25 years on: John Wall – Fractuur

by 5:4

Fractuur, released in 1997, occupies an interesting position in the output of British composer John Wall, coming at a pivotal point in his approach to working with sound. On Wall’s previous album Alterstill, released two years earlier, he had created five ambitious sound sculptures, playfully constructed from samples plundered from the diverse likes of Panufnik, Webern, Parmegiani, Carcass, Shostakovitch, Ry Cooder and Lutosławski, among many, many others. These samples were all relatively short (on his debut album, Fear of Gravity, the samples were much longer), helping to disassociate them from their sources and function as building blocks for – and, more often, leitmotifs within – theatrically-charged musical structures.

The four tracks on Fractuur take this development further, showing an increased sense of ambition – three of the four tracks last a quarter of an hour or more, significantly longer than those on Alterstill – while reducing the size of the samples considerably. This is perhaps alluded to in the album’s title, hinting at the fracturing of sound into miniature fragments of musical action. As such, acknowledging the fact that the music has its origins in found sounds is no longer relevant (it’s interesting to note that while the original release listed the sources, the album’s later reissue does not). Yet what makes Fractuur so significant in Wall’s output is the way that these tiny samples become mingled with overtly electronic sounds (themselves the product of heavily-processed found sounds) to create an integrated musical language seamlessly blending the ‘raw’ and the ‘cooked’.

For the four tracks on Fractuur, the samples Wall uses are very clearly timbrally defined, primarily focused on the sound of strings, in addition to wind (especially bass clarinet) and percussion. All of them are used so as to highlight the physicality of performance, through scraping, stroking, buzzing, tapping and other frictional noises. This clearly-defined palette, in conjunction with the motivic way the samples are used, provides Wall with the means to compose intuitively while maintaining an overall sense of cohesion and unity. Furthermore, it means that throughout Fractuur as a whole there is a greater sense of interconnectedness and continuity between the four pieces, to the extent that they could almost be thought of as variations on a behavioural theme.

As with all of his output, Wall’s intuitive approach leads him to create soundworlds with abrupt, disorienting shifts in tone and behaviour, tending to favour delicate interactions and subtle juxtapositions, but from time to time setting up vast agglomerations. A recurring trait – heard on Wall’s previous two albums but which would subsequently disappear from his language – is to create a sense of near / far perspective by utilising certain samples as loops to create a (semi- / quasi-)static backdrop over which changing or accumulating material can play out. The title track features two of these, either side of the central climax, the first featuring a soft perfect fifth covered in tiny motes of clatter, the second gentle ambient tones overlaid with clarinet and electronic glitches. The latter of these is a testament to the patience demonstrated by Wall in his earlier work (and which would be shown even more extensively in the two Constructions albums that followed), allowing these sequences to play out for long periods of time – in this instance around 10 minutes, half the length of the track – savouring their intricate details in a manner that feels almost hands-off.

‘Statis’ demonstrates a similarly unhurried attitude to its materials, using sustained tones or granular textures as a slowly-shifting background to a variety of more demonstrative formations, most strikingly in the heavily foregrounded sounds of a grinding double bass. Despite a couple of crashes that threaten to destroy the atmosphere, the piece holds true to this demeanour and ends up passing through four minutes of miniscule activity, growing ever more distant. By far the shortest track, ‘Distil’ is perhaps the most string-centric music on the album. For some of the track’s episodes, Wall juxtaposes light string harmonics and tremolandos with small electronic blips and deep growls, placing intense collections of bow and string impacts at the front of the soundstage. Extremely sharp accents and outbursts (which sound all the more sharp in such an otherwise benign environment) occasionally cause havoc, but their effects are localised and sound less like something genuinely chaotic than a series of controlled explosions.

It’s interesting that Wall calls the final track ‘Untitled No. 3’, which begs various questions: what makes this piece so different that it doesn’t warrant a title? what do the titles of the other three tracks indicate? and are there two other untitled pieces? (As it turns out, “No. 3” indicates it is the third revision of the piece; “Untitled” because Wall simply drew a blank on what to call it.) Regardless, ‘Untitled No. 3’ operates in precisely the same way as the preceding tracks, and could even be regarded as a concluding synthesis. The grinding double bass is cut up to form recurring rallentandos beneath a sky filled with wispy streaks of harmonics. It’s not immediately apparent that there’s a third element in there, a return of the quiet, busy activity that concluded ‘Statis’, slowly pushing its way forward to become an equal component in the texture. More than elsewhere, Wall keeps this piece textural, avoiding foregrounding sounds in favour of intermingling them to create a jostling flux of discrete but impossible-to-grasp actions. The most arresting sequence comes around two-thirds through (almost exactly at the point of golden section) when the double bass is allowed to grind at length, projecting waves of reverberant bass that fill the listening space with glorious judder. That’s as close as ‘Untitled No. 3’ gets to a climax, though, Wall again allowing the texture to fade, followed in turn by the bass, with just a few rogue piano notes unexpectedly appearing to bring everything to a close.

In his subsequent work – as discussed at length in our Dialogue together – Wall would reduce the size and integrity of the samples still further, ultimately arriving at an entirely homogeneous approach to sound in which everything is equally anonymous, yet paradoxically where there’s no longer any sense of ‘raw’ or ‘cooked’: everything we hear could either be pure electronics or heavily-processed found sounds; for the most part, there’s simply no way to tell the difference. Fractuur‘s integration and interplay of what were at that stage still clearly discernible, heterogeneous sound types, within a cohesive musical language, are what makes it such an enduringly fascinating, highly dramatic experience. 25 years on, it still sounds incredibly fresh, vibrant and new.

Fractuur is available on CD and download direct from John Wall’s Bandcamp site.

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Mark C

All that time ago, Fractuur was the first of this kind of composition (non-analogue is the best I can come up with) I’d ever come across – I was looking to widen my horizons, it was on sale (!), and I loved the design. I found it immensely beautiful and felt very lucky to have stumbled upon it. Horizons were indeed widened. As you say, “25 years on, it still sounds incredibly fresh, vibrant and new.” Thanks for reminding me!

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