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For the first edition of the ‘Off-Key Sessions’ in Bristol the organisers took over a wonderful and eerie vaulted crypt located underneath Grade I listed St John The Baptist church built in the 13th century alongside the Bristol city walls. Upon entering the venue, the small audience of 70 or so people were greeted by Ryan Teague’s neo-classical DJ set which immediately set the tone for the evening, engulfing the venue with beautiful and ghostly resonances.
Before the actual performances began, Ian Hazeldine (Antonymes) projected his film Light Dispersed Through Clouds at the back end of the crypt, a film full of contrasts between light and shadow, both on screen and through the speakers. From dark bass rumbles, sheets of wind and gusts of static echoing ominous birds, eerie clouds, leaf-less trees and disembodied buildings in the first half of the film, to the glorious string harmonies slowly undulating as the sun finally emerged from the preceding darkness in the second section, Hazeldine’s audio-visual presentation was a pure sensual and emotional delight.
After a short interval, Christoph Berg gave the first performance of the evening in a beautifully restrained fashion, playing violin lines (looped and layered) that slowly developed into delicate flickering textures whose gentle push and pull movements resonated through the vaulted crypt. As subtle resonances where wafting over the audience and engulfing it into desolated and yet beautiful landscapes, one couldn’t help being transported to an elusive timeless place that irradiated glorious colours.
Olan Mill quartet stepped up next after a short break and navigated a fine line between abstraction and more tangible feelings. As clear piano lines were often going through well defined chord progressions, guitar motifs were nicely abused through a complex array of pedals to carve out the low end of the spectrum and allow the violin to often take centre-stage and give the performance a delicate and subtle sense of narrative.
Daniel Thomas Freeman played quite a disparate set in comparison but tied it up together perfectly by addressing the audience directly to give some background information about each composition. From the very first track, a beautiful ritualistic gong droning piece, to the very last where he invited his wife on stage to provide achingly beautiful vocals, Freeman’s performance was underpinned by a wonderful sense of fragility and honesty.
Last performance of the evening by Richard Knox and Frederic D. Oberland, joined on stage by Angela Chan and Lidwine, was nothing less than extraordinary. The four musicians played a long set drawing on material from The Rustle of the Stars in a more haunted and visceral way, compared to the album. In Drawing Lines to the End of the World for instance or in The Wreck of Hope, Oberland’s guitar lines were more abrasive and emotive, giving the tracks an even more devastating outcome. One of the highlights of the set was perhaps harpist Lidwine, who sang beautifully and gave the performance some serious haunted resonances. From guitar to Rhodes piano, from violin to glockenspiel, from harp to pump organ, all musicians regularly changed instruments in a very organic and spontaneous way. And the special acoustics of the place heavily recalled the sense of space of the album itself which was recorded in St Margaret of Antioch church in Leeds, thus giving the music a wonderful depth of field.
As the day-light filtering through the arched windows slowly receded over the course of the evening, the music of Ryan Teague, Ian Hazeldine, Christoph Berg, Daniel Thomas Freeman, Olan Mill and Rustle of the Stars imbued the audience with a humbling sense of wonder, and while the whole of the crypt was finally vibrating in one eternal and beautiful resonance, the place inhabited by 800 years of sacred music suddenly found a new breath of life – something the organisers should be proud of.
- Pascal Savy