Ben Gwilliam – Molto semplice e cantabileMarch 16, 2012
Bury Art Gallery and Museum
Tonight a really interesting piece of vinyl that captures a performance of an extraordinary piece of work by the Manchester based, artist/musician Ben Gwilliam. Molto semplice e cantabile is the title of a ten inch one sided vinyl release issued by the Bury Art Gallery and Museum early last year. Given that it was released in a small run of 500 copies more than a year ago and sold in conjunction with a gallery exhibition I am not sure if any copies remain or if so where they might be found. I will persevere to find out though. In 2010, on site at the Bury gallery, Gwilliam produced some records made out of ice. He did this by taking a mould of a vinyl disc of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 and then using this mould to cast records from ice stored in a freezer in the gallery space. The sounds captured on this release are recordings made from performances Gwilliam gave in the gallery space when he played these ice discs on two normal turntables, mixing the results together like a DJ might.
Now, if you were to ask me before I was aware of Gwilliam’s project, if ice records could actually be achieved, I would say most probably not. In fact though, when the needle is first placed on these records there is indeed some kind of blurred distant melody in there we can hear. The primary sound is one of circular static revolution, similar to we might hear when a record has run to its end and the needle is stuck in the run-out groove. Very quickly though we hear tiny glimpses of what for a moment, just a moment, does sound like a piano, but very quickly dissolves into a featureless semi-melody. What we are hearing, is the needle at first responding well to the details pressed into the ice grooves, but as the disc turns, and the needle drags across its surface, very quickly the details blur as the ice starts to melt across its surface. Very soon what we hear is a gravelly, rhythmic pulse of crackly noise with just those distant hints at a tune, getting more distant by the second, floating about in there somewhere, the immediate reference point for me being the sounds of very early wax cylinder recordings. The single side of the vinyl takes about ten minutes to play through, and by the end we have lost all trace of anything but the friction of needle against rapidly changing texture, ,with the gritty edge even softening towards the end, replaced by a soft swishing, presumably as the needle dragged mostly through water.
This music sounds great as it plays, but obviously there is so much more to think about when you consider the entire process. The work captures a sped up model of decay, testing the physics of water as it changes its form when a needle is drawn across its frozen state at room temperature. The end results we hear on this disc document a process that Gwilliam could only have guessed at beforehand. That the music is quite beautiful in many ways can probably only in part be credited to Gwilliam’s intentions, with chance and the laws of physics taking much of the responsibility as well. Then there is the use of Beethoven to create the cast from which the ice discs were pressed. Perhaps the way the great master’s music has been altered or treated differently through the ages could have inspired Gwilliam, or perhaps by inflicting Beethoven to this process of rapid degradation a comment has been made on classical music, its preciousness and declared need for exact reproduction. The key element in here is time, seen both from the perspective of how the ice disc changes, and so alters the music over the ten minutes or so that the disc revolves but also perhaps from the perspective of the original sonata, now almost two hundred years old. In his rather beautifully written sleeve notes, Tony Trehy notes that “physics dissolves culture” and yet paradoxically the presentation of this process in itself produces a further piece of art again, pressed her into one side of a piece of clear vinyl.
On one level Molto semplice e cantabile (the title comes from the adagio of the Beethoven work) is a very simple work, based on one of the most fundamental principles that governs how our planet evolves, but the more you think about it the more layers of consideration that can be applied to it emerge. It is a fascinating, thoughtful work by an artist that I am rapidly finding to be very interesting indeed and am kicking myself for not paying more attention to this work when it first appeared.