Live review: Oly Ralfe

by Thomas Blake

St. Pancras Old Church, Wednesday 10th October

London is a city of strange boundaries. Instantly recognisable landmarks give way to nameless hinterlands. Swathes of green rub their backs against scars of rubble. The weird windswept cleanness of a poorer district gives way to the already-tired grime of a newly built transport hub with its rich, bored bustle. The area behind St. Pancras station is typical of these dichotomies. To the north is Camden: bicycles, craft beer, canal-view apartments. To the south-east, the station itself, where men in suits ride push-along scooters worth as much as my family car. And in between is Somers Town, a district that feels as if it has stopped to hold its breath, waiting for a change that is as unavoidable as it is slow-moving. It could be change in the form of gentrification, or it could be degradation. Perhaps neither would be welcome. It’s a place on the cusp, and that’s how it has been for a while.

But between Somers Town’s north-eastern boundary and the combed-out braid of railway tracks that carry the Eurostar trains into the international station is St. Pancras Old Church. It’s one of those little havens that London does so well. A quiet corner, full of its own quiet corners, its small but significant secrets.

It’s fitting, then, that this should be the venue Oly Ralfe has chosen to perform his recent album of piano music, Music From Another Sea. Because it too has its muted secrets. And it is an album that occupies cusps, edgelands: the border between classical music and pop, between our dream worlds and our waking life. Ralfe’s playing examines the fuzziness of those cusps, where one thing bleeds into another, creating patterns of delicate exploratory sound.

The venue is perfect, then. And so too is the way Ralfe has chosen to present his material. The recorded versions are piano vignettes augmented by sparse instrumentation, but for this performance Ralfe has employed an ensemble (brilliantly arranged and conducted by Luke Lewis). The swell of strings and woodwind fills the old building. Nebulous shimmers become heart-swelling bursts, the music takes on a new warmth and a different kind of energy. In effect the added substance acts as a kind of framing device for Ralfe’s playing, highlighting his gift for timing and for a simple but often indescribably beautiful melody.

Those melodies come thick and fast; each track is a considered distillation of subtly different emotions, and most come in at around the three minute mark. Although there are elements of classical music and pop, it’s really neither of those things: the structural looseness and striking individuality of each piece make them feel like dreamed musical artifacts, things captured in mid-flight. At their most orthodox and precise – A Forest In The City or the waltzes On My Train and Lantern Waltz – they sometimes resemble the film music of Yann Tiersen, but the more formally uninhibited pieces are more concerned with mood and feeling, and in this they are surely indebted to Erik Satie. There are moments of transcendence like the longer than average Glider, which utilises something like a post-rock song structure to create a discernible musical narrative, while shorter, sadder pieces like The Swallow Sleeps All Winter are harder to pin down, playing out like melancholic internal monologues.

The exemplary playing of the ensemble seamlessly blends in with Ralfe’s music, and with the way in which he dictates the mood of every piece. So too do the sounds of the building – the creak of wooden chairs, the clock in the tower, the shuffle and breath of a human audience. The piano by its nature is an instrument that fosters a good deal of extra-musical sound. The pedals knock; the musician’s clothing swashes against the instrument’s wooden body. Ralfe welcomes those minor physical interventions on record, and he welcomes them here. It all adds to the personal nature of the performance, the feeling that secrets are being revealed.

The time of year, of course, adds to the natural theatre of the evening. Even for a heathen like me there is a mysterious comfort in a darkened church in autumn. There is an inclusive, perhaps even conspiratorial appeal to gigs like this, a feeling that the outside world has been suspended for a couple of hours. It’s a good feeling. But it would be misleading to suggest that Ralfe’s music is not engaged with wider issues: indeed the very existence of highly idiosyncratic events like this is a quiet protest against the homogenisation of the music industry and an invitation for us to think more clearly and more creatively about how we consume art.

The evening’s support act, French singer and accordionist Garance Louis, shares this original, immersive and conversational attitude to live music. Her gutsy, high-energy Francophone songs are given an extra dose of intimacy by her surroundings. The results are approachable but highly accomplished. There is something about the physics of playing the accordion that I have always found impressive – it must be like simultaneously trying to touch-type two different novels while administering CPR to a medium-sized Labrador – and Louis does it with unabashed gusto. Her songs sound both tender and bawdy, a combination of chamber-pop and chanson. Her style seems light year’s away from Ralfe’s, but when she joins him and his ensemble onstage at the end of the night’s performance there is a squaring of the circle that is as satisfying as it is unexpected.