The Wire

In Writing

Bell Labs: Cranc vs Fretwork

February 2015

Clive Bell ponders the fragmented London music audience

In the agitated run-up to Christmas, two concerts in quick succession got me thinking about the strangely airtight compartments that the London music scene falls into.

First, Cranc at Cafe Oto. This is a collective grouping: experimental harpist Rhodri Davies with his sister Angharad on violin, and old sparring partner Nikos Veliotis from Athens on cello. Tonight they’re joined by Benedict Drew on electronics and visual projection. So this is an expanded string trio, but their sound is massive, a dense block of amplified texture anchored by Veliotis’s searing low end bowing. His cello is a prosthetic revamp: simply a neck with strings, bolted to a solid metal stand and pumped through a deluxe bass rig, Ampeg amp coupled with Ampeg loudspeaker. Both Davies siblings are amplified, Rhodri’s portable harp played with bows and ebows. Drew screens a flickering circle of grainy images, morphing too fast for the eye to grasp. They play two sets in the dark – Café Oto sunk as if underwater, just a few candles and street light from outside – each set ending abruptly when the projector beam is blocked off.

The following night, a mile south, the viol consort Fretwork explore the mood of the Winter Solstice. We’re in the echoing space of Shoreditch Church, part of the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival. Actor Simon Callow reads TS Eliot and Ted Hughes, and Clare Wilkinson sings over the five viols, from treble to bass ‘gamba’. This time the strings are completely acoustic. Instead of being immersed inside the sound, ears are straining to catch the detail of these vinegary textures. Some passages are like spotting dragonflies: disappearing flashes of colour. The core viol repertoire is composers like John Dowland and William Lawes, from the brilliant flowering of English music around 1600. But tonight over half the evening is contemporary writing: John Woolrich, Duncan Druce, Tan Dun and others, investigating the viol’s gut strung sound, somehow both acidic and sensuous.

There’s virtually no audience crossover between these two events, but they have points in common. Both are string groups, generating musical interest from bowing and the unified textures you get from a family of similar instruments.

Rhodri Davies’s recent solo recordings feature a torrent of amped-up, distorted plucking, but in Cranc the harp becomes a mid-range bowing machine, like a drone-besotted viola.

Both Cranc and Fretwork perform in darkness, without speaking to the audience. And both groups are engaging with the ‘Christmas concert’ phenomenon: Cranc follow the underground tradition of ignoring it completely, while Fretwork focus instead on the longest night of the year, and the fear that “the sun ceases to return and we are left in permanent darkness”. John Donne’s poetry stares death in the face, and much of the music is so sombre that the overall effect is more chilly melancholia than mince pies. Anyone in search of warm, enveloping music at this frozen season might be better off with Cranc.

One more thing both groups have in common is they are both straining against the conventions around them. Cranc’s sound is a surprise in the context of free improvisation: tight, disciplined and loud, getting straight to the point. As Davies himself puts it in the group’s publicity, “Although they mostly use acoustic instruments, they sound shamelessly electronic.” Meanwhile Fretwork resist the temptation to squat in the 17th century, instead engaging with composers (including Maja Ratkje and Gavin Bryars) who see the viol consort as a chance to do something fresh. The viol is modest, quietly spoken, not particularly acrobatic, with a grainy sound. These qualities all suggest a composing agenda different from much of the 20th century’s high jinks.

So why no shared audience here? Why am I not recognizing the same faces at these two events, physically so close to each other? Both are mixing contemporary adventurousness with a carefully thought-through group sound – no showboating allowed in the pursuit of sonic mystery. Is it that London is just so vast that its different musical scenes, like ducks in a bathtub, can joggle to and fro without making contact? Are viols just too uptown, Cafe Oto too outré, in the musical caste system? Or maybe Fretwork and Cranc had punters in common, I just didn’t spot them in the candlelit murk. Now it’s February, and watching Wolf Hall on TV, I realise that peering into candlelight is this winter’s theme.

[NB: A previous version of this story stated that Cranc was Rhodri Davies's group. This has now been rectified. The standfirst has also been edited at the request of the writer.]

Comments

Excellent piece, Clive.

But whoever wrote the introductory sentence: "Clive Bell asks why improvised music in London seems so compartmentalised" clearly had not bothered to read the article. All the music in the second concert was through-composed by 'paper composers'. Put another way, Cranc's was instant composition and Fretwork's was pre-composed.

I'm worried that so many writers (not Clive & a few others) on The Wire really haven't even begun to try to understand free improvisation, even after all these years. Chris Bohn's recent piece - 'non-idiomatic' players cannot play with anyone else in case the other person plays something that sounds like something else - was a perfect example. What is going on?

as ever me thinks the pedantic Mr Beresford doth protesteth too much. On the contrary the WIRE gets free improv very well, too well for Mr Beresford it seems, as Abi Bliss’s recent article also demonstrated: free improv is just another generic way of making music, with its own rules and regulations, as formulaic and resisting to outside influences as heavy metal. But nowhere near as much fun. Why does Mr Beresford insist on insisting it is anything else? Who does he think he is kidding (apart from himself)? The emperor’s new clothes are ragged and tattered. Soon there wont be enough material left for Mr Beresford to stitch together with his nonsense pronouncements.

Changing the introductory sentence, presumably in response to my previous communication, makes sense, but unless you acknowledge that that's what you did, I come across as a twit who cannot read.

Thank you, Tony.

Now I am slightly worried that the whole conversation is inexplicable, since the Wire actually changed the introductory sentence.....

Ah, the Emperor's new clothes - never heard that one before! C'mon, really? Lazy, lazy, lazy! What our nameless, unimaginative chum fails to grasp is that the kind of thing he or she thinks is happening - that Free Improvisation has it's own rules and regulations - is actually what improvisers have been resisting for decades (see Clive's original article). This is clearly stated by a number of major figures in the music in (sorry for the plug) Antoine Prum's film "Talking the Dog for a Walk" - which also, I'd say, demonstrates the vast range of music that is currently being produced by improvising freely. If you don't like it...well, fine, who cares? But don't slag it off by making it out to be something it's not. That's what Christians do...

Tony Bevan.

If free improvisers resist all musical rules and regulations, as Tony Bevan claims, why do all his records sound like generic free jazz first made by African-Americans half a century ago? This is the kind of deluded bollox that free imrov types have been spouting for years. Truly I have never come across a scene more pompous and less self-aware, or to put it another way, so full of crap and up its own arse.

Great to hear that Beverly Leslie (as I have chosen to call our anonymous chum, after a character in 'Will & Grace' whose name is deliberately non-gender specific) has heard all of Tony's recordings. I hope Beverly bought them.

Tony Bevan plays in Sunny Murray's trio. Sunny Murray has been playing free jazz (brilliantly) for half a century. Albert Ayler's record 'Spiritual Unity, with Sunny and Gary Peacock, is 50 years old. I think it's Fun. You don't have to, of course.

But does Beverly really hear a band like Bruised (Tony's band) as 'generic free jazz'?
Or am I being madly pedantic? In which case, I apologise.

Leverly Beslie here. To answer Beve Steresford's question, I have indeed bought a number of Bony Tevan's records, and seen him play live at Afe Coto on a few occasions also. it seems it doesn't matter what kind of group he's in, he still does that same old Labert Yaler thing, over and over and over and over. As Berek Dailey said, saxophonists, you gotta love 'em, all they know how to do do is play (free) jazz. If that's freedom then lock me up right now. Ironic that Mr Steresfod and me are arguing over this, as I regard his ye olde worlde free imrov group with Tavid Doop etc Alterations as the only such entity that were in fact free, to do whatever the hell they wanted, skronk, fonk, honk, the whole kit and caboodle. Which seriously irked a certain Ony Toxley once I believe. Hey ho. And a nonny no, I'm gone.

Blimey! Are you what they call a troll? How nice of you to make your comments so personal. I look forward to you pointing out my apparently many failings as a musician to my face.

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