Felt like I wanted to put some words down somewhere on my first ambient…viewing? Performance? Experience? Call it what you will, but it certainly wasn’t a gig.
I have to say, I got pretty darn excited when I saw that Grouper would be performing in Birmingham. No one good ever comes here, and no one ambient ever tours in the first place. So naturally I bought a ticket, singular, because I knew nobody interested in this kind of music. For those who aren’t familiar with her work, she hangs predominantly around ambient and drone with some folk injections, a sound which has been growing in popularity through 2011 and 2012. Anyway, I had no idea what to expect in the slightest. No idea what the venue was like, how to dress, what music to expect, I was a bit anxious going in.
There were two acts before Grouper; Swllws and Diamod Catalog, both of them local bands I believe. Not support acts really, they felt much more like significant performances in their own right. Swllws came on first, and so began probably the most curious 3 hours of my life. Swllws was actually what I expected Grouper to sound like; lots of found sounds, field recordings, dreamy drone backing and gauzy, reverbed vocals. During the most heartfelt phase of her performance, the (surprisingly relevant) accompanying projected video showed old, B&W/sepia photographs being placed into a box while she sang “I miss you…”. It was actually blindsided me a bit and it was incredibly beautiful, easily the best part of the night. Pretty sure I heard a few gentle sobs behind me at this point and I can’t blame them; there was a lot of empathy in the room at that point, it was pretty tough not to be caught up in it.
But then came the odd duo of Diamond Catalogue, comprised of a guy who looked like he’d just come from a heavy metal gig and a little Asian girl. After the most protracted setup of all time (which involved stringing various lightbulbs and fairy lights about the place) they began playing…stuff. Loud, brutal electronic and techno music with intense distortion effects and only the merest semblance of rhythm. It was choatic and mad, at times almost compelling listening, but it was so out of place. It didn’t match the mood in the slightest and there were a fair few bewildered faces about the room. To their credit they did a lot of live effects themselves, they didn’t just hit play and leave the laptop running, there was a lot of dial twiddling and button mashing to generate their sounds.
And then Grouper. The reason I really like her stuff normally is the acoustic crossover between the drone and folk genres. Drone and folk complement each other fantastically well, and I was hoping she’d incorporate some vocals and/or guitar into her performance like she does in her albums, but I was let down. What she actually did was 40 minutes of surprisingly mundane drone, although it was accompanied by some fairly interesting graphics. I’m not actually sure what I did for those 40 minutes; time seemed to have ceased functioning logically as gentle waves of noise just permeated the room. There was little in the way of progression, of variance; I’ve heard far better drone than I did that night, but the last few minutes were astounding. Something you can’t do at home is put drone on and turn the volume up; I’ve tried with Thomas Koner before but the floor and walls start shaking and I have to stop for fear of disturbing neighbours/family members/the fabric of reality. Without volume restrictions the music becomes this unbridled, ear-shaking, body rattling wall of noise. It wasn’t like the way dubstep has walls of bass, this was a hugely complex, multitextured wall of noise. It felt like my eardrums were just going to shake right out of my skull but at the same time it was incredibly intoxicating and I don’t want it to end. The whole ending sequence sounding very cathartic after the somewhat oppressive and claustrophobic 30 minutes that preceded it.
I still don’t fully understand what I experienced that night, I can’t even decide whether I actually enjoyed it or not. I feel like it was almost the wrong way to consume music like that; I’ve always proclaimed that ambient is more of a personal, between-the-headphones experience for one rather than something shared. I think if it’d just been me in the room alone rather than with about 60 other people I might be more enthusiastic about it, but I wasn’t and I’m not. That being said I don’t regret going in the slightest, and I’d go and see it again in a heartbeat. Music is so faceless, it’s great to get the opportunity to see artists performing live, creating and broadcasting their creations directly from their fingertips to your ears.
If you read all that, you’re a babe. I hope I haven’t put anyone off with what I’ve written; this is of course probably not representative of all ambient performances, just this one and from my own personal viewpoint. In many respects it was quite like a classical music performance, just a little more…artsy.
Tl;dr, spent 3 hours listening to ambient/drone/electronic, came back just as unsure as I was when I went it.