Montréal ensemble Esmerine – tonight a modern chamber troupe numbering six and centred, as ever, around Bruce Cawdron and Beckie Foon – may be best known for their affiliation with fellow Québécois post-rock potentates, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. But it’s more artistic merit, and less having friends in significant places that sells tickets – not least amidst the incessancy of the capital – and the signs initially look pretty bleak for this abstruse orchestra of sorts. Outside, an illegally parked tour bus is seen picking up a ticket, whilst once inside, the cold and uncompromising back room of the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen is deplorably sparsely populated. Some sit on the floor twiddling straws; others hang limply from the bar at the very back. But as showtime slowly approaches, the space gradually fills until, little by little, we’re all set to embark upon a voyage of sonic discovery quite unlike any other, categorically inclusive of that which GY!BE majestically guided us through a mere few weeks ago.
Cawdron and Foon’s latest full-length endeavour, September’s Dalmak, was largely written and recorded in Istanbul last year while the Canuck outfit were coordinating an artist residency all of their own over in the economic, cultural and historical heart of Turkey, and it’s material from said record in which we’re tonight submerged first and foremost. Turkish not only for dip and dive but also meditate and muse, the live rendering of Dalmak is as immersive as it is contemplative, engaging the brain as it flows lucidly from one neurone to the next with an elegant guile. And this evening, alongside the usual suspects – Brian Sanderson and the obscenely ambidextrous Jamie Thompson – we see Stockholm-based Turk Hakan Vreskala occupy an unprecedentedly prominent role in proceedings.
Under dense blues, they begin with with the lugubrious, if latently optimistic Learning To Crawl, Vreskala central visually, if aurally insignificant, his palms splayed out across a vast davul – motionless, his digits retain a strangely meditative bearing. Musically, however, Foon’s cello remains resolutely crucial, carrying the arduous burden of weighty emotivity. A brief spate of “instrument Tetris” then ensues, and multi instrumentalists every one, they play on and on throughout. And on they lead into another, Lost River Blues II, that animated by Vreskala’s maniacal darbuka-based frenzy, inspires vivid images of an opulent hinterland situated where the rich idiosyncrasies of the Orient meet with the progressive grandeur of the Occident. Of course geographically, this mythic realm is Turkey itself, and Esmerine have thus successfully recreated this land of unplumbed opportunity in sonic form. But not only that, they’ve done so with unerring aplomb, Thompson’s ominously martial bugle harmoniously meeting with the exotic twang of a saz. This is the sound of synergy finely tuned to precise synchrony, and in these concise, readily digestible pieces, Esmerine’s work resonates with everyone within the room.
As though clearing his throat for a doleful call to his distant homeland, Vreskala begins to sing during a xylophonic, if still oddly imposing rendition of Yavri Yavri, before he’s back on the darbuka for a similarly formidable run through the bipartite Translator’s Clos. Performed in syncopated 9/8 time, and made all the more absorbing by Cawdron’s imploring we clap along, or at the very least attempt to, as his able foil scrapes dismal languor from her four strings this particularly odd meter starts to make perfect sense. Vreskala’s incantatory vocal again transports, his enigmatic lyrics extracted from 14th century Turkish poetry, and as we’re informed of these profound through lines, the evening at times seems as much a seminar as it does a show. These instructive interludes suffer for the hum of a recalcitrant air conditioning unit throughout, although Esmerine themselves blow far more hot than they ever do cold. And as such, Vreskala’s delivery is appositely arid in tone.
Nonetheless humble, if still aware of their huge, even infinite ability, Esmerine are at their empowering best when their pieces remain exclusively instrumental. Whether that be the sparky jig of Barn Board Fire or the unremittingly uplifting and unmistakably Reichian, xylophonic polyphonies of Lost River Blues I a little later on, their proficiency knows no limits. And they prove ceaselessly breathtaking in terms of this irrefutable virtuosity: erstwhile tree cutter Cawdron’s bowed marimba soughs as though its slats were manufactured from a tree felled only yesterday, his talent inimitable and one to be treasured. Although if singularly gifted, it’s the way in which Esmerine are able to so naturally combine which sets them apart – both above, and indeed beyond. For even when there may at times be a slight imbalance in terms of the influences herein entwined, there’s always at least one musician ready and willing to stitch as much propulsion into their performance as possible.
During a somewhat incongruous Histories Repeating as One Thousand Hearts Mend, Foon is encumbered with the task, although intriguingly, it’s only once Vreskala’s Turkish rhythms kick in that the song really starts to kick on. Again, this ability to cross-reference their various recordings, incorporating disparate elements and so too musicians from different albums, intimates toward their endless finesse, and it’s one that we can but hope will finally, one day, enlighten a more sizeable audience than this. For revised thus, Dalmak surely couldn’t fail to enthral even the most heartless of London parking attendants…