OLI HAS MOVED! I'll still post excerpts here for the time being, but to read my articles in full, visit

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Album Reviews: James Beaudreau - ‘Astral Law’, ‘Java St. Bagatelles’ & ‘Fresh Twigs’

James Beaudreau - ‘Astral Law’ (2011)

Workbench Recordings WBR35, CDR album, $10
(also available as DD, $ pay what you want)
In the theatre Bertolt Brecht pioneered an effect that he called the ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, variously translated as the distancing, alienation, or estrangement effect. This was a technique used to draw attention to the artificiality of the performance, to undermine the convention of the fourth wall and the illusion of naturalism, with the intention of forcing the audience to become actively, critically engaged with the work.
In music there is no fourth wall: there is no obvious form of ‘naturalism’ at work, but there are conventions that serve a similar function. All the conventions of musical ‘competence’ are aimed at eliding the presence of the performer, and even of the musical instruments, and especially of any technological process involved in recording or amplifying the sound. Instrumentalists learn to play so that the note is clear, and the sounds of their physical contact with the instrument are as quiet as possible; creaks, coughs, electronic noise, passing traffic, are all edited out by performers, technicians, and ultimately listeners, as being extraneous.
So what is the point of deliberately drawing attention to these things, and of using other strategies to undermine the conventional sense of what constitutes a ‘quality’ musical performance?
I would suppose that for James Beaudreau, as for Brecht, the intention is to focus the audience’s critical attention on the work, to make them aware of the act of listening, rather than taking for granted the automatic processes by which certain sounds reference certain socially constituted assumptions. Where he and Brecht part company, to my mind, is in Brecht’s intention to privilege an intellectual response over an emotional one. While Beaudreau encourages us to listen closely, with conscious attention, to listen critically to the entirety of the recorded sound, the end point of that process is still a musical meaning, which in my view can never be wholly, or even predominantly intellectual.
A lot of the music on ‘Astral Law’ is about melody, harmony and a pleasing sound made with a guitar. This is somewhat at odds with Beaudreau’s earlier work, but only somewhat. There has always been an element of conventional musical language in what he does, but it has not always been central to his meanings, and sometimes it has been an instrument of subversion in itself, as when pleasing melodies with consonant harmonies take unexpected turnings at variance with common notions of tonality.
The album opens with an odd noise, a descending glissando, followed by a couple of stray chords, and then a smattering of unenthusiastic applause. After this a variety of ideas crop up: a couple of bars of snare fills that sound as though they’re about to launch into something; some melodically ambiguous notes with no attack (perhaps articulated with an EBow); two bars of funky, bluesy groove; and then a more extended episode of EBow (if that’s what it is) with some percussion, and eventually a rhythmic overdriven guitar accompaniment. This is the title track, and it doesn’t go anywhere more songlike, or conventionally narrative than I’ve described.
At the Foothills, which follows it, is a slow, picked chord sequence, with a simple, haunting melody performed on slide guitar (there’s a fair bit of slide on ‘Astral Law’, which is a Good Thing in my book). It’s lovely, and it allows me to fall back on my residual idea of what ‘lovely’ sounds like, but because of the way Astral Law has compelled me to listen very attentively for the musical meaning, I’m still in that mode, still drinking in every little string noise. As a consequence, the simple melody has a disproportionately pronounced impact, and is unexpectedly involving.
And so he continues, sometimes exploiting an established folk guitar lexicon (Goodmorning Junction, Stellar Rushes, Easy Pieces No.4), and sometimes doggedly forging his own vocabulary, that incorporates sonic elements conventionally regarded as extramusical, arhythmic phrasing and seemingly aleatory components (Signal Stations, The Leaden Circles, Quiver). And sometimes, as in The Mirror Wall, he simply applies his technique in a straightforward manner to a melodically challenging composition.
The penultimate track, American Gothic, is a fuzzed out blues rock boogie, albeit one with only one riff, repeated obsessively while a lead guitar part repeatedly tries to pull away to another chord, and is repeatedly snapped back into place by the refusal of the other part to move. It panders to some of the commonplace rock blues assumptions, which makes its subversion of others all the more potent. It’s the dynamic peak of the album, which immediately drops away to a tranquil calm.
The final track is called Listening. Ultimately, I found myself doing just that. It was as though this entire album, or in fact Beaudreau’s entire oeuvre, had systematically prepared me to hear this piece. There’s string noise, unpredictable phrasing, melodic and harmonic ambiguity, seemingly random percussion, other noises that may or may not be percussion, and precious few signals to tell you how to like it. I found myself just listening, letting all the sounds float through my awareness, and finding it uncomplicatedly pretty. It has a quiet, contemplative mood, and although it lacks conventional structuring devices, its aleatory character is gentle and pleasing, like wind chimes. I found myself doubting whether Beaudreau would recognise his music in my analysis, and wondering whether perhaps he just likes all the sounds he makes, and doesn’t think about them at all. But of course the purpose of describing art is not to paraphrase the author’s intentions, which are often as elusive to them as to anyone else, but to share an understanding that may help others to digest the work to its fullest potential: and I have to say, with James Beaudreau, the deeper you dig, the more you get.

James Beaudreau - ‘Java St. Bagatelles’ (2006)
Workbench Recordings WBR1, numbered limited edition CD album, $10
(also available as DD, $ pay what you want)
Be warned, I’m going to have to resort to semiotics to describe this music. The most interesting meanings this album feeds me are the ones generated by Beaudreau’s approach to compositional syntax, so structural analysis is the tool for this job. Using that sort of approach for its own sake makes for self-aggrandizing intellectualist bullshit, but my primary aim in writing about music is to describe and analyse the listening experience, and I’d argue that an examination of the way meaning is built up from the combination of small into large structures is central to an understanding of how this composition works.
And yes, that’s composition, singular. This is an album of twenty-four short tracks, which are clearly not intended to be listened to in isolation. In a conventional composition meaning is generated through the mechanism of combining notes to make a melody: the notes are analogous to the words making up a sentence, and constitute the individual signifying units, or musemes. In Java St. Bagatelles, meaning is generated in a different location, in the syntactical relationship between the bagatelles themselves. Where the tracks of an album are usually relatively self contained, like the chapters of a longer narrative, here they draw their capacity to signify from their context, and function as the musemes that constitute a single long musical statement.
This is not to say that they do not contain notes making up musical phrases in a recognisable manner; various strategies are employed to frustrate common habits of listening, however. It is obvious throughout that Beaudreau is a capable guitarist, but at no point does he cop out and tender technical facility as a token of musical quality. Notes are choked where you might expect them to sustain; string noise is elevated to the level of content; tonality is present, but it is always provisional, and subject to sudden abandonment or repurposing; phrase lengths are unpredictable, and phrase shapes often ungainly.
None of this should suggest that these vignettes are ugly, or difficult in the sense that Edgar Varèse or Albert Ayler are difficult: in detail the textures are usually consonant, and there are sequential episodes of pleasant noodling. But ideas meander strangely into one another, without being developed, and then seem to stop in mid thought. They are performed by a solo acoustic guitar, using a vocabulary mainly derived from folk and blues idioms, although from time to time I was reminded of John McLaughlin, for example by the bent harmonics in Under The Tree On The Hill.
Ultimately a piece of music is the experience of listening to it. Java St. Bagatelles makes it clear through the various strategies described above that conventional listening habits are inappropriate: realising this will either cause the listener to switch off, and dismiss it out of hand as incompetent, or to open their ears and start paying real attention, to the sound as encountered, rather than its relationship to their preconceptions.
It is recorded in a way that emphasises hiss, and incorporates background noises, odd thumps and bangs that might be the body of the instrument, or furniture moving in the room. These elements encouraged me to hear the entire piece as being aleatory in some sense, with Beaudreau’s (presumable) improvisations bearing as much resemblance to automatic writing as they do to blowing in the conventional sense. It took me a while to get it, but when I did it forced my musical awareness wide open, and yes, I found beauty in it.
The aesthetics of this album can only be found once you abandon your desire to classify it. It’s an ethereal, astringent beauty, with a bite like lemon juice, and so rich in musical meaning, once you start to hear how it hangs together, that you need an hour of silence to digest it after each listening.

James Beaudreau - ‘Fresh Twigs’ (2008)
Workbench Recordings WBR2, DD album, $ pay what you want
The last note of James Beaudreau’s debut release dies away a second or so before the recording noise; ‘Fresh Twigs’, his sophomore release, opens with a moment of noise before the first note of the guitar. Silence is an important part of music: it is analogous to the frame in visual art, or the wall behind the support if the work is unframed. All music begins and ends in silence, and by seeming to let you hear the unsullied ambience of the recording apparatus Beaudreau represents the frame in a way that a simple absence of sound cannot.
In Gold Coast, the second piece on this album, the hiss gives way to a repeating soft crackle, like dust on a record: this is a bit more obviously contrived, but also spells out its own value as a part of the composition more clearly, as does the deliberate coming and going of the white noise on Twig. ‘Fresh Twigs’ is composed of fewer, longer pieces than its predecessor, utilising a broader range of instrumental textures and sonic effects: there is a concomitant shift in the site of its principal musical meanings, back toward the individual piece as a self contained composition.
We hear more of Beaudreau the player on this album as well, finding a variety of interesting ways to extract sounds from his instrument with his hands, sometimes in a way that flips the relationship between fundamental and transient. If there’s one lesson that Beaudreau is keen to teach us it is that every sound you can hear is a part of the artwork: in a way, like John Cage’s silence, it encourages us to listen as much to anything else that comes our ears’ way while the album is playing.
To say that meaning is generated within the scope of the individual tracks is not to suggest they conform to conventional notions of what a short instrumental guitar piece should sound like, or how it should be structured. In contrast to the bagatelles of Beaudreau’s first album, ideas are developed within these pieces, but they are usually developed and then abandoned in favour of another, meaning that the structure of the pieces resembles verbal syntax, eschewing the repetition and incremental development of a conventional arrangement.
Parlor is one exception to this, repeating its sequence of ideas, and presenting a more easily digested set of harmonic and melodic materials. It even ends with a confirmational return to the tonic. Fresh Twigs, the closer, is another: a bass riff accompanies electric blues guitar improvisations, but it is repeated so obsessively, and is so short a cycle, that it begins to ask the same questions of the listener as the more confusingly structured pieces.
Beaudreau uses electric guitar throughout the album, from time to time, and utilises some other sound effects in Rowing/ Haint, although they may have been generated by his guitar. Like the recording noise effects, these sounds tend to come and go very abruptly, cutting across any comfort zone we may have settled into now that we think we know what James Beaudreau sounds like. Using this broader sonic palette enables him to approach compositional aims more directly than at the level of the whole album, which essentially makes the music easier to listen to and understand: in making it easier, he sacrifices some of his debut’s power to command direct attention to the recorded sound, but what he gains is the capacity to express his meanings more forcefully. As an album, ‘Fresh Twigs’ certainly makes you think, but it also makes you feel, in a more accessible way than Beaudreau’s earlier work.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks a ton, Oli. It's really gratifying to read such an insightful and well-considered review. Many thanks!