Monday 24 April 2023

The sheer variety of approaches and practices: Zubin Kanga's Machine Dreams plus Zöllner-Roche Duo at Rich Mix

Zubin Kanga (Photo Raphael Neal)
Zubin Kanga (Photo Raphael Neal)

Machine Dreams:
 Alex Groves, CHAINES, Robin Haigh, Ben Nobuto, Zubin Kanga, Nwando Ebizie, Julie Zhu, Joe Snape, Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Amble Skuse, Tansy Davies, Alex Paxton; Zubin Kanga, Heather Roche, Eva Zöllner, Blasio Kavuma; Rich Mix, Shoreditch
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 22 April 2023

Pianist/producer/composer Zubin Kanga presented a remarkable complete live performance of his cyborg-inspired album of new works, Machine Dreams

On a stage packed with electronics – keyboards, synthesisers, microphones and all manner of other gear – pianist/composer Zubin Kanga presented a complete live performance at Rich Mix, Shoreditch, of the ten pieces he commissioned for his recently released album, Machine Dreams (on Nonclassical). Featuring some established names alongside a range of rising stars, there was much to anticipate from the broad diversity of compositional voices he collaborated with on this project, with works by Alex GrovesCHAINESRobin HaighBen Nobuto, Nwando Ebizie, Jasmin Kent RodgmanAmble SkuseTansy DaviesAlex Paxton, and Zubin Kanga himself. The evening also featured a set from composer/DJ Blasio Kavuma and the Zöllner-Roche Duo in music by Julie Zhu and Joe Snape.

The concert opened with the beautiful, oceanic inhalations and exhalations of Single Form by Alex Groves. Based on slowly evolving crescendos and decrescendos of processed field recordings, Groves produced an atmospheric landscape of string-like sonorities, organically and sensitively controlled by Kanga through a pressure-sensitive keyboard interface, creating a sustained and hypnotic listening experience. Escape TERF Island from the multi-instrumentalist and multimedia artist CHAINES (Cee Haines) provided a dramatic contrast to this gentle opening work. Their chaotic, dramatic and angry work drew on sources as diverse as vintage video gaming, vocalised “farting sounds” and the pounding kick and snare drums of contemporary electronic dance music to create a varied and exciting piece which maintained its energy throughout and provided a real technical workout for Kanga, requiring a lot more than mere button-pressing to manipulate the complex array of samples and effects units.

Upcoming British composer Robin Haigh's new piece Morrow exploited a new kind of keyboard, equipped with TouchKeys sensors, which allowed Kanga's minutest touch to vary the speed and microtonal inflections at which he played back repeated sampled piano sounds. Haigh based his composition in a traditional and deeply romantic harmonic language, but this was continually undermined by the echoing delays and subtly detuned elements, fully exploiting the range of speeds the sensors allowed to achieve a variety of polyrhythmic effects. Kanga delivered this performance with great sensitivity, allowing the beautifully resonant harmonies all the space they needed to create an expressive and delicate tracery of sounds.

Ben Nobuto's choice of raw material for electronic manipulation was the performer's voice itself. Like much of the music in this programme, he took the idea of a cyborg – a machine/human hybrid and developed this to transform Kanga's stuttering, parlando performance into a short, intense, glitchy and highly concentrated tour de force. Kanga once again use the TouchKeys sensors to directly apply effects to his amplified voice as he spoke/sang, as well as to trigger samples and play synthesised sounds. The result gave the impression of a malfunctioning robotic remix – a fascinating concept, and one which could (and perhaps should) be developed into a longer piece – the less than three-minute duration of Bad Infinity left the audience definitely wanting more.

Alongside collaborating with a wide range of compositional voices, Kanga also created one of the new pieces in this set himself – the fascinating and complex Metamemory. Drawing on his long experience in a more traditional format as a concert pianist, this work allowed Kanga to perform on a keyboard-based sampler, loaded with samples of AI-generated audio, which itself was trained on Kanga's own recordings of works from the pianistic canon, Berg, Ravel, Takemitsu, Debussy and many others. While playing back what he describes as “monstrous but strangely beautiful” restructured and remixed sampled piano sounds from his own past as a performer, Kanga also used a second electric piano to comment and compose around his own processed memories. This is music which is not only operating on several complex conceptual levels at the same time, but which was varied, radiant and a really rewarding, deeply considered listening experience.

Nwando Ebizie's I Will Fix Myself (Just Circles) concluded the first half of the programme, and this was perhaps the most theatrical and technically complex of the compositions offered this evening – having listened to the CD recordings beforehand, I was especially curious to discover how Kanga would manage a live performance of the complex layering of this work, including AI generated voices, manipulations of Kanga's own voice, a vintage analogue Moog synthesiser, and an array of contemporary digital tech, all of which combined with Kanga's impressive pianism, his electronic piano run through a series of effects pedals, reversed, resampled and transformed. The result was as interesting to watch in performance as it was to listen to – Kanga's precise movements around the stage creating a choreography of small, deliberate movements which existed as a jarringly contrasting counterpoint to the wild, swirling complexity of the aural experience.

Unusually, the interval in this concert contained more music - some (thankfully) low intensity electronica sets from RPS prize-winning composer/DJ Blasio Kavuma created a backdrop for intense conversations with the composers and the large, knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience before the internationally renowned Zöllner-Roche Duo performed a short, 30-minute set of two new pieces, Julie Zu's subtle and humorous Nadir aux Pommes successfully some included theatrical elements, although the generally quiet dynamic of the work and its placement in the interval (while the bar was serving drinks) unfortunately meant that its impact was perhaps missed by many of the audience. The multimedia focus of Joe Snape's Signs of Life, on the other hand, drew a lot more attention with its strobing lights and flickering, often hilarious, projected text, which was often in stark contrast with the minimalistic pulsing repetitions of Roche & Zöllner's clarinet & accordion. As always, the almost-telepathic connection between these very experienced stalwarts of the European contemporary music scene was in evidence – these are two players who are so committed to producing the best possible interpretations of the ever-growing canon of works written for their idiosyncratic instrumentation.

Jasmin Kent Rodgman’s one hundred random demons was one of two works on the programme which made use of MiMU gloves – a new wearable controller – which allowed Kanga to create and control a startling range of timbres through gesture, which lent an arrestingly theatrical element to the performance. Rather than just being a gimmick, his adept mastery of this technology was a clear element of Rodgman’s conception for her piece, which explored the amplified micro-sonorities produced by a table full of small household items, and the idea of these items having their own “kami” or spirit. Along with the following work, Amble Skuse’s Interiterations, it was fascinating to hear (and see) how piano and percussive sounds could literally be manipulated after their initial playing – something normally unachievable for pianists and percussionists, but here made possible through Kanga’s use of the MiMU interface and some carefully programmed patches.

Star-Way, Tansy Davies’s pulsating, arpeggiated composition for the retro-analogue sounding Prophet Rev synthesiser, deftly conjured the atmosphere of vintage science fiction soundtracks. With a sound palette of pinging synths and crunch, bit-crushed, noise-based percussive timbres which could have been directly borrowed from 1978, her tightly focused composition explored the whole range of the instrument with waves of energy. Not only was this a sustained work of great beauty, but this live rendition by Kanga delivered its repeatedly rising and falling waves of sound with conviction and poise. Rather than simply reproducing an exact copy of the recorded album version, this was a genuine performance for the enthusiastic audience, and Davies herself was clearly delighted by the response.

The set concluded with Alex Paxton’s Car-Pig – a riotous barrage of sampled vocal and animal sounds, delivered with his signature chaotic energy and breakneck pace. Paxton's full-throttle high-energy compositional style is totally unique. Imagine if the child of Frank Zappa & Bjork studied with John Zorn and then decided to do their own thing anyway. His maximalist approach works very well in the studio, where he can record, edit and overlay the vastly dense collages that are key to his sound, but Kanga in this live performance came very close to replicating the sheer overabundance of simultaneously occurring stuff that Paxton can cram into a single short track. It was a vital, exciting and exceptional ending to a uniquely engaging evening.

The main takeaway from this concert was the sheer variety of approaches and practices represented here. Each of the pieces very much contained its own soundworld and idiom, and Kanga had a fantastic platform to demonstrate his technical as well as pianistic mastery over this vast array of very different (and often very demanding) compositions. It was also a wonderful showcase for the imaginative and forward-thinking programming and curation of the Nonclassical record label, who continue to champion innovative musicians and put on exceptional live events in support of their recorded output. Considering the significant amount on tech on stage, and the length of the performance (there was pretty much continuous music from 7pm to 10:30pm) this was actually a pretty smooth experience too. Kanga spoke eloquently and enthusiastically about the music he'd commissioned for this project, and then took a few moments to set up and test the electronics for each piece, but these short breaks in the music were useful to consider and digest the very different sonorities and timbres presented by each composer. Overall, this was an entirely successful live presentation of complex and detailed studio-based compositions, and the technical side was as impressive as the musical side.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

Machine Dreams was released on the Nonclassical label on the 20 April and is available via the Nonclassical website or via BandCamp

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