Addelam by Beni Giles and Colin Alexander

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Beni Giles and Colin Alexander | Addelam
Big Ship (CD)

Comprised of composers Beni Giles and Colin Alexander, Addelam offers a series of site-specific cello-based compositions that both eagerly point to some notable and challenging reference points, and succeed at enouncing their ideas in a novel and exciting manner.  Although in no way replicating such luminaries, the duo immediately remind me of both a less single-minded Giacinto Scelsi and a less orientalist Harry Partch, guiding their instruments with a certain freedom that seems to rest between improvisation and composition. It is impossible to hear modern classical music without half-expecting it to break into some horrible minimalist-pastiche – such is the omnipresence of the style – yet this is an area that Addelam thankfully (and skillfully) avoids.

Though tracks such as Surge do perhaps touch upon the area, the duo are such proficient instrumentalists that even their more repetitive moments are conducted with an energy and fragility that belies the exhausting clinicality of many of their peers. Egress, which is the stand-out track of an already stand-out album, explores subtle harmonic relationships with a tender and thoughtful hand, invoking the early string-based compositions of LaMonte Young, though doing so with a faintly romantic and wistful air. 

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There is a notable diversity to the album, despite its limited instrumentation.  For the most part, this is highly successful – the movement from the aforementioned Surge to Egress displays a wonderful breadth, though on occasion the album does stray into slightly too familiar territory. Hearth, whilst inoffensive, offers a pleasant counter-point to the more droning aspects of the album, though perhaps sits in a fairly well-trodden field of plinky, percussive strings. Many of the tracks veer towards a timbral, borderline scratchy aesthetic – a tactic often used by performers to mask their limited ability at more conventionally ‘beautiful’ virtuosity.

Perhaps the most alluring aspect of Addelam’s work is the degree to which any timbral depth, any scratchy or course elements of the album are so clearly a compositional choice – it is obvious that the duo are more than capable of channeling the sort of pure romanticism that has a long-standing association with their instruments, an understanding that acutely frames their more experimental tendencies and extended techniques. Indeed, although the reference may at first seem tangential, I was not surprised to read the duo list Karol Szymanowski as an influence – this sort of modernist, post-romantic bridge between the tonal and the atonal permeates the album, and if they don’t exactly wield the same form of mass dramaturgy, there exists none the less, to my ear at least, a similar sense of subversive phrasing and harmonic tension. 

Addelam presents itself as a work of site-specificity – a label that has not been lazily applied, but is fundamental to both the performance and production of the album.  The tracks are inspired by the Kent landscape – indeed, Addelam is the historic name of the Kentish Town of ‘Deal’ – and have been recorded at a variety of related locations. It is not entirely clear whether the tracks incorporate additional field recordings or have simply picked up on the existing sounds of their respective sites, but the effect is such that there is a notable change of tone across many of the pieces. It is an inspired if occasionally jarring aesthetic choice.

At times the tracks feel as if someone has simply set up a portable recorder in-front of the duo; at others as if they have entered the studio proper; and whilst this imbues the proceedings with a certain life, I do wonder whether the lo-fi nature of some of the recordings distracts from the timbral breadth of the instrumentation. That said, when it works, it works wonderfully – the implicit liveness of such an approach fosters a character far beyond the emulated concert hall that recorded ‘classical’ music so often courts.  

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There is very little to criticise on the album, and its strength lies nowhere more than in its incredibly deep, holistic aesthetic. Every aspect – from the instrumental performance to the historical antecedent’s, the site-specificity to the production – has been considered so thoroughly that, even when I am not entirely sold on a particular choice or approach, I am left with no doubt that it has been enacted with specificity and dedication, resulting in a rich and articulate work of contemporary composition.  

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