Thursday 10th JuneJune 10, 2010
It shows how far behind I am with reviews when I am writing about the last but one Compost and Height release when I’ve been playing a further new one all week. Anyway, the little 3″ disc here was the last in the series of twelve discs in the label’s Split Series, a set of twenty-four previously unreleased tracks all lasting ten minutes or less by twenty-four different (and very good) musicians spread across twelve discs. I have every intention of writing something about the complete set one of these days, partly because they look so great sat on their own shelf… (all of the discs are mounted onto their own small block of wood in a limited run of 50)
Its quite possible that the first of the two pieces here might just be my favourite of all of the music in the series as well. Its a solo piece recorded by the violinist Angharad Davies, improvising in the Panshanger Aerodrome near Welwyn Garden City, what I think is an old aircraft hangar and a favourite recording haunt of Compost and Height’s Patrick Farmer. Throughout the piece Davies plucks and bows repeated notes in little clusters that are separated by long silences, which actually aren’t silences as the huge resonant space of a building pulls in sounds from outside, wind, birdsong, a nearby road and the revving of nearby aircraft. The violin sounds are also amplified and thrown in an arc around the space, so each note is given an extra ghost-like resonance. On a couple of occasions there are also louder sounds, one of them right at the end a sudden crack, as if someone may have thrown a stone at the metal walls of the hangar, and these work as key points in the music, as if signposts marking the progression through the piece, or in the case of the final attack a signal to end the recording.
The track is entirely improvised, but it has a feeling of a composed work, the sounds used are regimented in a structured manner, carefully shifted together into little clumps with the field recording aspect of the piece filling the gaps between each little group. The way the mix of the wildlife sounds, the roar of modern transport and the acoustic instrument work together reminds me a lot of Michael Pisaro’s composition for some reason as well. This is a lovely track, well thought through, highly restrained and beautifully crafted. It is underpinned by the strange violence of its ending however. The track is named Atal, which is Welsh (Davies’ native language) for Abort, so I wonder if the appearance of the closing crash was not intended, if maybe the recording was curtailed at that point when interrupted unexpectedly. I should ask one of those involved I guess, but for now I enjoy trying to solve the mystery for myself. Listening to it, you cannot help but imagine the space, picture Davies stood in the centre, wonder who threw the stone. Really great music. We don’t get to hear anywhere enough of Angharad Davies on CD, and I imagine this one might be sold out by now as well. Hear it somehow if you can.
The companion piece here is really quite different, though also slightly similar, in that it uses spatial techniques to alter and enhance the sound of an acoustic instrument. Where Davies’ piece made use of the large hangar, and the sound flew in all directions using this natural resonance, so Mark Wastell and Jonathan McHugh recorded 20090718 live in Goldsmiths College’s massive Great Hall and used a quadrophonic speaker system to direct the sound all around the space. For this performance Wastell played tam tam acoustically, and McHugh processed the captured sound live through a MaxMSP patch in a similar manner to how Sebastian Lexer (who recorded the concert as it was part of his Interlace series) works with his piano+ set-up. The ten minute track here is an excerpt of the recording.
So what we hear is Wastell in quite raucous, aggressive mode, mixing deep booming rolls of tam tam with the occasional crash and expressive scrape at the metal disc. His acoustic sound has then been processed and played back alongside via the four speakers. The processing is subtle, there are no obvious synthetic sounds of Star Wars style transformations here, but McHugh’s impact on the music resembles a sepia tone being applied to a digital photo, a slightly distressed finish to the otherwise warm and rolling sound. This is one piece that I would probably have preferred to have heard in its entirety, live in the hall rather than in an edited form here. The short piece we get is full of drama and power, and the treatment of the tam tam sound is very nicely done, making a mark without destroying the source of the sound, but I’d probably have preferred to have heard the performance develop from its opening (and presumably less processing) through to the later cacophony and increased digital enhancements. Still, another very fine piece, but perhaps the only part of the series that really sounds like it was chopped down just to fit the available space.
The beautiful image above is of the Panshanger Aerodrome, taken I believe with a pinhole camera by Patrick Farmer. details of the Split Series can be found here, but as you will see they are mostly sold out now. I wonder if there may be plans to put the recordings up online at some point, but if not then think yourself lucky if you grabbed them while they were available.