Recent(ish) CDs reviewed

Several people have been lovely enough to send me CDs over the last few months but, with one thing and another, I’ve not got round to actually reviewing them. This is bad, and I’m in danger of losing track of what I’ve been sent, so this post is a step towards picking up the slack.

Tom Heasley and Toss Panos: Passages (Full Bleed)

For his fourth album, tuba improviser Tom Heasley is joined by drummer Toss Panos for five tracks of ambient loops and jazzy grooves. The styles of both players are quite different and sonically complementary. Heasley exploits his instrument’s capacity for rich washes of harmonic spectra, which he further enhances through live loops and echo effects. Panos, meanwhile, skitters crisply around the treble of cymbals and snare. It’s a lovely sound that reaches out to engage your ears on two completely different levels. Over a whole album, however, I had serious problems. Partly, they stemmed from the differentiation of the two players: they are so completely different, and you almost never hear any attempt to cross that divide. There’s the basic idea – fat tuba booms vs jittery percussion – and then disappointingly little beyond that, no self-critical engagement with the musical set-up, just its continual reiteration. This impression isn’t helped by frequent returns throughout the album – in particular from Heasley – to the same materials – certain sounds, pitches, a funky two-note riff, and so on. I will concede one wonderful exception to these criticisms in the final minutes of the opening ‘Different Worlds’, in which Panos settles for the first and only time into a loose, driving beat and the two players come right together on the one; but the rest is just too samey. Like buying an attractive painting from a decent local artist, only to find that his studio is full of dozens of slightly different versions of the same picture.

Joan Jeanrenaud: Strange Toys (Talking House)

Back in the day Joan Jeanrenaud played cello with the Kronos Quartet, but this is a more intimate album than that new music superstar background would suggest. These 14 short pieces for solo cello, duos or small ensembles have been collected from seven years’ worth of private improvisation and experimentation. They’re all composed, ‘finished’ pieces now, but they retain some of the freshness and immediacy of their origins. There’s quite a variety of mood here, suggesting that the collection represent a series of spur of the moment dips in and out of composition – when an idea strikes, rather than when a deadline looms. They’re not especially avant garde – the emphasis is definitely on a postminimalist style of loops, overdubs and electronica inspirations – and they’re not weighty additions to the cello repertoire – structurally, rhythmically and harmonically they’re all too simple for that. But that’s to miss the point. As an artist portrait this is an attractively unpretentious record, for Saturday mornings with the paper when you want more than canned pop, but can’t be doing with anything too serious.

Paul Bailey Ensemble: Retrace our Steps (Creative Commons)

Wow, this was tough to review. In the texts (by Gertrude Stein, Guy Debord and Jenny Bitner) that it sets and in the imagery of the lavish visual programme notes that accompany the recording, the stated subject of Retrace Our Steps is modern consumerism. And, on the face of it, this four-movement song cycle is similarly anti-capital. What’s less consumerist than contemporary classical music, distributed for free online, huh?

Contradictions emerge, however, when you scratch a little deeper. The PBE describes itself as an ‘alt-classical garage band’, and Bailey’s Glass and BOAC-inspired music draws heavily on the rhythmic, harmonic and sonic tropes of commercial pop and rock. Postminimalism of this sort is a highly commodified form of composition, embracing rather than critiquing the market’s status quo. OK, so you have cellos and clarinets, but you’re basically imitating a rock group.

Personally, I’m not entirely sold on the idea that art needs necessarily to build its aesthetic from a position of commercial resistance, even if this has produced many beautiful and powerful pieces. But Bailey’s music here explicitly raises those questions so it is appropriate to examine what sort of answers it provides. The goal of commercial resistance should not preclude any particular aesthetic, even if it does ask questions about each aesthetic’s relationship to the commercial market. We don’t all have to be Mathias Spahlinger. The minimalist question can be flipped on its head: what if the initial gesture of a work, rather than challenging the listener, in fact lulled them into a security that was then undone by the repetitious unfolding of a minimal work: soundworld, riffs, rhythms etc, suggest commercial pop, but the extended structures work against these expectations, creating a model of potential resistance within a commercial system. Retrace Our Steps doesn’t go in for extended minimalist process, but sudden changes in tone or tempo are employed to challenge the pop song format. However, they’re easily assimilated into a general perception of style and don’t, ultimately, challenge our aesthetic understanding of the piece: we always come back to the four-square harmonic sequences, the familiar rhythms, the simple melodies. Perhaps Bailey is attempting to present a deliberately alienating picture of consumer culture, in which musical elements, through such straightforward patterning, are bleached of life and warmth. But then, the tunes here are still just too inviting for me to find that tack convincing either.

Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong here. Retrace Our Steps would credit any collection of Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich or Michael Gordon recordings. It’s fun music, neatly composed and performed. But an exploration of “the relationships between idealism, alienation, and consumerism”? I’m sorry, I just don’t hear it.

Footnote (8/Oct/08): Daniel Wolf has some interesting things to say on a different piece of Bailey’s that might be useful here.

2 thoughts on “Recent(ish) CDs reviewed

  1. Perhaps it’s an odd viewpoint, but I’ve never heard any pop music in Paul Bailey’s works, just suggestions of a pop surface disturbing rather baroque tonal materials.

    Bailey’s ensemble is less a particular orchestration than a consort of available instruments that only coincidentally share guitar , bass, keyboards with pop groups. His primary technique, repetition, strikes me as a kind of study in habitus a la Samuel Butler. One of his recent works, coupling the demographic routine of murder statistics in L.A. with recompositions of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, vividly uses repetition to ask questions about familiarity and knowing in parallel musical and social domains. I especially like the way in which the ordinary (a repeated bass line, for example, or a fuzzy electric guitar lick) is continually pushed by Bailey to that limit where it becomes familiar enough that you no longer need think about it (like learning scales on an instrument). This seems to be precisely how most of us deal with advertising or crime statistics. But in Bailey’s musical critique, the repetitive process is spelled out and unavoidable, thus defeating the same mechanism.

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