Some of experimental music’s top performers gathered at Goldsmiths university to record compositions by Sarah Hughes, John Lely, and Jürg Frey. Hughes’ ‘A Reward is given for the Best Inframammary Fold No.4’ strikes a hesitant, perhaps slightly nervous tone, John Tilbury’s piano meandering over long held notes alternately steady and piercing from Angharad Davies and Lina Lapelyte’s violins. Michael Duch joins in with deep double bass pluck, while the discrete shimmering and glowing background tones presumably come from the harp of Rhodri Davies and the electronics and objects of Lely. The whole things adds up to create a quite surreal, maybe even grotesque atmosphere: humour, horror, uncertainty, and anxiety all rolled into the same rictus grin. For me, there’s something about this piece and its title that suggests complex emotional responses to events that could be social and/or personal; the music’s way of looking such events in the eye without reducing the complexity of its response is perhaps what makes it so compelling.
In Lely’s piece ‘First Page for Five’, the strings play long, uneven chords separated by silence, with different layers entering and exiting at different points, in groups or singly. For many listeners this will by now be a familiar format, and as with many such pieces such clichés as shifting tectonics and ocean waves still apply. Lely’s take on the formula is tonally quite a bit darker than many other versions I’ve heard, though this tone stops just short of becoming a mood (which to me is an entirely good thing). Whether this is enough to distinguish ‘First Page for Five’ from the crowd of similar pieces perhaps depends on your appetite for the approach.
As well as the compositions, the group found time to record a 20-minute improvisation. Tilbury’s melodious piano returns to lead the way, twinkling over slow chugging and rumbling chords to take the piece down a dreamlike path. At one point, volume and density builds until the music becomes a heaving, quivering mass, before subsiding again. Towards the end, the piano takes up low held chords while Davies and Lapelyte’s violins circle and caw, tailed by the quiet ringing of electronics. Despite the subdued end to the improvisation, it’s still quite a big leap from there to Frey’s sparse, brief ‘Circular Music No. 6’. It generally takes me a little while to settle in to Frey’s daylit, almost empty rooms of sound, and the lack of time to do this makes the inclusion of this piece seem a little perfunctory, as if it were added merely because there was space left on the CD. 50 minutes rather than 60 would have been fine, especially given the strength of Hughes’ piece.
Image: ‘Jeronimas and the Colours’ by Lina Lapelyte and Rhodri Davies