Deep, deep in the heart of beardy-hipster east London, five individuals were perched, cross-legged, on top of five curious perforated structures. These identical podiums, arranged in a line, were created by Danish architect and carpenter Uffe Surland Van Tams; they looked modernist and cool. The players sitting on them were youngish, four men and a woman; three had percussion instruments around them, the other two had Apple laptops and electronic consoles sprouting multicoloured wires.
One of the knob-twiddlers, sitting fourth from the left, was Tyondai Braxton, multi-instrumentalist and composer, former member of the experimental band Battles, and the man responsible for creating this event, part of the Barbican’s Explorations season celebrating 50 years of the esoteric record company Nonesuch, and which the publicity described as “part architectural installation and part band”.
Apart from bringing to mind the aphorism that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, this description was more arty verbiage than reality: this was, in essence, a musical performance in which the podiums, by dispersing coloured LED light in interesting ways through their perforations, added a sheen of shiny contemporariness to the occasion, but nothing more.
So what was the actual music like? The piece being performed was called Hive and lasted about 45 minutes. It was intense, at times sounding like the soundtrack to some impending shoot-out in an avant-garde space western – plinks and scrapes and shuffles and rattles. Periodically, though, a rhythm would spread through the ensemble – complex, multilayered, shifting, driven by the thump of a bass drum or by electronically generated grunts, fleshed out with the rattle and “krrrill” of drumsticks on wooden blocks, small drums and snares. The percussionists were working from scores, and their concentration levels were extraordinary – with no visual cue or conductor to guide them, they were nevertheless immaculately synchronised. It was absorbing, at times viscerally thrilling, especially towards the end, when a particularly insistent rhythm was struck up; among the crowd, there was some almost-dancing.
Braxton himself twiddled his knobs manfully and bobbed gently. At the end he held up his palm to acknowledge the warm applause before he and his bandmates dismounted from their podiums and melted away. Afterwards my brain felt a little overwhelmed by the multitude of sounds I’d experienced – but in a good way.