Studio Sova #8 :: Free Movements feat. String Figures / ((ZON)) / Elisa Vassena

Dan Nicholls and Michael Knight (AKnight) join us for an improvised live set, relaying patterns which thread together the earthbound and the cosmic. Spanning deep techno to ambient to impro-rave to field recordings; exploring sound as a means of understanding inner and outer worlds as unified.

Cast your mind back to July 2020 (if you can bear to). Cases are down and the first lockdown is easing, but clubs and venues have been shuttered for 3 and a bit months and the hunger for live music was really starting to bite.

To satiate that appetite, we invited the Free Movements crew down to Studio Sova for a proper multisensory hoedown. Dan Nicholls and Michael Knight, playing together as String Figures, provided a gently throbbing and swaying soundtrack of live electronics, augmented by a recording of an Ursula K. Le Guin interview (taken from the Between The Covers blog) in which she laments our rapacious pursuit of new technologies and advocates for a more holistic and loving attitude to nature and objects. There was plenty on offer visually too, with ((ZON)) layering live imagery and Elisa Vassena performing interpretive dance in response to the music.

As Dan Nicholls noted, when we spoke with him this month, this was an event that took the gaping hole left by the loss of live music spaces and turned it into an opportunity to explore new combinations of music, philosophy, art and dance. “It was the first streaming thing I did and it was really nice. I’ve played others since then where it’s just been presented as a gig with no audience, but I felt like Studio Sova wasn’t like that. We had the dancer and the visuals and it came together into something we wouldn’t have been able to do in a normal live setting.”

Seeing the fluency and verve with which Dan and Michael thread together flickering synths, bubbling modular rhythms and semi-lucid field recordings, you’d think they’d both been hardware fiends since day dot. But Dan hasn’t always worked amid the warp and weft of electronic textures. He played piano at music college in Birmingham then studied a Masters in Copenhagen, all the while gigging as an in-demand jazz keyboardist. 

However, the desire to break away into more abstract timbres and textures was always lurking under the surface, and electronic music offered a chance to do just that. “I was always interested in electronic music, even when I was at college. Then when I moved to London and started playing with this drummer there was no bass player in the band and I had to play bass synth as well. So then I had a synth and over time it gradually crept in more and more. For a while I just went off the traditional keyboard instruments you find in jazz and wanted to have the flexibility of synthesised sounds.”

Dan’s journey from piano to electronics has entered a new, more convergent/harmonious phase with his upcoming album, Mattering and Meaning, due to be released next month on Finnish label We Jazz. Each track began with a home-recorded piano doodle which was immediately stretched, smudged and embellished using production software, thereby capturing the spontaneity that Dan harnesses in his live performances, both in the jazz and electronic realms. As he explains, “I wasn’t even playing piano at all for quite a long time and then I just spontaneously started recording one day. I’d record two minutes on my phone and then put it straight onto the computer and cut it up in a really improvised way. Most of the songs took maybe half an hour from beginning to end.”

This process arose through a desire “to create music that was a continuation of daily occurrences,” and the resulting songs are suffused with a deep and poignant intimacy. “It’s a bit like an audio diary really. There’s all these bits where you hear like my daughter in the background or noises from things happening, things falling over.” These interjections are often charming, but overall Mattering and Meaning feels like a work of serious thought and introspection. Keys tumble, cascade, then are elongated, looped, distorted or sometimes buried under electronic fuzz, as if Dan’s dismantling his relationship to the piano in front of our ears, unsure which direction his true feelings lie.

Dan cites a “deep interest in human relationships to ecstatic practices and communalities” as one of the album’s main influences. These are topics he has also explored by curating a series of ‘Technodrifts,’ events which involve a group of people gathering in a public space and simultaneously listening to the same techno mix on headphones. While they began in Berlin as a response to the closure of clubs, for Dan they form part of a far broader conversation: “In the last few years I’ve been getting less interested in music as pieces of art to be played in concert halls or wherever, and more interested in the communal experience that music can offer. The Technodrifts are about reclaiming space and reclaiming your right to dance, but also about the necessity for people to come together and do things together, strengthening community and making people less isolated.”

Perhaps at no time in modern history have human beings been so socially, emotionally and ideologically separate from one another. Blame Covid, blame technology, blame Capitalism, blame individualism - finding the cause matters less than finding the solution. What we need is people ready to fight against it, and Dan seems like a man who’s up for the scrap.