Gannets in Oxford

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For me it’s not often that a musical performance instills a compulsion to write, even less that such a desire might be so clearly tied up with the performance as it is happening, but something about last night’s gig by Gannets got my fingers itching. This is not to say that this would simply be an opportunity to write about  the music, or anything as ostensibly straightforward as that, but rather that the alterations made to the room by that almost over-fertile music seemed to provide a place in which to write, a irresistible site of writing… there was an excess of material to be tapped. Given that it has had to wait until the next morning, I inevitably feel I’ve missed a trick, but still I find myself wondering how the activities of listening (a resolutely physical task in this case) and the act of writing came into such an imploring proximity… what made this music a potential writing machine…?

The cumulative presence conjured by this quintet was of extraordinary power – the intensity with which they filled the room was of a physicality beyond the effects of high volume and extreme dynamics. The group commenced sharply with a barrage of artillery from Noble, as Ward and Cundy began to maneuver their clarinets between shared coordinates of fractured phrases and tongue stops. A low bed of tonal snow came from Dangerfield’s distorted keyboard, punctured by mortar arcs of glissandi and half-loops from Lash’s amplified double bass. From a near-chaotic beginning that threatened not to fuse, the music set about determining itself on a level slightly askew from its opening statements – which is to say that there was a sense that it was only after pummeling the surrounding air with an initial assault – curtain fire, carpet bombing – that it would be possible for textures and frequencies to find angles, troughs and planes into which they could bleed and settle, and from where they could make inroads into new terrain, at different altitudes and on different vectors. As these degrees of overall cohesion took shape there was a sense of an always available ‘recognition’ of different scales and intensities: a bass shot illuminating a squeal from Ward, a flat-hand slap on the keyboard marking out a moments silence (… as if entire weather systems could be intimated from zones of rainfall, delicate thunderclaps instantly sounding out a surround… ). The option to engage in a variety of concurrent modes, always in mixture, set these burgeoning forms in a position to be disassembled, as if the trajectory of the music were always looking for (or demanding) new forms to assume. This was restless music in the sense that there was never any wavering whenever the ‘decision’ emerged to abandon all that had gone before, no matter how arduous and meticulous its set up had been.

Although it was a coincidence that I had seen Turner’s Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth earlier in the day, it was certainly apt to associate the performance with a vortex of sound – clenching planes swelling and swirling in the narrow room, dragging the audience in. It seems trite to say it, but there was an unnerving realisation that what was being produced there and then was interfering with the space in a particularly brutal manner – like Turner’s canvas, the music feigned to rotate the room as you sat before it. If the gravity of the airscrew was undeniable, yet the free arms of the spiral were audible here too: combinations of instruments peeling off, cohering elsewhere, their differences of timbre shielded by the context of their simultaneous production. For every layer there were possible splits, with each player finding space in which to fray and feather the group’s momentum – intense metallic hisses from the hi-hat, frames of white noise, full blooded screeches – all making themselves available for collapse and redistribution.

If anything, it was the lighter moments that were the least successful, perhaps suggesting why they were apparently fewer than usual. Following a charged gap – an improvised apnea – Dangerfield tested out a barbed rhythm, immediately enforced by the ruthless Noble, whose control allowed him to both fix and lever the pattern before allowing his playing to disperse, as if observing its own residue from above. In fact, the figure of combat is not too far off – the tone of a battlefield, including moments of calm aftermath, which Ward and Cundy would punctuate with their own defiant Reveille, in the space left after armies have either departed or fallen. If the room was filled with smoke at the end of it all, it would simply confirm that it had been filled with matter, a smoke of such consistency that it might have assumed the solidity of a base – a phantasmagorical, floating head with expressions passing across it, a face constantly shifting. In any case, it was a reminder as to how powerful and affecting this music can be.

Gannets are: Chris Cundy, Fyfe Dangerfield, Dominic Lash, Steve Noble & Alex Ward