Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Support Your Local Composer (IV): Taking the Temperature

Fergus Kelly is an important figure in the world of Irish experimental music, both as a performer (often on the delightfully named 'Cabinet of Curiosities"), and as a sound artist and composer. He also maintains the Room Temperature label as a vehicle for documenting his work, often featuring releases with David Lacey, Dennis McNulty, and Paul Vogel, and proving that Irish artists can more than hold their own among the big boys (and girls) of international improv. (See here for more details.) I recently obtained two CDs from Room Temperature, a live set with the above-mentioned quartet (Trinity College Chapel 8 October 2005) and and a set of what you could describe of sculpted field recordings made in ex-Guinness sites in Dublin, Material Evidence. (Might I comment at this stage that Kelly designs his own releases, and does a fine job of it as well? I particularly like Material Evidence, a 3"CD; both can be seen at the website.) (On a related note, can I point out that I'm starting to develop a great fondness for 3" CDs? I love their dinky size, along with the fact that they provide a quickly digested alternative to the full-length CD and are thus a great way of sampling an artist's work, as well as highlighting excellent short pieces without the necessity for extra filler. I recently received some 3"CDs from the Compost & Height label which, in addition to showcasing fine music (I particularly like Gino Robair's two "Norwich Fragments"; as well as being abrasive yet controlled and powerful percussive music which, although only lasting five minutes each, I could have listened to for hours, they have a wonderfully evocative title that sounds like a lost Lovecraft story) are beautifully packaged: a small wooden block wrapped in plastic, in which sits a bone-white tiny CD.)
But enough rambling. Kelly's Material Evidence is, as stated earlier, made up of sounds recorded "in ex-Guinness sites in Crane Street and Watling Street in Dublin..." and arranged into three tracks, two little vignettes "Ullage" and "Dregs" (the former is only a minute long!) and one lengthy beast: "Grist", which opened the CD and clocks in at over 15 minutes. Now, as a person who has always had a fascination with crumbling, abandoned industrial sites, finding in them a strange melancholy poetry of rust and silence, these tracks were music to my ears in more ways than one! I'm not sure how much alteration has been made to the original recordings made in the sites, but in "Grist" Kelly has constructed a wonderfully varied and imaginative soundworld, transforming from turbulent clangorous mayhem, as a torrent of crashes, scrapes and bangs erupt out of the speakers, to a more subdued, sparse place where individual sounds can be savoured more easily. There is a great feeling of freedom and spontaneity, a liveliness, which such music can sometimes lack if the sounds are overly processed and forced to sound like "music". One thing I must comment on is the sense of space, movement and texture which Kelly creates; one can really sense the damp, cavernous warehouse, cluttered with dented barrels and whatnot, that one could hear these sounds in. Fine stuff indeed (even for those not overly partial to the sound of scraping metal!). "Ullage", a very brief percussive piece, provides a breather after "Grist", and the final piece, "Dregs" is a quieter, almost delicate (comparatively speaking) composition which rounds out the CD nicely. Highly recommended (and reasonably priced, too!). 
Trinity College Chapel 8 October 2005 is a live set recorded in the eponymous venue and consists of one 35-minute track, a group improvisation which ebbs and flows from muted, spectral sounds (very suited to the tradition-soaked environment in which the music was played), to powerful, surging attacks, featuring the kind of control and invention which one would expect from these performers (joined twice by an uncredited police siren at two points in the performance; interesting, it fits rather nicely! There's also a very curious section at the end where we hear what sounds like someone playing a short tune on a ghostly synthesiser, backed by scratchy electronic muttering which, when I first heard it, sounded very like the audience laughing. I say curious because, to my ear, it seems weirdly out-of-place with the rest of the performance). Oddly, though, while I think this performance is very fine, for some reason it doesn't involve me in the way that other music by these and similar performers does. Perhaps "uninvolving" is the wrong word - I think "hermetic" might be a little closer to how this music sounds to me, like watching a remarkable foreign film sans subtitles. I'm not sure why, and I could put this record on in six months and be utterly mesmerised, clutching my hair and wailing, "what! was! I! thinking! when I wrote that this music left me somewhat indifferent!" (Don't laugh: it's happened before, and with records that I initially reacted to with considerably more hostility than this one. And if it does, I'll write an updated review!) I hope the above doesn't put any potential buyers off purchasing the CD, though: I'd love to hear an alternate reaction, and it is, despite my reservations, well worth seeking out. I'm certainly going to be ordering more from Room Temperature, and I hope that others would join me, and support their local composers! 

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