March 19, 2016 | London, UK | St John on Bethnal Green
Written by Colin Robertson | Photographed by Simon Kallas
There are few venues that are better suited to Jo Quail’s music than London’s St John on Bethnal Green. The church was designed by Sir John Soane in the 1820’s; at the end of the church stands a larger-than-life sculpture of Christ with arms open, yet possessing an intimidating sense of severity. Around the room, Chris Gollon’s paintings of the stations of the cross vividly portray his suffering. It is a place for deep and serious reflection.
Jo Quail is a cellist whose music is often contemplative. She plays an electric cello, using a looping pedal and effects to build up pieces of great intricacy and beauty. I have been a fan since I saw her as a supporting act for Rome a few years back and have seen her perform live on quite a few occasions since. This concert was to launch her new album, Five Incantations. I love her music, so a new album is always going to be a special event, and while I’d heard ‘White Salt Stag’ as well as an alternate version of ‘Gold’ beforehand, this would be my first time hearing the album in full.
As we entered the church, DJ Paul Garside was playing a selection of seductive and atmospheric neoclassical tracks perfectly chosen to suit the mood of the evening. The event was organised by Chaos Theory, who hosts events in a wide range of genres from contemporary classical to jazz and metal. The organisation’s founder, Kunal Singhal, gave warm and enthusiastic introductions to the musicians of the evening. Quail was supported this evening by Poppy Ackroyd—a musician who combines piano, electric violin, and field recordings with electronic effects and looping to create gentle, cinematic music. Ackroyd explores the sounds of the piano fully, using knocks or taps on the body as percussion, and often reaching inside to pluck or brush the strings directly. She creates a mood so delicate that after her first piece, there was a long silence with no one daring to be first to break the spell with applause.
The heart of the evening, however, was Jo Quail performing Five Incantations from start to finish. She played it as one continuous performance with neither speaking nor applause between tracks. Beginning with percussive slaps on the cello’s strings, the first piece, ‘White Salt Stag’, built into an intricate rhythm, with a melody which felt ominous like an approaching storm. The second, ‘The Breathing Hand’, was the calm after the storm with its gentle, somber yet soothing melody; it was a delicate, meditative piece that provided a space to rest and reflect. ‘Salamander’ returned to a speedier pace with a dancing rhythm and slinking lines of melody which circled around each other with a tense, restless energy. After a second pause, ‘Between Two Waves’ took on a slow, vast atmosphere, carrying with it a sense of bleak foreboding. When the final track, ‘Gold’, began playing, I was filled with a doubled sense of sadness. Firstly, ‘Gold’ is a piece of music with an aching sorrow to it. Its heartbeat rhythm underpins a melody filled with yearning and sadness. Secondly, I had already sensed that the show was drawing to a close. It was such a beautiful performance, and I was hypnotized by the music which I wanted to go on forever.
Throughout the performance I was holding every muscle in my body rigid, barely daring to breathe. There is an ongoing tension that runs through Five Incantations, even in its quieter passages. Quail has mentioned before that during a performance, she becomes deeply entranced while playing. It is visible in her face for the entire duration of her set and it is infectious: also an equally rare occurrence to see a room full of people so spellbound as we were by her melodies. There has always been an element of darkness to Quail’s music, although her previous albums, From the Sea and Caldera, have combined that with a lot of levity. Five Incantations is a journey through more difficult territory, yet despite the darkness of the music, Quail herself has an extraordinary warmth and openness, inviting anyone to come and chat with her after the show.
For an encore, Quail returned to play ‘Adder Stone’—whose riff structure and distorted tone better demonstrates her rock influences—as well as the folky, exuberant ‘Laurus’. She also invited Poppy Ackroyd back to the stage to play a duet of ‘South West Night’. I have heard a few versions of this song over the last couple of years—Quail often collaborates with other musicians when playing it live—but this was by far my favourite. Ackroyd played with great sensitivity, echoing Quail’s cello lines on electric violin. After the intense journey that was the entirety of Five Incantations, this encore was like emerging into the light and air again. The evening was a triumph of superb music, enriched with beauty, but at the same time exploring some intense and difficult terrain along the way. This was a special and memorable evening.