Back sometime in the 1970s an ensemble known as The Penguin Cafe Orchestra achieved a level of popularity previously unknown for a group playing contemporary compositions. While individual composers like John Cage, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich were known and appreciated by those interested in the field, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s compositions and recordings were reaching a broader audience. Of course popularity is a relative term; they weren’t what you’d call chart toppers. But they gained enough celebrity for rumours to be spread about them.
The rumour that was most often passed around was that they were a project of ambient composer Brian Eno, but because of contract obligations he was forced to release the material under an assumed name. Whether or not there was any truth behind those rumours, it didn’t hurt sales of their releases. The fact remains that it was because of the relative success of Eno’s projects that a group like The Penguin Cage Orchestra was able to find an audience.
When punk rock blew the doors off the pop music scene it also encouraged and popularized experimentation among popular musicians resulting in collaborations like the ones between Brian Eno and David Byrne, lead singer of The Talking Heads that produced albums like My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. While popular interest in contemporary compositions waned again by the mid 1980’s the impact that the groups and individuals of that period had on the genre can’t be denied. One of the results was today’s composers find their inspiration in places that would have been unheard of before.
Listening to the recent release by Build, the self-titled Build on New Amsterdam Records, I was immediately reminded of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Not that any of their compositions sound anything like those of their predecessors, it’s more like the same sensibility had been applied in the composition process.
As an ensemble Build resembles a mixture of a jazz combo and a classical quintete. While the cello, bass, and violin are what you’d expect to find in a classical ensemble, the Fender Rhodes and the full drum kit are more often associated with blues and jazz than anything else. Of course, in recent years we have seen many instruments playing outside of the fields they were traditionally associated with, so you really can’t draw conclusions as to what anybody would play based on what they are playing. In fact Build’s configuration is such that it could just as easily be a jazz combo as anything else.
What they do play is an interesting mix of melody and rhythm that depending on the composition range from approximations of atonal minimalism to variations on rhythmic patterns. Unlike some other contemporary compositions that seem intent on sounding as unmusical as possible, Build appears to apply the premise that people might want to enjoy listening to music, rather than have their ears assaulted by discordance. While that might reduce their credibility among certain circles (pretentious snobs), I personally find it a relief that there are still composers who remember that music can still be a pleasurable experience, and interesting, at the same time.
Two pieces that stood out for me on this album were “Magnet” the second track on the disc and “Driven,” the last and longest piece on the recording. The former is an example of their experimenting with rhythmic patterns. According to composer and violinist Mat McBane it is based on a bluegrass tune that he only partially remembered. They’re two things of interest about this composition, the first being what inspired the composition. Instead of basing it on the fragments of tune he could remember, he used the rhythm of the bowing pattern from the original song as the basis for the new pieces rhythmic patterns.
Over the course of the piece the pattern is gradually explored and extrapolated upon as each instrument adds its variation. While listening to the piece, I wondered why I thought I recognized it. I had never heard it before, or listened to anything by this ensemble before either, so there is no reason it should have sounded familiar. What I was recognizing was the underlying bluegrass pattern that the piece was based on. Although it sounds nothing like any bluegrass music that I’d ever heard, “Magnet’s” core rhythm was enough of a trigger for part of me to think I knew the song.
“Driven” is probably the most “conventional” of the contemporary pieces here as you can hear the minimalist influences of Steve Reich in it. This piece was inspired by the composer having listened to music that had been written honouring Reich’s 70th birthday, and you can hear that in the composition. Yet, instead of it being completely atonal like so many minimalist pieces, they have managed to create a piece that is reminiscent of the style without sacrificing any fullness in their own sound.
I know there is a lot of hesitation among people when it comes to listening to contemporary compositions. There’s always the fear that what you are going to hear is going to sound nothing like music, and instead of giving you any sort of pleasure will leave you feeling anxious and stressed. Build’s newest release, Build, proves that you can make interesting and exciting contemporary music, without torturing your listeners. For those who have held off listening to anything in this field, you might just want to check this release out – it could change the way you think about contemporary composition.