The Licktronica electronic music event took place at Cross Street Chapel, the Unitarian place of worship in Manchester city centre. It's an interesting venue as it is a circular room incorporated into the first and second floors of a modern office building.
Electronic music is an avant-garde musical genre that appeals to only a very dedicated fringe. It has its roots in the 1950s when artists first started to experiment with tape recorders, electronic sound generation devices and other weird and wonderful equipment. Nowadays most electronic musicians use only computers, but this evening, they played only a minor role.
Instead, in the middle of the circular chapel, standing on a base on the floor, was a conglomeration of boxes with knobs on, some with glowing red lights, an old reel to reel to real tape recorder, and other gizmos, all linked together with trailing wires. The stuff looked as if it had been bought at the long defunct Mazels store, a kind of electronic junk shop that used to stand on London Rd Manchester opposite the former BT building. I bought my first amplifier there, a valve-powered thing with terrible mains hum. Mazels later closed and the building was demolished.
Standing atop the assemblage of boxes was a table lamp, which lent a homely look to the scene. I was eager to hear what kind of sounds could be coaxed out of these strange and complicated looking boxes.
The first act was Xela, usually John Twells solo, but on this occasion, with Greg Haines and Danny Saul as guest musicians. All three are from the UK. They combined piano, guitar and electronically generated sounds.
Electronic music can be jarring and I think disturbing, like music to accompany a horror film or space science fiction nightmare. At times, during this first piece, I felt unnerved, afraid and had the urge to leave. But that, I suppose, is the power of the music. The improvisation came to an end after some minutes. The performance was impressive but I felt relieved it was over.
After a 15 minute break, the second act came on, solo female vocalist and guitarist Soccer Committee, alias Mariska Baars, who performed in virtual darkness, so no photographs of her.
This was music stripped down to its barest essentials, with long gaps between the notes. With no rhythm, and a meandering, though not unmelodic style of singing she held the attention of the audience, who remained breathtakingly silent. This is a different type of music to the mainstream. Improvisation is OK and the gaps between the notes are as important as the notes themselves. I felt uncomfortable that the acoustic guitar was slightly out of tune, giving it the quality of a Japanese koto. I don't think this was intended. This short set was a taste of something that could, if you listened to it long enough, be acquired.
Soccer Committee, as well as the remaining artists, were all from Holland, indicating that as well as being good at languages and having great beer, the Dutch would appear to be also at the forefront of experimental / electronic music.
The third act was Wouter Van Veldhoven. I thought he was a member of the audience or crew, but then he turned around and said in a strong Dutch accent that he was going to make some music with the strange red glowing boxes and tapes. He sat down crossed legged, started to twiddle some knobs, and fiddled with a chime powered by a roll, rather like the sound of an ice cream van. These tinkly notes then found their way onto a tape loop, and started to repeat. Slowly he began to add more sounds, adjusting various dials, shifting from one box over to the next, and then picking up a guitar.
This is the thing about electronic musicians, the lack of 'moving around'. While Keith Richards can swank around the stage striking poses, an electronic musicianw sit cowering over their equipment twiddling knobs. and if they pick up a guitar, they are more liable to do something strange with it, like rub the strings with an unusual object or bang the strings at the top of the neck between fretboard and pegs.
To the uninitiated, this might all seem to be a bit of a con, that the sound is pre-recorded on tape or CD, and that all the fine adjustments to this or that knob is all just for show.
But it is not pre-recorded, that's the whole point. When played live, each piece is improvised, and entirely unique. Yes, tape is used, but to record a sound at the beginning, which is then repeated over and over again and built on.
I pride myself on my knowledge of music and musical instruments, but I have to admit that I haven't got a clue how these sounds are made, which box is making them and what effect this or that control or slider has on the sound. It is a complete mystery to me and adds to the mystique of the music.
Once you get over the fact that you're not going to hear a verse or chorus and and just open your mind to the sounds, it can begin to take on a magical effect. It also helps if like me you've experimented with tapes, as I have. At some time in their lives, everyone ought to be issued with two tape recorders and ordered to experiment with them. Once you've had a go at producing some of your own sound effects, you can better appreciate the work of accomplished electronic musicians like these.
When people say they have difficulty making sense of music, I urge them to think of it as film music. What I heard this evening would be great for that purpose, as it has depth and atmospheric quality. Try imagining a film or tv drama, or maybe some other images that might come into your head, and the music becomes less 'difficult'. To use that awful expression from the film '10', starring Bo Derek and Dudley Moore, just let it 'wash over you'. It can have a hypnotic, transcendental quality, if you just allow it to take its course.
Wouter Van Veldhoven's performance came to a fairly abrupt end, followed long and deserved applause.
After another break, it was time for the star act of the evening, Machinefabriek, alias Rutger Zuydervelt. The thin bespectacled musician was already sitting at his set of weird devices with red lights as we were taking our seats. The only illumination was a very dim red light, a challenge to photograph, and quite a contrast from the blinding lights of the band Faust, who I saw last night.
His piece started with only random noises, faintly echoed. I was wondering if something was wrong, but then the noise started to build up, slowly but surely, as with each turn of the control, took on a new quality. He grabbed hold of an electric guitar and prepared to play. Needless to say it wasn't the guitar riff from 'Honky Tonk Woman'. Instead he held a glowing thing like a computer mouse above the strings. This caused a long steady note to come out. This note gradually started to build and, helped by various twiddles of the controls, the sound rose and rose almost to a deafening pitch with cathedral-like aural dimensions. It continued like this for some minutes, the shapes and patterns of the sound twisting and weaving. And then with no warning, he turned the volume to zero and that was the end. The audience clapped, and even asked for an encore.
After yet another 15 minute break, the three musicians sat at their respective instruments, chatting to each other in Dutch, and then commenced an improvised piece, which again started with almost no sound at all but slowly grew. It was difficult to tell who was making what sound. The female vocalist didn't appear to be making any sound at all, apart from a very high-pitched scream. Improvised, unprepared, unpredictable, this was another piece of electronic aural wizardry taking shape before our eyes and ears.
With the table lamp in the middle, the intimate auditorium, and small audience, the performance seemed less of a public event, than a private session for specially invited guests.. It was as if we were not in Manchester at all but transported to the attic studio of a house somewhere in the countryside in Holland.
Things seemed to be going well until suddenly, there was a problem with a cable, and some of the sound dropped out. Rutger switched the table lamp on and off, as that seemed to be connected with the fault. Tugging on wires or inserting plugs had no effect. In the true spirit of improvisation, it was decided that that was it, end of the piece. We all clapped for a final time.
It was a remarkable evening, far preferable to the Eurovision Song Contest, which was on at the same time. Not everything I heard was entirely to my liking, but it was quite a revelation. I don't begrudge paying the seven pounds, which helped to make this unique event possible, and I'd urge anyone to give this type of music some attention, especially if there's a chance to witness it being produced live.Written by Aidan O'Rourke