Pascal Nichols live at SubRosa, Manchester 28th November 2014
Pascal Nichols is a drummer and a potter, half of Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides with the flautist Kelly Jayne Jones. At SubRosa he played a solo set. SubRosa is a homely and militant anti-Capitalist cafe and venue run on broadly autonomist lines as a Radical Routes Co-op in Moss Side, Manchester. The event was organised by Very Bon, a host organisation for “sporadic evenings’. Pascal Nichols chopped his set into four pieces, each with their own distinct technique and flavour. This was improvised music but it was shaped into a more-or-less composed suite of music.
He makes parenthetic opening statements on the kick drum, and the floor-tom, before settling in to a larger-scale framework. As he moves towards this, he keeps up a semi-regular fast pulse on the kick drum, fast enough for it to occasionally give the impression of a smooth continuum, it’s tuned tight and unmuted by the kick-pedal between strikes. He’s thinking. He places a handful of long metal rods on the floor tom, a block of ringing sonority covers the blur of the bass drum, he whips it off, applies a mini-maraca for a nasal buzz at the top of the skull, full of its own tiny rhythms. As he presses and replaces the little shaker, vibrating from the continuous impact of kick drum, there’s a sensitivity to timbre bordering on the paranoid. The key sounds here are SMALL sounds, and the key dynamic formally is the placing of different blocks of small vibrating sounds in juxtaposition to each other. The effect is almost chordal, he alternates and overlaps these blocks like post-colostomy Matisse on the hoof. The snare’s tripod is stuck too close to the kick pedal. He picks it up and rotates it without letting up. As he shifts the kit around him in motion, the sounds of its realignment are like brushstrokes, the traces of ad hoc physical readjustment on the wing. Around them the newly-invented schemas unfold. It’s like bare canvas peeking through the paint and becoming another voice.
In the second piece there is a picked up floortom, half on the drummer’s lap, the other half leant on the snare. The idea that instruments can be made to sound in ANY WAY IMAGINABLE is a commonplace in free music, as (usually in an institutionalised form) in contemporary composed music. But it’s no less alarming for that, when you hear it done right. These are objects than can be made to sound in any way, in any direction. He applies a length of rubber tubing to the drum head, the other end stuck in his mouth, and blows. The drum groans like a huge slowed door-hinge, bellowing in waves like a dungchen, punctuating the horn with cymbal-clashes. Deben Bhattacharya (the ethnomusicologist who never walks into the wrong temple) might have recorded this in a Tibetan monastery. But this isn’t any facile plundering of “World Music”, the improvised pseudism Derek Bailey described when he said: “Tunisian chanting, Maori chirping and Mozambique stuttering are combined with the African thumb piano, Chinese temple blocks, Ghanian soft trumpet… to provide an aural event about as far removed from the directness and dignity of ethnic music as a thermo-nuclear explosion is from a fart.” This is measured and ritualistic without ever becoming formality, pastiche or ventriloquism. It’s a sonic investigation of OBJECTS, not a pre-conceived style to be copied. It’s physical and libidinous: the drum head as mucus membrane.
He moves, nominally, from the physical to the abstract with the introduction of a metronome; that cipher for metrical rhythm treated as pure maths. Ligeti found a way with his “Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes” to force those machines into something poised between a semi-indeterminate cloud of cross-rhythms and a grand conceptual gag. But here the metronome becomes a kind of miniature found jazz drummer, as its sonority is deepened and variously altered by being pressed into the skin of the drum, shoving it against the edge of the ride cymbal, blocking and tapping it. Scrappling in his array of items for a suitable prop, he leans it back into a decelerando, throws his fingers into it and forces gaps. He’s sticking his fingers into the idea of abstract time, forcing psychological time into the grid, intervening in the endlessly self-perpetuating. At the point when he DOES let it run uninterrupted, he overlays and intertwines pitched metal percussion, sped cicada shakers, dry thuds and offset ringing rimshots. These are resonant sonorities, bordering on Balinese gamelan, in lesser hands they could easily fall back into the comfortable evocation of exotic atmosphere. Instead it instantly becomes a kind of high-speed parody of mood-music, the extraneous mood evaporating and leaving the skeleton of something primitive and complicated sticking out like an full-colour 3D x-ray.
Fourthly and finally he pauses to tie a metal object to his shoe. Once attached, he cocks his leg like a puppy onto the snare, and rattles forth a compressed barrage. He leans into the skin, producing that Art Blakey questioning lilt. He batters the metal in double-time, clipping the snare and dropping bass-drum punctuation, pausing early on to hit two small cymbals hanging on a string, letting them spin in the air. A chunk of calm space. Then back to the grindstone. He closes with a passage that seems to stretch and contact the pulse like a zoom lens, forcing out illogical little metrical events whilst it moves forward; propulsive, but the opposite of inevitable.
He told me afterwards “I actually PRACTICED for this one”. Well it shows: that was ace. Pascal Nichols is a motherfucker who KNOWS WHAT HE’S DOING.
THF Drenching, Levenshulme, ‘Black’ ‘Friday’ 2014