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.]