John Wall

Utterpsalm / CD3

John Wall / analoue synthesizer, piano, sampler, John Edwards / double bass, Peter Shepperd / violin, David Fitzgerald / cello, Guy Cowley / clarinet, Philip Shepperd / cello, Jorg Widman / bass clarinet.

I hesitate to tell you this but, despite appearances from the line-up, this is a suite of sampler-based compositions. I hesitate because one of the wonderful things about listening to this disk is its trompe l’oreille synthesis of such organic music that one can hardly believe it is not being performed in real time. Which is not to say, of course, that improvisation gives one access to some ineffable something from which composition is always excluded — this recording is proof that such ideas are nonsense. It’s just that avant garde electronic composition can often feel stilted, even awkward, in a way that improvisation much less often does.

Describing how the music sounds is more tricky. To create it, Wall has used samples from recordings by some 34 different musicians, composers or groups, including modernists, free improvisers, minimalists and out-rock outfits. The pieces here can sound like any and all of these things at once, although the latter pair of genres much less so than the former on all but one track, “Distil”, a study in dissonant ostinato figures punctuated occasionally by a drum-machine snare/bass drum combination reminiscent of industrial music. Wall has also extensively sampled the credited musicians and used their own playing to give shape to his compositions — a contributing factor, surely, to the fine logicality of the whole thing, particularly given the involvement of the hugely talented John Edwards.

Perhaps one comparison might be very superior film music, in the use of post-war classical figurations, but also in the music’s tendency to set up an idea, pursue it for a relatively short time and then cut to something else. The ideas are not episodic, but the superficial mood shifts, sometimes quite radically, at fairly regular intervals. Neither jump-cuts nor fumbles, these changes represent a genuinely filmic imagination, a series of different scenes through which a single narrative is threaded.

In this way, Wall can have his cake and eat it; there are sections which would be impossible in group improvisation, but the stale one-man-and-his-cursor feel of some electronica is leavened by more than just a few sampled licks. I have the impression, for example, that whole chunks of John Edwards’ thought processes have given shape to these works as much as have Wall’s own considerable talents. Like a desert cactus, this may be prickly and not conventionally pretty stuff, but for all that — indeed, because of it — it’s genuinely beautiful. Richard Cochrane