Friday, September 30, 2011

In praise of monochromaticism

Two recent CD releases have got me thinking about certain aspects of contemporary music. The recordings in question are Simon Fell's large group piece Positions & Descriptions (recorded at the Huddersfield Festival in 2007, and released this year on Clean Feed) and James Saunders' collection of recent compositions, divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole, which has just been released on Another Timbre.
The musics on these two discs are very different from one another, but there are nevertheless affinities that merit considering them together, besides the relatively trivial fact that harpist Rhodri Davies and pianist Philip Thomas appear on both of them! (I should issue a disclaimer here to the effect that I know both composers; I was taught by and have performed with Fell; have performed music by Saunders; have had work released on both of these labels; and that I know a great many of the other performers on these discs as well and count a number of them as close friends. I haven't discussed these thoughts with anybody else though, for what it's worth.)

In an interview with Julian Cowley that was published in The Wire in August 2000, Simon Fell, referring to his then-most-recent large group work, said:
I've tried to do the same thing in more subtle ways in my composed work for as long as I can remember. Often, people who are taken with the wild recklessness of Compilation III's broad-stroke collage method are not going to follow all the way to the finer detail if you give them a monochrome version.
In the years since then we have had Compilation IV (Bruce's Fingers, 2005) and now the work under discussion, which is Fell's most monochrome large group work to date. And that is meant as an enormous compliment.

Fell's monochromaticism is achieved through a sort of saturation of density, perhaps akin to the way that white light includes all other colours (or white noise all other frequencies). There is of course a history to such a sensibility – it can be found in certain manifestations of total serialism, for example, but also in freely improvised music, such that George Lewis can comment on a recent CD reissue of a cassette of Derek Bailey's solo guitar playing that:
the music itself presents a flat, blank surface, a slow-motion white noise whose infinitely variagated texture is only revealed when a listener zooms in, after the fashion of a scanning tunneling microscope.
As with his previous works in this area, the elements that Fell is attempting to combine are improvisation (both "non-idiomatic", a la Bailey, and more idiomatically rooted, most notably in jazz), contemporary composition, and electronically produced sound. To avoid misrepresentation, I should point out that Fell's monochromaticism is only relative – there is great diversity on this disc, and some dramatic sectional shifts as well, but the important point is that the distinction between composition and improvisation is often so difficult to discern that working it out isn't really an engaging exercise, like it often was with previous work by Fell and similar work by others, but more closely approaches irrelevance - except insofar as this music could only really have been produced in this way. Certain "moves" have become pretty standard in "composition/improvisation" circles and it's impressive how Fell avoids them without sounding like he's avoiding them. That is, he does not avoid them by foregrounding their omission but rather by using them but so deftly that it's only when you really pay attention that you notice how cunning he is. And he somehow also manages to avoid jokes without being humourless – the music is certainly not dour, but the tango that appears in "Position 8" is played straight and yet does not strike one as pastiche. Clarinettist Alex Ward (who has taken part in all of Fell's large group works of this nature) told me not long after the original performance of Positions & Descriptions how impressed he was that Fell somehow manages in this piece to pile on more of everything than he has done before, all at the same time, and yet have the thing end up both clearer and more cohesive than his previous efforts.

Saunders takes a different approach; rather than Fell's interest (as expressed in the liner notes to Positions & Descriptions) "not in sequentially exposing or juxtaposing different musical areas, but in overlaying and interpenetrating them" – gesturing towards the monochrome, we might say – Saunders is interested in penetrating into the superficially monochrome to tease out the multitude of vibrantly coloured threads that lie disguised within. Fell has a continuing interest in the "classic" period of Darmstadt serialism (such as the work of Boulez, referenced in Positions & Descriptions); Saunders on the other hand, although he has participated in more recent Darmstadt summer courses himself, has recently looked for inspiration in a different form of serialism – namely that of the minimal/systems/conceptual developments in the visual art of the 1960s and 70s. All the pieces on the Another Timbre disc have titles derived from artists' statements from the period, in which Saunders discovers a stark beauty.

Such a description could also be applied to the music on the disc. The first composition, imperfections on the surface are occasionally apparent, features ten players dragging cardboard coffee cups across various surfaces. The sounds change from rubbing, to rustling, to stridulating, with occasional little squeaks or low rumbles of pitched noises. A strongly tactile quality is evoked by Simon Reynell's beautiful, unfussy recording, capturing all the tiny grains of difference in the various sounds. The piece is in a sense easily described and yet it would be all but impossible to capture in words the myriad of variations and developments going on at the microlevel – there is a disjunction between microstructure and macrostructure in this music that is extremely beautiful: sounds start and stop, that's all... and yet it isn't all, by any means. Throughout this CD (as in his earlier work) Saunders focuses on simple sound-producing actions that result in unstable sounds; an extreme economy of means to explore the diversity of colour available from singular, or at least similar, sources.

The "orchestra" in this first piece is used for diversity, not mass: we seem to have only 2 or 3 players playing at once most of the time. The sound of all 10 could have been overwhelming, but it would also have added up to something else: here, although the players do not individuate themselves as "characters" somehow they always remain "one" and do not really blend into each other. Similarly, each surface is only used for one page, by one player and so effectively only appears once (though sometimes there are two "blocks" of sound on one page). Hence there is a linear progression – sounds once finished do not return, and and we also constantly get new sounds. There is freshness and surprise (within a very narrow compass) and yet neither teleological movement nor circularity.

The second piece on the CD (mistitled on the back of the CD), is PART OF IT MAY ALSO BE PART OF SOMETHING ELSE. This is a solo work, but one in which Philip Thomas plays piano, melodica, harmonica and radio simultaneously. The presence of sounds with definite pitch is surprising and refreshing after the first track. Here Saunders really seems to explore different continua, expressed through apparently binary contrast. For example, the difference between the "non-pitched" sounds of radio static and breath (though the first track has taught us to hear the pitch in such sounds), or the contrast between mechanically produced and sustained sounds (radio/piano) and those controlled by human breath (breath/melodica/harmonica). This last element breath brings the body of the performer emphatically to our attention, as well as retrospectively emphasising the role of the body in imperfections on the surface are occasionally apparent. In that piece the body seems at more of a remove, and yet the directness with which the contact between two surfaces is translated into sound in that piece more approaches the erotic than the solitariness and vulnerability of PART OF IT MAY ALSO BE PART OF SOMETHING ELSE.

In components derive their value solely through their assigned context, for two performers playing radio static and bowed wood, as with the three solo pieces on the CD, the performers are required to do more than one thing at once. These are often simple actions but performing them well simultaneously requires great poise and focus. In contrast, the performers in imperfections on the surface are occasionally apparent and any one part can replace any other part (the final piece on the CD) get to focus on a single action at a time. In the latter piece, three performers (playing violin, bowed metal, and coffee cup on brick) each have only one action, which they perform for 25 seconds at regular intervals, 15 times. So in a sense (conceptually) the piece consist of an identical 40 seconds of music, repeated 15 times. And yet, of course, it is never the same at any one point – but neither is it radically different. In this it puts me in mind of a recent composition I performed by Antoine Beuger, one of Saunders' favourite composers, which specified only that sounds should be either similar or different to the other sounds going on concurrently, or which had been heard previously. In the final analysis, however, every sound is in some way similar to every other sound, and also in some way different even from the most superficially similar sound. Really getting into these similarities and differences, finding one where previously you heard only the other, is one of the great pleasures of monochromatic music, whether produced by "building-up" or by "paring-down".

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