Slowfoot Records SLOCD025, 2014, DD & CD album, 48m 45s
£7+ DD £10+ CD
The musicians that make up Monkey Puzzle Trio are all confirmed experimentalists, all situated on the peripheries of, or the boundaries between, socially validated zones of practice, where the population is sparse and the musical meanings hard-won. The press release for this album situates the ensemble’s work on ‘a tightrope between song, improvisation and sound-as-sound’; while that helps to give us the general picture, it’s inevitably a simplification. Starting with the idea of song (the album is also described as a ‘song cycle’), it should be noted that while the music features Viv Corringham’s voice prominently, and while her lyrics, melodies and vocal techniques are central, these pieces lack many of the features that would be commonly thought to characterise songs. They are not strophic, tightly structured, rhetorical expressions of defined and isolated creative ideas, but open-ended, developmental explorations, whose denotational meanings seem more to be windows on discourses beyond the frame of the music than coherent, self-contained representations of the sort most usually associated with lyric forms. These feel more like jams than songs, for all that singing is at their heart. The use of ‘sound-as-sound’ is also tenuous, seeming more like a disclaimer than a description, a way into the sound for a listener accustomed to more conventional approaches; for while there are plenty of sounds here that fall outside the range of conventional musical signification, it is easy to assimilate them as aesthetic elements within the practice of the improvising group, without needing to treat them as found objects, or incursions from another zone of practice. These are experimental musicians, and this is experimental music (Corringham’s own practice is apparently more frequently situated in the art world), but it’s definitely, incontestably music; it may question, and even destabilise them, but core assumptions about the use of technical facility and musical understanding to produce aestheticised sounds through collective improvisation and mutual interaction remain intact.
While the ideas of ‘song’ and ‘sound-as-sound’ may be (fruitfully) problematic in discussing this music, Monkey Puzzle Trio are less ambiguously situated with regard to improvisation. They still occupy a position of peripherality; their practice is too rhetorically coherent, too metrically regular to signify as free improvisation, and enjoys far too contingent a sense of tonality and style to sound like any specific musical genre in which improvisation is a key aspect of practice, such as jazz. But much interesting artistic work is done in the liminal zones between or around practices, and there are many indications of their connection to established improvisational traditions here, such as Nick Doyne-Ditmas’ quotation from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in the bass on the opener, ‘My Own Shoes’. The music is improvised by Corringham (contributing some sound effects as well as ‘electric voice’), Doyne-Ditmas and drummer Charles Hayward of This Heat, and subsequently embellished with overdubbed brass and keyboards. Some of the keyboards (or keyboard-like sounds) may have been played in the heat of battle, but I’m not about to dissect the recordings forensically; the core of the music is the complex intertwining of the three key voices, producing a subtly shaded set of textures, including some extraordinarily propulsive rhythmic work, much of it quite viscerally direct. The grooves make obvious nods to funk, precipitous spaces giving gravity the time to drive the one down hard, although sometimes the imperative to forward motion is too great to permit syncopation, and there is often a disjointed feel. Corringham does many of the things an improvising avant-garde vocalist might be expected to do, exploring variations in timbre, electronic processing of her voice, the aesthetics of abstract phonics and the boundaries between sense and non-sense, but she also sings tonal melodies and recognisable words, and most importantly she participates fully in the collective endeavour, rather than floating above Doyne-Ditmas and Hayward’s rhythmic structure as though it were there simply to provide field to her figure. In ‘Negative Space/Failure’ she declaims disjointed syllabic forms in rhythmic discourse with her colleagues, their collective articulation gradually adding up to coherent phrases as the sense emerges into her words; this is perhaps the best, most clear-cut example, but throughout The Pattern Familiar rhythm, verbal sense, and ensemble texture move and develop together, showing themselves as facets of a single object rather than as competing discourses in collision. Sometimes, as in ‘I Like Her’, a wash of harmonic colour from a keyboard is used to direct our affective response; elsewhere, in ‘Orange Car’ for instance, or ‘Just Say Yes’, brass is scored in block chords that fall like hammers, supporting ambiguous observations with emphatic certainty.
This is, for me, the album’s key creative strategy; these artists have too nuanced a view of representation to produce an easily digested, singular affective meaning, or to offer the spurious closure of comfortably simple, incomplete insights. But however ambiguous the things they do have to say, they say them with great conviction. It’s never quite clear what the songs are about, although certain themes seem to recur; observations of the banal and everyday are related to a somewhat alienated sense of personal identity, the particular rubbing up against the mediated, in a tense, abrasive manner. Whether nostalgia is being sealed in the earth or planted there to grow is not clear in ‘House of Loss’; in ‘My Own Shoes’ identity is highlighted as something outside the self, something superficial; ‘The River Lee’ presumably transports us to County Cork in Ireland, but we wouldn’t know that if we hadn’t seen the title written out, and that resolution unlocks further uncertainties regarding the character in the song (is she smoking a pipe or playing music on one?). None of this adds up to a thesis, or to an identifiable aesthetic conceit, or to set of narratives: in ‘Yellow + Grey’ ‘barges bang with a boom/ tourists tiptoe on ice/ grey sky, wet ground/ buildings going up and coming down’. And once the scene is set, a question is asked: ‘what are the men in orange doing?/ leaning on [?] wall with their phones and cigarettes/ and sandwiches/ standing and waiting’. Nothing is happening. ‘What is the man in grey and yellow doing?/ swing that pole out over the river/ taking away the ground he stands upon/ grey sky, wet ground’. That’s all there is, the damp monochrome of a (presumably) British urban waterway, and a loss of certainty.
But this is not a depressing vision. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to be a vision at all, but a form of participation; the sense of alienation is not a response to the observed banalities, but a facet of identities that they constitute, or more to the point, that are mutually constitutive with these drab particularities. There are moments of brightness, the ‘sun shining on an object’ in ‘Orange Car’, and a sense of generative, determined creativity, in the pervasive effort to follow motifs and chance concatenations to their necessary conclusions. This is experience as lived, not art as a didactic or explicatory reinterpretation of experience. As a musical practice it would be virtually impossible for most listeners to assimilate this work into their everyday lives, given that most people are only dimly aware of the avant-garde, and like their art to resemble the art they have already encountered; but for its authors, it seems to me, the music on The Pattern Familiar is practice in a broader sense, an integral part of what they do and who they are. These are the actions and discourses through which they negotiate meaning and form their identities, at least within the bounds of the community called Monkey Puzzle Trio. This is their dance; a dance we are instructed to join in ‘Just Say Yes’.