King’s Place Festival
Early on in 2005’s Haunted Weather, David Toop tells the story of an event in a Tokyo art gallery which brought together electronic musicians with an improvising vocalist and trumpeter. Intended as a cross genre collaboration, the event, in Toop’s mind never hits its stride, the sound and data exchanges of the electronic crew forming a kind of hermetically sealed ecosystem, lacking gaps or spaces for the acoustic improvisers to insert themselves. The implication is that you can improvise electronically, or acoustically, but you can’t do both.
Things have moved on since then. Sound wrangling technology has got better and cheaper, and artists, such as Evan Parker with his electro-acoustic ensemble and laptop explorer Matthew Wright to name a couple, seem to have gained a more nuanced understanding of how to put digital and analogue instrumentation together to create blurring and shifting swarms of sound that are far more than the sum of their parts.
And now Food – the duo of saxophonist Iain Ballamy and percussionist Thomas Strønen – take us further down this road, using electronics to amp up their already superhuman virtuosity into extended, synapse-frazzling tumults of improvisation.
Ballamy and Strønen have been active as Food since their self-titled debut album in 2000. It’s an open partnership with both players active as solo performers and in several other configurations. Their latest record, 2012’s Mercurial Balm is a series of sublime, spacey pieces for ECM, augmented by players such as Christian Fennesz and Nils Petter Molvær.
But what makes Food such a captivating prospect is their brain-melting live performances – like this hour-long set at the King’s Place festival. Unlike some of their contemporaries, they don’t recruit a laptop guru to do the digital bit while they merrily hoot and bash away. Instead, for this performance, all of the sound manipulation is done by Ballamy and Strønen themselves, in real time, as part of the surge and flow of the playing.
Strønen, in particular, plays as if some Nordic hell hound was on his trail. He’s got a drum kit set up in front of him, with a table to the side containing a couple of samplers and loop boxes. One second he is carving out dizzyingly complex snatches of rhythm on the kit then, suddenly, one stick is between his teeth and his left hand is punching buttons on the sampler, changing and layering and distorting the sounds.
On the other side of the stage, Ballamy seems to be using his own rig slightly more sparingly – although its not always clear who is doing what. He starts on tenor saxophone, playing gruff, staccato burps to match Strønen’s asymmetrical beats which the unfurl into longer, guttural, flowing lines reminiscent of Mats Gustafsson’s playing with The Thing. Later he switches to soprano, taking us into the matrix at the same time, with wafts of reedy, keening curling into the aether like clouds across the moon.
There’s a lot of music for your mind here. The sound is clear and crisp – its no accident that Bellamy thanks their sound engineer at the end – allowing us to hear every shiver and clicking of the pieces. A mighty impressive low end gives the sound system a hefty punch.
There are beats for your body too. At one point, Strønen uses brushes to cook up a propulsive, running tempo that brings to mind Innerzone Orchestra’s Bug in the Bassbin for Bellamy to solo over. Elsewhere, a short burst of choppy, wooden clonking is doubled and transformed into a disjointed stomp, with Bellamy’s tenor rasps turning this section into a brief, but full-on, Afrobeat jam.
“What can I tell you about this music?” says Ballamy. “There’s not much to say really”. And, by jove, he’s right. The stuff we’ve just heard defies explication. Trying to get down in paragraphs why this stuff is so exhilarating and so mind-blowing is a frustrating job which can only ever result in a leaden simulacrum of the joyful and brain melting 60 or so minutes that have just passed by in a silvery weaving moment. All I can say is: see ‘em if you can. They’re stunning.