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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ben Hall’s Racehorse Names – The New Favourite Thing Called Breathing (Relative Pitch, 2018) ***½

By Chris Haines

To be honest, the first thing that drew me to this album was the cover. To be precise it was the cover of Ornette Coleman’s Body Meta that can be seen poking through the assorted paraphernalia of lemon, cactus, written hand note, and other items that initially drew my attention. After listening to the album I was interested to find out that the improvised pieces were actually open compositions, with each piece seemingly providing a sonic structure or context for the players to explore, whilst apparently providing enough ‘instructions’ (however the ‘composed’ element was written) to keep the group sound wedded to a particular idea. Each of the tracks on the album is called a ‘Spine’, being numbered by a factor of 2, found by multiplying the previous term. It’s a simple mathematical sequential idea that got me wondering whether any other such ideas might have found their way into the compositional element on some level? However, I get the feeling that the compositional element takes a more aesthetic or game-like (racehorses?) approach in guiding the sound of the final pieces. Nonetheless the concept and the slightly grey-area of the compositional part make it even more intriguing. The group that was put together to explore these ideas consists of Joe Morris (electric guitar), Mick Dobday (electric piano, organ), Anthony Levin-Decanini (electronics), John Dierker (reeds), Mike Khoury (viola, violin), and Ronnie Zawadi & Ben Hall (percussion).

Starting with ‘Spine 02’, the album opens with the sound of electric guitar and sax seemingly having already started, as if we’re joining them at a slightly later moment. Although it’s not long before they’re joined by the rest of the ensemble providing a multi-timbral and busy feel, which continues before giving way to a repeated organ motif and see-sawing string sound that gradually closes out the piece. ‘Spine 04’ starts with a similar organ motif to the previous track, with a string drone providing the harmonic base, whilst various tones, rubbing sounds, mouthpiece sounds, and percussive punctuations overlay the musical grounding. There is more space in this piece than the first one and there are some lovely moments where the various sounds combine. ‘Spine 08’ starts and feels like a typical free improv track, before the percussive chimes enter providing a window of more space into the proceedings before returning to form and then ending with handclaps that sound-like the initial material to Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. There are another three tracks ‘Spine 16’, ‘Spine 32’, and, of course, ‘Spine 64’ all with various multi-timbral colour combinations and different instrumental sounds and techniques that find their way into the labyrinthine textures. The music is very much a textural one, with the emphasis clearly on a group sound, although various instruments do rise to the surface of the musical soup at times, which enables the listener to hear their contribution to the overall sound before duly sinking back into the sonic mixture. It is not a hard free-blowing workout and clearly the compositional structures keep the group playing on cordial and democratic terms with no one taking a clear solo that might disturb the equality. There are no egos on show here and the group shows that it can operate within a musically individuated way within the complex whole. Overall the album makes for an intriguing listen, whether its the delicate guitar and drum interplay on 'Spine 16' or the fleet guitar and punchy sax in 'Spine 32', there is something to sink your ears into here.