Jasun Martz – A Retrospective: Non-Finito; Alchemy; Corrosion; Chroma; The Pillory; The Battle

Another unusual release i’ve received recently came from Jasun Martz, a US musician and artist of whom i was previously unaware, but a quick search online reveals has apparently been involved in music for almost 50 years, with a variety of both classical and pop/rock connections. What i received consisted of six discs – Non-Finito, Alchemy, Corrosion, Chroma, The Pillory and The Battle, released through January to July this year as an in-depth retrospective of Martz’s output – together with a poster and an original painting by Martz, upon which is attached a ‘Certificate of Art Appraisal’, confidently informing me that its appraised value is no less than $15,000. Ch-ching! The discs are housed in slim digipaks, fronted with further paintings by Martz (all self portraits), and their respective album titles are all prefixed by the phrase ‘Solo Exhibition’, implying that each disc is in fact the sonic component of an audiovisual work (of which the cover may or may not constitute the only visual element). So far, so relatively straightforward.

However, progressing through these six discs it quickly becomes apparent that their contents are connected, with various titles recurring on different albums in partial or completely different forms. So the listening experience has a secondary layer of detective work, puzzling over and deducing the connections between these different manifestations. By the end, i can honestly say they’re easily among the most convoluted interconnecting and overlapping collection of pieces that i’ve yet encountered. Part of that convolution is, depending on your perspective, unnecessary, and there’s a certain amount of duplication – even redundancy – but Martz has clearly aimed to make each disc as long as possible (they’re between 68 and 79 minutes’ duration), and while the discs together constitute Martz’s retrospective – a larger 8-CD box set will also be available at the start of next year – each disc also acts as a smaller-scale retrospective, focusing on specific aspects of his output (in theory; in practice the distinctions are negligible).

The first thing to say about Martz’s music in general is that it’s not wanting where ambition is concerned. A retrospective project as large as this is ambitious enough, but a number of the pieces are clearly the product of compositional thinking that’s concerned with exploring ideas over the long-term in pieces with lengthy durations and for large-scale forces. These are where Martz is both most convincing and most compelling; i’ll come on to these in a moment. The shorter works are much more varied in terms of how engaging and successful they are as compositions. The weakest examples suffer primarily either due to an unclear sense of structure or ideas that don’t amount to much. Young and Light (For Piano) are so much cases in point that they almost sound like student compositions, meandering in an over-ponderous way, their bland ideas extended into trying exercises in empty blah. These two pieces are exceptions; for the most part when Martz is less impressive – in pieces such as Knives and Dubuffet – the music nonetheless has a cogent, striking atmosphere that’s enough to keep one actively engaged. Knives does this via a grandiose octave-doubled melodic line, Dubuffet through a network of clattering percussion and strange horn-like moans, like the heady accompaniment to some kind of Asian theatre. Threshold channels this combination of percussion and wind calls into a more focused bit of musical mind-bending, arranged in layers of melody moving at different speeds.

It seems to me that what typifies the smaller-scale works is a less coherent notion of compositional identity. Alla Prima, for organ, lets loose fast and fluid gestures running over a pedal drone, interspersed with chorale-like passages; it’s a perfectly satisfying and enjoyable toccata, but could have been written by almost anyone in the last 50-or-so years. Lost & Found explores a folk-like accordion melody over a drone to the accompaniment of a drum and shaker; again enjoyable of itself but pretty anonymous stylistically speaking. There’s a trio of chamber works, In Light, In Between and In Dark (for clarinet, violin and piano), each of which functions as a rigorous exercise in counterpoint and explores its ideas through an interesting narrative with considerable twists along the way, but which, again, have a somewhat generic stylistic flavour. These, let me stress, are observational quibbles rather than major concerns, and they’re only as apparent as they are because of the enormous imagination and unique compositional attitude exhibited in the largest works contained in this retrospective.

These revolve around three symphonies, The Pillory (No. 1), The Battle (No. 2) and Disintegration (No. 3). Of these three, The Battle – which was originally released on CD in 2005 – seems to be a work of which Martz is especially proud, being featured to some extent on all but one of these six discs. More than any other, this leads to some confusion concerning what is being heard where, so here’s some clarification. The Battle comprises seven movements, the first six of which can be found on The Battle, with the seventh on Corrosion. Everything else is fragmentary: Corrosion also includes some of the first, fourth and sixth movements, Non-Finito and Alchemy both feature a section of the first movement, while Chroma has part of the first and fifth movements plus a ‘Coda Outtake’. Phew. As a whole, lasting 110 minutes, The Battle is an impressive behemoth of a work. The first movement feels like it’s making overtures, preoccupied with low drones over which calls and vocalisations ring out, answered by a slow, meandering, melancholic string episode (that brings to mind Angelo Badalamenti) that passes through ominous dry percussion rolls before finally becoming textural, turning into a black, amorphous electronic clustercloud (now bringing to mind David Lynch). The way the music acts as though it could, but never does, let rip makes for a tense listening experience.

Through the next four movements (contained within a single track), Martz finally takes The Battle off its leash. Heraldic, then pounding, the music establishes a real sense of momentum, in the process encountering some seriously complex agglomerations of ideas, lines of counterpoint cramming themselves on top of each other, as well as wild non-sequiturs, such as a retreat into soft vocalise (returning to the tone of the first movement) and a rock music-infused outburst. Martz then seemingly takes every instrument in sight and squeezes them into a tiny space, producing some of the most densely compacted music i’ve ever heard – even more than Paul Dolden – articulated as an insanely detailed panoply, glimpses of individual instruments and ideas whirling past one’s ears so fast it’s only possible to register them for a fraction of a second before they’re replaced by something else. It closes with grand organ music, before the sixth movement returns to a Badalamenti-esque filmic soundworld and remains there, tentative and at something of a distance, atmospheric but passive. All pretty impressive, but despite the very clear focus of these individual episodes, the work’s overall sense of direction can be tough to keep track of, though this may well be a side effect of its large duration.

These concerns are easily outweighed by the work’s overwhelmingly strong final movement. However, ‘movement’ doesn’t really seem the right word for what is unequivocally a slab of music, turning away from the preceding play of clarity and density derived from instrumental and vocal individuality and opting instead for a less tangible soundworld built upon texture. Over 40 minutes, the music takes its time to evolve from grains of grit through vague and ambiguous material made from weird hanging pitches, faint squeaks, tappings and scratches and assorted rumblings, to an epicentre that’s simultaneously both softened and sharpened, polarised into low sustained pitches on the left, industrial drills and noise on the right. It’s mesmerising, and Martz ramps up the intensity after this, though creating a strange, paradoxical sensation that fluctuates between perceiving the music as a vast, rapid slew of torrential stuff and being in a kind of floating stasis. This is a strange enough sensation, but the bizarre episode that wanders past shortly after is even more so, occupied by a light regular pulse and something resembling a decrepit chord sequence – it’s like some kind of damaged memory of pop music, hypnotically weird. Sustained pitches fill the remainder of this movement, beautiful strands of suspension, the music hanging in space but not in a passive way, feeling solid and substantial, hovering through choice. It’s an exquisite, unexpected way to bring the symphony to a close – and by ‘it’ i mean all 40 minutes of this final movement. Moving away from the instrumental and vocal emphasis in favour of a more electronic soundworld is a bold step, but it works; one can read it as a sublimation or even a transcendence. The Battle is certainly an unwieldy composition, with almost ludicrous aspirations of scale, but the fact that it doesn’t merely hang together but is capable of real radicality is a testament to its integrity and to Martz’s creative control.

A word about the performances. If it seems there’s something uncanny about the way they sound, this is partly down to the way Martz assembled the instrumental parts. Apparently, the players recorded their parts in isolation and then Martz pieced them together (again one thinks of Paul Dolden). So the ‘Intercontinental Philharmonic Orchestra’ is in fact the virtual result of this process, which must have been almost unfathomably complex; to call it ‘painstaking’ would surely be an understatement.

The Third Symphony, Disintegration, is more difficult to talk about, as it isn’t fully represented by these discs. Excerpts of it appear in four places: two minutes on Corrosion, six minutes on Chroma, ten minutes on Non-Finito and nineteen minutes on Alchemy. Almost all of the three shorter excerpts are contained within the longest one, though the six-minute excerpt seems to contain some additional material not heard elsewhere. The complete work was scheduled to be released on CD in September, but it doesn’t seem to have come out yet and there’s no information about it online, so it’s impossible to tell how much the nineteen-minute clip constitutes of the whole. But based on this alone, it’s a decidedly interesting piece, with a refrain from a soprano solo and women’s voices establishing a motif (6/8: dotted crotchet – crotchet – quaver | dotted minim) that becomes central to all the music that follows. From a gentle, ethereal opening, Martz pounds it out, making it the basis for a number of heavyweight rhythmic episodes that fly past at speed; the lightness and sense of play in these episodes lends them something of a Bernstein-esque quality.

But what Disintegration bears a more striking resemblance to are two of the early 20th century film scores of Gottfried Huppertz, Metropolis and especially Die Nibelungen. Due to the extreme length of Die Nibelungen, Huppertz’s approach (which would ultimately become the model for John Williams) is a leitmotivic one, based on a small collection of themes associated with specific characters, continually rethinking and and reworking them according to the scene-by-scene shifts in the narrative. What Martz is doing in this excerpt from Disintegration sounds strikingly similar, the musical narrative constantly being rethought, choral voices to rapid momentum, then collapsing into percussive chatter – a fabulous shift, as if all the pitch content had been suddenly erased, leaving only impacts and friction – before further emphatic restatements of the motif and a subsequent dive in the depths of a dull, vague, throbbing resonant space where, once again, echoes of the motif drift as a new melody emerges. It’s this emphatic underpinning of all the material with this primary motif through each and every dramatic twist and turn that lends it such a strong resemblance to silent film music, and as a consequence Disintegration really ignites the imagination. The end of this (presumably) excerpt is tantalising, arriving at a huge full organ chorale over a pedal drone, at an apparent point of apotheosis. As i say, it’s impossible to know at this stage where these nineteen minutes sit within the symphony as a whole, but on the strength of them it’s going to be a very exciting work.

But for me, it’s Jasun Martz’s First Symphony, The Pillory, which is the most outstanding piece included in this retrospective. It may well also be the oldest, having been originally released way back in 1978, though as absolutely no information about any of the pieces is included with these discs – which is a great shame – one can’t say for certain. Once again, it appears on five of the discs: the entire 42-minute piece, along with a truncated live version and fifteen minutes of ‘Mellotron Outtakes and Rehearsal’ are all to be found on The Pillory, and there are various shorter excerpts on Alchemy, Chroma, Corrosion and Non-Finito.

Everything about The Pillory is fascinating. It undergoes what might be thought of as a false start, a slow dronal fade-in, focused around parallel bandwidths with some juddering and beats, leading to a sudden crescendo up to an inscrutable electronic accent that causes the music to shatter, twiddly flute and bell shards splintering off into nothing. So, two minutes in, the work begins again, slower this time, and over its new deep drone there’s now a large throng of voices audible in the middle distance, singing, calling, ululating, whistling, howling. There’s an enormous air of portent, the kind of expectant clamour prior to a long-awaited event, which here becomes clarified into a vast congregation, the voices letting rip in a repeated chant of “hi hi hi hi hi…”. i’ve rarely heard such an arresting start to a composition.

Though it briefly takes on some superficial qualities of minimalism, its cycling syncopations are moderated by the sense that they’re part of the machinations of an elaborate ritual, and soon enough (though unexpectedly), the symphony passes into a Shostakovich-sized episode of string-led ruminating. It’s tempting to hear music like this as individualistic, the product of personal introspection, but in the wake of the opening it instead speaks more as a kind of elegiac meditation for the multitude. Martz slowly dissolves it into a spine-tingling collection of faint, overtone-like whispers and whistles, indicating a shift in focus not unlike the one in the last movement of The Battle, away from conventional clarity in favour of more vague (in a good way), exploratory ideas. We arrive in a lengthy percussion episode which, considering the ritualistic environment we’ve been in, sounds like a part in the liturgy set aside for improvisational expression. That’s not shoe-horning it into a narrative, there’s an earnestness in the way the instruments are tickled, teased and toyed with (it’s hard not to hear them as being caressed) that makes this episode sound entirely of a piece with what’s gone before. The ritual continues; one can almost imagine it all taking place beside a gigantic fire in the dead of night.

In less disciplined hands, all this could become terribly self-indulgent. While i do think that’s a criticism one can make about a few parts of The Battle (though it’s interesting to note that Martz seems to have drastically reduced the length of that piece; on its 2005 release, the last movement seems to have been nearly twice as long), it never becomes that in The Pillory. The period of meticulous improvisation has the effect of energising and exercising the congregation, and in a remarkable sequence conveying the most fabulously vivid atmosphere, the music builds, grows, intensifies and densifies, instigating an orgiastic eruption of sheer Bacchanalia. What makes this particular cacophonous frenzy so fascinating is the way its density – details everywhere – is seemingly ‘modulated’ by the shouts and calls of the voices, focusing everything into brief but unified accents, suggesting that beneath the apparent chaos, everything is fundamentally connected and, more importantly, communicative. Noise is capable of remarkable nuance and subtlety, and not just in this piece, Martz demonstrates real skill in the handling of moments like this. Considering, as i remarked earlier, that these are (or at least, sound) just as colossal if not even more so than the kind of onslaughts Paul Dolden creates, this is no small achievement. The congregation collapses, bells ring out, all is hushed, and the ritual concludes with a huge, climactic episode for full organ. Channelling a weird mixture of Jean-Michel Jarre and Gustav Holst, it ushers the symphony away into the dark.

i can’t praise The Pillory highly enough. It’s an intoxicating, exhilarating experience, and in the nearly 40 years since it was first released still sounds impressively new and fresh (and there’s absolutely nothing about the sound quality to suggest its age). At a mere quarter of the length, the 11-minute live version on the disc not surprisingly sounds a bit underwhelming, though it manages to retain exactly the same atmosphere, and in some respects – due to being a live performance – even manages to heighten them somewhat. The fifteen minutes of ‘mellotron outtakes’ may seem like the kind of ‘bonus track’ padding one encounters much too often, but as well as shedding light on the way the piece was composed, hearing this element in isolation is really quite wonderful, sounding not unlike a ’70s underground horror movie soundtrack, which only reinforces the ritualistic qualities heard in The Pillory.

There’s a lot to take in and consider across these six retrospective discs but, as i hope will be clear, there’s a lot to get excited about. i’m glad finally to have become acquainted with Jasun Martz’s work, not least because it’s completely unlike the majority of music one usually encounters. As i commented at the start, there’s a lot of overlap between the discs which at first is all a bit head-spinning. From the perspective of buying the discs, i would unhesitatingly recommend The Pillory and The Battle, and you’ll also need Corrosion for the superb final movement of The Battle, while Chroma has a nice collection of the better small-scale works. Alchemy and Non-Finito are less engaging generally, though the former contains the longest portion of Disintegration (though it might be worth waiting for the disc dedicated to this work to be released). All the CDs can be ordered from Jason Martz’s website, and digital versions are available to download and stream via his Bandcamp site (unfortunately, individual tracks can’t be purchased, which considering the number of overlaps and duplications is a real shame). If you’re going to get just one, go with The Pillory; it’s genuinely unforgettable.

Non-Finito

Alchemy

Corrosion

Chroma

The Pillory

The Battle

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2 Responses to Jasun Martz – A Retrospective: Non-Finito; Alchemy; Corrosion; Chroma; The Pillory; The Battle

  1. Chris L

    The “studio symphony” The Pillory provided the soundtrack for my lunchtime walk, Simon, and what a singular thing it proved! I concur that Dolden is the only real comparator, but even that’s a stretch in places. Oddly, though, the “hi” section put me vaguely in mind of Tubular Bells (a pet hate of yours, I note, so I’m sorry for bringing it up!), perhaps owing to the irregular meter and unhinged-sounding vocals.

  2. don swanson

    I’m proud to say I played snare drum on the Pillory. It has withheld the scrutiny of time! The idea that Jasun Martz organized putting a LARGE group together in a Hollywood recording studio, and captured that creation is something that is extremely rare today.

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