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 elaborateor 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.
I love jazz because it is both challenging and exhilarating, and the endeavor of improvisation is the highest form of art.
I met so many great musicians--including my two earliest heroes, Maynard Ferguson and Dizzy Gillespie--by attending concerts
and being willing to treat them with the respect they deserve.
The best show I ever attended was the Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman Song X concert at Cornell University.
The first jazz record I bought was an RCA compilation by Dizzy Gillespie.
My advice to new listeners is to not be afraid to listen to something because you're not familiar with the artists or the band or
the genre or anything - this is music that is best experienced through discovery.