Pasterze Kotów’s (Shepherds of Cats) improv music creeps up on you and steals your attention but not in a ghoulish sense. The ensemble start their set without introducing themselves or their tracks, and only a good few minutes into their playing does it dawn on you that what you thought was a process of tuning and testing the instruments is in fact a performance already underway.
The evening’s set is best approached with an open mind, so coming completely blind to it – shunning all the social media temptations – has its perks. A sneak view on YouTube or a snatched listen on SoundCloud would ruin the mystery of the evening and a Facebook entry or tweet couldn’t remotely convey the surrealism of the sound or the otherworldliness of Panelak their guest act. Yet the evening’s performance wouldn’t be happening at all without the agency of the internet.
The ensemble’s Anglo-Polish identity and relationship has in its 18-month existence been nurtured online. Drummer Alexander Olszweski and Jan Fanfare, the clavinet-player and key conceptualist of the act, are both Polish and based in Poland. The cellist Adam Webster is English and lives in Poland too. Along with this Poland-based trio are Darek Blaszczak the improv percussionist and Vj Pietrushka the video artist – essential for the live performances – both Polish but based in the UK. Add to the mix their collaborator Pascal Ansell – aka Panelak – who’s English and has never been to Poland and we see the role of the Internet epitomised. Panelak happened on Shepherds of Cats online; he initiated contact, fostered a working relationship and produced a CD with them – all via the internet.
The sounds and performance of the ensemble are multidimensional and your experience is meant to be as visual as it’s auditory, which explains the presence of Pietrushka, the video artist. Pietrushka, in the organic setting of the evening, is best tagged an improv video DJ. His bag of tricks is megabytes and megabytes of randomly shot movies, snatches of old Polish films and footage harvested from the internet. His process is spontaneously to select video frames as he feels directed by the music, and project them onto the stage’s backdrop. Blaszczak’s choice of percussion instruments adds an extra dimension of imagery: this percussionist has quite simply decided that kitchen utensils are as good for making music as they are for cooking, and with an assortment of brass bowls, pistons and the curious addition of tin foil you’re left marvelling at the subtle sounds he’s cooking up.
On the basis of Blaszczak and Pietrushka’s intriguing visuals the audience is enticed into picturing sound. Each instrumentalist presents abstracted beats and notes for us to inspect and ponder. While the process might seem taxing in description, in reality the pure quality and beauty of individual notes and sounds is relaxing and mesmerising.
The solo contribution of Panelak took the abstraction and visual quality of the evening to a higher pitch. Continuing in the improv spirit he recited poetry made up of weirdly juxtaposed, randomly selected text found online. A combination of cross-dressing, acrobatics, screeched speeches and threatened nudity intrigued and entertained. All these manic antics were toned down, while still adding spice, for his collaborative performance with Shepherds of Cats, which closed the evening’s set.
If this ensemble is any sort of gauge then “improv music” is a challenge to its audience is to search out the beauty lurking within it, and its creation a labour of love. This feeling is driven home by the facts – Olszweski works in advertising and marketing, Webster has a Masters in Music but teaches English as a foreign language, Blaszczak is an NHS analyst, Pietrushka is a nurse and Ansell is training to be a Yoga teacher. Fanfare – who runs a recording studio – is the only member who earns a living from music. The beauty of this ensemble is that there’s method to their musical psychosis but their output doesn’t come cut and dried – every performance, onstage and off, is intended as a unique experience for both artists and audience.
Shepherds of Cats’ set at the Café Oto Project Space, on July 9, was a culmination of their five-gig tour around the UK. On their way back to Poland they plan to give a stop off performance in Bonn, Germany.
Shepherds of Cats at the Café Oto Project Space was an event supported by the Polish Cultural Institute London.