Thursday 19th MayMay 20, 2011
Because I have written a long piece for The Wire about John Wall and his new CD collaboration with the artist and poet Alex Rodgers I have spent more time with this music over the past couple of months than I have with any other disc for a couple of years. I have long been a huge admirer of Wall’s work, and have followed his progression from desktop computer composer to laptop improviser and onwards over the last decade or more. I had an older review published with John here back in 2008, and as someone recently pointed out to me, if I was ever to appear on Mastermind he would probably be my specialist subject. So having said all of this, when it comes to just writing a review of the new album, why do I find it so difficult to do? Can you be too familiar with music to be able to write sensibly about it?
Even before you put the disc into your player the title hits you as something very different for Wall. The CD is named Work 2006-2011 rather than Cphon or Alterstill or some other fantastically created word. Â Naming the album was about the only area that the duo found it hard to agree on, but the simple title that they settled on is somehow perfectly fitting. Wall and Rodgers have worked together informally and irregularly for the best part of two decades, but it has been since Wall took the leap into improvisation, roughly five years ago that the potential for their collaborations to become something more solid has evolved. So the pair have worked together, either just informally in Wall’s studio or out playing live gigs since 2006, and they have essentially just worked and produced a body of material that Wall has then sculpted into the composition that appears on the CD. The sounds that we hear then are the output of that work together. The CD extends far beyond mere documentation but the trace of this progression of time is present in the music, so ‘Work’ is the perfect title.
Many of the people that will buy this CD won’t have heard what John Wall has been up to over the past half a decade. His switch to improvisation was a brutally challenging and demanding move. His live improvisations have sounded very different to his previous composed work, far more digital in sound, faster, louder and considerably more fluid and energetic. The music on this CD draws on this new sound, and will possibly come as a shock to those expecting another Cphon. It also contains Rodgers’ thoroughly distinctive spoken vocals, so making it sound like nothing Wall has worked on before.
The composition then was put together in intricate detail by Wall using material recorded by him and Rodgers some together, some separately. Although in places the mark of improvisation is clear the majority of what we hear has been carefully picked out and resampled by Wall alone into the structure presented here. So while recordings of improvisations have been used in the final work, its important to note that this album is essentially a composition pieced together over a period of months rather than years. The content then is remarkable and in no small amount quite confrontational. This isn’t an easy listen by ay means, and if you came seeking the fine craftsmanship that drove previous works, well you get it, but it doesn’t sound the same.
This album has a real menace to it, a hint of suggested violence, and a thoroughly unsettling overtone. This comes partly from Wall’s sounds, which have taken on a sharp, aggressive feel, with brutally piercing tones matching sudden swerves from one sonic extreme to another, but Rodgers’ contributions also play a big part. Both Wall and Rodgers are outsiders looking in on the conventional art and music worlds, neither of them seek to hide a real sadness that has developed into a bitterness over the state of today’s modern world. While Wall’s anger can be heard in the music however, Rodgers’ spoken word parts are equally acerbic. He sounds constantly on edge, his voice slurs in places, growls in others and has a gruff bite to it that is only amplified by the cheap dictaphones used to record many of his parts over a period of time. His words move between a bitterly spat out stream of angry obscenity-ridden disgust and a carefully worked out and scripted sense of surrealism all wrapped up in a very Beckettian verbal sensibility. There is a hint of automatic writing to his words, though Rodgers is at pains to make clear that there are no “stream of consciousness” practices at work, everything is carefully planned here.
The release, which is due out next week on the wonderfully sharp Entr’acte label will be minimally packaged in typically Entr’actian style, but a website has been set up to provide notes on the music and a sample or two of Rodgers’ words. The music on the CD consists of one long work broken up into smaller parts, and the website notes show that each of these was then put together using material gathered from improvisations and studio meetings. This CD is, for me, a fascinating collection of sounds and words that reflects the personalities of the duo perfectly. Wall keeps most of Rodgers’ spoken parts intact and untreated, and builds his sounds around them, working alone and only approving the recordings stage by stage with Rodgers every so often.
Work 2006-2011 is an album full of detail, but also full of history. The sounds Wall works with are the most recently mangled yield from years of mashing up sounds, most of which might have long ago begun as acoustic instrumental captures but have since been compacted down into bricks of sound, full of fossils and other traces of what they once were, but are now ready to be built into a brand new wall (no pun intended). If Wall’s Â contributions have this sense of history, so many of Rodgers’ spoken parts have been collected together over a long period of time, but changed, edited and abbreviated to the degree that much of the work’s original character has been lost, but this is soon made up for by the baying fans. Work 2006-2011 isÂ a fine piece of work that reflects the personal character of the musicians involved exceptionally well. Its maybe not one for the faint-hearted, and it will doubtlessly annoy those that might be expecting Wall to have just picked up from where Cphon ended, but there is so much detail in this work, and so much in the way in which it is presented that makes for a very interesting experience even if you never actually hear the music. Fo me its as good a document of the kind of work Wall is currently involved in as is possible, a great introduction to Alex Rodgers’ work and a fine piece of music that constantly hints at collapse, nudges at the borders of what computer composition is supposed to sound like. A very wonderful album, more about it (hopefully) in print at The Wire next issue, and available from Entr’acte soon.