Composition No. 62 is 'Compilation IV' for improvisers, jazz ensemble, chamber orchestra & electronics; the long-awaited new instalment of Fell’s ambitious series of fourth-stream compositions for musicians from varied backgrounds and traditions. The recording features many bizarre experiments in composition, including a peculiar Mancini/Stockhausen hybrid, musical Le Corbusier chairs and Birtwistle bebop. You'd better check it out...
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"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
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