Review: Another British Invasion!?

Laurie Radford, Computer Music Journal, no. 22:4, December 1, 1998

Another British invasion!? UK electroacoustic composers over the past several decades have been actively focused on fortifying the compositional and theoretical foundations and potential for acousmatic art music through high standards of teaching, production and performance. The works of Wishart, Emmerson, Lewis, Barrett, Stollery and Smalley are heard worldwide on concert programs and their ideas and writings have appeared in scholarly publications with increasing frequency. Jonty Harrison, based in Birmingham [UK], is among these talented and dedicated individuals who have taken up the cause of musique concrète, écoute réduite (reduced listening), and objet sonore (sound object) along with other aspects of the work pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer and the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) in the 50’s and 60’s. They appear to have set themselves the task of profoundly expanding the limits of this art as well as establishing and re-evaluating the means of discussion and analysis for an art form which often suffers from a lack of shared terminology and theoretical principles.

The sound world of Jonty Harrison is that of rich source materials scrutinized for all perceptible attributes and subsequently submitted to an array of transformations. These transformations push the materials further and further from their source while at the same time imbuing the new compositional context with timbral and gestural cohesion. In fact, it is remarkable to listen to the selections on this 1996 release, Articles indéfinis, which span seventeen years and hear such coherence and consistency of purpose, style and technique. In the words of his colleague, Denis Smalley, Jonty Harrison’s music is “volatile in its agitation, its wayward energies, the restlessness of its short-breathed phrases, the unpredictable pushing and shoving of its gestures, its punchy presence, its elegantly controlled aggressiveness.” As Smalley also points out in the introduction of the accompanying booklet, the fact the Harrison is the Director of, and a frequent performer with the Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), the multichannel acousmatic potential of his materials is always a primary consideration in their choice and compositional placement. This is a music of careful craftsmanship, an etching and molding of objects and textures, a control of motion, speed, direction and distance, a “listening inside sounds… which can give rise to new external(ized) musical forms.”

Pair / Impair (1978) is the oldest work presented on the disc and offers an appropriate introduction to Harrison’s origins. In the form of an extended study in electroacoustic transformational techniques, in a similar vein as Parmegiani’s De Natura Sonorum (1975), Pair / Impair is a search for balance and equilibrium between opposites. There is a supple elasticity to Harrison’s approach to time in this as in all of his work: one moment his objects flutter and rebound, are dashed against one another, explode and recombine; a suddenly, they halt and hover, frozen in textural and timbral configurations, only to give way in due time to further perturbations.

… et ainsi de suite… (1992) is a substantial, ultra-refined study in creating a lot from a little. Here the source material originates with soundsd elicited from some rough-textured wine glasses which are subsequently submitted to a gamut of extreme transformations and re-transformations, producing in the end a work of vast gestural and timbral diversity. Yet once again, a sense of unified character and direction is achieved via the frequent dialogue between original source material and the many levels of mutation and recombination Harrison employs. Eleven movements of varying duration present elements of exposition, parenthesis, commentary and recapitulation as we follow the attacks and resonance of the glass sounds through time-stretching, pitch shifting, truncation, and a myriad of textural constructions. Unsound Objects (1995) continues this compositional path while increasing the element of ambiguity “evoked when recognition and contextualization of sound material rub shoulders with more abstracted (and abstract) musical structures.” Swirling flashes of highly processed sound frequently lead the listener to the initial sounds sources such as walking on granular materials, falling rain, and the electroacoustic archetypal opening of a creaky door. The pendulum-like alternation sets up a sense of global rhythm within which “interconnections and multiple levels of meaning proliferate.”

The final two works on Articles indéfinis arise from the gestural properties of air. In Aria (1988), subtle connections between the frequency and velocity trajectories of gusts of air and the inner workings of the human vocal mechanism are explored. Ascending and descending flourishes, which constantly increase or decrease in speed, are anchored by slowly evolving spectral complexes. One has the impression of the simultaneous presentation of several temporal levels which control and guide the listener in appreciating the unfolding of rich and evocative timbral transformations. Hot Air (1995) is concerned on one level with further implications of the concept of air (balloons, breath, heat). But it goes further in its conceptual base in drawing upon the idea of air as the propagator of sound itself and the resulting association of linkage from one sound to another. The most extreme examples of combinating unprocessed environmental recordings with radically transformed sound materials (often of these same original field recordings) to be found on the disc are at work in Hot Air. The iterative cracklings of a roaring fire, the explosive imagery of claps of thunder, the squeaking of rubber balloons, and the overhead squawking of geese, to name just a few natural sound phenomena which are used, are combined, alternated and linked with sinuous, angular and often granular-like transformed materials in an interplay of timbral and metaphorical exchanges.

Harrison’s music is a feast for the ear. It is decisively concerned with timbre, or to use Smalley’s term, spectromorphological design. Its premise and source is the rich inherent spectral and gestural character of natural sound from which models for exploration and extension arise. The works on this disc were produced at the studios of the GRM, GMEB, and the Universities of Birmingham and East Anglia and have garnered Jonty Harrison awards from Ars Electronica, Musica Nova and the ICMA.

Harrison’s music is a feast for the ear.

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