The programmatic texts which accompany both of these disks refer to stagnant waters; an appropriate reference, both as an analogy and, in a more tenuous sense, as a Freudian symbol. Like a dark pool, the music has a lapidary surface which speaks of hidden depths, of activity deep beneath what is visible. Superficially, for example, the pieces on Ghost Lily Cascade often seem to go nowhere; there is little by way of conventional development. Instead, subtle ideas flit up to the surface only to vanish again, creating a music in which, moment-to-moment, as the French have it, everything changes and everything stays the same.
Archer created the compositions on the earlier disk using improvisation as a sound-source or "detail generator". His keyboards are the most prominent feature, but all but one of the tracks -- "Telecottage", the most conventional on the disk in terms of rhythm and harmonic structure, a track which a fan of The Orb, say, would have little difficulty with -- all but one includes at least one collaborator. Archer has carved up their improvisations and re-assembled them, allowing "chance to shape many of the events" but also, surely, applying careful attention to others.
"How did that story end?", with sampler work by Collins (an important sideman on this disk), is everything 88 Enemies promised to deliver but did so only sporadically -- a post-piano music of intricate angularity and eerie directionlessness, interspersed with the most disturbing musique concrete interjections -- voices, telephone tones, digital glitches, footsteps.
Ghost Lily Cascade is at once approachable and inaccessible, a beautiful building without a door. One walks around it, seeing intriguing movements through the windows, always shut off from its secrets. Dense, knotty and abstract, its surface as blank as a pool of water, it calls to mind Adorno's conception of high modernism, an enigmatic, plastic form which confronts its social context with its own alien impenetrability.
Pure Water Construction is similar but completely different (that paradox again). The premise has shifted, and this makes for a new focus in the music. This time, it seems, Archer has allowed a single solo improvisation to substantially structure each of the five main sections (there is an introduction which seems to be more of a studio cut-up). These improvisations were then taken away and given the studio treatment (by both Archer and Fell), following their logic but developing it with edits from other improvisations and electronic manipulations and re-orchestrations.
It starts -- after a wonderfully hectic "Part 0" which sounds like, but of course isn't, a group improvisation -- with tubist Robin Hayward. His steam-train textures, overlaid with bells, motors which sound like running water and odd tapping sounds manages to hold the imagination for a good seven minutes before he moves into more conventional, note-based territory.
Contributions from Chris Burn, Rhodri Davies, Jenni Molloy and Stefan Jaworzyn follow; each piece sounds incontrovertibly like its originator, and as one listens one really begins to get a sense of what Archer and Fell have achieved here. Keeping the integrity of each performance, they have transformed it into an impossibly sophisticated composition; a result which would be nigh-on impossible, anyway, using either composition or improvisation alone. Fell even crowbars in one of his trademark serialist jazz heads ("Part 3"), but on the whole the feel is similar to that of Ghost Lily Cascade, brooding, sombre and restless below the surface, with less in common with jazz than with electroacoustic composition. As a result of its methodology, however, the music on this disk is much closer to the familiar models of free improvisation than its predecessor. That, though, might just make it even more subversive in the face of all those improv purists who look on the studio somewhat as members of the Temperance Association used to regard the local pub.
wanting to make too much of the Freudian angle, the metaphor of a body of standing water
comes up too often to be ignored. Of course, it has many connotations -- its secrecy (how
deep is it?), its hidden threat (drowning, lurking Loch Ness monsters), its blankly
reflecting surface on which one can only project one's own image, transformed by its own
movement. These connotations may lead Freudian readers into flights of fancy about
Narcissus, and our relation as listeners to this music might be likened to the
psychoanalytic Narcissus gazing into the reflecting pool; it may just be that the
acousmatic influence is strong here, and composers in that area tend towards images of
before nature and absorption into it. Whatever your preference, these are two beautiful,
well-played, conceptually rich disks which come highly recommended.
You will find reviews of several other disks featuring Rhodri Davies and Simon H Fell on the CD Review Index page (use your browser's "search in page" facility to find them).