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REVIEW – Darkroom: ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’ album, 2008 (“once engaged in perpetual fall, now they roam”)

1 Oct

Darkroom: 'Some Of These Numbers Mean Something'

Darkroom: ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’

Perhaps the passage of time forces a shape on what used to be abstract, giving it some meaning. Perhaps Darkroom just got tired of toying with slow nebulae and with clouds of diffused adrenalin and panic. At any rate, the Cambridge dark-ambient duo (now based around Hertfordshire) are changing. Their first full-release album since 2002’s ‘Fallout 3‘ sees them producing a very different music from the leashed chaos of their first decade. Those looming, passive-aggressive electronic thunderheads and those forbidding razor-smears of guitar are easing into a sweeter mood.

There’s also the question of how that passage of time works the same effect on people as it does on bands. In many respects, watching Darkroom evolve has been like watching – in extreme slow motion – the unknotting of a glower. Whatever the image, there’s always more to electronica artists than their boxfuls of clicks and drones or their “take-it-or-leave-it” detachment from their completed music, for which the finely-honed details of a recording (rather than the performance within) is the ultimate statement. For Darkroom, perhaps this is closer to the surface than most. The group has rarely, if ever, been sought out for interview, but anyone who’s taken the trouble to talk to them has encountered soft-spoken yet determined men keeping a tremendous exploratory brainpower in reserve. While no-man singer Tim Bowness was part of Darkroom (howling wordless imprecations and grand voice fragments, a guttering horror-struck Lucifer tumbling through a churn of collapsing stars) much of this emphasis fell on him. With Tim long-since melted out of the picture, any such curiosity has to move in on the remaining Darkroom pair and what they might be bringing in.

It becomes more interesting, for example, that synth lynchpin Os programs (as Expert Sleepers) innovative sound modules and methods for other musicians to pursue, and cooks up lighting effects for video gaming at the point where it bleeds into video art; or that guitar-broiler Michael Bearpark’s sinewy textural playing is a flipside to his day-job in cutting-edge computational chemistry. While this kind of hard science hasn’t obviously dictated the form of Darkroom (generally they’ve surrendered to the unknown rather than tried to map it) it does seems that ideas of coloration, reaction, chemical excitement and chiaroscuro are built into the group at a deep and evolving level.

When I originally reviewed ‘Fallout 3’, I toyed with the idea of a kinder, gentler Darkroom, in which the pressured frowns and disorientations of their earlier music relinquished its forbidding edge. Here, this comes to pass. While they’re not exactly rolling over to have their bellies tickled, Darkroom have, in their way, mellowed. A decade into their work, they’ve stopped overwhelming us with gigantic, impenetrable sonic proofs and begun welcoming us with musicality. Though star-stuff is still implied, and they’ve kept much of their cosmic scale and atmospherics, they’ve switched off most of their former barrage of hostile radiation. What comes through now are blushes and bobs of warmth, a new appreciation of carefully worked detail. With Michael’s recent embrace of acoustic guitars (and the deployment of drummer Andrew Booker as a new group foil) we also get the sound of physical velocity, friction and fingerprints; of hands on sticks, gut and wood as well as electronic triggers. Where they once engaged in perpetual fall, now they roam.

Their 1999 album ‘Seethrough‘ (an unexpected collection of songs recorded while Tim Bowness was still on board and tugging them back towards his own musical heartland) originally seemed like a blip in Darkroom’s career. Listening to the camouflaged melodies and song structures sliding past in ‘Some Of These Numbers…’ suggests that with or without Tim some seeds might have been planted them for later emergence. Bar the vertiginous, unsettling loll of Insecure Digital (a teetering reminder of Darkroom’s roots in echoing noise and psychedelic dub) the music here sounds as if it comes from the heart and not from the more obscure sets of glands. Mercury Shuffle, in particular, rides on a soft and subtle ballad-chord sequence, inspiring rippled melodics. Booker, in his most prominent moment on the record, provides a subtle shuffle from which to launch Os’ rhapsodic faux-CS-80 synth buzz and Michael’s batwing-rises of screech-guitar. Beyond the drowsy interplay, the backgrounds show Darkroom at their gentlest: a riffling submarine twang, or space-rock-tinged Americana with a touch of Bill Frisell (and, perhaps more than a couple of echoes of Red River Valley).

While Darkroom have generally been open about their enjoyment of 1970s prog and fusion, and of 1980s pop (as well as the 1990s electronica boom which they both sprang from and dodged) it’s becoming more evident in the sounds they choose and the structures they etch. Album opener The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes revisits some aspect of the group’s original brutal beauty – a brow-furrowed mumble of baleful sound, its hooded swamp-dragon guitar tones move foggily over a bass-drum thud that’s part hip-hop and part dream-course, as if some of the trancier elements of Pink Floyd’s Echoes were cheek-to-cheeking with the Aphex Twin. Yet it’s also more structured than they’d have allowed themselves before: more painstakingly orchestrated. Treated guitar parts flash over the lip of the tune’s leading edge like a handful of blades, sounding in the deep like Wagner horns or mingling Delta slide with digital interrupts.

A whole rackful of ideas are bound into the album’s title track, which travels from electronics fluttering around elegant classical-styled guitar harmonics via a subtly slowhanded Bearpark melody and bouncing Eurotrance suggestions from Os. These in turn thin out into a post-rock brew of expressive but hidden guitar and a succession of themes, each beautifully suggestive but barely touched upon. They’re like the points of a mathematical iceberg, nudged and smoothed by equally brief musical salutes (an aerial Fripp burn, a little Talking Heads funk) and, towards the end, the crash and hiss of sea-breakers.

While they’re shyly opening out this fan-spread of influences, Darkroom also reveal a new skill: that of touching on and drawing on the times and tones which inspire them without ever getting stuck to them. My Sunsets Are All One-Sided simultaneously revisits the rootless, reborn feel of very early jazz-fusion (before the pulls of groove and tradition dragged it back to something more predictable) and the creeping 1950s curiosity of the European avant-garde. Here’s a gentle Stockhausen toy-chime, eventually discovering its own little medley of small tunes. Here’s a lighthouse-revolve of guitar swells. Here’s a move, by degrees, from Zawinul to Hammer; to a point where a ‘Miami Vice’ bass-synth pulse and subtle Booker cymbalwork grounds Michael’s leaf-fall guitar work, and a shuffling batter of electronic funk is shadowed by the jingle of a roller toy.

Cuddling up with the light celestial touches of ’70s chamber-soul while filtering them through carefully-reserved 1990s arrangements, No Candy No Can Do also hints at the diaphanous mid-’80s tundrascapes on Cocteau Twins’ ‘Victorialand’. Twinkly flechettes of electric piano, slow spins of programmed glitter-dust and a watery Booker shuffle provide the shape, with a countrified psychedelic guitar patrolling the hazy horizon. Hints of dub, apparently played on a toy organ, even makes links to the frayed and contemplative Birmingham exotica of Pram.

The key to Darkroom’s transformation is in Michael’s work on acoustic nylon and steel-string guitars, which bring him down from his cruising altitudes and up from his witches-brew textural bubbling and leave him bare-armed at Darkroom’s forefront. On Two Is Ambient, he’s hooking out a Spanish guitar clang, looping against his own electric drones, warbles and wah-wah cycles and against Booker’s industrial snare and tight cymbals. The latter pulls in yet another layered Bearpark, this one exploring a stepping probing bass sound (begun on the low nylon strings, fretbuzz and all, and ending up somewhere in cavernous double bass territory). Os seems to be both manipulating these sounds with one hand and pushing again them with the other: presumably it’s him who’s responsible for the final chromatic crash and pink noise weirdout. Similarly, it’s Os who throws up the gelid synth-wobble, string-section cycles and speed-oscillation pranks in Chalk Is Organised Dust – a necessary wildcard foil to the loping, snapping drums (part Bill Bruford and part Can) and the snatches of blues, classical double-stops and jazz-bass ostinato which Michael’s now feeding into the tune (as if for ten years he’s been a hostage virtuoso, now finally set free of his leg-irons and running off in a kind of fluid hobble).

Turtles All The Way Down concludes the album on a dry joke. The title’s from Stephen Hawking, via any number of sources. It covers infinite regression (handy for loopers), desperate mythologizing and arguments stretched thin. The music itself is fired off from on the abstract coil of a steel-strung guitar lick in which jazz, blues, minimalism and an awkward all-ways dash combine in a way which would’ve raised a sour grin from John Fahey. This quickly moves into a gnarly munching electric drone, ghostly post-rock keyboards and spacious drum clatter. It’s a last-minute hollowing out of what’s gone before, the sounds and atmospherics recalling the anxious small-hours cruises of Bark Psychosis (sliding past the red lights at 3am, somewhere close to home but never in a stranger place).

It’s as if Darkroom have suddenly stopped, shaken awake, and reminded themselves not to let us settle into too much comfort. Much of the music on ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’ may have dropped out of the previous interstellar char-and-chill in order to embrace a more human-scaled and earthbound warmth. Darkroom aren’t forgetting that the inhuman extremes are still there, waiting indifferently just outside the envelope.

Darkroom: ‘Some Of These Numbers Mean Something’
Burning Shed, BSHED 0408 (5060164400059)
CD/download album
Released: 3rd October 2008

Buy it from:
Burning Shed or Bandcamp.

Darkroom online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace BandcampLastFM

REVIEW: centrozoon: ‘Blast’ album reissue, 2008 (“let the music fall inwards”)

3 Feb
centrozoon: 'Blast' (reissue)

centrozoon: ‘Blast’ (reissue)

Here’s a tale of escape.

Disciplines become traps: beautiful sounds become honey-traps. This can be more obvious along certain musical paths than others. Two particularly susceptible paths are ambient-synth playing and the underground swell of Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft. The former can drift towards being a proliferating mass of lonely cells; each of them seeking an individual voice but often, obliviously, stuck in identical textures, wallowing in parallel. The latter follows a rigorous playing method and lifestyle which borders on benevolent culthood. While this banishes the shapeless flab which often devils ambient music, it can err in the other direction. At its best, the Craft births and burnishes exceptional players: at its worst, it produces musicians who devote themselves to obsessively burnishing a constant reiteration of stern, generic Fripp stylings.

When touch-guitarist Markus Reuter (an accomplished Crafty, and part of the Crafty-dominated Europa String Choir) encountered former Subsonic Experience electronics-coaxer Bernhard Wöstheinrich and formed centrozoon, the team-up had conceptual and practical lineage from both the Crafty discipline and the ambient flood. On top of that, by the time they released their debut album ‘Blast’ in 2000, there wasn’t anything especially unusual in what (on paper) they offered – an alliance of mutant fretboard work and left-field synth-noise, stretched and softened into a minimal ambience. In chasing that direction, centrozoon were following a path which had been trodden since the mid-’70s and the days of… well, Fripp & Eno.

Their peculiar triumph (which is clear even eight years later, with this expanded reissue) was that ‘Blast’ escaped all of the expected pitfalls and mudbanks. It’s not that Markus and Bernhard simply brazened it all out; nor did they overwhelm their listeners by assuming wracked and exaggerated musical personalities. Instead, they opted to simply get out of the way. With minimal shepherding, they let the music fall inwards of its own accord. This sounds like abandoning responsibility, but it’s not. Ultimately, and with the right kind of awareness and attitude, it’s a very effective way of letting the music take its own shape.

On a superficial listen, ‘Blast’ isn’t an obvious leap into the unknown; nor is it immediately shocking, then or now. Each of the four pieces on the original release could conceivably see the same use as other ambient experiments – a gloss for cosmic afternoons; sonic wrappings for art installations; chemical soundtracks for intellectual stoners on introverted afternoons. As for immediate originality, let’s say that Fripp fans enthralled by the oceanic, ambient-improvised textures of Soundscaping will find plenty of pleasure here. In particular, the widening ice-vapour agglomerations of Markus’ Warr Guitar textures in Empire are an immediate homecoming. As they stretch near-subliminal fingers out into the void, they’re subtly transformed by Bernhard’s lullaby synth-pulse; moving from austerity into something like the hopeful whistling of a small boy in the rain, safe in a shapeless optimism.

Transformation is a key process here. Markus’ extreme processing and honing of his Warr Guitar touch-playing into textural drifts and folds, all sounds of strings and fingers worn away; Bernhard’s unschooled musical impulses becoming constructive. Most significantly, their effect upon each other – formalist liberated by upsetter, randomiser cradled by knower.

Markus might dominate Empire – however passively – but it’s Bernhard (the part-time abstract painter) who leads the more baleful Sign. Here, the low buzzes and wah-swells of synth gradually open up into a mournful piece of grand European ambience. For Crafty guitarists and King Crimson fans alike, this is the most Frippertronical piece on the album. That said, Markus eschews any of those intensely compressed Frippish emotions in his playing. Instead, his touch-guitar yields little more than a distant, echoing subway-tunnel ambience. It pulls the listening ear after it, as if co-opting it into the pursuit of an invisible stranger who’s only just out of reach; or a far-off footfall which must be caught up with.

Even this early in their career, it’s the ability to trigger that kind of unsettling mood and engagement in the listener that set centrozoon apart, and eased them out of those Crafty/ambient straitjackets. Their eerie approach to layered tonality may have had its similarities to the Fripp approach, but it’s been taken a few steps further along. Blank and unsettling, it feels like a kind of purposeful decay, a deliberate whittling-away of what underpins expectations and security: hollowing it out only slightly, just enough to make a change that’s sensed. As a listener, you venture out onto it, but the sound of the settling structure disturbs you.

In many respects, time has left ‘Blast’ strangely untouched, and for all the right reasons. The Fripp & Eno analogy still holds, not so much over sound and mood, but over how Markus’ discipline and rigorous self-schooling and Bernhard’s iconoclastic instincts meet and envelop each other. Even at this stage, they’re astonishingly well integrated. It’s difficult to look at their work looking for cracks in the method. Unified and unruffled, it stares back at you, and it’s you that blinks first.

More self-conscious (or perverse) than the other tracks on the record, the hooded, atmospheric Sense cops a few tricks directly from 1980s art-pop. Sparse lines and pared-down chords of electric piano recall the pairing of Richard Barbieri and David Sylvian. A upfront electro-pulse (OMD meets ’90s techno) is carved up into a jazz shimmy, while Bernhard’s bloopy electronic punctuation sounds like nothing so much as a Simmons drum set catching the cheesy hiccups. All of these are eventually upended when Markus sets aside his Invisible Man approach in favour of a growing grind of slow-motion garage-static. In parallel, Bernhard’s underlay of sound gradually becomes more and more unstable and less and less comforting; eventually it hones itself into a subtly disturbing sheath of noise.

On the original ‘Blast’, Sense was the disruptive moment. Power – a held-back track from the album sessions, now restored to the reissue – demonstrates that it wasn’t as much of a one-off as it seemed. Post-‘Blast’, centrozoon would begin several years of thorough engagement with dance music (actually, a kind of wilful grappling) which would flower in 2003 with the thumping techno-prog drive of their ‘Cult Of: Bibiboo’ album. Three years earlier, Power anticipates this and delivers an early take. Its rocking knock of rhythm and Bernhard’s dirty twangs of synth are a shift towards the dance-floor, away from icy dreams. Markus’ misty blurs of Warr playing are more direct and sharpened than they are elsewhere on the album, roaming purposefully behind the electronics like a searching headlight. The musical layers climb eerily, growing into an alarming constellation of eyes as Bernhard works in a march-rhythm built from a racheting percussion pulse. Nine minutes along, the beat courses away and the music planes on into ambience and a slow fade of atonal spirals.

Placed at the end of the reissue, Power supplants the title track of ‘Blast’ as its grand finale. Drawing attention to the band’s drive onwards to its dance phase makes some historic sense, but it also displace the album’s original emotional core. After the disruptions of Sense, Blast doesn’t immediately seem disturbing. For a long time it remains as beautifully eerie but conventional textural ambience. It hovers around the same close, elongated and barely-there notes like steam in a cathedral aisle, coiling itself backwards in the winking lights from the synths.

Over seventeen minutes Markus and Bernhard gradually, imperceptibly marshal the potential of horrific awe that’s within the music until it’s staring you in the face. Its intensity is subliminal, its aghast tone somehow removed from imminent peril. The horror here is backwards-looking, specifically European and instinctive, reeking of a darker history without ever clarifying what that is. This could be just soundtracking; but if so centrozoon have found silent films of overwhelming cataclysm to channel the music for. At a pinch, it could be cathedral music – if so, the building’s traumatised ghosts have crept out for a whirling pageant of blood and fire. It could be a troubled, unanswerable requiem; if so, this one’s for a calamity that’s overtaken even God, even memory. There’s something about it that emphasises the absence of words, of the shapes that make sense. It’s less the blast, and more the invisible and unexpected shockwave – like a glimpse over the shoulder at the terrible beauty of impelled destruction.

In the coming years, centrozoon would prove themselves far more mercurial and direct than the music on ‘Blast’ suggests. Compared to the hammering pulse of ‘…Bibiboo’ or the leaping, detailed art-pop of ‘Never Trust The Way You Are’, ‘Blast’ now sounds like hidden music, or perhaps hiding music: Bernhard and Markus remote almost to the point of vanishing, keeping their skills on a low bleed. Even here, though, there’s a determined stamp that set them apart from the noodlers and set them on course – but that’s not all. There’s still something special about ‘Blast’ and its ability to etch such hauntings out of such hushed musicality.

centrozoon: ‘Blast’
Unsung Records/Inner Knot Records, UR004CD (4260139120307)
CD/download album reissue
Released: 2008 (originally released 2000)

  • Followed by: ‘Sun Lounge Debris’.

Buy it from:
Iapetus Records or Burning Shed (CD); or Bandcamp (download).

centrozoon online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

REVIEW – John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’ album, 2009 (“stark rectitude and detachment”)

6 Aug
John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: 'Chamber Music'

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’

As well as being a composer, John P. Hastings is a curator. Actually… no. Separating the two terms suggest that there’s a gap between them: some kind of change in philosophy or mental state. It’s true that when he’s not composing, Hastings involves himself in arranging and hosting music events and sonic installations in his adopted home of Brooklyn, New York (via the ‘Sound Series’ at Presents Gallery) as well as co-running ‘The Experimental Music Yearbook’. However, it seems clear that these other activities might not involve much of a conceptual shift. I’ll come back to this later.

Starting off in Washington and Virginia, Hastings was at one time a late-’90s college rocker, playing guitar and writing songs for the post-grunge band Utris. After that he moved his base to CalArts and moved his musical allegiance – with a vengeance – to New Music via avant-garde process work and sonic art. While Utris occasionally dabbled in hard-rocking drones, Hastings’ subsequent music (be it orchestral, laptop-based or both) has quietly and methodically embraced many of the scientific components of late-twentieth-century conservatoire culture. His work sometimes shades carefully and soberly into the post-modern (via technology, found sound, chance methods and a fascination for the minutiae of microtones and the harmonic series) but his primary commitment has been to formalism and to music which establishes, as he defines it, “a logical and rationally satisfying whole.” His early chamber music pieces are rooted at the sternest end of late modernism, asserting a profound minimalism and blending it with clear process-based choices.

This debut collection reflects this position in all of its stark rectitude and detachment. All three of the minimal yet sonorous pieces here were performed either by the New Century Players (CalArts’ ensemble of “emerging musical language” musicians) or by Ensemble 303 (the experimental music group co-led by Hastings and Casey Thomas Anderson). Similarly, they were recorded in guarded heart-zones of the Californian avant-garde – two pieces in Roy O. Disney Hall at CalArts, and one in The Wulf gallery in downtown Los Angeles. These rooms seem to enclose and encourage the music in its deliberately slender and depthless form; its impassiveness; its focus on insidious pared-down number structures beneath the apparent form and textures. The musical notes themselves are explicitly passive components in a sparse mathematical schema, although this doesn’t stop them from often being beautiful.

Hastings makes his allegiance to science and mathematics plain from the off: the large-ensemble piece ‘telluric currents’ (performed by the New Century Players) is named after subterranean electric fields. Less scientifically, Hastings also describes in terms somewhere between angels’ trumpets and astro-metaphysics – “the music of the spheres, sounded with a low B-flat.” Translated, this means a single-note composition, though Hastings also states that it’s actually “one note, two curves.” The latter would appear to mean a gradual rise in pitch and an arc across the differing ranges of orchestral instruments. As for the former, every component note of the piece is a B-flat: precise timbre, octave and duration vary, but the pitch class doesn’t. The result is a kind of a chameleonic sound-curtain made up of nothing but octave variations on the same note.

In the opening moments, a low string drone is gradually joined by a low brass drone: after a minute and a half, the mid-range strings are backing up the low ones. Soon afterwards, the first of a set of horn soundings begin, adding to an enveloping hum. With no more than a single stacked set of octave intervals available to him, Hastings induces a surprisingly full sound, overlaying different instruments in different timbres and within different octaves to cover a broader spectrum of sound. The New Century Players seamlessly slot in replacement instruments as others fall out. It’s a little like a Risset scale trick reversed: instead of producing a continuous cyclic illusion of rising, the process camouflages a genuine rise. Those final sustained high B-flats (carried on stratospheric harmonics once all lower-pitched instruments have fallen away) come almost as a surprise. While this renders ‘telluric currents’ as more of an acoustic demonstration than a composition, Hastings’ arrangement of pitches and the ensemble’s dedication ensure that the listener walks away feeling that they’ve received much more musical information than they have.

‘Sonic Spiral’ (recorded by Ensemble 303 at the Wulf) is billed as “music and math in direct correlation” and as “a sound equivalent of the Fibonacci series.” It’s not the first time that the latter has been employed in structuring music. Building up from a start-point of zero and one, successive Fibonacci numbers sum the previous two, resulting in rapid and increasing jumps in magnitude as the sequence progresses. Spirals based on a linear and increasing Fibonacci sequence closely resemble “perfect” spirals based on the golden ratio, tying them in with idealised human architecture. Their appeal in guiding a compositional approach is obvious – allegedly, Bartók used them to compute part of the structure for ‘Music For Strings, Percussion And Celesta’.

Hastings’ own seventeen-minute Fibonacci piece is written for 11 unspecified tunable instruments. On the Wulf recording, I think I can hear low brass, standard and bass clarinets, violin and viola, saxophone… but what I predominantly hear is sustain, and the long harmonics which it allows to play against each other. Hasting winds the piece up with a little silver key of mathematics and simply lets it unfurl. Over seventeen minutes, the development is glacially slow. More accurately, it’s indifferent to human priorities of time and gratification; obeying rules of harmonic motion or aggrandisement set by the Fibonacci sequence.

Sitting on its locked tonal centre, the piece seems static, a softly growing hum within a gentle dynamic range. It’s actually an ever-growing and increasingly complex chord, moving subliminally up a spectrum of pitch into which new notes are eased and out of which silvery harmonic whistles sprout according to acoustic interference. Around eight minutes and forty-five seconds a lone violin seems to emerge from the stack, dipping over its own sustain and briefly leading the ensemble. It’s an illusion: the instrumentation is less dense at that point, revealing the mechanical workings of one briefly exposed instrument. The tiny dips and recoveries in pitch between continuous bowstrokes, the human flutter and inevitable tiny flaws of the working player, seem momentarily to impose a new idea on the piece: but the grand plan has always been dictated by the numbers. Just as the piece was wound up, so it winds back down.

Unlike the other two pieces, ‘desertum’ lacks a stated mathematical context. Instead, following Hastings’ habit of bringing in arcane or mythological references, it’s touted as “the dark shadow of an Earthly paradise.” Apparently performances of ‘desertum’ can be between fourteen and twenty-one minutes long. Perhaps I’ve missed some obscure rule-of-seven which Hastings hasn’t mentioned. This particular recording is eighteen minutes and twenty-two seconds long – or one thousand, one hundred and two seconds. Neither of which fit the sevens. Maybe maths isn’t dictating the process this time, although I suspect that its hidden rational hand still guides the way: perhaps the clues are elsewhere.

Despite the instrumental billing – brass quintet and percussion quartet – the main instrumentation on ‘desertum’ is an uncredited sub-bass tone. Pure, continuous and borderline subliminal, it runs throughout at a single unchanging pitch. Too textureless for an actual drone, it acts as a flattened-out level ground for the other instruments to perch on: utterly unyielding, it renders everything they do impermanent. Periodically, the brass instruments engage in a kind of minimal fanfare, each playing a single elongated note as part of a staggered, overlapping arpeggio.

The resulting sound resembles a diagonal chord, changing component notes slightly on each widely-spaced repetition. The hierarchy of pitches changes too, sometimes with the higher notes sounding first, sometimes the lower or midrange. They stack up like wobbling columns of stones, or like the same ruins viewed from different angles. During the lengthy pauses between these chord-piles, assorted percussion winds quietly across that monotone floor – wary rattlesnakes sneaking past. There may well be a long game of determined structure here: a slow-motion play through a specialised harmonic sequence played out at an inhumanly attenuated, Morton Feldman-esque pace. Perhaps, without the score, I lack the patience or the ear to determine it.

Instead (listening with more abstract, literary ears) what I hear in ‘desertum’ is a generalised sense of place – a parched and uncaring environment in which any human scratch or sculpting remains solitary and ignored, however vividly it stands up against the dry horizon. Hastings’ chords stand unrewarded and unresolved, isolated between ground and sky. Any message or change which they might carry is reduced to a molecular level. Wherever the idea of an earthly paradise fits in is an open guess. Perhaps the brass instrumentation was chosen for its association with angels, and the broken contortions of chords and desolate lack of movement imply the failure of Eden and the bitter aridity of Exodus. Perhaps Hastings’ rationalism discourages too much of a literary or Biblical interpretation, and ‘desertum’ is simply an existential communication about us – placed in hostile and impartial landscapes, struggling against the odds to make our lives and establish our significance.

Rooms and spaces which encourage. Landscapes that reject… All right, these are classic pathetic fallacies of the kind which Hastings’ more rational side might reject. But on the other hand, I think that this more emotive idea of placings, of placement, does have a relevance. Bar the utterly aleatoric or the free improvisers, almost all working composers ensure that each note and harmony used has a place in the scheme. The utter minimalism provided by these works (with their mathematical maps, their formal constraints, their refusal to allow any kind of horizontal development other than that permitted for duration and equation) works differently.

In these pieces, Hastings comes across less as a composer and more as a kind of… curator of notes. Rather than putting those notes to work, he maps them, provides them with a decreed academic location, gives them their single fixed point in his sonic display and keeps them safe there. He can and will demonstrate where they come from and how they fit in, but it’s as if his artistic work as curator of events has overlapped and merged with his compositional creativity to the extent that it’s now difficult to tell them apart. Similarly (and with the possible exception of the stonily suggestive ‘desertum’) its hard to imagine these three pieces existing and living outside the shelter of the Wulf, the Disney Hall  or their equivalent art-labs dotted around the world. It’s where music like this is safe: is understood and identified; ultimately, is pinned down.

To be honest, sometimes it’s as much about the chamber as it is about the music.

John P. Hastings with New Century Players & Ensemble 303: ‘Chamber Music’
Bandcamp
Download-only album
Released: 21st April 2009

Buy it from:
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John P. Hastings online:
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New Century Players online:
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Ensemble 303 online:
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