Red Wharf / RWCD002
Annie Billington (Cello), Graham Bowers (Vocals, Dulcimer, Clarinet, Saxophone, Keyboards, Guitar), Peter B Gallagher (Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals), Mary Heathcote (Vocals), William Henshall (Vocals), Jim Keddie (Percussion), Mark J Porter (Saxophone)
This is the central panel of Bowers’ multimedia triptych, following last year’s Of Mary’s Blood and to be completed by Eternal Ghosts. Each musical part is accompanied by a triptych of paintings, and there is also some sculpture involved somewhere, although no information is forthcoming as to where one might see the sculpture or what it might look like. If this is conceptual work, as one must assume that it is, it leaves its audience completely in the dark, forced to guess at its intentions, and this is no bad thing in an artworld which wants everything neatly packaged.
The piece begins on the kind of drone beloved of composers like Berio — a constant soundscape in which a lot goes on, and which returns in various forms throughout the work’s fifty minutes. Different textures constantly emerge, and the first four minutes or so hold the attention rigorously, despite nothing much appearing to go on. Then, with the appearance of some more up-front percussion and excellent guitar, the piece builds to its first, extremely violent crescendo. Bowers’ work is all about this kind of psychological flagellation, using harsh timbres for dramatic effect in a kind of mental theatre of cruelty.
Surrealism is, indeed, Bowers’ modus operandi. The accompanying paintings are lumpy creations in the Dali school, all painted on black as if to signify images rising out of the subconscious. They are not, if the truth be told, awfully good, although the first of the Transgression and Eternal Ghosts series are suitably unsettling. The music, by association, is already dealing with surrealist issues, issues about the subconscious and about memory, before a note hits the score paper.
The voices emerge from the music almost imperceptibly, strongly reminiscent of Jewish cantillation but with a drifting, groaning quality and surrounded even when fully-formed by a halo of nightmarish effects. In groups, the sound becomes close to that of Ligeti’s choral works, something nasty always seeming to emerge from the ensemble murk. Then, at around the halfway mark, the voices disappear again, giving way to instrumental passages which are intense but oddly ambient, like a soundtrack indicating that something bad is going to happen when no clues as to its nature appear on screen — exactly the kinds of connections, one suspects, that Bowers wants to be making.
The surrealist project is further undergirded by the use of familiar sounds, whether they be little samples from Classical recordings or, near the end, what might be a child’s plastic trumpet. Bowers is helped in all this by his long-standing connections with music for the theatre, and the approach and many of the techniques transfer easily.
It would be papering over the cracks to say that the piece does not occasionally lose its footing, or to pretend that it never falls back on schlock-horror cliché. Its climax, in particular, is entered into with remarkably ham fists; in a piece like this, a conclusion has to feel as if it has emerged from the music itself. Simply upping the volume and bringing back the guitar and percussion will not do. Despite this, however, Transgression is a work which repays close listening, and there is precious little music out there which, after it has finished, leaves you a little afraid to go to the bathroom without switching on the light. Richard Cochrane