[longer version of a review first published in The Wire #338]
Elodie + Eyvind Kang & Jessica Kenney
Cafe Oto, London, UK
Eyvind Kang’s latest project and LP, The Narrow Garden, reaches for early French troubadour poetry or non-western poetry from Persia and Far East, which challenged a lot my training in modern Western poetry. We think metaphors are something to decipher, put into set of cultural references, and forget the contemplative & epiphanic meaning that poetry used to have in pre-modern times and which even someone so devoted to classic erudition as TS Eliot could still appreciate in religious, pre-romantic approaches of his favorite Dante & Cavalcanti. But given the circumstances, I’m sure the reception both Kang and Elodie wish for is non-academic. Elodie started this two-act gig in a completely packed Cafe Oto on the first night of snow this winter. It was organised as the first of a Stephen O’Malley-curated series, helping to promote two new works by some rarely seen musicians of the contemporary experimental scene. Such a chamber-like event demands absolute silence and focus, and one could feel the crowd, only seconds ago occupied by chat and gossip, melting minute by minute under the spell of Andrew Chalk’s tipping of the guitar and his Belgian collaborator Timo van Luyk’s flute. Their methods of effecting sound out of their instruments seem just as elusive and delicate as extremely modern in recalling 20th C avant-gardes – preparation, tipping and touching, suppressing the air in the van Luyk’s flute especially, so that shimmers and air flows are equal with the conventional “sound” itself, or even so that there was nothing such as an “orthodox” sound. The texture gets this way complicated in a way we didn’t predict – and the palette escapes any easy search for a melody or sound progression.
Chalk, immersed completely in the guitar, demonstrated some gripping focus on his instrument, with cymbal-like tapping, making shimmers, sounding like movements of the air as it was moving between the flute and the strings. In his review in The Wire 337, Nick Richardson aptly compares Elodie to Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, in that both are sacrificed to contemplation of exquisite patterns of the smallest gestures, as if stroking glass, like glissandos of a harmonica. Their latest record is called La Lumière Parfumée – something as delicate as the sound they’re making, seemingly contained in repetitive arrangements, but in fact happening in the light equation between the two musicians, so well placed together that it seemed nothing could interrupt their mutual alchemy.
The second part of the evening brought the pitch-perfect soprano of Jessica Kenney together with Kang’s musicianship. It started with Kenney walking across the room, between the crowd, who parted to let her in, and Kang following, with her singing single high notes, as if she was examining or mapping the resonance of the place. With that gesture, one could feel they absorbed the whole space into their performance. Kang and Kenney resurrected the spirit of the early medieval music without sounding anything like ethnographers or some society of Early Music. I’m quite sure that we were closer to the originals because both are capable of ‘thinking’ troubadour or Eastern music spirit, and not just mechanically rendering them. The effect was stunning. Kenney has one of the most beautiful and at the same time non-intimidating voices I’ve ever heard: sweet, multifaceted, deep and youthful, capable of capturing all the drama of her Persian or Provençal masochistic lovers, unhappy widows and loners. Kang was her perfect partner, masterfully rendering melodies in various musical scales on violin, guitars, flute, charmingly multi-layered by delays, echoes and feedbacks, creating complex musical patterns, cantilenas, drones and polyphonies. It seemed even too pure and indeed this evening was a test asking whether we are still capable of listening, of experiencing something so delicate, of such unknown beauty, such incredible austerity, at times clinically cold, otherworldly and distant. Something that seems to have nothing to do with the way we live our lives now, but that seems to matter, here and now; that brings us back to ourselves, to our bored and tired bodies, refreshes and renews them and the spirit that inhabits them.