Charles Uzor – mimicri/ pieces with tape

by 5:4

Another interesting release from the NEOS label is mimicri/ pieces with tape, a double album featuring nine works by Nigerian-born composer Charles Uzor. As the name suggests, most of the music is electroacoustic, together with a chamber piece and two works for choir, and the majority of them are relatively recent, dating from within the last five years. Uzor was an entirely new name to me, and while this album is helpful as a portrait of the composer’s outlook and aesthetic, if anything that portrait is an intriguingly multifaceted one, in which connections between the different works are far from obvious. Perhaps it would be fair to characterise Uzor’s music as ‘consistently inconsistent’.

The opening work on the album is 2016’s Nri/ mimicri, in which an ondes martenot and percussion quartet coexist – or, rather, co-behave – in a way that could be described as ‘meta-ambient‘. It’s an unhurried atmosphere combining small individual attacks from the percussion with more extended sounds from the ondes (both sustained pitches and glissandi), within a kind of ‘open’ ambiance articulated by gentle granular noise on the tape. The piece coalesces into more focused episodes where there’s an overt sense of dialogue, yet as the work’s half-hour duration progresses the broader context suggests that these kinds of action – and others, such as prominent passages from vibraphone and marimba – are all elements that can be essentially switched on and off. It leads to a beautiful form of steady state where small-scale interest is always balanced against large-scale equilibrium, though it’s important to stress the small-scale interest is not merely striking but at times surprising, such as the introduction of previously unheard birdsong into the texture just a few minutes before the end.

Two other works on the album draw some similarities to this, with differing levels of success. The experience of listening to qui plus anime… for percussion and tape is not unlike the sensation of sitting inside a large music box. The percussion part is dominated by pitched and non-pitched metallic instruments, which steadily articulate discrete ideas as episodes within a larger atmosphere that often feels similarly stable. However, there’s less emphasis on stasis here, and another way of perceiving the piece could be like a kind of conveyor belt, with its assorted sections slowly moving past, linked more by a timbral connection than specific materials. Despite how attractive it is, at 18 minutes it feels a bit too long to sustain interest, but that’s a greater problem for the longest work on the album, sweet amygdala for violin, piano and tape. Although structured in eight distinct sections, due to the rate at which the piece unfolds, and the nature of the material in each section, there’s a comparable sense of stasis to Nri/ mimicri, inasmuch as each section acts a bit like a window into its own static world. There are moments of real beauty to be found through these windows, though the overt use of repetition in some of them, plus the lack of a strong or clear overall continuity between the sections is frustrating, and over the course of its 44-minute duration feels increasingly problematic.

By contrast, repetition is very far from being a problem in Varek, one of the tapeless works on the album, composed for woman’s voice and piano. Like a cross between a reverie and a desperate attempt to get something out, the voice and piano revolve round a sequence of ideas again and again, each idea captured in an episode that gives the impression of the duo being oblivious to anything other than their combined concerted effort. Each shift from episode to episode feels like a gear change, approaching the same problem from a multitude of different directions. Though not particularly radical – the piano part is largely comprised of arpeggios and scales, the voice brief staccato notes or short, clipped phrases – there’s something mesmerising about the unflappably insistent determination running through Varek, like watching artificial intelligence software slowly attempt to solve a puzzle. There’s no suggestion that anything has been solved by the end of the piece, though the late appearance of a wood block indicates that something is at least happening, possibly resembling progress.

The same could be said for the one piece on the album for tape alone, Mother Tongue Fire/ mimicri (also the most recent piece, composed in 2018), the first half of which consists of a three-part admixture of hard-to-discern speech, a rather distant pitch cloud and gentle ticking percussive sounds. This last element vanishes five minutes in, leaving the work to feel simultaneously more exposed yet more vague. The effect is quite hypnotic, but it soon yields to a low, indistinct rumbling and clattering texturescape – which, considering the title, appears to be processed fire sounds –that persists for the remaining few minutes of the piece. It’s a strange kind of compositional structure, the narrative not so much progressing as simply switching attention several times, but while the overall effect is somewhat disappointing, there’s plenty to hold attention along the way.

The two choral works included on mimicri/ pieces with tape are both settings of the Ave Maria. The older of them, Ave Maria II, dates from 2015 and is a relatively short, robust take on the words. Using rich, broadly consonant, thickly overlapping textures, it almost gives the impression of coming in waves, less about the words than the accumulative effect of the voices; this is countered by a clearer homophonic section towards its close. Ave Maria V, composed a year later, is over three times as long and takes a markedly different approach. Now, it’s as if each word is being articulated one at a time, lingered over with deliciously shimmering close harmonic dissonances. Where the earlier setting felt at ease, relaxed, the music here is earnest and passionate, with seriously ramped up intensity. Stylistically, both settings bear some resemblance to the kind of thing churned out by composers of choral music in the USA, though happily without even the tiniest hint of saccharine or sentiment.

As i said at the outset, mimicri/ pieces with tape presents a portrait of Charles Uzor that seems interestingly more about diversity than similarity, yet there is a unity to be found here. i used the word ‘insistent’ when discussing Varek, and that seems to me to characterise all the nine works on this double album. It’s an insistence that, regardless whether it lasts four or 40 minutes, bestows on the ideas and materials being explored real significance and importance.

mimicri/ pieces with tape is available on double CD (no digital download options at present).

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