Ether: 09 logoEther 09: Plaid+Rahayu Supanggah / Jon Hopkins Southbank Gamelan Players

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London - 18 April 2009

"The partnership never lived up to the billing"

Jon HopkinsAn intriguing line up this evening was promised as part of the Southbank's annual Ether festival. Plaid being the well-established electronic duo signed to Warp; Rahayu Supanggha offered my first proper chance to hear some quintessential Indonesian gamelan; with support coming from the much-lauded but relatively obscure Jon Hopkins.

Before Hopkins took to the stage to begin the evening's formal proceedings, and before they joined Plaid for the collaborative headliner, there was the welcome opportunity to sample Supanggha and the Southbank Gamelan Players on their own. Their half-hour set comprised five pieces, some of which had been used on the Opera Jawa film soundtrack. The gamelan sound (traditional Indonesian/Javanese music performed on bronze gongs, boning and balungan accompanied by flute) has historically be used a medium to assist storytelling via puppet shows or as a key part of social and cultural ceremonies. Having worked with the likes of Björk before, the international reputation the Southbank Players hold is easy to understand. Although each piece had a narrative thrust, due to the rhythmic, cyclical pattern nature of the music, it was easy to get drawn into the trance-like harmonics and frequencies.

Plaid+SupanggahJon Hopkins can boast producer and composer roles alongside the likes of Herbie Hancock, David Holmes and Coldplay, and with none less than Brian Eno praising the Englishman as an electronic innovator, Hopkins arrives to the stage with weighty sense of audience expectation. His essentially instrumental compositions varied between the relaxing end of ambient through to more unsettling, almost Twilight Zone sonic territory.

Accompanied by some retro 60s psychedelic-styled animation that mostly didn't blend with the audio at all, Hopkins was more convincing and impressive when the beats got bigger and the tempo faster. He also proved with his leaping around and frantic knob twisting and fader wiping that even if you are only guiding studio prepared tracks with some live filtering and mixing that even this potentially unpromising function can be exciting to watch. He's clearly got talent and range but this suffered slightly from the impression that he was often stretching himself too thinly.

Plaid+SupanggahFinally, Plaid took to the stage and, like the gamelan players earlier, sat cross-legged on the floor for their performance. Not sure that was entirely necessary; it clearly wasn't that comfortable as they kept shifting positions, and when the 'performance' of both Andy Turner and Ed Handley revolved essentially around laptop fiddling it made for dull viewing. Having apparently long been fascinated with the gamelan sound Plaid leapt at the chance of collaboration with Supanggah and the Southbank Gamelan Players.

The first third of their set, although drawing on the traditional gamelan sounds and styling, saw just the two members of Plaid pushing keys and filtering the pre-recorded musical loops. They were then joined by Supanggah and the Players which immediately elevated the on-stage antics to something more engaging and entertaining, and improved over Plaid's all-too vague meanderings. This kind of cross-cultural musical hybridisation is a staple of programmers at venues like the Southbank and festival such as Ether, and at a conceptual level this promised plenty of rewarding and surprising potential; but a few passages aside, and like the frequency-reactive CGI video projections developed by Minivegas that accompanied the set, the partnership never lived up to the billing. 6/10

Rob Dyer