After a turbulent afternoon in Manchester that saw an already over-stretched police force doing their best to not only deal with the clash of demonstrators and protestors in the city centre, but also provide security to the thousands of glitter-faced kids attending Parklife festival, it was a relief and a blessing to escape into the basement of Soup Kitchen. There, American composer and synthesist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith was on hand to offer some truly transportive music.
Opening act Xam Duo, formed by Matthew Benn of Hookworms and Christopher Duffin of Deadwall, were the perfect warm-up for headliner Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. All modular synths and saxophones, the duo’s half hour of seamless instrumental music was an immersive experience, both ambient and relaxing while also commanding the room’s attention.
As Smith took to the stage, and seemingly plugged herself directly into the electronic instruments she had laid out on a table in front of her, the headline set started with little fanfare, but proceeded to gain momentum as layers of warm synths and bubbling arpeggios gradually filled the room.
Although Smith is a classically trained pianist and guitarist, she is perhaps best know for her use of the Buchla Music Easel (a famously complex analog synthesizer), and during tonight’s set she almost never looks up from, or lets go of, the thing. Constantly tweaking the Buchla’s various faders and knobs, while also attending to what we presume are other, smaller synths on the table, and singing, Smith’s set could be described as the musical equivalent of keepy-uppy, yet it is never rushed nor too slow, and there is never a tune or note out of place.
The set drew mostly from her second full-length album, EARS, and while on that record Smith is backed up with various other instruments like saxophones, clarinets and flutes, there was nothing lacking in the solo live show where the synthesizers effortlessly created such fluid soundscapes, and filled any empty spaces that might’ve been left by other instruments.
Accompanied by slowly evolving, abstract visuals projected behind Smith, standout tracks such as ‘First Flight’, ‘Anthropoda’ and ‘When I Try I’m Full’ became almost meditative pieces, drawing the crowd into Smith’s unique, intimate world where rich electronics recall both the ambient beauty of Brian Eno and the constantly moving minimalism of Terry Riley and Philip Glass.
Smith is an undoubtedly prolific composer and collaborator (check out the wealth of stuff on her bandcamp page, and also ‘Sunergy’, her collaboration with another electronic music pioneer, Suzanne Ciani), so it was a surprise when the set finished after only forty minutes. It was, however, Smith’s first ever show in Manchester, and though there were a few murmurs of ‘is it over already?’ amongst the packed basement crowd, it’s easy to forgive after a show of this calibre.
Words by Charlie Cocksedge