Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
at44 James Saunders
divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole
1 imperfections on the surface are occasionally apparent (2009) 11:50
edges ensemble coffee cups on various surfaces
2 PART OF IT MAY ALSO BE PART OF SOMETHING ELSE (2009) 11:40 Youtube extract
Philip Thomas piano, melodica, harmonica, radio
3 components derive their value solely through their assigned context (2009) 13:46
Parkinson Saunders bowed wood & radios
4 materials vary greatly and are simply materials (2010) 4:13 Youtube extract
Rhodri Davies harp and objects
5 although it may appear to vary by the way in which units are joined (2010) 6:43
Stephen Chase guitar, melodica, radio
6 any one part can replace any other part (2010) 10:10
Angharad Davies, Tim Parkinson, James Saunders violin, bowed metal, cup on brick
Total Time: 58:25
Interview with James Saunders
“I am attracted to unstable sounds, where there is a lot of internal and unpredictable change.”
A lot of the sounds you're using in 'divisions...' seem to be pointedly 'unmusical'
and defiantly unromantic - coffee cups scraping on surfaces, radio static, bowed
wood etc. Are you deliberately challenging conventions of what sounds are 'beautiful'?
No, I don't see it like that really, although it is possible to read it in that way I agree. For me, the starting point is a particular quality of sound. I am attracted to unstable sounds, where there is a lot of internal and unpredictable change. I'm interested in working with actions which can control the sound to a certain degree, but past that the materials take over. So for example, when bowing a violin string with a very slow, almost static bow, there comes a point where the interaction between the bow hair, rosin, and string creates an uncontrollable sticking, resulting in a series of clicks, noise, and whispered pitches. This is also the case with a lot of the found materials I use (wood, metal, everyday objects), as well as in certain uses of electronic equipment such as radios and dictaphones. There's an internal life to these sounds that have a particular kind of freedom, one which we can't control as performers.
It's also worth saying that this is one of the reasons why most of my music is relatively quiet, and uses held sounds. At low volumes, it becomes harder to discern the differences between sound sources as there's often less evidence of the sonic characteristics you associate with say a clarinet or viola when it is played on the edge of silence. They tend to blend together more, and this is something I try to exploit. But in answer to your question, I find these sounds beautiful, particularly with regards to their fragility, and try to present them as such.
As I understand it, the series of compositions is in some way based on the work of Sol LeWitt, who I don't know a lot about, but think of as a conceptual artist. But you describe the starting point for the music as being your attraction to the 'beautiful' and 'fragile' nature of certain sounds rather than any conceptual schema. So what were you taking into the compositions from LeWitt, and is it in some sense 'conceptual' music?
When making new pieces, I look for ways to frame the sounds that interest me. So
although the material is central to the way pieces develop, there's always a process,
idea or shape which determines how the sounds are presented. Following an extended
period of work on one composition series, #[unassigned], from 2000-9, I began making
a number of different series, of which divisions that could be autonomous but that
comprise the whole is one. For this series, my starting point was part of a text
by Sol LeWitt which comments on the autonomy of individual parts within a series.
My aim with this group of compositions was to make individually performable pieces
which share similar structural principles, and from which pages could be extracted
to perform as a separate piece that draws on the total pool of material. The principle
here is that each piece comprises a number of A4 landscape pages lasting between
40" - 1'20", mostly consisting of single sounds (although occasionally there is more
than one sound, or a sound which repeats). This creates a simple interface, allowing
pages to be combined. The individual compositions may have other rules which determine
what to do with the pages.
The titles of the pieces are all drawn from statements by artists,hence their slightly wordy quality. It's awful I know, but I struggle to remember them accurately – not a good feature of a title! They all relate to something that happens in the particular piece though, so aren't just abstract labels. So for example in materials vary greatly and are simply materials, which takes its title from Donald Judd's Specific Objects (1964), the harpist selects ten different materials to insert between the strings of the harp and then bows them. There are particular categories of material specified, but within that the choice is free, hence the title.
My interest in LeWitt has grown in parallel to working on the series. A lot of his work operates in this way, and I've been researching how other visual artists and composers develop series. I'm interested in the (potentially) exhaustive quality of series, and the way in which constituent pieces all point to central principles without necessarily stating what those principles are. In the course of the research I'm undertaking, I was struck by something that Michael Pisaro said about how he makes series. He feels that they exist either as 'a process which can be applied to a variety of instruments or situations', or as 'an open-ended investigation which, after the first work, seems to need to continue - and whose trajectory is thus created on a case-by-case basis'. For me, divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole is an example of the latter, and I'm enjoying seeing where it leads.
“My starting point was a text by Sol LeWitt which comments on the autonomy of individual parts within a series.”
As performer, you have a long-standing duo with Tim Parkinson - Parkinson Saunders - which appears on a couple of the tracks of 'divisions...', and which you describe as a duo for non-standard instruments. How did this come about, and why the particular interest in 'non-standard instruments'?
It has emerged from both performance and compositional starting points. The composition
link stems directly from my interest in noise sounds and approaches to finding points
of contact between sounds, as explained above. Inserting non-standard instruments
into ensembles which comprise regular instruments like violins or clarinets provides
another way to bridge the gaps between them. Some objects make very specific sounds
which are useful in this respect, such as bowing pieces of wood or metal, and I've
tended to supplement ensembles with these kinds of auxiliary sounds. More recently
with divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole, there has been
an increased focus on their sole use in a piece, mainly due to the circumstances
surrounding performances and a desire to work more closely with the kinds of properties
these resources have.
I think their use in my work began around the time Tim and I started performing together as a duo (in late 2003). We decided quite early on that the setup would involve the two of us seated at tables using found instruments and objects, principally because it lent itself to the repertoire we wanted to play, which was mainly openly-scored pieces. We like the variety created by each of us sourcing sounds from what is available, and using them when realising pieces.
“The tactile quality of sounds is important for me.”
In addition to the qualities already mentioned – the fragility and quietness of the
sounds, and the use of non-standard instruments – the other feature that strikes
me about the soundworld you’re creating in the ‘divisions…’ series is that it’s overwhelmingly
acoustic. With the exception of radio white noise, there are no electronic elements
at all. Is this a conscious choice, or might you use electronics more in other pieces
in the series?
For this series, the tactile quality of the sounds is important for me. The act of, for example, drawing a cup across a surface creates nuances that derive from the movement of the hand, the texture of the surface, pressure, speed, and so on. Again, it’s a way to introduce instability. That’s not to say there aren't equivalent unstable sounds with electronic sources - the use of irregular radio static is one such example – but for these pieces it didn’t seem so pressing. I’ve used simple electronics in the past in various versions of #[unassigned]. In addition to using radios, I made quite a few pieces using dictaphones which record and playback sections of the music, and walkie- talkies for creating feedback. It’s possible that these resources might end up in this series, but so far it’s not been the focus.
You’ve recently composed pieces for symphony orchestras. Do you work with a very different soundworld there, or are your aesthetic concerns similar to those underlying divsions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole?
With larger ensembles, I'm interested in working with the way groups interact and work as a collection of individuals. The pieces I've written so far mostly involve the musicians making decisions about when they play the material. In geometria situs, the orchestra
piece I wrote for Donaueschingen in 2010, the players select the order of pages and decide when to play them in relation to the conductor's cues. I also wrote a piece for London Sinfonietta called either/or which, although it's scored for a group of ten players,
requires the musicians to determine when to play based on a series of rules which are contingent on the actions of other ensemble members. This idea has been expanded in the piece I'm writing at the moment for Basel Sinfonietta, where players select other orchestra members and try to play sounds as quickly as possible after the chosen player, resulting in a kind of flock-like behaviour. I've been very interested in how reciprocal networks operate, and the way in which situations emerge from relatively
simple processes. The material I use in these pieces is similar to everything else I do, but recently I've been asking players to source objects so as to create a wide variety of sounds. If you have 60 people all sourcing eight sounds each, then the resultant
complex mass of sounds is rich, yet homogenised by the density. Both this and the contingent aspects of the pieces are attempts to see how large groups can self-regulate their actions.
CD sleevenotes by James Saunders
My interest in multipart series follows an extended period of working on a modular composition, #[unassigned], which resulted in making 175 versions of the piece between 2000-9. Since 2009, I have begun to expand this idea through the composition of multipart series, where groups of pieces sharing similar processes and materials have a demonstrable relationship, drawing on my interest in equivalent practices in visual art.
divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole (2009 - ) is a series of pieces which use the same score format: single pages containing sound events spread across a variable duration of between 40” - 1’20”. The pieces in the series are performed as self-contained compositions. Any pages from the series may be combined and performed under the overall series title. The title comes from a text by Sol LeWitt in which he explains seriality in his own work:
“Serial compositions are multipart pieces with regulated changes. The differences between the parts are the subject of the composition. If some parts remain constant it is to punctuate the changes. The entire work could contain sub-divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole. The autonomous parts are units, rows, sets, or any logical division that would be read as a complete thought. The series would be read by the viewer in a linear or narrative manner even though in its final form many of these sets would be operating simultaneously, making comprehension difficult.”
Sol LeWitt, ‘Serial Project No. 1 ABCD’, Apsen Magazine, 5/6 (1966)
The title of the individual pieces are all excerpts from artists’ statements. Each title was selected to describe a particular situation found in the piece. In some cases, the title came first, helping to generate a way of working with the available instruments, whilst in others it came after the piece was completed.
imperfections on the surface are occasionally apparent (2009) was written for Michael Pisaro, and first performed by him with the Experimental Music Workshop at the wulf, Los Angeles, 16 October 2009. It is for ten players, each with a cardboard takeaway-coffee cup and five different surfaces. The cups act as resonators when dragged across the surfaces. The performers must each source different surfaces (e.g. glass, brick, felt, sandpaper) such that there are 50 different surfaces in total. As with all the pieces in this series, the score pages may be played in any order, and each comprise a time structure which determines when sounds are to be made. The title is taken from Sol LeWitt’s text Wall Drawings (1970).
PART OF IT MAY ALSO BE PART OF SOMETHING ELSE (2009) was written for Philip Thomas, and first performed by him at BMIC Cutting Edge, London, 5 November 2009. It explores the similarities between decaying piano sounds and sustained tones on the melodica and harmonica, and between radio static and breath. The title is part of Robert Barry’s Art Work, 1970 and references the interchangeability of pages within this piece with others in the series.
components derive their value solely through their assigned context (2009) was written for this recording, and subsequently performed by Parkinson Saunders at the Soundwaves Festival, Brighton, 16 July 2010. It uses bowed wood and radio static, both played at low volumes. Its title, taken from Jack Burnham’s essay System Esthetics (1968), refers to the way each sound is subtly coloured by other sounds which may be present, and that the particular combinations that arise in performance are made without prior agreement by the players.
materials vary greatly and are simply materials (2010) was a wedding gift for Tim Parkinson and Angharad Davies, and written for Rhodri Davies, who first performed it in Portmeirion, 22 October 2010. It uses ten different materials placed in a harp, and then bowed. The materials are drawn from the list of traditional gifts given for the first ten wedding anniversaries, and may be freely selected within this constraint by the performer. The title is taken from Donald Judd’s essay Specific Objects (1964).
although it may appear to vary by the way in which units are joined (2009-10) was written for Stephen Chase and first performed by him at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield, 21 April 2010. The ordering of pages is constrained by the requirement that the end of one page and the beginning of the next share a common sound, and the title is taken from Mel Bochner’s essay The Serial Attitude (1967). It is scored for radio, melodica, and guitar, which is bowed with a pencil.
any one part can replace any other part (2010) was also written for this recording. The three players each have an identical sound-producing action which is repeated in a recurring time structure. The resultant sounds – a violin noise harmonic, bowed metal sheet, and cup on a brick – are all unstable and subject to small amounts of change. The title is taken from Carl Andre’s statement Anaxial Symmetry (1970).
For information about other pieces in the series, please see www.james-saunders.com
“As over recent years the music of the Wandelweiser composers, and their peers has begun to be played a lot more by musicians often better known as improvisers, one of the most interesting elements of these developments has been how the role of the composer has changed somewhat from it historical position. As much of this area of music leaves some room, in one way or another, for the musicians to leave their mark on it, the composer’s traditional position of being in complete control of how the music might sound has become eroded, so perhaps taking the idea of composed music a little closer to the communitarian sensibilities at the heart of improvisation. As improvisers have embraced the opportunity to play within structures every so often, many of these composers have experienced the opposite- stepping back from dictating everything. While in general this development has been empowering for all, I am interested to take a look at how this has affected the composer’s body of work as a whole. How does a composer in this area keep everything linked together as a consistent body of work when the potential is there for his/her music to be played in any number of ways by any number of musicians spread about all over the place?
James Saunders, a British composer who has been working in this vague area of contemporary composition for a number of years now has always been able to unify his works by relating them all to each other in very clear modular manner. Between 2000 and 2009 he pretty much worked on a single compositional idea, his #[unassigned] works which saw him create 175 versions of essentially the same piece. Since 2009 he has expanded his thinking into the creation of a series of pieces that relate to each other through shared processes and materials. These works, collected together under the title divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole (2009-) all utilise the same score format, single pages that last between forty and eighty seconds when performed. The series of works contain many pieces that consist of several of such pages, and the idea is that each of these smaller works can be played as works in themselves, or their pages can be mixed with any others from scores within the Divisions series to create further works again. Saunders took inspiration for this collection of works from the use of series of works in the visual arts. Tonight’s CD release, named divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole collects six of the smaller works together into one album released recently on Another Timbre.
Although Saunders plays on two of the tracks here, and includes pieces performed by close friends and collaborators otherwise, he has retained only a certain amount of control over how the works may end up sounding- mostly general controls over dynamic, duration and some timbre. By relating all of these works back to one central theme however, he somehow seems to retain more of an overall control of the work- or is this just my perception of it all given what I know about how it all links together? Certainly the pieces here do not all sound exactly the same, and without the added information you would be hard pushed to definitely link them together, but since we have the information, provided by Saunders in the sleeve notes, it all somehow coalesces together. So we hear coffee cups drawn across various surfaces on a couple of the pieces here, radios on others and melodica in more than one place elsewhere. The general mood is a quiet one, and sounds mostly consist of slowly drawn muted textures, though splashes of colour appear, primarily via Philip Thomas’ decaying piano notes in the piece PART OF IT MAY ALSO BE SOMETHING ELSE. Thomas appears on the first two tracks, one of which is as director of a ten piece Edges ensemble performing imperfection on the surface are occasionally apparent for ten cardboard coffee cups on various surfaces. Saunders’ frequent playing partner Tim Parkinson plays on a couple of pieces, one a duo for bowed wood and radios alongside Saunders and another in a trio that adds Angharad Davies’ violin to bowed metal and coffee cup. Two other pieces are solo works for harp and objects (played by Rhodri Davies) and for guitar, radio and melodica played by Stephen Chase.
I feel drawn towards commenting on these six pieces as one rather than trying to describe them individually. They are all quiet, often extremely quiet, and all explore soft sounds. The radios that appear often play only gentle white noise, most sounds are continuous, and when shorter sounds do appear then they do so as repeated items. Saunders’ area of exploration is quite small, resulting in some very, very beautiful music to these ears, though it will be construed as quite ascetic and passionless to many. The real value of his work perhaps lies in his overall wider approach to composition however. Taking such a focussed approach to things, spending several years exploring one set of closely linked ideas seems rare in this day and age. This kind of approach is not unfamiliar with visual artists, but even if you look at the work of some of today’s great composers in this area; Beuger, Pisaro, Frey, while they often retain a similar style to their work they don’t all focus on one idea for such a long time over many scores. Malfatti maybe has done similar things, but not uniformly over all compositions and not to the same tight degree of structure.
Its not that I would advocate Saunders’ close consideration of a small area of ideas as the only way a composer should work- far from it- life would get very boring very quickly if this was to be a regular way for people to work. However James Saunders’ current approach to his musical explorations is refreshing and produces a framework within which many interesting ideas and questions arise. His commitment to such focussed thinking is laudable and indeed does remind me of the work of someone like Rothko or Martin, artists who developed what at first appear to be small strands of work out into large, protracted series over a long period of time. This CD takes a snapshot along the way maybe, and a thoroughly enjoyable and resoundingly beautiful one it is too.”
Richard Pinnell, The Watchful Ear
In praise of monochromaticism - an essay by Dominic Lash
“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!
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 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".”
Dominic Lash, Force of Circumstance
“With Divisions That Could Be Autonomous But That Comprise the Whole we have crossed the fuzzily-defined divide between improvisation and composition. Professor James Saunders, Head of Centre for Musical Research at Bath Spa University, is a composer specialising in modular compositions and series. The album is a series of pieces each with a score consisting of single pages containing sound events spread across a variable duration between 40 and 80 seconds. The pieces are performed as self-contained compositions; any pages from the series may be combined and performed under the overall series title.
On the opening track, "Imperfections On the Surface Are Occasionally Apparent," performed by the Edges Ensemble directed by Philip Thomas, ten players each drag a cardboard coffee cup across five different surfaces—50 different surfaces in total. The resulting sound field typifies the album, remaining subdued but continuously varying in subtle ways as the players employ different surfaces and their scraping sounds blend in together. Next up, on "Part of It May Also Be Something Else," Thomas performs solo using piano, melodica, harmonica and radio to explore similarities and differences between their tones.
Saunders himself performs on two tracks. On "Components Derive Their Value Solely Through Their Assigned Context," he and his regular duo partner Tim Parkinson combine the compatible sounds of radio static with bowed wood to produce a soundscape similar to the opening track. For the final track, "Any Part Can Replace Any Other part," that duo is joined by Angharad Davies on violin; again, the scraping and bowing of the three combines into an integrated whole. Considered as a totality, the album hangs together well, the tracks being similar enough to create a consistent feel but having contrasts so that they are distinctly different. An impressive achievement.”
John Eyles, All About Jazz
"On first listening, I thought that I would review each piece in turn, focusing on the ways in which they differ due to the various instruments and objects used, as well as due to the interpreters of this strange and radically minimalist music. Then I thought that Saunders’s notes for the CD were sufficient to describe the context of each piece, and it would make more sense to instead address what unites the six pieces. Still, some words about the surprising works presented here: cups of coffee rubbed on different surfaces, radios juxtaposed with bowed wood, piano harmonics mixed with harmonicas etc, all of this performed by some talented musicians well-known from minimalist and reductionist circles: Philip Thomas, Stephen Chase, James Saunders himself, Tim Parkinson, Rhodri Davies, etc.
So, the question is: why bring together these different pieces on a single CD, and are they actually movements of a single work? The first thing you notice is the very low intensity of all of these pieces; all the instruments and objects are approached and played with a delicacy that is almost mannered, with an attention and restraint that is almost overwhelming, as if the sounds contained potential catastrophes or the threat of unforeseeable murders. Be aware that this disc should be played loud, preferably with headphones, to really hear the details without external interruptions. The focus on timbre is undoubtedly the second common feature of the six pieces. More than structure or composition, Saunders seems to be primarily interested in the physical properties of sound, in its plastic, textural details. Which is why we hear the interplay of coffee cups rubbed on different surfaces, or the interactions of different materials. The instruments are very little used in the conventional way: extended techniques abound and interest seems focused primarily on the materiality of the instruments, on how that matter produces sounds – whether musical or not, which seems not to matter. This interest in the material potential of sounds means that the instruments are not differentiated from the other objects used, such as wood, metal, bricks, radios and cups.
All the pieces belong to this intimate and infinite universe, at once very sensitive and delicate, where the care taken in the production of the sounds seems immense and personal. There are long, completely smooth layers of sound, or extended silences cut across with sporadic, gentle interventions, producing a music full of quietude, strangeness and unreality. However, except for the piece played by Rhodri Davies, in which he bows ten different objects placed between the strings of a harp, I have to say that my enthusiasm didn’t increase across several hearings. On the one hand, it is difficult to find the right time to listen to something as demanding as this, and secondly, the approach to sound, in its minimalism and radical reductionism, seemed too cold and austere, even hermetic, particularly because of the lack of relief and the low volume of the music. I can certainly find many points of interest in these six pieces, which all create a universe that is absolutely extraordinary, rich in strange sonorities and in original and previously unheard interactions. But for me personally the absence of emotions and the recurring inability to feel anything often hindered my appreciation of this work, and the richness of the sound materials, as well as the undeniable talent of the performers, were unable to offset this lack of emotion."
Julien Heraud, Improv-Sphere
“There's more than a whiff o' Wandelweiser in terms of quiet, singularity of purpose (within each work) and space. So we have a piece for 10 players sliding coffee cups on different surfaces (a very nice, engrossing work) and one at the end with cup on brick. radios, bowed wood and metal, etc., thread among traditional instruments but the mood is soft sandpaper and dry rustling. Even the piano tolling in "Part of it may also be part of something else" sounds unanchored, as do the harmonica and melodica...beautifully so. I went back and forth as to whether I thought matters, overall were too gossamer or just right, coming down on the latter. In fact, something about the music reminded me, in effect anyway, of how I find Christian Wolff's music so eely and difficult to grasp. I'm fairly certain there's far more to the music than I'm able to get at this moment; I hope to get back to it in the future. In the meantime, people should hear this.”
Brian Olewnick, Just Outside
“Saunders' titles, all sourced from various artist's statements, imply a connection with the kind of
experimentation in both social and musical group dynamics that, for me, represents one of the most valuable legacies of John Cage's work (the Number Pieces in particular) – and, of course, the way in which that work has been extended or taken in new directions by the Wandelweiser composers. Or maybe I'm just thinking of the overall title for this series of pieces: the balance between autonomous division, individual part, and the whole that those contributions make up. I suspect, though, that Saunders is thinking more in formal terms (not that the two can be disconnected – it is precisely through formal innovation and exploration that the socialities of music production (or, more accurately, reception) are being addressed). By this I mean, I guess, that hearing the music outside its concert environment becomes a rather ascetic practice, rather than an exercise in collective listening and the experiencing of a particular space: this is certainly one of the starkest and sparsest of the Another Timbre discs, not because of lengthy silence but because of the 'other timbres' of the sound-producing objects and surfaces themselves. Instruments as such are not frequently deployed, and when they are, they're restricted to a similarly limited register ('PART OF IT MAY ALSO BE SOMETHING ELSE', in which Philip Thomas' melodica mimics, or attempts to fill, the decaying spaces of his previously-sounded piano tones). I mean, I like dragged coffee cups as much as the next human – and radio hum, and all
these gentle rubbings and scrapings – but for them to fill up so much space over this 58 minutes asks a lot. I suspect, maybe, that this would be a perfect disc for that drifting space between waking and sleep when you might reach for the headphones instead of counting sheep – though it would be a little unnerving perhaps, as if some rats were slo-o-owly crawling along the skirting board with bits of sandpaper stuck to their feet. This is perhaps a little flippant, but it is my honest reaction; certainly, Saunders' music here makes Annet Nemeth's AT disc, for instance, sound as lush as any pumped-up Romantic orchestral smorgasbord.
Well, maybe my favourite track is the first, and maybe that's because I haven't cultivated sufficient monastic patience to sustain that peak of interest through the whole disc: but, in any case, let's see, what do I like about it, or, more broadly, what happens in it? Here's Saunders' programme note: “It is for ten players, each with a cardboard takeaway-coffee cup and five different surfaces. The cups act as resonators when dragged across the surfaces. The performers must each source different surfaces (e.g. glass, brick, felt, sandpaper) such that there are 50 different surfaces in total.” Though the piece is
written, then, so that 50 different surfaces are in operation, it's hard for me to distinguish between, say, card and tin foil and bricks and floors – that's not even five, so where the other forty-five come from is beyond me. It's serene, certainly, like taking a tiny element out of, say, a Lucio Capece performance, and turning it into a fully-fledged composition: almost an obvious move, if you have a certain frame of mind, and as the trends towards near-total minimalism may be leading us. Of course, the picture I have in my head of ten musicians sitting in some white-walled concert hall, small and chilly, watched by a rapt audience of the usual suspects, is maybe what makes the piece for me: its sheer incongruity, coupled with its obvious, and serious technical and formal thinking (for which, check out the liner notes), make a combination that reminds me of Saunders' and Tim Parkinson's collaborations, as, oddly enough, Parkinson-Saunders (in which configuration they also appear here). In particular, I think of their performance, at the recent Audiograft Festival in Oxford, of a series of 'pop songs', featuring both musicians making chunky boom-boom rhythms out of tables and chairs and hand claps and a whole miscellany of household materials, while chanting words sourced from self-help pamphlets and surveys. It seems so perverse as to be idiotic: middle-aged men playing around, because they can – but of course it isn't, it's the flipside to the more sober coin with which we're presented here, with that same emphasis on a limited palette. But the palette itself is just more interesting there – and there are funny bits too! Yes, as Dominic Lash points out in a blog-post which rather splendidly connects Saunders and Simon H.Fell, the intention is to make that limited palette seem to generate enormous elements of microscopic and fragile detail, once you achieve the necessary focus to zoom in that far: yet if, say, the layered simplicities of a Rothko, achieved through hours of working and re-working of layers, of a tactile engagement with surface, achieve transparency through density, the opposite move,
here, of trying to achieve a kind of density through transparency, or limitation, just doesn't, for me, pay off. Lash suggests that the tactility of the dragged coffee cups on the first track approaches the erotic, to which I might reply, 'whatever turns you on' – and of course, I hope that the coffee cups were made of sustainable, recyclable materials, and that they weren't from Starbucks. In any case, I know that Saunders finds such fragile and non-standard sounds beautiful, and I have at times found them beautiful as well, and in that case we are both in the same nearpsychotic boat, but I guess that over the course of this disc I have fallen out of it, and I'm drowning in inappropriate metaphors here, so for now I'll just go under those Lethian waters and stop.”
David Grundy, eartrip magazine
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