Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


Grutronic with Evan Parker

Grutronic with Evan Parker, The Vortex, London 22/09/2011

by Tim Owen

September 24, 2011


Grutronic and Evan Parker explore a playfully academic brand of electronic music

Grutronic with Evan Parker
The Vortex, London

Grutronic specialise in a playfully academic brand of electronic music that’s open to integration with acoustic music and embraces the tenets of improvisation. Their 2009 album, “Essex Foam Party”, featured collaborations with vibraphonist Orphy Robinson, and this London concert with saxophonist Evan Parker marks the release of a joint album, “Together in Zero Space”, which was recorded at a 2009 performance in Bratislava. The combination of Grutronic and Parker is immediately attractive for being both less academic than his own electro-acoustic ensemble projects and more traditionally ?musical’, in that there is much less reliance on sound processing here, where the emphasis is squarely on the immediacy of musical interaction.

With the musicians all seated, ranged left-to-right across the stage, and hunkered over a range of technical-looking boxes, it was often hard to tell who was responsible for any given sound, but there was a great deal of anorak-ish pleasure to be had in observing their many subtle gestural clues. Richard Scott, stage right, plays instruments of his own creation or early adoption. At the Vortex, those devices may (I’m no expert) have included a Buchla Lightning MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) controller, which has wands with which to control the abstraction of inputs from other sources, and/or a Blippoo Box, which Scott describes as “an audio sound generator that operates according to the principles of chaos theory” (the curious are directed to Scott’s website, for more details). I can only assume that David Ross’ ?Droscillator’ is a modified oscillator, an instrument which creates a rhythmic pulse that is used to modulate synthesized effects such as pitch control and phasing. Evan Parker, at centre stage, held a gratifyingly recognisable soprano saxophone. Nick Grew’s specialism is transduction, or the conversion of one kind of signal or stimulus into another, i.e. sound processing, so I suppose his box was a transducer. And Nick’s brother, Stephen Grew, stage left, played an electronic keyboard, which may have been subject to sound processing. His manner of playing - lightness of touch with fleeting contact - was sufficiently remarkable either way.

Grutronic got things underway with gaseous constellations of small sounds, which they gradually spun into a complex web of interrelationships. In a humanising touch, Stephen Grew played brief, elliptically ?classical’ piano phrases that were subject to short delays, while Nick Grew added sustained tones with a harmonica. The halting, yet never faltering momentum of these early moments bought to my mind the ever-less-chaotic self-regulation of robotic walking machines, which shed redundant limbs in order to achieve mechanical utility. A passage of conversational electronic blips and bits, with their echoes and refractions rendered through processing, evoked the mechanical recitation of insect noises. Evan Parker initially concentrated on short sounds that fitted the overall pattern, but occasionally developed more conventional lines. Grutronic were subject to bursts of agitation. One flurry of notes from Parker triggered a quasi-tribal Grutronic rhythm in response, which then fractured into a layered skein of decayed ambient noise punctuated by back-tracked voice samples. A nuanced exploration of high, sharp tones was similarly punctuated by glassy chinks of sound, like water dripping in a subterranean cavern, as Parker played delicate traceries of soprano that glinted like flashes of light on water.

The first set had been much more thoughtful and restrained than I’d expected from the often playful Essex Foam Party recordings, though no less arresting. The second began with Richard Scott triggering samples of the recorded speech of John Cage (“I love the activity of sound”, ran one particularly pertinent snippet). These musings from the iconoclastic composer prompted a string of reminiscences from Evan Parker. “Nobody warned me about the Cage tape”, he said; “it’s provocative.” “What’s [Cage’s] role,” Parker mused, “if the sounds are going to be sounds anyway?” Not surprisingly, the set initially proceeded from here in a more playfully animated way. Yet Parker still refrained from any overt fluency or emotional expressivity, and the mood once again darkened as innocent clicks of stippled electronic sound were undermined by the introduction of queasily mournful sustained tones. Stephen Grew responded with baroque abstractions that had in their timbre a hint of harpsichord, and drew mischievous responses from his fellow musicians. Parker was more uninhibited in his soloing, played longer lines and deployed circular breathing to explore certain patterns at leisure. Grutronic responded individually with simultaneous agitation, like the mechanisms of an immune system responding to a threat. Bought under control, the results sounded not unlike the music Louis and Bebe Barron created with their pioneering electronic film score for the 1959 Forbidden Planet. In keeping with this deep space theme, Parker’s flurries finally ebbed away to reveal new constellations in patterns of Grutronic sound. This they worked up in surprisingly percussive ways, sounding something like Autechre taking apart the delicate sonic traceries of a music box, and then went for a clamorous, almost industrial climax, with Evan Parker in full cry.

blog comments powered by Disqus