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Three Songs No Flash

What Do You Think Of It So Far?: Usurper at Counterflows
Euan Andrews , April 10th, 2018 08:22

Occupying a space between the Marx Brothers and the Bohman Brothers, like a music hall act from a parallel free-jazz universe - Usurper pull improv magic from thin air on the final night of Counterflows festival

There are countless unfixed points within popular culture’s many narratives in which an opening presented itself for a new kind of discourse between artistic forms only for the door to remain, in hindsight, firmly closed. One such unexplored timeline is that could-have-been route briefly glimpsed when Derek Bailey spent four months of 1965 playing as part of Morecambe & Wise’s pit orchestra at Blackpool’s ABC Theatre. While Eric and Ernie could incorporate elements of comedic improvisation into their material, they were generally running to a tight script with occasional ad-libbed asides. They were also, very much, in charge. So, one evening when performing a fairly ribald-sounding sketch to do with their having pulled a couple of girls (clearly a fallow period in terms of written material for the duo, no Eddie Braben in sight here), Eric became increasingly distracted by the sound of Bailey, unheard to the audience, practising his guitar improvisations just below the stage. Mid-sketch, Eric suddenly leaned over to admonish Bailey for playing while the pair were performing. As Bailey later recounted, “When the band laughs and the theatre doesn’t laugh, that’s bad news actually – they’re only interested in the audience. He wasn’t being nasty, he was just letting me know.”

What if Morecambe hadn’t shut Bailey down but, instead, had responded in improvisational kind and incorporated the guitar sounds into an otherwise fairly lame sketch? So the sketch became about the sound of the guitar and its transformative effects within this mundane setting. The whole future timeline of British free improvisation could have been altered. Guest slots for the Spontaneous Music Ensemble on variety bills while Evan Parker demonstrated circular breathing to contestants on The Generation Game and Les Dawson extended himself further within his piano playing than just to make audiences laugh at the funny sounds. Still, in 2018, free improvisation is regarded as just that: funny sounds. Newspaper broadsheets still publish articles which barely comprehend an artistic methodology now practised, and expanded upon, for half a century; informing people you listen to and enjoy free improv is met with baffled faces and a general attitude that you’re some antisocial misfit happily wandering forbidding alien territories mired in your own navel-gazing solipsism.

I have never felt more welcome in musical circles than when attending free improv events. While the artists involved approach their work (or play) with the utmost seriousness, they carry it out in a spirit of inclusiveness and joy. It was through encountering Usurper for the first time in 2005, as they scrabbled around the floor of a dingy Edinburgh basement dismantling any preconceived notions of music or performance, that I found myself inside a wholly different and refreshing environment free from artistic ego or draining notions of expectation. One of many elements which make Usurper so inspired, as with the work of kindred spirits Phil Minton or Blood Stereo or the Bohman Brothers, is that they perform in a manner of highly developed primal absurdism in which body, mind and emotion are functioning in perfect tandem while acknowledging the audience’s presence as part of their work. Usurper’s Malcy Duff and Ali Robertson depict exaggerated representations of their own identities as they exist at the very point of performance. That seems a good definition of free improvisation in music, or sound, as well as in comedy. And Usurper are very, very funny. I’d rather have 20 minutes with them than two hours with some smug 8 Out Of 10 Cats pullover any day.

Whether in a club, pub, theatre or living room, a Usurper performance will generally involve two chairs with a table between them across which will be strewn all manner of noise-making appliances from coiled springs and steel rulers to muted whistles and degenerated cassette recorders. Across this landscape of detritus, Ali and Malcy face each other and, basically, have a conversation using these implements and anything else within their eyeline which comes to hand, including pieces of furniture. Our two protagonists revolve between seeming lethargy or the illusion of boredom and electrified bursts of manic activity. The sounds they create are formed out of spaces rendered uninhabitable for music, dusty cracks where no audible communication should be possible. It’s the dry crackle of nothingness which you might encounter in a blank vacuum punctuated by gushes of garbled and ground-up language and mad pops of laughter. Sometimes they might just talk to us, it depends on their mood. I must have seen them at least 40 times since that basement in 2005 and I have never seen them even remotely begin to repeat themselves. While a Usurper performance may contain pre-determined concepts, thus engendering the old debate as to whether this is ‘pure’ improvisation, there is an unhinged element to every show which reinforces the feeling that, while Usurper do know where they are going, they are unafraid to bend and break any notions of rules in order to get there or, indeed, anywhere.

And here they are now as featured artists at Counterflows 2018, Glasgow’s (and Scotland’s) foremost forward-thinking music festival. Counterflows has an impressive record of unlikely but rewarding collaborations: this year RP Boo worked with Seymour Wright and Paul Abbott, while Yeah You were paired with Pat Thomas – all with extraordinarily rewarding results. Usurper’s chosen collaborators, however, are you, me and everyone in the venue they find themselves in. Following two earlier shows at the festival, at The Stand Comedy Club and CCA, Usurper are booked to close this year’s Counterflows on the Sunday evening at Queens Park Bowling Club, a quiet members’ social bar nestled in the green and pleasant uplands of Glasgow’s southside.

On entering the Bowling Club bar, it quickly becomes evident that this might be a more supersized Usurper than I’ve previously witnessed. As festivalgoers queue for cheap beer and free vegan curry, and children staff the merch stall yelling “Anyone want to buy anything?!”, the centre of the room is dominated by, as is often the case with Usurper, a table. But this white table has been split down the middle by a heavy white vertical board containing two large holes on either side. It’s an imposing structure which sits glowering with inscrutable intention next to a small stage on which a shower curtain has been repurposed into some kind of basic teleport device. Glowing Nestene tendrils of light glow and undulate across its surface. These two objects, which everyone in the venue are doing their very best to ignore in their pursuit of food and drink, seem to be strangely alive and also far removed from the rest of the room.

As the appointed hour approaches, red plastic chairs are hurriedly snaked around the room held together with tatters of video and audio tape with a sign on one chair proclaiming, “CD-R BURNING THIS WAY”. A hush falls over the bar as glasses are collected by shirt-and-tied bowling club staff with wary looks upon their faces. An amplified coughing and spluttering begins retching in from all around us, heads turn in search of the source to find Ali inside a corner telephone kiosk with plastic sheeting smothering him. His phone cocoon is rapidly filling with vape smoke as Ali sucks his face in against the plastic layers thus increasing his garbled retching before he is finally able to groan out words which might just help to get him out.

“CH-CH-CHOCOLATE BAR?!”

“CHOCOLATE BAR?”

He shouts the words in increasing desperation until finally someone answers.

“CHOCOLATE BAR!”.

“CHOCOLATE BAR?”

“CHOCOLATE BAR!!”

And so Malcy has finally entered the scene and is rushing to his compatriot’s aid. Very slowly he enters through the Bowling Club’s french windows attached to a hanger dangling from a large clothes rail, with a trail of vape smoke belching him forward. A second hanger dangles hopefully from the rail as Malcy huffs and wheezes his way through the gaggled throng towards his pleading friend.

“CHOCOLATE BAR??”

Pant. Puff.

“CHOCOLATE BAR!”

Unable to stand without the support of the clothes rail, Malcy manages to reach Ali and release him from his now very smoky phone kiosk jail (please don’t do this at home). Attaching Ali to the second hanger (which breaks, necessitating a very quick-fix from Malcy), the two then set off on the arduous journey towards the table and stage area a good seven feet away. It is the noblest of journeys. They trek straight through the audience, chairs and humans scattering in their wake, before collapsing from the rail just before reaching the table. Fallen at the last hurdle. Crawling across the floor, Malcy manages to lift Ali, his strings cut, from the floor and wrestle him onto a chair before managing to climb onto an adjacent seat. Usurper are beaten. It’s been like watching a Dadaist interpretation of Eric Sykes’ ‘The Plank’.

But Usurper aren’t beaten. They haven’t even started yet. They manage to move limbs and motion nearby audience members towards the sheets of paper strewn around the floor, next to pieces of Usurper’s sound-making equipment sealed off in ziploc bags.

“CHOCOLATE BAR,” Ali and Malcy plead with the audience as they feebly gesticulate towards the A4 papers and equipment. “CHOCOLATE BAR.” One brave watcher grasps the nettle and picks up one of the paper sheets; we can see it contains enigmatic diagrams which seem to depict what we are actually seeing before us and could hold the key to Ali and Malcy’s intentions. But we all just look agog and bewildered, unsure as how to proceed, while Usurper become increasingly agitated.

“CHOCOLATE BAR, nah, nah, CHOCOLATE BAR!”

Finally, the cry comes back from one of us, a lightbulb virtually appearing above her head.

“AH,” she cries. “CHOCOLATE BAR!”

And we mass around Ali and Malcy, lifting them from their chairs just before they slide weakly to the ground, and carry them to the almost body-shaped holes carved out of the vast white vertical board which splits the table. We shove them through the holes and they dangle there with legs and arms hanging out of either side, Ali to the left and Malcy to the right of the table. So, have we played the game and won?

No, there is more work at hand. Usurper's bagged-up equipment must now be placed upon the table, within grabbing reach of either of the two, and now we are given choices. Ali, for example, manages to grasp at two bags, one containing a contact mic and another containing a metal coil.

“THIS? OR THAT?”

“This! That! That! This!” come the shouts from the audience, particularly the young children down at the front who are now having the time of their lives. Ali and Malcy assemble their musical arsenal in tandem, testing each chosen appliance for its potential sound qualities (while still hanging from their perches), and then, half an hour after Ali’s first groan, Usurper are ready to begin their performance.

They take their newly gathered and audience-selected gear and scrape, bash, gob, chatter, scringe, grind, splurge, crunch and wobble. It occurs to me that, outside of this stadium-sized scenario and concept, Usurper are presenting the most back-to-basics performance I have seen from them in years. They are once again scrabbling around on the floor making noise, only this time the floor is vertical and they’re dangling precariously from it. The concept could only have been made more poignant if the white board ‘floor’ from which they perch were somehow the tiles from Edinburgh dungeon bar Legends where I first saw them crawl 13 years ago.

This brief frenzied burst is suddenly popped by an altercation between the two. Tension.

“CHOCOLATE. BAR?!?”

“CHOCOLATE BAR”.

“CHOCOLATE BA-A-ER????”

It seems like proper square-go time between Usurper. Have they finally reached the end of the road? Is 15 years of artistic co-operation and friendship about to explode into a tussle on a Bowling Club bar floor? Sweat drips from Ali’s nose. Malcy loosens the zip of his green boiler suit. The two harangue each other as they slowly make their way up towards the stage and the glowing teleport shower. They enter inside as the lights suddenly go off and an inner glow silhouettes Ali and Malcy’s bodies inside. Scraps of half-formed diagrams and cartoons are projected in flickering black and white across the plastic sheeting until, finally, “THE END” forms across the pair as they face off against each other before presumably being beamed off-world back to the bubble universe in which they roam and grunt.

It has been a genuinely astonishing 45 minutes. I’ve been frequently mesmerised and blissfully dumbfounded by Usurper’s generosity of artistic spirit and inclusiveness throughout the many years I’ve seen them perform but nothing has approached this. This began as a rescue mission before turning into a game show and then into a private spat and a swift interdimensional exit. While the props and basic concepts were in place before 7.30pm at Queens Park Bowling Club, everything else was improvised. It’s hard to know how Usurper will top this, but I suspect Ali and Malcy will keep on improvising their world for us to visit for as long as they live. And life is the name of the game.

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