Sunn O))) + Phurpa
18 Aug 2015: The Royal Festival Hall London
Stasis, silence, chaos, drones and Lady Gaga
Minimalist composer La Monte Young once said that, in music, he was mainly interested in stasis, rather than movement: the lack of absolute motion and the absence of a direction in space and time was what fascinated him. Idleness means silence, and silence is the sum of all sounds, in the same way as white is not a colour, but yet is the sum of all different wavelengths. Ironic as it might be, silence is therefore supreme chaos, totality and infinite entropy. To the bearded gentleman sitting next to me at the Royal Festival Hall tonight, David Byrne—one who knows a thing or two about wavelengths—seemed almost apologetic in his introduction of Sunn O))) on the Southbank Centre’s website. “I saw them some years ago at a former church, which was very appropriate,” said the former Talking Head’s thinking brain. “It’s a big, big sound—very primal. It strips away a lot of what’s inherent in a lot of music and then ramps up what’s left. It’s an experience as much as it is a musical performance.”
And an experience it is. At first glance, the troops rallied in the hall of the Southbank Centre have the know-how to handle what is about to happen. Yes, the obligatory heavy metal t-shirt pops up from time to time, and yes, the almost equally mandatory set of earplugs can be seen in all sorts of colours and shapes, but there is a quasi-religious vibe in the air. As people flock into the hall preparing for the supporting act, the tangibly mystical aura surrounding the Seattle duo is somehow challenged by the three men now sitting in the centre of the stage. Phurpa, from Russia, play traditional Bön ritual music, a genre directly linked with what many consider a pre-Buddhist religion, but which in reality started in eleventh century Tibet. Gyaling oboes, nga drums and three sets of vocal chords completely dedicated to overtone chanting generate sounds for the best part of an hour but, somehow, their meaning is lost to us. The performance appears to be out of place, unnatural, thus not doing justice to the millennial tradition it allegedly represents. And, no, it is not because the speakers are crackling or because someone leaves after a few minutes probably bored to death. The ensemble appears to improvise without ever arousing the audience’s curiosity, thus missing an opportunity to make the Bön tradition known to the vast majority of them. References to other traditions (the Nyingmapa, for instance) would have made their set slightly more unpredictable and, because similar performances outside the usual cultural and religious circles have to be provocative by definition, the flow of their set is interrupted only by the coming and going of people with other things in their minds.
The black tide populating the foyer is feasting on even blacker Sunn O))) merchandise while, inside the hall, the speakers fill the air with vintage Black Sabbath. The bearded man seems relaxed with a smile that is almost a grin, as he leafs through the programme for what seems to be the fourth time. The room fills faster as the lights begin to fade behind the rising curtain of cold carbon dioxide, and the music, that white totality, starts to emerge. It is stasis, it is chaos, but it is beautiful nonetheless. The drone music label that invariably finds a place next to Sunn O)))’s name might be risible (what does it mean? Lady Gaga’s music is full of drones but nobody seems to make a fuss about it), but it is the closest one can get to describing the ensemble’s music.
“Agartha” ascends through the thick red and purple mist. The bearded man can’t see it as his eyes are sealed above the grin. Greg Anderson (guitar), Stephen O’Malley (guitar), Tos Nieuwenhuizen (Moog) and Attila Csihar (vocals) are sporting the usual monk’s robes as the speakers crepitate to the low frequencies and the blurred view of four silhouettes raising one hand or a bottle of red wine is, by now, totally engulfed in noise. Csihar’s performance is—unfortunately—more controlled, more focused than it was the last time we saw them on the other side of the Thames. His vocal spectrum, one which is usually rich in varieties and colours, is tonight almost entirely confined to the baritone range, but it is definitely good enough. His duet with the Moog sends the now ecstatic unshaven man to another world, while the rest of the audience is left battling the overenthusiastic individual manning the dry ice. But it’s all good.
Once I thought that Arvo Pärt can definitely be heard in their music. But then I forgot about the whole thing. I did wrong, because I was right: not only does the Finnish composer come up here and there at different times, but one can hear Iancu Dumitrescu, Henri Pousseur, Luigi Nono and Lady Gaga. The concert is an uninterrupted, dynamic journey to the purity of sound, to decomposition, rather than its opposite, to the destruction of music in the search of silence. That same silence that is torn apart by the closing “Candlegoat”, which sums up the Sunn O))) doctrine: keep it loud, slow, low and plain. The set ends with a standing ovation while the lights go off, and the magic fades when the hooded men wearing monk’s robes become men with faces wearing monk’s robes. David Byrne has given us stasis, chaos and silence. The hirsute individual waves his programme in the air. He is either high on something or this is his own way of saying “thank you, Mr Byrne”. He leaves alone, still brandishing the beloved pamphlet, as the last of the fog melancholically finds its way to the illuminated ceiling.
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