Reluctantly, as the music finally dissipates into quiet, I surface for facts – and here they are.
Philip Sheppard is cellist with the Composers’ Ensemble and with The Smith Quartet (a London answer to New Music ensembles like Kronos Quartet). He’s taken on the knotty work of Michael Tippett and Oliver Knussen: his list of close collaborators outside the classical world have included Abdullah Ibrahim and Jeff Buckley. Freed from the demands of repertoire and support roles, his own music for solo cello leads into meditative, overlapping multi-tracked soundscapes.
That’s the definition, the bare bones of it. A modern-classical musician, as composer-performer, looping or patterning processed sounds in the path followed by Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Gavin Bryars, and by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno.
This doesn’t convey how far beyond the plain facts of the process Philip Sheppard gets – how he’s boiled down the structure of classical expression to small and beautiful hints in a sustained electrophonic atmosphere. The captivating, wonderfully played music on ‘The Glass Cathedral’ is close, in its way, to the devotional reachings of Fripp’s ‘A Blessing Of Tears’: but it’s more abstract, a music of suggestions and amnesia. Philip manages to suggest vistas of embracing vastness with simple and delicately executed elements gradually mixed into an ever-expanding palette of cello textures, running from a discordant plumbing-scrape to an overwhelming snatch of piercing, striving melody. There are only two pieces on here, both vastly different, both extraordinary.
Harrison’s Chronometer uses Philip’s electric cello – a custom-built five-string cyborg which readily sinks itself into an evanescent minor-chord drone, gradually resolving and passing through moods; a Mahler trance in multi-track. The name’s taken from the 18th century timepiece designed to revolutionise navigation and safety at sea; providing a fixed, reliable timekeeping process, aiding judgement of distance, mapping and location. Inspired by this, the music sounds like a steady, resolute voyage through half- known climes, as Philip fills the air with the sounds of beasts and uncertainties. String snarls slide and slink away, high harmonics keen and shiver. Low, rumbling deep sea monsters scrape away in the bass registers.
Living but impersonal detail builds up, as gorgeously and inhumanly hostile as a crystal jungle; and into this comes tentative tracings of order. There’s a high pulse; a sawing Greek riff of chorused cellos; snap-and-lock ostinatos in the bass recalling the clipped Mediterranean funk of Mick Karn. A melody materialises in the alto range, cleanly distorted – to the point where it finds a rough perfection – but it tails out. Nothing is resolved; eventually the music fades away into the dark, although its recognisable touches are still isolated within the surrounding chaos. Expressive to the last, they sit like lonely markers; or like humans in a small, fragile boat on brutally indifferent seas that have hardly even begun to yield their perilous secrets.
Compared to Harrison’s Chronometer, the title track of The Glass Cathedral is sublimely peaceful: though in its own way it’s just as deliquescent, just as much part of that territory where post- classical meets post-rock and where both begin to blend with the subtle dissolutional anarchy that is drift. It’s played on a vintage cello with a history implied rather than certain: a mid- 8th century instrument possessed of a rich verdant tone and traced back to an anonymous London craftsman. Whether its ambiguous story is true or false, I’d like to think it informs the piece, which has hints of more intimate John Taverner compositions but links back to the past via a quote from Monteverdi’s ‘Orfeo’ which coalesces and dissolves throughout the composition.
Here, the music seems to wake itself in sensual, melodic stretches of cello, in exquisite glass-harmonica deviations of sound. It is like drowsing inside a translucent sacred building, allowing a whole day to become a time-exposure. Overdubbed drones and harmonies acting like light beams, branching off at odd angles, allowing the corners of the church to be lit gently and briefly before the source slides off somewhere else. A solo cello establishes itself in centre with a contemplative, yearning changing theme. It gives dominance over to the light angles and the Monteverdi fragment… then, as if shot through a prism, a whole chamber of cellos are swimming off in a new direction, embarking on a related theme, only to dissolve out gently in loosely woven trios.
I’d say more, but I’m already spewing too many abstractions. It’s enough to say that if it’s true that architecture is frozen music, then this is (just as equally) a beautiful, dissolving architecture.
Philip Sheppard: ‘The Glass Cathedral’
Blue Snow, BSNCD1 (no barcode)
Released: 5th July 1999
Get it from:
CD version best obtained second-hand: download available via Bandcamp.