Beyond Pythagoras; Phantom Images

by 5:4
10 minutes read

Perhaps the most consistently and fearlessly challenging of UK new music labels is Huddersfield Contemporary Records. As such, they’re not exactly a label needing to up their game, but with their latest couple of albums they’ve done just that, releasing some of the most unforgettable stuff i’ve heard this year. Before discussing Beyond Pythagoras and Phantom Images it’s worth mentioning that, in keeping with the exploratory compositional curiosity that prevails at Huddersfield University, the first impression these discs make is as research publications, the product of intense academic consideration and scrutiny. i only mention this because, first, very few labels seek to place up-front the scholarly, investigative aspects of the music; second, this is not (as a listener) anything to be afraid of; and third, that’s far from being the whole story. Personally, i like being able to engage with the academic side of this kind of music-making. It highlights the experimentalism that underpins most innovation, as well as the provisional nature of such experiments; this, in turn, punctures the bubble – continually re-inflated with perfumed, romantic helium – that composition is all about divine inspiration and magic. Composition, at its best, is about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty, about feeling the ‘earth’ of the musical stuff between your fingers and finding how it wants and you want it to be shaped; it’s about hunches and algorithms and wild guesses and systems and why-the-hell-nots and struggles and elation, with concomitant failures and triumphs. Maybe all i’m trying to say in this now way overlong opening paragraph is that Huddersfield Contemporary Records really gets this, and these two discs are a superbly authentic testament to the rigour and the glee that the best compositions encompass and embody.

The four pieces on Beyond Pythagoras are concerned with that most basic of musical concepts, consonance and dissonance, as (re-)formulated by the US theorist William A. Sethares. The details of Sethares’ theory and the way this has been implemented are to an extent elaborated in the accompanying booklet, but my advice is to put the rather dry explanatory texts on one side at first and plunge straight into the music. Two of the pieces, Emergence and Rondures, are collaborations between Paulina Sundin, Monty Adkins and the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet. Something i’ve been pondering is the fact that, for the most part, the aural result of these pieces suggests that it’s incidental that a sax quartet is involved, and whether or not that matters. To clarify: it’s clear from time to time that there are saxophones involved – providing both pitched and, more often, unpitched percussive and gestural content – though whether they’re actually present or not is made ambiguous, and the extent to which they seem vital to the overall soundworld is debatable. That’s more the case in Rondures, where it’s only in the last three or four minutes that they come to the fore. But it doesn’t really matter; the electroacoustic dialogue and drama being explored in both these works are enormously immersive – they really are soundworlds that we inhabit – and while the bounds of the music are increasingly defined and familiar, the journeys made through these worlds are whimsical and unpredictable, such that those definitions become almost moot. Moreover, there’s stunning beauty to be found, such as in the way low bass notes intrude into an environment and transform it entirely – something of a Monty Adkins fingerprint – as well as the interesting sense of perspective they present, enabling us to focus on the (seemingly translucent) surface of the music and/or layers perceptibly moving beneath.

Spectral Shards for glass objects and electronics is, by contrast, rather over-familiar in terms of both narrative and material. There’s a very nice interplay between the clarity of impacts, scratchy cumulative surfaces and more ambient clouds, soups and mist, but overall the work sounds dated and is rather uninteresting. Splintered Echoes is much more rewarding, Adkins and Sundin joined by percussionist Jonny Axelsson. The piece quickly arranges itself into two layers: a soft, slow, passive one in the middleground and an active percussive foreground, though the former pushes and obtrudes into the latter, leading to eruptions and significant undulations in attitude, pulling things back to mere resonance, opening them out into squeals and choruses of acousmatic chatter. At nearly 22 minutes’ duration, there’s a lot to take in in this piece – it’s true of all four pieces, but particularly this one, that a single listen isn’t remotely sufficient – and while the length may not feel entirely justified, it arguably offers the most compelling sonic journey on the album. Taken as a whole, Beyond Pythagorus makes for a cogent, even spell-binding experience, in which the consistency of thought behind the four pieces is increasingly apparent the more one listens.

Consistency of a very different order is to be found on Phantom Images, which also features four works, but by different composers. In most respects these pieces are characterised by their dissimilarities more than anything else, though what unites them is a relationship with their materials that’s full of spontaneous, open-minded playfulness. But don’t let the beige artwork and that moody title mislead you: there are shitstorms brewing on this disc, and when they unleash, there’s no stopping them. This is play on the very cusp of chaos.

Not so much in For Daphne and Delia II, Katherine Young‘s homage for bassoon and electronics. It’s hard not to hear that titular reference to Oram and Derbyshire as spurious, even a red herring, as the work essentially just ploughs a single furrow relentlessly for its 12-minute duration. There’s some interest to be found in the way elements are introduced and withdrawn, and the way a sense of pulse is both insistent and continually undermined. But ultimately that can’t save it from just sounding like the very epitome of meh, shrug-worthy music that would benefit enormously from a few thousand volts put through it.

Apropos: for the remaining three works – and to get the full effect, this disc really does need to be listened to at a single sitting – electricity practically crackles throughout. Chris Mercer‘s Phantom Image is a genuine oddity, the product of Mercer recording himself playing all 46 parts individually and then assembling and stitching them together into a ‘studio orchestra’ that’s then subject to further manipulations and electronic jiggery-pokery. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s the one i often feel rears its head in situations informed by improvisation: namely that at all points all of the instruments are essentially in agreement about everything. That’s not to say the music lacks mayhem (Phantom Image is about as far from ‘polite’ as you’ll ever hear) but it’s a strange kind of  creative auto-pilot that occasionally one would like to hear being actively challenged. However, that doesn’t stop Phantom Image from being an absolute marvel. The obvious comparison to make – due both to the way the music was made as well as how it sounds – is to the artificial orchestras of Paul Dolden and Jasun Martz. Mercer’s music is by no means as colossal or bludgeoning as Dolden’s, nor as epic as Martz’s, but is concerned more with exploring various kinds of swarm activity, the instruments generally making the same overall trajectories across the same dramatic and dynamic contours, though with discrete traits and modes of behaviour. It is, i have to say, eerily authentic – one would be hard-pushed to identify this as not being performed by a full-size orchestra – and just as impressive is its narrative shape and direction, Mercer causing the large, organic entity that the instruments become to continually metamorphose and reform. There are nods to and echoes of the kind of mass-action textures of early Penderecki and Ligeti, but Mercer’s soundworld is entirely his own, keeping up the intensity even through episodes where the material is eroded and reduced to mere wisps of filigree. Stunning.

Charmaine Lee and Sam Pluta‘s quarks for voice and electronics takes the idea of play to an extreme. Similarly to the way the saxophones were ambiguously present in those two pieces on Beyond Pythagoras, Lee’s voice is so completely integrated into Pluta’s electronic textures that it’s impossible to determine where the humanity ends and the electricity begins. It’s a beguiling effect, given an extra wallop of intimacy through Lee’s voice being very close-miked. Rather than exploring a conveyor belt of constantly-changing gestures and timbres, the nature of Lee and Pluta’s improvisation is to find interesting aspects of the sounds and focus on them; as such, while quarks often feels as if it could go anywhere (the sense of play is again strong here), it’s not with total abandon. The dramatic shape of the piece is highly impactful, receding around halfway through into softer, slightly squelchy and blippy electronic territory, embellished with air sounds from Lee, before launching forcefully into a network of such tightly interwoven materials that the music sounds positively strenuous. It’s a magnificent climax, kind of knackering (in the best sense) but all the more momentous when considered retrospectively during the work’s lovely ending, all vagueness and whispers.

When i first encountered Aaron Cassidy‘s I, for example, …, a few months back at the Electric Spring festival, i was left somewhat crestfallen, resigned to the fact that it was “a work that needs further listenings”. So i’m glad – really glad – to have had the opportunity to do just that. Whether my initial reaction was more to do with my own expectations or to its rendition through Huddersfield’s idiosyncratic HISS system i’m not sure (i’m going with a bit of both), but its presentation as the final track on Phantom Images has shone an incredibly bright spotlight on everything that, to me, had previously seemed obfuscated. One of the key things that i find mesmerising about the piece is Cassidy’s control over its tension. The opening few minutes exhibit what i can only describe as ‘circular tensing’, in which internal pressure is constantly growing while at the same time being released, creating a marvellously weird dramatic paradox: a stasis with momentum. When Cassidy genuinely lets it all fly, the torrent that ensues – which i had previously heard as “undifferentiated” – is now clarified as having a multitude of details and undulations permeating the material. It’s very clearly the work of the same composer as The wreck of former boundaries, demonstrating Cassidy’s still somewhat nascent but identifiable penchant in electronics for shredding and liquidising his materials into a complex, malleable substance that can be shaped into intricate tracery, looming forms and unstoppable deluges. The convoluted way I, for example, … concludes, its stream breaking up in bursts and blurts, only makes the material more potent, more excoriating, more caustic. These are extreme words for extreme music, and it’s perhaps necessary to say that, to my mind, it also exhibits an extreme form of beauty. It stings like mad, and your ears won’t half ring afterwards, but there’s something utterly ecstatic about such unflinching, joyously capricious extremes.

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[…] Huddersfield Contemporary Records released two new records in the first half of the year, both with a special focus on electronic music. HCR received some high praise as a label and for these two recent releases in a glowing review from 5:4: […]

[…] during the work’s lovely ending, all vagueness and whispers.” (reviewed in June) […]

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