Simon H. Fell,
Composition No. 30
(Bruces Fingers, 1998)

Two hours of music, 44 musicians, and one mad genius at its centre. I am increasingly starting to believe that Simon H. Fell is one of the most important composers alive, and releases like this just make the case more cut-and-dried by the minute (which is approximately the frequency with which Fell seems to release new stuff). There's not going to be room to discuss individual players here for obvious reasons, but suffice it to say that the line-up's impressive, including John Butcher, Orphy Robinson and Mark Sanders alongside Fell regulars like Alan Wilkinson, Rhodri Davies, Paul Hession, Mick Beck, Charles Wharf and Mark Wastell.

It's a suite of pieces, unified by structural elements of Fell's serialist compositions, assembled in the studio from performances of notated sections and from improvisations. The sound-world is generally either free improv or free jazz, which might sound like an obvious statement but the two styles cross and re-cross with considerable complexity, forming one of the most immediate means of orientation within this massive piece of work. So there are big-band sections influenced by Mingus and, one suspects, AACM arrangers like Muhal Richard Abrams, rubbing up against spaced-out ambient improv and scratchy, angular interplay.

What is unique about Fell's project -- and his genuinely swinging serialist jazz heads are impressive enough, but there's more -- is his co-option of what Zappa called "xenochrony," in which completely distinct performances are united, any apparent interplay between the musicians being purely coincidental. Of course, the listener works on such material, hearing correspondences between the parts that could never have been intended by the musicians. Zappa is rather scathing about this in the sleeve notes to Sheikh Yerbouti, but the truth is that the listener often plays as great a part in the creation of musical cohesion as do the performers, not only in xenochronous pieces but in more conventional ones as well. Composition No. 30 makes xenochrony the rule rather than the exception; the result is utterly unexpected, even unexpectable music which nevertheless seems completely logical. Hats off. Get out and buy it.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]
Rambles: 4 May 2002