Last year I had the agony of being tantalised by the idea of CRAM Festival (thanks to an interview I conducted with its three curators) without being able to attend the event itself. This year, I’m able to make it up to Hundred Years Gallery for a mere taste: the first of six shows taking place across the August bank holiday weekend, collating improvisers from across Europe in the form of solos, established ensembles and first-time creative acquaintances. No doubt my personal anticipation has something to do with it, but something about the basement space at Hundred Years leaves me itching for the event to start; the white walls and concrete floors seem to be hungry for creative activity, responding to even incidental mutters of conversation with bright, elaborative acoustic reflections. One painting hangs at the back of the room, but the space is otherwise a clean and expectant canvas.
The clarinets of Jason Alder, Tom Jackson and Alex Ward are quick to indulge the plea for sound, rinsing the space in warmth and sudden musical movement, with each clarinet colliding in mid-air and splashing against the surrounding walls. Sometimes their breaths extend in three separate strands, platting themselves together through gracious ascents and decadent loops; at other points, the prolonged drone of one is used as a vaulting platform for another, pressing off into somersaults of trill and dissonance. Immediately there’s an itchy energy at work, pocketed with staccato sucks and pops that come like hiccups during arguments – awkward bodily blockades on the route from primal mind to liberated mouth. Brawls break out frequently, with the players squawking and rolling over eachother until the sombre wail of one instils sudden regret and contemplation into the reeds of the other two. In fact, I’m particularly struck by those indicators of meditative realisation: when one player drops out (which happens frequently – all three clearly understand the profound impact of reducing a hectic trio to the shapely restraint of a solo or duet), the decision to return seems laboured and tense, as they each read the mood of the room in their absence to identify the most pertinent version of presence.
After observing the behaviour of three players inhabiting the same small space, I’m presented with a cellist reasoning with himself all alone. Marcio Mattos sounds as though he’s digesting a recent dramatic event by conversing with himself in a mirror. Frantic, hyperventilated bursts of bowed note are quickly rationalised by smoother hums of vibrato, which in turn slump into melodies of melancholic realisation. After a while, his notes start to come shrouded in delays and watery phasing FX, spilling out a small amplifier like hallucinations that smear one’s reflection into slurred, syrupy discord. He adjusts pressure to open new pathways of harmony, tugging out low drones into songs of overtone and bow friction. Sometimes it’s as though the instrument is a stubborn hoarder of secrets, out of which Mattos has to wring the truth via brute force (hideous assaults with fragments of credit card, agitated slaps against the cello body with the back of the bow) or gentle bribery, in which see-saws of harmony try to caress and seduce the instrument into confession. Those bright room acoustics only intensify the process of physicalising the turmoil of contemplation in solitude, pulling the instrument inside out by amplifying the reflections that swirl around the cello’s hollow interior.
The final performance of the afternoon is a woodwind duet between Sue Lynch and Adrian Northover, exploring how performer behaviour shifts when dealing with sound of varying force and delicacy. It begins with a negotiation between flute and soprano saxophone, with each gesture seemingly tilted out of the instrument like a glass marble, patiently increasing in force until the note consumes the sound of empty outward breath. Gradually, the instruments start to collide more boisterously, fighting for dominance in the higher frequencies and pressing together in dissonant deadlock. Lynch swaps her flute for alto saxophone – swooping into the lower pitches like a hammock, with the tiny bleats of soprano balanced carefully on top – before Northover follows suit, carrying the collaboration further down into warmer and looser movements. They alternate between vicious spits and lazy legato slack, pressing away from one another and then knotting themselves together carelessly as harmonies twist together. Late in the piece, the instruments descend into whispers. Notes disappear into solemn, intimate hushes of breath. The collaboration melts toward emptiness, with all conflict and love diffused into the sound of two individuals breathing into metal pipes, draining the room of sound and connotation to leave me sat inside an empty canvas all over again. A wonderfully diverse, deeply satisfying set of performances.