A sound, or maybe a chord, sustained, unwavering, for a duration measured in seconds or minutes rather than beats. Then silence, silence for what feels like an age. Another sound or chord, very similar to the first in many respects, including duration, followed by a further bout of silence. And so on and so forth, often for a very long time. This method of music making, which has become very popular among experimental composers and improvisers over the past decade or so, can be understood in many ways, one of which I’d venture to call Cagean-orthodox: by breaking its relationship to structure, and particularly to melody and all the weight carried therein, through isolation and suspension, a sound is thus set free, liberated to be a sound in-and-for-itself, no longer a mere carrier wave for a formal or sentimental message but the main and only event, a monolith standing tall on a hillside.
The problem, from this point of view, is that as more and more composers use this method of liberating sounds, the more the sounds become ensnared once again by form; they come to signify something in addition to merely themselves, namely their preservation in a sea of amber silence, their place in a recognised and increasingly conventional order. Thank goodness, then, that this isn’t the only way to make sense of this burgeoning musical tradition, as composers such as Tyler Wilcox demonstrate.
Wilcox’s innovation, as heard in the piece ‘Octet (for four trombones and string quartet)’, is to make the isolated chords astonishingly, unabashedly beautiful through the use of lush harmony. The whole world, with its colours, emotions, and memories, previously expunged in favour of the sound itself, comes flooding back in. Within each chord, change occurs through the adding and removing of different pitch layers; while the chords vary a little in duration and the precise combination and ordering of layers, it sounds very much like each member of the ensemble plays the same pitch for the whole of the piece. My impression is that the music is grounded not in the sounds performed, but in the contemplative experience of the listener. Orthodox Cage might not be very happy about this, and there’s surely some merit in his urgent call for music that is not about us, but there’s no denying the absorbing, perception-shifting beauty of Wilcox’s ‘Octet’ — like watching the most breath-taking sunset you’ve ever seen slowly evaporate to murk.
The ‘Octect’ is accompanied on Wilcox’s album “Works For Two Chapels” by a piece for organ titled ‘9.11&13’. This strikes me as somewhat more conventional, with a sustained organ chord cake iced with a changing upper pitch, the overall flavour being one of stasis. Sometimes music in which not a lot happens can make a profound impression; sometimes music gets boring when not a lot happens. Or maybe you just have to be in the right frame of mind for it. No matter, because the ‘Octet’ is striking and powerful enough to make this release worth your time and attention. Here’s to a flowering of diverse and innovative approaches to the isolated-sounds-surrounded-by-silence motif.[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=4183119286 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=3286592352]