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Live From New York

Konk Pack, Tim Hodgkinson, George Lewis and Bob Stewart

By Published: May 27, 2010
Konk Pack

The Stone

April 14, 2010


April 17, 2010

The Anglo-German improvising trio Konk Pack climaxed their epic US tour with a pair of New York City dates. They had already taken their extremist electroacoustic abstractions to far Knoxville and Kansas City, ending up performing at two of NYC's finest experimental haunts.

Konk Pack boasts a line-up that springs from diverse quarters, combining to make a gloriously intuitive barrage of sounds, both soft and savage. They've been together for 13 years, facilitating empathy without banishing unpredictability. To witness both of these gigs was to marvel at a band revealing completely different aspects of their ongoing vocabulary.

Tim Hodgkinson is the most well-known member, at least around European parts. He was a founder of the 1970s English band Henry Cow, which was deeply embroiled in semi-prog rock capering, flighty jazz improvisation, moderne classical prancing and controlled guttural noise-sculpting. These descriptions just about cover their areas of activity, if falling short of capturing the ever-changing ratios between those forms. In Konk Pack, Hodgkinson's main instrument is a small lap steel guitar, played on tabletop, surrounded by a modest selection of stroking and tapping implements. Periodically, he'll choose to pick up his clarinet.

Another Londoner is the drummer and percussionist Roger Turner. Not so renowned as Hodgkinson, but certainly one of the most imaginative and distinctive sticksmen around the globe. As with Hodgkinson, Turner was keeping his kit down to a minimum of objects beyond the basic drum set, to ease travelling hassles. Even less well-known outside Germany is analogue EMS synthesiser player Thomas Lehn, whose set-up harks back to old school 1970s knob-twiddling, with plugged-in keyboard for added immediacy.

Although once rooted in jazz improvisation, and still allied with the English methods of free playing, Konk Pack is presently removed into the industrial zone, paying particular attention to metal-stressing, volume extremities, electroacoustic battling and sheer noise sculpting. It's a sub-section of the European improvising tradition, and a combination sound that's less familiar in the States.

Konk Pack's major tactic is the periodically jarring cut between a hugely aggressive onslaught and then stretches of immense sensitivity. Its effectiveness depends on where the listener is seated. To the left Lehn-ing side of The Stone, the synthesizer was rearing up to an impossibly extreme level, tending to overcome the drums and guitar. This was no disadvantage, though. Reports emerged afterward that Hodgkinson was equally dominant over on the right hand side of the room. As the music feels very environmental in nature, it seems fitting that the subjective experience of the sound-balance should shift according to audience placement.

Hodgkinson's string-doctoring isn't as elaborate—or as stylistically distinctive— as his old band mate Fred Frith's techniques. He adopts a more direct attitude, visceral, clanging, scraping, stroking with comb, brush and small spatulas. Turner was alternating between tiny squealing flicks and sudden full-kit detonations, possessed of a striking violence that would surprise every time. It was his delicate work that capitalized on such instrumentation the most when the music was in its sparse state. Lehn managed to cut out (or even blow up) the left speaker, putting so much force into his playing the there was fear for the stability and intactness of his gear. His quaking physical vigor was translated into a rupturing wall of electronic oppression.

The set at The Stone contained all the elements that are desired in improvisation, keeping down to a relatively curtailed time-frame, but loading the single piece up with excessive excitement as well as a soothing contemplation. Detail abounded, ramming overcame.

Following a swift jaunt to Philadelphia, the trio returned to NYC for a tour-ending gig at Roulette, down at the Canal Street end of SoHo. Here they were augmented by local singer Shelley Hirsch, who at once slid into the Konk Pack subjective universe, and also maybe succeeded in altering the nature of the ensemble's flow. The program was being filmed, and the sound system was more controlled and contained. This time, every detail of the improvising was clearly limned. There were certain junctures where intensity was magnified into a rush of simultaneous incendiary gouting, but there were also many more opportunities for a multi-textured soundscape to evolve.

With Hodgkinson and Lehn now marshalled into a more sensible volume curve, it was Turner who was now allowed to kick out as the potentially loudest bringer of outbursts. He was industriously scraping metal edges across his snare drum, or sawing stingingly at polystyrene, but when the notion caught him, he would erupt with unexpected clumps of heavy hitting.

Hirsch is as much actress as singer, creating or inhabiting multiple personalities, gabbling in tongues. She has a narrative bent, even if her rushes of free-association aren't always decipherable. Nor would we necessarily need to translate such poetry-syllabic gushes. Hirsch was becoming a part of the chattering miasma of abstract sound.

The ultimate revelation was expected: it was required to attend both of Konk Pack's New York gigs. The only predictable factor was that each set would offer up very different facets of the band's potential sound. From glorious overload to tentative puttering, their range is immense.

Tim Hodgkinson

Issue Project Room

April 18, 2010

The night after the Konk Pack gig, Tim Hodgkinson was still in town for his own showcase gig, down in Brooklyn's deeply industrial Gowanus Canal zone. Involuntarily, so were the other two members of Konk Pack, immured by volcano ash. The evening was engagingly divided between an improvising trio and a composerly collaboration with the ever-metamorphosing Ne(x)tworks ensemble. Perhaps it would have been advisable to switch the performing sequence around. As it happened, the moderately bombastic, rock-derived trio opened, with the exquisite acoustics of the ensemble following on from this thunderous beginning.

A comparison with Konk Pack was bound to make this trio suffer. The rapport between Hodkinson, guitarist Chris Cochrane and drummer Jim Pugliese was in place, but couldn't possibly equal the ferocious dialogue that had built up between the road-seasoned Konkers. Even so, the trio embarked on an often exciting run of gruff exchanges, dominated by the immense rumbling of Pugliese's extended kit. Actually, his drum array wasn't excessively massive, but there was something in the means of amplification, and his deliberate way with slow emphasis that created a colossal rock-bottomed sound. Hodgkinson and the more conventionally rocky Cochrane were almost scratchy beside Pugliese, although the latter appeared slightly out-of-practice as he frequently dropped his sticks. This didn't damage the quality of his rumble.

Following this disruptive foray, the atmosphere regained its formality as Hodgkinson took his place in the midst of the string-dominated Ne(x)tworks ensemble. This gathering can vary its make-up according to the demands of each composer. On this evening, trombone and harp were present, creating a very specific chamber palette.

The three pieces (all feeling just right in terms of their duration) were by Jon Gibson, Miguel Frasconi and Hodgkinson himself. Gibson has long been associated with Philip Glass, and his "Multiples" hails from 1972. Regular member Frasconi's "Ne(x)traits" is a recent piece penned for the ensemble. Instead of bringing out his complete array of tunable glassware, Frasconi had reduced his singing essence down to a laptop vessel. Hodgkinson's clarinet was, no surprise, featured prominently on his own work "Jo-Ha-Qui." Even though involving a certain winding-down from high-volume, high-intensity freedom for the listener, these primarily serene, studied and scintillating works repaid the effort of renewed concentration, as Hodgkinson conducted as if he was a bonded member of Ne(x)tworks.

George Lewis

Issue Project Room

April 23, 2010

At the same venue nearly a week later, George Lewis paid minimal attention to his trombone, focusing on the laptop electronica elements of his output. This area has long been a parallel interest to his improvisatory practices within the jazz or post-jazz sphere. For this gig, he was sharing a tabletop with fellow processor Damon Holzborn, who has studied under Lewis at Columbia University. This created the immediate condition where it wasn't particularly clear which laptop was issuing which particular sounds. The duo's activities appeared to be exceptionally in-tune anyway, so maybe such divisions and distinctions were uncalled-for when appreciating their environmental textures.

When Lewis did haul out his trombone, his contribution was more recognizable. Two mutes were directly connected to the laptop, subjecting his breath to instant transmogrification. Even if it wasn't so, there was a sense that Lewis was improvising these elements, before they became interwoven with the full soundscape. The Issue Project Room's array of ceiling-dangled mini-speakers might not match a fully-loaded electroacoustic multi-channel system, but they definitely helped in dispersing the natural sounds of the pair's field-recorded material. Following what was a mesmerizingly relaxing flotation, the coagulated pair congratulated each other on their respective birdwatch sounds, Lewis being particularly impressed by Holzborn's exotic duck calls. Yes, the music featured recognizable real-life capturings, but also ventured into a finely-judged balance with subtly processed alterations.

The Bob Stewart Quartet

The Cornelia Street Café

April 27, 2010

Tubaman Bob Stewart doesn't play many gigs in the city, and when he does, he's often to be found down in this Greenwich Village basement. He was preparing to head off on a Congolese tour that was sponsored by Lincoln Center's Rhythm Road initiative. Fittingly, Stewart decided to devote much of the night's songbook to the globally-aware output of Don Cherry, although he also made diversions into the work of another old colleague, Arthur Blythe, before dropping in tunes by Kelvin Bell and Astor Piazzolla.

Stewart's son Curtis was playing violin, foregoing any extremities of amplification, and choosing only the faintest trace of abrasion to his bowing. In terms of his swinging, bouncing, articulate dexterity, surely Billy Bang must loom large in Stewart Jr's pantheon of influences. The line-up was completed by guitarist Jerome Harris and drummer Matt Wilson, the latter showing more restraint in this setting, but still providing a skittering swing as he highlighted his extra percussion trimmings.

Buoyancy is the crucial quality of this band. Whether negotiating the first set's more intricate compositions, or magnifying the funk for their second set, this is a disconcertingly nimble outfit. As Stewart's radio microphone wiggles and bobs in its supportive elastic bell-cradle (and that's a big belled-tuba!), it becomes a symbolic embodiment of the general approach. Besides picking sweetly pricking guitar parts, Harris pursued a vocal line on his own contribution, increasing the Afro-funk humidity. The unlikely inclusion of Piazzolla's "Libertango" further opened up the already globe-trawling range. The entire repertoire made a radical departure from any other gig (besides one given by Mister Cherry), facilitating soloing and ensemble contortions not easily heard anywhere else. Stewart's quartet emanated a unique personality, sounding slickly casual, with a skin-grafted closeness, quite possibly with minimal rehearsal time.

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