CD Review: Aleksander Szram: Into the 21st Century (Fonorum)

Aleksander Szram‘s debut CD includes works by a couple of composers — Dai Fujikura and Haris Kittos — who are part of the BMIC’s New/Contemporary Voices scheme. This is quite handy because it means that I can get hold of the odd score extract while listening to the music. I’d listened to Into the 21st Century several times on my MP3 player, and a few more over my tinny laptop speakers before I gave the scores a look. I was quite taken back by the amount of attention to overtones and resonance Kittos builds into his pieces, so I gave them another listen, carefully this time, and sure enough Szram has brought it all out with some real delicacy. There’s a lesson in that.

This is a restrained CD, with lots of white space given only the slightest instrumental colour. On a first listen it may just strike you as a pretty collection of late-modern impressionism. But interesting things occur when the best pieces here start to reveal themselves as dwelling as much in the after-effects as in the attacks of traditional piano music. Spencer’s The Eemis Stane comes with the most explicit imagery, recalling a Hugh MacDiarmid poem in which a future dead Earth is covered by the lichen of time and the fog of history. Drawing on Lachenmann’s example, Spencer buries a “familiar aural landscape” of ascending scales and arpeggios beneath extensions to performance technique that disrupt the musical flow and draw attention to what lies under the surface or in the periphery. It is chillingly effective.

Programming this, the most striking piece on the CD, towards the end only sends you back to the beginning to listen out for more of the same. And with attention it is there: Fujikura’s Echo Within establishes a neat dialogue between attack and reverberation, one skipping lightly off the other; Kittos’s Athrós occupies a more hierarchical musical space, with attack and echo working heterophonically alongside each other. This is a very rewarding disc — carefully recorded — that deserves many repeated listenings and that offers something to listeners coming at it from many stylistic perspectives.

Tracks:

Dai Fujikura: Echo Within
Basil Athanasiadis: Anamnisis
Haris Kittos: Atropo
Michael Spencer: The Eemis Stane
Dai Fujikura: Sleeping Ashes
Haris Kittos: Athros

Available at emusic, iTunes and Fonorum.

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CD Review: Rich Woodsons’ Ellipsis: The Nail that Stands Up Gets Pounded Down

On the back it says ‘There is no improvisation on this recording’, which sounds like a manifesto to me. And inside there’s an extract of score to back this up. The CD was sent to me by Rich Woodson, and is the second album from his band Ellipsis. It’s heavy stuff, verging on big C complexity, but here scored for an avant-jazz/rock line-up of clarinet (Anthony Burr), sax (Aaron Stewart), guitar (Woodson), bass (Mat Fieldes) and drums (John Hollenbeck).

It begins with some heavy guitar growling against a loose drum pattern that shapes into a lop-sided groove of sorts. Then the horns enter with a long unison melodic built around an ascending riff, adding a new rhythmic layer. Just over a minute in, as your ears have had time to reconcile the terraced layers, the group abruptly unfurls a dense, angular polyphony in which individual lines while, never seeming to hold together, never quite cancel one another out. It’s a challenging sound, but executed with great skill and concern for balance and a texture that is both chaotic and tightly bound, and dominates the rest of the recording. Every now and then moments of sweetness break through, like cherries in a rich fruitcake – a bar or two in unison, a settling onto a single note, the faint whiff of a groove – and it is the pacing and placement of these that organise each track, and the record as a whole.

For the most part the tracks are edited together into a continuous flow. This enhances the relentless challenge of the music, but forces one to find space and form in the details. At the end of the opening track, ‘Looking for the Right Reflection’, the guitar growl and horn riffs return in a clear nod to jazz head motives, but that’s as transparent as anything gets here.

As the album proceeds, however, the contrasts and textures begin to open up: ‘It Came from Above’ has its fusion-esque moments, and its ending on a 20-second buzz of trills and flutter-tonguing is the clearest statement of arrival yet; in ‘Cerebral Love’ the tenor takes a back seat and the musical space opens up a fraction to allow some almost naive clarinet melodies to come through; in ‘Vagueness’ everything stops at one point to allow a pointillistic drum solo, and later bass and guitar even duet in regular quavers and crotchets. Moments like these – and there are many smaller ones half-obscured throughout the record – are what the ear latches onto, and on third or fourth listening provide a way into this formidable music.

However, the question that The Nail that Stands Up leaves me with returns to that back cover declaration; I can’t help thinking that this works against, rather than for, the music’s effect. Composition like this allows for a greater organisation of form, a rehearsed deployment of material that is much harder to achieve in improvisation. The playing, and the line-up is grounded in jazz, with a flexibility of rhythm and timbre that on its own makes sense, but in context left me asking at every turn where the composition finished and the performer began. ‘There is no improvisation on this recording’ makes it clear that you are going to believe at some point that there is, and makes ‘is it or isn’t it?’ a central issue. In its lightning quick transitions from tight homophony to anywhere-but-together free stylings, the music itself asks this question with almost every passing moment. While an important, and interesting issue, I have to say it risked becoming a distraction. In the end this is a rewarding album, but much more because of what the music does, rather than what it would tell you it is.