The Watchful Ear

This new CD on the Matchless label, the first duo recording of Eddie Prévost and Jennifer Allum, comes with extensive, and excellent sleevenotes written by Seymour Wright. (They can be read here) The notes not only capture the essence of the investigatory nature of the improvised music of this duo but also propose that the listener might use this documentation of the duo’s music to form a response of their own. The notes, which include extensive quotes from the musicians are written from a perspective very close to that of Prévost and Allum, and touch on similar subjects to the essay I recently posted here. The writing heavily underlines the value of improvisation as a tool for investigation and engagement, not only of the tools the musicians chose to use, but of the musical relationship between them. Allum is quoted in the text thus:

(it) “would be that I often find the process of something more interesting than, or equal to, the final product”

Prévost also states;

“the ‘investigative nature’ of the enterprise is its core aesthetic. It only becomes presentational (for an audience) after the fact. Out of this process can come a positive sonic offering that (embraces, embodies, and perhaps) transcends the immediate practice of investigation”

So, what is most important to the musicians here, what retains the vitality in their meeting is the act of improvisation itself. That a document of this investigative process has been considered worthy of sharing with a wider audience could perhaps be considered an added, almost coincidental bonus. How then, as a listener, given the thrust of the carefully chosen liner notes should one approach a review of this CD? If one agrees (as I do) that the the true value of the musicians’ work lies in the act of investigation rather than its outcome then what value can be placed upon my personal response to its end result? I guess that ultimately this remains a product to be evaluated, and my thoughts on it might interest or deter potential listeners via my descriptions of how it sounds, but ultimately that is all I can hope to offer.

Perhaps the liner notes lead me in this direction, but this album, which is named Penumbræ, continually suggests the process of artistically worked material to me. I am constantly put in mind of sculpture, perhaps a blacksmith hammering at molten metal in the seconds he has before it cools, sweating in front of his furnace, or the scupltor at work on a large stone with chisel in hand, each taking basic, elemental materials and handcrafting them into something of value. Each of the musicians work with simple tools on this album. Prévost utilises his stripped down metal percussion set-up, mostly bowed tam tam and hand cymbal with a few soft strikes thrown in here and there. Allum is a violinist, and here she uses two bows on it its strings, but keeps her contribution simply to bowed work, albeit of many different types and intensities. So as the two use these simple tools, bereft of any electronics or post-production they carve out the four pieces here. The first three, recorded in London, are fittingly named Investigative Study I-III. These pieces are each around the ten minute mark, and precede the thirty-seven minute long final track, Dolwilym Penumbra, so named after the place in West Wales at which it was recorded.

If you don’t like the sound of bowed strings, bowed metal, then this CD isn’t for you. It is a wonderful exploration of the properties of these sounds and how they combine. Following the music is like following the curves, studying textures of a complex, and yet simply created sculpture. This sculpture however has two creators, that have chiselled and carved and spun their shapes and forms around one another’s to create this subtle, engaging maze of criss-crossing lines and blending tones. The sounds remind me of bright lights on a dark evening, glowing metals pulled from the forge, alive with a dangerous, scathing vitality and yet somehow quite beautiful to behold in their simplicity. If the sounds alone are finely crafted here, the way they are combined shows an acute understanding of one another’s music, despite the significant age gap (maybe as much as forty years?) that spans between the musicians. There is a closeness of ideology as much as aesthetic, formed through the musicians’ joint attendance at the weekly improvisation workshops in London that have focussed the work of so many bright musicians. This shines right through into the confidence that this music is full of, a fearlessness borne out of the urge to explore the territory, the material, rather than seek out perfection.

Wright’s liner notes then end with the challenge to us as listeners to respond in some way to the investigations of the musicians with our own. Over the past couple of weeks that I have been playing this CD I have thought long and hard about how I might do this. I have found myself sat with a sketchbook, trying to find a way into the music through my visual responses to it. Perhaps in line with the way these musicians work, the process of doing this has been thoroughly enjoyable and yet also somewhat frustrating. I have produced a number of drawings that I have ultimately ended up not liking, and so I won’t share any here, as, as Prévost points out, the end results might sometimes transcend the process, but not always. For now the engagement I shall present will be these words, and the many hours I have spent listening to the music.

Richard Pinnell — Watchful Ear 24th March 2011