Vocal Crossings

An Evening of Experimental Music from the Sub Rosa label

King's Place, London, 21 January 2009 3.5 stars

Mikhail Karikis

Since opening last year King's Place concert hall has provided London concert goers with an impressive array of interesting musical performances and events. The This is Tuesday series of concerts that focuses on an admirably wide range of new music across the spectrum, from the contemporary classical performances of the Elision Ensemble and the events organised by the Society for the Protection of New Music to the improvisation of Leon Michener, has proved a fantastic addition to the city's cultural life.

Last night a typically versatile evening of music was offered under the banner of this series. Curated by Mikhail Karikis, the experimental vocal artist from Greece, the concert included artists for whom the voice, above all else, is the medium of expression, and experiment. It also focused on artists and archives of the Sub Rosa record label, a Belgian imprint that specialises in experimental composition and experimental artists, sound art, and also holds a store of older material related to early twentieth century modernists and Dadaists such as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Marcel Duchamp.

To begin, one of the founders of the Sub Rosa label, Guy-Marc Hinant, gave us a short DJ set where he mixed and modulated various archival recordings from the label (discernible were Gertrude Stein, Kurt Schwitters, perhaps Artaud, and others), with samples of music with which he also toyed. Figuring largely amongst the latter was the opening salvo from Fausto Romitelli's An Index of Metals, itself a reconfiguration of the opening chord from Pink Floyd's 'Shine on you Crazy Diamond'. The mix Hinant created was intriguing, though it was not until towards the end of his set that he successfully imbued the sounds and words with enough of the uncanny for it to really take off, and do justice indeed to the poetics of the artists he was sampling.

In an evening full of surreal touches and moments of transcending Dada bliss, the most explicitly para-logical offerings came from Gabriel SÚverin, whose reading of texts from Beckett, Spike Milligan and others relied exclusively on a sort of Gothic array of voice characters for its effect. His eclectic arsenal of personae drew from his own dry abilities as a sort of dark satirist of speech and conventional modes of meaning, and also from the electronic manipulations through which he put his voice, to achieve moments of true humour, though at times his performance veered too far into self-regarding grandstanding. Next up on this eclectic evening of the voice was Linda Hirst, perhaps the most purely classical of the artists on the bill, who gave her audience a selection of three solo songs from Canti del Capricorno, a cycle of songs by Scelsi. Her interpretations were characterful and vivid, with the exclusive consonance of the middle song drawing a gnarled performance, and the bewilderingly difficult leaps and shrieks of the first and third, and indeed their subtly constructed canvass of articulations and emphases, were impressively given by the singer. The toll of these songs is peculiar-they suggest high drama, yet they always stand outside of that drama, as if looking askance at its implications. Hirst disgorged the meaning of Scelsi's voice here with incredible skill.

Another voice artist followed Hirst, who in her own way was equally as impressive. Performing with a skilful Leon Michener on muted piano behind her, E.laine gave us a semi-improvised (not at all the 'free improvisation' of the programme) performance where she moved seamlessly between voice styles such as avant-garde, torch song, jazz and even shards of pop. Quoting from 'Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered' amongst other things, the performance was intensely parodic, but also had something deeply felt to add to the satire. Hers is a stunning instrument, comfortable across her wide range in any dynamic and mode of articulation, with a stunning facility of control, and her set was one of the highlights of what in the end turned out to be a very long night of music.

The curator of the evening's concert, Mikhail Karikis, closed the first half with a stunning set of vocal virtuosity that drew on the voice work of people like Bjork and Mike Patton, whilst adding his own elements of electronica, and drama. He gave us about six pieces, each of which in its way drew on a sort of fantastical jouissance in a way that is common in hyper-theatrical music such as this. Veering from quicksilver vocalisations through which the extreme tenor of emotion became clearly visible in the hypnotic movements of Karikis' rubbery face, to terrible entreaties for an antagonist to 'promise (him)' or 'listen!', to more conventional song based structures, with DJ backing, at the close, the set was a fluent and deeply impressive example of vocal artistry. Different layers of meaning and expectation- such as those to do with how we normally interpret words and character- were played with, and extended.

The second half was, largely, an entirely different affair, with its majority being taken up with a set from Martyn Bates (from the much-loved post-punk/avant-folk group Eyeless in Gaza), who was joined by his old colleague from the band Pete Becker, and also Elizabeth S. Continuously swapping instruments, which included acoustic guitar (largely Bates), bass (Becker), banjo (Elizabeth), and melodicas, Bates and his companions offered a strong set of intelligent, well constructed experimental pop songs that drew heavily on socially conscious lyrics, a punk derived forcefulness, folksy arrangements of gleaming and yet tough string figures, brittle and bluesy chord sequences, and somewhat asymmetric rhythmic and phrase patterning.

Riding atop all of this was Bates strong and moving tenor voice which he used expertly throughout. His tone is clear and he concentrates on a high range in which his voice is at its most communicative and affecting, yet he always brings a looseness to the line that places his emotive singing directly in line with other punk song smiths such as Billy Bragg or Joe Strummer. Able harmonies were provided by his companions. Particularly impressive in his set were 'Fracture Track', 'Flight of Swallows', and the moving solo vocal 'Still Air'. Unfortunately owing to the length of the combined performances people started to trickle out during the set (and the group's sharp stylistic contrast to the earlier participants may have also played a role), and by the time of the final item on the programme, the joint improvisation from all performers based on 'The Cherry Tree Carol' (which was loose but fun, and even thrilling at times) was given to a noticeably sparse hall. However the eclecticism of the programme should be cheered, it seems to me, and its length is something the audience should accept as inevitable. Perhaps on occasions such as this the people in charge at King's Place could schedule the start time a little earlier than 2000, or indeed ensure that the event begins on time (it didn't get going until almost 2020). It was still an enjoyable, plural evening of vast and varied sound.

By Stephen Graham

Read recent concert reviews, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, here.