CD Reviews

Thursday 10th June

June 10, 2010

---_0244It 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.

Comments (7)

  • simon reynell

    June 11, 2010 at 7:55 am

    I’m not a great fan of the mini-cd format, but nonetheless picked up 10 of the 12 Compost and Height discs, and I don’t regret any of them. Looking back now, there’s a very high proportion that I think are really strong, so I too hope they are put on-line at some point for those who missed out because of the very limited runs.
    And I’d agree that, strong as many of the others are, Angharad’s is my favourite of the lot. I’d have been more than happy to listen to another half hour on a full-length disc. Really beautiful.

  • Richard Pinnell

    June 12, 2010 at 1:22 am

    I know we disagree on this Simon, but for me the 3″ format works great when a musician just has a short musical statement to make. Full length/size works are usually the best, but as Turner painted amazing small watercolours alongside the massive canvasses size doesn’t always matter to me ๐Ÿ˜‰

    In my opinion there are too many full length discs out there that feel like a good twenty minutes of music with extra material added to pad things out. In the case of Angharad’s piece I think the ten minute length is perfect, particularly as it feels like it is ended unexpectedly by the sudden crash. Mark and Jonathan’s track though really does feel like an excerpt and I am sure I’d have preferred the full length piece more. Of course in the near future when all music exists primarily as downloaded files track lengths won’t matter.

  • Barry Chabala

    June 12, 2010 at 2:10 am

    i dont mind the short format. after all i am from the generation of the EP and 45, but the size is really inconvenient for me. the idea is good, but i have limited equipment to play those pesky little discs on. maybe if my car player and my powerbook would suck them in and play them straight away, id feel different!

  • Massimo Magee

    June 12, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Barry has a point there. I like the 3″ format too, and I think there’s nothing wrong with a short recording if that’s all the artist wanted to produce at that time, and they look so damn cute. But it can be hard to find a device that will play them. Since I got my MacBook this has become even more noticeable.

  • Massimo Magee

    June 12, 2010 at 10:17 am

    ah but then again maybe I shouldn’t mention MacBooks ๐Ÿ˜›

  • Massimo Ricci

    June 12, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Richard: “…for me the 3รขโ‚ฌยณ format works great when a musician just has a short musical statement to make”.

    Completely agreed. David Jackman once told that he doesn’t care about formats or lengths, if a piece is short he will release it as such.

    But my problem with the 3-inches is that they just disappear in the ever-growing piles of records on my desk and in the archive, and I tend to forget about them… The same problem – maybe even worse – derives from the increasing tendency to use thin sleeves for CDs. I literally lose sight of them in a matter of days.

  • Richard Pinnell

    June 12, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    Of course there is the point that anything that makes a CD a little harder to get into a computer’s drive is not necessarily a bad thing ๐Ÿ˜‰

    FWIW if anyone ever wanted a Cathnor Vignette disc burnt to a 5″ disc I’d have no problem doing it.

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