anthem, an album

Friday 10 June 2022

As someone who instinctively distrusts curatorial conceits, this new album from the Birmingham Record Company should be welcome. anthem is an LP-length collection of five works with no common composer, ensemble, event or location; the presence of each piece becomes its own anomaly, which is kind of refreshing in itself. The sleeve notes are distractingly apologetic, in the British manner. A couple of pieces are ‘meta’-music, while others could claim to be but are not.

Emily Abdy’s anthem begins the set well by thwarting expectations and raising apprehensions. Abdy, armed with electric guitar, chants a repeated phrase that grows in intensity even as it folds in upon itself; behind her, the Thallein Ensemble play a swirling crescendo. It all collapses like a facade, retreat followed by a giddy mess of inarticulate revelation and dismissal. The whole thing takes on the rhetorical devices of “empowering” art and deploys them in the opposite direction of the genre’s null certainties. I hope I will never understand it.

I’ve described one piece by Andy Ingamells before (in collaboration with Maya Verlaak). In Petting Zoo, his method is similar to Tape Piece in that the ‘music’ is created through the inadvertent consequences of competing activities. Ingamells is emcee and narrator, describing the process by which he made, or didn’t make, the piece while inviting members of the audience onto the stage to pat, stroke and otherwise gently molest the musicians in Apartment House as they play. It can occasionally err on the side of trying to bluff its way through its own self-consciousness, but leaves open the question of whether an attempt to fail at making music constitutes a failed attempt.

Genevieve Murphy’s suite of five short pieces F.I.N.E (it stands for Fucked Insecure Neurotic Exhausted) comes from a concert by the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam in 2015. As with the other pieces mentioned so far, it’s a live performance with audience reactions apparent throughout. For the recording, we are of course disconnected from the experience, and the album shrewdly excises the applause from the end of each piece to preserve their status as isolated musical artefacts for contemplation. F.I.N.E is a pop-art style of redolent fragments, both found and created, juxtaposed in apparently arbitrary fashion to create a whole. Musical topics are touched on at arm’s length, through spoken permutations, hymn tunes and recorded conversations. Again, the question rises as to whether the nature of music is being interrogated or swerved.

Maybe a composer should just sit down once in a while and write a piece of music. Between Petting Zoo and F.I.N.E, Ryan Latimer’s orchestral bon-bon Gorilla and Orange Sun drops in like an uninvited guest, appearing all the weirder for it. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra give it the refined enthusiasm it needs to fulfil its mission. Its qualities – full, colourful, innocuous and short – make for an archetypal BBC Proms commission, but took a wrong turn here and landed in Huddersfield by mistake. The closing track, Corey Mwamba’s kr-ti-sa, compounds the bewilderment by not being a concert recording at all. Mwamba withdrew from live performance a few years ago by way of protest and now makes his jazz through overdubbing himself in a home studio. I cannot meaningfully comment on jazz as all I can hear is that it sounds like it is meant to sound. In that respect, it shares a quality with a Proms overture.