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The Webster Cycles (1998)

Cold Blue Music, CB0026



1. The Webster Cycles [29:45]

J. A. Deane - Trombone

It would be all too easy to do a straight musical review of Steve Peters' The Webster Cycles and talk about the interlocking trombone melodies, in terms of timbre, timing and atmospherics. However, while there is no doubt that this review will traverse those areas, I prefer to treat this review as one focusing on the material of an artistic endeavour, rather than a purely musicological one. The linguistic intricacies from which this piece stems are its compositional strength. Strangely enough, these intricacies are left out from the CD design and I hope I am not doing any injustice to the composer by explaining the compositional process in a little more depth. 

Peters explains on his blog that this piece is "a single 30-minute piece that straddles the fence of structure and improvisation: all of the words in the dictionary that use only the letters A-G, arranged in alphabetical order. Each word is played for the length of one long breath, and within that the letters/notes are played spontaneously, as are dynamics, timbre, etc. This very lush multi-tracked version is for six trombones, all performed by the fabulous J. A. Deane." 

In some respects, the piece could be considered a lipogram in that it restricts itself to only certain letters. Wikipedia describes the method as "a kind of constrained writing or word game consisting of writing paragraphs or longer works in which a particular letter or group of letters is missing," In this case, Peters has excluded all letters after G in order to limit the notes to those of the western scale. Musically, this lipogrammatic choice does not restrict the piece as the technique normally would. 

What Peters does not mention is the musical implications that come from the simple choice to perform the words in alphabetical order. For example, here is a collection of words from early in the dictionary in alphabetical order. Abaca, aback, abacot, abactinal, abaction, abacus. What is immediately obvious is that the first four letters of each word are the same. Compositionally speaking, this means that the first few notes of each phrase in the piece will also be the same, with the tail end of each phrase acting as a shifting variant. The beauty of this is that there is a melodic cohesion; the phrases seem to be connected to one another (by their beginning notes) as we follow a slow transition through the programmatic musical lexicon. This may seem to be an extremely avant-garde compositional technique, but given Peters' background in art installations it is not far removed from his other creations. 

As this is a musical piece, some notes must be devoted to the performance of The Webster Cycles by J. A. Deane. The liner notes indicate the piece may be performed by a range of ensembles and instruments, but this recording employs the use of six multi-tracked trombones, each played by Deane. The benefit of one performer multi-tracking the composition (rather than a multiple person ensemble) is twofold. Firstly, there is the cohesion of timbre. Though Deane employs different playing techniques (including wind effects by blowing through the instrument), the use of a single player eliminates the clashes that can sometimes occur through the different playing styles of different musicians. Secondly, it gives the performer complete control over the performance of the piece, something that Peters has explicitly left up to the instrumentalist. Since he is in control of all six trombone parts, he has the artistic direction of where to double, interject with, or echo himself. 

J. A. Deane's performance is flawless, emphasising the smooth transitional nature of the composition. The trombones, when coupled with reverb effects in post-production, enact a flowing musical landscape, shifting step by step as nature does through the seasons. The sheer musicality and depth of the performances makes me very interested to hear the piece performed with other instruments, if only to compare the impact of timbre upon concept: a possibility Peters has left open throughout the compositional process. 

For contemporary artists of all disciplines, this single-track release will intrigue your creative senses, not only in the conceptual framework of the composition, but in the stunning execution of 'thinking outside the box', both by composer and performer. For listeners who may not be so interested in the compositional process, it is worth contemplating the piece in terms of the great challenge of performing a piece that can be constantly shifted and expanded. This is an album I would prefer to hear in an abandoned warehouse, in true stereo. For it seems that only then would we grasp the solitary nature of such an exquisite and intricate composition. 

Sam Webster





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