Concert life in London is slowly reopening to a limited audience, and it was a special pleasure to hear that one of my favorite London venues was once again hosting live musicians. Like its neighbor the Arcola Theater, Cafe Oto (“Sound” or “noise” in Japanese) is, to say the least, raw space. Former warehouse with a bar in one corner and an interesting selection of books, vinyls, and cassettes in another, the performance space has a fabric backdrop and an odd bump in the middle of the floor. On June 30, 2021, there were only about 40 of us in space – socially distant, seated at tables – when in normal times the room can accommodate well over 100 people crammed together. others. Draft beer is served in 2/3 quart glasses, because why not.
For more than 20 years, CafÃ© Oto, founded by the Anglo-Japanese couple Hamish Dunbar and Keiko Yamamoto, has been a major venue for experimental contemporary music of all genres. Established names tend to bring their passion projects to Oto: on June 23, 2021, I had the privilege of being in the small audience for the singer and artist of the movement Elaine mitchener spellbinding program, which ranged from Fluxus texts to physical performances. While there is no typical Oto program, diversity has always been their watchword, and the June 30 event featured four women from a wide range of creative backgrounds. The amplified voices were the only common thread.
Amy Coutelier, geographer, musician and filmmaker affiliated with Goldsmiths College, University of London, recently gave a talk on Nature karaoke which included a Singing Zoom species. It appears that in the UK current Covid regulations allow group singing in football stadiums but not elsewhere, so there was no public participation in the Oto event. Cutler coupled kaleidoscopic projections that sometimes got sharper – a white horse and a woman’s silhouette coming and going – with a continuous, very reverberating soundscape. Sitting at a desk, she added to the sound with vocalizations. The echo effects blurred the meaning and towards the end the volume and bass increased and we heard distorted samples of half-memorized songs. This dreamlike experimental film created memorable sights and sounds; I would love to see more of Cutler’s work.
Canadian composer Cassandre Miller is well known to the London new music audience as a composer, but this was a rare occasion to hear her as a performer. In her introduction, Miller suggested that she was a frustrated performer who recently started incorporating vocals into her writing process. His work is often inspired by recordings, and this improvisation is rooted in a work for violin recorded by a Greek performer from the Albanian border. The themes of exile and isolation in the original were accentuated in Miller’s multitrack vocal performance, as if she was creating harmonics from her own source. She added a harmonica to the range of sounds, more like an enhanced breath than anything else. Her haunting performance – singing an uprooted folk song with herself – resonated strongly with the present times, when many of us have grown a little too accustomed to our own company.
The final ensemble was a collaboration between the dramatic soprano, composer and singer improviser Alya Al-Sultani and award-winning turntablist and composer Mariam Rezaei, both experienced performers although they have never worked together before. They were more outgoing performers than Cutler or Miller, and their improvisation provided a welcome injection of rhythmic dynamism, contrasting with the continuous flow of the other ensembles. Erotic play, the coupling of human voice and machine, was their apparent theme, entering and exiting recognizable texts (I want you / woman / that’s how it is). Al-Sultani unleashed considerable vocal power and his virtuoso vocalization playfully engaged with the turntables. Rezaei brought rhythmic eccentricity, sudden drops in a lower register, and cartoonish spirit to their 25-minute performance. The explicit emotional intensity, expressed with confidence by the two women, was both uplifting and revealing of the emotional power within Miller’s ensemble and Cutler’s enigmatic dream landscape.
Everyone said how nice it was to hear live music again, to share the space with real people. CafÃ© Oto combines a relaxed atmosphere with a DIY aesthetic (staff moved wood panels to block light from windows before Cutler’s set) and a remarkably attentive audience. As with all cultural venues in the UK, times have been extremely difficult recently for the venue, and âSupport CafÃ© Otoâ signs are posted outside. No other venue in London does so much for experimental music, and their audiences have to keep buying tickets, downloads, and 2/3 of a pint of beer.
I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorial independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded by generous donor and institutional support. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.