SOUNDKitchen May ’14

Midlands-based composers’ co-operative SOUNDkitchen kicked off their 2014 series of semi-regular concerts with an event at VIVID Projects in Birmingham. Joe Snape began proceedings with his octopus-like assemblage of lamps, the tungsten lightbulbs of which flashed and danced in response to his glitchy electronic sounds. It could have all been a bit gimmicky, were it not for the quality of the music: the layers of shifting, rapid-fire polyrhythms were complex and forceful but very well controlled, with glimmers of tonal beauty occasionally peeking out between the cracks. The set relied perhaps a little too heavily on traditional dynamic and textural contrasts for its development, but Snape was able to build a coherent extended piece of music from a relatively small number of components, its weighty heft balanced by plenty of detail and nuance. If the lights had detached themselves from the sounds and taken on a life and choreography of their own I would’ve been even more impressed.

SOUNDkitchen commissioned composers Xenia Pestova and Simon Whetham to perform together for the first time, the pair never having met in person before. Pestova began with two short works by other composers whose names I didn’t recognise, performed on toy piano augmented with electronics. The interplay between the piano and the programmed sounds and effects was clear enough to follow but intricate enough to remain interesting, though as a genre this music is perhaps in need of some fresh ideas.

Whetham then joined the pianist with live and recorded sounds manipulated via laptop. It quickly became apparent that Pestova’s expressive post-serialism and Whetham’s refined acousmatics were too far apart stylistically to build a bridge between them, at least over the course of a short 30-minute set. Pestova was the first to clock that things weren’t working, and took a gamble in an attempt to draw Whetham out to play by repeatedly handing him keys removed from her piano’s keyboard. The laptop man took some persuading, but he eventually took a bunch of the keys and shook them like a maraca, releasing showers of acoustic seeds over the high-pitched tinkling of the piano — the high point of the duet. Whetham’s own solo set was much more successful, especially when he left his laptop and used two chairs and a round biscuit tin as sound sources, moving the highly directional tin over the audience like a priest flinging out holy water.

All I know about club music could be summed up in two or three sentences, so the pounding beats of laptop trio FIRE mostly passed me by (though as a fellow SuperCollider enthusiast it would have been nice to have seen the live coding!). The last few moments, in which the beats faded away to reveal an intricate glistening ambience, made me wonder what the four-to-the-floor had been hiding all that time; one suspects that in a more lively setting their approach would make a lot more sense. Still, the opportunity afforded by the evening to take risks and try out new sounds was immensely valuable both for performers and audiences, and I look forward to future SOUNDkitchen events later in the year.

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