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Hauschka, James Blackshaw and Nancy Elizabeth, The Barbican Centre, London, May 10th 2010

May 14, 2010

We really didn’t know what to expect of this gig. James Blackshaw was the incentive to go, Nancy Elizabeth sweetened the deal and Hauschka we had no idea about. The evening was billed as ‘Kept Impulses’, a cryptic title that had me slightly worried – events at the Barbican can sometimes be artsier-than-thou, and I didn’t want to be surrounded by po-faced culture vultures pretending to enjoy themselves. Musical director for the evening was David Coulter, who has worked closely with Tom Waits, Damon Albarn and others, so, as Astral and the Amber Stalker suggested, the evening had a whiff of ‘curated’ and ‘collaboration’ about it, which sometimes doesn’t bode well. You can’t force what can’t happen, but let’s see… and you don’t want to miss the chance of seeing guitar maestro James Blackshaw

As it turned out, I think there was far less collaboration than perhaps intended. Certainly, good use was made of the backing ensemble, but I’m not sure the three leading players had prepared or created much in the way of genuinely collaborative material. That wasn’t a problem, though, as between them their music is compelling enough, as the first half of the evening’s performance showed. James was first on and picked his way brilliantly through River Of Heaven, which I first heard on Volume 2 of the amazing and wonderful Imaginational Anthems three-volume set. He followed that with Stained Glass Windows from The Cloud Of Unknowing and I was struck, not for the first time, by how meditative his music is. Tunes and ideas get repeated almost the point of breakdown, but it’s clearly deliberate – to force the listener to think, but not necessarily in a conscious or purposive way. His music is always in some sense ‘pretty’ but frequently quite demanding and fascinating in its ability to manipulate and massage the mind with insistent textures and patterns.

By contrast, Nancy Elizabeth is a much more straightforward proposition – a very talented musician and singer who straddles all sorts of musical boundaries through folk, pop, classical, torchsong and more. She also disarmingly mentioned that they didn’t really know what to wear for the evening and that she was in her ‘poshest’ frock. That’s one drawback with many ‘contemporary’ concerts at the Barbican – the surroundings can overawe the musicians – but she rose above it and did a very pretty set on piano, harp and guitar.

Hauschka, aka Volker Bertelmann from Düsseldorf, made his name as a composer and player of ‘prepared piano’, as inspired by the shenanigans of John Cage and other avant garde composers and pianists. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what we got was more relaxed and fun that I feared – worthy, dark Teutonism is not my bag. Anyway, his ‘prepared piano’ involves putting all sorts of stuff into the instrument to affect the strings – rattles, sticks, bells and so on. He performed four improvisations, which were, by and large, gentle and faintly hypnotic, but the fourth was definitely fun. For this one, he painstakingly removed all the bits and pieces from inside the piano and then emptied a plastic bag full of ping-pong balls into it. The piece involved striking keys so as to make the balls pop up into the air – definitely not dark or worthy.

The second half began with James in front of the full ensemble performing a wonderful version of his piece Cross. The orchestrated piece reminded me not just of the more obvious minimalist composers – Reich, Glass etc – but also the more romantic and devotional proto-minimalists such as the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Nancy Elizabeth kept up the standard with two fine songs Lay Low and Feet Of Courage, and a humming song we were all encouraged to join in with. The ensemble backed up her simple sound well, as they did for Hauschka’s next four pieces, all based on places of significance to him. This time, the piano was ‘unprepared’, giving a much more straightforward, melodic style.

The last piece of the evening, entitled 1,000 Angels, was the only genuine three-part collaboration of the evening (though each had helped out with some of the others’ pieces) and once again, the hypnotic harmonies and gently falling chords reminded me of Pärt. The piece had been put together in just a few days and I enjoyed it, but overall the evening was a mixed bag. A lot of the evening’s music was compelling, but all three of the principals are more used to working alone and it showed.

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