The Hardest Route in the World

Quiet Ascent (BHR 007) is credited to Bill Thompson and Matthew Sansom and is the latest limited-edition cassette release on Bill’s Burning Harpsichord Records label, and I think the cassette version offers a lengthy bonus track along with two extremely long performance pieces. To begin with they both play the Moog Guitar, which is enough of a peculiarity – if I’ve understood Bill correctly, these aren’t exactly very common instruments, and require a good deal of maintenance once you own one.

With ‘The Voice Of Stones’, a 36-minute meditation on a “lithoid” theme which might serve very well next time you go and sit in an ancient monument in the English countryside for two days, we do find our way to the familiar long-form drone of great sweetness and harmony which I normally associate with Bill Thompson’s excellent works, but it starts out with some snippety-choppy single note guitar scratchings in the abstract (Franz Kline painting expressed through guitar strings) that is cut from quite a different kettle. It’s a very suitable opening gambit to a conference, where the housekeeping rules are set and fire alarm drill is given out, before we settle in for the keynote speech. The serene drone mono-hum large-scale air sculpture which follows doesn’t exactly stay in one place, and its slow rise-and-fall movements, along with its tilting angles and elevated verticals, gives the impression of a large modern building, a surprisingly comfortable one, which also happens to be a living and breathing entity. Let your sojourn here in this white concrete tower take you as high into the clouds as you can safely manage without aid of oxygen apparatus. There’s one form of “quiet ascent” for you right there…

The opening cut is 24:21 mins of ‘Into Light’. Again the opening moments permit a certain amount of steely racket and scrape from one of the stringed monsters lying flat on the table, before opening up into a cosmic vacuum tube or tunnel into unknown zones. I never heard a performance from Bill (be it solo or collaborative) where this tremendous sense of wonder and amazement did not manifest itself right from the start. He often seems genuinely enchanted by the magical realms which can be opened up by true art, perhaps because of his ability to compose in the moment; the many unexpected changes in mood and direction of ‘Into Light’, even in the first 5-6 minutes, are quite breath-taking. And, as above, it seems the pairing with Sansom is adding a certain amount of metallic roughage and audible string action into the regular synthesised drone painting, bringing much textural detail.

This release is contextualised with a short quote about the spirit, an exhortation to “fall never away from its stillness”, which is attributed to Hermes; I’d like to think this is Hermes Trismegistus, the mystical figure said to be the author of the 17 texts that comprise the Corpus Hermeticum (a body of work I’m not familiar with, despite my interest in alchemical emblems and texts). If Thompson and Sansom have used this quote in the same way Eno used his Oblique Strategies, then the gambit has paid off on this release. Be sure to check out the video of ‘In Convergence’, a live performance and art installation from 2016, which is also part of this record. From May 2022.