Christopher HOBBS (b. 1950)
Aran (1971/72) [3:58] Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943)
1, 2, 1-2-3-4 [15:02] Christopher HOBBS
McCrimmon Will Never Return (1971/72) [9:28] Gavin BRYARS
The Squirrel and the Ricketty Racketty Bridge (1971) [21:10] Aran: Christopher Hobbs (Tubular Bells, Triangles, Cowbells, Toy Piano), John White (Reed Organ, Toy Piano, Triangles, Drums), Gavin Bryars (Reed Organ, Triangles, Wood Blocks, Cymbals) 1, 2, 1-2-3-4: Cornelius Cardew (Cello), Gavin Bryars (Double Bass), Mike Nicolls (Drums),
Derek Bailey (Guitar), Andy Mackay (Oboe), Christopher Hobbs (Piano), Paul Nieman (Trombone), Stuart Deeks (Violin), Brian Eno, Celia Gollin (Vocals) McCrimmon Will Never Return: Christopher Hobbs, Gavin Bryars (reed organs) The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge: Derek Bailey (Steel-Stringed Acoustic Guitars), Fred Frith (Double-Headed Electric Guitars), Gavin Bryars (Concert Guitars), Brian Eno (Electric Guitars).
Rec. 1975 and 1976 (The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge), Basing Street Studios , London. GB RECORDS BCGBCD23 [49:40]
This was the second in a series of 10 albums released on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label in the 1970s, one of the first four to appear in 1975. The original track-listing for this release included John Adams’ American Standard, replaced here by Gavin Bryars’ The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge.
Christopher Hobbs’ brief and enjoyable Aran opens with a gently machine-like procession of percussion sounds over a simple but nicely textured sequence of sustained notes forming a quasi-harmonic progression. This is followed by Gavin Bryars’ 1,2, 1-2-3-4, which starts out sounding like the soulful opening to a jazz ballad, but gradually loses cohesion, the notes turning into a haunting de-composition. Chance elements are a feature of both of these pieces, the latter running on the concept of the musicians being connected to portable cassette machines via headphones. The musicians play the part indicated to them by their recording, either responding as best they can or having prepared the part in advance. The performance “reflects a number of variables that occur: the starting point of the cassettes is not precise… the cassettes may not all be running at the same speed due to the uneven quality of the different machines, the state of their batteries and so on…” The result is something akin to a living and breathing music-box: a set of performers in a permanent state of surprise and wonder, entirely divorced from each other, but together creating a remarkable, meandering conglomeration in which notes occasionally join hands, others wander off into the distance, but all inhabiting the same ‘mood space’.
McCrimmon Will Never Return shares an origin story with Aran in having been written for the Promenade Theatre Orchestra which was started by John White, and included Hobbs, Hugh Shrapnel and Alec Hill. The piece has a lonely, windswept atmosphere, being inspired by ‘Piobaireachd’, a form of Scottish bagpipe music. The melody and its variants is played on four reed organs with a drone, the ornamental flourishes familiar from bagpipe performance slowed down to the extent that they are heard as melodic notes rather than skirls.
The Squirrel and the Ricketty Racketty Bridge is written for guitars, using a technique in which the instruments are laid on their backs and played on the fingerboards with the fingers as hammers. The left hand moves at a steady pace “like a walking jazz bass… while the right hand punctuates this with short notes, like a highly selective, or extremely lazy, trumpet soloist.” Originally for one player and recorded by Derek Bailey as such in 1971, this version with four players on different varieties of guitar creates a soundfield effect similar to that taken up by Leo Brouwer in certain sections of his Blue Sky and Smile, the ongoing rhythmic ostinato setting up a basis for seemingly random but euphonically chiming musical shapes and phrases.
I loved these pieces when I heard them for the first time, and they have stood the test of time. They are an inspiration to experiment beyond the conventions of a typical composing process, introducing elements of improvisation but taking care over the quality of ideas, something reflected in the distinctive character of the effects created. There is an element of bonkers British fun thrown into the mix as well and this shines through, puncturing the pretensions of over-seriousness very much alive in the avant-garde music scene of the times.