St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh
St Cecilia was the patron saint of church music whose executioner took three attempts to chop off her head. Often, this two day event seemed to similarly lack an edge. With all performances unamplified, Three Blows aimed to explore the acoustics of the oldest purpose built concert hall in Scotland, oval shaped interior, domed ceiling and all, but this was only really achieved by the most experienced artists on show, Keith Rowe and Red Krayola mainstay Mayo Thompson, who headlined a night apiece.
Elsewhere, most of what followed was appealing enough, but given that the bulk of the acts come from a radical visual arts scene based around Glasgow’s Modern Institute, it was surprising how readily most clung to conventional performance set-ups. Saturday’s For The Voice session opened with Tattie Toes, a junkshop Brechtian quartet framed around Basque singer Nerea Bello, whose undulating wail was upstaged slightly by the incorporation of a spinning top into proceedings.
Correcto, who followed, were far more ordinary. On record, their buzzsaw pop vignettes would give Pete Shelley a run for his money but denuded of electric guitar and drums, singer-songwriter Danny Saunders and guitarist Richard Wright became punk folk troubadours showing off their sensitive side. They could learn much from Richard Youngs, who was the only artist other than Thompson and Rowe to really engage with the space. Without instrumentation, he pounded his way around the auditorium, incanting his insistent vocal rounds with hypnotic relish.
Other than an uncredited voiceover for composer John Harris at Stirling’s Le Weekend festival a couple of years back, this was Mayo Thompson’s first UK appearance since 1985, and his first solo set since the 1960s. Sporting a jacket and tie for the occasion, Thompson preferred to acknowledge rather than subvert the hall’s ornate formality, both by distributing a programme of works he intended to play and by the curt bow he took prior to sitting at the in-house pianoforte. He then proceeded to ‘perform’ John Cage’s 4'33" as his opener. As sirens wailed outside on Edinburgh’s busy Saturday night Cowgate, Thompson remained impassive, his face a picture of mock seriousness that made for the weekend’s greatest moment of silent theatre.
He followed this with a run through of 15 selections from his back catalogue accompanying himself on guitar. Going as far back as “War Sucks” from 1967’s The Parable Of Arable Land and material from his 1970 solo album, Corky’s Debt To His Father, unamplified and without the trappings of a group situation, Thompson’s blues roots are exposed more obviously than on record. His voice, however, remains a swooping instrument of delight. A quizzical take on the 1980s Rough Trade era Art & Language collaboration Old Man’s Dream both dediscofied and de-feminised the song, Thompson sounding surprised by his own premise, described by the event programme as 'a homeless bum meets a Freudian analyst'. Ergastulu, meanwhile, could have been Dr Seuss lecturing on some dialectical materialist version of Sesame Street. Sunday night’s Imaginary Landscape sessions focused on exploratory instrumental work.
Sarah Kenchington opened with a demonstration of a musical sculpture that looked like something dreamt up by a cartoon nutty professor. Beginning by dropping balls down a tube, this set in motion a series of effects involving rows of glasses, a gas powered tuba, bits of old typewriter, gramophones and the inevitable big bass drum. The One Ensemble’s Daniel Padden assisted this giant game of musical Mousetrap on banjo. Tony Swain followed this with a set of pretty guitar instrumentals before Rude Pravo, a duo of film maker Luke Fowler and multi-instrumentalist Stevie Jones, performed a series of musical sketches on piano, melodica, double bass and guitar.
Set back on the hall’s small stage, much of Imaginary Landscape appeared spatially flattened, so it’s a relief when Keith Rowe set up his kit in the centre of the room, with headphones dotted about the ledges behind the seating. This made for a multi-dimensional, in-the-oval spectacle, as Rowe plucked his guitar strings with paper and miniature fans. With little reverberations skittering through the headphones, it was an oddly soothing experience. As Rowe tuned a radio in and out of audibility, he briefly stumbled on some church organ evensong. St Cecilia, it seems, was with us after all.
The Wire, Issue 295, September 2008