REVIEW: West Coast Night at Ambika 3 (2015 London Contemp Music Fest)

Fresh and challenging: Pauline Oliveros at LCMF
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved

LCMF 2015: West Coast Night
(Ambika 3, 12 December 2015; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

In its third year, London Contemporary Music Festival is once again presenting a week of back-to-back, diversely themed evenings which offer a left-field perspective on new music, its history and protagonists, performed in an unexpectedly cavernous, industrial space in the heart of London.

The massive, subterranean Ambika 3 venue opposite Madame Tussauds is the former test bed for major concrete engineering projects such as the Channel Tunnel and Birmingham's Gravelly Hill Interchange. The LCMF curators have imaginatively optimised the scale and interior architecture of this multi-level, 14,000 sq ft hall to articulate the range of music which comprises their programme.

The West Coast Night, focusing on California's role in the avant-garde, took pioneering composer, Henry Cowell, as its starting point with French experimental pianist Gwenaëlle Rouger's rigorous interpretation of his concise 1925 piece, The Banshee, exploiting the metallic qualities of the piano wires. John Cage's early First Construction (In Metal), performed by the RCM's PERC'M percussion ensemble conducted by Serge Vuillle, combined precision with raw energy, blending hints of bells and sirens with the pounding of metal sheets. On a staircase platform the bass recorder and cello were sensitively brought in to quiet interaction in the UK premiere of Catherine Lamb's Frames, by Lucia Mense and Anton Lukoszievze.

The piano was again the focus as four pianists expertly executed Terry Riley's Keyboard Studies No 2, from 1962. Its gentle synchronisations and discrete shifts in emphasis were complemented by Rouger's performance of John Luther Adams's Arctic-inspired Among Red Mountains (2001) with its crashing, bouncing chords, spiky accents and deep rumblings.

Two appearances on a side stage by the highly engaging LA-based poet, Otis O'Solomon, a veteran of the Watts Prophets poetry trio born out of the events of 1965, for whom 'words are spiritual things', connected 60s idealism with 21st century relevance, focussing on the misdeeds of 'the beast called man' on planet earth. 'Tomorrow might be too late …', he reflected and observed 'not progress … but retrogress'.

Two programmed electronics pieces from the 80s by Carl Stone and Maggi Payne, were pleasant, but somewhat anodyne, and did not stand the test of time that well in this context.



An evocative setting for 2015 LCMF: Ambika P3 at Baker Street
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved

Two major figures, still making waves in their ninth decades, rounded off the evening in remarkable style. It was the sensational improvised solo performance of around twenty minutes by Pauline Oliveras on the extraordinary, digital v-accordian that stole the show - which is not to take anything away from Morton Subotnik's absorbing and impressive improvised closing set on Buchla synthesiser, in a contrasting setting to the intimate Cafe Oto where he played in the summer (REVIEWED).

Oliveras took a few minutes to wait until the hall fell silent. With a complexity of structure and tone that brought to mind Ligeti's organ works, Oliveras summoned juxtapositions of sounds that were so surprising, fresh and challenging that she seemed to rewrite the possible with every note she played. Trombone and harpsichord rubbed shoulders with vocal samples, traditional accordion vamps, a chunk of funk and a sliver of blues. In recognising no boundaries she created new boundaries. It was a glorious and remarkable achievement, extremely demanding to perform and carried off with inspired panache.

Subotnik interpolated tapping patterns, wall-vibrating furies and lightly trickling liquid electronics, throwing sounds around the vast chamber, then put a witty seal on proceedings with his piano soundtrack to and presence alongside the projection of a short, explosive, psychedelic film by Tony Martin from the early 60s San Francisco Tape Center (Martin, incidentally, is the son of David Stone Martin, the great jazz album illustrator), well received by both the few who might have been of an age to recall it and the many who weren't!

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