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© Paulo Pacheco 2002
[front page image © Mike Inns 2004]

Simon H. Fell : A Contradiction at Heart

“There’s definitely a contradiction at the heart of what I do.”

The voice coming over the phone is slightly brusk, blazing nonetheless with the certainty of vast experience and brimming with the energy of new ideas.  Simon H. Fell is extremely comfortable with words, the expression of concepts, and the admission of influence.  “Oh yes, Braxton—you could say he’s the reason I’m in music.”  The influence is audible, both in his instrumental rhetoric and in the concepts used to elucidate it.  Like his bass playing, his speech flows in liquid bursts, resembling the finest music in the concisely synoptic expansion of motive or gestalt, until the moments when he draws breath, when I can hear the conflicting alternatives, fat on freedom, assert themselves, bringing a momentary halt to expression.  “Well… [a moment’s hesitation, a breath] it’s not really like that…”

He’s even made these seeming double-takes his own, and they are integral to his compositional and improvisational rhetoric.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on two of his newest offerings, products of his esteemed and deservedly respected Bruce’s Fingers label.  Composition 62 might be the best of the Compilation Series yet, and the ZFP Quartet disc is still another testament to the breadth of his improvisational vocabulary.  Both discs hinge and thrive on the tenuous relationship between composition and performance that underpins all improvised music, but Fell’s rigor and humor bite at each other’s heels, rendering his style and language instantly identifiable and, ultimately, verbally inexplicable.

It would be relatively easy to get overabsorbed in Fell’s accompanying notes to Composition 62.  He’s dryly apologetic, fully cognizant of the fact that jazzers won’t like the classical sections, and that devotees of contemporary composition will gawk at inherent imprecision.  How could it be otherwise?  The Compilation Series is predicated on the studio-manipulated juxtaposition of trans-temporal events, any overriding structural or soloistic concerns being subject to change over time, the way in which the liners justify the “quasi-concerto” appellation.  Fell is careful to caution the reader that his explanations are only for those that care about such things, and his list of influences is exhaustive, but there’s something just a bit whimsical about the whole thing:

“Gruppen Expression” combines a straightforward expression of Gruppen proportions in the percussion, with (i) sequentially original and retrograde improvisation in the strings, harp and piccolo and (n) simultaneously original and retrograde improvisation in the clarinet and pedal steel guitar. Sounds complicated, but I like it.


“Stockhausen Mancini Head” casts a backward glance to the more abruptly experimental investigations of some of my earlier work and poses the question ‘what would it sound like if Henry Mancini had arranged the soundtrack for a Hollywood biopic of Karlheinz Stockhausen?’   And then the second question ‘and what would that sound like played backwards?’

Intriguingly complex, to be sure, but in conversation, Fell puts the composer/performer dialectic in the proverbial nutshell.  “The relationship I’m interested in is the classic relationship of jazz composer to musician.  If I write music for a certain person, what comes out is my music played by that person.  What interests me is always a result of that particular combination at that moment in time.”

This comes the closest to describing the fluid experience of listening to one of the larger Fell compositions.  Each semi-autonomous moment involves layers of events which might cohere in something resembling linear fashion, even if the work’s macrocosmic sections are designed to avoid it.  The crescendo leading away from “Prelude” is a beautiful example of short-form cohesion; it arises out of registral and timbral interplay, extremely high sounds in tug-of-war with rumbles and bursts of electronics until a gradual heightening encroaches on listener consciousness.  The sound builds, hangs poised, builds almost to intolerance and then comes crashing down.  It’s a stunning moment that catches me unaware, no matter how many times I consciously wait for it.  “That particular part was played live,” Fell explains.  “Obviously, in the concert hall, you can have the whole dynamic range, from near inaudibility to a huge great… [he engages in a rare burst of onomatopoeia] ...it took lots of effort to achieve that on record.”

The same could be said of the whole disc, and it would be pointless, even foolhardy, to attempt anything approaching linear analysis.  I was struck by the muscular mayhem of Mick Beck’s contributions to “Contrabassoon Concertino Construct”, but the album’s a veritable stew of soloists, weaving their ways in and out of the loosely knit compositional fabric.  Especially noteworthy is a soprano solo by Evan Parker who, as the notes have it, plays Dolphy to Fell’s Mingus, and Alex Ward’s presence and influence is palpable throughout, but the line between soloist and orchestra is happily blurred.  Floating to the surface, at any given moment, might be a gob of pedal steel, a snippet of 1950s “light” jazz or, to quote an earlier Fell project’s title, The Horrors of Darmstadt.  These are not simply momentary allusions, as they constitute huge slices of time in the dense work’s 80 minutes.  Only in retrospect does the strange temporal flow of the music reveal its own terms.  As with Braxton’s diverse output, or like waterskiing over Joyce’s wake, it’s intense listening that offers up its many rewards only with many hours of practice on the listener’s part.

Neither Fell nor I can remember who said, of Monk’s music, that his improvisations are molten compositions and the compositions are frozen improvisations; it’s absolutely appropriate where Fell’s own playing is concerned, and the ZFP Quartet’s live 2002 performance is a study in expertly controlled chaos.  I’ll admit to some initial disappointment with it, especially in light of the sonic marvels of “62”.  Fell follows my lead, magnanimously, needlessly humble.  “Well, it’s a genre piece, no question. I hope it will appeal to the people that enjoy improvisation but not necessarily to those that like my more composed music.”

Jason Bivins, always one of the most insightful writers about improvised music, hears Bartok’s later music channeled in this session, and it’s a stunning observation.  Especially in some of the sections devoted exclusively to strings, there is a frail subtlety, almost somber, that simply moans Bartok’s last quartet.  This might go a short distance toward explaining the title (Music for Strings, Percussion & Electronics), but as with any Fell offering, there are many more ingredients.  Space, both between sounds and on the soundstage, is expertly handled throughout.  I enjoyed the distinct illusion of three-dimensionality, as Carlos Zingaro’s violin and Marcio Mattos’ cello dipped and weaved in what sounded to me like semicircular patterns in space.  Many of the electronics that made “62” so dense are also here, but the whole atmosphere is sparse, intricate, and free in the best sense.  Both discs take full advantage of the full dynamic spectrum, demanding as much active listening from the listener as from the performers.

As I play back the interview with Fell, I realize he’s said nothing, not word one, about this own playing.  His Braxton comment comes the closest, as Fell’s arsenal of techniques mirrors the intensely physical transcendence of Braxton’s playing on a disc like For Alto.  This is why ZFP’s percussionist, Mark Sanders, is such a good sparring partner for Fell; their playing captures the non-linearity of Fell’s compositions, somehow also exuding logic and reason.  Fell exemplifies the truly integrated composer/musician, and his final comment to me reveals his own process: “I certainly hope you can boil all that down into something useful.”