RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Tomas Phillips: Quartet for Instruments

img  Tobias Fischer

For an artist operating primarily on the basis of a personal vision of sound, Tomas Phillips has been remarkably adept at creating the illusion of ensemble play: His clicks, cuts, ticks and glitches occasionally felt like extended instrumental techniques. His arrangements frequently appeared to reference classical forms and theatrical dramatics. His materials interacted as closely and spontaneously as the members of a chambermusic formation. His frequencies hummed. His drones breathed. Responsible for these remarkable traits were Phillips's  prior involvement with the politics of Punk, which, as he pointed out in an interview with us back in 2008, „thrived on the mutual support between artist and their audience“, as well as his insistence on regarding music as an interactive system through which ideas and concepts were communicated. „Drink Deep“, released on Austrian imprint Non Visual Objects and based on songs by mid-80s hardcore-underground-heroes Rites of Spring, took the aesthetics of micronoise to the symphonic stage, to a space where an ear for timbral  depth and an instinctual talent for building vast thematic arcs out of tiny snippets combined into a euphoric celebration of  the moment. It was an album so far off the shores of conventions that it constituted an island of its own. At times, it even seemed to herald a change of direction in Phillips's own work, a move away from scenes, communities and genres altogether.

These suppositions were, in fact, entirely justified. Over the course of Quartet for Instruments' 41-minutes, Phillips all but completely reinvents himself as a composer. The pristine and purified sounds of his past works are still present. But rather than constituting the primary focus of attention, the minimal electronics which have become synonymous with his oeuvre are seamlessly integrated into a discretely flowing continuum of piano, clarinet and cello, thereby constituting merely one among the four instrumental layers referred to in the title. And yet, the outcome is not a fully-fledged volte-face or a negation of his prior achievements. On the one hand, the emanations of the acoustic trio seem to be taking center stage, as a set of sparse melodies, brusque string attacks or even concentrated meditations on a single tone are dominating most of the first half's action. On the other, as one quickly discovers, Phillips has created a virtual space for his physical materials, organising and manipulating what seem to be perfectly organic statements into processed parcels of motivic content. The dual nature of the composition is never in doubt. In fact it is made clear right from the very start, when, in the first eight seconds, a soft quint (possibly reversed) ambiguously rises from silence, before a piano-triad leads into what could arguably be considered the piece's Leitmotif – a delicate, yet slightly surreal construction, which never gets fully resolved but remains suspended somewhere between the poles of tonality and atonality.

At the heart of this meticulous blend of computer-aided transformations and untreated acoustics is an ambitious concept dealing with duration and Phillips has bent over backwards to realise his inner vision as precisely as possible. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that „hard work“ has never been a pejorative term for him. Already previous efforts like „Intermission | Six Feuilles“ on Line took several weeks of dedicated labour to complete –  for his quartet, however, Phillips was even, for the first time ever, able to spend two full and uninterrupted months at the Headlands Center for the Arts as part of a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, continually fine-tuning his ideas and gradually shaping his instrumental improvisations into an imposing grand-scale work. The term „duration“ in this context denotes focusing on the expansion of conceptual ideas rather than traditional musical configurations and avoiding the relative safety of mechanical repetition. Which is not to say that there is no such thing as thematic development here. Quite on the contrary, its sphere has been extended from merely encompassing the world of acoustic instruments to the realms of Sound Art, dealing with harmonic progressions and the recurring creakings of a wooden floor alike. Duration is presented as a concept of perpetual change that includes the return of the same elements but reduces them to mere illusions: Nothing ever quite reappears the way it was introduced, everything is  minutely varied or subtly juxtaposed with something else to create a cornucopia of fresh constellations and impressions.

Over the course of its first twenty minutes, the music is informed by the fluctuating colors created by different solo- duo-, trio- and full ensemble settings as well as playful recombinations of thematic inventions. Phillips runs the full emotional gamut, counterpointing an underlying sense of melancholia with occasional moments of relief, release and consolation. The piece both feeds from a frightful intensity in each single instant as well as a sense of drifting, of things developing without the kind of neurotic drive of, say, a Mozart concerto and of adhering to a set of unique and bespoke rules. In terms of striving for its own form and of this form being a result rather than a precursor of the actual music, there are plenty of Feldman'ean characteristics to the quartet: Its solemn ambiance, its spirituality, its proximity to a ritual, its self-inflicted insistence on a sparse set of tools. At the same time, it adds an element of non-commitment to the equation: There are several passages, in which the music drips rather than flows, and in which it appears to either be uncertain about how to progress or unsure whether it has already started at all. The  anticipatory moments before a group of musicians actually starts playing, the shuffling of their feet, the random noises on their instruments – they are an integral part of the music here, acting as a constant reminder of the eternal flux of even the most solid things.

Just when you'd think the music had settled into these cycles of both infinite and maximally contracted dimensions, there is a sudden rupture. At around the 20-minute-mark, the pounding of a colossal bass-drum introduces a new chapter of the piece. It is almost as if the listener were placed at the other side of a mirror, now looking at the manifestations as though observing giant crayfish and moraines on the other side of an aquarium's several-feet-thick translucent wall: The clarinet's grainy air streams are pitched down to subsonic oceans of deep resonance. The piano's crystalline emanations are morphed into barely recognisable, slow-motion quotations. The entire quartet sinks into an abyss, its momentum stifled, its movement all but entirely brought to a halt, its concepts lost in a sea of syrupy sonorities. It is a dream-episode, reflecting upon the work and it hypnotically continues almost until the very end, when a return of the opening fragment breaks the spell and heralds a coda of sorts. And yet, the music never comes full circle, extending into the silence following the album's ending, as the last chord is sustained and repeated beyond its last audible emissions.

The sense of everything possibly constituting nothing but a dream is reinforced by the clever use of techniques like fade-outs, creating a feeling of ghostly immateriality. And yet, the overall sensation is of just having witnessed something profound and meaningful, as delicate as its signals may have been. It is the result of a fantastical immersion on the part of the composer: After he has proven adept at creating the illusion of ensemble play with nothing but abstract sounds, Tomas Phillips has now created a piece of electrifying sonics with some of the most traditional instruments at his disposal.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tomas Phillips
Homepage: Humming Conch Records

Related articles

Frank Rothkamm: "ALT"
Understanding and enjoying at the ...
CD Feature/ Tomas Phillips: "Six Notes"
A strip of microthoughts: Phillips ...
Silent Smiles
Questions remain: The ensemble Breuer| ...
15 Questions to Tomas Phillips
What happens if a fan ...
CD Feature/ Tomas Phillips: "Drink_Deep"
Harcore Punk and quiet minimalism: ...

Partner sites