Managed Decline

Ed Williams here with Decomposition Study (INSUB RECORDS insub.rec.cd23) …this young European is not just a composer, but also classically trained guitarist and harpsichord player, currently operating in Marseilles and Basel. It’s good to see their work appear on this Swiss label, increasingly becoming a platform for experimental modernist composition as well as free improvisation, though always guided by what I perceive is a preference for minimalism.

Williams is preoccupied with “decay”, at least that is one of their lines of compositional enquiry, and it’s a strong theme which for them may contain notions about the decay of society itself. Perhaps if they can compose a musical event which vividly demonstrates the decaying process, then the rest of society – from politicians to disaffected citizens – will sit up and take note. Certainly today’s 42:56 minute piece is an intense statement, however slow and subdued it may be. Recorded at the Hochshule in Basel, the first thing to note is the unusual instrument – called an ‘arciorgano’, a beast which I never heard of before. Johannes Keller wrote a fascinating article about it in 2006. Two manuals, powered by bellows, but it manages to achieve 36-key octaves, I think by the clever expedient of splitting the black keys into two separate parts. This enables playing of notes in more pitches than usual; it may bring us closer to the dream of “just intonation” as promulgated by La Monte Young and Tony Conrad, yet the system for this instrument was proposed in 16th century, not by 20th-century New Yorkers. Nicola Vicentino wrote his treatise in 1555, leading to the construction of this unusual organ.

So far so good – I already admire the musical brain brave enough to want to engage with this wooden monster, but Ed Williams takes things a stage or two further with their compositional scheme. While Christoph Schiller and Anna-Kaisa Meklin play the work, four other musicians are working hard to disrupt it. They tamper with the supply of air, sometimes increasing it, sometimes cutting it off. These actions start to affect the music in real time, giving unexpected hurdles (I assume) to the players. Ed Williams and their team are thus referred to as “enzymes”; in his view, they are imitating the behaviour of cellular micro-organisms, as observed in the process of decay. Or, specifically, something which the biologists call “autolysis”, a very specific stage in the digestion process. Yes, it took us a while, but we finally got to explaining the Decomposition theme…aesthetically, Ed Williams is proposing music that is in a continual state of creation and re-creation, de-composed by the players, and re-composed by the audience when heard. If scaled up to the proportions of a societal critique, the music is potentially a very useful metaphor for where we’re at in our advanced stages of late capitalism. I shan’t say that Williams means we’re all eating each other alive, but there is a more subtle action and agency at work, probably invisible to us for the most part, especially as modernism seems to require we adopt the motto “everything’s fine” and “all progress is good”. Perhaps Ed Williams is trying to reveal something, a subtle form of cautionary tale about modern life.

Can I also add, it’s exceptionally beautiful music, and a delight to hear this unusual organ brought to life in this vivid fashion. From 20th January 2023.

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