James Saunders – assigned #15

Tuesday 28 July 2015

This is a weirdly evocative piece. I wrote about James Saunders’s music last year, having heard a CD and attended a live concert of his music. At the time I noted his use of found objects as well as instruments, a focus on process and structure, minimalism, controlled improvisation and group behaviour (cf. The Great Learning). One thing I didn’t discuss at the time was his ability to make pieces from simple gestures using simple domestic objects (coffee cups, sheets of paper) and transcend these materials to make rich, subtle soundscapes far removed from their mundane origins. (I’m trying to remember who made that criticism of musique concrète, that so much of it dwells in the cosy familiarity of the banal.)

Reading Saunders’ own discussion of assigned #15, it all seems straightforward: he had spent the better part of a decade making modular pieces out of combinations of short musical gestures and longer, sustained drones. These modules could be reused, mixed and matched, each piece a one-off. assigned #15 is a new work which combines a selection of these modules into a repeatable piece of music.

The resulting music was completely unexpected. This very rarely happens, but listening to the CD created a very strong sensory impression in my head. The small chamber ensemble, augmented by a small organ, shortwave radio and dictaphones, evoked memories of being on deck for a ferry crossing. The low, constant thrum of the engines, the whistling of a wind that rises and falls, the unsteady rhythms of cables caught in the crosswind, the slow sighing and creaking of the vessel shifting in the water. This is merely my personal affectation but it illustrates the transformative qualities the composition has upon its materials.

The dictaphones distort and blur the other instruments, the radio and organ recede into the wash that simultaneously covers and anchors the other instruments. The strange combination of fleeting gestures and drones means that the music changes from one minute to the next but never loses hold of a unified, enigmatic image. I’ve previously described some of Saunders’ work as verging on technical exercises but this piece goes beyond any technical considerations; it makes a surprisingly bold statement over its unbroken span of 45 minutes.

Much of these qualities are brought out by the excellent playing by Apartment House, assisted by the composer handling the electronic devices. The musicians maintain a relentlessly focussed balance between the heavy and the delicate textures throughout.

James Saunders, live and on record

Thursday 24 April 2014

In my last post a month ago(!) I was navel-gazing over the musical conversation going on in London. It’s occurred to me that I’ve been taking for granted how many interesting composers are working in the UK these days. Just recently I read Daniel Wolf’s post about the two streams in British composition now and it’s nice to know my opinion isn’t pure parochialism.

Wolf’s mostly discussing the “complexity” school in his post, but it’s interesting to see that the “experimental tradition” is still thriving, too. I got this bee in my bonnet about how what is usually considered “experimental” in music is the stuff that approaches music as art, more than as craft, so I’ve been pleased to find more than just a scattering of a few, lone voices in the British scene.

That sense of “scene” is helped through supportive musicians and other organisations, like the record label Another Timbre. A couple of weeks ago I saw Ensemble Plus-Minus perform a concert of pieces by James Saunders. The music draws from a variety of influencing sources: group behaviour and home-made materials à la the Scratch Orchestra, a focus on process and structure that emerged with conceptual art, minimalism, controlled improvisation, the austerity of materials used in the Wandelweiser group. Group behaviour was the organising principle for several works: titles like everyone doing what everyone else is doing and everybody do this pretty much sum up how the musicians interact in the respective pieces. The music is composed through the arrangement of these interactions, leaving the sounds themselves to the discretion of the performers, using both instruments and found objects.

At times the music teetered on the edge of being little more than a technical exercise, albeit an entertaining one. Much conventional music also takes this risk, with much less interesting results. You start to wonder if a recording of the music would be less appealing because of the lack of the theatrical element, or more appealing because the structural means are a distraction from the musical ends.

Luckily for me, just after the concert I got sent a nice swag of CDs by Another Timbre for reviewing or whatever. One of them is Saunders’ disc divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole. The musical material here is much more spare, with much fewer musicians involved than in the Plus-Minus gig. Two duets, three solos, a trio, and a work “for 10 players with coffee cups on various surfaces”. Without visuals, the music is separated from concerns about technical exercises and deals with subtle distinctions in sound. Much of the disc is very quiet, and the sounds often have an ambiguous character to them, fragile and unstable. When just listening, you realise that the substance is obscured as equally as the technique: a harp is prepared with objects and bowed, radio static merges with the soft rasping of a bowed wood block.

These finely nuanced results are very different from the deceptively straightforward compositional strategies that produce them. As with a good piece of the New Complexity school, the music is both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.