Gillet’s contemporary improvisations and jazzy beats are enjoyable though lacking in clarity.

St. David’s Cathedral
June 20, 2015

After seeing Calvin Bowman’s midnight performance of Buxtehude’s organ preludes the night before, I was feeling pretty sleepy when I arrived at the same cathedral to watch Helen Gillet improvise solo on cello. But as I took my place among the audience on a heated pew, the lights dimmed and the audience rumbled in excitement for the mysteries of another Dark Mofo event. Building suspense, the cellist took her time to emerge to the front of the church. When she did, she sat down and opened her song with a gentle scratching of the strings which was put on a loop.

Gillet’s loop pedal recorded, layered, and stacked the different sounds and beats she produced – she was able to remove top layers mid-song as she pleased but the foundations remained for the duration of the songs. A contemporary performance in a historic setting, Gillet explored the percussive potential of the cello as much as the melodic through tapping, scratching, and plucking. The first piece used these sounds to set a scene over which she improvised lengthy and ethereal notes without vibrato. The cathedral setting was fitting for this transcendent performance.

While exploring the sounds of her instrument in the second song, Gillet started to sing in French and evoked an entirely different mood – this one cheeky and sexy. She sang exactly how she bowed – long, clear tones with plenty of expression and each note building strength toward its end after a gentle attack. Harmonising her vocal lines with her pedal, the song worked itself into a dissonant frenzy which bounced between the stone walls after projection through hanging speakers.

Gillet’s third piece was a little acoustic, a little folky. It was calming and – being looped – highly repetitive toward the end. It was followed by a song which commenced with plucked jazz scales before she set herself a fast and steady beat. She got right into the song, though I didn’t share her enthusiasm for this one as it tended to lack rhythmic clarity and structure. Nevertheless, the audience yelped at her for more when she’d finished.

Sung in French was a piece called The Memory of Rose, which Gillet said was originally written by a Belgian poet and comedian, and after this a Hungarian song written “for a man before he is married”. A skin-crawling looped creaking sound opened this song, which soon became a rapid dance. I felt someone rocking the church pew behind my back, forcing me to bop along to the beat of her dark and Eastern European song. Highly energetic, it definitely woke me up at 12.30am.

A French-Latin professor who played guitar in the ‘50s wrote the next song about “not getting married”. It was a fluster of gypsy jazz, which Gillet performed with a funky backbeat reminiscent of her New Orleans heritage. Fun and bright in some parts, and mildly disturbing in others, I began to realise her style changes but the constant feeling is unsettling.

The concert concluded with a Velvet Underground cover of Ride Into the Sun, which featured heavier and thicker cello playing than had been heard in the preceding hour. She laid so much groundwork to loop that it overpowered any cello or vocal melody she attempted. A distortion screeched through the amp and was harsh on the ear, and the middle of the song was dominated by one single ascending note that drawled on like a kettle before eventually dissipating into thin air and redirecting our focus back to the beat.

The first half of this concert was definitely the standout. Gillet’s contemporary improvisations and jazzy beats weren’t anywhere close to perfect – but they were most certainly enjoyable. And that’s what improvisation is about, isn’t it?