Album review

Andrew Woodhead – ‘Pendulums’

Andrew Woodhead – Pendulums
(Leker LEKCD001, LEKLP001. Album review by Adrian Pallant)

Subtitled Music for bellringers, improvisers & electronics, Andrew Woodhead’s Pendulums delivers, without doubt, one of the more unexpected and intriguing releases of the year – something which a random dive into its chiming and full-bodied complexities confirms.

Experimental composer Woodhead, a graduate of Birmingham Conservatoire, has sought to connect the familiar strains of pealing church bells with a close-knit sextet of paired horns – trumpeters Sam Wooster and Charlotte Keeffe, alto saxophonists Sam Andreae and Lee Griffiths, baritonists Helen Pappioannou and Alicia Gardener-Trejo – alongside his own electronics/field recordings, exploring the relationships that might exist between them. As if to illustrate Edgar Allan Poe’s observation of ‘the tintinnabulation that so musically wells from the bells, bells, bells, bells’, they weave an unlikely soundscape that is both extraordinary and compelling – often mesmerically so. However, that ‘unlikely’ tag soon wanes as the synergies between these usually disparate sources are creatively forged, and then as we come to assimilate and acknowledge them.

The accomplished bellringers (as can sometimes be pointed out, not necessarily campanologists) of St Paul’s Church, Birmingham, are Tony Daw, Jonathan Thorne, Matthew King, Alex Frye, Graham Kelly, Ros Martin, Angie Wakefield and Richard Grimmett. Andrew Woodhead’s own precis of this project, a concept developed from his daily walks past the church, is enlightening: “Some of it involves musicians pretending to be bells, other parts involve bellringers pretending to be metronomes”, while also proposing that bellringing embraces many contradictions in that it is “simultaneously extrovert and introvert, ritual and recreational, music and non-music”. The visually alluring, modernist, stained glass-suggested cover art of Tom Chapman appears to cleverly echo ringers’ method diagrams.

For well over an hour, this sequence of eleven tracks, commissioned by the Ideas of Noise 2020 festival and recorded at St Paul’s, finds the gathered musicians integrating Woodhead’s compositions with free improvisation. Ring Up/Plain Hunt I, the art of assembling the bells’ eventual, downward sequences, also finds the sextet vying for attention, their freeform rasps and sputters seemingly attempting to emulate the iron pattern. In Sideways, a Janáček-style trumpet motif heralds its deep, saxophonic mesh before near-ten-minute Changes is announced with BBC Radiophonic-style electronic manipulation which mingles with a full peal and horn improvisation.

Over Plain Hunt IV’s nostalgic, reedy waveforms rides a fascinating trumpet-duo conversation. Contrasting Plain Hunt II melds all manner of other ‘bells’ whose sounds Woodhead has collected (said to be from ice cream vans, bicycles, pedestrian crossings, ambulances) into a computer-game melange which heralds the sextet’s own impressions of the bell chamber’s sonorous delights; and its concluding monody tolls solemnly – ‘For every sound that floats from the rust within their throats is a groan’ (Poe, again).

The chromatic saxophone figure of Partials II broadens to a semblance of New Orleans marching band, replete with flamboyant flutter tonguing and a richly grooving baritone foundation, while slowly tremulant Formation suggests the melancholy of a soon-to-retire colliery band. Tolls/Waves is an expansive, cacophonous triumph, the sextet’s laboured torque mimicking the changing metrical intervals of a ‘ring up’ – until the unadorned, eight-minute splendour of the St. Paul’s bells plays out across the landscape.

Free-jazz Diagrams is peppered with mouthpiece breaths, squeaks and swoons, alongside some wonderfully braggadocious baritone riffs; and electronic clangs and chimes prelude Partials I’s canonic forms. In conclusion, the sextet appears to finally master and align with the ringers’ mathematical sequences, Plain Hunt III/Ring Down gloriously accelerating towards a unified climax – and then the final, echoic purity of the bells reaching their rest.

Strongly improvised music can sometimes risk being branded ‘niche’ (or worse) and only suitable for the novelty of a one-off live performance. But the manifold merits of Pendulums, as a recording, engender a desire to return again and again to appreciate its inner workings, absorbing Andrew Woodhead’s ingenious instrumental blend of repetition, shifting figures and gutsy jazz riffs. At its core are the acoustic wonders of the bell tower – which might just help us, next time, to home in more readily on that most traditional and evocative heartbeat of village, town and city.

Pendulums is released on Leker on Friday, 11 June 2021

LINKS: Pendulums on Bandcamp
Andrew Woodhead at Ideas of Noise in Birmingham, 2020

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