The formulary of curses

By Ken Waxman

September 1, 2004

Five years into the 21st century, British composer/saxophonist Martin Archer must occasionally allow himself the odd smile of satisfaction.

Beginning his career in the early 1980s as a improv saxophonist, by the mid-1990s the Sheffield-based musician immersed himself in creating relationships between electronics, technology and improvisation. Integrating random events and sound material into his recorded work before that idea become generally accepted, early on his partially notated/partially improvised sound collages showed the sort of musical maturity that it would take others years to attain.

The formulary of curses is the newest chapter in his ongoing saga, and it’s particularly noteworthy for several reasons. For a start, the 13 tracks, which feature up to seven musicians and a variety of multi-tracking and electronic extensions, now fit comfortably within the electro-acoustic improv genre — one of the defining styles of this century. Furthermore, by reintroducing his reed playing into the mix on several pieces, Archer gives the CD the kind of jazz-like lilt that many more ponderous experiments lack.

Centre of the program is Archer on sopranino and alto saxophones, bass clarinet, recorders, keyboards and electronics, plus his longtime associate John Jasnoch on electric and acoustic guitars, ud, mandolin, lap steel, tenor banjo and “field recordings”. Added on various tracks are Derek Saw on tenor and baritone saxophones, fluegelhorn and cornet; Simon Pugsley on trombone and trumpet; Simon H. Fell on bass; Rob Dainton on drums; and Charlie Collins — who is part of a long-standing duo with Jasnoch — on flute, clarinet and sound processing. Additional sound processing comes from Collins, Chris Meloche and Chris Bywater.

Probably the most perceptible view of how Archer operates is on “Pier Groups”, which only involves Archer and Jasnoch, and “Song for Roscoe Mitchell” which features all the instrumentalists.

Built upon a field recording of a train arriving on a Southend pier, the former track features an urban pulse that is soon intercut with the bucolic tone of Archer on recorders and Jasnoch on acoustic guitar. The effect is as if a couple of medieval minstrels had wandered out of Sherwood Forest to concertize on a grimy concrete street. As the tune continues, repetitive note clusters from a legato bass clarinet meet up with the delayed pulsation and snap of electric guitar lines. As citified and rural tones succeed and often mask one another, the aural picture created is of Eric Dolphy circular breathing in the midst of a Masque performance.

For its part, “Song for Roscoe Mitchell” suggests what would happen if an organ trio and a riffing Stax-Volt horn section were added to one of Mitchell’s more funk- oriented composition. Usually known for more cerebral work, here bassist Fell keeps the groove going, while Jasnoch’s flayed guitar timbres move through standard blues changes into ringing distortions. With the guitar soon trading licks with the vamping horn section as it reprises the theme, Dainton lays on a shuffle beat, as space is made for an artesian well-deep ‘bone solo from Pugsley, plus Archer duetting with himself on sopranino and alto. Without pause, the piece finally melts into the pure noise essay of “A Senseless Act of Beauty” which is the final track.

Other compositions cycle through a panoply of references from rock music, traditional British folk ballads, modern and earlier chance music, atonal interpolations and outer space chants. That means Jasnoch especially, is charged with creating the fragmented finger picking of folkie Davy Graham at one point or the tortured, whining lines of bluesman Freddie King elsewhere. Archer meanwhile, can produce a West Coast sax line so cool that it nearly freezes the laser on one track, yet use the delay properties of processing elsewhere to output calliope-like tones.

Off-kilter percussion sounds, jazz shakes from the brass, wild animal chirrups from the reeds, a re-imagining of distinctive improvisation on the ud — or oud as most spell it — and all sorts of shifting electronics also make an appearance

The plectrumist’s background playing bluegrass and country music also means that a track like “Strawberry Blues” is only blues if the songs of mountain banjoists like Dock Boggs are included in the canon. Featuring the deep pitches of synthesized sound processing, it’s what would result if a WSM Barn Dance was held at IRCAM, a European centre of electronic research.

Also illustrative is the aptly named “Pod” where stacked, multi-layered sopranino overblowing faces the watery pre-recorded sounds of French conversations. Archer calls this “the most technically complex piece on the record”, yet like good software the end result works well without having to know how the radically structured piece was created.

This session and Archer’s other CDs are only available online at Making the extra effort to find it will allow you to experience the music of someone who has created an unique soundworld though concept and experimentation.