The Set Ensemble

Set Ensemble - Stopcock, group of mismatched old-fashioned chairs in a white room


The Set Ensemble is a UK-based collective dedicated to the performance of interesting experimental music. Their repertoire draws heavily on the works of members of the Wandelweiser group of composers, but increasingly they have been focusing on compositions by their own members; the ensemble’s first dedicated recording, released after several years of performing together, collects six such pieces. On this occasion the performers were Patrick Farmer, Bruno Guastalla, Sarah Hughes, Dominic Lash, Samuel Rodgers, David Stent, and Paul Whitty.

The album opens with ‘Fires and Conifers’, a composition by Hughes in which a piano wanders in a daydream through galleries of sound-objects, many of them small and non-descript, some more imposing. The quietness and sparseness of this piece give way to thick, buzzing chords in Guastalla’s ‘Mémoire de Cézanne’. After a while, the buzzing moves underground, and resonances emerge from the solid subterranean cloud of harmonies; in a third section, the cloud lifts from the ground in a haze of evaporation. Farmer’s ‘This already has a history (ab)’ is a somewhat inscrutable piece, the group apparently munching on various snacks such as crisps and fruit; Whitty’s ‘you have not been paying attention (again)’ is only slightly less elusive, layering very small, detailed sounds that resemble the broken static of loose wiring and quiet avalanches of leaves or twigs.

Dominic Lash has two pieces on the album: the brief ‘360 Sounds’, in which the group bash out a broken musicbox line of repeated notes all out of time with and stumbling over one another; and the longer ‘for six’. Here a giant’s footsteps are heard from a long way off, gradually approaching, while high-pitched feedback, noise, and zither add a gleaming shimmer. Like Guastalla’s piece, the focus seems to be on harmonic interactions, juxtapositions of concordance and discordance and of rough and smooth timbres, delivered at a steady, unhurried pace. “Stopcock” gives a sense of the breadth and depth of approaches pursued by The Set Ensemble’s members, its diverse sounds held together by an openness and willingness to experiment; one can hear them begin to step out from under the shadow of the previous generation of composer/performers and start to speak with their own voices.

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