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One of the advantages often suggested for the CD format is that, as well as providing clearer sound than previous recording formats, it provides greater longevity. Not only is more music from around the world available than ever before, but, supposedly, it will stay around for longer. The CD's role as host to a hundred thousand reissues of old recordings plays testament. It's hard not to wonder how much of this music will still be around in twenty years time, however. Most of the important activity in minimalist music took place in the 1960s and early 70s, but it's hard to gain any kind of historical perspective when confronted with CD racks filled only by John Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Even when earlier material is now being, it only provides a limited awareness of much of the music being created at the time, a great deal of which never made it onto record in the first place.
Despite these difficulties, reissues are welcome. Italian label Robi Droli has being doing particularly fine work, with reissues of albums like Steve Reich's Four Organs / Phase Patterns, Terry Riley's Persian Surgery Dervishes and Glenn Branca's The Ascension premier release for Branca's Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses is scheduled soon too). There's more than just a desire for awareness of history here, for much of this music still sounds very fresh and radical today.
It's not just their reissue program which is exemplary, but also their support for more current representatives of this musical tradition. Their latest releases (which include Charlemagne Palestine's splendid Strumming Music, see separate article in this issue) extend their reach even further beyond the United States, a process which will continue with next year's planned Century XXI - Japan.
Century XXI UK A-M
(New Tone NT 6750) CD 61 minutes &
Century XXI UK N-Z
(New Tone NT 6751) CD 69 minutes
Following on from two discs that examine America's post-minimalist fallout (Branca, Rhys Chatham, Nicolas Collins, Ben Neill, Mikel Rouse etc), these two releases bring together 13 British composers ranging from the well-known (Michael Nyman, Steve Martland) through the moderately well-known (Andrew Poppy, Graham Fitkin) to the hardly-heard-of (Glyn Perrin, John Stanley, Laurence Crane). The sleeve notes acknowledge the compilation's limits (mentioning absentees such as Gavin Bryars, Alex Balanescu, and Chris Hughes), but this is still a pretty definable school of Brit-minimalism: you certainly wouldn't expect to find the likes of Ferneyhough, Birtwistle or Wishart amongst this crowd.
If you've heard a couple of the featured composers and enjoyed their music, these discs are an excellent introduction to several more who you will probably like too, although the music remains diverse and disparate. Contributions from Martland (typically bombastic and relentless), Fitkin (straigthforward yet engaging pianism) are predictable but enjoyable. Nyman's Waltz is an imaginative collision between his robust rhythms and seagull-like free sax courtesy of Evan Parker and Peter Brötzmann. Refugees from Brit minimalist ensembles Lost Jockey and Regular Music include Andrew Poppy, Jeremy Peyton Jones and Orlando Gough (poppy rhythms but way too much of a synthetic electronic tonality for my taste). John Godfrey (of Icebreaker) offers a typically jazz-influenced piece, while David Cunningham's tape-looped human voice is considerably more distinctive, developing a wide variety of texture through suitably minimalist procedure. It's the only piece here to owe a clear debt to Terry Riley, much as Laurence Crane's luminous organ on The Swim is the only one to owe a debt to dronescapers like La Monte Young, and Glyn Perrin's hesitant vocal loops recall Steve Reich. The list goes on: Howard Skempton's Lullaby for cello and clarinet is simple and beautiful; Jocelyn Pook's Oppenheimer intertwines found voice with Western and Yemeni religious singing to great effect. Overall, these two discs are a splendid introduction to oft-overlooked Brit post-minimalism.
Jeremy Peyton Jones / Regular Music II
North South East West
(New Tone NT 6748) CD 58 minutes
Associated in the mid-80s with Lost Jockey and the Michael Nyman Band, Regular Music's recorded output has been extremely sparse. So far as I know, their self-titled album from 1985 remains out-of-print. It's easy to accuse composer Peyton Jones' music of being derivative. The opening Wardances and Wardances II on this album, with simple, interlocking vocal rhythms, sounds so similar to Meredith Monk's singing, for example, that you'd swear it was Monk if you weren't told otherwise. A lot of the other music here sounds like a cross between Michael Nyman and Philip Glass (the text on the title track reminds me of Einstein On The Beach). The two Purcell Manoeuvres featured even adopt the familiar Nyman tactic of appropriating another composer's music and extensively reworking it (Nyman used Purcell himself on The Draughtsman's Contract). It would perhaps be unfair to say that Peyton Jones is just a plagiarist or a clone: just that there's a great deal commonality of interest and style. Certainly, if you enjoy the music of any of the other composers mentioned, you'll enjoy North South East West too.
She's Lightning When She Smiles
(New Tone NT 6749) CD 40 minutes
This album of blues covers can't help but beg the question: Why? What can Soldier's "big band" (his string quartet plus singers, piano, bass, drums, sax) add to the music of Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others? They've very wisely opted for a recording of a live performance, giving a spontaneous feel, while pulling the material in various directions. It's not particularly avant-garde, owing more to a recombination of blues, jazz and gospel music. For my money, it works best when sticking fairly close to the originals, and it's at its least entertaining when a smoother "pop" sheen creeps in. Certainly, compared to the heart-searing metamorphosis that Diamanda Galás put blues songs through on The Singer, this is a very mild dish indeed.
Visitations I & II + Thirties
(New Tone NT 6747) CD 72 minutes
Gibson is one of the constant presences in American minimalist music who nevertheless remains little known. He has worked with many of the best-known minimalist composers: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass (a flavour of his experience can be found on his excellent In Good Company CD from Point Music). This new disc reissues his 1973 Visitations LP (which appeared alongside Glass, Michael Snow, Richard Landry and Arthur Russell on Chatham Square Records), with a previously unreleased track, and is a companion disc to the reissue of Two Solo Pieces, also on New Tone. Visitations is proto-ambient music: a fluid continuum of sound that draws on environmental recordings, animal sounds, percussion, flute etc. Gibson notes the influence of "nature" and Carlos Castaneda, and there is a detectable whiff of post-60s New Ageism present. For the most part, however, the music has a more ritual quality, similar to various Asian folk musics, and is impressively well-considered. Thirties dates from 1972 and features Gavin Bryars, David Rosenboom, Chris Hobbs, Michael Parsons and others amongst the performers (mostly on percussion). It's a rhythmic piece, with overlapping repeated cycles, and a nicely relaxed, drifting feeling to it. The insistent quality reminds me of Arnold Dreyblatt's far more recent music. Overall, this is a fine album, evidence of a fine ear for sound, and easily standing the test of time.
(New Tone NT 6739) CD 51 minutes
He must eat out a lot, that Carl Stone. This is supposed to be a "composition using the sounds of Tokyo life" but he rarely seems to venture beyond his nearest sushi bar. Which is no bad thing, for the clatter of dishes and chatter of waiters mingles wonderfully with the lop-sided rhythms or gentle breeze-wafted melodies he conjures from the airwaves. There is a strong contrast between both the human bustle and the reflective calm he seems to find in the Japanese capital, a contrast that flips from one perspective to the other and back again, each interwoven and inseparable from the other. If you're hungry for something new, a music deep and spiritual yet at times all reflected surface gloss, well hey, let's do lunch.
[New Tone / Robi Droli, Strada Roncaglia 16, 15040 San Germano (AL), Italy; dist in UK by Impetus; USA by Harvestworks / Wayside]
All reviews by and © Brian Duguid except Carl Stone review by and © Marc Gascoigne.