Lisa Knapp & Leafcutter John @ London Canal Museum
Lisa Knapp & Leafcutter John
London Canal Museum. 09sep09.
The programme for the evening’s entertainment describes tonight’s performance as a world premiere which, whilst undoubtedly true, seems a bit hyperbolical given this tour neither plans, nor often will be able, to stray far from the banks of the Grand Union Canal.
So, this is ‘Canal Music’, a collaboration between folk singer and instrumentalist Lisa Knapp, folktronic laptop hero Leafcutter John and a narrow boat called ‘The Chiswick’. It begins here tonight on the first floor of the London Canal Museum, situated on the Battlebridge basin near King’s Cross. It is certainly appropriate for them to begin surrounded by all these artefacts of history given that the two artists have saturated their recent lives with canal water.
This has involved listening to oral history recordings of ‘bargies’, meeting with surviving horse drivers from the early 50’s, truffling for canal songs in the Vaughan Williams folk song library at Cecil Sharp House (albeit largely fruitlessly) and sampling the sounds of the watery thoroughfares of today.
Tonight’s hour long performance is, as world premiere might have suggested to you, the first airing of their combined work which combines live sampling, improvisation and sonic manipulation with folk sung in a traditional style but with a contemporary edge, a kind of spoken word scat being played out by both performers at times. Vocal and sound loops are created live and cycled via pedals and the computer.
They blow air into a tank of water sat at the front of the stage, to loop the bubbles, trickle, clicks and dribbles. The sounds are recorded using a submersed hydrophone which was made by Leafcutter John from a discarded can of chick peas [see how to make your own here]. “Is that actual canal water?” shouts one audience member, dryly given the transparency of the H2Oand the fact that both performers are willing to dip into it. “Its actual drinking water” deadpans the Leafcutter in response.
There are great crashes as they accidentally touch the sides of the tank which are quickly edited out, and this opening gambit has rather the effect of sounding like an orchestra tuning up, only in full-view and as part of the performance.
Aside from manipulating these sounds on the lap-top, John often uses one hand to tap out some percussion or strap on a squeeze-box, whilst Knapp picks and bows at violin, banjo and autoharp. The pieces are gradually built layer-upon-layer, cool and metallic elements such as a sound like motors revving mixing with a fresh, flowing swish. Knapp’s ethereal voice adds at once both barrenness and a world-is-our-oyster troubadour calmness. Later in the set, singing wine glasses are also incorporated into a tune inspired by the ice pit within the museum building that was built in 1860 to store ice imported from Norway. Particularly haunting when fed through a subtle echo filter.
The performers and the Chiswick now move on, in probably the slowest tour since Moses led a Wallace Arnold package group around the Midian desert. The boat will essentially be a floating stage from here on in, pitching up bankside in Berkhamsted, Milton Keynes, Stoke Bruere, Hatton Locks and finally Birmingham.
That open-air bank-side setting will bring the best from this project I think, as I’m not sure what hardcore folkies turning up will make of it given the very modern, experimental approach to the concept which is sometimes unengaging, but often enrapturing. Indeed, this show is less about folk tradition and more of evoking an atmosphere of place, both geographically and historically, and the performers achieve that with some aplomb.
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