REVIEW / DRAWINGS: David Toop - Into the Maelstrom - Book Launch with Evan Parker, Elaine Mitchener, Steve Beresford and Sylvia Hallett

Steve Beresford, Sylvia Hallet, Evan Parker, Elaine Mitchener with David Toop at Cafe Oto.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All rights reserved.

David Toop Book Launch
(Cafe Oto, 5 June 2016. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

There could have been no more fitting a setting for the launch of David Toop's new book, Into the Maelstrom, than the relaxed confines of Cafe Oto, with its echoes of 60s Amsterdam bars and alternative hang-outs, along with the collaborative camaraderie of fellow musical travellers and exceptional improvisers, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Sylvia Hallett and Elaine Mitchener.

Subtitled Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom - Before 1970, Toop's is an engagingly erudite and authoritative account of many strands of improvisational practice, as well as an off-the-cuff and probing examination of the very nature of improvisation, drawing on his own extensive experience as musician/performer and on his exhaustive knowledge of music's more obscure and arcane tributaries, as well as its mainstreams.

In Toop's preamble, whilst admitting that putting the book together was very demanding work at times, there was also the unspoken caveat that it was, ultimately, worth it. The next challenge is the second, companion volume, to take the story up to the present, although the initial volume includes many encounters with current practitioners, positioning the discourse very much in the present.

The improvising quintet led off with a highly abstract initiative - jungle chitterings, breathy whisperings and alarmed outpourings from Mitchener, which found both audible and craftedly inaudible counters from Parker's lilting soprano sax. Toop migrated from delicately tempered laptop guitar with metal clips attached to the strings, à la prepared piano, to an array of unusual flutes, to return with touches of distorting electronics and sharp, bow-induced accents.

David Toop playing on a large, horizontally held, bamboo flute at Cafe Oto.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All rights reserved. 

Hallett, likewise, subversively extracted a mesh of sounds from the violin, utilising low-key electronics as well as the application of a scallop shell to the strings and violin bow to summon uncanny tones from a singing saw. Beresford coolly deliberated and held back for several minutes before judging his time to enter the fray, adding interventions within the piano's frame, including clockwork insects busy within a ceramic bowl. All of which actively contributed to a rich and greater communal whole.

Short readings by Toop were enriched by the accompaniment of each of the musicians in turn. Beresford became invested with the spirit of an improvising Errol Garner. Parker harked back to the days when the Spontaneous Music Ensemble was reduced to a duo by John Stevens. An anecdote recalling Hallett's early performance in Luton brought Toop to laughter and Mitchener took on the mantle of a fox, all piercing screams and yelps. Indecisive in his choice of final reading, in true improvisational spirit, Toop handed over to the group: 'You start and I'll follow!'

Maybe the most surprising and memorable moments came at the end of a final set when Evan Parker put aside his sax to deliver a unique spell of vocalising alongside Mitchener - a growling lion meets Lady Day!

David Toop (lap guitar, flutes, paper, percussion and electronics)
Elaine Mitchener (vocals)
Evan Parker (soprano sax, vocals)
Sylvia Hallett (violin, saw and electronics)
Steve Beresford (piano)

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