Games People Play

The Four Thing LP (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR 290) is a highly unusual art-record of songs created according to the rules of a complex game. Zach Phillips, the prolific New England musician and song-writer, is the main driving force behind this creation, credited with music, direction, and recording; to give the record its full title, it’s “Four Groups Of Four Songs With Words”, and the credited writers are Jeremy Daly (of Lou Breed), Quentin Moore (of Big French, Heat Wilson and Martyr Group), Hanna Novak, and Christine Schneider. They crafted the “libretto” to this avant-garde “opera”, which is sung by Becca Kauffman, Ben Russell, Sami Stevens and Colin White. These are new names to me, but I see Sami Stevens is also part of Tredici Bacci and has sung backup vocals for Gary Wilson, no less.

None of the songs on Four Thing have any titles, and are only identified by their timings. This is unusual, given the large amount of verbiage per square metre contained in these songs. It’s almost too much to follow. It’s a delicious jumble of tasty words, sung and delivered with precision and care by the four vocalists, with never a slurred line – but moving a shade too quickly for us to process. This decoding problem is compounded by the absence of a conventional song structure – no four beats to the bar, no verse-chorus form, no repetitions, or any of the other devices that a pop song writer would use to hammer the point into our heads. Instead, it’s more like a stream of consciousness. Further twists follow. If these songs are stories with characters, it’s very hard to tell who is speaking (or thinking) at any given time; men and women may trade dialogue back and forth, but in this post-modern schema there is little clarity as to the tale, or its meaning. While some of the lines resemble mysterious modernist poetry, while other lines are packed with American slang, and four-letter words pop out in unexpected places. Something of a tension between high-brow and low-brow which we don’t encounter much in modern composition, save for the work of Harry Partch, which this record did make me think of more than once.

It would be one thing for four vocalists to recite these texts like fractured poetry, but to add to our entertainment and wonder it is expressed in song form, and Zach Phillips has put much effort in creating these compacted, non-linear gems of anti-pop music, exhibiting those skills of his we love so much. The voices are the main element, but each song is accompanied by a guitar (sometimes a banjo) played with the effortless grace of a Kenny Burrell, and many tunes occupy a nether world between jazz, pop, country and western and soul music. If it weren’t for the clipped and mannered delivery of the vocals, we could almost be hearing a schematic post-punk rendition of the Halls and Oates catalogue.

Many of the above traits we have previously discerned in the songs of Zach Phillips, and also in the music of Chris Weisman, a friend and collaborator who provided the press notes for this release. Even these notes are unconventional, with Weisman clutching at phrases such as “some unholy chug of gem crashes in the popping by below” in his attempt to describe the process behind this record. He seems to liken it to a computer program. As indicated above, the composition process is based on a game called Four Thing, whose rules are printed on the back cover. I won’t attempt to summarise it, but it’s a highly cerebral memory game or guessing game, one with as many forking paths as a Borges story. Success in this game clearly depends on the players being quite good friends and also of a very intellectual bent. I can see how it would ruin more marriages than the post-mortem after a bad game of bridge, if not handled carefully.

Quentin Moore and Zach Phillips devised this game. It’s not clear to me how we get from this game to the record in question, but I think I can see how the game represents an attempt to lose creative control, to free the artistic mind to go places it normally wouldn’t. I would liken it to a surrealist game, but on the face of it there appears to be no interest in probing the subconscious mind, regardless of how dream-like and uncanny the finished work may be. At this point I’m reminded of the works of Alessandro Bosetti, another gifted conceptualist who is likewise preoccupied with words, and who sets up similar game-like structures for his compositions. A very impressive tour de force. From 18th October 2016.

7th June update: Zach Phillips writes to inform us that “Sarah Smith and Quentin Moore and I devised the game — in that order ! I contributed the least to the invention of the game . would be cool to include Sarah if you don’t mind . thank ye !”

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