Andrew Woodhead:”Pendulums”

Here’s some liner notes I wrote to Andrew’s new record for bell ringers, improvising ensemble and electronics, “Pendulum”. It’s a great record, the best record for bell ringers, improvising ensemble and electronics I’ve ever heard. Go and buy it on Bandcamp!

Andrew Woodhead: ” Pendulums”

 

It’s funny how we “prepare” ourselves to listen. Knowing a piece of music will be a certain type, we somehow “brace” our ears for it. I was sent this album as an online link, so I just opened the page and had it on in the background as a first listen. My first response was to look out of the window. That’s where bells are. Outside. They don’t come from our stereos, our streaming services. We don’t “listen” to them like that. They go with white dresses and confetti, they are timeless and immovable, parts of the landscape.

 

“Pendulums” for bell ringers, improvisers and electronicsis a fascinating exploration of extremes. On the one hand we have a group of improvisers, six musicians swerving nimbly between the free and the composed, noise and pitch, turning on sixpences. Then there are the bell ringers, pulling ropes attached to tons of immovable heavy metal that, once set in motion, gradually, will not stop until gravity slowly decrees it. You don’t start the bell ringing lightly. It’s the equivalent of a band of unicyclists with an ocean liner. 

Between these two factions are Andrew Woodhead’s electronics, a kind of sprawling sketchbook of bells recorded on field trips, mixed in with other sounds captured peripherally, ice cream vans and ambulances, bicycle bells – the stuff, like the church bells themselves, that we hear but perhaps don’t listen to as hard as we might. They could be seen as a kind of commentary on the piece as a whole, sounds set in stone that can nevertheless be manipulated at will, nature sucked into the funnel of a machine and spat out in beautiful arcs. It’s a striking contrast to the large ensemble, and offered the conductor a break from arm waving and a chance to “get stuck in”.

In a piece like “Ring Up: Plain Hunt” contrast is key, thetwo main groups make no attempt to blend – it’s a kind of “laying out” of the palette. But this doesn’t last long:“Sideways” finds the horns imitating the bells in their building up of layers, harmonics hanging in the air. It’s a strangely moving experience, as if the players are trying to fit in with the archaic methods of the bell ringers, who remain absent, perhaps looking on with mild bemusement.

“Changes” opens with solo electronics, and we hear bells compacted, reversed, sped up yet always somehow recognisable. The long reverberation of the St Paul’s tower bells can nevertheless be snapped shut, and we experience a kind of combination, the best of both worlds perhaps, the speed of improvisation coupled with the languorous echoes of the environment. When the real bells join in, it’s a moment of exquisite strangeness, like a table full of children’s model animals joined by a real snarling tiger. The altos join the ensemble, and for a brief moment, all three elements are playing together before the electronics retreat, and we hear, in these two distinct spaces, what eventually emerges as a multi-layered groove. A groove using church bells. That’s worth thinking about for a second.

But the sonic strangeness is only part of what makes thismusic so compelling. Bell ringing has a whole mathematical side to its composition, elegant and logical patterns that can be re-interpreted away from its original context: the “Plain Hunt” series here demonstrates how the same source material conjures up vastly different sounds and atmospheres, whilst “Partials” I and II and “Formation” use pitches derived from the bell sounds themselves as material for more freely written episodes. “Sideways” and “Diagrams” treat a bell ringing “chart” as a score in two very different strategies. “Waves” interprets the visual pattern of a series of pendulums at varying tempi, and here the bell ringers are required to play together, which in traditional bell ringing is known as “firing”(and is very definitely a mistake when it happens). It takes the musicians right out of whatever comfort zone there might be in such practices. The sound of mathematics is never more evident than in the slowly collapsing unisons of the bells and instruments alike. It’s another instance of Andrew’s deep thinking around the possibilities of the instruments and their interaction.

So there’s a lot of calculation, extrapolation of ideas, re-interpretation of traditional methods. But you don’t have to worry about all that. You can hear that something is going on, some process is working itself out. You can hear the work that has gone into it, admire the ambition of combining such disparate materials into a coherent whole. You can hear a kind of English folksiness that occasionally fractures as abackwards ice cream van sample drives its diesel enginethrough the green and pleasant land. But eventually, inevitably, we are led back to the pure sounds of the bells. In “Plain Hunt III: Ring Down” the instruments unmistakably mimic the tolling of the bells, then blend in with them as the “ringing down” closes the piece, the bells lowered to their resting place, closing the ritual that began with their raising. In the final phrase, the six bells sound slowly and distinctly, as if to say, that was all that was there, everything you hear comes from these simple sounds. In the directness of the improvising, the slow unfolding of the writing, the raising, tolling and lowering of the bells, the primacy of process forms the centre from which this remarkable work emerges.

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