“You’re like a party, I heard through the wall.” — St. Vincent, 2011.
There is a fraying thread that separates true assimilation of an alien culture and mere appropriation of it.
Is tourism, or even tourism of the mind, a suitable fertiliser for the act of cross-breeding with forms of art outside one’s direct experience?
What, subconsciously, got me thinking about this was Fatima Al-Qadiri’s 2014 album Asiatisch, on which she uses her mind’s eye’s vision of China, coupled with the sensory overload actual images of the country have provided, to unwittingly alight upon the sound of sinogrime. But a deeper exploration of her unsettling art will have to wait for another day. Instead, I turn to three British releases of varying vintage.
It is 1982. Factory Records is beginning to lose its grasp over the indie kids. The output is relentlessly, unforgivingly austere, when all around them is colour and gaudiness.
A year earlier, Martin Hannett takes A Certain Ratio to New York City, their favoured haunt, and installs the band in a TriBeCa loft. His regime reigns supreme, but it is also supremely arrogant. Their debut is stilted, too upright.
This time round, the band ditches Hannett, takes another jaunt to NYC to seek inspiration, then returns to Cheshire and presses ‘record’. Improbably, they have soaked up a taste for funk, for rainforest percussion, and for fumbling sex. On Sextet, all that humidity and moisture is exhaled and spilt onto tape. The detuned horns sound querulous, like a flagging lover; guest vocalist Martha ‘Tili’ Tilson comes across like she is lurching in slow motion from the bed to the fire-escape. A near-continuous trickling of water lurks at the back of the mix.
On the centrepiece, “Knife Slits Water”, which is really just seven minutes of carnality explored through dangerous slap-bass and human and instrumental gurgling, the listener is transported into a terrifying dream-world halfway between the carnival and the riot. And yet, a track later, A Certain Ratio kill the mood with the most derivative product of their educational experience. “Skipscada”, which features scat, jungle mating calls, whistling and congas, is a little comic and a little dreary. The mask slips, a little.
Jack Barnett’s first LP at the helm of These New Puritans gave slight indications of how his then-nascent interest in ambience would blossom into full-on wrestling with modern classical music. Beat Pyramid was released in 2008 seconds after a certain wave (exemplified by Maximo Park’s A Certain Trigger and Klaxons’ Myths Of The Near Future) had crested. Songs bled into burbling interludes; snatches of static betrayed (or were sculpted into) glimpses of melody; certain songs swung between aggressive post-punk and passages of celestial beauty.
Barnett then explored other avenues on the second These New Puritans album, Hidden. The band morphed into a thumping drum-driven attack-force, with orchestral arrangements serving a more cinematic role. A recurring woodwind motif gave the album a morsel of ‘Nature’, but the emphasis was on angry sub-bass tones and the collision of the organic and the artificial.
Once he’d got that out of his system, Barnett returned to the music of the marshes on Field Of Reeds. Last time round he’d written in the style of Britten; this time, he wrote in the style of Britten’s (and his) birthplace. He looked deeper into the natural world, to the estuarine blank-space of Sussex and Essex, for inspiration, and alighted on textures and timbres slight and ephemeral, but capable of gouging out great chunks of emotion.
The band was formerly a post-punk quartet: on this album, there is not a single guitar.
Two considerations lift Field Of Reeds above pastiche or the work of a dilettante. One: remember that seeds were sown on Beat Pyramid, with the same fascination with dislocated sound being revived five years later. Two: Barnett’s compositional prowess progresses the debate in modern classical music, rather than merely lifting and shifting its building-blocks. Specifically, the way the lead trumpet and clarinet periodically intermingle the craziness of jazz, jarring with the murky ensemble backing.
I feel justified in predicting a majority of fans of Sam Shephard a.k.a. Floating Points are not also regular listeners of Jazz FM. “Post Suite” could be the most striking pose jazz has adopted in a decade, or it could be wholly unoriginal ersatz drowning in schmaltz. How can I know? The Arabic rhythms and Eastern strings in the first third are faintly problematic. But then the agglomeration of Fatima’s dusky murmurings, languid drumming and keening woodwind is so dizzying as to overcome the listener. Provenance and authenticity become unimportant. The final third, with its sepulchral lead saxophone and pacy three-time rhythms, ends on a querulous note. Perhaps the question is, if the stuff’s enjoyable, should its possible dilettantism really trouble me?