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Review: David Toop

David Toop, John Butcher, Phil Durrant, Aleks Kolkowski
(Commissioned performance at the Whitechapel Gallery studio room, 4 September 2010, review and drawings by Geoff Winston.)

This performance of a specially commissioned score by David Toop was staged at the Whitechapel Gallery, as the finale of its exhibition of radical artist, John Latham (1921-2006). It was an improvised concert of an intense and accidental beauty, deriving from Toop’s conversations and working relationship with Latham. One area of interest which has driven both artists is the exploration of ‘those immaterial and mysteriously insubstantial events that make life so complicated’, as Toop writes in his pre-concert ‘Bulletin from the Institute of Signals and Noises’.

Its two-hour span was structured by ‘percussive markers’ described by Toop as ‘audible sounding[s] of a peak instant of a boundary condition’, which have references in ritual practice, myth and cosmological cycles. The performers, Toop (electronics), John Butcher (alto and tenor saxes), Phil Durrant (electronics and violin) and Aleks Kolkowski (gramophones and Stroh violin) were sitting motionless, before an echoing digital thunder imperceptibly pervaded the space. They had been instructed to ‘do nothing except be aurally attentive’ for the first (and also for the last) 6 minutes. At predetermined points all made a contribution ‘dependent on intuition rather than exactitude and obedience’. Sustained tensions and delicate balances were sustained by the musicians’ imaginative and highly skilled interplay, sounds often emerging out of silence, and alongside real-time environment noises – the chimes of nearby church bells, car horns, and the entrance and exit of inquisitive gallery visitors (it was a free event).

Notable were Butcher’s ingenious techniques and resultant peripheral noises made, for example, by gently scratching the saxophone mouthpiece on his cheek, amplified to pick up the contact with its stubble; then by blowing at the mouthpiece held a quarter of an inch from his mouth; and by lightly tapping the bell, mouthpiece and the keypads of his sax with his fingers. These were complemented by Toop who amplified the sounds released by slowly crushing dried flowers on to a small drum skin, or by rubbing pebbles together, and rustling bubble-wrap. He also played flute and a floor-based stringed instrument, slide guitar-style, and like Durrant, majored on one of the four Mac laptops in the stage area, sampling from the performers, and creating overlapping sonic textures.

Kolkowski was visibly active as he worked a range of antique record players and phonographs, playing ancient discs with seemingly locked grooves, manipulating the turntables by hand, then extracting fine dynamics from the horned Stroh violin. Intermittent noises – lapping water, the whistling of wind through a crack in a window frame, a train’s whistle – evoked bleak landscapes. At other times a faraway jungle was suggested by chattering, animal-like screeches.

The range of dynamics was tacitly controlled, and only occasionally broke away from the quiet end of the spectrum to allow more strident intrusions of feedback, electronic pulses and Butcher’s sax blasts. These would die down to eventual silence which, after considered pauses gave way to remote rumblings marking the next sonic phase. The textures of the audio palettes gave the event a trance-like quality.

In his bulletin, Toop explained, too, that ‘The eventstructure of improvised music begins with ‘nothing’ yet can expand outwards to unpredictable and highly elaborated forms’, in this case ‘corresponding to … (Latham’s) Time Base Spectrum … which begins with the smallest possible event but opens out into the whole cosmic event’.

Which might just be a manifesto for the art of the improviser.

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