Believers Roast 2013, CD album, 47m 27s
The game of Consequences has a long history, probably in the order of two centuries, but quite possibly longer. Back when parlour games were essential lubricants to the passage of time, a progress not demarcated by the dazzling increments of the media age, such diversions had a far more prominent role in culture, and could provide a touchstone to other, less frivolous activities. The Surrealists, a diverse creative group committed to the elision of distinctions between the absurd and the profound, between work and play, between dream and waking, found the non-sequiturs of Consequences ideally suited to their creative purposes, both as a form of recreation and as a source of taboo breaking non-rational articulations; an early game among Surrealists in Paris yielded the phrase ‘le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau’ (‘the exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine’), which came to be associated with the pictorial version of the game. The phrase, the activity, and the art which results from it have all been enduringly influential, albeit at an underground level, influencing the cut-up technique pioneered by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, which in its turn has influenced generations of artists in all fields. A comedy/documentary film was released in 2012 under the title The Exquisite Corpse Project, in which a script was produced by multiple writers, each only privy to the preceding five pages; Kavus Torabi, under the aegis of his Believers Roast label, which is rapidly becoming a byword for musical quality and creativity, has applied the idea to music, for the first time as far as I am aware. The rules were simple, and designed to facilitate the production of a usable album while encouraging the greatest possible creative freedom, and it is at the level of the album that the game is played, rather than of the individual composition: after the first ‘fold’ was recorded, each succeeding composer was only permitted to hear the closing twenty seconds of their predecessor’s music, and were asked to produce a recording between one and four minutes in length. The results are, as might be imagined, diverse, but the album is far from incoherent, and it’s clear that Torabi was as engaged in the creative possibilities of the project when he recruited and sequenced the many musicians involved as he or any of his collaborators were when they produced their contributions. There is a certain similarity in concept to the Telephone Music album curated by Todd Lerew for The Wire magazine’s Below The Radar compilation series, in which a sequence of musicians were played a composition once, and asked to reproduce it as best they could, using the creative and technical facilities of their usual practice, in an analogy to the game known as Chinese Whispers in the UK. However, Lerew kicked proceedings off with a rather uninspired improvisation, and although some interesting sounds proceeded, much of what followed was lackadaisical hipster noodling, with no real coherence to the album as a whole; Kavus Torabi exercises far more rigorous quality control, and has obviously instilled everyone involved with a real understanding of, and enthusiasm for the project. He initiates the album with a very striking and absorbing piece by oud player (and Knifeworld drummer) Khyam Allami; this sets the bar almost intimidatingly high for what follows, which proves to be an effective strategy to elicit consistently powerful and committed recordings from the remaining musicians.
I don’t wish to pack my review with spoilers; my initial listen through to this record was packed with delightful surprises, which the listener will best enjoy without any expectations or foreknowledge. However, I won’t be giving too much away to say that the transitions are sometimes abrupt, and sometimes imperceptible, and that without watching the track numbers change as it plays through, it would probably be impossible to mark the points at which each composition is succeeded by the next. The album is mixed as a single continuous piece, where some transitions seem to involve a gradual crossfade, and others a direct cut, but there is never any space in between (although there is often plenty of space within the compositions). The recordings take in a broad swathe of musical languages; I would imagine that Torabi had some idea what to expect when he juxtaposed particular artists in the process, as when Karda Estra’s rock-tinged modern Classical sounds transition into a piece from JG Thirwell that could be described in comparable terms. Obviously the musicians involved were all at pains to make the project work, but with only twenty seconds to work with what they produced can’t have been at all predictable, and I’d be surprised if none of them surprised Torabi when they presented their contributions. Torabi’s own ‘Fold 4’ contains some phrases from a double-course instrument (perhaps a bouzouki?) that echoes the Middle Eastern modalities of Khyam Allami’s oud improvisation in ‘Fold 1’, but if Torabi was playing the game fairly then he won’t have heard that until after he’d recorded his own piece (although he may have hazarded an educated guess). What’s really remarkable is how much each piece sounds like a response to the whole of its predecessor, and the extent to which each piece sounds like a planned episode in an agreed, over-arching narrative.
Most of this music exists somewhere on the fringes of the avant-garde; little of it is aggressively experimental in sound, or rejects mainstream aesthetics in a wholesale manner, but equally, there is pretty much nothing on The Exquisite Corpse Game that could be described as conventional. Kavus Torabi is a very creative musician, and tends to keep company with other such musicians (in a public, professional sense), so it’s unsurprising that the music collected here all sounds as though it proceeds from some deep thought and protracted concentration. The dubby bass in Appleblim’s ‘Fold 9’ is probably the closest thing to an idiomatic phraseology to be found here, but it anchors a track which is founded on the inventive and creative transformation of sonic materials, not on the simple re-framing of generic tropes. Most of the music is immediately pleasing to the ear (although the sensitive listener should be warned that my ears are extremely tolerant of dissonance and abstraction), but it asks questions of the listener nevertheless; this is an album that demands some form of active engagement from its audience, rather than serving its meanings up on a plate. To me, its atmosphere is pretty dark overall, although it’s not necessarily so in detail. It’s certainly not gloomy or lugubrious, but there is melancholy, and an element of tension or disquiet that seems to recur at many points, a certain aesthetic of dysphoria, that is neither harsh nor overwhelming, but powerful, mysterious, and even epic at times; that dark, epic quality may reach its apogee in the penultimate track, Mikrokosmos’ ‘Fold 12’. The album is concluded with Craig Fortnam’s contribution, which sounds not unlike the music he released under the Arch Garrison rubric on King Of The Down; it has a certain strangeness and whimsy to its harmonic rhythm, but it is essentially consonant and pretty, and it evinces a more upbeat, optimistic character than much of what has preceded it, something on which I’m sure Torabi was planning when he sequenced the project.
Eliciting coherent musical utterances from groups of creative musicians is as much an art as composition, or musical performance; Miles Davis’ important late work is very much focussed on that as its central creative locus, as is Damo Suzuki’s long running Network project. The world of free improvisation is also full of examples of such an approach, for obvious reasons, but as far as I’m aware the method that Kavus Torabi has employed to orchestrate this collaboration is unique in music. He gives credit for the idea to Bic Hayes, who contributes to The Exquisite Corpse Game in the guise of Mikrokosmos, and with whose permission he brought the project to fruition; it’s a great idea, and having that initial moment of inspiration surely deserves credit, but the hard work and creative effort involved in such a curatorial endeavour is, in my view, entirely comparable to that demanded by the composition and production of an album of quality music. The likelihood of being able to bring all of these musicians together in a studio, and have them come up with an album on the basis of a note-by-note collaboration, would be extremely slim, I should imagine, and although they might easily be persuaded to submit contributions to a compilation album it is very unlikely that such a record would have anything like the coherence and continuity of this one. The Exquisite Corpse Game sounds nothing like a compilation. Although the various musical personalities of its contributors are extremely clear and distinct, and to ears that are familiar with their work elsewhere, the music they contribute is quite identifiably their work, the warp of those utterly particular idioms is woven so tightly together by the weft of Torabi’s curation that the only thing I hear is the finished cloth. The album is made from a great variety of musical practices, integrated as though by magic into a single, powerful narrative, that is (here come the adjectives) sincere, insightful, beautiful, truthful and profoundly moving. The Exquisite Corpse Game is probably the best curated compilation I’ve ever heard, and taken as a single collaborative artwork, these thirteen linked compositions are truly extraordinary.