January 2019 – upcoming London experimental gigs – Marianne Schuppe’s ‘slow songs, nosongs’ (9th January)

5 Jan

I’ve got to admit, I like a complicated song. Blame all of that prog I grew up listening to; blame my interest in Sondheim and Flanders & Swann; or my time in choirs singing extended classical pieces… but whether it’s a case of stretching the lyrical format with streams of words or internal rhymes or of massing the music with variations, countermelodies or sundry intrusions, I like songs which develop quickly and boldly into something more extensive than a couple of riffs, a chorus and a bit of moon-in-june.

Marianne Schuppe, 2018

Marianne Schuppe, 2018

Encountering the kind of song which works at the other extreme, though, can be a real head-turner… and if it’s done right, it takes my breath away. The Swiss singer-composer Marianne Schuppe has been making a name for herself with this kind of song, this kind of singing, for about two decades now. It’s not the only thing she does (she’s a member of the Wandelweiser group of avant-garde composers, contributing instrumental and noise work, and she improvises with a variety of other musicians including Alfred Zimmerlin), but this particular aspect of her work stands out in its uncluttered boldness, its Zenlike simplicity and focus on only the necessary elements.

If you’re approaching this from a pop or avant-pop context, you could draw some comparisons with the more hovering, trepidatious interludes in modern-day Scott Walker, with Nico’s work on ‘The Marble Index’, or with the song whispers of Anja Garbarek’s ‘Smiling & Waving’. Aficionados of classical music could probably pick closer analogies – I could cite some aspects of Eleanor Armer‘s songcraft, for example – and a significant part of Marianne’s reputation comes from her dips into the indeterminate end of contemporary classical, making interpretations of the elusive, protracted song-murmurs of Morton Feldman and Giacinto Scelsi (with their minimal pitching, silences and opportunity to make every pared phrase count).

Yet for the most part Marianne’s own songs seem to bud out of the air spontaneously, any motivations or influences hidden within the moment. She’s stated that her prime interest as a composer-performer is “the voice’s ability to move between pure sound and words”; and while for many experimental vocalisers this is an excuse for splurging, showy explosions of babbling glossolalia, for her it’s an opportunity to slow liminal skating, shading almost imperceptibly between a lone, literally meaningful word and a lacuna of non-literal meaningful noise-tone, all within a low, minimal enclosure of soprano range like a deliquescing icicle. Marianne accompanies herself by placing an acoustic lute flat on a table top (a la Keith Rowe) and extracting notes from it via “uber-bows” – homemade bastard cousins of EBows, those hand-held electro-magnetic note inducers which add those sustained whooping tones to certain spacier rock songs (from Fade Away And Radiate, The Unforgettable Fire and Don’t Fear The Reaper to… oh, yes, R.E.M.’s Ebow The Letter) or the bookending humming halos to John Cage’s harp work ‘Postcard From Heaven’.

The sparse tonal wellings which result sound nothing like string plucks, and nothing like the accompaniments to a John Dowland lute lay. They’re amorphous bodies of tone, forced up like the first emergence of spring-waters, or the work of sine-tone generators. It’s a peculiar, unexpected use of an instrument with such an extensive body of associated work and history: like a kind of musical exorcism or automatic writing exercise, dipping below the surface of how the instrument functions in order to access a different expectation-disrupting voice. As for the songwords, they’re strange passes at impressions and impulses which might, if looked at too closely, disappear under the weight of logic. As text, they’re almost white-on-white – fragments of stories and encounters involving sunhats and deer, or studies of fingers – minimal anchors to latch onto slivers of ideas which Marianne can follow uninterrupted and undistracted, and let go whenever she sees fit.

 
Marianne’s slot next week at Café Oto showcases – or, more accurately, liberates – songs of these kind from two of her recent albums: 2015’s ‘slow songs’ and its 2018 cousin ‘nosongs’. In terms of vision and artistic platforming it ought to be very much an Oto show, although perhaps the venue’s friendly, expansive, post-industrial intellectual feel isn’t the perfect match. Ideally, these songs belong in the smallest, quietest space possible. A welcoming cellar somewhere, accessed by a winding symbolic stair; and with a silent, attentive, deep-listening audience hand-cupping songs and singer in a cell of absolute attention.

Marianne Schuppe: ‘slow songs, nosongs’
Café Oto, 18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 3DL, England
Wednesday 9 January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here
 

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