travelling light: chrissie caulfield on hugs bison

June 24, 2015 at 3:50 pm | Posted in new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Hugs Bison – Mercès Barcelona – Live at 4’33” Café (self-released download)

hugs bison
The relationship between technology and music can be a bit of a contentious area. This might come as a surprise to some readers of this august online publication, which reviews a lot of highly electronic music, but it can, believe me.

On the one side (most commonly in the traditional classical arena) there is a fear, maybe that it will replace them – as some, ridiculously, thought synthesisers would do in the early years. Perhaps it’s a fear of the unknown or just an attitude that ‘it doesn’t apply to me’. Of course, conservatism is a long-standing trait in classical music and not necessarily a bad thing. Music that is supposed to stand the test of time should avoid fads. But just look how long it took for the saxophone (invented in 1840) to be incorporated into mainstream classical compositions.

On the other there can be a mad enthusiasm that seems to transcend any sense and causes people to leap onto new instruments or equipment and make noises that are perhaps slightly interesting in themselves, but really ought to be subject to more work and incorporated into complete pieces of music. For my money I like to have a little (well OK, quite a lot) more effort put into music than just ‘buying stuff and plugging it in’. It happens.

Of course ‘technology’ has come to mean ‘electronics’ in our lifetime, I suppose that’s because the majority of new technologies that come around these days are based on electronic equipment and computers. This hasn’t always been the case. Pianos were a new technology once, even violins. In fact most acoustic instruments are highly complex – if any of my acoustic instruments goes wrong I quickly cart them off to a skilled person for repair, yet I’ve quite happily (well, slightly nervously) replaced keyboards, RAM and hard disk drives in laptops. Seriously, that clarinet scares me.

Hugs Bison (and if you don’t love that name then I despair of you), are a two piece from the North West of England who describe themselves as:

…a technologist with a passion for music, [and] a musician with a passion for technology.

Their principal instruments are iPads – the most recent piece of technology to be ridiculed as being simply a toy and not suitable for serious use. What people who say this seem to forget is that a modern iPad is considerably more powerful than the computers many major studios used to use not so long ago.

Shaun Blezard and Phil Powell, I am pleased to report, fall into neither of categories of musician from my early paragraphs. They seriously know what they are doing and take care to do it well, in both a technical and a musical sense. They are clearly in total command of their chosen technology and know how best to use it for musical purposes. This live album, Mercès Barcelona – Live at 4’33” Café, is a gem of a recording as well as an excellent advertisement for just what can be done, musically, with today’s very portable equipment.

As I’m a bit down on drone music at the moment (Editor’s note: dammit, don’t make me fire you again!), I was pleased to put these FLAC files on my laptop and hear some interesting sounds emerge almost instantly. There are some nice bell sounds, occasionally reversed, alongside a flickering background. That backing could be possibly be classed as a ‘drone’ by some but it doesn’t go on with the same note for too long, it’s nicely modulated in ways that remind one of of Eno’s Ambient 4, and the bells are playing interesting notes and rhythms. This is ‘proper’ music and no mistake. When the bells disappear they leave cello and violin samples playing and building up into a lovely breathy tremolo towards the end of the first track that slows to a single note at its close. That track Paral-lel is nearly 12 minutes long but is tightly structured so that it feels like less than half that.

The second track sounds more ‘electronic’ than the first in that it uses more synthesized than sampled sounds, or maybe they are heavily processed samples. But the duo’s grasp of musical language and structure mean that although this has quite a different feel, it still, mostly, keeps interest and meaning over its 14 minutes. It does drag a little in the middle if I’m being honest here, but this is always a potential problem in improvised performances. If anything it goes to show just how tight the rest of the pieces are.

A favourite moment, well a second-favourite moment after the whole of the first track, is the opening to Lesseps that takes what could easily be cheesy olde-worlde synth sounds (and possibly the noise of a klaxon going off) and turns them into something quite beautiful. It’s a skill that Jean-Michel Jarre exhibits in extraordinary quantities of course, but nice to see it in action here too. Whereas the great JMJ takes John Shuttleworth’s drum machine sounds and uses them with French élan, Hugs Bison take similar keyboard sounds and turn them into gold. I told you these guys were good.

What surprises me about this release is that their use of string samples didn’t have me screaming and running for the hills with my ears bleeding. It’s not that they are especially amazing samples (as a violinist I would deny such things even exist) or even that they are manipulated in such a way that that they don’t sound like strings, it’s just that they are used expertly as part of the music and with, well, probably enough delay and reverb. One thing that did grate a little on me was the clipping on Sagrada Familia which spoiled a rather lovely brass and strings duet. But that is really just another hazard of live recording.

The notes for the album state that the samples were recorded in Barcelona in the days before the gig. That’s a great use of technology right there, take the noises of a city and turn them into a custom set of music that is truly site-specific; and using iPads it’s all so portable. As someone who routinely gigs with a carful of equipment I’m jealous not only of their ability to travel light, but also their capacity to make such excellent use of so little.


Hugs Bison

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