Funny pianos and droney organs: Jason Doell and Mia Windsor

Monday 10 July 2023

The problem with droney organ music is that it’s both easy to do and difficult to do well. The organ can be a rich and vital source of timbral variety, but all that timbre needs to be controlled in some way to convery a musical experience to the listener. The three compositions on Mia Windsor’s album this is place where i can sit with clarity are droney organ pieces, except that they’re not always exactly organ, or organ at all, also they’re not too droney when you think about it. Windsor doesn’t make drone pieces; she makes pieces out of drones. It’s an important distinction, using Robert Ashley’s idea of the drone as ‘non-timeline music’. Where other musicians may produce finely honed harmonic content and timbral intricacy through an excess of care in the details, Windsor prefers to work smarter. Ensembletje! pairs organ and electronics as expected, but the church organ performance by Catherine Harris is accentuated by home recordings on violin and cello, cross-cutting between keening whistle-like harmonics, bowed overtones and close-miked scrambling against the instrument’s belly (there’s also a cameo by the West Yorkshire Police). The material remains thin while the substance of the music compounds. Harris plays solo on the title work, which alternates between short phrases in elongated strophes, making a kind of questioning call-and-response conducted in monologue before putting itself at rest. Guitar and Cowbell is apparently just that, although you would think it was more electronically processed organ with the cowbell offered up as a ruse. The piece is a composite image of watery organ pipes, Leslie speakers and whistling until the layers fall away to expose a rumbling of strings below, only for this to break up into soft distortion and then start over again. This piece was also recorded by Windsor in her home in Leeds. The album’s part of a batch put out by Sawyer Editions which I’m working through now.

I do like a funny sounding piano. The peculiar American label Whited Sepulchre recently put out a trilogy of pieces by Jason Doell in which the humble instrument is transformed by various (electronic) digital means into a mutant, neither hyper-piano nor meta-piano, just strange. becoming in shadows ~ of being touched started with Doell improvising on a piano as more of a “limbering up” excercise than a conscious performance: it is not his preferred axe. The original loose, almost na├»ve musings set the tone for the album, even as the computerised interventions are pervasive. Much of the playing was done on a dilapidated piano left buried in the snow until the strings and hammers started to work loose, so the jangling, ramshackle sounds persist even as the structure threatens to become more sophisticated. (Mauro Zannoli is credited with the ‘frozen piano’ parts.) Doell has written computer scripts to select, sample and alter material from the source tapes to create a free-form ramble where competing parts of the piano’s anatomy crowd each other out in the first part, then get into heavier processing in the second. The second piece works as an atmospheric interlude, effective in mood even though the computerised smearing of sounds into a blur is a more familiar technique than what is heard on the other tracks. The long final piece ‘of being touched’ is the most effective as it moves beyond obvious methods of sampling and collaging to produce blunted, decaying iterations of itself. The flow gets interrupted by loops of degrading fidelity, shedding the illusion of continuity and wiping a layer of grime over the pristine digital ruins to produce an effect of computer-generated autonomic indifference more genuine then most, emphasising the messiness of acoustic objects even as the genuine and intact pianos are never quite real.