by Ian Mann
June 23, 2021
An unusual and ambitious work that successfully blends three seemingly disparate elements into a convincing and unified whole. An album that defies categorisation,
(Leker Records LEKCD001)
Andrew Woodhead – compositions and live electronics
Sam Wooster, Charlotte Keeffe – trumpets
Sam Andreae, Lee Griffiths – alto saxophones
Helen Papaionnou, Alicia Gardener-Trejo – baritone saxophones
Tony Dawe, Jonathan Thorne, Matthew King, Alex Frye, Graham Kelly, Ros Martin, Angie Wakefield, Richard Grimmett – bellringers
“Pendulums”, subtitled “Music for Bellringers, Improvisers & Electronics”, is a major new work from the Birmingham based pianist, composer and improviser Andrew Woodhead.
Originally from Sheffield, Woodhead, born in 1990, is a graduate of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire and has since settled in the city, becoming an important presence on the Birmingham jazz and improvised music scene.
Woodhead has appeared regularly on the Jazzmann web pages, featuring in bands led by vocalist Anthony Marsden, saxophonist Claude Pietersen (the quintet Zwolfton) and as a member of the trio Snapdragon featuring vocalist Holly Thomas and reeds player Lluis Mather. Other musicians with whom he has worked include trombonist Richard Foote, trumpeters, Percy Pursglove and Kim Macari, saxophonist Paul Dunmall, violinist Sarah Farmer, cellist Hannah Marshall, bassist Olie Brice and drummer Mark Sanders.
During his student days Woodhead appeared at the annual Birmingham / Trondheim Jazz Exchange event at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Out of this grew a collaboration between the duo ELDA (Woodhead and trumpeter Aaron Diaz) and the Norwegian vocalist Kari Eskild Havenstrom. This trio recorded the album “Shiny/Things”, released in early 2019. Review here;
The ELDA duo regularly collaborate with other musicians and have also recorded the EPs “Hippocampinae” with saxophonist Faye MacCalman, “A Different Name For The Same River” with trumpeter Sam Wooster and bassist Chris Mapp and “Live at BEAST” with synthesiser player / vocalist Georgia Denham.
Woodhead has also performed in a duo setting with his partner, saxophonist and clarinettist Alicia Gardener-Trejo. The couple also work together in the trio Bobhowler, a project with theremin player Tom Mills, with whom they recorded the album “Figures” in 2019.
In addition to his work as a musician Woodhead is also a promoter and event organiser, one of the movers and shakers of the vibrant Birmingham jazz and improvised music scene. Pre-pandemic he organised the regular Fizzle free improvisation sessions held at The Lamp Tavern, Digbeth, a series of events that has attracted leading improvisers from Birmingham, London and beyond. At the time of writing I’m pleased to report that the Fizzle series has just re-started.
In early 2020, together with violinist Sarah Farmer, he was one of the driving forces behind the Ideas of Noise Festival, a celebration of experimental music that took place at various venues across The Midlands. All of the planned events were able to take place before the first Covid lockdown, one of the highlights being a performance by a trio led by the New York based drummer Tom Rainey and featuring saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham in January 2020.
“Pendulums” was Woodhead’s own project for the Ideas of Noise Festival and the work, then comprised of six movements, was first performed at St. Paul’s Church in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter in February 2020 as part of the Festival. In October 2020 Woodhead and the ensemble returned to the same venue to record a further five ‘studio’ pieces.
The lavishly packaged “Pendulums” appears on Woodhead’s own Leker records imprint. It represents his second release as a leader following 2016’s solo release “Pocket Piano Improvisations”.
During his days at Birmingham Conservatoire Woodhead developed a fascination with the church bells that he heard on a daily basis around the city, transcribing the patterns and studying the ‘blue lines of campanology’. This opened his ears to the sounds of the other bells of everyday urban life – bicycle bells, ice cream vans, clocks, ambulances and traffic lights and began to gather field recordings of such noises, which he describes as “sounds of warning, comfort and assembly all around us”.
Woodhead’s album liner notes explain more about the project;
“The music on this record is inspired by the sounds, patterns and processes of bell-ringing. Some of it involves musicians pretending to be bells, other parts bellringers pretending to be metronomes, sometimes everyone plays together.
Campanology is an interesting art form in that it embraces many contradictions; it is simultaneously extrovert and introvert, ritual and recreational, music and not music.
I love the collectivism that I felt from rehearsing with the bellringers from St. Paul’s, and the meditative feeling that descends in the chamber when a course is being rung. I hope to capture some of those thoughts in the music, and hope that you enjoy listening to it.
‘Ring Up’, ‘Changes’, ‘Formation’ and ‘Ring Down’ contain melodic and conceptual elements from traditional bell-ringing methods”
The musicians and bellringers not only play from notation but also improvise on graphic scores based on bellringers’ blue line diagrams, most notably in the recurring “Plain Hunt” series. Woodhead’s own role is not his familiar one as a pianist but instead as an electronic musician as he uses his field recordings as the basis for the “clicks, ticks and trills” that form part of the overall sonic landscape. His deployment of ‘found sounds’ and field recordings has evoked comparisons with such milestone recordings as Brian Eno and David Byrne’s “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”.
Further insights into the music can be drawn from the highly perceptive, and entertaining, liner notes written by the pianist, composer, improviser, educator and social commentator Liam Noble, presumably one of Woodhead’s former piano tutors.
Noble emphasises the differences between the improvising musicians on trumpets and saxophones, able to change musical direction at a whim, and the bellringers, pulling on ropes attached to tons of metal, whose sounds, once set in motion cannot be altered. He views Woodhead’s live electronics both as the mediator between these two apparently opposing “factions” and as another contrasting element, his ‘found sounds’ simultaneously “set in stone” yet capable of being manipulated at will. Thus Woodhead becomes a vital performing presence, in addition to his roles as composer and conductor.
Noble’s notes also offer insights into the individual pieces, such as the opening “Ring Up; Plain Hunt”, which begins with a peal of bells, later superseded by the free jazz exchanges of the horns, classic free improv featuring a fascinating array of breath generated sounds and with the horn players deploying various aspects of extended technique. At one juncture they sound like a swarm of angry wasps let loose in the church. There’s no real attempt to ‘blend’ the two factions, with Noble regarding the piece as “a kind of ‘laying out’ of the palette”.
There’s a devotional, ‘church like’ aspect about some of the horn playing on the opener and this becomes more apparent on “Sideways”, which finds the horns imitating the sounds of the bells as they combine to create layers of harmonics as part of a score based on an actual bell-ringing chart. The effect is strangely beautiful and moving with Noble commenting;
“it’s as if the players are trying to fit in with the archaic methods of the bellringers, who remain strangely absent, perhaps looking on with mild bemusement”.
“Changes” commences with the sound of solo electronics, with Woodhead skilfully and imaginatively manipulating his field recordings as the sounds of the various urban bells are variously compacted, sped up or reversed to create a kind of ‘musique concrète’. Woodhead’s sampled soundscape is then augmented by the sound of real time church bells and then by the sounds of the horns, as all three components of the music truly coalesce for the first time. The electronics subsequently fade away as the horns improvise collectively, fan-faring above the rhythmic patterns of the bells. “A groove using church bells. That’s worth thinking about for a second”, remarks Noble.
Noble also makes the observation that;
“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 demonstrates how the same source material conjures up various sounds and atmospheres”.
“Plain Hunt IV” offers an example of this with the saxes and trumpets taking the patterns of the bells to create a ‘horn chorale’, incorporating pecks, rushes of breath and other elements of improvised technique.
By way of contrast “Plain Hunt II” combines horns and electronics in a manner that is very different in terms of both style and execution, with the sound of church bells, this time possibly sampled, entering towards the close.
The “Partials” series is based on pitches from the bell sounds themselves and uses them as the basis for more freely written episodes. “Partials II” features the horns, with strident trumpet fanfares contrasting with mellower ensemble textures, before all inhibitions are cast aside as the unusually configured wind sextet achieves a powerful ensemble sound that somehow manages to combine the patterns of plainsong with the earthiness and fervour of a New Orleans marching band.
“Formation” is based upon similar methods but finds the horns deploying a very different sound. Here the mood is melancholic and hesitant, the instruments combining in a more obviously ‘free jazz’ way, yet never abandoning that underlying sense of mathematical structure. The rich blend of their instrumental voices makes for compelling listening.
The near twelve minute “Tolls / Waves” represents the focal point of the album, with the “Waves” part of the composition, written for the bells, being based on the frequencies of a pendulum wave. The sequence begins with “Tolls”, and the horns approximating the sound of tolling bells, but punctuating the rhythmic patterns with squalling free jazz elements.
“Waves” then features the sound of the bells alone, interpreting the visual patterns of a series of pendulums at various tempi. Initially it sounds like the familiar tolling of church bells, but gradually becomes more fragmented, although at one point the bellringers are required to play in unison, a process rare in bell-ringing and one which is generally considered to be a mistake.
“Diagrams” is a companion piece to the earlier “Sideways” with the horns again improvising around a bell-ringing chart, but this time much more freely, with a greater sense of interaction between the players and more extensive use of extended techniques. It’s much more obviously a ‘free jazz’ or ‘improv’ performance.
The second “Partials” piece, actually “Partials I”, features the sounds of Woodhead’s field recordings of various types of bells. The extended opening passage may remind rock fans of the introduction to the song “Time” on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” album. Woodhead’s electronics are later superseded by the horns, again “pretending to be bells”.
The album concludes with “Plain Hunt III / Ring Down”, which finds the horns picking up where “Partials I” left off, before eventually being joined by the relentless pealing of the bells, the two ‘factions’ finally merging with one another, before just the bells are left to complete the final “ring down”.
“Pendulums” is an unusual and ambitious work that successfully blends three seemingly disparate elements into a convincing and unified whole. The time, care and skill that Woodhead, a former Dankworth Composition Prize winner, and his collaborators have invested in the project is apparent throughout, and this care extends to the album packaging, which includes artwork by Tom Chapman, photographs by Guri Bosh and, of course, Noble’s excellent liner notes. The words of both Noble and Woodhead certainly enhance the listener’s enjoyment of the music, courtesy of their valuable insights.
It’s an album that defies categorisation, but the improvisational element certainly brings it into the jazz sphere, although I understand that it may not appeal to all jazz listeners.
Nevertheless one cannot help but admire Woodhead’s ambition and resourcefulness. This combination of jazz, electronica and traditional bell-ringing may well be unique in the world, I’ve certainly never heard anything quite like it before.
One suspects that a performance of “Pendulums” would also represent a very special live experience and all being well listeners will get the chance to enjoy the music at two concert dates planned for later in the year at;
Thursday 14th October 2021 – St. Paul’s Church, Birmingham
Saturday 16th October 2021 – St. Clement Danes Church, Strand, London
Both performances will also incorporate visuals commissioned from Sarah Farmer.
For further information and to purchase “Pendulums” on vinyl or CD please visit http://www.andrewwoodheadmusic.com, which contains appropriate links to Andrew’s Bandcamp page.
blog comments powered by Disqus