Review: Charles Cohen and Rabih Beaini at Cafe Oto

Charles Cohen at Cafe Oto.
Drawing © Geoffrey Winston 2014. All Rights Reserved

Charles Cohen and Rabih Beaini
(Cafe Oto, 30 April 2014, night 2 of 2-day residency; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Charles Cohen, Philadelphia’s electronics pioneer, underscored his growing reputation as a quiet maverick and an original improvising voice, with solo and trio sets at Cafe Oto on his first-ever visit to the UK.

Under the wing of Rabih Beaini’s Morphine label, a selection of Cohen’s recordings from the 70s and 80s, often written for dance and theatre performances, have recently been remastered and reissued on vinyl and CD. His favoured analogue synthesizers are from the Buchla stable, particularly the quirky, portable Buchla Music Easel, with its distinctive, primary coloured components, which he first took on in 1976, and was his instrument of choice at Cafe Oto.

Beaini (aka Morphosis) set the scene with a solo set stamped with a strong, unselfconscious urbanity. Heavy bass lines elided with liminal tones to punctuate the atmosphere, as he pulled together overlapping beats with a relaxed, techno-tinged fluidity.

Cohen, sporting a lemon yellow hoodie, faced a rapt audience seated in a semi-circle on the floor, and introduced himself with a brief poetic utterance imbued with a touch of 60s idealism. Care and craft were at the core of his solo delivery as he wove a peaceful, spacious spell, gently releasing clusters of low whirrs and delicate watery sounds that echoed as if dripping in a cavernous space. Gradually, a sharper, harsher tone was summoned, tribal techno meets the mechanical piano, then a grinding, enveloping roar.

Hunched over the Buchla Easel, Cohen took on the demeanour of a pilot setting flight controls as he picked his way over the board, choosing his moments to invert and escalate the pace and layer brightly defined sounds with a refined intuitive sense, pinning them to invisible balconies to give them full rein to coalesce within the space. Ringing organ tones, similar to those utilised by Terry Riley, gave way to a Sun Ra-style incantation with a planetary theme (Philly-based Sun Ra was part of Cohen’s hometown experience), before he eased down the volume and switched off the two tiny spotlights at his side to draw the curtain on an entrancing set.

The final set brought together Cohen, Beaini and guest, Shahzad Ismaily, on drums on this occasion, for a simmering, jagged road-trip of rhythmic manoeuvres and ad hoc incursions, that saw Cohen adapting skilfully to the collaborative context. Ismaily maintained a no-frills acoustic role, his drum timbres melting in to the electronic flow, counterbalancing and counterfeiting at the same time, in the trio’s absorbing dance/noise-inflected sequence.

An understated highlight in the Café Oto programme which served well to bring Cohen’s low-key, inspiring presence to the attention of the London audience.

Morphine Records website

Categories: miscellaneous

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