Today we’re listening to …until…, Perth guitarist Jameson Feakes‘ debut solo release on Tone List. Both the artist and the label are new to me and to Cut And Run, so I approached the music with something of a blank slate – a refreshing change from the (enjoyable) weight of familiarity and expectation of the last review of Idea Fire Company. The album consists of Feakes’ performance of 3 longer works and 2 shorter ones composed by a variety of artists, some of whom our readers are likely familiar with.
The opening eponymous track is composed by Clarence Barlow and features use of an EBow. Your mileage may vary with the sound of such a device. The timbre has always settled a little close to uncanny valley for my taste (it often sounds like a cheap keyboard’s ‘eerie’ synth or string sample), with the trade-off being its tonal and timbral purity in comparison to a traditional horsehair bow. One of its other features is to allow a very precise degree of control over amplitude and its accentuation of overtones; both of which, to his credit, Feakes uses deftly across the piece.
[UPDATE: According the the label, the guitar on this piece is not played with an EBow, but rather ‘plucked, attenuated by a volume pedal and with a delay line’. Apparently, the techniques sound very similar to my ears! Whatever the case, it’s effective….]
I thought I was unfamiliar with Barlow’s work, until I realized that another version of this very piece appears on Manuel Zurria’s excellent (albeit foolishly titled) Loops4Ever. For the sake of comparison you can listen to both below. After revisiting this earlier version, it is obvious Barlow had a very particular timbral range in mind which an EBowed guitar complements perfectly. Despite my reservations about the device, and the rather vast aesthetic differences, I will concede that I prefer Feakes’ interpretation to Zurria’s – the pace and meter of this recording are particularly complementary to its composition.
The structure of ‘…until…’ is also worth addressing. In the course of taking notes on the over 19 minute work, I found that my early reflections directly contradicted those towards the end. Some scrubbing revealed why – while there is a theme in E major loosely based around E-B-G# that is consistently strayed from and returned to over the opening minutes, the key (if you can call it that) microscopically strays to higher and increasingly dissonant notes across its length. What starts as a simple if pretty melody slowly builds into a rather off-kilter balance between two keys. As on Zurria’s version there is constant drone through the piece, albeit here much softer. Particularly interesting, and here is where the aforementioned overtones of the EBow play an important role, is that the drone in E not only moves back and forth between being played as a primary note and as an overtone, but also pitches up to F much later than the rest of the composition. As a result the middle section of ‘…until…‘ feels quite anxious, with something of a resolution only in the last 3 minutes. All in all, a powerful opening piece.
Next up, on either side of another longer work, are two preludes by Eva-Maria Houben: ‘Prelude XII’ and ‘Prelude IX’. Feakes here employs his guitar in a simple acoustic manner. As with much of Houben’s excellent (and expansive) repertoire, spaces between notes play as much of a role as the notes themselves. I am careful to avoid the word ‘silence’ as the strongly amplified recording means that Feakes’ hand motions, shifts in stance, and even a distant crow, all do their part to fill those spaces. Houben’s work is certainly no stranger to this space or our show, and while there is nothing particularly revelatory about these two pieces in particular, their quiet and intimate brevity work as a refreshing shift in the aesthetics between the longer works on the album.
My reactions to ‘A Window In Sicily’, composed and with additional performance by Josten Myburgh, have varied over the course of several listens, and I’m not sure they’ve come to settle in any one particular place. Opening with, and twice returning to, a field recording ostensibly from a window on a street in Sicily, the piece wanders between acoustic and treated guitar, electronics and field recordings. The palette of sound is easily my favourite on the album, with the more decisive electronic textures (particularly midway through) providing a welcome counterpoint to the wobbly dynamics of the opening and closing tracks. It ranges significantly in amplitude as well, adding peaks and troughs of interest, and so in a manner similar to ‘…until…’ it fades in and out of the listener’s focus.
On my first listen, not speaking (what I must assume to be) Sicilian and unsure of whether either Feakes or Myburgh do either, I was worried that the main field recording was dabbling in Exoticism. We deal with a lot of field recording in our various contributions to this site and radio program, and all of us have mixed feelings about its use and frequent misuse. It could be that not knowing the words spoken across many minutes of the work force the (non-Sicilian speaking) listener to take them at their sonic face-value – as just another instrument contributing to the soundscape of the work. In this case, the heavily punctuated vocals, repeated phrases, and lyrical shouts, all offer a nice contrast to the electronics and guitar of Myburgh and Feakes, who tend to elicit slow droning phrases. On the other hand, its sheer aesthetic and cultural difference from the rest of the work, while certainly not appropriative, may only be presented in the interest of signifying an exciting otherness. I’m not aware of the artists’ intentions with its use, and it stands as a dynamic counterpoint to the synthetic elements of the work, but it may sit uncomfortably or arbitrarily in the composition for some.
To ‘A Window In Sicily’s’ credit, there are moments, particularly towards the last 5 minutes, where the mood of the field and tonal qualities of the instruments begin to complement one another instead of conflict. After several listens this transition from collision to collusion contributed to a sense of narrative arc and building of familiarity. I suppose that is an apt comparison for my reaction to the work. It’s certainly the one I’ve revisited the most and I would be curious to hear more from other listeners and the artists themselves.
Last is ‘Traced Over’ by James Bradbury. The compositional method is promising, “with a computer revoicing and replaying bowed guitar improvisations moments after they occur. The improviser (Feakes) is obliged to respond to the computer’s additions and their interactions with live sound…’. Unfortunately, the resulting work feels uninspired. The textural range is fairly muted, with little of timbral interest added by what essentially amounts to a wonky delay pedal. There are also frequent passages of seemingly random digital squelch that bring back unfortunate memories of the old ‘acoustic instrument + Max/MSP’ motif that was horribly abused in the mid 2000s. Instead of providing an interesting catalyst, the squirrelly ‘revoicing’ quickly becomes tedious and mostly antagonizes and overpowers Feakes’ muted responses. A disappointing track to end an otherwise rather graceful work.
All in all, …until… is a strong debut solo album – and I emphasize both ‘strong’ and ‘debut’. Jameson Feakes has a good ear for rendering modern composition on his instrument of choice, and his interpretation of the title track is downright inspired. The range of work on display is diverse without sounding incongruous, and his control of tonality and delivery is in abundant evidence, particularly alongside Myburgh’s electronics on ‘A Window In Sicily’. On the other hand, it frequently sounds like in his effort to do the compositions justice, he loses track of the importance of texture. The majority of his contributions to the album occupy the center of the frequency range and use a very similar dynamic envelope (long on all 4 – attack, sustain, decay, release), resulting in an overall aesthetic that is matte and subdued. Given the collection of works, it’s obvious that the narrow focus of this approach is intentional; but artists like Tetuzi Akiyama and Luigi Archetti prove that explorations of stillness can still be performed with resolve and pluck, alongside great care for the fragility of the sound of guitar strings. I would look forward to the results of his playing with a bit less reserve and a wider timbral range.
Worth listening to and a promising start for his future work, …until… is available digitally and on CD directly from Tone List.