Think of music you associate with Samuel Beckett and you probably think something spare, lean, minimal, Morton Feldman being the most obvious point of reference. There was, after all, their (anti-?)operatic collaboration Neither, and two of the composer’s three last completed works were Beckett-related (Words and Music, and For Samuel Beckett). But despite several striking similarities — compare Feldman’s fondness for gently permutating cells and the internal repetitions and sonic play of Beckett’s late prose — there are appreciable differences, notably the size and scale of their final works. While Feldman stretched out in the last decade of his life, almost as if he’d foreseen the arrival of the 80-minute compact disc that would become the ideal medium for the spacious, thinly-painted canvases of his late compositions, Beckett’s works became ever more condensed, distilled. (You could, though, argue that the ultimate distillation of his work was 1969’s tiny playlet, Breath, which, devoid of both actors and dialogue, lasts just 35 seconds, but there’s still some debate among Beckett scholars as to whether this was evidence of the author’s wry sense of humour, written as it was for Kenneth Tynan’s bawdy review Oh Calcutta!). Whatever, when you think Beckett you don’t automatically think of elegant and intricately crafted modern chamber jazz, but that’s precisely what guitarist Scott Fields offers us here on this magnificent quartet outing with John Hollenbeck (percussion), Scott Roller (cello) and Matthias Schubert (tenor saxophone).
There’s little direct correlation that I can find between the album’s five tracks and the Beckett works they take their titles from — Breath, Play, Come And Go, What Where and Rockaby (all plays as it turns out) — but dig a bit deeper and the similarities begin to appear. One of the reasons Beckett’s oeuvre has consistently fascinated musicians is its sheer musicality: a constant sense of play between micro and macro form, a concern for motive, idea, development, coupled with a wicked ear and subtle sense of humour. And that’s exactly what Fields is working with here. Sometimes the pieces are as ferociously determined as the monologue that propels The Unnamable to its unforgettable conclusion ("I can’t go on, I’ll go on"), sometimes they appear to slump into the ditch at the side of the road like Watt. Sometimes they’re as wild and effusive as Lucky’s celebrated stream-of-consciousness speech in Waiting for Godot, sometimes they’re as still as Still. Fields’ accompanying text, not surprisingly a little Beckettian itself, seems to be apologetic in tone (“All that improvisation. Anti-Beckett, if anything. I have a lot to answer for. Pray for me”) but there’s nothing to say sorry for. Beckett was apparently fond of Franz Schubert; I’d like to think he might dig Matthias too. The playing of all four musicians throughout is exemplary, the scores cunningly crafted and intriguing to the point of being frustrating (and if that isn’t Beckettian I don’t know what is) and the recording superb. What more could you ask for? A sequel, perhaps. — Paris Transatlantic Magazine
From the Diary of Dog Drexel
“The best plan for listening to this music is to treat it as a whole rather than worry about what came from where,” writes Chicago-born guitarist Scott Fields of this five-movement suite (if you’re interested in the title, check out the scrambled eggs on Fields’ website, www.scottfields.com) featuring Fields himself, Carrie Biolo on pitched and unpitched percussion, Guillermo Gregorio on alto sax and clarinet, Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and English horn and Greg Kelley on trumpet. The first four movements (“Conflicted”, “Pissed”, “Bummed” and “Agitated”) also require a conductor (Stephen Dembski), whereas the finale (“Medicated”) was constructed by Greg Taylor using Max/MSP software to work on solo improvisations by the ensemble members. Rossbin regulars expecting another helping of austere, spare improvisation (the label has released excellent and highly acclaimed work by Annette Krebs, Andrea Neumann, Toshi Nakamura, not to mention Greg Kelley’s second solo album) are in for a surprise; in both instrumentation and structure, this has more in common with Varése and Birtwistle than it does with Taku Sugimoto. Fields intentionally blurs the distinction between composed and improvised material in accordance with the fine AACM tradition he grew up with, with the result that “FTDODD” joins the 4CD Rastascan box set of Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music and Masashi Harada’s 1999 “Condanction Ensemble” as another great example of top-notch improvisors bringing their skills to bear on material of a more composed / structured nature. Bruckmann and Gregorio have plenty of opportunities to showcase their outstanding multiphonics, and those familiar with the extraordinary sonorities Kelley can summon from his trumpet on his solo recordings will be duly impressed by his mastery of Fields’ arching melodic lines. After the swirling, snarling tour de force of “Pissed”, “Bummed” is a wondrous, strange, bassless landscape inhabited by muffled plunks from Biolo’s xylophone and Fields’ nylon-string guitar and plaintive wails from the wind instruments. “Agitated”, despite its title, is a decidedly fresh flowing tangle of delicately scored melodic lines, before Fields stands aside in the final movement to allow Greg Taylor to extract tissue samples of solo material and subject them to cold laboratory scrutiny with his Max/MSP software. The resulting music is, like the entire album, intriguing and impressive, if a little frosty and detached. Of course, hardcore improv snobs will dismiss it as too composed and aficionados of the likes of Ferneyhough and Finnissy will probably find it too loose, but that’s the risk you run if you want to set up shop in this particular no man’s land. However, as this album demonstrates time and again, far from being barren wasteland between two frontier checkpoints, the territory in question is bursting with miraculous new life forms. — Paris Transatlantic Magazine and Signal to Noise