45 downstairs, Flinders Lane
Sunday May 6, 2018
Adam Simmons backed by Vikram Iyengar
Continuing his five-part hegira in search of a utilitarian justification for writing/making/listening to music, Adam Simmons fronted his own ensemble of twelve and brought in a brace of drummers – Ray Pereira and Kanchana Karunaratna – to give us an odd travelogue; partly psychological, partly geographical, fully emotional. In The Calling, Simmons is documenting a trip he made to Sri Lanka two years ago, a visit to that troubled nation which came about from a wish to explore his own heritage, emanating from his mother who is Sri Lankan-born.
As usual, the hour-long odyssey was divided into parts; in this case, eight of them. Probably the longest came first: The Calling which opened with a drum duet from the guests that exemplified the split personality of their work as exemplified in their name. Pereira stuck to the African percussion – djembe, dundun and, by way of Cuba, the conga – while Karunaratna played Sri Lankan drums – the ubiquitous gata bera and the thammattama two-part cluster. Nearly every one else involved processed on while playing – Simmons and two saxophones, a pair of trumpets with trombone, two double basses and four percussionists with Peter Lawler playing a space drum although I didn’t see him at work on it, possibly because of my seat’s line of vision.
Matters moved, as they do in these concerts, to a determined climax or six, the various segments fooling you into believing that you had missed the cut-off points between movements. But no: the performers oscillated between what looked like free improvisation over a percussive lynch pin and near-unison chorus passages where the melodic material could have been Sri Lankan or original. This was energising to witness, even if the Afrolankan drumming brought back memories of a long-ago visit by Les Ballets Africains which remains the non-pareil in my experience of cross-rhythmic percussion brilliance.
The second movement – got the ticket? get the ticket? – consisted of all musicians repeating that particular couplet in unison while rubbing or lightly smacking their hands together. Explanation? Well, it provided a textural change of scene even if the context remained elliptical. It could have been an injunction to us all to get on board because the journey proper then began with another instrumental movement, Place: The Pearl which, from memory, appeared to represent the feel-good chaos of life anywhere on the sub-continent, not just on the streets of Colombo or Kandy.
A film dominated the fourth segment – Train: Nurawa Eliya to Ella – which showed some of the sights between those two towns in the highlands as shot from a train. While the visual content was black and white, the accompaniment was strong on mimicry of train sounds, brass and reeds combining for some deafening train whistles while the percussion ran through a small gamut of accelerations and decelerations.
Living: The dance of Kattu Rati passed me by without leaving a mark; not as remarkable, the name of the postulated dancer has eluded my researches. Another film – Train: Ambalangoda to Galle – documented another trip, about half the distance of the previous one and along the nation’s south-western coast. You’d be hard pressed to distinguish this from its predecessor in musical terms.
Connection: The Tooth of Buddha took us back to the mountains, to Kandy where the relic is held and venerated. The film material here proved confusing, resembling an op-art cartoon/construct from the 1960s. The music resolved into an extended, frenetic solo by Simmons where the accent was on his instrument’s physicality and the multiplicity of sounds it could generate when the player uses over-blowing as a primary mode of sound manipulation. This, the high-point of the journey, was acoustically scouring stuff, delivered straight into the audience’s communal face like a call to arms; so powerful, in fact, that the lady sitting in front of me had to cover her ears.
While this vehement soliloquy was in train, dancer Vikram Iyengar shadowed Simmons, holding him by the waist, then by the legs, finally resting on the bent-over player, then returning the compliment. Here, I think, The Calling was answered and the composer/performer came closest to articulating the intensity of his reaction to an unexplored facet of his heredity. It seemed like a fusion of the ecstatic headiness that mystical/religious experiences can cause (and the Buddha’s Tooth is, above all, housed in a most holy site) and the expressive powers that a dedicated musician can find in carrying out his work, particularly in the field of jazz and/or high-flying improvisation.
Simmons’ Epilogue: Ice-cream, tuk-tuks and cricket offered a sort of descent from the mountain with all performers settling in to a celebratory dance; infectious and exciting to hear at these close quarters but challenging – the sort of thing where you’d be scared to get up unless you knew the requisite gestures and motions.
At the end, you were left wondering about what the experience was meant to achieve. Simmons is sharing ‘some of my searchings’ – about his identity, his family, his home ground – and this process would have been of great significance and worth for him. But, apart from The Tooth of Buddha section, a good deal of The Calling presented as over-excited, as though the listener had to be bludgeoned into entering into the world that Simmons was showing us. This is not to infer that the temperature was white-hot from go to whoa, although the moments of placidity were very welcome when they came, in particular, a gentle susurrus from Nat Grant and Carmen Chan on keyed percussion, and a moment or two of quiet interchange between the basses of Howard Cairns and Miranda Hill.
So, in the end, The Calling was of use principally to Simmons, although he does hope ‘to prompt others to consider their own connections.’ Mind you, patches of the music-making made for powerful sonorous fabrics even if it becomes hard to determine how much of the eventual effect of the group’s output en masse is contrived – that is, conceived to sound pretty much the same each time – and how much is the product of individual input. Still, what I like about Simmons’ events is the passion and conviction that he transmits through his work; not so much through his spoken introductions and post-performance addresses which sometimes threaten to fade into an unsettling silence.