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LIVE REVIEW: Spectacle, Alice, 27.04.2019

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Anna & Elizabeth are something of a millennial Shirley Collins, working on bringing traditional American folk songs into a modern context. The duo have been collecting songs, in their words, “from archives and old people” — though admittedly some of those old people were found on YouTube. All of their songs from this set are immigrant songs, tales of coming to America, as an effort to remind their countrymen of their roots even as they try to punish those who follow their ancestors’ examples. While there’s a decided traditional tinge to their banjo-and-guitar-based songs, subtle electronics feed into the background. Exactly how modern their interpretations are is really only apparent once they hold a laptop up to the microphone to play a recording of Margaret Shipman’s “Jeano and Jeanette.” The duo then repeat the song back with their own smooth-out harmonies. 

anna and elizabeth live at alice in copenhagen for spectacle

The highlight of Anna & Elizabeth’s set is definitely their scrolls. The two-foot-tall paper scrolls are created by the duo to illustrate their songs. For the occasion, they’ve brought a painted seascape, lit from the front, and a backlit paper cut collage detailing life next door to a warm-hearted and musically talented neighbor. The scrolls are turned manually by Elizabeth, who sings while hiding behind them, the accompaniment often quiet enough that you can hear the soothing hum of the mechanism.

Heather Leigh’s music, however, is at the opposite end of this aural spectrum, though superficially it appears she comes from a similar tradition. Pedal steel is often associated with Americana, but Leigh’s performance is dense and droning, a world away from the instrument’s familiar warble. In Leigh’s hands, the pedal steel sometimes chimes and sometimes sounds like an approximation of 80s hair metal guitar. Her accompanist on electronics and violin (which again is distorted beyond its usual self) only adds to the density of the performance. Leigh’s dazzling soprano is a defiant strike against the heaviness of her arrangements. She sustains high notes that many singers would use to punctuate a song, and with a force that many could only aspire to. She’s found a space adjacent to but still a fair distance from the familiar.

Spectacle more than earns its name in the rich interior of Sankt Johannes Kirke, just across the road from Alice itself. Local sound artist Sofie Birch sits at the end of the nave, emanating warm waves and rivulets of synth sounds. This is a far cry from the punk posturing of the noise scene, combining Birch’s production abilities with a careful ear for composition, particularly when she uses her own voice. Layering vocal loops to create harmonies is certainly a common technique in the scene, but what makes tonight’s example so interesting is how these accretions slowly change the nature as well as the texture of the melodies, how these evolve in an almost classical sense.

To our backs in the church a much larger synth lies in wait: Sankt Johannes’s organ, ready to be taken through its paces by an artist of a considerably more venerable vintage. Charlemagne Palestine made a name for himself in similarly hallowed surroundings as a carilloneur in Manhattan’s Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in the 60s, having made his way through the banjo, accordion, and singing in synagogue. He has often referred in interviews to the concept of “playing a building”, of considering both the bells and the organ as part of the larger synthesizer of the church itself, and tonight he gives ample proof of it.

The piece starts off with relatively soft (relatively for a massive organ, of course), pad-like drones of two or three notes, variously modifying and slowly building on one another. The sound starts to bulk out and fluctuate, you can start to hear the harmonics of a simple three note chord, played of the course of several minutes, collide with each other. The wall of sound becomes dizzying as your attention hops up and down the frequency spectrum, trying to land somewhere. With no melody to follow, no clear demarcations of time, the air of the church gets denser. Keen on showing us the full potential of the instrument, Palestine pulls out the stops (are rare case when the phrase can be used literally) to cut the texture with a buzzing saw of a chord.

The notes start to thin out again, allowing Charlemagne Palestine to break out into another one of his talents, a spectacular chant, the technique of which was taught to him by Indian classical singer and scholar Pandit Pran Nath. Without any technological amplification, his arms raised to the heavens, Palestine’s voice reaches into the deepest recess of the building, bouncing off the walls alternately booming and plaintive. A long silence follows the end of the piece, after which Palestine invites us to praise the instrument: “The organ is still the most complete synthesizer in the world. It can sound like Bach, but it can also sound like Schmach!”

INTERVIEW: Peter Hvalkof from Alice talks booking and Spectacle

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Photos by Morten Aagard Krogh

Since 2017 Alice has been the home to experimental, global and electronic music in Copenhagen, guaranteed 4 years of funding from the Arts Council and Copenhagen municipality. Half way into this project, the venue is showcasing its unique cocktail of genres this month with a two day series of concerts and talks under the banner of Spectacle.

We sat down with one half of the booking team, Peter Hvalkof, in the café of the neighbouring Union cultural center to get an idea of the work that goes into producing one of the city’s most unique cultural spaces, and to get a preview of what to expect from them in the near future.

Peter started his career in concert booking in the mid 90s working with Roskilde Festival, and by now describes himself their most senior booker. “At least I’m the one who has been there the longest!” His focus has always been on bringing acts from every part of the globe to Denmark, from Malian desert rock to Brazilian tropicalia.

His work at Alices started by way of one of its predecessors, Global. Started in 2006 in the same space now occupied by Alice, Global started out by buying bookings from Roskilde Festival. Most of these were Peter’s own bookings, which made it natural for him to team up with Global. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Global would be something of a scouting ground for Roskilde, and as such could attract a wider variety of acts to its own venue. “For most people it’s not just a chance to discover a new band,” Peter explains, “it’s a way to discover entire genres and cultures.” 

The delight of Roskilde Festival, and what spurred Peter to get involved in the first place, was exactly this potential for stumbling across the unknown while crossing an otherwise nondescript Danish field. We’ve experienced this ourselves in our reporting on plenty of occasions, memorably encountering the Thai band Khun Narin crossing the festival with their massive soundsystem after a set earlier in the day.

Attracting audiences to unknown bands is a much easier proposition these days of course, since even the most obscure act is only a quick search away, but you still need to earn that audience and inspire them to make that discovery. “There are so many curious people out there, who trust the programming, who instead of settling for what they already know are willing to take the risk. And for some it could be the concert of a lifetime.”

Peter Hvalkof of Alice and Roskilde Festival

“It took four years at Global to gain an audience that trusted that what we were doing was something spending the money and time on.” Of course Alice can take advantage of the same symbiotic relationship with festivals like Roskilde and the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, but that doesn’t mean it requires any less work : “we knew that when we merged Global and Jazzhouse into Alice we would have to start all over. It takes a while to build a reputation, but we are improving all the time.”

Aside from its regular audience, though, Alice has also seen shows completely sold-out by expat communities. The most notable instances recently have been Italian songwriter Vinicio Capossela and Turkish psych-star Gaye Su Akyol last autumn. Gaye, Peter is keen to point out, will be returning to Roskilde this summer. 

Between booking for Alice and Roskilde, Peter is clearly a busy man. In the last year at total of 316 acts have passed through the doors of Alice, with only a brief one-month window of reprieve in summer. The planning for Spectacle started in autumn, so with that and Roskilde booked it’s time for a short breather. Today, in fact, Peter is technically on holiday, but he has come over especially to greet the Mekons who are playing here later this evening.

We spend some time discussing the term “global music” and its older cousin “world music”, the topic in fact of one of the upcoming talks during Spectacle. “For me, when it comes to describing to someone what I do as a booker at Roskilde or Alice, at least the term ‘world music’ is something they understand.” But then what is global music? “It’s local music from ‘out there’, but that could just as easily be Jutland as Zanzibar!”

Focusing so much on acts from the most disparate parts of the world also entails a considerable amount of effort in terms of paperwork: “I spend so much time writing letters of invitation to make sure that artists from outside Europe are getting their visas.” But this is hardest on the artists themselves: in the case of one duo from Niger, this meant spending a week on the streets of Burkina Faso while applying for a Danish visa. “Then they had to spend give weeks in Accra to get their visas for Britain, can you imagine that?”

“When I travel, one thing that always makes be happy—but also a little ashamed when it comes to my culture—is the fact that whether I’m talking to an electronic producer of a metal bassist, they know so much about their own musical heritage. That’s hard to find in Danish musicians.” But certainly not impossible, since Spectacle will see—alongside international electronic and folk acts—local bands like psychedelic outfits Ipek Yolu and Klimaforandringer, as well as Copenhagen-based composers Sofie Birch and Xenia Xamanek.

“Spectacle is a way to add some more focus on what we are doing. We talked earlier about hating the term ‘world music’ and in fact we tried to avoid the world ‘festival’ too, but if you create a series of concerts and you end up naming it… well that is a festival.”

As well as being its own venue, Alice as a project reaches out into other spaces as well, from the Union Cultural Center we are currently sitting—which will house the talks that are part of Spectacle—, to the churches of Christians Kirke in Christianshavn and Brorsons Kirke in Nørrebro. There are talks of also hosting events in the neighbouring Sankt Johannes Kirke. 

Later in the summer Alice will also be home to shows from the likes of Nadah El Shazly and Girls in Airports as part of the Copenhagen Jazz Festival, and is bringing its bigger acts, such as German experimental big band Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra, to the Ofelia Plads stage in the city center. 

The Alice Spectacle will take place 26 and 27 April.

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