fri 12/08/2022

Portico Quartet, St John at Hackney review - softly beautiful discordancy | reviews, news & interviews

Portico Quartet, St John at Hackney review - softly beautiful discordancy

Portico Quartet, St John at Hackney review - softly beautiful discordancy

The perfect church setting for an ambient ritual

A beautifully meditative performance from Portico QuartetGondwana Records

Composed entirely of their 2021 release, Terrain, Portico Quartet’s Friday night concert at St John at Hackney was a beautiful performance, albeit slightly marred by a low stage and a chatty audience.

The crowd itself was a cross-section of fans from the slightly more left-field end of ambient: hipsters in beanies with annoyingly large backpacks, earnest-looking edgy couples with interestingly long hair, the more normal gig attendees clutching warm beers, and the uncomfortable-looking older man. The setting in the church itself couldn’t have been more fitting, the interior a stark white, tastefully picked out in gold. The stage was in front of a beautiful gilded altarpiece, with the usual mix of standing and overhead seating.

Hania Rani was Portico Quartet’s one-woman opener, who introduced herself in a breathy whisper. Her songs fitted the mood of the Quartet well, soft but not without their edge. It was a nice starter, to showpiece a voice before a band that is characterised by their lack of it. She accompanied herself with rills of piano, her singing Björk-like and soulfully sad.

After a short break, Portico Quartet took to the stage, their typical lineup expanded by the inclusion of strings: three violins and a cello. These instruments wove through the three long pieces that make up Terrain, a turn to long-form music that was, in part, a response to the events of last year. The length of these pieces made the experience beautifully meditative, but arguably harder to concentrate on, especially in an informal concert setting.

The pieces began with soft paddings of sound, looping layers blending and building into a composition that was somehow joyous, but undercut by a minor key. The various instruments that the Quartet use are excellent counterpoints to one another, often played unusually – soft percussive drums and cymbals, a keening, light saxophone, and the almost ritualistic bassline provided by the hang/handpan and guitar. In a departure from their earlier releases, loops and snatches of pre-recorded sounds and synths creep into each track. The first "Terrain" that they played featured a burring hum of synth, cut through by a high cry of saxophone. At points they almost dissolved into discordancy, a particular feature of Portico Quartet’s output.

As the pieces developed the mood shifted, the crowd becoming restless as a darker throb underlaid the building music, with the counterpoint of saxophone rippling and tripping over the top. Stage lighting flashed rhythmically as the higher, steady notes of strings introduced themselves. The cello provided a deep thrum, the violins almost flute-like, playing until fade-out. 

When sound returned, it was with a repetitive piano, cycling through simple notes, pushed up by insistent drums. The saxophone, which had been quiet towards the end of the last piece, crept back in to dance over the heads of its looping instrumental partners. The piece fell apart wonderfully into discordance again as the drum softened, the saxophone and the violins bird-like, calling. 

At one point a percussive track provided a driving, hollow, wooden sound that the other instruments riffed on, starting softly then building to an energetic crescendo. The fluting, trilling saxophone came back in over the crescendo, in an almost Richter-like ecstasy.

As the last tones of "Terrain III" faded out, the band was introduced, then shuffled off and back on stage for the inevitable encore. This was with Hania Rani, whose soft keening was backed by gentle instrumentation. If this was anyone’s first gig back since the disruption of the past year, what a wonderful reawakening.

The length of these pieces made the experience beautifully meditative


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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