Friday, July 27, 2012

Gig: Nick Kuepfer

Nick Kuepfer (I Have Eaten The City / Silent Land Time Machine / Khôra)

The Tranzac (Southern Cross Lounge). Wednesday, June 8, 2011.

Nick Kuepfer must have angered the weather gods. The previous time he was due in town, a massive snowstorm made passage down the 401 from Montréal impossible. And out of nowhere, this day brought a sudden, violent thunderstorm in the hours before the show. As I left work to head down for this gig, lightning was flickering across a sky that looked like a fluorescent tube on its last legs.

Though I was wondering if that was going to affect the gig, once I made it down, the Tranzac felt like more like its usual sanctuary of genteel chaos. In the bathroom, a couple empty coathangers dangled from the outside wall of the toilet stall, as if some a folkie or castmember in a community theatre troupe had made a quick-change getaway from the venue. And back in the Southern Cross, cello player Nick Storring was fighting against some computer problems as his bandmates were ready to start playing.

I Have Eaten The City had not played as a trio for a while, but they still had an easy familiarity. Part of that would arise from the double set of inter-relationships between the players: Colin Fisher (guit) and Brandon Valdivia (percussion) play together often as Not the Wind, Not the Flag (and in a whole host of other projects); Valdivia and Storring are both members of Picastro. So it's not impossible to think that gear trouble, and the sense of fighting against it, are just another parameter to improvise within.

Once things got going, against a backdrop of some knob-twiddling guitar effects, Storring slowly worked up to some creaky pulls with his bow across the cello's strings, a loose rhythm from Valdivia behind them slowly rising, inspiring some reverse loop work on the guitar. Then, as Fisher changed to some different textures, Storring switched to a miniature sampling keyboard, adding some sub-syllabic aaaaahs. A few minutes later, he'd add some more substantial wordless vocals.

Meanwhile, Valdivia added some flute before he and Fisher traded spots. As Fisher took over the rhythm, Valdivia played mbira, fed into Fisher's pedal train. This would be a familiar dynamic from their Not the Wind sets, and here, Storring watched for a couple minutes before catching onto Valdivia's repeating pattern and playing a theme on his cello to accompany it, a satisfying moment that gave it a different cast than the usual duo resolution. After that, the set ended with Fisher grabbing some shakers and making his way to the back of the room.

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

There were also some sound problems to start things off for Silent Land Time Machine, the bandonym of an unnamed protagonist from Houston, who was on this occasion playing solo, with a violin, loop pedal and a table of electronics. This was the first night of a tour with Khôra and Nick Kuepfer, and clearly all the road-kinks weren't worked out yet, especially regarding how to interface with the Tranzac's sound system. As he started, he was basically playing through one channel only, a buzzing hum the only noise in the other speaker. That undercut the impact of his elegiac looped strings which incorporated some keening wordless vocals toward the end. Under better circumstances, it would have been quite lovely; here the audience had to extrapolate a bit to guess at what was intended.

A pause for some technical adjustments after that got the house system in better shape, but it still looked like not everything was coming out as intended. The second number was a bit busier, with a squelchy percussion track and guitar over top, adding a nimble trebly loop and then more vocalisations. That segued (and the well-handled segues might have been the best thing in the set) into the next phase — there were three further pieces, I think, in a continuous twelve-minute stretch, the first of which was mildly glitchy before returning to a more meditative piece with guitar to finish.

The artist seemed a little frustrated, and cut the set short after that. But there was enough to intrigue here, and I would see him again, ideally when technology was firing on all cylinders. But really, as is often the case with unfamiliar, improvised music, whatever shortcomings there were was probably far more apparent to the artist than an audience with no preconceived notion of how the music is "supposed" to sound.

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

Making up for that Musique Fragile-launching gig1 he'd missed, Nick Kuepfer played a surprisingly short set, starting out with unadorned guitar. After that short clearing-the-throat sort of piece, the next selection started with just guitar as well, but now it was a bit more haunting and atonal, with detuned plucks offsetting intricate runs before some subtle live looping came via a reel-to-reel tape machine.

The soundtrack-y feel was enhanced in the next piece with some wordless vocals — it sounded like something from an abstracted avant-Western, giving images of someone going crazy while walking down a dusty street under a scorching sun. Meanwhile, closer "A River" was the most intriguingly eerie, a haunting journey produced on a strange instrument: a wooden box with some bass strings across the top, which Kuepfer proceeded to bow, with loops adding eerie background layers. Subsequent investigation would imply the the box was a customized spring reverb unit, and it generated a quite amazing tone. That all satisfied, even if the barely-past twenty minutes set length left a thirst for more.2

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

The night was closed out by Matthew Ramolo, who records under the bandonym Khôra. I've been fascinated by (and more expansive in describing) his sounds on seeing him before. This time out, with the hour growing late, Ramolo also played a slightly-shorter set than usual, compressing things a bit to under twenty minutes. But that's not to imply that he was suddenly trafficking in quickness of any variety — the set was basically two large cresting waves, each about ten minutes long.

The first started with his guitar treated with a screwdriver, the nibbles ascending for a few minutes before layers and layers of loops — some of guitar, some of Ramolo's analog synth — built up the drifting sound until there were several lines playing off each other. The second crest came a little closer to, say, "rocking out" than Ramolo usually engages in, using small hammers (possibly from a piano?) to strike the strings. Ramolo's stuff usually employs duration as one element in inducing a sort of focused semi-trance state, so there is a bit of a loss when things move along too quickly to really pull you in. Still, a good capper to the evening.

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

1 This triple-album set from Constellation has some highly interesting stuff. I would note that Volume 02 is also now available, although sadly there's no CD issue for this one.

2 Oh, and speaking of intriguing sonic exlorations, you should check out this crowdsourced funding proposal from Kuepfer, wherein as part of a scientific Arctic exploration trip, he proposes "... to work with the sounds of the environment at various locations, including sounds of underwater with the use of a hydrophone microphone. These sounds will be processed through 2 1/4" tape machines with an extended tape loop strung between creating a call and response with the sounds of the environment relative to the length of the loop." This sounds like fascinating stuff and worthy of support.

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