September 1997 – album reviews – John Law’s ‘The Hours’ (“a vision of a musician dissecting an act of faith for its structure alone”)

29 Sep

John Law: 'The Hours'

John Law: ‘The Hours’

“This music is dedicated to the spirit that moved the first humans to speak the unspeakable, and thus to sing”. Thus spake John Law, improvising pianist and British free-scene eminence gris. And the audience did open their ears, with a subtle flip of their hopeful hearts, and did prepare to receive his wisdom.

As Law explains in the liner notes, this is the third of a trio of recordings for which he’s written piano music in the form of plainchant. On this occasion, inspired by the ‘Liber Usualis’ devotional prayer-chants of Benedictine monks, he’s adapted and extrapolated a set of vocal melodies to correspond with the eight hours of prayer the monks observe. So, in effect, he’s set himself the task of portraying a whole community’s profoundest expression in music. Moreover, a community who’ve secluded themselves from the world specifically to perform that expression. Tall order.

‘The Hours’ is split into two eight-section parts. Firstly, an exposition of eight “chants”, all but one under a minute in length, each a single melody line or parallel harmony with minimal chordal support. Secondly, ‘The Hours’ proper: eight extrapolations of the preceding chants in which Law’s freed up to add his own interpretations and textures. So for the first half, we get a lone piano in the middle distance playing (with heavy use of the muting pedal) dutifully uninflected melodies with all the emotion of a canning plant: the beauty of the lines frosted over, clean as an abandoned cloister. For the second, the piano’s intended to take on a life of its own, expounding off the original melodies.

In the first of the improvising pieces, Matins/Vigilae, this doesn’t amount to much more besides the odd syncopated jazz twitch, surprisingly crass after the sterile beauty of the naked themes. For the superior Lauds it’s the decoration of the theme of Chant II by a sprinkle of high treble notes from the top of the piano, a subtly emotive sea-swell of tenor phrasing from below. For Prime, a Keith Jarrett-y stroll during which Law transmutes Chant III into a whirling spiral of shifting arpeggios that tumble somewhere between György Ligeti and Allan Holdsworth. Terce (one of the most successful pieces) staggers echoes of Chant IV – vibraphone-like – with occasional flashes of beauty when Law lets his guard down: then moves into peculiar John Cage mutes as he interferes with the strings in the piano frame, letting buzzes and flutters distort with the fluttering trills.

The problems really start to arise after this, when Sext’s boogie-woogie serialism (which moves into more of those acrobatic arpeggios) sounds a little too comical to take seriously, and the stomp of Nones has taken the feel so far from the original source that you’ll have forgotten you began this recording ostensibly listening to chants in an abbey. Vespers turns its own source, inexplicably, into stammered staccato pseudo-stride piano with spurts of hammering, constrained exploration. None of which would matter were it not for Law’s efforts in the liner notes to link his music to the devotional, whereas what he’s actually done is link it to the architectural. Like it or not, plainchant ain’t gospel, and its beauty doesn’t survive the transition into jazz unless – as Jan Garbarek proved with the Hilliard Ensemble on ‘Officium’ – you allow the jazz to meet it on its own territory and terms.

Compline makes some belated amends by being a gentle Bill Evans-style study of the final chant, but it’s the necessary little coming far too late. ‘The Hours’ is just too academic, too dryly sophisticated, too damn measured in its intent to take to heart. Law’s sophisticated, he avoids corniness, he has discipline. Oh God, does he have discipline. That, in itself, is what sinks this fine but soulless recording. Finally, for all the concentration, seriousness and cleverness of ‘The Hours’ it leaves you with no vision of God, no vision even of devotion; just a vision of a musician dissecting an act of faith for its structure alone. What it also leave you with is the impression that John Law – rather like the monks he’s allegedly saluting with this music – should really get out more often.

John Law: ‘The Hours’
Future Music Records, FMR CD41-V0697 (7 86497 26352 3)
CD-only album
Released:
September 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Cornucopia Recordings.
John Law online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Spotify Amazon Music
 

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