January 16, 2016
Simon James Phillips
Mikroton Recordings cd 39/40
Answering affirmatively but with stipulations as to whether an almost indeterminate site-specific composition should be preserved on disc is Australian pianist/composer
Simon James Phillips’ Blage 3. Originally performed in a dance space in Berlin where Phillips now lives, the five-hour performance was designed so that audience members file in-and-out of the room at will once the improvisation began. Besides the pianist, the ensemble consisted of American trumpeter Liz Allbee, Dutch guitarist Arthur Rother, German bassist Werner Dafeldecker, Australian percussionist Tony Buck and British electronics manipulator BJ Nilsen. An edited version of the performance is presented here on one CD of approximately 58 minutes and a second of about 42 minutes.
That was a wise choice. Like an extended oration that appears riveting when presented in the midst of an emotional assemblage, but sounds bloated and self-indulgent later on, Phillips no doubt realized that the repetition and bravado needed to keep a constantly changing group of people interested wouldn’t be acceptable when transferred to a focused listening environment. With the near-hypnotic work balanced among themes and variations, tension and release plus multiple and singular strategies among the performers who utilized extended techniques and sometime reacted to external sounds, an altered protocol had to be established. So like a novelist who condenses what initially appears to be never-ending prose into shorter, more focused works, Philips has carved out two stand-alone but related programs from his composition. Disc 1 could be termed the acoustic version of Blage 3; and Disc 2 its electronic variant.
Bulked up piano chords scattered alongside higher-pitched slides and wiggles from the keyboard provide the thematic introduction for the first CD with asides notched in the narrative via rattling percussion, crackling and buzzing electronics and eventually contrapuntal guitar licks which suggest a different, but complementary, melody. As the piece advances it’s as if a gauzy aural curtain is gradually being pulled back so that additional instrumental tones are glimpsed, including double bass string sluices, piano cross pulses, slurred guitar extensions, crying cymbals and trumpet whimpers. With processed drones providing the continuum, a near crescendo and a new variation arrives two-thirds of the way through the program. An exercise in double counterpoint consisting of centred guitar strums and scattered trumpet tones, this is eventually assimilated into a wave form overview as ancillary oscillations. By the first disc’s denouement, buzzing static has confirmed the resolution as acoustic timbres encompassing bottle-cap-like pops and wispy brass puffs vanish excerpt for a final detached snarl.
Perhaps that snarl is one of defiance viz-a-viz the electronic sequences for like a movie franchise sequel that follows the original’s secondary characters CD2 relegates most of the granular processing to the background. Moving outward from wave form crackles that suggest an electronic thunder storm and later to raindrops splashing on a reflective surface, the instruments’ expected properties come to the fore. With Buck’s brush strokes providing a measured backdrop and the occasional peep or whistle interpolated by the trumpeter, “Part2” is at first mostly a piano showcase. Continuous key movement rotates the keyboard strategy from whimsical to charming to utilitarian as the tremolo timbres become tougher and more pressurized. Each time the electronic flanges make their presence felt, like the original film’s lead making a cameo appearance in the sequel, the blurry drone and delays are relegated behind the foreground action by bass drum resounds plus cymbal top sizzling. Working to a crescendo of near-opaque ecstasy, the track wraps up with an enthralling theme that, considering the context, is almost hummable.
Judicious editing and procedures make Blage 3 a listening rather than just as site-specific program. With that confirmed, perhaps now though Phillips will be encouraged to do more composing as well as sound editing.
Track Listing: CD 1: 1. Blage 3 Part 1 CD 2: 1. Blage 3 Part 2
Personnel: Liz Allbee (trumpet); Arthur Rother (guitar); Simon James Phillips (piano); Werner Dafeldecker (bass); Tony Buck (drums and percussion) and BJ Nilsen (electronics)