In a warm, dark theatre in Bergen, Norway, the quartet YrrY are taking to the stage. Vocalist Mari Garcés adjusts the stand of her microphone, sending unexpected shockwaves through the audience. Owen Weaver repeats a lazy dumpf-dumpf figure across the drum kit, feeling the tightness of the skins. It’s when vibraphonist Håkon Skjæret removes the tone bars of his instrument that I realise something’s up. The piece they’re playing at Borealis festival, Luke Drozd’s An Interpretation Of An Overhearing Of A Collection Of Coincidences 15, harnesses the mundane activities of the soundcheck for a performance celebrating their disruptive noise-making potential.
But even ordinary soundchecks carry an alchemical charge. Few experiences at a festival are more magical than walking from one busy stage to another empty one, where the lights are up, a new performance is being readied, and you can freely observe how it’s put together. Connection, preparation and arrangement of equipment take on the status of a musical composition in its own right.
Soundchecks present the jigsaw pieces from which the whole picture is made. Comments underneath a YouTube video of Metallica getting ready to play eulogise the rippling harp sound of James Hetfield’s naked 12-string guitar. In my local pub, a drummer tests out the kit in an empty room before a jazz night, the wires beneath the snare fizzing like sparks from exposed electric cables.
This messy and mundane process doesn’t make for gripping viewing on a screen, so videos rarely communicate the experience. Soundchecks are literally site-specific performances, resonating in a particular place.
But they can lay bare the full potential of a musical unit in a way that a packed room hides. I remember the anticipation for Shellac before one of their many appearances at the UK’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, where Steve Albini and Bob Weston briefly tinkered with their instruments and mysterious, futuristic amplifiers to unleash sounds from an entirely different frequency spectrum to rock ’n’ roll. A soundcheck of Johnny Clarke’s backing band at the London club Dingwall’s in the 2000s had his bassist playing at a volume where precise and delicate hands were needed to keep enormous low frequencies in check.
It wasn’t a soundcheck, but another Borealis performance that got up close and personal with how the music was put together. White Mountain Apache violinist Laura Ortman, the subject of this month’s Invisible Jukebox, played a wild set of solo improvisation in a small bar space, with her effects pedals at the front of the stage just centimetres from the midriffs of the crowd. As she clawed at the strings of her instrument, slamming objects onto the bridge to create explosions of noise, she kicked the dials on the pedals to just the right place with the point of her shoe to maintain a level of feverish intensity in the room. Standing just a metre or two from a screaming PA, I slotted in earplugs to feel the music through my body for the rest of the set. Like a soundcheck, you just had to be there. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 471 May 2023 £5.95 ISSN 0952-0686
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Words Yewande Adeniran, Vanessa Ague, Jennifer Lucy Allan, Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Dan Barrow, Robert Barry, Tristan Bath, Clive Bell, Claire Biddles, Abi Bliss, Gabriel Bristow, Britt Brown, Madeleine Byrne, Helena Celle, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Lara C Cory, Julian Cowley, Raymond Cummings, Laina Dawes, Josh Feola, Phil Freeman, Noel Gardner, Michael A Gonzales, Francis Gooding, Kurt Gottschalk, Louise Gray, George Grella, James Hadfield, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Ken Hollings, Miloš Hroch, Jo Hutton, Leah Kardos, Kek-W, Joshua Minsoo Kim, Biba Kopf, Matt Krefting, Steph Kretowicz, Neil Kulkarni, Chloe Lula, Dave Mandl, Howard Mandel, Peter Margasak, Marc Masters, Ryan Meehan, Noel Meek, Bill Meyer, Frances Morgan, John Morrison, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Deborah Nash, Daniel Neofetou, Louis Pattison, Hannah Pezzack, Stephanie Phillips, Antonio Poscic, Emily Pothast, Edwin Pouncey, Chal Ravens, Mosi Reeves, Tony Rettman, Simon Reynolds, Mariam Rezaei, Ilia Rogatchevski, Bruce Russell, Sukhdev Sandhu, Claire Sawers, Dave Segal, Stewart Smith, Rosie Esther Solomon, Daniel Spicer, Richard Stacey, Richard Thomas, Dave Tompkins, Spenser Tomson, David Toop, Rob Turner, Zakia Uddin, Gabriel Jermaine VanlandinghamDunn, Val Wilmer
Images Stephen Ross Goldstein, Clare Hewitt, J Houston, Sam Hutchinson, Dora Mois, Carina Kehlet Schou
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