Review by Massimo Ricci, Bagatellen, July 2009

Cologne’s Loft has become a hunting reserve for Pavel Borodin’s shooting of improvising artists (pun intended). After last year’s excellent documentary on Elliott Sharp, The Velocity of Hue (for which, reports the director, no willing label was found for distribution – a shame, given the quality of that particular work), we’re now able to watch a concert recorded March 14, 2008 by Speak Easy, the quartet of Ute Wassermann, Phil Minton, Thomas Lehn and Martin Blume.

The DVD comprises three episodes (the encore is available as bonus material), a no-frills multi-angle presentation which succeeds in portraying the essence of the performers, an infiltration of sorts in their physical effort, severe application and utter responsiveness. The setting is somehow reminiscent of a low-budget "off" theatre representation: purple background, wooden chairs, an impressive starkness. Minton and Wassermann are placed in front of the main camera, Lehn on the left, Blume on the right. Visually, a few contrasts are immediately noticeable, in the clothing (Minton, the lone non-German, wears a white shirt against the comrades’ general darkness) and in the type of gestural expressiveness. On one side there are the "scientists", Lehn, perennially tight-lipped, manipulating the controls of his EMS Synthi with the same concentration of a neurosurgeon, Wassermann, a cold-eyed emitter of implausible half-Tibetan-half-warbler vibrations with the only aid of a pair of bird calls. The opposite front sees Blume exploiting the percussive arsenal with controlled passion typically delivered with almost choreographic moves, plus the wild card Minton, whose facial contortion is a spectacle in itself (his close-ups are in fact a study in the rubbery characteristics of human expression, and one genuinely fears that the eyes will pop out of the skull at some point).

The four systematically demonstrate an inspiring consistency of reciprocal consideration, symbolized by a couple of instances in which Minton is captured opening a single eye amidst absolute absorption to check what the others are doing. The scarce recognisability of the sources in the pianissimo segments – the vocalists emitting imperceptible overtones, meshing with Lehn’s synthetic whispers and Blume’s barely audible cymbal scraping – is testament to the remarkable technical and creative homogeneity of these musicians, a seriousness ultimately immortalized. Thanks to this utopian filmmaker, the documentation won’t stop anytime soon (a "definitive" feature about the aforementioned Sharp and a Mark Feldman/Sylvie Courvoisier performance are in the can among other things). Meanwhile, visit this website if you want to get your hands on Borodin’s goodies. They deserve the utmost attention.

Review by Richard Pinnell, The Watchful Ear, August 2009

<...> So that’s the music. Now how about a comparison between the visual and aural experiences that the CD / DVD releases provide. The interesting thing here is that the sound used on the DVD is the same as what appears on half of the CD, the same recording exactly. So, once I had linked up my computer (not owning a TV or DVD player I have to watch DVDs on my Mac) to my hi-fi to ensure decent audio playback I had two recordings of similar quality of the same music, but one of them had pictures. The filmwork itself is very good indeed. Often with video recordings of improv concerts there is only one camera, limited use of tripods and poor lighting. Borodin’s film uses four cameramen using what seems like good equipment. Borodin frequently changes the view, flicking from wide angle shots of the whole group to close ups of individual musicians regularly, and with some shots panning slowly from one of the quartet to another. Minton and Lehn in particular make good visual spectacles. As Lehn flies all over his instrument like some kind of mad professor on acid (Sorry Thomas!) Minton looks a bit like he sounds, sat hunched, purple in the face with a pained expression. I’ll let you work out what he often looks like. So watching this film is actually not a bad replacement for being in the room. The sound is good, we get to see everything, much of it close-up, and the technicalities of recording something like this never get in the way. Borodin never overcomplicates things. His directorship is simple, clean and logical. We don’t get overlong shots of someone’s hand quivering on a dial when the music is happening elsewhere, but then we also don’t feel like we are sat static in one place. Near the end of the first piece on the DVD (there are two half-hour long main performance and an encore ) everything at one point collapses into silence bar a very quiet slither of a squeak from Minton, which he holds for over a minute. During this we also get to see close-ups of the rest of the musicians, as we see them wondering if this will be the end of the set or not, listening intently. As it happens things do start up again, and Borodin films this beautifully, catching the moments on the others’ faces when they realise the music is to continue.

I very rarely enjoy watching improvised music DVDs, but then usually they are not straight DVDs on the performances. More often than not the sound we hear is accompanied by a separate often abstract film. Trying to focus on two separate creative streams is difficult for me, but when the film is just of the musicians at work I have less problems. In places this really felt like I was at the gig. The problem is, I often shut my eyes at gigs… and the urge often took me to do so here! Given the choice of listening to the CD or watching the DVD here I actually do think I would prefer the film. Not always, sometimes it is nice to just lay in bed listening with my eyes closed for instance, but I did really enjoy watching this. I should also add that I have seen three of these four play live a few times, some of them more often than others and so to some degree I knew what to expect. For someone that may not have been so fortunate however this film will probably be invaluable for decoding some of the mystery behind this music. Oh yes and the film also offers an interview with Blume (with English subtitles) and options to switch to 5.1 sound. All in all its a very professional presentation and not one that deserves to be buried.

Review by Dave Madden, The Squid’s Ear, November 2009

<...> This Cologne-based 2008 concert is the same breed of odyssey — for the musicians as well as the audience. In the accompanying interview, band leader and percussionist Martin Blume explains that the group’s aesthetic stems from a bi-annual art exhibit, The Message, at Museum Bochum: "The Message is dedicated to mentally ill persons who are influenced (or pretending to be influenced) by supernatural beings and paint pictures...this project should take place in the context of this (has) something to do with voice, since these people hear voices." (For instance, Hilma af Klimt, a featured artist, claimed her "automatic drawing" method was a clairvoyant revelation from spirits to "paint on the Astral Plane".)

Following this occult-ish muse, the humble ensemble of Blume, vocalists Ute Wasserman and Phil Minton and EMS Synthi adept Thomas Lehn fill the stage with an ardent sonic palette for a fervid 88 minutes (some of the performance appears on the group’s CD, Backchats). Building and breaking down a series of tone clouds, each member contributes from a disparate yet integral side of his/her square. Staring at a fixed point, Wasserman busily chirps, intones, employs birdcalls, hums multiphonics, hisses and adopts multiple personalities, wandering in and out of the mix with an alien grace. With Lehn, the attraction is equal parts "what he does" and "how he does it": visually, he’s flailing his arms, furrowing his brow, rapidly twisting knobs and patching pegs to feed his machine; but his output is a subtle digest of simple blurts, drones, smeary rumbles, crackles and the occasional scream. Likewise, Blume’s ability to effortlessly juggle a full drum kit with various sticks, gongs, wood blocks, bowls, bells, bows and a host of genres gives the impression of several busy octopi at work.

However, it is Minton that all eyes are either on or avoiding. Watching his seizure-esque approach to vocalism, the spittle flying as he eagerly shakes his cheeks, sticks out his tongue, forces belches, quivers, squints with wide-open eye sockets (?), whines like a starving toddler, channels demons and saints, sways uncontrollably (even while mute) and pulls mutant rabbits from his proverbial hat, is the burning pot to send the unprepared running back to the monastery. So to speak.

However, off-putting and startling gradually turn to inviting, fascinating and in the same way that birth and death are cruel, chaotic and beautiful, a sacred event. If allowed its due, this resonant mélange washes over your faculties like an overwhelming meditation you refuse to shake; fortunately, you don’t have to shave your head, take a vow of celibacy/silence, survive on rice and wander for years in a desert to enjoy it.

Review by Kurt Gottschalk, SIGNAL to NOISE, issue #57, spring 2010

<...> Borodin’s Speak Easy: The Loft Concert captures the unusual lineup of two out vocalists (Phil Minton and Ute Wasserman) joined by analog synthesizer (Thomas Lehn) and percussion (Martin Blume). Minton is great fun to watch, a perfomner who requires a lot of physicality and facial constriction to do what he does. His guttural conversing pitted against Wassemnan’s more tonal (but no less out) approach makes for a great dynamic, especially in combination with Blume’s soft drumming and Lehn’s aggressively percussive synth. <...> it’s a nicely edited, multi-camera shoot that captures a great performance.