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Kings Place, London, UK

Themes of metamorphosis abound in NikNak’s immersive performance. The concert begins with a meditation that resets the mood of the room. Many in the audience feel inclined to sit or lie on the floor. Piano loops and birdsong are embellished by a winter treescape projection, while a female voice, lifted from YouTube, encourages us to “find compassion for the self.” Before long, the guiding voice distorts and discordant sounds enter the fray. Calm is replaced by trepidation. Down the rabbit hole we go. 

Nicole Raymond aka NikNak is a turntablist and Oram Awards winner who activates her instrument through storytelling. Sankofa, her 2022 album that tonight is performed in full, is a deeply conceptual ambient record. While the title references the Akan word for retrieval, the album itself is inspired by comic book narratives and evokes the story of a black woman (Storm) discovering her superpowers. Sankofa also symbolises the quest for knowledge through critical examination and the album’s track titles echo this theme by hinting at the protagonist’s character development.

The sounds themselves largely consist of a varied library of field recordings and found sounds. These are often collected by Raymond on journeys and the way she treats the source material during the performance mirrors its transient origins. Using a Serato setup allows Raymond to mix her digital library without compromising the tactile advantages of vinyl. Samples are looped or scratched and sent through a series of delays, filter sweeps and reverbs, while synthetic chord sequences construct unstable fortifications around them. The venue’s complex speaker arrangement means that certain frequencies pan around the room, disorientating the ear. Every now and again a deep bass drop arrests the air and reminds our bodies of their physical limitations. 

The projections, which are edited in real time by the Bristol based artist Loëpa, not only provide a focal point, but also illustrate what we hear: polygonal kaleidoscopic patterns, melting organisms, light tunnels, and Rorschach-like distortions. The colours shift from warm sunburst hues to dark subaquatic greens and back again. I am reminded of Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi album artwork as well as the light vortex scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Loëpa later explains that they are indeed influenced by 60s and 70s psychedelia, manipulating footage to “create the comic world, but have it be sensory and about the living things around us”.

The voices of the afrofuturist authors Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison also appear in the set. They discuss how popular science feeds the joy of speculating and that writing fantasy counters the boredom of everyday life. Much like her podcast series The Narrative, Raymond wants to increase exposure of content made by other black women, trans and non-binary creatives and this is why Butler and Morrison are present. However, the way Raymond alters their speech on the decks, from intelligible to incomprehensible, makes me wonder if their inclusion is meant to highlight censorship or the silencing of black authorship. “I love how you picked all of that up,” she tells me after the show. “It’s mainly just the texture. It’s very improvised a lot of the time. Sometimes I haven’t listened back to [the recording] at all and I’m just there, in the performance space, with these sounds responding to them live. The next time I perform it will be different. That’s the beauty of it.” 

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by The Wire, February 2023

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