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LIVE REPORT: Wacław Zimpel At LSO St. Luke's
Patrick Clarke , February 3rd, 2020 13:30

Patrick Clarke finds Brexit Day respite at a gorgeous show from one of Poland's greatest living artists

Photo by Miguel Santos

Sometimes it is difficult to separate the gig from the day. It is ‘Brexit Day’, to be precise. Entering Wacław Zimpel’s show is like seeking shelter from the last 24 hours' bombardment of images, the endless parade of smugness and misery. By the time we leave, fireworks from those celebrating pop in the distance while others trudging down a dark and rainy pavement shudder and flinch.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that this gig showcases one of Europe’s greatest modern composers in a gorgeous, Grade 1 listed Anglican church; a performance that could only have happened by virtue of pan-European collaboration. Onstage, Zimpel thanks The Barbican, with whom he’s been plotting the gig for almost a year, as well as James Holden, whose input was crucial to the record whose release he’s here to celebrate – Massive Oscillations.

After a tremendous hush, he opens the show with the first, and title track of that new album, a composition where great waves of noise rush forwards one after another after another, Zimpel looping them around each other to create something that keeps growing and spreading until its tendrils fill every cranny of the old church. Still beams of light criss-cross above him, and when his music has unfurled to the point it can unfurl no further, he leaves those mighty whirrs to keep rolling over one another as he takes to the clarinet.

He is a master of that instrument, his playing more anguished than on record and sometimes fraying into guttural squalls. It pierces those opulent rushes, bringing attention sharply back to the man himself. Though he looks understated, a single figure in muted clothing, half-hidden behind his rig of instruments, there is something transfixing about the way Zimpel performs. He moves jerkily up and down, his eyes clenched as if straining for some ancient inner power to expel through his instrument. So silent is his crowd that you can hear not only the music that he produces, but every soft click of finger against key. Later he creates another loop, this time making use of what he calls his ‘piano robot’ – six electromagnetic hammers connected to a keyboard, commanded by Zimpel with an analogue controller. Again, you hear not just the notes themselves, but something more visceral too, the sensation of finger pushing urgently against ivory.

Zimpel’s brilliance is in how beautifully he marries enormous, all-consuming drones with swift and razor-sharp melody. His ability to fill the church with a mind-bending psychedelic whirl, glistening, noble and rich, is imperious, but more awe-inspiring still is his command of silence – the spaces inbetween. About a quarter of the way into his set, Zimpel picks up a khaen – an enormous Laotian mouth organ which he plays in a frenzied staccato. You can hear him struggling to keep catching his breath, playing thrillingly on the edge of his own physical ability. In the background you can hear a gentle hiss from the venue’s dry ice machines, and the hiss of the rain outside.

The performance is absorbing, but it is not escapist. It does not imagine another, more beautiful world but fills our own with the kind of beauty for which we yearn. The tactility of Zimpel’s direct and organic playing ties it firmly to the here and the now, to this brief hour of sanctuary from the tumult outside the church’s doors.