US saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell’s ears are forever open to scales, tunings and mantras from beyond western experience. Most recognised for his pioneering work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Mitchell sealed the deal on this stimulating evening at the London contemporary music festival with free improvisation at its most erudite and incisive. Lines coiled, pirouetted and multiplied as Mitchell locked himself into a dialogue with his saxophones, music evolving because of inner discussion, never the small-talk of post-minimalist pattern counting. Single note thought-bubbles turned progress on a dime, obliging him to view his mind-map of improvised lines from unforeseen angles; inventions by turn abstract, raw and funky. Emerging suddenly from the back of the hall, percussionist Kikanju Baku tapped rhythms on hand percussion as he wandered through the audience towards his drum kit. Initially Mitchell met these challenges with restraint. Isolated hollers and staccato lip-smacks contoured Baku’s blasts of rhythm, before Mitchell turned the tide the other way, flooding the space with a torrential outpouring of sound.
Mitchell’s set was preceded by an extended sequence of experimental film shorts by Stom Sogo, DJ sets and a Fluxus classic by Ben Patterson. A collection of new orchestral pieces, conducted by Jack Sheen, was crowned by For Roscoe Mitchell by the US drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey. Solo cello, handled with exquisite delicacy by Deni Teo, snaked around drones and pop-up orchestral clusters, the elliptical gorgeousness of atonal harmony on full display. Sorey meticulously unpicked Mitchell’s tics, like writing down the recipe of all that makes his hero cook.
The audience got behind Sorey’s piece, the cogwheels of concentration palpable. Two world premieres and LCMF commissions – from sound artist Elvin Brandhi and multimedia artist Cerith Wyn Evans – were disappointing: neither had much idea what to do with a full orchestra, producing thin gruel that left the musicians doodling aimlessly. The intriguingly titled Pearly, goldy, woody, bloody, or, Abundance by Oliver Leith smudged brazenly naked tonal chords, gouging conventional orchestration out from the inside. Then turntablist Mariam Rezaei, in her set, relished pummelling the debris of familiar melodic hooks and chords into a delirious mad-dash of high-velocity sonic surrealism.