Daniel Biro, Gareth Davis, Rob Palmer, Philipp Wachsmann

King's Place, 3 April 2009 3.5 stars

Gareth DavisSargasso is an independent label that specialises in experimental music from across the broad spectrum of contemporary sound.

The wide and varied currents of today's musical sea, from the notated avant-garde, to ambient electronica, to sound art and collage, and plenty in between, meet and merge, under the auspices of Sargasso (hence the name). Jonathan Harvey, Daniel Biro, and Simon Emmerson are some examples of the type of adventurous artist the label supports through release, and various other important up-and-coming experimentalists feature in the catalogue (visible at

As part of the innovative This is Tuesday series of contemporary concerts, Sargasso and King's Place have teamed up to offer Sargasso:C, an intermittent event that gives Sargasso artists the chance to present their work in a live context, alongside guests from the contemporary music world. These concerts seek to explore the much-discussed sea of sound zeitgeist currently in play, where experimental sonic strategy has become universal, at least in some important aesthetic and practical senses.

The first of the Sargasso:C concerts took place on Tuesday last. Future highlights include a seventieth birthday tribute to Jonathan Harvey scheduled for later in the year. Tuesday's concert featured three Sargasso artists, with the prominent improviser Philipp Wachsmann appearing too. The concert was short, compact, and ran through without a break. Its brevity worked in its favour- events at Kings Place begin at eight, and there has been occasions in the past where I havenít left the venue until almost eleven p.m. This extension in itself is by no means a guarantor of turgidity, but the contrast gained in this concert worked well nonetheless.

Gareth Davis and Daniel Biro (on laptop and bass clarinet respectively) opened proceedings with a concentrated and punchy reading of Biro's Elijah. The work is the second part of Biro's A Still, Thin Sound, in which the composer explores concepts of spiritual revelation as read through mystical Jewish sources. In Elijah, the poetic-programmatic element both defines and flees the piece, giving it surface, but also remaining elusive throughout (as it should). The work was perhaps at its least successful at those moments where it most closely fastened itself to ordinal signposts.

Philipp WachsmannDavis' clarinet ably took on the personage of the Jewish prophet, chalumeau-voiced at first, gradually grooving with consuming tension next, then utterly transmogrified through gesticulatory expression, fragmented and ponderous and heavy, before a final transcendence, where grace is ushered in with a humble breath. Biro's use of electronic soundscaping was somewhat pat at first. However as he gradually toyed with little figures given out by Davis, and likewise gradually became a more sustained, consuming presence in the sound, the piece began to sing, and the dark atmosphere in the hall was transfigured, to a degree, by a special light of (poetic) revelation.

The second half of the concert featured an improvisation of accumulation, where Philipp Wachsmann's solo violin was joined every few minutes by a new player, first by the delay-heavy guitar of Rob Palmer, then by Daniel Biro (now on atmospheric keyboard synth), and finally by Gareth Davis, again on bass clarinet. Wachsmann was fascinatingly stolid in the solo opening. He would weave little patterns of melody (traditionally conceived at this point, even suggesting folk-mores such as the kind explored in the improvisations of Steeleye Span violinist Peter Knight), break off happily and without occasion, and rejoin with something completely different, which often nevertheless subtly built upon the preceding material. Wachsmann gradually and persuasively drew the audience into his deceptively casual explorations of quite simple gestures and materials, utilising also a degree of electronic echoing in his playing.

As the violinist's set built to a climax with held notes signalling a peak, Palmer joined on shadowy electric. Yet despite some compelling sonic moments where tone and colour were fused, the duo and then trio (with Biro) failed to gel. You felt as if the collaboration lacked on the one hand the productive tension gained through lack of aesthetic sympathy, or on the other any great collective impetus that might draw the players together. Wachsmann's violin playing became more denatured, yet it rarely crystallized with the other sounds. Davis again showed himself a sensitive performer upon entering, gradually coaxing drones and tensile pedal points from his instrument, thereby revealing details within the music previously unheralded. But the five (if one counts the visual accompaniment, Brian Eno's micropolyphonic shifting lattice of images 77 Million Paintings, as a participant), never sank into each other convincingly for any great length of time, nor did they provide compelling internecine resistance, as perhaps members of a group improvisation should. The performance did feature some passages of focused, creative playing, yet it ultimately felt disconnected. It was nevertheless an interesting evening, full of questioning, adventurous musicality, that was worthy of the label it celebrated.

By Stephen Graham


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