Download review

Phaedra Ensemble – ‘O Superman’

Phaedra Ensemble – O Superman
(Digital download EP from Phaedra Ensemble Bandcamp. Review by Jane Mann)

Phaedra Ensemble album coverPhaedra Ensemble is a London-based contemporary music group. Founded in 2014 by violinist Phillip Granell, they started out as a string quartet specialising in experimental contemporary music. They have since expanded and Phaedra now draws from a larger collective of sympathetic performers from differing musical backgrounds. They currently “make music in the space between the classical, contemporary and experimental worlds.” The ensemble is co-directed by composer Jamie Hamilton.

O Superman is their first release, to be followed later this year by a full album called Attica with works by Meredith Monk, Fred Thomas and Frederic Rzewski.

The title track is an intricate acoustic arrangement of that extraordinary piece written and performed by American avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson some forty years ago. It became a popular hit, after being championed by John Peel. I remember being surprised at the time that a piece which I would have expected to stumble across in some white cube art gallery alongside other bits of obscure New York video art should become a mainstream pop hit.

The original song consisted mainly of a looped, harmonised “Ha!” used as a drone accompaniment, with the lyrics vocoded over the top. Jamie Hamilton’s reimagining goes in another direction. The score is fuller and more melodic, whilst maintaining a precisely played Steve Reich-influenced minimalism. It’s poppy and contemporary classical at the same time and, crucially, the words are given centre stage. The lead singer is long-time Phaedra collaborator Jamie Doe, AKA The Magic Lantern, with additional vocals from the talented Rhia Parker. Doe gives us a touching reading of the lyrics in his pure lovely voice, set against artfully textured woodwind and strings, evocative of Phillip Glass as the piece builds to a crescendo.

The second track is Jamie Hamilton’s Activity Report, a jumbled, sometimes disturbing collage of snippets of spoken American police reports and acoustic strings.

The final piece is X Chairman Maos written by Leo Chadburn AKA Simon Bookish. This is a mesmerising setting of the legendary “Hundred Flowers” speech made by Mao Tse-tung in 1957. The ensemble play electric instruments here and the text is sung by Jamie Doe. The inspiration for the form is Andy Warhol’s set of coloured prints of Mao, thereby bringing us back to New York. Each repetition of the Mao screen print uses a different set of colours – here each reiteration of the text has different harmonies and hues. It’s both charming and chilling.

This EP is a great introduction to the Phaedra Ensemble who, I can vouch, are also entrancing live performers. The musicianship is top notch and the choice of material always interesting. The Phaedra Ensemble seems fascinated by American culture, social and political matters and the human voice, incorporating readings and natural speech into their work. They have this in common with American composers Frederic Rzewski and Steve Reich, who are both major influences.

The clarity and sympathy of the ensemble playing on this recording is more surprising when you learn that the whole thing was recorded and produced remotely in Hamilton’s London studio during the Spring and Autumn lockdowns.

LINKS: Phaedra Ensemble website

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