Stapleton & Rose

Oriental influences and unusual equipment enable a journey into the sonic unknown at the Sunflower

Genuinely improvised music is a fairly rare beast, and it’s no place for the faint-hearted. The more experimental the music the smaller the crowd, it seems, so the cosy surroundings of the Sunflower Bar in Belfast – with its seating capacity of about 60 – is the perfect venue for Simon Rose and Paul Stapleton’s sonic sculptures.

Saxophonist Rose and sound artist Stapleton have created real-time improvisations without a net since performing together at Belfast’s Sonic Arts Research Centre in 2010. The intimacy of the Sunflower Bar encourages a hushed respect towards their music, while the tables facing the stage and the stools around the walls create a snug shoulder-to-shoulder environment.

The support act of fiddler Kevin McCullagh and percussionist Dave Stockard set the evening’s tone with a brief yet captivating set of edgy minimalism. Mantra-like fiddle motifs sing like warped sirens and roundabouts that need oiling, while Stockard runs a bow along the edge of a hand-held cymbal.

Then, mouth pressed to snare skin, the percussionist breathes heavily to draw elephantine sounds from within – a technique inspired by the practise of Japanese tsuzumi drummers. Even when you see or hear something like this for the first time, you can nearly be sure it’s as old as the hills.

The audience is still and perfectly silent as the second piece unfolds, all sotto vocce drone and scratchy, creaking punctuation. Pizzicato strings like groaning wood evolve into strange zither sounds, while Stockard combines bow, coat-hanger and drum head, periodically altering the tension of the skin with an elbow. The effect produced is akin to dark-textured oriental experimentation.

Just when you think you have the lay of the land, McCullagh unleashes from his fiddle a tuneful reel, while Stockard’s thick-headed mallets mark a rumbling, dancer’s tattoo. The tempo rises and falls, bottoming out in an abstract improvisation that fades to nothingness. McCullagh thanks the crowd for its 'patience or tolerance', but the appreciation is evidently mutual.

Stapleton and Rose’s set is the final gig on a UK tour sponsored by Jazz Services and the Arts Council of England, and the duo is intensely focused and energized from the start. Stapleton’s modular sound station is a fascinating hybrid of home-made ingenuity and technical know-how. A zither-cum-hacksaw, a wonky buck-toothed kalimba, string-crossed metal resonator, a turntable and various objet trouvé make up the guts of his Dr Seuss-esque contraption.

Frantic zither sounds suddenly erupt like a warped record at 78rpm, while baritone saxophone growls menacingly in the background. The tension builds in waves; swirling saxophone and turntable combine in heady union, though the tumult dissipates rapidly, fading in plosive baritone barks like fat drops of rain at shower’s end.

The second number begins with fluttering saxophone that resonates a row of suspended bells fashioned from copper goblets. Electric feedback forms an urbane backdrop to this quasi-spiritual opening. Rose’s minimalist approach is gentle and bruising in turn, yet somehow always meditative, and his cyclical riffing and polyphonic layers owe a debt to 77-year-old Korean avant-garde saxophonist, Tae-Hwan Kang.

Though harsh at times, the enveloping wall of sound and the contrasting dynamics are nevertheless totally absorbing. Stapleton employs a wind-up plastic caterpillar to dance on the resonator strings, feeding the vibrations through his sound mixer. The tree trunk of a baritone and the tiny toy make for strange musical companions.

Switching to his more customary alto saxophone on the third piece, Rose performs solo in a kind of dissonant lament. Stapleton joins, manipulating the white noise of a small transistor radio. The audience is once more rapt by another strangely compelling journey into the unknown.

The fourth piece builds from slowly braying saxophone and hand-plucked zither, evolving into a powerful collage of rapidly repeating saxophone cycles, and electronic feedback siphoned from Stapleton’s strings.
The final improvisation sees Stapleton use a modified cappuccino mixer to lightly whisk the resonator strings to produce a sustained, chime-like ringing. Saxophone purrs in the background.

Then, using a bow on the hacksaw-harp and plucking the resonator strings, Stapleton conjures bass drum vibrations as Rose summons deep noises like mountain horns. This hypnotic slice of psychedelic Himalayan trance music closes a uniquely absorbing set to extended applause.

Rose and Stapleton’s bold soundscapes transport the listener to rarely visited sonic dimensions. The peculiar language that these musical Argonauts converse in won’t be to everybody’s taste, but the innovation and drama of the vocabulary is undeniable. And, in its ability to transfix audiences from Berlin to Belfast, it is somehow universal as well.

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