Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me
Midnight Sun, Exeter Phoenix, May 22nd 2003

It's strange isn't it? We still continued to be intrigued by music from abroad, labeling it interesting and strange, creating movements and schools, whilst ignoring the stuff at home. I was looking forward to Midnight Sun, the latest CMN [Contemporary Music Network] tour, which opened in Exeter last night. What could be better than ´the most exhilarating and atmospheric sounds of Norway's infectiously hip music scene'? I have several Rune Grammofon CD releases, including several by Supersilent who are headlining the tour, and wasn't adverse to hearing a bit of ´hugely influential electro-jazz-ambient' live. I read Wire magazine you know, and they rave about this stuff; it must be good, mustn't it? Oh, I am so hip.

DJ Strangefruit was billed as producing, or playing I guess?... - well, anyway the show was going to ´feature' his ´subterranean walls of music'. Which is odd, because what he actually did was spin a few discs before the show, one of which was a track from a Jon Hassell album, whilst some lovely grid patterns were projected above the stage area. He then got to manipulate some feedback and make a wall of noise which trumpeter Arve Henriksen wrestled with for a few minutes before the wall was removed and we were treated to a fragile, if rather ordinary, trumpet solo. Nothing very special I'm afraid, certainly nothing that ´transcend[ed] the instrument' as the blurb would have it; in fact the brevity of the piece made the whole thing feel like an aside for the two groups who took up most of the evening.

Singer Sidsel Endresen previously made a couple of ECM albums that are, as you might imagine, full of fragile, ethereal songs; tinkling piano and muted trumpet feature a lot behind a beautiful, warm voice that tends to remind me of June Tabor and other folk singers. Since then she has moved on to work with Buggle Wesseltoft [you couldn't make that name up could you?!] at the Jazzland record label, most of whose output is dance- & beat- based stuff you'd be hard pushed to call jazz at all. But her last duo CD, Out here. In there. hints of what we got last night - though I only know this in retrospect, having bought the CD last night.

Anyway, on the Midnight Sun tour Endresen is playing with a keyboard player and someone else doing live sampling. It all starts well, reminding me of Lamb's debut CD, with a hint of Laurie Anderson - but stranger, mainly because the first few songs are in Norwegian. The voice soars above twittering and chattering electronics, as artist Kim Hioprth└y's beautiful paintings, prints and drawings are projected above. Very nice, but then it all goes horribly wrong.

The live sampler man starts to think he is Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson and flourishes his knob-turning; and Endresen starts vocalising in the manner of Maggie Nichols and other free improvisers: nnnnnneeeaaaagh chug chug waaaaaaah ninini drgggg zskkkk aaah aaah aaaah. Thank you very much. We dive into echo and reverb, delay and noise; and songs in English which, truth be told, sound like sixth form poetry of the worst kind. I've sat through too many free improv gigs in my time, [no, I paid to go to them, it's a genre: free improv] and though the music might still be orbiting songs, it's heading for outer space as I decide I will be first at the bar for the interval. And I am, though it's a close thing.

Suitably refreshed, and after a discussion where it becomes clear there has been a mixed reception to the first half, we file back into the hall. On CD* Supersilent play careful, measured, spacious music at the fringes of jazz, rock and improvisation. All their releases are excerpted, studio-treated improvisations, but live it seems like name-your-worst -progrock-band-ever [mine would be ELP] have reformed, not least because the keyboard player has banks of synths, PVC jeans on, and long hair he feels compelled to flick every five seconds. This is, to say the least, wearying, and one of the main discussion topics in the bar afterwards is why he doesn't get a bloody haircut. But, of course we [hair flick] could cope with bad taste if the music [hair flick] hadn't sounded like a cross between four strangers in a room making a noise [hair flick] and - whenever he gets the chance - a nasty synthesizer wigout played standing up [hair flick!].
[*Actually, I only bought Supersilent 1-3 last night and it sounds just like the bloody gig last night. So this sentence ought to read ´On their later CDs...']

The set is frankly, amateur improvisation. No-one, least of all our man on keyboards, is listening to each other, no one is prepared to quieten down or allow each other some space. The keyboard player specializes in truly appalling sound settings, the drummer bangs and crashes away endlessly apart from five wonderful minutes when he plays with brushes, the trumpeter can hardly be heard, and the electronics man busies himself setting up everyday looped samples, and introducing more random noise and voices into the mix. Imagine Faust without any talent, imagine early Tangerine Dream without their ethereal beauty; imagine yourself so uninhibited you can practice in public and not give a damn. Frankly, Supersilent last night were one of the worst bands I have ever seen. It was clear afterwards that I wasn't alone in feeling like this: a palpable sense of disappointment hung over the proceedings, with most people suddenly thinking how good those old recordings of them and their mates were after all.

And truth be told, I reckon they were. My friend Philip has been working through a decade of sound archives he has kept - music from theatre and community groups, films, group improvisations, solo sessions - and so far the four CDs of highlights he has put together beat most of last night into a cocked hat. Even hit and miss, the ´early tapes' CD from Strange Bedfellows, which really was four of us in a room making a noise, sounds more like a Supersilent CD than Supersilent live last night.

Let's hope they just had first night nerves or something; or that they give their keyboard player a haircut and unplug the synths, or maybe give him a couple of weeks off. Or chop his arms off. And let's hope we've all learnt not to believe any more in foreign exotica, new movements or the emperor's new clothes. Midnight sun be damned. Let's draw the curtains, turn out the lights and go to bed. What could be better than ´the most exhilarating and atmospheric sounds of Norway's infectiously hip music scene'? Almost anything.

© 2003 Rupert Loydell

Sidsel Endresen, So I Write [ECM ]
Sidsel Endresen. Bugge Wesseltoft. Out Here. In There. [Jazzland]
Strange Bedfellows, hit and miss [early tapes] [private CD release]
Supersilent Supersilent 1-3, Superslent 4, Supersilent 5, Supersilent 6 [Rune Grammofon/ECM]