Tempo

Signs of Occupation documents chamber music of British composer James Weeks from 2010 to 2014. The selected works on the CD range from a piece for solo guitar to a quartet with electronics, all of which bring together aspects of looping, investigation of restricted materials, and the meeting of everyday and musical sounds. Weeks may be best known as the foun¬der and director of the vocal ensemble EXAUDI; he is also known for the vocal and choral music in his back catalogue, but this represents perhaps only half of his compositional activity. Signs of Occupation represents an opportunity for listen¬ers to get to know another side of Weeks and the range of pieces recorded provides an intro¬duction to the varied musical perspectives of this eclectic composer.

Looping Busker Music (2013), the piece that opens the CD, might come as a surprise to any¬one expecting an instrumental parallel to the delicate and intricate harmonies of the music Weeks has written for voices. It is a riotous cac¬ophony, looping instrumental ideas — which bring to mind various modes of folk and untrained performance — and field recordings that connote street works, traffic and extraneous sound. In the liner notes a quotation from the composer Chris Newman describes the dichot¬omy of inside and outside as ‘the set-up which defines our existence’. The music here, however unexpected, is certainly in some ways familiar: not only because of the recognisability of the field recordings but because of the similarity between the bombardment of sound and the daily experience of anyone who has ever lived in a city. A long pause between the first and second sections allows the second movement to emerge from this abrupt moment of quiet. Here, the small movements of the instrumental¬ists, and the focus in the field recordings on the voices and movements of people, suggest that the first movement is being heard from afar, a different perspective on the same material.

Music for piano trio comprises four of the seven tracks on the disc, and three of these trios are presented as a set. Composed between 2010 and 2011, these pieces introduce small, reduced fragments of music which come and go, often looping few or single notes. Field recordings feature here too, this time providing a backdrop of the sounds heard by the composer as the pieces were composed. Tuning differences between the strings and piano yield subtly chan¬ging pitches and the background soundscape is recontextualised as musical material imitated by the instrumental ensemble. common ground (2014), the fourth piano trio, further draws out these tensions between tuning and timescale: the impression is of individuals who inhabit simi¬lar, overlapping spaces which are nevertheless separate. An element of performer choice in the musical structure means that similarity and difference in these materials is revealed in part through compositional design and in part through chance as the musicians navigate their way through the materials.

The brief liner notes provided with these recordings provide only a snapshot of the ideas and intentions behind each piece. An equally short but perceptive introduction by Christopher Fox muses on the multiple mean¬ings of ‘occupation’ and how it might be under¬stood in relation to the music taken as a whole. His conclusion, that these pieces might be thought of as ‘a welcome act of defiance, music that rewards careful listening and insists that the working together of musicians is a proper subject for our attention’ is apt: the more closely one listens to these pieces, the more one hears the tiny details hidden within their sparse materials., The image chosen for the CD’s cover evokes a further metaphor: an unpopulated landscape stretches away: tyre tracks indicate human intervention but without dear evidence of direction or purpose. This reminded me of Patrick Keiller’s 2010 film Robinson in Ruins which explores human, and particularly military, intervention in the British countryside.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the title track of the disc, Signs of Occupation (2014). This piece takes its title from a poem, ‘Approaching Cleavel Point’ by James Wilkes who reads the poem in its entirety. The poem is heard mostly antiphonally with Andrew Sparling’s clarinet, with occasional overlaps between the two. The small figures and repeated notes of the other works are found here, too, and parallels can be found between the musical cells and the diction of Wilkes’ poem — sometimes conversational, sometimes informative, sometimes descriptive or a list. The poet’s voice takes on the role of field recordings in the other works: it can be understood as the ‘music’ of the poem — a paral¬lel to Vanessa Redgrave’s voice-over in Keiller’s film — while the solo clarinet takes on the role of the landscape.

The only solo work, Digger {2010) for guitar, combines speech and instrumental performance. More directly political than Wilkes’s poem, the spoken text by Gerard Winstanley nevertheless continues the juxtaposition of music and sound/noise and the different spaces that these denote. The added connotation of ‘work’ here invites the listener to consider the acts of per¬formance on the CD as ‘musicking’. Signs of Occupation invites the listener into a landscape of Weeks’s imagining that is simultaneously familiar yet unknown. This is a composer who chooses to do a lot with modest materials and is not afraid to let his audience experience this modesty directly. The performers’ response to the demands of the music is sensitive and com¬mitted to revealing its complexities, a richly rewarding experience that occupies the listening space long after the music has finished.

—Lauren Redhead