jean-luc guionnet review

Unexpectedly and probably only for a limited period I'm back online at home. Assuming the connection doesn't drop partway through I'm going to take the opportunity to review Jean-Luc Guionnet at St. Philips in Salford last night.

Impressively given that the weather was still cold and the snow has pretty much compacted to ice on the pavements there must have been around 30+ people in the church. In fact a lot of us were in the church around 19:00 before Jean-Luc was able to get there having been delayed on the train down from Scotland. So as requested we left the church until the rescheduled start time of 20:30.

At the previous event in the church Lemur played in front of the altar. So the space was being used in the way it was intended. When I arrived I initially thought that as in so many churches the organ would be at the front to one side. In fact it's on the balcony in the centre of the church behind the congregation. While it's not huge and the pipes are not decorated the wooden body of the organ is an attractive green with a yellow line just in from the edge as the minimum of decoration.

What would normally be the front three rows of seats were turned round so we could face the organ. Or as close as we could approximate from below. Because the church and the organ are so different from anything I ever had to encounter while I was growing up I didn't have to fight memories of being bored on a Sunday. In fact I spent most of the time with my eyes closed.

I don't actually remember whether Jean-Luc started with disconnected pulses of sound or if he went straight into drones. I know that these stabs of sound were a component of the performance from early on up to the end but the first element I have a clear memory of was a high drone that sounded more electronic than acoustic. That was soon joined by a bass drone that ran through most of the performance and was more sensed than heard.

As I've said there were brief stabs or pulses of sound that emerged and interacted with each other across intervals throughout the piece. They were often mournful and it was often tempting to compare them to other sounds as if music were ever descriptive in that way. All I will say is that where they sounded like anything else it was always something mechanical something manufactured.

The performance started quietly and with those pulses of sound but gradually gathered itself into some semblance of form. Drones shifted, for most of the performance underpinned by the bass drone and often with a high drone in place too. While the music was often static and superficially featureless there was more to it than that. There were tones hidden within the drones that were hard to trace and there were subtle vibrato effects that I assume were deliberately applied.

At times sounds emerged that reminded me of other music. So unaccountably having not listened to it for a long time a section of Jean-Luc's performance reminded me of Debussy's La Mer. Not because of any direct resemblance so far as I can tell listening to Debussy again but for short echoes of melody emerging from passages that are doing something quite different. Perhaps also for an air of melancholy and threat.

More absurdly a figure of five notes reminded me, again while being wholly different, of the five tones used to communicate with the extra-terrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There were even short passages that sounded more or less like what you would expect to hear from an organ. Similar to a conventional organ but similar also to electronic sounds some of the tones recalled what at the time I described as the liturgical tones Matt Wand, one of the night's organisers, managed to summon from Gameboys placed in spaghetti jars for if not this at Bury Art Gallery in September.

But I can't emphasise enough despite the sort of sounds you normally expect from an organ how clear the tones were, how much they often appeared artificially generated, and how sparse the sound was.

Perhaps three times having built in volume the music dropped to drones that seemed to be drawing the piece to an end only for a stab of sound to alert you that there was more to come. And so gradually the intervals between the stabs reduced and the relationships between them became more complex and the performance built itself up again.

There were surprises throughout. Some of the stabs of sound genuinely made me jump. There was a sequence where alongside the drones a quiet rhythm was maintained on what I assume were the pedals. Despite the organ sounding resolutely manufactured the potential 'breathy' quality was used at times. What surprised me the most is that I have never heard the organ played in this way before. I have probably written before about how a lot of musicians and sound artists generate fascinating sounds by treating the instruments not as instruments, as canonical objects with set ways of being played, but as sound sources from which a whole array of noises not necessarily capable of notation can be drawn. Although Jean-Luc looked to the untrained eye as though he was playing the organ in a conventional way the sounds he produced were far from canonical. Perhaps it was only with the opening up of musical vocabularies and the roughly coincidental receding of religion from everyday life that such sounds were not seen as frightening or evil.

I enjoyed the performance immensely and would like to have recorded it so I could re-listen and get a clearer image of its structure. Richard Barrett also managed to make it down although he hasn't attempted his own review yet.

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