Unpreparing Not To Fail

Swedish composer and keyboard maestro Alex Zethson here leading the Alex Zethson Ensemble on Some Of Them Were Never Unprepared (THANTOSIS PRODUKTION THT8 / RELATIVE PITCH RECORDS RPR1130), a suite in two parts…besides himself and Karin Ingves on piano, we have three guitarists, two basses, two cellists, two violins (including the great Anna Lindal)…plus Andreas Hiroui Larsson on percussion.

Zethson has an interesting compositional plan here, something to do with blurring of edges and confounding our expectations…the particular effect he’s seeking after is when a small ensemble of musicians all play very simple (but very precisely-composed) musical figures together in unison, and keep on doing so for a very long time. After a while the sonorities and instruments are supposed start to blend and mix in unexpected ways, until nobody in the room is quite sure who is playing what, nor how the emerging sounds are being created. In the mostly-acoustic situation that the Ensemble find themselves in, this supposedly resulted in a degree of confusion and wonder as the players experienced themselves bleeding into each other. In this musical equivalent of a Vulcan mind-meld, Zethson acknowledges that it’s difficult for the musicians, it requires a high degree of concentration for them, yet the results – he hopes – include “a sense of focussed openness to the listener, providing a space to be in”. Apparently he’s already tried this method on a solo record Pole Of Inaccessibility from 2016, where he did it solo with a piano (and some spare use of a Korg synth) across two CDs.

Superficially, I suppose these constantly-repeated short motifs all bonded closely together in a tight-knit framework may remind us of the music of Steve Reich, but it’s probably just a resemblance. For one thing, Alex Zethson adds a slightly syncopated rhythm to the whole thing, one that gathers force on side two, perhaps reflecting his sometime membership of the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra. A not-unpleasant balmy mood is evoked by these mesmerising patterns, and the players all deliver exceptional performances, but Some Of Them… falls well short on its promise of being transformative. The musical tones remain very ordinary, they don’t really achieve the intended blurring or change, however much the point may be hammered into our heads, and the composition does not develop into any kind of meaningful outcome. One senses that Zethson might be too tightly controlled by his own rules, refusing to let go somewhere; you can certainly feel the players attempting to spread their wings, especially the violins on side two, but they keep bumping their heads on the cage of the compositional structure.

Puzzling cover photo was found in a museum in Stockholm. Available as LP and CD. From 30th September 2021.