You will have heard of Jos Zwaanenburg if you move in the world of flautists and certain types of experimental and cutting-edge avant-garde contemporary music, though probably not if you only sail the mainstream. He is currently a lecturer at the Conservatory of Amsterdam and also a guest lecturer at the music department of Oxford Brookes University, through which the collaborations and compositions to be heard on grist have arisen. This is a project of the Sonic Art Research Unit or SARU at Oxford Brookes University. All of these composers have the description ‘sound/sonic artist’ somewhere near their name, and various kinds of electronics are used along with Zwaanenburg’s flute to create these pieces.
Broken Mirrors by Efthynios Chatzigiannis uses flute through live electronics to garland the sound of the instrument with sounds which converse with, mirror and ‘improvise’ on the played notes. This is a fascinating interaction and the virtuoso electronics display is filled with minute detail, but the mostly high sounds filtered and reproduced result in a piece with limited variety. Upper harmonics are picked out and give interesting reflections on their Aeolian source, and the surrealist interaction of the flute and its animated alter ego has its attractions, but after a few minutes the cat is pretty much out of the bag.
You can read about another Métier release, thirty-nine pages , with works by Paul Whitty here . On grist he has two substantial pieces, the technical realisation of which is not explained in the booklet. There is clearly a heavy layer of electronic effect in Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? which for extended periods entirely shrouds the flute in waves of distortion – a sort of ‘wall of sound’. Sonically this rugged ‘wall’ has about as much charm as the West Bank Barrier, but if you like the feel of rusty steel, feedback, waves of static and a largely opaque curtain of grunge then this may be for you. This piece certainly has integrity, with the emphasis on grit. For Has the world changed or have I changed? we’re in slightly different realms, with at times uncomfortable high sounds contrasting with more detail from the flute, and some spectacularly bleak and windswept soundscapes. If this were a painting I wouldn’t want it on my wall at home, but I can appreciate its rawness of impact. Whitty’s work isn’t really suited to small environments, but I can imagine a piece like this sounding impressive in a big aircraft hangar or the like – somewhere where the sounds can be given their distance and be allowed to evolve and fill huge volumes. Headphone listeners be warned – I don’t think this has done what’s left of my upper octaves much good at all.
Stephen Cornford’s Flute Feed uses the sound of the flute to animate the soundboard of a piano, these sounds being re-recorded, building a texture of resonance which gradually takes over from the flute. This is an ‘indeterminate’ composition, which means the notes are up to the player. Jos Zwaanenburg’s skill with glissandi is much on show here, but the conceptual nature of the work is its primary raison d’être. The deep bell-like sound of the resonance which is created is an intriguing artefact, but I can’t shake loose a feel of dusty academic experiment surrounding this kind of thing. Its right to existence is perfectly reasonable, but it could be part of something bigger and so much more meaningful.
Paul Dibley’s Organ Grinder comes as a breath of fresh air, with its more through-composed craftsmanship, airy and at times dramatic shifts of acoustic effect and tonality, as well as sampled sounds taken from fairground and barrel organs. The more significant presence of the flute does point out a point of production with this release. No doubt placed as to be handy for all that electronic equipment, Zwaanenburg is playing in what sounds like a very small and dry studio, which makes the flute sound dull and distant, sharpening the contrast between his notes and electronic effects which at times conjure vast spaces. I would always prefer something which at least gives the illusion of a concert hall environment – to my mind helping the ‘live’ instrument blend with the effects it creates.
This release is fairly well documented and nicely designed. The definition of grist as “grain that has been separated from its chaff in preparation for grinding” is apt in this case, with the emphasis on ‘in preparation for’ suiting the exploratory, experimental nature of most of these works. I would have liked some finished flour to go along with the end result, but this can happily hop into the general mill and melee of modernity.