Review: Systems Quartet

Rudi Mahall. Drawing by Geoff Winston
Copyright 2012. All Rights Reserved

Systems Quartet
(Vortex, Tuesday 24 January 2012. First night of 6-night season, ‘Might I suggest …’, curated by Evan Parker. Review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

For the first of six Anglo-German collaborative concerts at the Vortex, devised by Evan Parker and generously supported by the Goethe-Institut, Systems Quartet offered a reassuringly uncomfortable collision between live instrumentation and electronic intervention in what Parker reckoned would probably be the most confrontational event of the series.

Axel Dörner with his specially adapted Firebird slide trumpet and laptop, and Rudi Mahall on a substantial bass clarinet, took up the leftstage, complemented to the right by the black-clad rhythm section of Adam Linson on string bass and electronics and Parker’s long-time collaborator, percussionist Paul Lytton.

They served up a complex sonic brew, rarely straightforward, often juddering in and out of bleak, mechanically-hinted environments, with the spectre of electrical malfunction hovering overhead. The insinuation of unlikely processed sounds and a perpetual unravelling of morphed transformations suggested the shifting scenes of a film’s soundtrack. Frenzied and frenetic, rising to the density of sound associated with the ICP Orchestra, they could equally drop to ethereal, delicate pulses and waves.

Paul Lytton used his fingers so lightly on his snare that a ladybird might have been scuttling across the skins. Dörner blew on a mike which picked up the edges of his breath; he sampled and reprocessed sounds so that for moments there would, disconcertingly, be no active players, even though virtual duets were being enacted.

Sparks and crackles, thunderous semaphore and various strands of interference were introduced to build up a spacious yet condensed landscape. Evan Parker has described Mahall as one of the few players “who can play hard reeds on big open mouthpieces” (Point of Departure, Issue 9, January 2007), and his sustained, physically demanding flights of pure jazz woodwind owed as much to Parker’s soprano sax phrasing as to Dolphy’s pioneering bass clarinet work. Linson’s intense application to fretboard and bridge confirmed an anchoring presence, linking in to Lytton’s exceptional, low-key percussive invention with great assurance.

The nervous anguish of the siren sounds, the waves of weather and insect swarms were complemented by the odd touch of humour – Mahall and Dörner battering a single high note with ear-splitting intensity, only for Muhall to return to it for a moment in a faux introduction to the next number, with a great smile making sure that the audience understood the gesture.

Carefully considered randomness it may have been, but the musicians’ instincts and experience made it all hang together with  finely-wrought coherence.

Adam Linson: bass and electronics
Rudi Mahall: bass clarinet
Axel Dörner: trumpet and electronics
Paul Lytton: drums

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