Phil Minton is a formidable, and feral, improvising vocalist.
The range of projects in which he engages reflects the emotional and technical range of the voice; from composed pieces (Minton's performances of Hannes Loeschel's music come particularly recommended) to sound poetry to fully improvised performance to experiments with choric collaboration for the inspiring Feral Choir project, Minton admits of few limits as a vocalist.
For his latest project Minton joins again with his eponymous quartet, consisting of John Butcher on saxophones, Veryan Weston on piano, and Roger Turner on drums. The second half of their King's Place concert was given over to a typically probing thirty or so minutes of improvisation, but for the first half Minton and co resurrected their exuberant 1996 album, mouthfull of ecstasy, which is a quasi-composed suite of music with an improvised feel based, or perhaps inspired is a better term, on Joyce's mongrel novel-poem-litany Finneganís Wake.
Deciphering the line between improvisation, narrative, composition, literacy and musicality is very difficult as regards mouthfull of ecstasy. Without a programme note I couldnít be sure, but it seemed as if the quartet stuck roughly to the sequence of the album; though of course even if that was the case this performance had a vivacity and a contour all of its own, it being to a significant degree improvised.
In any case, what we heard and witnessed were large and small scraps of Joyce's text, sometimes intoned by the whole ensemble, sometimes sung in a gruff, urban patois or garbled like emetic sonic slurry, by Minton, on one occasion sung rather sweetly by Butcher, and more often than not chewed up by the clattering skronk of the ensemble. The musicians were clearly playing from scores of some order or another, where broad emotional/sonic-lexical grids seemed to be the directions on their mysterious notational antigrams, and as such the performance felt dynamically purposeful.
Of particular note throughout were Weston's rich, oaky, genteel readings; Butcher's undimmed facility for slotting sympathetically into the pocket of fellow musicians' sounds; and, best of all, the glorious four-part speech collage 'My Diaper has More of Ecstacy'.
I did however sometimes long for more clarity in the narrative. That is probably a strange and possibly incongruous thing to say in this late-Joycean context, but it seems to me that much of the fire and charge of Joyce's text comes from its playing off of meaning and its elusion, comes from its driving up of polysyllables and polysemy hard against catachreses, metalepses, and other literary tropes. The point is, Finnegan's Wake is hypertrophic, but it still seems to be signifying something beyond almost complete semantic jumble.
Of course, it is Minton and the group's prerogative to stage the text, or elements of the text, in this way; perhaps they see the project as exploring more specifically the musicality of Joyce's text. However, the musicality of text, its so-called 'second syntax', is inextricable from what that 'music' is signifying. The two seem separable, but in practice the separation between sound and signified is rarely clean. Within the concert those few moments of exposed text seemed to me the most charged; after all, the text is already immensely semantically wobbly, so aggravating that wobbliness perhaps becomes superfluous. There is something to be said conceptually for matching the hypertrophy of the text with musical exaggeration working under the same principles - here the group would be reproducing Butcher's distinctive simpatico strategy as an improvisor on a larger scale - but in practice I felt the concept to be a little lacking. Not to say I didnít enjoy the performance a great deal nonetheless.
I enjoyed the improvisation in the second half too. Though the group reverted to type on more than one occasion, there was enough genuine vim and surprise to preserve interest; Turner contained his sometimes excessive gesturing of the first half to achieve a real sympathy with the other three, whilst Butcher and Minton's close curlicues were a joy. The group found themselves in a bird colony at one point - all of them whistling and chirping in unanticipated imitation of the beautifully balanced order/individual freedom spectrum of actual birdsong - before a grand guignol, low-voiced comedy finale call and response between Weston and Minton.
The latter, throughout, was as invigorating, inviting, inspiring as ever, whether he was sputtering on fast forward like a scared Scatman, lowing like a folk agitator, or wailing with his chest out and head drawn back as if he was the only person in a terrifying world.
Photo: John Butcher and Phil Minton by Andy Newcombe