Coppice has long fascinated me. Their work is typically polished without sounding stuffy or aloof and subtly complex without indulgence or excess. So it is obviously with some interest that I approach what can be characterized as the duo’s mid-career pivot. Preamble to Newly Cemented Dedication to Freedom is, in addition to being a mouthful, a self-declared departure from their previous work. From their music, to their website, to their performances and promotional material – Coppice is making it clear that they are not merely changing instrumentation or aesthetics but overhauling their praxis. This album (and ostensibly their forthcoming material) is even afforded its own section on their site, titled New Foundation, distinct from their preceding output – a navigational separation representing the conceptual differences. While this small release certainly covers new ground, fortunately for the listener it still sounds distinctly like Coppice.
This transition has been a long time coming. Although releasing several works using their traditional bellows and electronics throughout 2016, Noé Cueller and Joseph Kramer have explored new compositional methods during their live performances at least since 2015. The music comprising the release itself dates back to October of last year, when it was first posted to YouTube. Changes to their online presence occurred over December and the 3″ CDr was released on Aposiopèse soon after. My rather late appraisal of this all is partly to allow some dust to settle, partly to take some time with the music, and partly because of procrastination – tackling a Coppice release has always felt a bit intimidating.
To the music then. The opening synthesizer lines on ‘Induction and Bifurcation’ hold a degree of melody rarely seen in Coppice’s library. Sections of Compound Form and Big Wad Excisions both have longer harmonic passages, but there the notes offer a degree of catharsis after longer sections of atonality and noise, particularly in the latter case. Here, the notes are abrupt and repeated in varying patterns. This gives them an evocative and anthemic air, challenging the listener instead of offering respite. The jittery static and bass delays further make for a restless listen. Being Canadian, I would be remiss if I didn’t quote Glenn Gould on the choice of key here: “[F minor is] rather dour, halfway between complex and stable, between upright and lascivious, between gray and highly tinted…There is a certain obliqueness.”
Coppice is no stranger to extended technique, or allowing incidental sound to seep into their music. Their use of bellows is a classic example, where the wheezing and clacking of the device itself contributed as much to the result as the tones it generated (Holes-Tract is full of examples of this). However, across Preamble… we have an entirely different facture. There are numerous instances of the obvious (shameless?) use of delay lines and abrupt changes in oscillation speed, lending a much more hands-on feel to the sound – explaining the trick as they perform it, so to speak. Coppice’s music has always sounded purposeful, but the techniques in use here are more pointed and acute than previous works. My first impression is of an approach to that sparsely populated middle ground between contemporary electronic (dance or otherwise) and experimental practices. On the one hand, labels like The Triology Tapes are working towards that space in reverse, often with dismal results. On the other hand are artists working towards a similar goal but coming from more esoteric practices – labels like Entr’acte and even artists like Lorenzo Senni are noteworthy in their success on that front.
Part of the reason such overt machinations work here without sounding clunky or cloying is that Coppice are still very exacting in their practice. Preamble… is rife with small details, such as the opening 6 seconds of silence on ‘Induction and Bifurcation’ (accompanied in the video with 6 seconds of black before the image appears) which leads the listener to a double-take, even after repeated listens. Or the barely audible voice (with a British accent?) that appears for the first 28 seconds of ‘Sucked In’, possibly marking the first use of vocals in their discography. Another reason this more acute approach works for them is their continued attention to texture. While flirting with the structural forms of electronic music, beat science and even IDM, these are not tracks produced in Ableton. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great program for what it does. Furthermore, lowering the barrier to entry for artistic production is key to increasing the representation of diverse voices in art and music and reducing their reliance on market forces. However, the auditory monolith of factory presets and 4/4 time adds a great deal of noise to the signal. Fortunately, Coppice are eminently careful in their selection of sound sources, as evident on the second track.
‘Flut (Tighter)’ might be the first recognizable use of what the artists describe as “Impossible Objects & Binary Clocks”. While I won’t hypothesize on what exactly those are (I suspect they are not referring to actual binary clocks, but who knows), there are distinctly acoustic timbres to most elements of the piece and occasional artifacts of analogue recording. Reading the reference to clocks I instantly thought of Ryu Hankil‘s clockworks and, by extension, Taku Unami’s work with small computer controlled robotics. Neither is an inaccurate comparison to the acoustic dynamics of ‘Flut (Tighter)’, but whereas those artists are almost puritanical in their compositional approach, this piece plays out with some flourish. The ticking throughout regularly breaks into short distorted bursts and counts out time between reedy wheezes and electronic bass kicks. The real fun is in the tension between the atonal clicks, bursts, and thumps, and the near playfulness of their execution. The gravitas of its mechanical structure, march-like, is betrayed by the bubbling synthetic warbles that frequently appear – dynamics I tend to equate with humour and mundanity. (The latter intended without negative connotation and in the sense of chaotic earthliness and as opposed to the sense of divine order that Birju Maharaj refers to when he says that ‘any rhythm is god’.)
I’ve read some reviews and comments that mark Preamble… as a departure from the ‘drones’ of Coppice-past. While this release is somewhat uniquely structured and rhythmic, numerous other titles share many of its characteristics, as described above. With hindsight, I can agree that parts of their output resemble drone, though I’ve not once thought of applying the term to their music. Perhaps I’ve been so wrapped up in their attention to detail that I’ve continually lost the forest for the trees. Whatever the case, I would say that argument presupposes that drones are explorations of texture whereas this album focuses on rhythm. However, Coppice has been examining the spatial and temporal characteristics of texture and rhythm since Vinculum in 2010. The Pleasance & The Purchase is a particularly good example of this; indeed, most of Senufo’s discography is. There, dense crackling fields (or a drone, even if atonal) and periodic squeaks of the bellows (a rhythm) frequently interact through rising and falling amplitude to produce complex miniature beat patterns – the resulting tension pulls both the sound and our linguistic understanding of each towards the other. This tidily portrays why often only the density of a given sound set will account for whether the listener perceives it as rhythmic or percussive instead of textured. Once the periodicity of sound is perceived as dense and moderated enough to square with our concept of texture, rhythmic music suddenly becomes drone – a binary imposed on what is more properly a spectrum.
Where I do see Preamble… departing from previous work by the duo is in how those tensions within the periodicity of sound are arrived at. While the various iterations of Vinculum all explored additive and subtractive synthesis, whereby patterns and nodes of interest emerge from the layering of similar or disparate tracks, this album instead focuses on using its rhythmic elements to trigger complementary or dissonant sound events. Obviously this isn’t revolutionary – verse/chorus songs structures and beat drops in dance music are triggered by their relation to time signature and BPM. Instead, what’s interesting is the confluence here of musical idioms from popular music and the avant-garde. Recognizable techniques and structures are jammed up with indecipherable sounds and feedback generated patterns. These are also traits found free jazz and generative music. In the best examples of both, the stochastic use of sound always exists within the gravitational field of some concept – a melodic, harmelodic or modal theme in the case of the former, and a defined set of variables in the algorithm of the latter. Preamble… is neither jazz nor generative, but those parallels are present across its works. The opening and closing tracks are not dissimilar in rhythmic structure from René Bertholo’s analogue feedback loops, while ‘Flut (Tighter)’ could nearly be a demo track from Mark Fell. The theme that opens the aptly titled ‘Induction and Bifurcation’ is shifted in key, broken into its constituent parts and then revisited.
As for Preamble… as a whole, it is best approached by the listener as just that – a preamble to something larger. Thematically, the small album is cohesive enough, and the three tracks work together with similar aesthetic palettes. However, the strongly emotional opening chords lend the first track an energy that sizzles out by the last one. The transition from a dense melodically flush ‘song’ to successive downtempo squelchy beat experiments leaves a pessimistic mood behind, though this may be purposeful (more on that in a moment). While I thoroughly enjoy each individual track, I am left looking for the other half of the album and as powerful a closing piece as the opener. Perhaps it is best likened to an EP after all – 1 banger, 1 tool, 1 ballad, respectively.
Relatedly, I wonder what sort of constraints are imposed on the art by consumption of this media through a traditional album release. It seems that Preamble… grew through or out of various stages of live performance; the artists themselves state that it is “in preparation for virtual worlds in real spaces.” The listener may wonder what is lost by simply throwing these files or CD on your device for later listening in headphones. Soft Crown Transparencies, an interactive piece of music software designed by Coppice, although unique in their oeuvre also lends evidence of their overarching interest in creating, or at least facilitating, environments in which sound is necessary but not sufficient. We’ll have to wait and see where they end up, but there are obvious deficiencies to documenting such comprehensive works – listening to a recording of one of Mario Bertoncini’s aeolian harps or Harry Bertoia’s sound sculptures is a poor facsimile to bearing witness in person. That said, it may well be that the portability and fecundity of the Soft Crown Transparencies experience remains a significant concern for the artists in their upcoming work.
Lastly, I can’t help but comment on the language in use here because Coppice have always taken a lot of care with it themselves. The succinct titles of their early releases (eg. ‘Agate’, ‘Bluing’) have slowly given way to almost brutalist descriptions seemingly lifted from technical publications (eg. ‘Subparallel Episode’, or ‘Coincidence Departure – Quadrangle Congruent with “III. Phases” – Opening of First “II. Pivot”’), and to poetic titles verging on the satirical (‘So Lobes Drape as Such Gills Over a Hanger’s Pit’, or say Preamble to Newly Cemented Dedication to Freedom). Read that last one out loud – it could just as easily be the byline of some Orwellian bill that promises to do exactly the opposite (USA FREEDOM Act, anyone?). In a similar vein, promotional material states the album is “sensual music for a folding world in which songs are directions to look.” I would never infer statements on Politics from their music, but I do think their recent playfulness with semiotics is… timely. That said, the album title has the fucking f-word in it, so maybe I should be making those inferences after all.
Preamble… is not a radical departure for Coppice, but it is certainly a welcomed development. The duo’s ability to refine their practice is already well-established and our readers and listeners should seek out Preamble to Newly Cemented Dedication to Freedom to hear how Coppice is now looking to expand it.
Get it directly from Aposiopèse.