music, opinion and technology

a grand day out with the Europa String Choir

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A little elephant told me that the ESC were up for two gigs in one day, so I took that as sufficient motivation to drag myself out of bed on a Saturday morning (February 20) and head off to Waterloo. No Vindaloo, just a tall cappuccino and a copy of the International Herald Tribune, and I was just about ready for action.

1) Salisbury Arts Centre

South West Trains kindly deposited me at Salisbury with plenty of time to find the Arts Centre, which turned out to be the back of a church. In front, I walked headlong into someone’s wedding, narrowly avoiding appearing in the photographs – horror!. Once inside, I received more odd glances when I tried to buy a ticket (it was a free gig). Oh, well. The ESC had set up on the spacious stage, beneath a huge stained-glass window. Besides the bar to one side, and the coffee shop counter on the other, near the foot of the stage was a pile of toys which was periodically infiltrated by one or more noisy brats. Rare was the tune not subjected to a clink, crash or clatter from one of the above, especially while Cathy introduced the pieces without a microphone.

The ESC were on stage for about 80 minutes, with a short half-time break, playing substantially the same set as the evening gig (more on the music later). Judging by the faces and overheard comments, many of the 40 or so listeners were there out of random passer-by curiosity, Markus’ Warr Guitar and his TouchStyle method in particular attracting bemused scrutiny. Overheard: “What’s he playing?” “It’s a guitar, I think.” “What does the handout say?” “Let me see, that’s Markus, so it’s a Warr Guitar.” “Oh. OK” Overall, a positive reception from a slightly bemused audience, kids and all. Next stop: Oxford.

2) Zodiac Club, Oxford

The ESC hit the Zodiac as part of the extensive ‘Lighthouse Sessions’ season, a week after the CGT were at the same venue. The crowd this time seemed more attuned to the idea of the avant-garde – I just wish there had been more of them. The venue was in the basement, with a (gratefully unheard) Rock club upstairs. The five pounds charge on the door was a bit worrying, since Oxford’s population is, of course, thick with students (no pun intended). The Zodiac basement was still only about 3/4 full, a crowd of about 80. Definitely a higher proportion of enthusiasts, though, judging by the sustained applause at the end of the set, and the minor mobbing of the band as they left the stage. A more meaty PA system than in Salisbury, and an even more electric performance in every way, without the solemnity imposed by the church surroundings. No-one dancing, though – too busy listening.

3) The Band & Gear

  • Cathy Stevens on 6-string Violectra – a mutant electric viola. A faithful classical sound, most of the time, except when cranking up the effects for a more synthesised tone or shimmering glassy layers.
  • Udo Dziezanowski on Crafty guitar, a Godin LGX-SA electric, but with a good “piezo” acoustic sound as well as triggering the synthesisers on occasion.
  • Markus Reuter on Warr Guitar, that mutant guitar / bass beast popularised by Trey Gunn of KC. Two hands means bass parts (fat, round tone), snarling lead sound, and anything else that comes his way, from top to bottom.
  • Alessandro Bruno, also on electric Crafty guitar, a Parker Fly with piezo bridge and whammy bar – great for swooping textures and sheets of sound, slide work, also with a great clean acoustic tone. More Electric that I had initially imagined – but who’s complaining?!

4) RealPromoDemo

On sale at the venues on this tour are two CDs: The Starving Moon (the 1995 DGM release), and the new RealPromoDemo, a 22-minute sampler of tracks from their forthcoming album, which is yet to be fully mixed. These are my highly subjective first impressions of the eight short tracks on the latter:

  • Hot Metal: No, not about Web design, but the unsteady flight of a swarm of wasps drunk on music, searching for a nice hairdo to land on; shades of Bollywood;
  • East Street Poets: Covent Garden or Greenwich Village in the autumn, Cathy exploiting the Violectra’s range and tone, over a Crafty base;
  • Improv – Marching Ants: Lurching, skittering, ambulating grooving improv – reminders of a certain recent animated movie;
  • City of Rome: A cool drive, approaching the city, and diving into the traffic, stop-start, a walk in the park, architecture, details and growing darkness as night falls and rush hour starts again; Udo’s smooth electric solos bookending the impressions;
  • St. Francis Waltz: Masks and gowns, class and culture, and ladies and gentlemen with three legs trying to keep 5/4 time… wonderful;
  • Improv – Chains: the “Quartet” to KC’s “Trio”, neither acoustic nor electric, but somewhere in-between
  • Woodentops Two: a clash of cultures, Alessandro on slide, think Copland meets Guitar Craft.
  • Ten Years: Markus takes the lead for a pastoral stroll through a soundscape miniature, rolling in texture;

Markus also kindly gave me a copy of “Blast!”, the demo CD by Centrozoon, his collaboration with Bernhard Wostheinrich (on synths and sequencers). While I haven’t given it a thorough listening yet, I hear shades of Tangerine Dream, Pete Namlook, and the Orb, lost in space… Something to keep your ears open for in the future, maybe even on 12-inch vinyl for club release?

5) The Music

Where do I start… overall, it’s probably impossible to pin a label on the ESC’s music, and I would suggest that if you don’t have any of their albums, you have a listen to the tracks on “Sometimes God Hides” or the DGM CD-ROM catalogues. Neither the published information or the instruments they play would tell you quite enough in advance. On stage, they played pieces from both “The Starving Moon” and the “RealPromoDemo” (see below), including “Sermon On The Mount”, “La Pasta” and “Little Sinfonie” from the former, and most of the latter – all with enthusiasm and taste a-plenty. Even more exciting, personally, were the several Improv pieces, an aspect of the band never emphasised before. One in particular, at the Zodiac, had me mesmerised, despite seeming to start out as a chance to play with the more exotic effects from their new gear. It had me thinking “it’s not fair, why can’t I sound like that when I play”! (Don’t tell me, I know.)

The biggest crowd-pleaser, on the other hand, was a superb rendition of the first ten minutes (or so) of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells I”. The ESC certainly don’t need to play others’ music, but it’s an inspired choice nonetheless, and was all the better for being the only cover tune in the set. The sound systems at both venues were a problem, failing to convey the full range of the music, but it sounded wonderful despite this. Some might complain that it got to loud at times, but that was not too often in my opinion, and parts of the music are designed for a good thrashing!

6) Afterthoughts

If there’s one word I would use to sum up the Europa String Choir, it would be “Range”. Far more than most musical outfits on the road, the ESC stretched and sometimes broke the limits of both frequency and dynamic range in their music, compared to average bands – from low to high, from soft to loud, from sparse to dense textures.

Neither venue or sound system could really handle them properly, never mind some of the audience, and there’s definitely potential for larger venues or concert halls. For example, a genuine modern concert hall would have little difficulty supporting them, but if the planned North America club tour takes off, will someone please slip a twenty to the sound person, so that he/she stays awake and Listens?

A long day, but a grand one. Not something to do too often, but well worth the effort. Some folks would “walk a mile for a Camel”, so I have no problem spending the day on trains for music like this…


Written by brian t

May 7, 2007 at 11:33 am

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