Friday, March 10, 2006

Polar Bear at the Phoenix

I saw Seb Rochford's amazing Polar Bear at The Phoenix Arts Centre last night. We were meant to be having a Drone session, but gradually more and more of us pulled out, not wanting to miss this gig. It turned into a bit of a COTD musical field trip - James T, Melski, Keith, Philip, Vaughan and I (and I believe Mark was there). There was some vague talk of having a guerilla session in one of the gallery spaces beforehand, but a new exhibition was opening, and we're not foolish enough to attempt to play wholly improvised music in the noisy, crowded Phoenix bar anymore. I was almost put off by all the hype, but I'm so glad I went! I'd listened to a few MP3 soundclips off various websites, but there's no way you can get any sense of the expansiveness of this ensemble from a few 30 second excerpts. Henry chose not to come on the basis of these soundclips, and I suspect that he would have loved thier set .

Everyone should see this band! Leafcutter John on electronics - triggering the maddest barrage of sound from his iBook laptop via a Playstation controller (and really getting into it!) - brought to mind more than anything the staggeringly boundaryless creativity of Mike Ratledge's organ playing which I'd been dwelling on after seeing a sort of Soft Machine lineup less than a week ago...except rather than an organ, he had at his disposal what sounded like a gamelan orchestra, disembodied grand piano and contents of a well-equipped kitchen inside a giant pinball machine being played by King Tubby in a virtual universe whose laws of physics were jointly programmed by the composers of the zaniest 1950's cartoon soundtracks and the creators of 1980's arcade games.

Now that 'Soft Machine' line-up with Leafcutter John would really be something...

Leafcutter John with Polar BearSeb Rochford of Polar Bear
Leafcutter John and Seb Rochford of Polar Bear

LJ also turns out (despite looking extremely youthful) to have a lectureship in electronic music at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

During the first piece I just thought he was a superfluous 'electronics' person to give the ensemble a sense of being 'relevant' - he wasn't particularly audible. Then, when his sonic attack began, I couldn't see quite what he was doing from my vantage point, but he appeared to be making sounds though physical motion, so I thought it was perhaps a kind of theremin-like object (or something like Mikey Hart's infamous "Beam"). It was only much later that I realised that it was a Playstation controller, and that his motion was not directly causing the music (although it was clearly linked to it!). I've never come across anyone using live electronics so effectively - actually playing it rather than just playing with something effectively pre-recorded or pre-sequenced. The sensitivity and control was just awesome - he would lock into one the two sax players, the bass player (all excellent, by the way) or Seb and sort of 'duel' with them, seemingly sampling and looping them, and playing deformed looped versions of themselves back at them, creating weird psycho-musical feedback loops. At one point he was twanging odd notes on a mandolin into a microphone, creating disjointed off- kilter rhythms by layering and looping this - Seb would just pick these rhythms up with total ease and run with them.

The actual 'jazz' compenent reminded me a bit of the Lounge Lizards, but wilder and more multi-dimensional. There were elements of prog, psychedelia, punk/hardcore, musique concrète and just plain uncategorisable sound going on.


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