Suites of Grey

released on Full Bleed Music

CD Review by Arjun von Caemmerer

Suites of Grey

It is fortunate that I allowed myself several exposures to this album before approaching Tom Heasley’s website where, prefixed to Tuba, the word Ambient is so prominently and alarmingly highlighted: such a word, over-loaded as it is with the associations of ‘easy listening’ and ‘wall-paper music’, reclines a little too easily and lazily on the puffed air cushions of this listener’s prejudices, and it is quite probable that had I been aware of this hook, the hiss generated by my own air conditioning would have unreasonably interfered with preliminary attempts at open listening. In fact, the word ambient appears nowhere on Passages – perhaps because this album, Heasley’s fourth, is the first where he has collaborated with a drummer, namely Toss Panos, and the resultant music is a little more difficult to so simply categorize. I had heard the unforgettably (and slightly onomatopoeically) named Toss Panos before, on Mike Keneally’s one-size-fits-all proper solo debut album hat., and it was the presence of Toss’s name and the memory of his dynamic and variegated drumming on a number of the metrically tricky and memorably named gems in Keneally’s Opus 1 (Your Quimby Dollars At Work; Uglytown; Here Is Why; We’re Rockin’ All Night With The Tangy Flavor of Cheddar) which piqued my curiosity about this disc.

Toss is the proud owner of Tossimos, a recording studio located in North Hollywood, and it was here in December 2006, that this, the inaugural release on Heasley’s new label Full Bleed Music, was recorded live. To this disc Heasley contributes not only the music of tuba, voice, electronics and loops, but he was also instrumental in the production, mixing, and mastering of this recording. Further, he was also responsible for the art direction — in this case a Spartan and elegant black lettering on a white cover. The cover, especially the letter font, reminded me of a record bought many years ago, piano solos of Erik Satie performed by Bill Quist, a release on the Windham Hill label, which features a somewhat similar font: thin black lettering on a white background — the coincidence here being that Erik Satie with his musique d’ameublement or “furniture music” is credited as one of the forerunners of ambient music.

Furniture (or furnishing) music regarded music as an accessory, where it ostensibly served to create a background atmosphere for an activity, rather than the music serving as a primary focus of attention, and is well-illustrated by the sardonic title of one of Satie’s pieces: Carrelage phonique – Peut se jouer à un lunch ou à un contrat de mariage – Mouvement: Ordinaire (Can be played during a lunch or civil marriage – Movement: Ordinary).

Satie’s serial and deliberate accessorizing of himself in his dozen identical grey velvet suits served to highlight rather than mask his idiosyncrasies. Likewise, his attempts to apparently play his furniture music as an ignorable background predictably did not meet with success: one cannot simply announce that the music one is about to play should be deliberately ignored — such an announcement compels more rather than less attention to the music. Unsuccessful too, I suspect, would be any attempt to play this disc merely as garnish, as background: it is not exactly benign lullaby. As the largest and lowest pitched brass instrument, the tuba comes freighted with a peculiarly insistent gravitas and momentum, a weighty stateliness which is reflected not only in the subject material for these compositions (Track 3 is an Elegy for Philip Berrigan) but also in the duration of the tracks: Passages, despite running just short of 74 minutes, has only 5 tracks.

In Passages, Ages Pass: in the opening piece, Different Worlds, we pass into another and pre-historic place where, it seems, something Dinosaurian, something Wildebeestial, wakes and roams, rootles and snarfles. Heasley manages to extract a truly extraordinary range of sounds from his tuba — by turns anguished, mournful, enraged, heraldic, ponderous — and these, combined with his tuban throat singing, and the natural overtones of his chosen instrument, couple well with his clever use of electronics (which manipulate different aspects of these sounds) to reveal his sonic universe, his different worlds. Whilst throughout this disc Panos seems for the most part to respond to Heasley (rather than vice versa), at around 17minutes into this track he unleashes himself, spectacularly and magically. There is undeniably a cinematic quality to Different Worlds — in this regard, it is unsurprizing that both Heasley and Panos have composed for film — but its episodic nature meant that although all sorts of imagery surfaced, I experienced this more in the sense of isolated vignettes rather than as any coherent narrative. Whilst it may be odious to do this, I could not help contrasting this composition with Carl Vine’s similarly titled and brilliant Inner World (for cello and sampled cello), and concluded that the reason I can find a more coherent and satisfying narrative emerge spontaneously from listening to Vine’s piece is that this is simply an effect of his more rigorous structure and tight editing.

On 98% Pure Heasley displays an almost scientific curiosity for the purely aural textures that result from breathing into and tapping the microphone at close range. Out of left field something elementally Bovine appears and soliloquizes against the underlying loops of its own voice. There is a coincidental sonic similarity to the sounds which bellow in fellow with those of the amazing leather instruments played by the Launceston-based group The Chordwainers. Perhaps 98% Pure could refer to the herd instinct.

The Elegy for Philip Berrigan is appropriately sombre and respectful, as befits a tribute to one deceased. But, to risk a bad pun, it is not sufficiently Catholic: why it might sound somehow familiar is that, at least in its starting phrases, it is not worlds away from the earlier Different Worlds — in fact when I first played this disc both my listening companion and I mistakenly thought initially it had prematurely and inexplicably restarted. But then again, an elegy is perhaps precisely intended to bring back memories of what has passed, of passages, and this reading is reinforced with the following track Zephyr whose name (from the Greek zephuros, the west wind) incorporates oblique references to the breath, passing through its instruments, tuba and voice, to give them their voice. And evocative, too, are the name and content of the final track, The Cliffs of Moher, invoking vast horizontal and vertical contrasts, the flat sea and steep cliffs, the recurrent waves and opened seams of time. However, it sounds as if this is, to some extent, also territory revisited, though perhaps a way of hearing this is as another and deliberate (more macroscopically scaled) meaning for the ‘loops’ Heasley refers to in his compositions.

Such open-endedness in naming loops me back to Heasley’s choice of name for his music label Full Bleed Music. Full bleed refers to the printing process where a paper’s colouring is unbounded by the page’s edges (such as the white background of this CD’s cover), and one of Heasley’s evident skills is in also manipulating layers of sound to bleed into and through each other. A ‘full bleed ethos’ also sees Heasley deliberately blur the boundaries between improvised music, and what might be defined as a composition: his website speaks of achieving a synthesis between composition and improvisation, and of a previous album Heasley writes: All four pieces on ‘Where the Earth Meets the Sky’ were performed live – and spontaneously composed – in the studio with no overdubs. But, in my view, this approach is not necessarily unproblematic: too great a lack of borders, of Systems of Edges, can result in an overflow — a lack of structure, which risks resulting in over-long compositions which ultimately sound too undifferentiated, too diffuse, too grey. It would however be inaccurate and dismissive to characterize this album as just a series of grey suits: despite some homogeneity in the cut and colour of the cloth, there are also many varied seams & dark rewarding pockets, unexpected creases & shadowy folds.