Dusted Reviews

Simon H. Fell - Composition No. 62: Compilation IV

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Simon H. Fell

Album: Composition No. 62: Compilation IV

Label: Bruce's Fingers

Review date: Nov. 23, 2005

What to make of Simon H. Fell, the Northern English contrabass improviser who, over the last decades, has quietly made some of the most challenging music out there? Specifically, why is it that his profile remains so frustratingly low? There’s certainly nothing passive or particularly quiet about his music itself. And the idioms in which he works – everything from gum-bleeding free jazz to post-serialist composition – are ones widely appreciated. Maybe it’s because Fell’s music, which just as frequently sits at the intersection of these musics rather than exploring them one at a time, is so damn detailed. Every few years, Fell releases one of his massive long-form compositions which, like his masterwork Composition 30, incorporates a dizzying range of influences and instrumental groupings into a single piece. Composition 62 follows in that tradition and, unlike some of 30’s kindred pieces, is nearly up to the gold standard. It explodes, bubbling and rippling with details that cumulatively knock you back on your earhole. It’s as if Fell notated the first moments in the existence of some universe whose fundamental property was sound itself, examining its richness from every possible angle.

Listing the entire lineup and recording information would likely require an entire Dusted feature. Suffice it to say that Fell explored several different musical approaches over the course of several years, each one relying on a different instrumentation (sometimes a regularly working group, usually just a one-off performance). The assembled, edited results form the piece (hence, a compilation). Over 50 musicians are on board here, drawn from chamber and new music, electronics, rock, and free improvisation (the latter are the best known of the players, including saxophonist Evan Parker, clarinetist Alex Ward, and violinist/electronicians Phillip Wachsmann). There are moments when the individuals break out and play memorably (Ward’s clarinet and Fell’s own bass playing are killer), but what really makes Fell’s so-called fourth stream compositions so compelling (and only occasionally flat) is the marriage of quite different musicians. Not unlike the spirit of Derek Bailey’s Company Week (where, say, Buckethead can be paired with a classically trained soprano vocalist), Fell favors odd combinations of style and sensibility; they’re couched in often very rigorous structure (and there’s a page of the score – which looks like a motherfucker – reprinted in the liners), which makes Fell’s approach distinct.

What’s here can be almost impossibly dense and, especially over the course of nearly 80 minutes, extremely difficult to digest. One often feels that Fell’s efforts to sum up his wide-ranging musical activities in these pieces – and possibly also his listening habits and interests – are too quixotic, too manifold. But against all expectations the music hangs together as a coherent, if multi-faceted statement. Brass fanfares, apocalyptic Messiaen-like percussion storms, reed arrangements poised at the intersection of Stan Kenton and Sun Ra, and calculus-core post-serialist insanity are shot through this thing. So too are howling metal guitars, rough patches of musique concrete, gorgeous moments of liquid electronic tranquility (which recall Jacques Dudon’s exquisite pieces for homemade instruments), and – Fell’s currently wacky obsession – a number of sections where he pursues a fusion of Henry Mancini and Karlheinz Stockhausen (yes, you read that right). Some listeners are sent into despair at Fell’s massive pieces, feeling that the individual elements can be derivative or that their pastiche simply creates a mess. My feelings are just the opposite. There are no guarantees you’ll hear it as I do, of course, but this man’s music demands to be heard.

By Jason Bivins

Other Reviews of Simon H. Fell

Frank & Max: Bass Solos 2001-2011

Read More

View all articles by Jason Bivins

Find out more about Bruce's Fingers

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.