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Johnny Chang, Angharad Davies, Jamie Drouin, Phil Durrant, Lee Patterson, John Tilbury: Variable Formations

John Eyles By

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Variable Formations was recorded at a gig at London's Café Oto in February 2013. The music on it was the final set of the evening, having been preceded by a solo piano set from John Tilbury in which he used themes and sound samples from the 1939 film The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a semi-improvised duo set from violist Johnny Chang and Canada-born synth player Jamie Drouin who were visiting from Berlin, and a trio set from violinist Angharad Davies, Lee Patterson on amplified objects and electronicist Phil Durrant playing pages from Eva-Maria Houben's composition 'Von Da Nach Na' as featured on Another Timbre's Wandelweiser Und So Weiterr 2012 box set.

The forty-one minute sextet performance was not a free improvisation. Instead, it was intended that each group should develop the material they had presented in the first half in relation to the work of the other groups—which leads one to question whether the listener might have been better served to hear all of that evening's performances, in order to be able to judge the success of the developments in the sextet context. As the basis for a sextet performance it may sound ambitious to try and combine those three disparate performances into one, particularly given that the members of the sextet were not well acquainted, each of the six never having played with at least two of the others before that evening.

Despite those caveats, the sextet does consist of highly experienced improvisers each of whom was familiar with one or more of the others, and their music soon gels into a coherent whole which does not reveal them pulling against each other. The three/three split between conventional acoustic instruments and electronic ones provides a good balance and creative tension between the two—similar to that between Chang and Drouin in their duo, and between Davies and the other two in their trio.

As the sound of his instrument is highly distinctive, it was almost inevitable that Tilbury's contributions would stand out in the sextet. In any context, he has the enviable knack of being able to economically place his notes so that everything else seems to revolve around them. So it proves at the beginning of this piece, with a series of two-note piano phrases commanding attention, offset by contrasting electronic sounds which frame them. As the piece progresses, it evolves slowly and naturally, without any non-sequiturs or awkward jump cuts. No one dominates and all six contribute equally to shaping the music.

The ultimate test of music such as this is whether it can be heard repeatedly without becoming tiresome or stale. After several dozen listenings, it is clear that Variable Formations passes that test with flying colours. It reveals more each time, sounding richer and more detailed the more one hears it, and always demanding to be listened to again.

Track Listing: Variable formations.

Personnel: Johnny Chang: viola; Angharad Davies: violin; Jamie Drouin: analogue synthesiser & radio; Phil Durrant: electronics; Lee Patterson: amplified objects & processes; John Tilbury: piano.

Title: Variable Formations | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Another Timbre

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