Features/Interviews (PP)

Andrew Woodhead (‘Pendulums – Music for Bellringers, Improvisers & Electronics’ album launch 16 October)

Birmingham-based composer Andrew Woodhead is about to perform the most ambitious piece you’ll hear this year. The album Pendulums – Music for Bellringers, Improvisers & Electronics was released in June, and the launch is on 16 October. Feature by John Bungey

Andrew Woodhead. Photo credit: Guri Bosh

For all the inventiveness of composers over the decades, no one has created new music with quite the forces that Andrew Woodhead has marshalled for Pendulums, an extraordinary piece he presents live later this month.

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 This hour-long work employs church bells, live electronics and an improvising band of two trumpets, two alto saxophones and two baritone saxophones to create a dramatic, defiantly uncategorisable suite. The seemingly disparate elements are combined and contrasted: sometimes the reed instruments sound like bells, sometimes the bells are integrated with free improvisation, sometimes there is no attempt to blend. In one section, many other types of “bell”, recorded by Woodhead – from ice cream vans, bicycles, ambulances – form a prelude before the traditional bells are heard in full force. There is beauty and there is sonic strangeness.

 Pendulums – Music for Bellringers, Improvisers & Electronics – was released on CD and LP in June to enthusiastic reviews and now the 17 musicians involved will perform live at St Paul’s Church, Birmingham, where the recording was made, and then in London at St Clement Danes.

Woodhead, 31, is a pianist, composer and a leading light in the Birmingham jazz and improvised music scene. He explains the birth of Pendulums some eight years ago. “When I was studying at the conservatoire in the city every day I’d pass this certain bell tower [St Paul’s] and hear it chime the hour. At first I didn’t really focus on it but I started listening more and there were interesting harmonics in the bell sound. When the bells finished there were all these overtones hanging in the air. I thought they were really pretty.”

At the recording. With Alicia Gardener-Trejo (centre). Photo credit: Guri Bosh

He decided to make a recording and transcribed the sound to work out the overtones. He had an idea for writing a piece but the plan lay dormant until years later when he visited St Paul’s while seeking a venue for an improvised music concert. The bell-ringers were practising and, says, Woodhead, it was “a lightbulb moment”. He became increasingly fascinated by the world of English bell-ringing.

 “Rather than play a tune on the bells like the Europeans do, they are interested in exploring every mathematical permutation of the bells. In some ways it’s not ‘musical’ to want to do that but in a way it’s super-modern. It seems so far ahead of its time.” In other words, bell-ringers of the 16th century seem to have anticipated the minimalist music ideas of Philip Glass and Steve Reich in the late 20th century.

 Woodhead was on his way. While the bell-ringers of St Paul’s had been approached by composers before, their  ideas weren’t always practical. Woodhead earned a better reception, understanding what the bells could do. “It’s partly physical,” says Woodhead. “When the bells are set in motion they swing round 360 degrees. You can’t just stop them and do something else.”

In the album sleevenotes the pianist Liam Noble likens the pairing of jazz improvisers and church bells to “a band of unicyclists with an ocean liner”. Woodhead laughs. “Yeah, once you’ve started the bells ringing the machine is in motion and it’s about dodging in and out of what the bells do. But while it feels like the bells are moving slowly because you’ve got this continuous pattern, but actually within the sound there is all kinds of movement going on.”

Woodhead says he is “dead chuffed” at the attention the piece has received. As for his next move, it may be a big project or it may be in a small band context. As well as playing solo acoustic piano, he is half of the improvising duo ELDA with trumpeter Aaron Diaz.

 But there is one idea brewing that will make the church bell-free jazz link-up seem almost  mainstream. “I want to do something involving dry stone walling. It resonates with my youth and where I’m from in South Yorkshire.”

Is this a musical project? “Yes, I think so. But the idea hasn’t quite landed yet. That’s the fun, exploring an idea and finding out exactly what it is.” Here is a musician who respects no barriers, dry stone or otherwise.

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Pendulums: Music for Bellringers, Improvisers and Electronics is released on Woodhead’s own Leker label

Album launch: St Paul’s, Birmingham B3 1QZ, Oct 14; St Clement Danes, London WC2R 1DH, Oct 16; tickets available via….

Andrew Woodhead’s website

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