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Posts from the ‘Minimalism’ Category

Doubling Downes

Vyamanikal 2

Vyamanikal + 2: Tom Challenger, Alex Bonney, Lucy Railton, Kit Downes

The profound sense of peace that descended over Hall 2 of Kings Place last night as the set by an expanded version of Vyamanikal glided towards its close was unlike anything I’ve encountered all year. The pianist Kit Downes and the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger, normally a duo in this guise, were joined on the stage by the cellist Lucy Railton and by Alex Bonney, who sat at a laptop. Bonney was processing the music and sounds recorded by Downes and Challenger in 2015 in the small churches of five Suffolk villages, collecting the sounds of organs in various states of repair for an album released last year, and feeding it into the live performance.

In the absence of a church organ, Downes alternated between a piano and a small hand-pumped harmonium. For the better part of an hour the musicians wove tapestries of sound in which individual elements blended seamlessly. There were certainly gorgeous details, but they fade in the memory next to the overall impression of a glowing organic whole.

If there was a kind of English pastoral vibe in the air, it was implicit rather than declarative, and never suffocating. I suppose the most obvious precedent might be some of John Surman’s recordings, from Westering Home onwards, but really this music seemed to stand alone, without need for comparison. As they neared the end, the three instrumentalists stopped playing but the music continued, thanks to Bonney, in a many-layered drone which seemed to distill everything that had been played in the previous 50 minutes. And then came a few moments of silence in which we could find our own way out of the trance.

The first half of the evening had featured Tricko, the duo in which Railton and Downes perform a kind of sui generis cello-and-piano chamber music that manages to be intricate without inducing strain and immediately attractive without becoming winsome. “I’m aware that this music is cripplingly quiet,” Downes said at one point. “If I were listening, I’d probably be asleep by now.” That might indeed be the initial impression. But the longer you listen to them, the more awake you feel.

* Vyamanikal’s album is on the Slip Imprint label. Downes’s solo organ album, Obsidian, will be released by ECM early next year.

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‘In C’ at the Barbican

terry-riley-at-80One of the great qualities of Terry Riley’s In C, a foundational work of modern music, is that it can be played by any number of people using any kind of instruments for as long as they choose to make its sequence of 53 motifs last. Since the appearance of the original album in 1968 it has been recorded by a wide variety of ensembles, including the Shanghai Film Orchestra, Acid Mothers Temple, the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, Adrian Utley’s Guitar Orchestra, and Africa Express with Damon Albarn and Brian Eno. The original album version lasted 42 minutes, but it can be made to go on much longer. (I haven’t heard of an attempt to compress it into the length of a 45rpm single, but I’ll bet someone’s had a go.)

The fact of its remarkable flexibility, however, does not mean that every performance is guaranteed to be successful. Last night the composer himself, looking wonderfully spry for his 81 years, took his place at a prepared piano amid the London Contemporary Orchestra on stage in the Barbican Hall. Just over 70 minutes later the final chord was greeted with an ovation from a full house. I left feeling flat and disappointed.

In its best performances, In C seems to float not just on its famous eighth-note ostinato (suggested to Riley by Steve Reich, and originally the top two Cs of the piano keyboard) but on the moiré patterns created by the combination of instruments, which could be the  brass, reeds and tuned percussion of the original ensemble or the kora, balafon, melodica and calabash of Africa Express. It’s a magical thing — but not an inevitable product of the score.

Last night’s ensemble of 20 musicians, under the direction of Robert Ames, featured bassoon, clarinet, alto saxophone, flute, two guitars (one of them played by Riley’s son, Gyan), flute, violin, viola, cello, viola da gamba, double bass, chamber organ, celeste, and three singers, with a drummer and two percussionists who reproduced the ostinato in a variety of ways, using various implements. This was not far off the 1968 line-up, in which a group of 11 musicians augmented themselves via overdubbing: 10 instruments at the first pass, seven at the second, giving a maximum aggregate of three trumpets, three saxophones, three trombones, three flutes, three oboes, three violas, three vibraphones, two marimbas, two bassoons, two clarinets and piano, a total of 28.

Sheer weight of numbers, then, could not have been the reason I found the Barbican performance so earthbound. For all the panoply of resources, the only element of variety in use seemed to be that of volume. There were soft passages and louder passages, but the rest of it sounded curiously like a big band riffing rather than an ensemble layering and juxtaposing the short motifs provided by the composer. It was all rather prosaic and — despite the composer’s active, if discreet, presence and the ensemble’s evident enthusiasm — hardly true to the spirit of the piece. There was also a rather imprecise attempt at a bravura ending, signalled by the director, which seemed completely inappropriate.

The first half of the evening had consisted of duets by the Rileys, father and son, mostly for piano and electric guitar, although Terry also sang in a deceptively artless voice and played a plaintive-sounding melodica while the nimble-fingered, quick-witted Gyan switched briefly from his Telecaster to an acoustic instrument. Beginning with a loose-limbed piece based on a raga, the set included a song with a strange fantastical lyric which ended with a line about rolling a joint, and which the elder Riley described, to appreciative laughter, as “the national anthem of California”. Cutting through the hippieish mood from time to time were lightning-fast unisons and slashing chordal passages.

At the time Riley conceived In C, in 1964, he was working as a ragtime pianist in the Gold Street Saloon, a waterfront bar in San Francisco, and in his solo passages last night there were frequent echoes and occasional direct hints of blues, stride, boogie-woogie and other vernacular forms. One piece swayed to an elegant habanera rhythm, and contained some lovely filigreed piano/guitar interplay that exposed the substance beneath the charming surface.

The album titled Live that they released a few years ago on Riley’s own Sri Moonshine Music label, featuring duets recorded between 2004 and 2010 in Drogheda, Nantes, Berkeley and Petaluma, is highly recommended. Those interested in looking further into Riley’s vocal music are directed to Atlantis Nath (2002), another self-distributed album, full of fascinating chants and songs with accompaniments including electronics and a string quartet.

* Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Duplan / Light Motiv

Discreet Music: 40 years on

Discreet Music 3My contribution to the creation of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music was a tiny one, but I’m proud of it. Back in 1975 Eno was preparing the release of the first batch of four albums on his Obscure label, under the umbrella of Island Records, where I was in charge of A&R. Almost everything had been taken care of by the time he departed for a trip abroad (to New York, I think). I was left with a single task: to provide a title for a track on the album’s second side, the middle movement of a three-part suite based on Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D. The titles for the first and third movements — “Fullness of Wind” and “Brutal Ardour” — had been chosen by Brian at random from the sleeve note to his favourite recording of the Pachelbel piece, by the conductor Jean-François Paillard on the Erato label, and he invited me to follow suit. My eye fell on the phrase “French Catalogues”. So there it is. Well, I told you it was tiny.

It was impossible to predict, 40 years ago, that Discreet Music would become so a significant a progenitor of what we hear around us today, or that it would eventually become the subject of a concert such as the one at the Barbican in London last night, when a nine-piece group directed by David Coulter and Leo Abrahams performed extended variations on both sides of the original album.

One third of the ensemble consisted of the members of the Necks: Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (bass), and Tony Buck (drums). They were positioned on the left-hand side of the stage. On the extreme right were the great reeds player John Harle, the cellist Oliver Coates, and the violinist Emma Smith. In the middle, at the base of a deep V, were Coulter (vibraphone, musical saw and iPhone) and Leo Abrahams (guitar), with the desk containing the synthesiser and other hardware manipulated by the electronics specialist Benge (Ben Edwards) front and centre. Flanking the stage were a pair of large screens on which a selection of cards from the Oblique Strategies series devised by Eno and the late Peter Schmidt were projected, containing helpful counter-intuitive maxims and admonitions: “Repetition is a form of change”, “Abandon normal instruments”, “Disconnect from device”, and so on.

For the first half, devoted to an extended version of the piece titled “Discreet Music”, which was originally created by the composer with the modest means of a synthesiser, a sequencer, an echo unit and two tape recorders, a vertical screen above and behind the players showed the slowly changing images of Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan, Eno’s 47-minute film of the New York skyline. Electronics opened this new treatment, outlining the two simple but rather haunting phrases — one ascending, the other descending — on which the piece is structured. Clarinet and bowed vibes took over, followed by gentle guitar, violin and cello, with Harle switching to bass clarinet. The Necks’ entry came about 20 minutes in: the first to join in was Swanton, playing sonorous arco phrases, then Buck, with a brush on his hi-hat, and finally Abrahams picking out liquid single notes. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, after the other instruments had fallen away, the performance evolved in a passage of full-strength Necks collective improvisation, their surges reaching a pitch of thunderous but beautifully controlled violence before receding as the other musicians rejoined for the finale. The arrangement both honoured the original and expanded it in several dimensions, investigating the flow and interplay of texture and line, producing something both intellectually absorbing and absolutely gorgeous. The ovation from a full house was entirely merited.

The stage lighting turned from blue to red for the Pachelbel piece, which first came to my attention when Eno used the Erato recording as the introductory music on an early Roxy Music tour. His refracted and discursive version on Discreet Music, arranged with the help of Gavin Bryars, was performed by the string players of the Cockpit Ensemble. Once again the expanded resources at the disposal of Coulter and Abrahams succeeded in opening out the work, allowing us glimpses of the Canon’s familiar phrases while introducing new elements: a duet for bowed saw and guitar, a poised solo piano interlude, some lovely clarinet/violin/cello counterpoint, and a double-trio passage for the two formations at opposite ends of the stage, eventually interrupted by harsh electronics that preceding the elegant closing diminuendo.

One thing that struck me about the evening was how the nine musicians, despite being strung out across the full width of the Barbican Hall stage, managed create such a powerful sense of intimacy. Aside from the individual phrases familiar from the original versions, it was often hard to tell where the new score ended and the improvising began. Everyone emerged with maximum credit, not least the man whose remarkable imagination and appetite for adventure had made it possible in the first place.