Review: Thurston Moore and Tom Raworth

Thurston Moore reciting poetry at Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved

‘Poetry and Noise’: Thurston Moore and Tom Raworth with special guests Alex Ward and Steve Noble at Café Oto, Tuesday 20 March 2012; review and drawings by Geoff Winston

Thurston Moore: guitars, poetry
Tom Raworth: poetry
Alex Ward: clarinet, alto sax
Steve Noble: drums, percussion

The ever-resourceful Café Oto is becoming venue of choice for left-field musicians who want to regain the intimacy of the small clubs they started out in. Billed as ‘Poetry and Noise’, and announced only a week in advance, this was a one-off event curated by Thurston Moore, best known as guitarist, songwriter and lynchpin of Sonic Youth, combining his passions for poetry and for pushing the envelope of intense, improvised sound in a live setting.

A bubbling anticipation greeted Moore as he ambled onstage to introduce Tom Raworth, the London-born ‘perennial Englishman poet’, whose writing he greatly admires and whom he met 6 years ago in Chicago at the poet’s week-long gallery residency ‘in cahoots’ with Peter Brötzmann. Moore explained that his fascination with underground poetry was fuelled by the discovery of ‘Outburst’, the hand typeset magazine which Raworth produced from nearby Amhurst Road in the early sixties. In turn, Moore has founded the small press imprint, ‘Flowers and Cream’ and edits the ‘Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal’.

Moore set the stage for Raworth with his own readings from a nervously shuffled sheaf of papers, where music-obsessional references were entwined with unsettling and visceral imagery. From his opening poem, ‘The Book Thief’, the line, ‘rock and roll poetry and girls lost in it’, delivered with a touch of self-mocking humour, elicited a ripple of conspiratorial chuckles, as did his statement that ‘feedback is not war’. Musing on ‘the dynamics of the living word’, he made way for the sprightly Raworth, whose sharply focused, fast-flowing diction pulled the audience through both humorous and challenging plays on language, not without political twists and turns. ‘Out of a Sudden’, ‘Crowded with Otiose Passengers’ and ‘Pyrophoric’, each less than a minute long, shared the guise of descriptive narrative, but, as with the poems of J H Prynne, linked words and images in unfamiliar, discomfiting juxtaposition.

Thurston Moore, Cafe Oto
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved

Raworth also opened the second set, with Moore gently strumming on his 12-string as background accompaniment. ‘Listen Up!’, ‘written for ‘Poets for The War’, with its undisguised digs, starting ‘Why should we listen to Hans Blix and all those other foreign pricks …’ undoubtedly won over new ears, as did his reaction to a particular (unnamed) poem by the Poet Laureate, which was to make an anagram of every line, dextrously infused with cunning wit.

The other side of this event, devoted to totally improvised noise deviance, goes back 16 years when Moore and Ward recorded ‘Legend of the Blood Yeti’ (Infinitechug Records) with Derek Bailey, and to Ward’s duo of 20 years standing with Noble. In the first set duo, Alex Ward’s extraordinary clarinet pyrotechnics combined with Moore’s jarring searches for dense pools of raw respite. As Moore worried his battered, sticker-emblazoned guitar, on his lap at first (‘I love chaos’ proclaimed one decal, ominously), plucking out chimes and echoes to invoke a bleak, uncertain landscape, Ward trilled intensely and moved on to ear-bending wails. In close unison they built up a confluence of shrill, fractured discord. Moore’s soaring and clanging chords accelerated to a devastating physical roar, and he finally mined the guitar for a fade to a distant metallic glimmer.

For the second set trio they were joined by Steve Noble, to unleash a cascade of cataclysmic turbulence, where even Moore’s acoustic guitar suffered the extreme treatment. Noble perfectly countered Moore’s shredded, industrially propelled inquisitions, sculpting a riven percussion collage with hand-held cymbals, bells and skins, and, briefly, maracas. Ward slipped with feverish application from clarinet to shimmering, agonised alto, extruding sheared, vocalised whistles from the clarinet mouthpiece alone. The undiminished assault, intuitively guided and acutely balanced, saw searing notes hauled over the rugged terrain, raw crashes and rolls, and piercing, ragged runs which ultimately left the performers drained and the audience delighted – no chance of an encore – they’d said it all.

For Tom Raworth poetry readings, visit the archive at the University of Pennsylvania


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