Luigi Russolo wrote in 1913 (1) “… the art of noise must not limit itself to imitative reproduction. It will achieve its most emotive power in the acoustic enjoyment, in its own right, that the artist’s inspiration will extract from combined noises.” He could have had this concert at Cafe Oto nearly a century later, and the explorations of these three unfettered musicians in mind.
Mats Gustafsson emphasised the physicality and mechanical structure of the baritone sax, seemingly wrestling with it to create a myriad of sound statements – breathing in and out through its body, making clicking and tapping sounds, or passing his open mouth lightly over the mouthpiece to create a rush of air. His suppressed intensity would suddenly explode as violent squawks, roars and snaps of full-bodied, staccato sound. In contrast, sometimes you could picture ships’ foghorns, the atmosphere of a river mysteriously shrouded in morning mist.
He also played the rarely seen slide saxophone. He described it as a British instrument, asserting that “Lol [Coxhill] is the only one I’ve seen mistreat it,” dedicating the number to him. Later he confirmed it was a 1922 Swanee model, which linked it back to that era of the Futurists’ love-affair with the machine. It is about the size of a clarinet but with no keys and only a vertical slider, which startlingly pops out through the top of the body as it is manipulated, and in his hands was a means to create wonderfully unexpected acoustic sounds.
In the first set’s duets he linked up first with Pat Thomas, who played on the piano keyboard but also delved deep into its inner structure. They opened the concert with a massive piano crash and a blast on the bari – immediately countered with patterns of quiet clickings on the sax and gracing of the piano wires.
He then introduced violinist Phillip Wachsmann, who was equally suited to the tasks of foil and collaborator . Gustafsson recalled that his enjoyable association with Wachsmann went back 20 years to Derek Bailey’s Company. Throughout the evening he was so at ease with his instrument that he would often change its orientation to increase the musical options, vigorously bowing, then extracting clusters of notes, using the bow on the violin’s body as well as its strings.
The three then played as a trio in the second set. This brought a justifiable remark from Gustafson about how pleased he was with his choice of fellow musicians. They never competed, were always attuned to each other’s playing and, in the ways they built up and deconstructed their own sound textures, continually surprised and delighted the packed house. He also spoke up for Cafe Oto as a venue, and for the audience, whose persistence was rewarded with an encore. In keeping with the unpredicability of the performance – this came to a sudden end when a mechanical hissing noise from the bar area made an unscheduled, machine-age intervention. drawing smiles from all onstage.
How fitting, then, that machines should have the last word. As Marinetti wrote in 1909 (2): “A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath […] is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”