Sam Salem’s London Triptych

Friday 19 November 2021

Given that composing, playing and listening to a piece of music are distinct and unrelated acts (per Cage), then what can one hear in Sam Salem’s London Triptych? The three electroacoustic pieces, made in close collaboration with the Distractfold Ensemble from 2015 to 2017, draw their inspirations each from William Blake, Austin Osman Spare and Nicholas Hawksmoor. As might be expected from such a roll-call, the work feeds upon an occult reading of London that has seemed to accumulate steadily over the last few decades, paradoxically as the city becomes ever more global: inevitably, the spectre of Iain Sinclair is invoked. As with Sinclair’s work, you have to believe that the shaping forces behind the work really are there for the resulting form to take on any significance outside of itself. For the rest of us, the energies unleashed in Sinclair’s writing or Salem’s music are patterned in complex (but not intricate) ways that are left for us to decipher.

Salem’s pieces require the performers in groups of two or three to play a variety of amplified objects and electroacoustic constructions combined with electronics and tape (a video element is also present in live performance). It’s a sonic phantasmagoria of sounds both indefinable and hyperreal, with Distractfold adeptly handling each device with the ingrained knowhow of a keyboard or violin. The third part, The Great Inundation, was given a live broadcast a few years ago; in this later recording the sound is fuller and presented more confidently, showing both revisions and additional elements and Distractfold’s greater absorption of Salem’s esoteric language. It pays to play this loud, as colour and texture take up the forefront of the piece’s interest, considering the opaque structure and absence of clear details. With each piece, a more recognisable element emerges from time to time, with cello added to the mix in the last section and voice in the latter two. The voice is high and clear, repeating two or three notes, at odds with the bristling surroundings: a still point in the turbulent landscape which may be mistaken for a guide.