Snakes and Ladders

Snakes and Ladders; Daniel Figgis (drums), Cormac Figgis (bass), Roger Doyle (piano), Mark Scully (drums), Colum Jordan (bass), Brian Ó hUiginn (uilleann pipes), Conor Brady (guitar), Symphony Space, New York City, 8 January 2010

The two rhythm sections were posed in uncanny symmetry, as if drummer and curator Daniel Figgis had specifically chosen a left-handed drummer to play beside him. Figgis brought his ensemble to New York for Daniel Figgis’ Snakes & Ladders… an Entertainment, a mixture of solo and group performances, with Irish musicians from a wide range of backgrounds. What the subtitle ‘an Entertainment’ meant was never quite clear, and that ambiguity seemed to trickle into the set as a whole.

Batterie 1, a piece by Figgis, began the one-hour set with pounding low toms, pulsing bass guitars, electric guitar swells and uilleann pipe ornamentations. Two drum kits and two bass guitars dominated the room, with the melodic instruments filling in the background. The double rhythm section included bassist Colum Jordan and drummer Mark Scully from the Dublin band The Zealots, as well as bassist Cormac Figgis of the Irish punk band Paranoid Visions. Their relentless vamp, always on the front edge of every crushing beat, quickly became the music itself, rather than a backdrop. Cormac Figgis nodded four next to his cousin Daniel’s drumming – Daniel Figgis proved to be a master of the ecstatic-yet-simple drum fill, even as he switched to brushes. The piece did get off to a rough start, however, partly due to the sheer mass of pre-recorded sound; Conor Brady’s guitar and Brian Ó hUiginn’s pipes could barely be heard, while Roger Doyle’s piano was completely drowned out.

It was a pity that the two bookends, Batterie 1 and Batterie 2, were the only pieces to include the full band, because the solo performances could have profited from other live instruments. In Play, Conor Brady played his guitar over a backing track that included a few other guitars, keyboard and drums. Since Figgis commissioned this for the performance, it was a little surprising that he and the other musicians did not perform with Brady. Brian Ó hUiginn’s own Left-handed March was a similarly-presented work, with his uillean pipes flying solo over a tape. Roger Doyle’s The Staircase Was Familiar had a Steve Reich feel, with repeating nine-beat modal piano patterns over steady half note chords. For much of the piece, his fusion of electronics and acoustic piano was either minimal or fruitfully sparse; his second piece, ‘Finale’ from Adolf Gébler, Clarinettist, was more angular.

The video works that played on a long loop behind the performance combined warm, analogue double-exposures with stop-motion animation; sadly, there was no specific attribution or list of film titles provided.

Batterie 2 was just as driving as the opener. It seemed to be the opening in reverse, as Figgis began on brushes, picking up his sticks about halfway through. Several minutes later, after pounding out the last drum fill, Figgis threw his sticks in the air and left the stage to loud applause.

Published on 1 February 2010

Andrew Christopher Smith is a composer and pianist living in Brooklyn, New York.

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