Seb Rochford has built up a name for himself as a genre-defying drummer, playing in a range of successful bands (with Mercury-award nominations and other awards to their credit), all defying definition and breaking boundaries. But last weekend’s performance in Dartington Live showed that it is in his own compositions where he really flexes his creative muscles. It was a great gig, the atmosphere was chilled, with people sitting or standing on the floor with the band forming a centrepiece, performing in the round, with the four musicians facing each other.
There was a ritual-esque start in which the second drummer, Mark Sanders, dragged a large gong in a circle around the other performers, drawing them together physically within a temporary wall of sound. The gong made a mildly grating sound which woke us up to what was to come. Even trombonist, Sarah Gail Brand, seemed slightly uncomfortable at the noise, but she went on to show not long after how adept she was at making unusual, striking sounds of her own, using the trombone mute to bring out timbres in a cacophony of sound – short bursts sweeping across the register of the instrument in a distinctly raw way. The other trombonist, Harry Brown, was perhaps more contained, with a very true and at times more legato sound, which made for a great contrast, even though the overall effect was of tumultuous noise.
The trombones both together played long single notes repetitively – like a call to attention in a public place – announcing something, announcing rhythm itself perhaps, rising above the wildly improvised drum patterns. The trombones were also used to good effect in the space; vaguely choreographed moves from the players meant that the full sound of the trombone would sometimes fire away from you, other times hit you right in the face, as the two players wheeled their instruments around at all angles.
There seemed some delay before Seb Rochford himself actually put stick to drum. Once the anticipation had built, he was instantly able to pull us in with his assurance and ability to embrace simplicity and purity of tone on the drum. There was a hypnotic quality to his drumming – he built up poly-rhythms with such ease and assurance that it was like listening to multiple consciousnesses applying themselves to a problem at the same time, the problem of the experience of sound through the dimension of time, maybe. At one point he used a clever phasing technique with his two sticks working at different speeds, recognisable as a sort of clapping music, like Steve Reich’s, which showed his virtuosity on the micro, as much as it was already clear on the macro level.
But really the highlight for me came as the piece picked up more distinctively the Indian-inspired (tabla) rhythms – drawing on what Seb referred to in his introduction as the chief influence of this piece and his personal connection with north Indian culture. He was drawing on the infectiousness of this type of rhythm, a rhythm which to the western ear sounds less regular than the traditional 4/4 or 3/4 time signatures, and which has found crossover perhaps most notably in relation to bhangra music. These are rhythms which you feel much more deeply I think, more instinctively, with the whole body, rather than just rationally.
There is a backstory to the piece which seems worth delving into here. As Seb explained before the performance began, his mother, who died when he was young, was from Lucknow, a cultural hub in North India, coming over to the UK as part of the Windrush generation. Following his mother’s death when he was young, Seb had always held a romantic idea of Lucknow, until he visited recently and realised how intense and overwhelming the noise of the traffic and the pollution was there. One thing that really struck him was a group of people playing wedding music on brass and percussion instruments, presumably a remnant from British army colonial occupation – these Indian performers had taken instruments and modified them and were now using them to play their own music. In Seb’s piece, which also used mainly two quite conventional western drum kits plus two trombones, he clearly wanted to reflect the music he heard there and as such was continuing this cross-cultural conversation in his own way.
As a consequence of this personal inspiration, the complex, energetic rhythm emerged with real integrity in the performance. You could feel as the rhythm built in texture, from a single drum (beat by Seb) it pulled in one by one each of the other musicians in the group like a kind of whirlpool, and from that the spiral spun out into the audience all around them. It felt amazing to be part of this drag, drawing the whole room into a collective rhythm, which played on the personal, particular connections of the compositions and a much wider general sense which was open and invited us into it. Seb mentioned that the piece was written on the day his grandmother died, and referred specifically to the ‘synchronicity’ of the piece, both in the idea, its execution and use of different techniques.
The Dartington Studio 1 worked well for this – with a single line of seats along one wall. Really the space became an open space, with everyone free to stand around, sit on the floor, and experience the music as they wished. It felt like having listened to something really invigorating, powerful and hypnotic – a really enjoyable evening.