Synopsis (1973) with Barry Guy and Tony Oxley

The first thing that strikes you is the clear and vivid sonics and soundstage, and I had to look at the box to be sure this was a recent recording, as Emanem producer Martin Davidson has been issuing brand-new performances as well as digging into the treasure-trove of British improvisation from the 60s and 70s. I was paying more attention to the music notes than the liner notes, so I was a bit taken by the 1973 date, then realizing that the analog recording would indeed have more vibrancy.

The music: It starts with arco bass and electronic rumblings, then pizzicato. What follows is sixty-six minutes of prime improvisation, for although there were directions, the interplay is clearly intuitive. To do a play-by-play with music like this defeats the purpose, so I’ll confine myself to some general comments. The producer notes that both Oxley and Guy use “pedal-controlled amplification. These electronics as used with such an intelligent touch that they are an integral part of the musical textures they create. Fear not fuzak or whooshy overlay drones.

There are moments when “Quantum” feels as much like composed electronic music of the same era as it does improv, due to curves of sound and block-like changes in volume. Riley plays inside his piano, and the wood sound of all three musicians plucking, scraping, bowing, and bending create a unity of sound, though each sound is so different in timbre. Guy skitters on his string, a slippery slope down, then grinds arco, while the electric bass gives a ringing matched by a gong-like sound. All play more intensely, densely, in this piece. “Ingot” also is rich with ideas, the ends slowly, with a piano notes fading like church bell peals as the bass resonates downward. The eighteen-minute closing cut, released for the first time, is busier at first,although there are many quiet sections, some breath-takingly so, such as six minutes in where it sounds as if an Aeolian harp is playing.

Riley I previously knew by name only, and he’s certainly the equal of his better-known (at least in the States) partners. This CD was formerly Incus LP 13, and adds “Runes,” from the same session. The newly written notes by Riley that this disc uses set-form rather than totally free improvisation: “graphic frameworks mixed with conventional musical notation.” The night of the same day this was recorded, the trio also recorded as part of Paul Rutherford’s Iskra 1912, found on Emanem 4018. If you generally crave Emanem, or AMM, Riley’s disc is a must-have. Because of the use of the electronic, I’d even suggest laying this on your prog-rock friends to wean them from beat-structure, and your noise-ambient pals to teach them about true interplay rather than just “remix,” and let them enjoy the sound of this kind of music-making. Soon they’ll crave for more.

Steve Koenig

Track Listing: 1. Mandrel; 2. Sirens; 3. Quantum; 4. Ingot; 5. Runes

Personnel: Howard Riley, piano; Barry Guy, bass, bass guitar; Tony Oxley, percussion, live electronics