John Wall – Fractuur

Self-released, 1997
  1. Fractuur
  2. Statis
  3. Distil
  4. Untitled No 3

CD in printed card wallet with embossed letterpress titling.

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Fractuur is the third album by London based composer John Wall. The album brings together four pieces Wall has been working on almost constantly during the last two years since Alterstill‘s release, a crucial period for Wall, in terms of both process and aesthetics.

Any of the obvious descriptions any writer might care to attach to Wall’s music somehow fall wide of the mark. Yes, in the past he has built music exclusively out of manipulated samples and on Fractuur too, the vast majority of the music is composed of sampled fragments of other’s recorded works. Does that make Wall a sampler composer? David Toop has pointed out that lumping Wall together with other sampler composers, say, David Shea, or Negativland or Christian Marclay, is about as helpful as associating David Bowie with John Coltrane on the grounds that they both play saxophone. So how about Musique Concrète? Well again, Wall’s music is made up essentially of found sound, but it has little in common – either formally or sonically – with any music to which the (generally misplaced) suffix concrete has been added. As for “collagist”: to the most casual of listeners, Fractuur and its predecessors reveal both an absolute seriousness and a certain disinterest in mainstream culture which is at odds with any of the Pop Art sensibilities with which collage, however unfairly, has become associated.

If one had to choose a single word for Wall’s music it would have to be “meticulous”. There is no doubt that John Wall’s music really does bear the unmistakable hallmark of constant reworking and revision.

The great methodological leap forward for Wall since the release of Alterstill has been the conversion to hard disk recording and editing. Wall’s methods have always been painstaking. Paul Schutze’s Alterstill sleeve notes describe him combing “through hundreds of recordings, meticulously extracting a vocabulary of fragments from which to work”. But hard disk composition has allowed Wall far more scope for this attention to detail, and, for that matter, a far wider palette of sound processing methods. It’s also allowed him to layer concurrent sound with an often astounding density. Again, this has always been there – the Wire’s Tony Herrington has pointed out that Wall’s compositions are episodic, linear, but all the drama occurs in the horizontal, non-linear pile-up of sound files.” But with Fractuur it’s this aspect of the music which immediately grabs the listener.

The period during which Fractuur has come together has also seen Wall begin to work more widely with other musicians; alongside captured fragments from over thirty musicians and composers, Fractuur features the playing of violinist Peter Sheppard, double bassist John Edwards, bass clarinettist Jorg Widman, cellists David Fitzgerald and Phillip Sheppard, and clarinettist Guy Cowley. Wall has worked with these musicians – particularly with Edwards and Peter Sheppard – in much the same way that he would with samples, recording their improvisations and then extensively editing them. What is remarkable is that he is able to integrate these recordings so completely with the sampled work.

None of this should give the impression that Wall’s music is overwrought. Out of such exacting, precise working methods he produces music of an often breathtaking spontaneity. There are passages throughout Fractuur which give the impression of being somehow improvised, if it were possible for several large chamber ensembles, a couple of jazz groups, and the odd electronics manipulator to jam with some kind of clarity or direction!

It’s this sense of spontaneity which adds to Wall’s standing as one of the most original composers working in the last decade of the twentieth century, and Fractuur his most essential work to date.

— Simon Hopkins