Walking into the Great Hall as Radwan Ghazi Moumneh performed as Jerusalem In My Heart against a backdrop of flickering, verdant projections, felt like being absorbed into dream space. Performing primarily on balalaika, with heavily manipulated vocals and layers of electronic processing, JIMH created a textured, tactile sound somewhere between Arabic and electronic music. The images projected during the performance were primarily those of trees and fire, further emphasizing the living, organic, and rhisomatic structure of the music. Following his set, Moumneh retreated to the sound booth, lending his hand to the immersive, enveloping sonic experience that characterized the entire night.
Next, cellist Rebecca Foon took the stage to perform solo as Saltland, her shivering, sensual performance seeming to glide out of her. She played with a trance-like intensity that comes over many hyper-focused musicians, and performs with her entire body, seeming to draw the sound from every muscle and sinew. She was soon joined by Esmerine drummer/percussionist Jamie Thompson and experimental saxophonist Matana Roberts, with whom she performed a single song characterized by a tentative, respectful exploration of the relationship of each instrument to the other, gently touching the same tones before swooping away. Then, Thompson and Foon left the stage, leaving Roberts to her set.
Matana Roberts played a single, long, looping interpretation of the track "Libation Got Mr. Brown: Bid Em In," from her record Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres. She built loops with her saxophone and twisted them into sonic knots, sedimentary layers of sorrowful sound that she played and wailed and spoke and sang over. The primary narrative of the song is a narrative of a slave auction following the goading of the auctioneer trying to persuade customers interested in a young woman, but fractured apart, combined with the woman's thoughts, snippets of patriotic American songs and experimental vocalizations. Roberts' performing was hypnotic, deeply affecting, unsettling and beautiful, an example of music that is both aesthetically and politically transformative.
In another act of transfiguration, experimental chamber group Esmerine performed in a very different shape from that in which they usually appear: the former duo (of Rebecca Foon and percussionist/ multi-instrumentalist Bruce Crawdon) and more recently quartet (with Jamie Thompson and Brian Sanderson on various instruments) performed this set as an octet. Having recently returned from a creative residency in Istanbul, Turkey, Esmerine incorporated new musical tones and textures into their latest record, Dalmak, and invited many of the artists they collaborated with to join them on this tour.
They opened with a track from their last record, La Lechuza, before launching into material from Dalmak, beginning with "Barn Board Fire," which clearly demonstrated the ways in which they have recently grown aesthetically while still retaining their core identity. The dense, intricate layers of sound that have always defined the group are still intact, though now they have become dryer, warmer. Crawdon's percussion shifted from an introspective pulse to a more urgent throb; the patterns of their newer songs, heavily inspired by Turkish folk music, have more of a playfulness and stirring quality, causing the sound to swell and sway and twist in unexpected ways.
Fiery and sinuous, their new material brings a new sense of vigour to Esmerine's often cool, liquid and cerebral sound. By the end of their set, walking out into the chilly, squalling city night never felt more like being ripped from a dream.