Father Murphy, A Hawk & A Hacksaw, Mouse On Mars at the Bronson Club, Ravenna.
The juxstaposition of styles presented during this concert showed how sonic transmissions in our technically challenging (and challenged!) age can be by turns nostalgic, alienating and invigorating.
In Keywords (A vocabulary of culture and society) Marxist academic Raymond Williams wrote that, in the 18th century, the verb ‘to modernize’ was mainly applied to buildings and was not automatically regarded as something positive. Nowadays, modernization is generally associated with improvement and forward thinking. Williams noted that when we say modern now we generally refer to something which is “unquestionably favourable and desirable”. It signifies that you are up with the times and at one with the contemporary world.
Compare this to words like ‘tradition’ or ‘traditionalist’ which are commonly used to dismiss something as quaint yet old-fashioned and contrary to notions of innovation or change. We associate these terms with the work of artisans and craftsmen and think of outdated skills handed down from generation to generation.
When applied to music, ‘tradition’ is usually linked to an analog philosophy while to describe sounds as ‘modern’ is to say the artist is making a break with the past. However, an incessantly forward momentum has its pitfalls. The fact that discerning listeners will still seek out vinyl releases or lossless audio is a sign that the ‘modern’ day digital revolution is regarded in some quarters as a step backwards.
On the third and final day of Ravenna’s Transmissions festival the stark contrast between the old and the new was very evident. After being gently wooed by the Balkan-influenced folky charm of A Hawk And A Hacksaw (+ special guests) we were abruptly wowed by the uncompromising techno beats of German duo Mouse On Mars.
Festival curators Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost , on accordion and fiddle respectively, make a strong case in defence of tradition. As A Hawk & A Hacksaw they were accompanied by the brilliant Balazs Unger from Hungary on cimbalom and Turkey’s elegant Cüneyt Sepetçi (clarinet) and Ozanit Alaattin on tabla.
Barnes and Trost are from Albuquerque, New Mexico but look the very model of English respectability, Trost’s voice is so fragile it can barely be heard when all the musicians are in full swing. She and her musical partner (and husband) are well schooled in Eastern European folk but still look like gifted scholars by the side of the Balkan virtuosos who live and breathe this music.
Bobbing like hyperactive teenagers behind a barrier of jumbled wires and flat computer screens, Mouse And Mars (Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma) belong to another world. The contrast is akin to how it might feel to be trekking in the tranquility of some idyllic countryside then turning a corner to find yourself in the heart of a densely populated metropolis.
“I know your name” chanted St.Werner at one point and the phrase was first repeated, then distorted, then cut into sound chunks so that it merged with the deluge of processed breaks and beats. This zappers paradise is a thudding soundtrack for a jilted generation of digital natives; a warped celebration of brain numbing intensity.
Contrast this again to Father Murphy, the first band on the bill, who do not fit squarely into either the traditionalist or modernist camp. This Italian duo are post-something-or-other outsiders to the extent that a Kafkaesque existential despair hangs heavy over their 30 minute set. Federico Zanatta on guitar and Chiara Lee on electric keyboards stand facing each other voicing some private language as though complaining about a murky, sonic world of their own making. They describe their music as “the sound of the Catholic sense of guilt” and their latest album is called Pain Is On Our Side.
If Professor Williams were alive today, I’ve a feeling he might interpret Father Murphy as a confused attempt to articulate a sense of estrangement from the cosy past of A Hawk And A Hacksaw and the manic energy of the modern world that Mouse On Mars embrace.
This concert brought to the close the three-day Transmissions Festival. It’s the third one I’ve attended and without question the best. Trost and Barnes’ bold and imaginative choice of performers proved once again that the most interesting music exists on the margins.