more reviews at Bruce's Fingers website

RT 9326 (2004)

Simon H. Fell

four compositions

SFQ 1 - Three Quintets
Alex Ward clarinet
Gail Brand trombone
Alex Maguire piano
Simon H. Fell double bass
Steve Noble drums

1. No 50: Köln Klang [9:43]
2. No 40.5d: Trapped by Formalism 2 [12:29]
3. No 62b: Gruppen Modulator 2 [24:12]

recorded at Gateway Studio,
Kingston-upon-Thames, UK, March 200

SFQ2 - San Francisco Quartet:
Alex Ward clarinet
Guy Llewellyn french horn
Simon H. Fell double bass
Mark Sanders drums & electronics

Composition No. 40: Liverpool Quartet
1. Liverpool 1a [7:51]
2. Liverpool 1b [4:58]
3. GM2 blues [7:21]
4. Quartet [7:34]
5. Livepool 2 [6:32]
6. GM3 rhytym [4:55]
7. Kandinsky lines [4:53]

Recorded at the Bluecoat Center,
Liverpool, UK, January 1, 2004


Liner notes

The pieces on these two CDs were originally conceived as two separate albums, being the second and third recorded instalments of my SFQ project (the first being Thirteen Rectangles, Bruce’s Fingers 2002). But when Michel Passaretti of Red Toucan told me he wanted to release both recordings as a double album, I was of course delighted - although I wasn’t sure in which order we should programme the two performances. In the end, I decided on a chronological arrangement, so SFQ2 follows SFQ1; but I would encourage listeners to feel free to treat the two discs as two separate albums, or the four pieces as discrete works, as their own preference suggests.

As will be clear, the two discs present many significant differences, although there are also links between the two (not least the recurrence of some thematic material). By the time we recorded Three Quintets, much of the material I was preparing for SFQ1 was growing increasingly involved and it was becoming difficult to realise it within the parameters of the underfunded UK improv/jazz scene; SFQ2 was an attempt to bring into being a somewhat similar music, but with far fewer demands on both the musicians’ time and patience, and the non-existent rehearsal budget. So for SFQ2’s first performance (documented here) I realised a group of compositions which, although still within the language I wished to explore, were less specific than those for SFQ1, and with a slightly different stylistic objective (see below).I hope listeners will find both these recordings interesting, and their different approaches complementary. My aim here has been to explore various ways in which music of this type might be made - but I’m not suggesting any of the approaches documented here represent “the answer”!

Finally, as with any such project, these ideas and this music would be meaningless without the spirited and generous contribution of my collaborating musicians. I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to everyone who appears on this record, and who made these performances possible; plus thanks to Steve Lowe and Chris Trent for the excellent documentation of our work.

The Compositions

Köln Klang was given its first performance by the London Improvisers Orchestra in September 1999. A very simple piece, containing only 12 text instructions, Köln Klang is unusual in my work in that it is semi-programmatic in character, inspired by and partly depicting the soundworld of a hotel bedroom in Köln on the morning of Sunday 5th September 1999, and written on the plane back to London that afternoon (then performed by the orchestra that evening! So sometimes things do happen quickly after all....) This quintet version was prepared for SFQ1 in March 2001.

Trapped By Formalism 2 could almost represent the opposite pole to Köln Klang, since it is probably the most notation-intensive piece in the quintet’s repertoire. Its predecessor Trapped By Formalism (for septet) was composed in 1996, and first performed at the Purcell Room in London in June '96; subsequent versions include significant re-compositions for big band and for trio, as well as this new quintet version of the piece prepared in 2001 (and first performed in November of that year). The piece is essentially an investigation of/musing upon the “formalistic” tendencies of post-war European modernism, tendencies which often seem to provide a rich vein of accusation for distressed “music lovers” (and - incidentally - totalitarian regimes....). Built from small - almost aphoristic - fragments, the piece contains many dislocations and interruptions, with the odd unexpected diversion to different (but similar) material, and remains non-developmental throughout. This recipe may sound daunting to both musician and listener alike, and indeed this piece has presented many difficulties in performance; but I find TBF’s icy inflexibility interesting and stimulating, although of course it resists the comfortable gratification of more “engaging” music. Although the title was (as far as I remember) taken from Shostakovich’s accusers, the piece is actually dedicated to the young Pierre Boulez, who in my own youth I found inspiringly (if uncomprehendably) cerebral; careful listeners with worryingly obsessive tendencies will notice many Boulez quotations scattered through the score. The fact that the composition of this piece never seems to be finished also reinforces its Boulez connections...

Gruppen Modulor 2 is one in a series of pieces which draw on my preparatory studies for Compilation IV (a large-scale ensemble work currently in progress). These studies have included a long series of melodies composed according to various principles (including proportional relationships derived from the works of Stockhausen, George Russell and Le Corbusier) which will form much of the raw material for the finished work. Along the way, several satellite works have come into being, including Gruppen Modulor 2 in early 2003 (given its first performance by SFQ1 on 13th March 2003). As with all my recent work, the piece explores relationships between clusters of notated material and improvisation, “pulse playing” or other notated clusters. But the “melodic” origination of the GM series in general has tended to result in a rather free-flowing approach to composition; whilst the melodic lines themselves explore many different types of mathematical structuring relationships (especially in terms of rhythm), they also contain many free choices. The subsequent combinations and relationships of “melodic” material with “accompaniment” material have also been relatively freely decided, in a manner which possibly brings this piece nearer to modern jazz than much of my work with the quintet; but not too near, I hope... The piece is dedicated to George Russell.

Liverpool Quartet was written in late 2003/early 2004, for the concert documented here. The piece has its roots in a more dispassionate, neo-classical (and less jazz orientated) soundworld than SFQ1, and the writing of Liverpools 1 & 2 and Kandinsky Lines reflects my growing interest in the music of both Harrison Birtwistle and Igor Stravinsky. In particular the ritualistic, inflexible and non-expressive qualities of certain pieces which I had previously discounted have started to exert a new fascination for me; in the context of this kind of composition, improvisation can resemble an unbearably rich vein of precious material, enriching but simultaneously disfiguring impassive granite blocks. At least this was one starting point for this work, and I’ve found the results interesting, challenging and stimulating - also enjoyable, although I do not regard this as a prerequisite for “successful” work. The use of the two Compilation IV melodies arranged here (GM2 Blues and GM3 Rhythm) continues through from the repertoire of SFQ1, although they appear in a different form. Whilst in Gruppen Modulor 2 I was interested in using the forms of these pieces to generate expressive intensity, here the melodic information is “greyed out” and becomes a series of disconnected arcane ceremonies overlaying and interrupting the matrix of improvisation. So although the desiccated textures and monochromatic intensity of this music may prove disconcerting, I hope at least some listeners will approach - and enjoy - this music in the spirit in which it was intended…

SHF 2004

Downtown Music Gallery - NEWSLETTER
December 3rd, 2004

The Simon H. Fell Quintet features Alex Ward on clarinet, Gail Brand on trombone, Alex Maguire on piano, Mr. Fell on double bass and Steve Noble on drums. We know of Alex Ward from his collaborations with Derek Bailey, Ms. Brand from her wonderful band called Lunge on Emanem, Maguire has worked with Elton Dean and Noble with Paul Dunmall. There are three compositions for this quintet, No. 50, 40.5d and 62b. "Composition No. 50" is titled "Koln Klang" and is a dark and mysterious work, closer to modern classical and quite sparse in places, with a recurring motif of a short, violent piano and drum eruption. "Comp. No. 40.5d" is "Trapped by Formalism 2" and is collection of excerpts from different genres, high speed bebop turns into freer jazz meets modern classical, ultra tight and quick changing. This is certainly a challenge for the quintet, yet it remains focused and fascinating throughout. "Comp. No. 62b" is called "Gruppen Modular 2", it a few different theme running simultaneously and reminds me Braxton, picture his quartet from the mid-seventies with George Lewis, Dave Holland & Barry Altschul. Alex Maguire's Cecil Taylor piano is especially amazing, as well as Graham's great bass palying and solo.

Disc two features the Liverpool Quartet which features Alex Ward on clarinet, Guy Llewellyn on french horn, Simon on bass and the ever in-demand Mark Sanders on drums & electronics. I haven't heard of Mr. Llewellyn before this, but mark Sanders plays with everyone from Paul Dunmall to Elton Dean to Jah Wobble. This great quartet perform a 7 part work known as "Composition No. 70: Liverpool Quartet". Inspired by Harrison Birtwhistle and Igor Stravinsky, Most impressive here is the superb clarinet playing of Alex Ward, which must navigate some rather difficult charts, diverse dynamics, while exchanging an ongoing dialogue with the intricacies of the other three musicians. Mr. Fell has a wonderful way of demanding the most from his players, it is impossible to tell which is written and which is improvised since the thread which runs through all of it is so clear. Obviously, one of this year's best and most challenging releases. - BLG


Jazz Review, Glenn Astarita

Bassist/composer Simon H. Fell is long considered as one of the premier exponents of the modern day British progressive jazz scene. As this two-CD set features works that were originally slated to be released separately. Thankfully, the producers’ decided to wrap it all into one neat little package.
Fell aligns with longtime associates and notable improvisers, trombonist Gail Brand, clarinetist Alex Ward and others for the Three Quintets production, consummating disc 1. And disc two highlights the Liverpool Quartet featuring Ward, drummer Mark Sanders, and French hornist, Guy Llewellyn. Nevertheless, Fell’s penetrating compositions are engineered upon many variables and metrics: Too many to cite within the confines of this article. But Fell fuses the best of both worlds, via linearly designed choruses framed upon complex unison lines along with start-stop type movements.

The musicians enjoy a wealth of improvising space as the program is also founded upon rapidly executed progressions, split tones, subliminal voicings and odd metered swing vamps. In addition, the artists engage in playful dialogues to offset some of the rather complex thematic flows. At times, pianist Alex Maguire (disc one) renders lower register chord clusters and adds a sense of pathos via a classical touch while his band-mates deconstruct motifs into sub-plots.

They delve into some bluesy grooves, while on “Composition No. 62b: Gruppen Modulor 2,” the ensemble abides by a bustling attack, augmented by fluttering trade-offs and abstract, march style beats. On “Liverpool 1a,” Ward’s trickling clarinet notes counterbalance the musicians’ rambunctious interplay, where notions of a world in crisis come to fruition. Either way, this is a fascinating album. And for those unfamiliar with Fell’s work, this production would serve as an all-telling induction into the man’s elevated concepts and engaging artistic persona.

Bagatellen, Walter Horn, dec. 2004

With this two-disc set of quintets and quartets, composer/bassist Simon Fell demonstrates that his brilliant eclecticism is as vibrant as ever. Four Compositions is made up of SFQ1, three pieces for a quintet including the composer, Alex Ward (clar), Gail Brand (trmbn), Alex Maguire (pno), and Steve Noble (perc); and SFQ2, a lengthy suite for the (Liverpool) quartet of Fell, Ward, Guy Llewellyn (fr horn), and Mark Sanders (perc and elec) entitled "Composition No. 70." Several of Fell’s influences are easy to discern. On SFQ1’s "Trapped By Formalism 2" one can hear early Stockhausen (think Kontakte) and middle period (pre-electric) George Russell quite clearly. The two strains—both certainly formal, but one "academic," the other "jazzy"—are braided together brilliantly. This may be "difficult" music, but it is also exuberant. Fell explicitly references both Russell and Stockhausen in his liner notes (he even calls one piece "Gruppen Modulor 2"), but perhaps one shouldn’t make too much of these nods, since he also mentions Shostakovich, Boulez, Stravinsky and Birtwistle as influences, composers I don’t hear in any of these works, (and fails to credit Braxton, whom I hear all over the place). The main point, of course, shouldn’t really focus on from where but rather on where to, and the destinations here are uniformly worthy of intensive sightseeing. We should all by now recognize Fell’s wonderful, if sometimes maniacal, counterpoint from his Composition #30 and his Thirteen Rectangles (of which these SFQ pieces are said to be a subsequent installment). One shudders at the rehearsal time that must have been expended on the SFQ1 pieces. Don’t expect any high school ensembles to be tackling these soon. The gnarliest passages are all handled with ease by Fell’s gang, however, as if they’d been memorized several weeks prior. While the free blowing here is limited, there are fine solos from all concerned on SFQ1 as well as on the subsequent disc. The two main differences between the three quintet pieces on disc one and the slightly later suite that constitutes "Liverpool Quartet" are that the Russell influence has almost disappeared, and somewhat less compositional direction is maintained on SFQ2. The quartet engages in considerably freer ensemble play, but the result is uniformly "classical," except in "GM3 Rhythm" where it’s pretty straightforwardly Braxtonian: Fell’s Russelliana is easily distinguishable from his Braxtoniana, even though both largely consist of wacky unisons vehicles. In any case, the walking bass passages seem to have mostly sauntered off (hand-in-hand with the necessity for 20-hour rehearsals) by the time SFQ2 was recorded. It shouldn’t be inferred from this, however, that SFQ2 is haphazard. It also has a serious, though never solemn, feel. The London Quartet suite is generally more pointillistic than the earlier pieces (again excepting "GM3 Rhythm"), but doesn’t seem more "spacious" for some reason. I find it a curious accident of history that in the "jazz" context, complete freedom has often seemed to result in a higher density of notes than more traditional compositions, while in the "classical" and ea-i contexts, complete freedom often produces many fewer notes per minute than something like, e.g., a Ferneyhough opus. I should point out, however, that, like Braxton, Fell is an absolute master of integrating composition and improvisation, so it’s often quite difficult to guess which (if any) passages are entirely spontaneous creations. Finally, something that may (and, I think, should) also entice percussion fans is that both Sanders and Noble slam together crackling, electrifying solos-- one on each disc.


All Music Guide - François Couture

Conceived as two separate albums, but released by the Montreal imprint Red Toucan as a two-CD set (which is all the better), Four Compositions presents two different SFQ lineups tackling Simon H. Fell's uniquely complex and intricate writing in studio and live settings. Disc one is titled "SFQ1 — Three Quintets" and would have been the follow-up to SFQ's debut album Thirteen Rectangles. Recorded by the brilliant engineer Steve Lowe at Gateway Studio, this set features three pieces, interpreted by a quintet version of Fell's group, including Alex Ward on clarinet, trombonist Gail Brand, Alex Maguire at the piano, and drummer Steve Noble. "Composition No. 50: Köln Klang" and "Composition No. 40.5d: Trapped by Formalism 2" are both difficult pieces requiring several attentive listens. The first one is a structured improvisation articulating sparse elements into a cold, detached organism. The second piece applies formalist techniques to this improviser's ensemble, with dizzying results. But the highlight of this first disc is "Composition No. 62b: Gruppen Modulor 2," a complex multi-part work presented by Fell as being drawn from his preparatory studies for "Compilation IV." If you have been acquainted with the level of complexity of his Compilation series, you know how dense this piece can be. But where on the previous pieces the group sounded just a little bit too focused, here the musicians feel more at ease and are clearly having fun with Fell's score. Disc two is given entirely to "Composition No. 70: Liverpool Quartet," a work in seven sections. The quartet consists of Ward, Guy Llewellyn on French horn and drummer Mark Sanders (also using some electronics), in addition to Fell. The blues theme from "Gruppen Modulor 2" comes back in a variation, justifying the joint release of the two sets. Recorded live, with a slightly spacier sound, this performance alternates between arid dead-serious sections ("Liverpool 1a," "Kandinsky Lines") and more vivid episodes ("GM2 Blues," "GM3 Rhythm"), including a freely improvised "Quartet." Simon H. Fell's music, especially his compositions, always require several listens before revealing all of their intricacies and features. Some listeners see it as preciousness; others as depth and intelligence. Four Compositions, in that regard, is no different from the previous SFQ release or the Compilation series: if you make the effort to track it down, you might as well make the effort to unlock its mysteries.

more reviews at Bruce's Fingers website