Classical/electronica fusion composer Roger Goula will be performing at two London shows this month in order to promote his upcoming new album ‘Overview Effect’ – the first full-length release on the new Cognitive Shift record label (a joint venture between experimental pop label One Little Indian Records and commercial soundtrack music publishers Manners McDade).
On both occasions, Roger will be performing material from both ‘Overview Effect’ (due in September) and from the preceding limited edition EP ‘Something About Silence’ (which came out in March and featured remixes by Christian Löffler and Phaeleh). ‘Overview Effect’ is inspired by “the psychological phenomenon experienced by astronauts when viewing Earth from a distance, allowing them to see the entire planet surrounded by the endless black void of space. This can cause a cognitive shift in the minds of the astronauts, giving them a completely new perspective on life, Earth and humanity.”
Here are soundclips of the original and remixed versions of Roger’s piece ‘Awe’, as featured on ‘Something About Silence’ – nearly nine minutes of grand minimalist adagio conflating the methodology of sophisticated dance electronica with the slow, sparse development and atmospherics of the post-Morton Feldman California school (as exemplified by the work of composers such as Jim Fox), the gradual looped layering of Gavin Bryars (on works like ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’) and the holy minimalism of Henryk Górecki. Its growing arrangement steers simple modular elements towards a greater elegiac nature. Building upwards from sub-bass and clarinet and string harmonics, it adds strata of violas, then violins; developing a faster pulse and a skitter of electronic rhythm at the midpoint, with minimalist cross rhythms from the higher strings. The end sees a return of cone-rattling sub-bass, and a sudden jerk into silence as if waking.
It’s true that the latterday minimalist film scorer’s tricks are all in place; but those moving musical blocks are weighty, and the visual suggestions arresting and entirely in tune with the orbital view of the album concept. Placed back into the electronic dance world (remixed and transmogrified by classically-trained house/dubstep/electronica musician Phaelah) it becomes a stately, velvety downtempo effort; more mechanical; its squiggling monophonic crenellations stamped out as sequenced mirror-glints and chinking trance parts.
The Auditorium show is a full public event, while the Servant Jazz Quarters show is predominantly a music industry showcase (although there are twenty places available to the general public.
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On the subject of more mechanised forms of composition…
John White had to wait until the mid-1960s to really make his name as a composer and conceptualist. Originally emerging in the late 1950s, with a powerful traditional-classical pedigree behind him, he was a student-turned-professor at the Royal College of Music he’d studied under Elizabeth Lutyens and Bernard Stevens and, from early childhood, had been on the end of a chain of person-to-person musical tutelage which he could trace back to Brahms. Already a fluent composer (and moonlighting as the conductor of various West End musicals) his growing involvement with the British avant-garde led to his development of “machines”. These were small and charming compositions based on various ordering systems (such as change-ringing patterns or numerical arrays), which, like industrial-age technology, performed considered and deliberately-limited functions.
While John’s described these works as “the result of a fully thought-out process rather than (something) subject to the changeabilities of inspiration” that doesn’t wholly capture their nature. Process-based they may be (a domestic English response to New York minimalism), but they also capture some of his personal qualities including the crucial leavening effects of his gentleness and humour (qualities which came in handy while sidestepping some of the more dour, Marxist/Maoist preoccupations of his avant-garde colleagues).
From the duets to the larger chamber works, there’s a sense of amiable workplace conversation to the White’s machines – like workmates managing to express both affection and connection despite their limited repertoire of gestures, tropes and local cliches; or like the chat of cartoon engines (it’s enjoyable to compare his compositions to the artful tootling of Vernon Elliott’s children’s TV scores.) Humour and irreverence certainly permeated pieces like “Drinking & Hooting Machine” (a text based score for musicians sipping from and blowing across bottles of “a favourite drink”, in which the potential for cheery drunken chaos increases depending on rehearsal time, length of cycle and opportunities for encore). John’s involvement with the Promenade Theatre Orchestra (the 1969 ensemble he formed with Hugh Shrapnel, Christopher Hobbs and Alex Hill) provided the opportunity to perform complex music on toy devices and outdated instruments, folding modernism back in on itself with Dada-ist irreverence and mischievous English whimsy while channelling serious intent through the fun.
“The PT Orchestra! The Orchestra YOU can afford for that extra special occasion! Restful reed-organs, tinkling toy pianos, soothing psalteries, suave swanee whistles, jolly jaw harps – NO noisy electronics! (Just the job for that lazy Sunday afternoon!) All musical material guaranteed thru-composed – NO hit-or-miss improvisation!” – Michael Nyman
Celebrating John’s eightieth birthday, Montpellier ensemble Dedalus Ensemble will be performing a selection of the machines at Café Oto. A collective in which every musician collaborates in the orchestration and interpretation, they specialise in flexible scores from across the United States and in European New Music from the 1960s to today. Noted champions of contemporary American experimental music, the Ensemble has premiered works by Tom Johnson, Christian Wolff, Alvin Lucier, Phill Niblock, Frederic Rzewski, James Tenney before French audiences.” (Here’s a clip of them performing James Saunders’ ‘things you must do, rather than must not do’ at the ‘Coïncidences – Music we’d Like to Hear’ festival at The Forge back in 2012.)
For what it’s worth, I’ve got my own John White memory. He once turned up at Alquimia’s Electronicage concert series at the Spitz in 1999, a time when I had no idea when he was. Young-old elderly, besuited, neat and tidy, he had the amiable, comfortable air of a specialist on a home visit. He was carrying a medium sized suitcase, which he opened up and laid out to reveal a set of little readymade devices. He wound them up, pressed their buttons, set them off, and watched benignly as they ticked, clonked and squeaked through a small machine work of their own; then closed up the suitcase, waved and departed – a genteel, dining-room carney. Here’s twenty further minutes covering his world and his history.
To close, here’s a clip of a John White piano sonata in performance. If anything in what I’ve written above suggests that he’s a playful charlatan who threw his original skills away for art-prankery, this will prove otherwise. One of the hundred-plus sonatas he’s written (in addition to many more pieces of music in many other fields) it’s an enthusiastically busy, tuneful and melodically sophisticated romp in which both his humour and his extensive musical ancestry are fully to the fore.