Todmorden Unitarian Church is a large neo-Gothic affair with a modern twist, its stone angels, marble pillars, and tall wooden doors embellished with a few unexpected touches: a knitted patchwork congregation sat silently in the pews; large paintings of bulls line a side wall; the pillars bear quotes from the likes of Sylvia Plath. This was the venue chosen by More or Less Than’s Ben Gwilliam and Lines Form Spaces’ Rachael Elwell for a concert featuring 8-bit electronic wizard Matt Wand and percussionist Nick Hennies, and it turned out to suit the music perfectly.
Matt Wand’s performance involved multiple portable media players hooked up to small speakers and dispersed around the audience to create a surround-sound effect. Various vases, bowls, and tubes were used as resonators to enlarge the sound and mellow out some of the harshness from the little speakers, an effort to which the acoustics of the church also contributed significantly. I loved the movement through a number of rich, complex harmonies as the piece progressed, and the dispersal of the various sonic elements around the space was very effective, allowing each to maintain its own identity while contributing to a larger whole. As a one-time Nintendo kid, I found the 8-bit tones pleasantly nostalgic, yet the sound as amplified by the architecture was still huge and immersive. The set did drag on just a little, with Wand hurrying from player to player to change tracks and tweak the sound — perhaps involving more performers would allow the structure of future performances to be more nimble and flexible. Very good work nonetheless.
As a performer and composer whose work often relies on the acoustic resonances and interference patterns emerging from particular performance techniques, US artist Nick Hennies was understandably chuffed to be starting off his European tour in such a cavernously resonant venue. In fact, the acoustics of the space completely transformed the music he performed from his album “Duets for Solo Snare Drum”, with the continuous mallet roll of ‘Cast and Work’ in particular growing into a huge, pounding behemoth without losing any of its rhythmic or tonal subtleties.
The highlight of his set, however, was a remarkable (and apparently unrecordable) piece for woodblock, which involved pounding the handheld instrument with a hard mallet in a steady rapid rhythm for what must have been around twenty minutes or so. As Hennies carefully changed where the woodblock was struck and its position in relation to his body, an endless variety of resonant harmonics and microrhythms was produced, amplified by the architecture. Astounding stuff. I’m a big fan of Hennies’ recorded work, but seeing him play live in such a venue was an entirely other experience, one in which the sheer intensity and physicality of his way of playing percussion became even more apparent. Do be sure to catch him in the UK, Switzerland, France, or Italy if you can.
In between sets the wat ist das soundsystem provided some great background tunes, and the local beer from Little Valley Brewery went down very well too. I attended the event with several family members, none of whom would have classed themselves as experimental music fans, and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely. Todmorden isn’t a big place, but it punches above its weight culturally, and events like these have many a big city looking on in envy; Wand and Hennies brought enchanting new sounds to curious and appreciative ears.