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Matana Roberts, Ian William Craig. Cube, May 11

May 13, 2017

The Cube is almost dark when the music starts. Ian William Craig is illuminated by the bulbs hooked up to a collection of, what, cassette players? Hard to tell in the gloom. Definitely some old school tech, anyway.

It doesn’t matter. His set is all about the sound. A trained voice (later, I learn he is classically schooled) sets up a line at the mike, and is then looped to form a backdrop to the next live fragment. It’s a simple but effective layering technique, augmented by prepared sounds from the battery of cassette decks.

What does this build? There’s an ethereal, almost devotional feel to the soundscape. The tonality is conventional, but the fairly simple melodies are cliche free, slightly poignant in the main. He mixes upper and lower registers to deepen the effect. There are some words, but most aren’t completely audible (“we are discovered”, repeated, an exception – but don’t know who or what or how it fits with anything else…). It doesn’t matter. The overall effect is absorbing, as if the Cube has been temporarily consecrated to some as yet undefined religion. The singing is Cantorial at times, and takes on a yearning quality, a near lament, for long stretches, then gradually ebbs away before the next piece starts. There isn’t a lot of variation in this brief set, and some faintly tedious organoid synth noises intrude here and there, but there’s a focussed musical intelligence at work here, and some very effective sonic organisation. The Canadian artist, who I’ve not come across before, seems to operate in a range of modes from singer-songwriter to abstract impressionist. Definitely someone to investigate further.

And you can see why a double bill with Matana Roberts – whose welcome visit to Bristol is probably the reason the house is full – makes sense. She’s another artist who builds soundscapes in a very distinctive way. There’s more improvisation in her work, and – in the unfolding episodes of Coin Coin, her epic confrontation with the history of slavery – stronger programmatic elements. We have three instalments so far, out of a projected dozen and it’s a version of Coin Coin Chapter 3, River Run Thee we hear tonight. That calls for a similar set up to Craig’s – the performer centre stage behind an array of devices, with a mike for real-time elements. It’s still dark, but there are now looped back projections of still photos.

There’s no real introduction or explanation, so if you don’t know what’s going on I’m not sure what would come across. The recording of Chapter 3 (still available to listen to here, while part 2 is here) is a richly textured assembly of field recordings, spoken fragments, incantatory vocal lines and often heavily treated saxophone. It’s been called a collage: that doesn’t really do it justice but it’s a start. It’s easier to experience than describe – though I tried to review it here.

Tonight’s performance is the same, but different. It doesn’t recreate the recording (why bother) but reassembles the materials in a different pattern, like viewing a landscape from a new angle or in different weather. It opens, after the briefest of allusions to current events in the US (ruefully: “it’s not my fault”) with clear statements on (unprocessed) alto saxophone. It’s a reminder that Roberts could readily have established herself as an outstanding conventional jazzer, and still could any time.

But she has other plans. Barely heard voices come and go from the mix – less distinctly than on the CD. A whole range of effects are stirred in as well, there are song fragments from the decks and sung live, and and her own voice intones the stark lines that punctuate the whole work – sometimes declarative, sometimes posing unanswerable questions: words of sadness, loss and pain, as well as resilience.

The piece comes together through accretion, rather than any straightforward sequencing. It’s a powerful method. The same illusionistic brilliance is in evidence as  features on the recording, an elusive alchemy that transforms sounds that could sit uneasily together into a blend that coheres. An hour passes quickly, building an experience that is involving, moving, and rather beautiful.

There’s just time for a quick back and forth with the audience – mothers are on her mind – and a bonus unaccompanied saxophone solo before she finishes. Like the whole work, it is heartfelt, piercing, and leaves a feeling that much has been said, but there’s still more to say.

(Roberts’ tour continues, including Jazz Cafe in London next week.)

(photo: in Aarhus, 2015. Hreinn Gudlaugsson via Wikipedia)


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