Two Loose Tubes Compositions: “Sosbun Brakk” and “Delightful Precipice”
A lot gets said about Loose Tubes in performance – reviews of gigs naturally tend to talk more about the spectacle, the humour, the energy, etc, but so much remains to be said about the compositional side of the band. In an interview trumpet player and composer Chris Batchelor said that the standard of writing in Tubes had “raised the bar” for bands playing their own music. I interpret this as meaning that expectations were raised, that for example after Tubes it was no longer adequate merely to write a “head” with (or without) chord changes: original compositions had to be much more thoroughly conceived, not only in the arrangement, the chord voicings or part-writing, but in the fundamentals of what the music was, how it sounded, and how it related to the larger world it made connections with. Loose Tubes was a meeting place of styles and influences. Sometimes the band sounded South African, sometimes avant-garde, sometimes funky, sometimes folky. I think Chris was implying that it is no longer possible to make assumptions, to rely on clichés. From now on composers need to not only embrace, but explore, probe and question their influences. And be prepared for new ones.
There was so much music and so many styles it’s almost too hard to begin. But begin I will, and forgive me if I blow my own trumpet a bit and choose one of my own pieces and an area of music close to my heart – the relationship between jazz and classical music. I’m going to start with my own piece “Sosbun Brakk” and put it alongside Django’s “Delightful Precipice”, both of which appear on Loose Tubes’ second album “Delightful Precipice”, and both of which appear on the second volume of material recorded at Loose Tubes’ final week at Ronnie Scotts. “Sosbun Brakk” bears traces of composers like Ligeti and Berio, as well as Eric Dolphy, Anthony Braxton etc on the jazz side. Django’s piece sounds at times like Charles Ives and Varese but also gives a gruntling nod towards minimalists like Riley, Reich and Adams.
Both pieces can be heard in relationship to contemporary classical music idioms; I guess because of my own background I’m particularly interested in the cross-over between classical music and jazz, but by this I don’t mean the blatant bashing together of the two idioms. This has never interested me. I am attracted by subtle blends of musics; I’m impressed when an artist’s work shows a deep level of understanding of musical idioms rather than a superficial one. For example I find the addition of an oboe or sitar to an otherwise conventional post-bop jazz rhythm section (that used to pass for “cross-over”) gratuitous, lumpy and gimmick-prone. Neither have I ever been a great fan of early 20th century classical composers trying to “do jazz” – Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto and Milhaud’s La Creation Du Monde always sounded awkward to me (Gershwin was always more successful than these).
But for me the real stuff starts with Gil Evans. Gil Evans’ music was by far the most successful blending of jazz and classical sensibilities. It is to be found in the harmonies and textures, the shifting of orchestral settings from intimate portraits and interiors to wide open landscapes, that occur in his work with Miles: it isn’t just the choice of material that speaks of classical influences in jazz. The relationship is much more fundamental, much more organic. Gil Evans’ harmonic and arranging voice is as jazzy as Tadd Dameron’s but as orchestral as Ravel’s. The term “third stream music” seems to have fallen from use these days; it was Gunther Schuller who first coined it, and an interesting though (in my opinion) limited brand of jazz, some of which explored serial techniques and sounds, grew up around him. Gil was associated with this brand but his work has a warmth, and an expansiveness, which I do not find in other “third streamers”. Gil also has great command of orchestration and a large vocabulary of what I might call “orchestral gestures”.
The title is the name of a mountain in the Karakoram range of the Himalayas. A picture in Mountain magazine shows a jagged, angular, wedge-like peak with a plume of icy cloud perpetually blowing off into the stratosphere. I liked it! And I liked the words.
My thanks go to my friend Chris McHale in Liverpool for introducing me to it. So there is a programmatic element to this piece, especially at the end.
I wrote “Sosbun Brakk” partly as a way of working through my experiences with contemporary music at York University where I immersed myself in that kind of music, playing tons of Berio, Victor Hoyland and other stuff. There is a moment in Berio’s monumental music theatre work “Laborinthus II” when suddenly a jazz rhythm section erupts into the music, playing fast time-no-changes in the style of Ornette Coleman. I had the idea to turn this image on its head. I felt there was a space for a modern jazz piece that made use of contemporary classical sounds and gestures, just as Berio had made use of jazz.
It was my first piece for Loose Tubes and the one I agonised about most – I wanted, like all young composers, to be as impressive and as whippersnapper-like as I could. So my compositional task was to create a sustained piece of atonal music in which no elements were repeated, but which nevertheless sounded complete and of one piece. I had no numerical or integral serial scheme for this. I just tried to hear all the sounds in the piece as belonging to one idea or mood. The sources of the sounds in the piece are probably quite traceable: for example, the muted trumpets behind the first solo are not a million miles from what happens in a quiet moment in the second part of the “Rite of Spring”; the melodic writing in the opening section before the first solo is similar to moments in “Out To Lunch” by Eric Dolphy.
From an improviser’s point of view I also wanted to create a vehicle for non-chord based playing. It was my attempt to contribute to a rapprochement between “free” and “harmonic” improvising, and over the years it was interesting to hear the various soloists’ approaches to playing on this tune. I particularly love Dai Pritchard’s bass clarinet playing, so reminiscent of Dolphy, and so nuts! Django’s comping behind the trombone duet in the live recording is a direct reference to Conlan Nancarrow and also luminous and deranged.
I’ve always been fascinated by music which is on the “event horizon” between tonality and atonality, between harmony and texture, and between the abstract and the programmatic. That’s why Debussy is always the greatest classical composer for me, why I love Alban Berg, why I immersed myself in Luciano Berio’s music, and why I believe Ligeti will eventually be recognised as the greatest of the Darmstadt avant–gardists. Not that I don’t like other kinds of music; but there is some kind of philosophical tingle associated with music “on the cusp” – you can’t quite pin it down; it defies the categories. This is one of the things I was trying to achieve in Sosbun Brakk: there is melody, but not in any key; the piece is in common time but without the feeling of “hard” barlines or four-bar squareness. The opening of the piece is jagged and discontinuous in true avant-garde music-theatre style, with abrupt starts and stops; Dai Pritchard takes the first solo with an accompaniment of orchestral gestures and colours. Then there is a section after the first solo when the rhythm drops out and a tune is suspended over some chords – again there is no key, but the melody and harmony just sit together somehow. A passage of extreme, jagged, battling accents follows and then we are into the second, extended improvising section. And at the end, after the spiky avant-garde abstraction of the second solo, you get to hear the mountain itself growing higher and higher, line by line and note by note, until the perspective changes and you see the whole thing as from a distance, vast, imposing, unchanging and austere (in the first rehearsals of the piece several members of the band screamed at this point). And just to remind you that it’s jazz you hear a flat five interval in the bass!
Django has said that his piece “Rowing Boat Delineation Egg” (on Loose Tubes’ first album “Loose Tubes”) was an attempt to sound like randomly edited tape; “Delightful Precipice” is in the same whacky wing of Django’s oeuvre but more developed. There are some kaleidoscopic repetitive passages where themes (including that of the BBC Radio programme “The Archers”) emerge from a psychodelic fog; abrupt changes in genre (eg from classical choral music a la Parry to South African Township jazz); and some Varese- or Berg- like melodies and chords. Despite, and maybe precisely because of this angular, jerky, whacky character, this piece became something of an anthem for the band. It shot from angst to joy, from enormity to frivolity, in a surprisingly authentic way – authentic to our experience of life, that is.
At the beginning and end of “Delightful” a twisting, chromatic melody is heard. The accompanying music is circus-like, demonstrative and bombastic and bearing more than a trace of American writers like Ives, Varese, even Frank Zappa. This chromaticism, with the mosaic- or collage-like approach to accompanying orchestral gestures, is an aspect of Django’s writing he was to continue to explore in later pieces like “Fox Across the Road” and his setting of “New York, New York”. Django has repeatedly demonstrated his love for both circus and cinematic devices – changes of “scene”, tempo, scale (I mean numbers of instruments playing). The sequel to Loose Tubes, the band entitled Delightful Precipice, was the vehicle for many of these explorations.
Next we hear a short repetetive section in minimalist style, here delivered in mesmerizing legato but later developed at greater length as a sprightly staccato. The tonality is Ionian mode – “true major” – one’s sense of tonality begins to swim – Django plays with harmony and tonality throughout this piece. Disolving from this scene to the next, there is now a passage of “extended tonality”, in other words, the harmonies contain strong tonal elements but these are offset by “wrong notes”; the melody set against these block chords is twisting and non-repetetive.
Later, after a reprise of the first section, there is a passage of trembling beauty in which the harmony is suspended in a series of trilling chords like a down-feather bed (with a bass flute solo supplied by yours truly!). A wonderfully striking trombone melody gives a slow-tempo nod to Carla Bley, then there is a return to the pacey trance tempo (sounding so very English ((all based on the diatonic A-major scale but offset by the octave–displaced C sharp –D – E)) like Gavin Bryars, or fellow Scratch-Orchestra member Howard Skempton, perhaps) which finally gives way to the Berg/ Varese-like ending.
It’s interesting that we were both looking into the idea of forming a kind of continuity from discontinuous or heterogeneous elements in these two pieces.
It knocks me out how much these two pieces sound like they belong together, but also how the other pieces on the album (e.g. John Eacott’s “Sunny”, Steve Berry’s “Shelley”) complement them and make a foil to them – they are the edges of “Sosbun” and “Delightful” while “Sosbun” and “Delightful” are the edges of them. That was the way Loose Tubes worked but also the way our own individual oeuvres worked. After I wrote “Sosbun” I wrote “Children’s Game” and then “Shadow Play” and “The Last Word”. These pieces are all very different from each other; some might be challenged to understand how they might be written by the same person: unless you know me! Similarly, put “Delightful” or “Rowing Boat” next to “Yellow Hill” or “Like Life” and you might ask a similar question. Stylistically heterogeneous oeuvres may seem commonplace now (do they?!!) but it was one of the things that made Loose Tubes really different back then, and it was important then as it is now for Django and for me to make the connection between jazz and contemporary “classical” music.