Glass Shelves And Floor is, in Alex Ward’s own words: “contemporary chamber music…infused with the vigour and raw exploration of free improvisation.” It’s a marked contrast to the simultaneously-released Power Trips by Deadly Orgone Radiation, Ward’s trio with James Sedwards and drummer Weasel Walter, in which both Ward and Sedwards play electric guitar.
In the Quintet assembled specifically to realise this piece Ward plays only clarinet, alongside fellow clarinetist Tom Jackson, saxophonist Rachel Musson, cellist Hannah Marshall and double bassist Olie Brice.
In an extension of his composing for Predicate, a quartet of improvisers, in Glass Shelves And Floor (Copepod) Ward combines fully annotated music with sections that allow its interpreters either limited freedoms (of “rhythm, dynamics and/or attack”), scope for regulated (idiomatically-specific or fixed-pitch) improvisation, or full freedom of expression. Ward wrote the piece with the individual performers in mind, so rather than treat them as a unit the allocated freedoms are part-specific. Coherence hangs on alertness to visual and sonic cues.
The piece was workshopped at Cafe Oto Project Space in August 2013 before being recorded in performance at The Vortex Jazz Club in March 2014. That take is included here as “Version 2 – Live”. “Version 1 – Studio” was recorded just two days later in nearby studios. Each take runs to just over half an hour.
Living in London, I’ve had numerous opportunities to hear each of these musicians in multiple contexts, but although Musson and Marshall occasionally form a trio with Danish saxophonist Julie Kjær, and Musson and Brice have worked together as a duo, the composition of the quintet is pretty distinctive, not least in the pairing of clarinets. The low strings of both Brice and Marshall – the bass often played arco, emphasise low-end sound, meshing sympathetically with the reeds even where Ward’s instrument is amplified and Jackson switches to bass clarinet. And the absence of brass, percussion or piano all accentuates the chamber music vibe.
The earliest moments set individual instrumentalists or pairs in spacious counterpoint, which might suggest ‘modernist’ chamber music, except that an interval for solo sax five minutes into the piece underlines the centrality of the improvisers’ impulse. It’s an abrasive swell of what I assume must be amplified clarinet, despite it meshes well with harshly bowed cello. And a sudden silence then foregrounds a distinctly ‘jazzy’ plucked contrabass and clarinet duet.
All this occurs in a brief span, but the pace is fairly moderate, allowing each layered part to slip more or less frictionally between its counterparts. There’s plenty of space permitted to soloists, but always with a canny juxtaposition of double or tripled lines on cue to reimpose a sense of purposeful collectivity.
A long, harshly-blown clarinet feature at the core of the piece gives sporadically to sudden busts of friction in the strings, and then a sudden blat of feedback clarinet. This is answered individually with probing reed pecks or briefly bowed string figures, which accrete in agitation until Ward’s feedback blooms again, binding everything together.
But that’s just one brief moment. Afterwards the pieces slide apart once more, sometimes leaving individual voices isolated. Another solo spot for clarinet, then followed by a trio interlude for bass clarinet and strings reminds me of Messiaen and his Quatuor pour la fin du temps, which was likewise conceived for a uniquely ad hoc ensemble and an unusual combination of instruments.
At the close, however, when all voices come together with some heat, unified by energetically plucked double bass, the expressive vitality of the performance harnesses the quintet’s improv-honed instincts. Structured and directed as it may be, this is music well rooted in improvisatory idioms, and it retains improvisation’s unpredictability, regardless its constituent strictures.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is most evident in the live version, which sounds both freer and more caustic than the studio version. A minimum of familiarity with the piece reveals the benefits in having two takes, as new tensions and correspondences reveal themselves in ostensibly familiar relationships of sound and structure.
In a revealing discussion between Ward and Dominic Lash, published online by Bang The Bore, Lash asks whether Ward intends listeners to take his compositional strategies “as the subject of the piece: attempting to follow those things through, make educated guesses about how different sections of the music have been constrained and in what ways”. The answer is an emphatic “no”:
“Maybe there are some people who just listen to improvised music as pure sound, but it seems to me like a strange thing to do, I find it hard to imagine an interest in improvisation without an interest in the behavioural aspects of it. And so I’ve tried to give rise to something which is rewarding, intriguing and unusual on that level… But that’s a long way from thinking of that as being the subject of the piece.”
Alex Ward clarinet and amplifier; Hannah Marshall cello; Olie Brice double bass; Rachel Musson tenor sax; Tom Jackson clarinet and bass clarinet.
Deadly Orgone Radiation – Power Trips.
Spring Heel Jack with Pat Thomas, Alex Ward and Paul Lytton – Live in Antwerp.
Gannets – Gannets (Babel Label roundup)
N.E.W. at Cafe Oto, January 2012. (Dalston Sound’s first post.)