The blank canvas that is London’s ICA is the perfect venue for Paris-based Matthew Ker, aka MaJiKer, to showcase his unique take on pop music.
With black-painted walls, a bare stage and no discernable architectural flourishes, the scene is set for Ker’s imagination to run wild and, from that perspective, he certainly doesn’t disappoint. Showcasing songs from his recently released Body-Piano-Machine album, Ker creates everything from immediate pop (the sumptuous Tongue) to dark, lovelorn torch songs such as the gorgeous Flesh And Bone.
His instruments of choice are his body (be it beat boxing or tapping out rhythms), a baby grand piano or his earliest musical instrument, the Yamaha keyboard PSS 270.
We are told that tonight’s show will witness a battle between the three entities, each one represented by a colour. Like all concepts, it’s at times limiting and frustrating (the keyboard sounds at times are pretty awful) and, when it’s successful, utterly beguiling.
Mixing elements of performance art with modern dance, the evening has the feel of a drama workshop, with Ker and his onstage support, French artist Bénédicte Le Lay, variously acting out violent struggles or performing a romantic waltz, depending on the mood of the music. Elsewhere a video camera is used to project close-up images of Le Lay in black and white on to the screen behind the stage, creating a strange mix of French noir and childish humour.
But there are times when the pair start to resemble children’s TV presenters, eagerly trying to show us how music can be fun if we dress up in funny masks and blow feathers about the place. Their enthusiasm and passion is obvious, but their delivery mixed with the air of ‘try this at home’ that comes with beat boxing and body percussion meant it was more Play School than The Culture Show.
It also, at times, overpowers the songs. As with artists such as Camille (Ker co-produced two of her albums and Camille appears on Body-Piano-Machine) and Bjrk, Ker is able to display a brilliant ear for melody by any means necessary. By looping endless layers of percussion and vocals he is able to create stirring, energetic soundbeds on which to add beautiful piano melodies or flurries of crude synth sounds. The Pink Piano is an obvious highlight, its simple chorus supported by some stirring vocals from the sadly absent Camille. (In keeping with the dramatic theme, Le Lay ‘impersonates’ Camille, miming along to the song using a hairbrush.)
This sense of overthinking everything is ultimately what prevents the night from really taking off. Too many times you settle into enjoying a song when suddenly you’re distracted by a burst of modern dance, or an excruciating spot of mime as on The Serenade. It’s the rare moments of subtlety that remind you of how talented Ker is, especially on the aforementioned Flesh And Bone, which is performed in near darkness save some flickering candle light.
As with all attempts to create something different and exciting, certain aspects simply didn’t work. That’s not to say that it wasn’t worth trying, and with tonight’s performance Ker is equal parts fascinating and frustrating, but crucially, never dull. All in all, a flawed success.