Urban subjectivity: Bill Orcutt, Ed Carter & Jessica Lee

Tuesday 15 September 2020

…started thinking about how popular music gets used as material these days. Once, tropes from rock or jazz would be incorporated into other musical styles to act as a signifier of that genre; now, the substance is reworked into new forms.” A gig I heard last year popped back into my head when listening to Bill Orcutt’s new solo guitar album, Warszawa. Having come to know his music relatively late and largely by accident at a gig in Brighton maybe ten years ago, I hadn’t made the connection to more recent experimental guitar music until now. What I remember from the Brighton gig was insistent activity that stayed resolutely in one place. The connections to rock came from that focus on the grain of the sound against its rhythm, listening inward, using the consistency of sound as a vehicle for the smaller timbral details to come to the fore. Warszawa is a more relaxed and varied affair, even as it features nothing more than Orcutt’s electric guitar without further adornment. The two untitled tracks are taken from a gig in the titular city last autumn. In the first, Orcutt plays melodic figures with varied pacing and elaboration, from gentle arcs to frenetic zig-zags. It’s all grounded by the open bottom string, plucked repeatedly to give a root to all the ornamentation. For all the activity, there’s a calm, steady concentration to the playing that can make it all unexpectedly sound soothing. The second piece (or side, I think this started as a cassette) is even more relaxed, which perversely makes the music even more fraught. The fixed bass is still there, but less frequent, the pace often slows to a pause, breaking the track into several sections. The restless pensiveness counter-balances the calm activity of the first half: Dürer’s Melancholia in reverse.

A superficial, fragile calm can also be heard in Threshold, a collaboration by Ed Carter and Jessica Lee. A lockdown recording, it combines Lee’s clarinet – layered over itself in slow, overlapping harmonies – combined with ambient sounds in and around her house. The environment may be encroaching upon the purity of the unaccompanied clarinet, or perhaps the clarinet is intruding into the everyday suburbia. The ambiguities are enhanced by the use of binaural microphones that open up the context and prominence of each sound, and by an Aeolian harp that is threaded through the piece, blurring boundaries between figure and ground even further. The clarinets and harp sound sweet and unhurried, but as the ear becomes trained on the details beneath the surface it all takes on a more troubled aspect. The sounds hover in limbo, neither private nor public – music heard on the doorstep, unsure of whether to venture outside or to welcome the listener in. For now, it marks time in an uneasy balance; a smile of optimism with a furrowed brow.