Live review: An assembly @ Anthony Burgess Foundation

Louis d’Heudieres — Laughter Studies 6b (2017)
Rowland Hill — Tha-at’s right (2018)
Charlie Usher — An assembly (2018)

The experimental music group An assembly kicked off their Autumn tour last night at Manchester’s International Anthony Burgess Foundation, with a three-piece programme including two new commissions. I thought I’d use this occasion to start what I hope will be a series of reviews that will allow me to focus on certain parameters of musical liveness and explore particular ways of experiencing live performance, rather than attempt to stake any claim to the position of ‘legitimate’ critic or reviewer.


We all bring our own priorities to any performance environment, in terms of what we’re listening and looking for, what we’re finding or what we find lacking. These priorities become more and more self-justifying and self-perpetuating as they appear to produce sense and/or value from the phenomena being experienced. At the concert yesterday, I was finding disjuncture and discrepancy, patterns of identity and difference, and ambivalent dynamics of simultaneity, synchronicity and recognition.

In Louis d’Heudieres’s Laughter Studies 6b, disjuncture is immediately established between the four young men standing downstage, and the seated instrumentalists behind them. The four men all have beards. They also all wear headphones. The instrumentalists have scores in front of them. Their attention, like ours, is on the standing men who are facing us, but whose attention is in turn focused elsewhere: the invisible soundworld that (we assume) they are tapped into.

One by one, they start describing the sounds that they are hearing. One by one, they begin imitating these sounds. Thus, the initial presented disjuncture is layered with further invisible disjunctures: four different sound channels, four different unseen-unheard worlds drawing the four bearded men out of the room and into the headphones.

The piece begins as a study in translation or mediumship — in the imperfect bridging of disjunct worlds — but it quickly becomes a lot more than a rehearsal of failure, as the audience are gifted with a series of small but charming moments of synchronicity. For one thing, the sounds being described may be different but they are also clearly similar; the same descriptors and metaphors are passed around by these four men, whose vocalisations coalesce into a kind of weak canon: a tautology that tightens into a single repeated sound. The four men seem to come into focus. I notice how similar they look, all in black.

This moment of synchronicity has an effect on the instrumentalists who are now joining in with the vocalists. Four aural scores have converged into one and a shared sound stage is convoked. The men suppress small smiles of relief: the awkwardness of their non-performance is diffused into the surety of a communal musical world. It feels like a moment of recognition, and yet it manifests the promise of ensemble action at its coarsest. The unison sound is brutal and inflexible.

From here, the instrumentalists tumble onward. While they appear to share a stylistic vocabulary, there’s little sense of metrical or harmonic articulation. There’s no conductor to be seen. It is as if, having been wound up together and set loose in that moment of synchronicity, they are left to unravel at their own pace. Against this backdrop, another moment of synchronicity: the four men all turn and ‘dance’ to (or against) the beatless music. They all move in the same way, subtly, a little awkwardly. Their backs form a chorus line imposing a group identity on this disparate scene. (I suppose the identity is that of the ‘experimental music guy’. I notice how uniform his hairstyle is.)

They turn back to the audience, singing phrases that issue from somewhere beyond our hearing, but are reiterated in the room. I get a chance to look again at their expressions — performing-not-performing, doing-not-doing — neither the embodied performance of the soloist, nor the workmanlike detachment of the score-reading ensemble member. It is this glazed half-presence that signifies, for us, the act of translation.

The audience are left half-doubting the efficacy of those charming moments of synchronicity. Were these performers ever really together? Was this just the impression of communication, obscuring some fundamental misunderstanding? Or… must we learn to be content with those crude articulatory points where at least we feel together — we feel recognition — even if we’re mistaken by what we actually recognise?


In contrast to this unstable togetherness, Rowland Hill’s Tha-at’s right exposed and explored some seemingly irresolvable power disparities, through the disjuncture inherent in the live presentation of pre-recorded media. On a screen, dancers danced silently; yet the screen was nested amongst live instrumentalists, seated in the dark with scores and a conductor, providing all the music for the piece. In such situations, the power is always with the live performers, who have control over the space in which the audience sits, who can manipulate the image without the awareness of the filmed subjects. What’s more, the film was extensively edited, the choreography composed of intercut shots as much as of physical gestures. Such a framing further disempowers the performers (or bodies) onscreen when it comes to the re-performance of the piece’s creation as a live spectacle. From the ‘there-and-then-ness’ of the dancers in the space of the film, we cannot help but perceive several stages of coercive mediation of which the dancers are not aware.

Why is this sequence of disjuncture — dancers, film edit, live music — so striking? Firstly, because of the particular diegesis within which the dance is presented. We see one, two and then three women against a blue screen, in what seems to be an apartment. We glimpse casual spectators, friends, collaborators, sitting and watching, or congregating in an adjacent room along a corridor. The situation shifts from the very informal — gestures being proposed in a low-stakes improvisation, being tried out and discarded, devised together, previewed to friends — to the more formal: sequences evoking warm ups and playfulness, sequences that seem to be prepared performances onset at a video shoot. In nearly each case though, there is a vulnerability inherent to the depicted scenario: the dancers seem to be exploring a choreography within a semi-private and carefully controlled context. This gives an air of exploitation to its clipping into a video sequence: the imposition of a visual choreography.

This aspect of the piece is amplified by the nature of the live musical commentary, which pushes against the rhythm and spirit of the dancers’ movement, counterposing some of the most lively sequences with long dull rasping notes. Yet the musical framing isn’t one of total indifference to the film. There are enough moments of synchronicity to allow the music to articulate the film into sections, or ‘numbers’. However, these little cadential moments and fanfares are so bathetic as to intentionally undermine each new number.

I should mention that the concept behind the piece is, again, one of translation — creating a reconstruction of Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, from the literal reading of a particularly eccentric review — to which the staging of this power struggle is relevant. The reviewing of a piece of work always involves the exercise of power over that work, forcing it to be perceived and understood in a certain way. While every layer of the piece has its own spirit and sense of humour, the nesting of these within a hierarchy of media allows certain gestures to dominate and determine others.

In this context, it is interesting the extent to which the dancers already seem to be resisting their consigned role in the final live presentation. In the moments in which they performed directly to the camera, for instance, the directness of their gaze invites the spectator to share a time and space with them: one which acknowledges the sacredness of the creation/production process, of the moment of doing. And the visual pulse that ran through much of the video — the dogged regularity of jumping or wiggling, which was soundtracked only by a quiet murmuring drone — seemed to force sound back into the viewer’s ears.


The final piece of the night was Charlie Usher’s An assembly. The ten instrumentalists were spread out in front of the conductor, all playing from scores, two monitors mounted on the walls above the ensemble. We were presented with a seemingly endless series of sonic ‘frames’, each only thirteen seconds long. Each constituted its own pocket of ambience or space, an empty but solid sonic box, a tinted/textured canvas or ground with no figure. In this sense, it was already a piece about difference and similarity: 122 identical units of undifferentiated difference. And yet this conceptual framework was quickly swept up, for me, into a far more dynamic dramaturgy.

At the centre of the performance, as is so often the case, was the conductor. He acted as the avatar of consistency against which each new shade of ambience took on its uniqueness. The regularity of each segment was embodied in the repetitiveness of his sequence of conducting gestures (since the tempo and metre remained very similar throughout the piece), and particularly in the gestures he used to end and begin each new segment, with a sliver of silence between them. As the undifferentiated differentiation proceeded, his gestures became detached from the resulting texture, and came instead to represent the cutting up of time: the marking of sections or drawing of boundaries, with each section enclosing something but the specificity of that thing being irrelevant.

Or perhaps it was a cutting into time: that initial downbeat opening up some window or portal into another space or world, which would be closed again after thirteen indifferent seconds. I had the impression that this window was chosen at random, or else each world was randomly generated or combined from a near-infinite number of ingredients or parameters, and that the conductor’s quiet, dispassionate working through them suggested an attitude of scientific experimentation. Sometimes, we’d stumble upon something particularly beautiful, arresting or otherwise unlike the majority of the other frames, but these would be closed up and sealed off just as quickly and surely.

As we moved from ambience to ambience — from soundworld to soundworld — another dynamic began to claim my attention, which again had to do with disjuncture. There appeared to be three discrete modalities of content that characterised each thirteen-second frame. The first was music: the construction of a musical space that is, for instance, the immediate result of a sustained interval or chord. On one side of that, there were pre-recorded ambient sounds from other locations, piped in through the monitors. On the other side of that, there were sounds or noises that didn’t quite cohere into a musical world, and instead foregrounded their being produced as actions by human-object assemblages in the enclosed space shared by audience. These were always couched in the present silence of the venue, which (as always) cannot be considered just another ambience among ambiences, but always contains the threat of the ‘real world’ rushing back in to flood the stage. For me, these three modalities of content clearly characterised three different ‘planes’ on which sounds are experienced.

As each initial downbeat opened a new sonic world out onto the stage, I began to feel the discrepancy between the worlds that held me in musical space-time, the worlds that let me fall in amongst the ‘real-life’ players, and the worlds that forced their way in from somewhere else. Moreover, many of the frames contained elements from all these worlds, in a kind of collage, rubbing against each other, reasserting their disjuncture.

With this interpretive frame in place, a deeply involving dramaturgy began to develop. Every now and then, we’d emerge in ambiences that seemed ambiguous: that merged one or two of the sonic planes in a way that obscured the configuration of the constituent sounds. On the one hand, it was as if, after extensive trial and error, some synthesis was being achieved on the part of the conductor. On the other hand, there was a meditative dimension to it: as if the players, generating sound after sound to be blended and tested, were gradually sinking (or floating) beyond the solid stage with its stands and scores, and towards some shadow soundworld where space and time are more malleable.

A first moment of heightened drama, halfway through the piece: one particularly thick field recording continues to play beyond the allotted thirteen seconds, extends over section after section, in spite of the conductor’s articulatory gestures. Are we stuck in a particular soundworld, unable to cut ourselves out again? Eventually the portal closes, but the acousmatic ambiences sound particularly intrusive for a while after that: a reminder that here is here and there is there, and it’s difficult to bridge that divide.

And yet, as we sink further into the meditative flow of the piece, we alight on more and more radiant quasi-syntheses of sound, music and acousmatic noise. This undifferentiated drift has become a journey with a palpable goal; we are invested in the search and the idea of the destination.

And once we arrive, we know that we’ve arrived. Again, a particularly present field recording extends beyond its allotted thirteen seconds; yet the conductor is no longer cutting up segments of time, but continuing to beat a smooth metrical flow, bar after bar. We realise that we’re floating in a loop, between noise and music. The faces of the musicians relax; no longer playing stop-and-start, they hold their scores and their conductor in a new regard. We feel the satisfaction of an ensemble that has, together, located a balancing point between worlds, delicate but definite, and that all they can do now is sustain it. Refreshed, I shift into soft focus.

There is a figure now, against the ambient sonic ground, marks on the canvas: the sound of distant children playing, oblivious to us eavesdroppers. The voices of these children are impossible to focus on properly, but in giving them my attention, I melt further into this ecstatic state, allowing myself to partially leave the space through the monitors. I feel like I could remain in this hybrid sonic space for another fifteen minutes at least, allowing my soft aural focus to be coloured by other stimuli as I cast my attention around the room. I notice how strange the room is: the looming red wheelchair lift forming a turret in the upstage right corner, a large black curtain upstage left. The sonic pull of the acousmatic space becomes associated with the visual allure of that curtain, pitching the room up into the upstage left corner. The keyboardist is situated dangerously close, and liable to disappear through it.

There can be no fading out, no gentle reentry into the present moment. The piece ends abruptly. The real world allows for no porousness. It is the image of a closed totality.


One little afterthought: On the way home, I have a chance to look at the long list of titles that Charlie Usher has included with the programme notes: one for each of the 122 tiny pieces.

‘Walk through fog’,
‘Real world sounds’,
‘Autumn as the green image’,
‘Light and algae’,
‘Simplicity, ground, and focus’,

I think this is a more significant gesture than it might initially seem. It suggests a very particular mode of engagement with the work, which moves so rapidly between sections that you’d need to be constantly looking at the list and carefully keeping track of where you are in order to ‘correctly’ link title to piece. At times, the boundaries of sections also seemed pretty ambiguous. Projecting the title on a screen behind the ensemble might have provided an equivocal link between title and piece if that were desired, but the suggestion of following a list of titles in the dark of the auditorium seems geared to induce a sense of sublime unwieldiness, or at least to emphasise the arbitrariness of the given titles at points where the listener becomes unsure.

On the other hand, if the list were followed rigorously, it would provide the listener with a clear sense of progress through the work, allowing them to watch the remaining sections elapse and removing the sense of potential boundlessness that I found so central to the piece. Like when you’re nearing the end of a book, and the drama of counting off the remaining pages comes to overwhelm and supersede the drama of the fictional narrative. Either way, I enjoyed it as a conceptual accompaniment to throw my thoughts on undifferentiated differentiation into relief.

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