Patrick Farmer, David Lacey – Pictures of MenNovember 5, 2013
Its not easy being a reviewer in this minuscule little niche area of music. To begin with, musicians rarely give much away about their work, preferring to “just put it out there to see how listeners respond to it”. This is fair enough, and certainly leaves you with a more interesting listening experience, but every so often, when you have an inkling that there something particular to be found in a piece of music but you can’t quite place your finger on it, it can be infuriating. Then there is the additional problem that arises when writing about such a small musical community- write about it enough, spend long enough immersed in it, and inevitably you make friends with its practitioners. You might think that being close to the musicians might be beneficial when writing about their work, but believe me it isn’t. The last thing they discuss with you is the music itself! The two excellent musicians that made this particular album are two of my dearest friends. This of course may well blur any attempt I may make at objectivity. This is only natural. However, even though I was played parts of an early version of this disc halfway through its inception, was present for some of the recording sessions that provided source material for the work, and despite following its progress closely through various conversations, I’m in the dark about its driving forces, and the following reading of the music is merely guesswork. Informed guesswork perhaps, but still just my own response to the work. Which after all, is what the musicians are after…
Pictures of Men consists of a single forty-five minute piece constructed via file exchange over a period of a couple of years. It consists of sections culled from field recordings of various types, bits of improvisations, some of which include snippets of a trio with Daniel Jones, and perhaps some other material dragged out of the archives. These have then been pieced together bit by bit, section by section, then reworked over and over to leave the final work we are presented with- a vibrant, episodic work that falls somewhere between musique concréte, improvisation and maybe even something symphonic, given the distinct shift through different movements here.
The CD has become known, in the few months since its release, as that CD with the pigs on it. The disc opens with a long section consisting of recordings made by Farmer stood amongst a drove of frantically squealing pigs overlaid with recordings of honking geese. Apart from being one of the freshest and powerful uses of field recordings I’ve heard for quite some time (the impact of this section right at the start is unnervingly jarring) maybe we can find reflections of the two musicians in how they are utilised. Both Lacey and Farmer are big animal lovers, both vegetarians, and the use of animal sounds fits them well. Throughout the album traces of the musician’s personalities and histories can be found. Whether the musicians realise they are there or not remain to be seen. Various other field recordings are scattered amongst the gritty, often explosive electroacoustic abstractions of the album. There are waves, birdsong, a passing jet plane that doubtlessly interrupted a field recording of something else at some point, the clattering sounds heard inside a train that jump suddenly in and out of the piece at various points, and a lot more. Including amongst it all are the light switch and extractor fan of the shower unit at Brookes University Drama Studio in Oxford, where many of the improvised elements here originated, sounds I recognise instantly as they regularly interrupted several of the many recording sessions by various musicians I attended a couple of years ago. Usually they were an unwanted intrusion, here that situation is reversed. Being able to spot the different elements in the album though, and listing them here doesn’t really serve much purpose beyond giving you the reader an idea of what may be found on the disc. The more pertinent question may be to wonder if they are there for a reason, or if not, what do they add up to?
The title of the album, for me, gives much away. Reflected in the album and its various parts are aural images that serve as snapshots of the two musicians. Besides the sounds of wildlife gathered on walks, the train sounds gathered from travelling, there are numerous glimpses here of the two musicians’ origins as percussionists. Both Farmer and Lacey began their musical lives as drummers, with Farmer having learned the tabla in India, subsequently playing in various groups before putting the drum kit aside a few years back. Lacey can still be found sat behind a traditional kit in various roles today. Buried amongst everything here there are (I think) tapped out rhythms and blurred lo-fi recordings of thunderous drums. This part of the pair’s musical lives seems to be reflected as much as Farmer’s brilliantly idiosyncratic take on field recording, Lacey’s use of simple electronics and the way they found common ground together extremely quickly when they first played together. This album really does paint a musical picture of the two men, their friendship and the parallel similarities in their growth as musicians, all neatly sown together like an archaeologist may take shreds of of various findings to present a bigger picture.
Aside from the above, this is an enthralling, exciting and exceptionally well arranged forty-five minutes of music. If things start at a high energy with the unsettling yet strangely, expressively musical cries of the pigs, undercut by sudden Tudor-esque electroacoustic explosions, it doesn’t all stay as intense. There are quiet passages; more reflective areas containing more subtle, but no less well placed sounds and other parts wherein you never quite know what to expect as things fly in and out, stop and start at quite a pace. The construction overall though just works really well. There are definite sections to the work that could almost be heard as separate tracks, or movements, but they make perfect sense beside one another. The use of field recordings extends far beyond most of what we hear today, taking the material past the point of mere representation of a place and time and fitting it into a larger context- moments captured but moments that mean something more significant when brought together. Far from a scrapbook of nice sounds or just another recording session by two improvisors, Pictures of Men tells a story, a carefully constructed story pulled together from fragments captured at different times. Now whether my reading of that story is the same as the one intended to be told by the musicians I don’t know. But that’s not my fault.