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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Common Objects - Skullmarks (meena, 2019) ****

To fully appreciate Skullmarks, you should visit the page on John Butcher' website about the release and look at the images for a bit. Let them sink in. Look at the mix of organics ... bones, ceramic, teeth, wood, feathers, and pigments. This music was shaped in reaction to these objects.

The six members of the group Common Objects paid a visit to the unique Pitt Rivers Museum in England, which according to its website contains "500,000 objects, photographs and manuscripts from all over the world, and from all periods of human existence." From here, Butcher chose four objects.

Yes, he was supposed to do this. As electric harpist Rhodri Davies explains "I have wanted to use objects as stimuli for improvisation ever since I began the group. During the last thirteen years, we have worked with semi-structured pieces, graphic notation and free improvisation, but this is the first time we have used objects as a score." With this as the setting, the group played a set of improvised music resulting in this earthy and exploratory live set.

The album is one 35 minute track, and it begins with one of the two violinists Angharad Davies or Lina Lapelyte scratching at the strings drawing out sounds that are more motion than full tones. Slight electronics fill the spaces and underscore the tension created by the strings. With two electronics players in the group, Lee Patterson and Pat Thomas, you would not be out of line to assume that the acoustic instruments would be overpowered, and a sinuous bird call would suggest that this is case, until it becomes clear this is Butcher employing one aspect of his vast sonic vocabulary on his soprano sax. In fact, the electronics bubble underneath, fizzing, unobtrusive, and supportive, as the saxophonist launches into expressively arcing arpeggios and legato tones. 

As the track continues, the default mode seems to be quiet tension. At the ten minute mark Davies' electric harp finally makes an appearance (at least I don't think I heard it before). It is low in the mix, more of a vibration, under the stretching, scratching of strings, and amplified percussion (I assume this is Patterson who is listed as providing 'amplified devices and processes'). A series of sounds, both organic and electric develop into a thick texture and high pitched tones hover in the air. The composition changes over time and at about 21 minutes in it become quite agitated with sawing motions and fluttering, reedy tones over underlying and unstable drones. A few minutes later the atmosphere feels almost threatening - I can only imagine which of the objects brought this one (possibly the one with the teeth?). The piece comes to an end with Butcher's tenor sax being slightly over-blown, while the amplified devices, electric harp, and violins build to a gentle crescendo.

As other reviewers have said of Common Objects before me (see Stef's review of Live in Morden Tower and Stefan Wood's review of Whitewashed with Line), the core of this group is unconventional and daring music, but made with a strong grounding in the past. The music is, in a way, a anthropological grounded study.  As Davies explains "we each spent time engaging with the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, The Manchester Museum and The Oriental Museum, Durham University - all of which, of course, have their own relationship to Britain's colonial histories." The final results of this study are of course up to the listener to interpret, but I find the discussion quite stimulating.