Wednesday, February 16, 2011

braxbites #2: solo bagpipes

having said a couple of posts back that i wanted to hear matthew welch's 10 [Solo Bagpipe] Compositions 2000 (album credited to b., as composer), i was pretty quickly hooked up courtesy of a friend of mine, and found myself just this afternoon sampling this extraordinary creation. (said friend had affixed a post-it over the cd envelope with cover your ears! written on it and sure enough, the dogs weren't particularly chuffed about the afternoon's aural treats i don't think, but i did find it a pretty interesting listen and not overly terrifying... (perhaps it does wear you down a bit after a while - well, read on).

straight away one of the (few) advantages of the instrument is on display - the inherent capacity for multiphonics introduced by the drone, against which the melody line is usually set; this actually provides quite a hypnotic sound environment which is very definitely a good start when dealing with this composer's music. so initial hopes were quite high once the album was underway... and the player's skill on his instrument is pretty evident early on also. i enjoyed the first cut and then found myself zoning off a bit during the second and third. too literally hypnotic? well, at any rate i was jerked back to attention by the start of the fourth piece (comp. 106a), which is played without the drone... and this immediately got me thinking about the clear disadvantages of the instrument, and specifically the fact that use of the drone automatically chains the player tightly to one key, every damn time, this being a bit of a problem really for a solo instrument. furthermore the keying action of the melody pipe(s?) tends to produce quite similar attacks each time, at least when the drone is being sounded at the same time; hence, not surprisingly, with this on as semi-background music i found the drone-accompanied performances (seven out of the ten) pretty interchangeable. this is NOT proper listening and therefore not a proper assessment of the performances, never mind of the interpretations which may well be skillful and faithful. (one day - though god knows when - i will try and make direct comparisons with other versions of the same pieces.) still, the way it worked out, the three remaining pieces were by far the most interesting for me and ultimately the only ones which fully commanded my attention. 

welch's 106a grabs the attention right from the start, then, partly because one is immediately aware of what's missing (i.e. the drone) but also because of the variations which welch is able to bring to the attacks once he can give all his attention to the "tuneful" part of the instrument. the piece begins with a lovely falling and rising effect and immediately follows it up with a very precise timbral distortion. over the course of the piece the player is finally able to give a clear picture of just what he can do in terms of close control (another essential quality for taking on b's music). it's an intriguing performance and track seven, comp. 119g, is if anything even better, weighing in at just over two minutes but again utilising a variety of extended techniques (tonal distortions and modulations, sub-vocalisation, multiphonics - at certain pitches the single reed itself throws off all manner of complex higher harmonics) which the maestro must surely have been delighted by. 

even these two pieces, however, fade in the memory compared with the penultimate track, comp. 118e which sounds as if it's played entirely on the mouthpiece alone. comparisons must immediately be made with zorn's classic guide to strategy (master)pieces, nor would these be unfavourable since welch again demonstrates remarkable powers of control, concentration and precision over the course of these eleven fascinating minutes (well - i found it fascinating anyway! i love this kind of thing). as with zorn's (or george lewis's) mouthpiece performances, there is plenty of dry humour here also. (this of course is another key braxton characteristic, albeit one which is too-frequently overlooked.)

i have not finished with this one by any means - though it might be a while before i return to it - but it demanded a brief mention in the meantime. i have no doubt that b. was pleased and proud with his student's work on this recording. can i necessarily recommend it as listening material? mmmmmmmmmmmmmmrrrmrmrmrmrmrmmm that's really a very personal choice i think, i just can't say for sure! but it's definitely an intriguing entry in the canon and i'm glad someone was mad and obsessive enough to do it.

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