Once upon a time, two young women formed a band. Keiko Owada had played bass in an all-girl metal group in her native Tokyo. Fiona Daly was a drummer, her drum kit filled the shower room of the tiny flat that she and Keiko shared in Pimlico.
One day, the artist Martin Creed asked if they would play a few pieces he had composed, written as a series of instruction on graph paper.
Martin had no idea how his compositions might sound until he began rehearsing with Keiko and Fiona. This was twenty-two years ago. Fiona has long since gone (she runs an engineering company in Manchester), but Keiko and Martin are still the heart of a band that has performed everywhere from seedy dive bars to MOMA and Sadler’s Wells. The music has broadened over the years, yet they still play some of the pieces from their earliest days. During the week of the Frieze art fair, the band performed at Cafe Oto, the small Dalston venue that has become the home of experimental music in the UK.
A wild-haired Swiss drummer, Serge Vuille takes to the stage. Serge is a teacher at the Royal College of Music, and the latest musician to take Fiona’s seat in Martin’s band. Tonight is Kammer Klang, or chamber noise, and Serge is introducing the acts. The first is Kerry Yong, who plays versions of John Cage compositions, written for a piano that Cage had modified by sticking scraps of wood and metal into the strings to create a shonky kind of percussion instrument. Kerry calls his versions, Cover me Cage, and uses a cheap synth programmed with sampled noises. His deft playing gives Cage’s compositions a thrilling techno sheen without obliterating the clumsy improvised feel of the originals.
Serge pops back to ask us to be even more quiet than we already are. The next act is Andrea Neumann and her work begins in silence. She holds two metal sticks which she uses to stroke the air. This worries me. Andrea is a Berlin-based composer and the seriousness she brings to her silent ritual verges on the comedic, without actually being at all funny. I worry too soon, however. The piece builds steam as Andrea starts playing her own specially-prepared instrument, one that looks very much like the carcass of a piano. Then she begins to play the air again, lifting her hand and making gestures that pull strange noises from the air. It is a kind of conjuring trick, strange and bewitching and she leaves us enchanted.
Christian Kesten is beyond enchanting. He is spooky. He has a shaved head and an outsize suit, and his compositions are for the human breath, which he sustains for impossibly long periods – minutes and minutes and minutes – through a circular breathing technique. The light and shade on his bony head makes him appear skeletal. As his mouth is wide open, almost all of the time, he appears to be biting the air, like Nosferatu salivating over human contact. All the while, his quiet but persistent breath haunts the room.
And, finally, the Martin Creed Band. Martin often uses backing singers, and tonight there are three women, staring intently at the sheet music he has supplied. Serge takes his seat at the drums. Martin’s girlfriend, the psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose, plays guitar and steel guitar. Anouchka’s role is not so odd as it sounds; twenty years ago, Anouchka was the guitarist in a band with the ex-Specials front man Terry Hall. Anouchka has naturally grey hair which she wears in a loose bun, paired with dark blouse and culottes. Keiko cuts just as striking a figure. Her sleek dress has cut-outs at her décolletage, and she sports impressive false eyelashes.
Martin is the most striking of all. He wears a hairnet and a red woollen skirt.
These days, Martin writes real songs rather than the formal compositions of twenty years ago. There is a family resemblance between the old and new stuff, of course. A counting piece, like ‘One, Two, Three, Four’, sits comfortably beside newer material, such as ‘B Natural’. In this song, Martin and his backing singers sing the name of chords in the correct pitch: B sharp, D, and others. Yet the point of the song is revealed with the final chord, B Natural becomes ‘be natural’, mutating into a pop hook that simultaneously offers pretty sage advice. In other songs, the advice is even more upfront: ‘Kid Yourself’, for instance, or ‘Pass Them On’ (advising us to pass on our bad feelings: but is that ‘pass’ as in ‘hand on’? Or ‘pass’ as in ‘give up’? Martin plays an ambiguous agony uncle).
Earlier that day, I caught sight of a photograph of Martin at his gallery’s stand at Frieze. It was taken around the time he formed his band with Keiko and Fiona. He smiles broadly out of the frame, dressed in a jacket and check shirt which is buttoned to the neck. He has short hair and the clean-cut look of an English rude boy. He is a far wilder figure today, with long hair, a moustache that resembles something Donald Sutherland might have sported in the 1970s, and, of course, the red skirt and hairnet. On the surface, Martin is a more complex, less happy figure than appears in that old, smiling picture. Yet the happy smile was as much a mask as his ‘rude boy’ outfit. Martin has OCD and his repetitive song writing emerged from the strategies he developed to interact with the world. The new songs, in contrast, are not essentially repetitive; they are games and jokes that play with repetition without being bound by it. Where his work once described a prison, it now suggests escape routes. His apparent wildness is a sign of his new-found freedom. As Martin ends with a new-ish song, ‘Mind Trap’ (“I was in a mind trap, now I’m looking for a mind trap map”), there is a real sense of liberation. Then he’s back for an encore and another of his twenty year old songs: Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off. It never sounded so vehement, venomous, nor so free.
words Nicholas Blincoe