Simon H. Fell  by Michael Kelly

first published in Avant no. 8

‘One of the problems faced by people working in this area is that there’s no obvious outlet for performance for these types of pieces’. So says bassist and composer Simon H. Fell of his latest work, Compilation III, a large scale work for 42 musicians. Soon to be released on a double CD, the piece was years in the making, runs to hundreds of pages of notation and fuses the energy and spontaneity of jazz and improvised music with the rigour and intellectual discipline of serial, aleatoric and other contemporary compositional techniques.

‘Works of this type just don’t seem to feed into the usual classical system, simply because firstly there’s a lot of qualities required from the performers which you can’t get as a matter of course from classical players, and secondly that as probably only around half of the information is contained in the notation, these pieces tend to be underestimated by a lot of classical score readers’.

This incontrovertible opinion is delivered without a hint of bitterness, however, but arises matter of factly as an assessment of the place of this music in the contemporary scheme of things. In the face of this indifference, a self help philosophy comes into play : ‘It seems that throughout the history of improvised music the way to make these things happen has been for the composers to do it themselves, putting together the band and recording the finished product’. He might also have added arranging for mastering, pressing, graphics, printing, publicity, distribution and the thousand and one other things associated with the marketing of a recorded work, a routine with which he is only too familiar in his capacity as owner of the Bruce’s Fingers record label which has just celebrated its 15th anniversary.

I ask about the background to Compilation III.

‘It’s a strange mixture of the specific and the abstract. The original format and most of the original notated material dates back some time to a piece I did as part of an Arts Council Research and Development Project. However, the large scale nature of the project meant that it was a bit much to manage myself, so it sat on the shelf for a bit. That was sort of abstract, writing for the sake of it and working on a few ideas of more advanced orchestral and classical techniques which I hadn’t been able to use on any pieces which had been written for immediate recording, such as Compilation I and II - those pieces were written with a view to recording with particular musicians, so that the music was structured around the who would play it. Compilation III was more abstract. I had the promise of the Royal Northern College of Music Big Band, so I worked it around that premise, but it was only some time later that funding became available in the form of a National Lottery grant’.

The piece also includes some students and interested amateurs. Fell had begun teaching and was struck by the fact that though a lot of students were very broadminded and open to the possibilities of experimental music, they had had very little opportunity to be involved in playing it. Fell believes that it is far more difficult for musicians nowadays to find a way into playing non-commercial music of this kind and it became a main thrust of the project to give these interested parties greater exposure to it in a practical sense.

Fell considers Compilation III to be the most significant piece of work he has produced. Part of a series started in 1985 with Compilation I (Bruce’s Fingers BF 1) and continued in 1990 with Compilation II (BF 4), the pieces have become progressively bolder as Fell pushes on with the integration into large scale compositions of several of his musical interests. I’m interested in his use of serial techniques combined with opportunity for improvisation :

‘I’ve always found serialism attractive. I’ve always had an interest in science and maths, in crunching numbers and working with things in an abstract sense. It seems to me that serialism is the only real compositional technique which has taken the history of how things should be thought of and thrown them out of the window while at the same time retaining the basic form. Unlike John Cage who turned everything on its head, Schoenberg kept everything much the same except at a stroke he did away with people’s obsession with pitch relations. Everyone is supposed to find atonal music difficult, but I just like the way it sounds - I love the way that the majority of 50s and 60s modernist music sounds, I love those intervals! So for me it’s always been a way of showing my allegiance with that - I find that my spiritual home’.

I wonder about the relationships and possible conflicts between this most rigorous of techniques with the freedom and spontaneity of improvisation:

‘I think that for anyone brought up with jazz and for anyone who loves that music, rhythmic inflection is probably more important than pitch material and I think that’s something which the classical world has never got to grips with. Partly because of the way the music is notated, they’ve never, apart from a few odd experiments, developed anything approaching the rhythmic subtlety and interaction even of bebop. Serialism lessens the stress on pitch, so that the focus shifts and is much more evenly spread over texture, rhythm and so on. If a player is familiar with the idiom and they have the technique to pull it off, you can make just about anything swing. If the rhythmic phrasing is right the pitches, while I won’t say they are completely irrelevant, are considerably less significant. In many ways it’s not that radical a juxtaposition. For example, for many people working in free improvisation, atonal, arhythmic music is their stock in trade. Some of the straighter stuff in these areas could almost be improvised serial music at times. On the other hand, I did become aware that in small group workshop sessions with some of the less experienced improvisers some of them equated improvisation solely with running through some jazz riffs. Although some fairly straightahead playing makes it onto the CD, it is within the context of a particular section of the music.’

Fell admits to being a slow, methodical worker where composition is concerned. What sets him apart from other contemporary composers working with large ensembles and with elements of serialism is what happens to the music once he has written it : ‘I take the music to a bunch of jazz or improvising musicians and say - Look, here’s what I’ve written, give me an interpretation of it. What I don’t want to do is to take it to a lot of technically superb classical players and just hear exactly what I’ve written’.

This element of chance intrigues Fell ; the idea that within his meticulously crafted, painstakingly assembled work lies possibilities of interpretation at which perhaps not even he could guess. It’s a process which works both ways. In this and previous works, Fell uses the process of ‘xenochronicity’ to remove solos from their original context and place them in sometimes radically different environments. It makes for some interesting juxtapositions and suggests a central role in the music for the perceptive listener :

‘If someone is used to listening to improvised music or any music which requires a bit of work to perceive what’s going on in terms of structure or expression, I do think it’s possible to develop much more highly developed listening faculties. Compilation III is the result of chance combinations of separate events and I find as a listener that they are related. I don’t think that this is just fanciful. I’ve spoken to many musicians about this and some of them get quite mystical about it, some talk about scientific explanations. But also the depth of the relationship between the events depends upon a capacity to listen - as I listen to some of the tracks, I can hear people reacting to things which they can’t actually hear. The correlation of that interaction may be pure chance, also it may be that subconsciously I thought that it might work, but I also feel that when a listener hears the first thing he/she interprets the second as being a response to that. That’s something which improvised music listeners tend to be very good at, because they’re used to discerning subtle relationships’.

I ask if this process of xenochronicity (a term coined by Frank Zappa to describe a track on his Sheik Yerbouti album) has ever created problems with musicians objecting to a solo being removed from its natural habitat :

‘The answer to the question is no, but it’s only just no. On this particular project I had one person who wanted to exercise a right of veto over what happened to a particular piece of music they’d played. As it turned out I didn’t use that part anyway. I do select musicians very carefully - I need to work with people who are relatively free with what happens to their playing. There are certain musicians whose playing I love but who I wouldn’t be able to use on a project like this because I know they’d be too purist about the context. One of the biggest political pitfalls of this music is in creating relationships which didn’t exist. Really for an improvising musician their prime skill, apart from their instrumental technique, is their sensitive listening ability. If you put them in a context where they’re obviously unable to hear what’s around them because it isn’t happening at the time, there’s a danger that it might make them sound insensitive. Obviously it’s my job to avoid that - I would always aspire to create a third thing for which it’s worth sacrificing the originals. The reason that I enjoy working with people like Alan Wilkinson, Charles Wharf and Paul Hession is partly that their personalities are suited to what I have in mind’.

Mention of these collaborators moves the conversation to Fell’s small band improvising. He has been involved over the years with several power trios, groups playing powerful, committed and expressive free jazz in an acoustic context. These bands have included various saxophonists - Wilkinson, Simon Rose, Mick Beck - and have usually featured Paul Hession on drums. The trio is a format to which he has returned consistently.

‘Often it’s the result of circumstances rather than intention. I find the trio context the perfect number for playing improvised music. Bass players love playing without chording instruments, as it gives them room to manoeuvre and to imply harmony. Many of the trios I’ve been involved in probably wouldn’t have happened if not for Paul Hession. When I met Paul I found that we had some similar ideas regarding working with density and activity within something which still had some impression of swing. Even as free as Paul plays, I could still hear swing in his work, and that’s one of the things which attracted me to his playing’.

Fell was quoted a few years ago as saying that ‘....(in classical music) you can control people and prevent them from becoming less complex. In improvisation people will tend to towards each other’. I ask him about this and about how the intimacy, close interaction and immediate feedback of small band work compare to the demands of writing and directing the large ensemble.

‘I think that all of the improvisational music I’ve done is relatively - and I use this word cautiously - traditional, in the sense that it always works on the basis of interaction. With the exception of some of the duo work with Charles Wharf, most of it is in real time, live improvisation. The idea of simultaneous disparity was one of the things which first attracted me to improvised music, but I think it’s also one of the most dangerous things. In improvised music you can sometimes get into bloody-mindedness which can often be something of a strain. The pleasure of small band work and the success of it for me goes back to something I touched on earlier regarding the musicians you choose to work with’.

In the pipeline small band wise, an album is set for release in August by IST, a trio featuring Fell on double bass with Rhodri Davies on harp and Mark Wastell on cello. This band is a fairly new undertaking for Fell - an LP, Anagrams to Avoid was released last year - and it is a context he enjoys. This will be followed by a tour in November. Fell also has gigs in the autumn with the Hession/Wilkinson/Fell trio and a CD featuring this outfit with Joe Morris is released on Incus towards the end of the year. In addition, 9 Points in Ascent (BF 24), a CD featuring Fell in a duo format with alto saxophonist Graham Halliwell, has just been released.

Fell is also interested in the use of technology, electronics and the application of sampling techniques in some of his works. His fine work from 1996, Mutual and Reciprocal Ceremonies (available on the compilation CD of electro acoustic works This Music is Silent Until You Listen DISCUS 6 CD) is an excellent example of his work in this field. Sampling orchestral instruments and orchestral excerpts from the ‘Great Composers’, it is also an homage and paean to the days of vinyl, glorying in samples of scratchy old LPs liberated from a car boot sale.

‘It’s the first time I’ve realised a piece without reference to jazz or improvised elements. The structuring and sound world in this piece refers to my experience as an orchestral musician, sort of a comment on my experiences as a classical musician. One of the things which I think has great potential and is considerably underexplored is the idea of using samplers to create huge serial universes, and this is something I’m very interested in. This is my only pure electronic piece. I consider it as a sketch for something bigger, it’s just a scratch at the surface of a field of work I’d like to investigate further’.

A CD recorded in collaboration with saxophonist Charles Wharf - Frankenstein (BF 25) - mixes these ideas with acoustic playing and is also currently available. A dense, atmospheric work exploring the complex interrelations between samples and live sounds, the piece deals in a more lo fi aesthetic.

‘Yes. Circumstances dictated that we took the option of making it a little grungey and rough and ready,’ he says. ‘What’s interesting about this piece is that it’s the most convoluted attempt I’ve yet made in setting up some kind of feedback cycle of playing something and sampling it, then playing along with it and sampling that, and so on and so on’.

The concept grew from Grachan Moncur’s Frankenstein, a sample of which provided the initial impetus. The music is divided into sections with such wonderful titles as Crammed With Distressing Brain, All The Electrical Secrets of Heaven and Henry! Henry! Henry! Henry! Henry! Henry! (sic). Distinctly evocative and spookily atmospheric, this is music for an imaginary film, stitched together lovingly.

Fell’s assimilation of a range of disparate stylistic elements into fully formed works like Compilation III raises interesting points on the condition of contemporary music at the end of the 20th Century. Despite the perennially upbeat buzz from radio and concert programmers and the mainstream media concerning the healthy state of the art, innovation and individuality are at a premium. It is easier by far to laud the usual suspects of the new complexity or the cosy familiarity of the neo-minimalists than to find a prominent place for works which seek to break free of artistic pigeonholing.

Fell’s large scale works are striking, original and point the way to a range of possibilities: new millennium, new music?

© Michael Kelly July 1998

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