6 guitarists for 2 venues

several times over the years i’ve seen a band more than once on a tour – usually they play complementary venues on a tour – a bit larger or a bit smaller than the previous gig. last autumn though i was lucky to see the same piece performed in two venues that were worlds apart.

‘music for 6 guitarists’ is a piece by australian musician ben frost, a name i’d heard many times over the years as he lives in iceland, but never got around to actually listening to the music. i finally purchased a sampler by ‘bedroom community‘ and i was hooked. amazing stuff.

at iceland airwaves last year i got to see a performance of his ‘music for 6 guitarists’ piece, it was taking place as part of the off-festival schedule at kaffibarinn – a small bar in the centre of reykjavík that seems quiet enough during the day time but goes a bit mental late at night. two levels in a small wooden house – not much space for something like this (i was also to see owen pallett do an off festival performance there, and also an icelandic balkan themed band – space is very well used in this bar) but it being iceland, that didn’t matter.

“you’ll need earplugs” – a warning i was told before it started surprised me – icelanders tend to be a bit reckless when it comes to loud concerts and their ears – thankfully i had a pair with me. six guitarists appeared, plugged in and started. strumming on unamplified guitars, all connected to the mixing desk (manned by frost), the noise slowly and gradually increased and became amplified, its undulating monotony gradually evolving and expanding. louder and louder it grew, the guitarists jostling and almost moshing with each other – hypnotised by the music they were producing. the noise emanating from the bar must have been immense, random faces stuck up against the glass of front door tried to look in to see what was going on – but the drone increased. how would they finish this i thought?, slow down gradually or just end it? the noise grew, guitarists sweating and moshing with each other, wiping their faces on the shirts of friends in the front row – having glasses of beer being held in the air for them so they could take a gulp without losing momentum. then in an instant it went dark, silent. a blown fuse in the bar, it all ended, perfectly chaotic – just like the music. we stood there in awe. (here is a photo by höddi a moment after it all ended – ben frost standing behind the mixing desk).

here are some pictures i took during the first performance – also below is the contrasting second performance…

the second performance of the piece was a few weeks later in new york city, in the reading room of the new york public library on bryant park. despite bryant park being such a big part of my life over the years, i’d never really spent much time in the library or the reading room before this performance.

for the previous year or so, frost was taking part in a mentorship programme run by rolex. his mentor was brian eno (who gave the introduction to the piece in the library that night). the evenings programme organised by rolex started with another participant in the mentorship programme, the austrialian dancer lee serle. he performed with three other dancers – running between 25 or so audience members on the “stage” area in the lobby of the library. mesmerising, humurous, interactive and inventive – really enjoyable (thats said as someone with not much experience of modern dance).

for the ben frost portion of the evening, we all moved up to the reading room in the library. taking our seats around the reading tables, the huge ceiling floating above us, the tall windows letting in light from the skyscrapers around us, flashing lights from airplanes distracting me – a wonderous space. brian eno gave the introduction, then the performance started – an addition of a brass section was just another difference to the performance a month earlier in reykjavík.

on each of the tables there was some ear plugs available, a note telling people about the high volume. and it begun, slowly building up much like the reykjavík performance with the difference this time being the hummungous space, the light, the civility of it all. retired people in front of me using multiple pairs of earplugs as well covering their ears with their hands.

it ended, slowly and more controlled – unlike the abrupt unplanned ending a few weeks before, this was more ordered. two staggering performances of the same piece in two entirely difference spaces, contexts, budgets levels – both amazing.

i wonder about those two nights – someone walking by kaffibarinn hearing the drone coming through the wooden walls, echoing through the streets – then the same performance a few weeks later – the immense noise being absorbed by the huge thick concrete walls of the library and any noise that did escape getting lost in the bustle of manhattan outside it – someone walking by outside might not have noticed a thing.

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