Counting Backwards 4 reviewed

Counting Backwards
Fuel Café, Manchester
2nd December 2010

Through the pack ice, past the ruins of the Winter Palace and desperate men eating their dogs to another Counting Backwards, the fourth of the text-sound-performance series at Fuel in Withington.

In a short space of time, Counting Backwards has opened and occupied an important space, a place where different disciplines can meet, inform and impact upon one another, creating hybrids and mutations that step off the slab and into the night like beautiful monsters. Tonight was no different, incorporating poetry, electronic collage and radical interaction with instruments. Imagine these elements as transparent colours, each overlaid and suffused with light to make new shades and you are some of the way towards what an evening at Counting Backwards feels like.

Graham Dunning began the evening. His set up was reasonably traditional: three turntables linked together, a series of records to hand. What he did with this set up, however, was altogether more surprising and interesting. He started by producing a series of percussive sounds, not by using the turntables, but by using the lid of each deck: slapping it with the flats of his hands or the heels of his hands and opening and shutting the lids. These sounds were recorded, looped and layered, producing a sound like dripping water or a roomful of crazed clocks. A static hiss was then introduced, then a crackle and the dripping water became rain upon a roof. As the soundscape became more densely populated, the feel became more subterranean: the rumble of underground trains or the landslips of the inner ear. I heard these things too: scrapyard noises of machines dismantling other machines; forest winds; poltergeists; possessions. A warped disc was then placed on one of the turntables whose clicks and scratches created a sporadic anti-rhythm: the scampering of mice or a stick being rattled along railings. Magnets were dropped onto the central turntable: the thud of objects falling from aircraft. Snatches of music drifted by, sometimes oompah band, other times lift music. A cymbal was placed on the central deck and through amplification and distortion became a Chinese gong when a metal object stuck or was allowed to strike it. A microphone was introduced, capturing a stray cough from Dunning before being hung out of the window, bringing in traffic noises and the ambient crosstalk of smokers below into the space, breaking the hermetic seal. These sounds looped, echoed, constellated and decayed as if heard through a haze of fever. More music suggested itself, this time what sounded like the sort of music a Scottish dance band might play if someone had spiked their fish suppers with acid. All in all, a very beautiful noise.

Next was Richard Parker, reading from his collection from The Mountain of California…, recently published by Openned Press. This collection comprises one hundred and twenty numbered pieces, bookended by an introductory and coda piece. The sequence interweaves text created by Parker with material drawn from a range of sources listed in an acknowledgements section, ranging from Adorno to Gordon Brown to Test Match Special, plus others which the author states have been “forgotten & concealed”. The pieces themselves are split into largely two syllable units separated by a | character, like a pipe separated data stream. Parker has allowed these characters to fall in the middle of words where the text and the system deployed dictate. This device is interesting both visually in the way that it halts the eye and encourages atomic study of the architecture of each line and in terms of content, highlighting the bricolage mode of assembly, the jump cuts of syntax and sense. Parker’s work and his delivery of it was oddly apt for the sub zero temperature night: precise, crystalline and geometric, like a snowflake studied through a microscope. By virtue of the formal methods employed and Parker’s own discipline and exactitude, the pieces have a Japanese feel of compression and concision, like postcards or Polaroids or hexagrams: elegant, gnomic, laconic and lacunaeic, demanding further scrutiny.

After an interval came Chris Gladwin performing as Wyrding Module, described in the material released by Counting Backwards to trail the event as inspired by Kosmische Musik, Mantra-rock, post-industrial ambience and the occult. The last reference was obvious visually before a sound was made, Gladwin pulling up a black hood to perform, his face blanched by the glow of his laptop screen. It was as if Max Von Sydow had blown in from the northern wastes to harvest a few souls in South Manchester. The performance began with bird noises, echoing the swooping decals on the windows. These sounds multiplied to become a dysfunctional flock, a cracked chorus. Soon, these sounds were gone, supplanted by dark, water like sounds, bells, chimes, temple ambience, inverted forest noises. The feel was shadowed, spatial, meditative. An increasingly insistent bass stratum drew these elements together, exerting attraction like the gravitational pull of a collapsed star on wandering moons. Structures formed, joined other structures and collapsed, atoms bonding, then splitting. Voices appeared: an enchanted female voice; robotic voices; spirit voices, the pulsing throb of the accreted and cohered sounds becoming ever louder, the engines of an ocean liner heard from steerage. What sounded like spooling tapes briefly re-suggested passing birds. More voices, like children in a swimming pool, a pipe organ sound and then a cacophony of melting machine noise, a spacecraft holed in the hull, crashing in a coda of sparking circuitry. Dark, complex, heavy in all the good ways and, as with Dunning, albeit in an entirely different way, beautiful. Electronic music is often dismissed as ambient shading, the aural equivalent of a nice glass of white wine to wind down after a bad day at the office or a soothing backdrop to lighten household chores. Try doing your ironing to Wyrding Module.

The last performer was Dominic Lash. After the necessary paraphernalia of the two sound performers discussed thus far, Lash cut an isolated figure, alone with a double bass and attempting an altogether different sort of interaction. He began with a series of plucked notes, loose and vibrating, and then added to this slaps and blows, awakening his instrument, forcing it into reaction. The distinct sounds of the strings being struck and the response of the strings having been struck intersected and interlaced. The introduction of a bow brought new colours to the palette: fuller sounds and occasional snatches of melody as if retrieved from the instrument’s own memory. Moves downwards to the higher notes with fluttering finger strokes brought in air. Creaking noises suggested protesting timbers. A further descent to the portion of the strings below the bridge, untouched in traditional playing, induced volatile drones, sudden bee swarms, Svankmajer soundtracks. When the wrong end of the bow was used to strike these sections of the strings, wood and fibre produced weirdly electronic sounds, Dunning or the Wyrding Module in reverse. The bow was then dispensed with and Lash used instead his palms and fingernails, sweeping the wooden body, producing scrapings and knockings, Morse messages from another sphere.  Lash’s ability to surrender to chance and instability suggested a deep understanding of the double bass in general and this double bass in particular, its parameters and responses. Even the manner in which he wiped down the instrument afterwards seemed intimate.

The next Counting Backwards will be on 3rd February 2011. More here.

Tom Jenks

Counting Backwards reviewed

On my way to Fuel Cafe in Withington, the venue for this event, I discovered a man asleep in a standing position. I waited some time before stepping in, wondering if the event had already begun with a Fluxus style intervention. Eventually, I realised that this was not the case. This was just life in the malfunctioning space station that is Manchester with its crew of maddened droids plotting an inexorable course towards the heart of the sun.

This episode, however, proved to be a wholly appropriate entree. Just as I was pondering the question of where life ends and art begins, Counting Backwards reminded me that there is no distinction. The three performers were radically different from one another in aims and execution but shared the same aesthetic. Each occupied and interacted with the space so that audience members, ambient sound, shadows, angles, contingency, chance became part of the performance.

The evening began with Jennifer McDonald and Louise Woodcock. Aside from their performance, which I will talk about in a moment, they were visually brilliant, wearing identically cut dresses, Louise’s blue, Jennifer’s green. Side by side, they looked like panels from a Mondrian painting or a technicolour version of the twins from The Shining. Their performance was centred on two large, white semi-ovoid structures, one held by each woman. These were beautiful objects, like the hatched eggs of the roc, the giant bird from the tales of Marco Polo and Sinbad. These structures were brushed with fingers, scraped with what looked like a bone, drawn on with pencil in a way which suggested automatic or spirit writing and otherwise manipulated until, in a Gustav Metzger style peak of frenzy, they were shattered. The sounds were remarkable, suggesting themselves, shifting, mutating and layering and drifting away before they could be fully identified. I heard the creaking of haunted timbers, the wailing of a Poltergeist, primal simian howls. The fragments were then allowed to fall and this too was beautiful: the tinkle of glass, the slip of skree. The structures were then partially re-assembled with masking tape, held to microphones to create feedback and destroyed again. At the end of the performance, as the two women stood amongst the fragments, the loft-like upstairs space of Fuel became a Francesca Woodman photograph. Then they swept up.

Second to perform was Becky Cremin, a performance accompanied by a projection of stills showing her in a variety of London locations over a period of twelve hours with a red scarf or thick ribbon issuing from her mouth like a blood trail or inner daemon made manifest. The absence of a screen, Becky’s images projecting deliberately upon a corner space disrupted by pictures and posters hung or stuck to the walls, made them still more striking, focussing attention on what could not be seen as well as what could. This complemented Becky’s performance which was all about deliberate effacement, disjunction and the creation of lacunae as she moved around the room and out of the room, selecting seeming unsystematically from her own text which she had stuck onto the walls. Out in the passageway her voice echoed like that of Banquo’s ghost. In the room it had the beauty of a scrambled channel. Becky returned after the interval with a second piece where she read from her Knives, Forks and Spoons press collection Cutting Movement. Here, sound and image shadowed one another even more closely with a projection showing hands tearing, folding and crumpling the book while Becky did the same, cramming the pieces into her mouth, spitting them out, reading all the while, allowing her voice to be broken down, muffled, reduced to non-verbal gutturals and plosives. Her performance inspired an outbreak of origami in the room. I bought the last copy of her book from the stall. Tempted sorely otherwise as I was, I read it rather that ate it.

Last to perform was Karen Constance and Dylan Nyoukis, collectively Blood Stereo. They sat behind a table strewn with all manner of equipment, objects and artefacts, like the workbench of a mad scientist, the instrument panel of Tarkovsky’s Solaris or the contents of a Joseph Cornell box. I make no claim to know how any of it worked, which object made which sound, whether all objects were used or how they were sequenced. I can only report from a purely aural perspective and say that they made simply extraordinary sounds and, as with Jennifer MacDonald and Louise Woodcock, too numerous and molten to fully categorise. The whole performance resembled nothing so much as an exorcism in reverse, with spirits building to a cacophony rather than being banished, sweeping in with the mist from the marsh. Other impressions: the wail of a muezzin; the white noise of Eraserhead; fractured chimes; warped music boxes; the howl of tormented wookies; the underwater warbling of the birds silhouetted on the windows behind them.

More was promised after a second interval, but this did not transpire, a conclusion to the evening as apt as its opening. Counting Backwards is not about polish, product or consumption. It is far more interested in process and the opening out of that process beyond the performers and into the environment. It affirms the idea that creativity is not the quasi-mystical province of the “artist”, rather a continuous interaction, an eternal feedback loop between the individual and the world. I have been to such evenings where I have come away feeling nothing except that I had spent a few hours somewhere. After Counting Backwards I felt that I had been somewhere. Richard Barrett, Matt Dalby and Gary Fisher must be congratulated on this series. Long may it unfold.

More about Counting Backwards here.

Tom Jenks

New Counting Backwards site

Recalibrate your instruments. Counting Backwards, Manchester’s new series of text-sound-performance events has a new site at http://countingbackwards.posterous.com. Counting Backwards takes place on the first Thursday of alternate months at Fuel cafe bar in Withington. After a successful launch in June the series returns on Thursday 5 August 2010 with performances from Blood Stereo, Becky Creminand Jennifer McDonald & Louise Woodcock. Counting Backwards is Richard Barrett, Matt Dalby and Gary Fisher.