fun.

So, disappointment is a fact of life with Instal. But it’s usually counterbalanced by some things that are genuinely eye-opening, and often breathtaking. Two thirds in, the disappointment / revelation scales are heavily tipped towards the former. I did leave tonight with a sense of “why did I bother?” Joan La Barbara was the only artist whom I felt widened my horizons as to what music could be, but also managed to make a connection deeper than a purely intellectual appreciation.

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