"Ether is Southbank Centre’s festival of innovation in sound and art
with an emphasis on digital culture, cutting-edge collaborations and
In addition to being responsible for a large percentage of the more exciting music events in any given London week, Southbank Centre also has a rich Artists In Residence program. Throughout the year, these artists perform on their own and also frequently collaborate with other acts visiting the Centre. While any opportunity to see a classic staple from the Warp Records line-up shouldn't be missed, this is doubly true when they're paired with one of these featured artists. Saturday night's Ether line-up saw the laptop wizardy of Plaid meet the polyrhythmic sounds of Indonesian composer and Southbank Centre artist-in-residence, Rahayu Supanggah, in an hour than underscored just how vital the gamelan sound is to contemporary electronic music.
Beginning the performance alone on stage, surrounded by a vast sea of gamelan instruments, Plaid opened the set with their signature blend of anxious ambience and broken beats. While these first few tunes were interesting enough, it was only when they were joined by Supanggah and the Southbank Gamelan Players that the real magic began. The full ensemble included several percussionists, vocalists, a flautist and a strings specialist playing what resembled an erhu. As projected visuals responded to every nuance of the sound behind them, Plaid remained central and the surrounding rhythm orchestra came alive.
Although the visuals were compelling, watching the movements of the gamelan players was far more mesmerizing. As the electronic duo sat relatively motionless at their computers, the percussionists suddenly started striking their instruments in perfect unison. Plaid may have been generating the most synthetic sounds, but operating with such precision timing, it was the gamelan orchestra that appeared to be the true rhythm machine. With arms rising and hammers falling, the Southbank Gamelan Players resembled delicate pieces of a human watch, ticking out the units of a time far more complex and fractured than our world of simple minutes and seconds.
The most crucial component of a successful collaboration is how well the disparate elements compromise and cooperate. Plaid often chose wisely to take a backseat to the large, full presence of the gamelan, contributing bits of glitch and splutter with a soft touch. This restraint ensured that the centuries old music of Java mixed seamlessly with the computer controlled experiments of London. When the two worlds did clash, Plaid appeared as a darker, artificial foil to the gamelan, less physical and machine-made in form, but spiritually the same.
From contemporary classical music to techno, gamelan has made a strong and lasting impact on Western music's perception of repetition and rhythm. Listening to a Steve Reich recording and hearing its debt to Indonesia is one thing, however, and witnessing both worlds come together on a stage is another. While I'd love to hear the album that these two groups could produce together, I wonder if a small bit of emotion would be lost by removing it from a live concert setting. With so many types of music arguably just as good recorded if not better than at a gig, having a sound that's actually far more fantastic live isn't such a bad thing. I have too many records anyway.
For more photos from this gig, as well as other Ether 09 performances, visit my Ether 09 set on Flickr.