Oliver Coates

Towards The Blessed Islands

The room is the resonator, the first track on this collection of Oliver Coates cello performances, might be a good alternative title to the whole collection, which explores the range of the instrument – from drawn out layers, to passages of gently echoing plucks – across different spaces; the imaginary space of temporally shifted collage – performance with field recordings; the concert stage, complete with applause; the space of headphones or hi-fi speakers – a good pair of either will reveal more details, and more space across every performance here.

The album – a collection of contemporary cello pieces alongside readings of Xenakis and Squarepusher pieces – proceeds at its own pace; the pieces here are drawn out, they use silence, dynamic volume shifts to describe space, and the limits of the cello – tuned differently, releasing sympathetic resonances, scraped, overlapped by distortion, spun into howls by the swirling textures of de Wardener’s Cello & Whirlies. This particular piece is quite astonishingly realised – overtones swarm as the two instruments dance around each other, drawing filigrees of colour from the space; recorded as is much of the album, in the outside, architectural, lived world.

The presence of a Squarepusher piece should come as no surprise, given Coates’ links with contemporary electronic music (for example his work with Mira Calix collected on the Warp album The Elephant In The Room), and while ‘contemporary classical’ readings of electronic music often come off as po-faced exercises, Coates’ version of Tommib Help Buss is a chamber musical piece of perfection, especially as it tears immediately afterwards into a ferocious take on Xenakis’ Kottos, with its planet sized chunks of sound alternating with tonally rich passages.

From the concert hall to the close mic’ed – Riamondas Rumsas is a cycling series of warm chords, apparently going nowhere; closer listening reveals ringing complimentary tones with a gentle rise and fall, the cello breathing. Flighty piano ripples (a sample of a Chopin recording that sounds like drowning) accompany the cello in of the Larry Goves piece The clouds flew round with the clouds – played with a curved bow, tuned downwards, this is Coates’ instrument at its most earthy.

Another Day – a simple, stark version of the Roy harper/This Mortal Coil closes the album; almost too light to feel fixed – appropriate given its recording location on the edges of Norway and Scotland – a short and sweet way to return to the start.

The room is the resonator, the David Fennessy piece that opens the disc, perhaps still sums up everything that is special about this album – sedately peddled harmonium, arcing leaps across the strings, and the gentle hum of subway tunnels. A deep breath, or long sigh of a piece, a twelve minute love song to reverberating spaces and the cello.

Towards the Blessed Islands is a rich, beguiling, beautiful record that will reward repeated listens. It also points to fertile ground; to how an album of contemporary repertoire should be assembled – at the meeting point of academic composition and modernist sounds, recorded with real heart.


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