Arts Festival Review: Talvin SinghReviewed by Richard Thomson
State Opera House
As you'd expect, the festival promotion machine took care with their advance description of Talvin Singh's set. "Low-fi electronica" was bang on, but while the audience was appreciative, you had to wonder whether many of them might have been unexpectedly challenged by the sounds produced by Singh and his Powerbook-shaking partner Oscar Vizan.
Live laptop techno is something fans of electronic music are going to hear a lot more of in years to come. But while the new technology regains something of the excitement of live performances, it comes raw and without the smoothing and compressing of harsh sonic edges that goes on in the studio.
And for people who quickly grew bored by the lush yet soporific noodling that typifies much electronic music, that can only be a good thing. Although Singh's earlier work, such as the album OK which led to his winning the Mercury Prize in 1999, could never be described as noodling, its washes of synth chords and smooth drum'n'bass styles were rarely less than easy on the ear.
At the time of his early success, Singh was hailed for bringing Indian sounds to the popular Western mainstream. Born in London to Indian parents who'd fled Idi Amin's Uganda, he went to India aged 15 to train as a tabla player. Tabla is a pair of hand drums, and is widely used in classical, religious and popular music in India. But growing up in London had given his playing something of a Western taint, and once back in the UK, he found that was something the tabla community were reluctant to accept.
Since then, Singh has clearly moved on. His classical tabla playing, to an untrained Western ear at any rate, is superb, but the instrument has a complex, formal austerity that found a curious aesthetic counterpart in Vizan's minimal techno.
Set next to an ancient tradition that has wrung hundreds of years of musical development from just two drums, the term 'minimal' seems an oddly inappropriate word to apply to the rash of noises made possible by a computer. The tabla made this very new technology sound as experimental – as uncertain of what it could do and where it might go – as it undoubtedly is.
All the same, those roughly modulated digital glitches, clicks and bleeps were too challenging for some in the audience. Listening to this complex, angular, intellectual music demanded total concentration, but those who made the effort were amply rewarded.