The Watchful Ear

In recent years, the improvisation workshop that takes place in London has been written about quite a bit. For years however, the workshop, begun in 1999 by Eddie Prévost and convening every Friday since did not receive much attention. It was to some degree the beginning of a monthly series of concerts at Café Oto, occasions in which the experiments and practices of the workshop were allowed to spill out in front of an audience that brought the work of the workshop and its participants to slightly wider attention. Nothing new was really taking place- the workshop attendees had been playing together in London concerts for years, but somehow this series of concerts focussed the ear a little more on what was happening each week behind the closed (to audiences) door down in New Cross. It follows on then, that a CD release of recordings made of one of the Oto concerts makes sense, as a document of one period of particularly fertile activity in the workshop’s evolution. In keeping with the communal, thoroughly democratic approach taken within the workshop, each of the Oto concerts was curated by one of the group, who decided who would play, and in which formations, the only stipulation being that (s)he could not play themselves. The concert that is presented in part here on this CD took place on 21st May 2012 and was curated by Seymour Wright.
Wright chose to present a format for the evening very close to that which the workshop takes each week. He chose six musicians whom, in his opinion “represented the (then current) workshop climate, energy and range”. These were Jennifer Allum (violin), Ute Kanngiesser (cello), Grundik Kasyansky (theramin and electronics), Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga (zither), Eddie Prévost (percussion) and Daichi Yoshikawa (electronics). For the first half of the concert, and so also the first, long, thirty-four minute track here, Wright had the group form a circle, as they would at the workshop, and they played a series of moving duets, beginning with Yoshikawa and Allum, with Yoshikawa then replaced mid-flow by Kasyansky, and Allum then replaced by Lazaridou-Chatzigoga etc, so a kind of tag-team performance took place with no more than two musicians playing at any one time and ending with the return of Yoshikawa. Perhaps predictably, the end result is a bit of a mixed bag with no overall sense of structure but some nice little moments along the way. The opening duo of Yoshikawa and Allum works well for me- the severe contrast of bow against strings pitched alongside particularly brutal, lo-fi feedback, albeit controlled and sculpted expertly well is a nice one. Initial bleeps and bowstrokes split apart by silences soon coalesce into a writhing mass of twisting electronic wails and fervently streamed violin. The centrepoint of this performance, literally, is the zither of Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, around who m one of the nicest transitions takes place, her lightly buzzing drone and tinkling metallic strings fits equally well with the guttural splatter of Kasyansky’s theramin as it does with the bowed metallic percussion of Prévost, who replaces him. The overall piece is naturally and obviously more a chain of different interactions than it is one continual dialogue, and so, listening, its impossible to divorce yourself from the processes taking place. It is always very clear where one musician stops and another begins, and the interest is often in hearing how the consistent part of each interchange adapts to the arrival of a new musician.
There then follows five brief trio performances. On the evening in question apparently every one of the possible trio formations was given time to play together. If my grasp of maths is good enough I think this would have resulted in twenty short performances, of which five, the longest of which is twelve minutes in length, are included here. These little vignettes result in some nicer, more rounded pieces of music, though the brevity of each never quite allows anything to fully develop. The Allum/Kasyansky/Prévost trio is a rich weave of buzzing tones, sounds all similar in tone and yet coming from quite different sources. The Kasyansky/Prévost/Yoshikawa set however is a different affair altogether, with Prévost adding light touches from his tam tam as Yoshikawa blasts splatters of feedback and Kasyansky adds sampled moments of conversation and bits of music into the somewhat raucous equation. My favourite however may just be the Allum/Chatzigoga-Lazaridou/Kanngiesser all strings trio who intertwine little rhythmic patters, murmuring, atmospheric buzzes and softly coloured shimmering around one another to produce what is probably the most naturally coherent piece here.
The truth is though, nothing on this album particularly fails. Everything hits a standard, and throughout there is a sensation of pushing, nudging and constantly challenging one another in public, just as the workshop pushes people to do in private every Friday night. This isn’t just a night of improvised music, its a performance by a group of very familiar musicians, who rather than settle into any one routine seek to do something different each time they come together. Whether they always succeed is debatable, but there is no doubting the intent, and this album is a nice snapshot of that endless, ongoing work in progress.

Watchful Ear 2013