Composition No. 62

SIMON H. FELL  Compostion No. 62

[full press reviews]


"As a composer, Fell applies serialism with an enthusiasm and relish which hasn't been heard since the advent of minimalism, when it was declared a dead dog. In Fell's work this dead dog proceeds to gnaw at accepted practice and compositional cliché with a rabid intensity that many listeners find shocking. The challenge is to get modern compositions played with the emotional commitment and trenchancy of jazz, and in this Fell excels; by going right into the complexitudes of Stockhausen's sixties composition and applying what he's learnt to the jazz of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Henry Mancini, Fell has arrived at something completely new. This jaunty, speculative, bright music - with its sudden squishes, collapses and crises - is actually the dirty truth you've been trying to find in the dodgy grunge you love so much." Ben Watson RESONANCE FM

"What to make of Simon H. Fell, the Northern English contrabass improviser who, over the last decades, has quietly made some of the most challenging music out there? Specifically, why is it that his profile remains so frustratingly low? There's certainly nothing passive or particularly quiet about his music itself. And the idioms in which he works - everything from gum-bleeding free jazz to post-serialist composition - are ones widely appreciated. Maybe it's because Fell's music, which just as frequently sits at the intersection of these musics rather than exploring them one at a time, is so damn detailed. Every few years, Fell releases one of his massive long-form compositions which, like his masterwork Composition 30, incorporates a dizzying range of influences and instrumental groupings into a single piece. Composition 62 explodes, bubbling and rippling with details that cumulatively knock you back on your earhole. It's as if Fell notated the first moments in the existence of some universe whose fundamental property was sound itself, examining its richness from every possible angle. Over 50 musicians are on board here, drawn from chamber and new music, electronics, rock, and free improvisation (the latter are the best known of the players, including saxophonist Evan Parker, clarinetist Alex Ward, and violinist Phillip Wachsmann). There are moments when the individuals break out and play memorably (Ward's clarinet and Fell's own bass playing are killer), but what really makes Fell's so-called fourth stream compositions so compelling is the marriage of quite different musicians. Not unlike the spirit of Derek Bailey's Company Week, Fell favors odd combinations of style and sensibility; they're couched in often very rigorous structure, which makes Fell's approach distinct. What's here can be almost impossibly dense and, especially over the course of nearly 80 minutes, extremely difficult to digest. But against all expectations the music hangs together as a coherent, if multi-faceted statement. Brass fanfares, apocalyptic Messiaen-like percussion storms, reed arrangements poised at the intersection of Stan Kenton and Sun Ra, and calculus-core post-serialist insanity are shot through this thing. So too are howling metal guitars, rough patches of musique concrete, gorgeous moments of liquid electronic tranquility (which recall Jacques Dudon's exquisite pieces for homemade instruments), and - Fell's currently wacky obsession - a number of sections where he pursues a fusion of Henry Mancini and Karlheinz Stockhausen (yes, you read that right). There are no guarantees you'll hear it as I do, of course, but this man's music demands to be heard." Jason Bivins DUSTED

"In the age of the laptop and the small ensemble, sitting down to write a full-length piece of challenging no-concessions new music calling for nearly 60 musicians is a truly heroic endeavour, and indeed there's something decidedly epic about Compilation IV, Simon Fell's "quasi-concerto for clarinet(s), improvisers, jazz ensemble, chamber orchestra and electronics". Like Anthony Braxton, Fell sees his compositions as, if not exactly interpenetrable, parts of a larger work in progress, and each of his Compilations "reflects upon ideas formulated, techniques developed and musical relationships forged since the previous one", the reference works here being 1999's Thirteen Rectangles and the series of Gruppen Modulor pieces that featured on the excellent Red Toucan outing Four Compositions. The soloist in the quasi-concerto is once again Alex Ward, one of a growing number of top-notch instrumentalists who are equally adept at handling the difficulties of a fully notated score and improvising freely - and superbly. But he's not alone: Fell's band includes, as you'd expect, the cream of the crop of British free improvisers including Evan Parker, Clive Bell, Mick Beck, Steve Noble and Phil Wachsmann (to name but five). Though he favours generic numbers for his compositions instead of fancy titles, Fell isn't averse to giving a few clues away when it comes to naming individual movements. The references to Gruppen, Karlheinz Stockhausen's three orchestra post-serial masterpiece from 1957, are evident enough, and Lydian Panels is a clear nod to George Russell (who, like Fell, has never shied away from the large ensemble form: his Electronic Sonata and The African Game are spiritual godfathers to Compilation IV). The Harrison of Harrison's Blocks is (Sir) Harrison Birtwistle, of course, but the title also refers to one of Birtwistle's own works, the 1998 piano solo Harrison's Clocks. The combination of serialism and swing might suggest a slight return to Third Stream - and the sudden appearance of walking bass and ride cymbals in Harrison's Blocks 1 is something of a shock at first - but forty years on from Schuller and Lewis's pioneering if occasionally wooden fusion, Fell handles stylistic pluralism with absolute mastery and a sense of humour (not a cynical postmodern one at that). "What would it sound like if Henry Mancini had arranged the soundtrack for a Hollywood biopic of Karlheinz Stockhausen?" he muses. Stockhausen Mancini Head is the answer, and even if you think you know what it might sound like, I promise you it's better than your wildest expectations. If Papa Zorn had penned this you'd have heard about it double quick, make no mistake. Despite the aggressive modernist positioning, the sliding tempo scales, block substitutions and retrograde inversions, there's nothing dry and fusty about Fell's music: B.J. Cole's pedal steel guitar on Lydian Panels 2 is absolutely gorgeous, and it's followed by the slinkiest, sexiest soprano sax Evan Parker's ever recorded on Mancini Gruppen. Great performances abound throughout: Paul Jackson is impressive on piano (though you'd better check the track listing from time to time, because Matthew Bourne also gives the ivories one hell of a workout on Interlude 2: Quartet - imagine Tristano crossed with Cecil), Mick Beck plumbs the depths of the double bassoon on Contrabassoon Concertino Construct (and for once makes the beast sound like the great musical instrument it is instead of a bowel movement), Clive Bell contributes some typically elegant spacious shakuhachi on Lydian Panels 3, and powering it all forward with either baton or bass in hand is Fell himself. Compilation IV is as good a place as any for newcomers to Simon Fell's oeuvre, and seasoned SHF hands can quite simply not afford to be without it." Dan Warburton PARIS TRANSATLANTIC

"Composition No. 62 might be the best of the Compilation Series yet, and the ZFP Quartet disc is still another testament to the breadth of his improvisational vocabulary.  Both discs hinge and thrive on the tenuous relationship between composition and performance that underpins all improvised music, but Fell's rigor and humor bite at each other's heels, rendering his style and language instantly identifiable and, ultimately, verbally inexplicable. It would be relatively easy to get overabsorbed in Fell's accompanying notes to Composition No. 62.  He's dryly apologetic, fully cognizant of the fact that jazzers won't like the classical sections, and that devotees of contemporary composition will gawk at inherent imprecision.  How could it be otherwise?  The Compilation Series is predicated on the studio-manipulated juxtaposition of trans-temporal events, any overriding structural or soloistic concerns being subject to change over time, the way in which the liners justify the "quasi-concerto" appellation.  Fell is careful to caution the reader that his explanations are only for those that care about such things, and his list of influences is exhaustive, but there's something just a bit whimsical about the whole thing.  Each semi-autonomous moment involves layers of events which might cohere in something resembling linear fashion, even if the work's macrocosmic sections are designed to avoid it.  The crescendo leading away from Prelude is a beautiful example of short-form cohesion; it arises out of registral and timbral interplay, extremely high sounds in tug-of-war with rumbles and bursts of electronics until a gradual heightening encroaches on listener consciousness.  The sound builds, hangs poised, builds almost to intolerance and then comes crashing down.  It's a stunning moment that catches me unaware, no matter how many times I consciously wait for it.  I was struck by the muscular mayhem of Mick Beck's contributions to Contrabassoon Concertino Construct, but the album's a veritable stew of soloists, weaving their ways in and out of the loosely knit compositional fabric.  Especially noteworthy is a soprano solo by Evan Parker who, as the notes have it, plays Dolphy to Fell's Mingus, and Alex Ward's presence and influence is palpable throughout, but the line between soloist and orchestra is happily blurred.  Floating to the surface, at any given moment, might be a gob of pedal steel, a snippet of 1950s "light" jazz or, to quote an earlier Fell project's title, The Horrors of Darmstadt.  These are not simply momentary allusions, as they constitute huge slices of time in the dense work's 80 minutes.  Only in retrospect does the strange temporal flow of the music reveal its own terms.  As with Braxton's diverse output, or like waterskiing over Joyce's wake, it's intense listening that offers up its many rewards only with many hours of practice on the listener's part." Marc Medwin ONE FINAL NOTE

"Fell's efforts show an ability to combine trajectories and stylistic points of view: in Composition No. 62 (written for a large orchestra and several small units that wander about inside it, somewhat akin to, say, Ives' Fourth Symphony) one section (Stockhausen Mancini Head) came about after a rather Pythonesque (or Goonesque, depending on your generation) question was posed by somebody or other: "what would it sound like if Henry Mancini had arranged the music for a Hollywood biopic of Karlheinz Stockhausen?... and what would that sound like played backwards?" How one procures grant money from the Arts Council of Great Britain when promising to investigate such tonal queries, I haven't the foggiest, but we're all the better for their open-mindedness. For this alone Fell deserves the Nick Didkovsky Award for completely ignoring every category possible and impossible. Lengthy post-bop passages with querulous melodies, manic drumming and, yes, hot solos from Roland Ramanan's trumpet get the blood pumping (Harrison's Blocks 1) while the section after that (Lydian Panels 1) plies the borderlines between great underground masses of horns and a small group of clarinets whistling above them. Following this distant etude for squeezed/expanded ether, Mick Beck on the double bassoon offers a Contrabasson Concertino Construct (one flashes on Eric Dolphy's bass clarinet renditionss of God Bless The Child). You may well get the general idea. Fell has no patience for geniuses of whom some say (or who themselves say) they sprang full-grown from the forehead of Zeus. All music is made from other music, all things mutable. Frankly, that's as good a unified theme for a piece of music as any." Ken Egbert TONE CLUSTERS

"Trying to convene words for the countless ramifications of Simon Fell's music is certainly not an easy task; this is clearly evident listening to the extremely mercurial score of Composition No. 62 (subtitled Compilation IV). Gathering a monstrous mass of top virtuosos, the Leeds University Postgraduate Improvisation Ensemble and the Anglia Sinfonia directed by Paul Jackson, Fell goes deep down the meat with his slicing writing - corroborated by elegance and irony - in about 80 minutes of difficult performance where emphatic approximations, curious orchestral hybrids influenced by Stockhausen and Henry Mancini and swinging unconventional structures are set in motion by the author's extraordinary fantasy and executed by "la crème de la crème" of the most gifted improvisers around the house - we're talking Evan Parker, Clive Bell, Alex Ward, Philipp Wachsmann, Rhodri Davies, and the list goes on and on. This material is a veritable kaleidoscope of intuitions and hommages, with Fell tipping his hat both to "serious" contemporary music and to a more approachable, post-commercial nostalgia; everything's solidified in a classical sense of mystery and shines with a genuine love for complex orchestration. Simon shows his elegantly dissenting compositional skill seemingly without effort, just like if the responsibilities for the functioning of such a large group were only a secondary concern." Massimo Ricci TOUCHING EXTREMES

"A large ensemble compositional project in the realm of free improvisation. Complex sonic textures, carefully arranged passages and all manner of instruments (mainly acoustic) results in complex sound worlds where modern music compositional ideas and ambients are seamlessly blended with experimental noise and idiomatic phrasing." MODISTI

"Simon H. Fell is a singular presence in modern music. He combines different roles that serve others for entire careers: consummate jazz bassist, canny arranger, spiky improviser, record label honcho, experimental composer. Name any far-flung reach of contemporary music - rock, pop, dance, orchestral, electronica, folk, jazz - and he's got an opinion on it. His eyes gleam as he describes the musical effects he wants to achieve, almost always at variance with accepted practice and conventional procedure. And unlike many composers, he's more than willing to talk about the practical details of musical organisation. This may be because he knows that music is not simply a matter of writing the right dots on the score paper, but of harnessing the motivating passions of the musicians involved. He'll write scores for trained interpreters, but also tap into the free improvisation scene for musicians whose sound is all their own. Paradoxically, as college music departments broaden their syllabuses, this straitjacket tightens rather than loosens, with fashion reigning every bit as despotically as tradition in the past. Fell has no sympathy with the idea that innovation is about ignoring the past and inventing music from scratch. He adheres to only one school; that of his own musical predilection, an aesthetic militancy resembling a poet's ceaseless return to some formative image or childhood experience, and making his work very hard for journalists to map. It doesn't provide useful examples of any well-known genres, still less 'transgress' them in any marketable way, but it does give his music a singularity and unapologetic decisiveness that is unmatched. Fell's Compilation series is to most other music what the prose of James Joyce is to most other writing: so dense and detailed, it demands a completely new mode of listening. Interestingly enough, this hasn't been achieved by simple density on the written page, but by prolonged reflection on active music-making in a wide range of contexts - from jazz to noise rock, free improvisation to symphony orchestras. Fell has the satisfaction of a back catalogue of recordings that never for an instant doubted that great music arises by suggesting to brilliant players that they become even more brilliant throughout the duration of a piece. However, this rugged appraisal of what makes music doesn't stop there: there are also Fell's adventures in recording and editing that make most electronic music look starved of material. And perhaps the most exciting thing about Fell's dialectic between realtime playing and recording technology is that, despite the mighty monuments of the Compilation series already released, there seems to be no limit to what more might be achieved. We'll keep listening." Ben Watson DOUBLE BASSIST

"A massive project spanning two and one-half years, involving 57 musicians, and pieced from ten different performances given in UK and French cities. But make no mistake; the result is an integrated and seamless product. The integrated session is a quilt of many colors involving exceptionally strong playing by a host of musicians. The segments range from brooding melancholy to gleeful joy and allow Fell to inject improvised bass material into the advanced structure of the piece. Clarinetist and pianist Ward is a featured performer on many tracks; he shines with either Fell's notations or on the many freelance opportunities the composition affords. Fell's motivation for the composition is wide; he weaves in passages inspired, among others, by George Russell, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Henry Mancini. The Mancini section is novel; Fell's Stockhausen Mancini Head and Mancini Gruppen theorize on what a Stockhausen biopic movie theme by Mancini would be like. Fell captures to perfection the light Hollywood flavor built around more serious compositional material. Evan Parker makes a rousing tenor saxophone appearance on Gruppen Modulor 3a and solos soulfully on soprano on the second Mancini movement. Lydian Panels 3, the third Russell-inspired piece, is a lengthy exercise having pastoral overtones and serene implications. Soloists abound throughout the compilation and offer stirring improvisations that fold neatly into Fell's organizational formulae. The entire effort becomes a challenging work of art where shifts in concepts are the norm and mood swings a given." Frank Rubolino CADENCE

"Simon Fell, like Anthony Braxton, sees his compositions as parts of a larger work in progress, and Composition No. 62, an ambitious "quasi-concerto for clarinet(s), improvisers, jazz ensemble, chamber orchestra, and electronics" reflects upon ideas formulated, techniques developed, and musical relationships forged in 1999's Thirteen Rectangles and the Gruppen Modulor pieces on the Red Toucan release Four Compositions. Though he favors generic numbers for his compositions, Fell does give a few clues away when it comes to naming individual movements: Le Corbusier's Modulor and Karlheinz Stockhausen's 1957 orchestral masterpiece Gruppen are easy enough to spot, Lydian Panels is a clear reference to George Russell, and the Harrison of Harrison's Blocks is Sir Harrison Birtwistle (but the title also refers to Birtwistle's piano piece Harrison's Clocks). But despite the modernist positioning, there's nothing dry and fusty about the music. As well as soloist Alex Ward, Fell's band includes top-notch British free improvisers, including Evan Parker, Clive Bell, and Phil Wachsmann. Great performances abound, notably from the pianists Paul Jackson and Matthew Bourne as well as Mick Beck, who explores the depths of the double bassoon on Contrabassoon Concertino Construct. B.J. Cole's pedal steel guitar on Lydian Panels 2 is gorgeous, and is followed by the slinkiest, sexiest soprano playing Evan Parker has ever committed to disc on Mancini Gruppen. Throughout, Fell handles stylistic pluralism with mastery and humor. "What would it sound like if Henry Mancini had arranged the soundtrack for a Hollywood biopic of Karlheinz Stockhausen?" he muses. Stockhausen Mancini Head is the answer, and it's arguably Fell's finest work to date." Dan Warburton ALL MUSIC GUIDE

"There is something about bassists with gargantuan ideas, perhaps a subconscious reaction to their perceived limited (or at least largely supportive) place in the large ensemble. Think of Barry Guy, William Parker, and Alan Silva as three who have successfully orchestrated complex projects combining free improvisation and composition. Simon Fell is hardly new to the concept, having composed a large number of pieces for variously sized ensembles. Fell describes Composition No. 62, or what he also refers to as Compilation IV, as a collection of ideas and techniques he developed over the course of nearly two and one-half years, from 2002 to 2005, in which he recorded seventeen separate pieces spanning ten separate sessions. These pieces are not intended for casual listening, and are largely impossible to categorize, incorporating elements of jazz, classical music, and free improvisation. There are, in the aggregate, dozens of participants, numerous soloists, sandwiched and inspired by complicated rhythms and harmonies. Thankfully, Simon Fell includes extensive notes on each of the compositions, and a detailed listing of featured players on each track. Overall, the music is at times dark, brooding, dissonant, jazzy, and eclectic: a product of inspired genius. As with many demanding works, it requires focused attention to be appreciated and enjoyed. Fell emphasizes reeds in his writing, and a disproportionate portion of the solo improvisation comes from the magnificent clarinet of Alex Ward. On Gruppen Scale 1, an exchange between flute and clarinet is followed by a wild solo by Ward, and he continues his elastic technique on Gruppen Expression, jazzes it up on Harrison's Blocks 1, and offers brooding, high commentary on Oror Construct. The clarinetist offers a surprisingly supple jazz solo on piano on  Gruppen Modulor 3a, followed by an unusually jazz-inflected solo by Evan Parker on tenor sax. Fell's writing is often dense and thick, infused with little sounds (as on Lydian Panels 1), and impregnated with contrasts, one of his favorite techniques placing upper and lower register instruments together, beginning with the opening Prelude. Along the way there is some fine piccolo from Nancy Ruffer, riveting pedal steel guitar from B. J. Cole (especially on Lydian Panels 2), an impressive contrabassoon improvisation by Mick Beck on Contrabassoon Concertino Construct, and a humorously constructed  Stockhausen Mancini Head. Characteristically, Fell, who is a fine bassist, focuses on his writing rather than his playing, allowing others to do most of the soloing. Overall, it is an exhausting ride, and sometimes it may seem that the only common denominator tying it all together is that it was written by Simon Fell. For the patient listener, there are many rewards." STEVEN LOEWY

"In this work Fell more explicitly refers to the work of other composers and artists like Birtwistle, Mancini, George Russell, Stockhausen! To write such extensive works and not get lost in pointless complexity is an impressive job. As the first generation of European improvisors moved first from American styled jazz to completely improvised music, in a second phase they moved from improvised music to composed music, integrating composed music in the context of improvised music, or the other way around. This is the battlefield where Fell fights his musical adventures, making an essential contribution to European new music. Absolutely no doubt." Dolf Mulder VITAL WEEKLY


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