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Calling Out of Context

by Frances Morgan

Lucky Dragons performing as part of ‘Calling Out of Context’ (2009)

A review of the ICA’s nine-day experimental music festival

A nine-day festival of experimental music at the ICA, ‘Calling out of Context’ comprised an exhausting programme of gigs, discussions and workshops in the lower galleries, with the upper galleries converted into open recording studios where artists and musicians were invited to record a track in the space of a day (many of which are streamed on the ICA website). Curated by Richard Birkett and Jamie Eastman, the tightly packed week and a half saw performances and contributions from avant-garde mainstays (The Red Krayola) and artists’ bands (Ei Arakawa’s Teppich, Luke Fowler’s Rude Pravo, Melanie Gilligan’s Petit Mal), through to recent side-projects (Sunn O))) off-shoot Gravetemple and Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip’s new project About) and younger bands (Lucky Dragons, Mica Levi). This variety meant that participation and composition took precedence over quiet reverence; experimentalism wasn’t equated with difficulty, while performance was privileged over archival documentation (the usual trap for music-themed exhibitions).

If the festival’s title, which was taken from an Arthur Russell song, suggested an affinity with a mid-‘70s downtown scene of shared spaces and messy convergence, the other touchstone was Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra (‘a large number of enthusiasts pooling their resources’, as its 1969 constitution – reprinted in the accompanying publication – states). The British avant-garde composer was the subject of a weekend-long conference and the influence for a day of actions throughout the ICA by Mouse on Mars’ Jan St Werner. (Read Michael Hampton’s review of the related Cardew exhibition, ‘Play for Today’, at the Drawing Room here.) With Russell and Cardew as anchoring points, it’s no surprise that the festival was – in the most part – circumscribed by a specifically New York/West European sense of the avant-garde, though there was little space afforded for the West African and disco influences that also fed into No Wave.

With more than 40 participants, ‘Calling Out of Context’ covered an extraordinary amount of ground – here are four highlights from an extraordinarily wide-ranging festival. (ST)

Lucky Dragons

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‘Calling Out of Context’ includes among its stated themes ‘collectivity’, ‘improvisation’ and ‘noise’ – three areas that, as a participating musician and DJ, I certainly experienced over the opening weekend. But it’s not only practitioners who got to make a racket: somewhat appropriately, the only performance that I caught all the way through (as an audience member) ended with me kneeling on the floor, hand in hand with two strangers, generating sounds in a chaotic network of communication. This was a Lucky Dragons live set – something I have heard about and glimpsed in scrappy YouTube footage, but the power of which still took me by surprise.

Lucky Dragons performing in 2006

The LA-based duo of Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara make music that sounds, on first listen, similar to the loop-based exotic noise-pop of Animal Collective or the conceptual electronica of Matmos or Goodiepal. However, Lucky Dragons’ recorded output represents just a fraction of their practice: as well as making visual art, much of the group’s most interesting sound work takes place in performance, both in galleries and in clubs. Fischbeck’s and Rara’s means of involving their audience with electronic music appear innocuous – human contact, ‘approachable’ materials such as yarn and stones, looped melodies – but live, the swells of blissful yet distorted melody and insistent pulses are an impressive realisation of noise’s more devotional/occult and communal aspects.

At the ICA, Fischbeck manipulated laptop, percussion and pedals, while Rara chanted and hummed into a microphone. At first her low voice seemed peripheral, but as the repetitions built it was she who provided a central, calm focus, drawing people into the circle. CD-Rs were waved in front of a projector beam, triggering a swoop of sound. I found myself moving forward and kneeling too; Rara took my hand and placed it on my neighbour’s, who was grasping one of a number of fabric-covered FireWire cables snaking from a mixer. Soon a happy disorientation took hold: we grasped hands in rhythm only to find one of us had dropped the thread, yet somehow our ears still told us we were influencing the sound. Other more self-assured participants, meanwhile, were building up rough techno loops. The intimacy was such that the extreme volume seemed not alienating, but welcoming and physical, as if we were being welcomed deep into the body of the music and invited to rearrange its organs. (FM)

Rhys Chatham

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In programming Rhys Chatham’s 1978 Guitar Trio, ‘Calling Out of Context’ paid homage to the musical environment of 1970s New York, in which musical boundaries were explored and shifted, and popular forms like punk rock provided a new source of energy for contemporary composers and artists. (Chatham was, it should be noted, Arthur Russell’s predecessor as director of the Kitchen, New York.) While it’s easy to overstate the importance of an earlier era, there’s no doubt that the No Wave movement opened up a kind of ease of movement between different forms of experimental music, introducing avant-garde technique into rock music and vice-versa in a way that was realized in different ways by all the bands on Sunday night’s bill, most of whom would also play in Chatham’s nine-piece band. Guitar Trio was the culmination of the evening: a vigorous, ultra-repetitive piece of guitar rock that was led by Chatham but performed in most cases by a new band with little rehearsal. Its focus is on the guitar’s tonal possibilities, each player building up simple figures that exploit the instrument’s overtones, and from my position as bassist I got to observe close-up the ingenuity of this apparently simple piece, as Chatham guided each guitarist into the track until the stage was full of chiming strings.

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Chatham’s guitar work engages on both a conceptual and visceral level; his use of repetition aligns him not only with Minimalist composition but also with the other bands on the bill, for whom repetition is a guiding principle for extreme music. Factory Floor’s brutal analogue sequencers and percussive guitar were as darkly infectious as Throbbing Gristle or Suicide, while noise collective Action Beat’s exuberant take on the massed guitar pieces of Chatham and Glenn Branca was Minimalism for mosh-pits. The surprise of the night for me, though, was Blue Sabbath Black Fiji, a French duo who blitzed the stage with a tiny, bedroom set-up of guitar, vocals and pedals and a sound that brought the high-octane ecstasy of the Boredoms to mind. Eschewing loops for frenzied real-time playing, Charles Lavenac and Janin Benecke created a white-hot atmosphere that seemed excitingly instinctual. The evening ended with buzzing ears and aching tendons, but also the sense that the continuum of experimental guitar music fostered 30 years ago by Chatham and his contemporaries is still pulsing with new blood and electrified energy. (FM)

The Red Krayola

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The Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson

The Red Krayola were performing Five American Portraits, a new album of songs with lyrics written by long-time collaborators Art & Language, and the band remained poised throughout despite drunken cries of ‘This is boring!’ from one Australian audience member. Since their 1967 debut, the breadth of the band’s collaborations have given them a Zelig-like presence on the periphery – from Pere Ubu, Jim O’Rourke, Stephen Prina to the Chicago post-rock scene (none of whom would have been much out of place here). Five American Portraits comprises long and drily precise descriptions of different faces which were all – despite being as far apart as Ad Reinhart, Jimmy Carter and John Wayne – pretty much the same. Following the lyrics playing karaoke-style on a screen as the back of the stage, the deadpan songs sketched out the contours of the face, with an (as far as I could tell) improvised melody from Mayo Thompson and a female backing singer.

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Thompson knows the American canon and can switch up folk-rock with honky-tonk pretty easily: his usual deal is absurdist lyrics paired with – or, more accurately, working against – what A&L, in

Performing in the Recording Studio was a slightly more rarefied experience than playing with either Chatham (or the Lucky Dragons), but no less rewarding. One of the festival’s real masterstrokes, a recording studio was set up for the entire week in the upper galleries, with various musicians passing through. My group, made up of various associates of the Gravid Hands label, was the first in the room, and prior to arriving, at least some of us were sceptical: we weren’t sure how it will feel to improvise in headphones, for a start. But once we began, an hour’s improvisation flies by, and the results were subtle and satisfying. Many of the musicians I saw over the weekend took advantage of the recording studio as a kind of laboratory, working in unusual combinations and producing one-off pieces, with the help of receptive, assured engineers. Such a combination of creativity and demystification was to be applauded, and more festivals would do well to focus on process in such a way. (FM)

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Actress and Lukid in the Recording Studio