Scott MILLER (with Carla REES)
Devices and Desires
Anterior/Interior (2011) [8:10]
Beauty is Eternity Gazing in a Mirror (2011) [9:26]
Ommagio a 1961 (2009) [11:13]
bending reed (2011) [6:37]
Seriously, This is a Commitment (2011) [13:00]
haiku, interrupted (2009) [7:30]
Carla Rees (quartertone C flute)
Scott Miller (electronics)
rec. 24 November 2011, Royal College of Music Recording Studios, London
RARESCALE RECORDS RR004 [55:41]
If you read the biographies for this release or about Carla Rees in general, you will see that she is described as an alto and bass flute specialist. You may then wonder why this release has been recorded entirely on C flute - that’s concert flute in C, just in case there was anyone who reads the ‘C’ as Contralto, which would be a G flute. This is not just any C flute, but one made heavy with the additional riches of extra keys which deliver notes in between the ones on your average piano keyboard, hence the ‘quartertone’ description. One of the main reasons Carla is not playing alto or bass on this recording is that her apartment building plus its uniquely valuable contents - and I don’t mean just instruments - was reduced to ashes during the riots in 2011. This kind of tragic misfortune would kick most of us into limbo, but Carla is having her flutes re-made, and this recording is a defiant testament and an example to all of us who have far more mundane things with which to cope.
These pieces are also representative of a continuing and fruitful artistic collaboration, and the results are very much on an equal footing. The flute has its solo role, but Scott Miller’s virtuoso electronic sounds are decisive to the atmosphere of the disc as a whole. Carla’s cover photo suggests clockworks and machinery. There are mechanistic elements in some of the musical effects, but I perceive much of this soundscape as having its basis in nature. Working alongside and with the flute as a sonic medium, it is right and natural that the sounds should have some relationship to that simplest of instruments. All flautists will admit, even without a few drinks, that all they are really doing is blowing a bit of perforated sawn-off tube - one of the most basically natural music sounds there is. The beauty is in the artist doing the blowing.
bending reed is a good starting place to appreciate this point. It’s one of the tracks in which flute and electronics come closest in terms of synergy. Overtones and double-stopping effects from the flute are taken over and re-formed, extended and stretched. The harmonics of the flute are later on tracked by an effect which seems to create its own bass difference-tones. It is as if Carla was being shadowed by a darkly menacing bass-recorder player. Live electronics continue with Seriously, This is a Commitment, the flute being joined in a multi-vocal duet which will delight fans of WALL●E. This is a track which builds up quite a head of steam as the layers of sound develop - a strange confluence of driving urgency and poetic utterance.
Having started halfway through we might as well take a look at haiku, interrupted. This is one of the most haunting pieces in the programme, with alien voices coming at us in chorus and singly. There are moments which suggest aboriginal ritual, nocturnal and mysterious. This is as far removed from Classical convention as you could imagine and all the more fascinating for it. The whole thing ends with the longest fade-out ever.
You can just tell can’t you? I’m the type of reviewer who puts the CD on and starts writing, so the music only starts receiving attention by the time the intro has been concluded. So, it’s back to track one, Anterior/Interior, the revolving electronic whirligigs of which remind me a little of bits in Stockhausen’s Kontakte. There are some very high pitched moments in this to which your ears may have an aversion through less than top-flight buds. Beauty is Eternity Gazing in a Mirror explores lower registers, the lack of bass flutes substituted by electronic responses which lower the pitch and create a whole family of strange flutes - including a remarkable virtuoso piccolo. These flute reflections transform into egocentric sine-wave shadows which weave their own complex tapestry, but over which the flute rules in its own confiding and restrained manner. It brings the sines into line and has the last word as is its feminine right.
As its title suggests, Omaggio a 1961 will remind electronic aficionados of period work by the likes of Stockhausen or the early Philips studios, which had people like Varese as their figurehead. There are deep electronic booms and bumps, little choirs of insects, birds or angels which pop up or fly past. This is a festival of angular atonal gesture over which I feel the solo flute might have had a more unrestrained and pro-active improvisatory freedom. This is still a fascinating and at times disturbing musical narrative, with a desolate ending like abandoned housing, materials flapping in an uncaring wind. It runs directly into the vast distances which open bending reed.
Writing reviews of releases by people you know - however distantly - can be troublingly burdensome. I would always return a disc rather than have to be negative. If I do have any criticism it would be that, in general, this is a set of pieces which takes itself perhaps a tad too seriously. I like a bit of tongue-in-cheek with this kind of thing, even just a glimmer or subtle suggestion relating to a more direct sense of entertainment, but that’s just my taste. Here there is in fact no need for strife and conflict, and this is a remarkable and excellent production. Yes, to a degree this is a ‘specialist’ album, but I’m always fighting the corner of contemporary musical language and expression, and would argue this has as much a right to be on your shelf as Scarlatti or Scriabin - certainly as much as any pop act you’re likely to see on the Graham Norton show. It has a different function: not for dancing or candle-lit dinners perhaps, but if these musicians can create such things can’t you think of a place in your life it might prove stimulating? Go on, make the effort.
Remarkable and stimulating: go on, now you make some effort.