The Wire, Art Lange, 11/99
There's something to be said for taking the less travelled road; in improvised music, that means the path of small scale, modest dynamics, careful plotting, design over demonstration. As their abbreviated name suggests, the trio of Graham Halliwell (alto saxophone), Simon H Fell (acoustic bass), and Simon Vincent (drums) manoeuvre among the extremes of high and low frequencies, tactfully devising the shape of their explorations as they go. Loud, flashy gestures are kept to a minimum. Graceful interaction of details-colour, texture,timbre-and group empathy allow the music to coalesce.
If Fell's bass stands out in the mix, it's a combination of his forceful (though not overwhelming) ideas and the willingness of the others to blend rather than bluster. On "Xe", his buzzing bass (reminiscent of an African mbira) prompts them to seek overtones and ghost notes via drones and furtive activity within a near static environment. Similar attitudes thrive throughout-the grain in the groan of Fell's arco is palpable as it flows into the waves of Vincent's tone generator on "Ra", and the three bustle about percussively on the level of mouse clatter in "Tr". For Halliwell, melody is primarily a sequence of murmurs and moans, often amid bass harmonics and random drum mumbling. Vincent's work is fine tuned, frisky, and earcatchingly irregular. Together, their concern is to develop the sounds from the inside out. Free improvisers are everywhere these days, and seemingly in constant contact across geographical and stylistic distances, so it shouldn't be surprising to find these Brits on a new label recently founded in New Jersey. Forthcoming releases promise electroacoustic excursions featuring Martin Tetreault from Montreal, Thomas Lehn from Germany, and Gunter Muller from Switzerland. The more the merrier.
Avant, Keith G. Thompson, 11/99
Among the many tenets of wisdom attributed to the late Morton Feldman, there is one of which I am particularly fond. He once said art is a life of small moves. The author and his words would both appear to be relevant to the music created by VHF on this cd. The former in terms of overall dynamic levels; the latter when considering the degree of musical incident. The combination of these two elements creates an atmosphere of , at times, almost unbearable tension where paradoxically, the silences become more, rather than less, significant. It is as though the three are pushing the boundaries of audible tolerance, truly assimilating every sound for its own sake and independence as well as its interdependence on those that precede, succeed and surround it. Lets not kid ourselves, Extracts is not an easy listen. It is as though the trio are challenging our existing notions of what listening is and how it affects us. Sounds that can initially appear lacking in emotional content can provoke the most extreme emotional responses.
The degree of interactive listening and concentration is such that it seems there is almost a reluctance to break the aural spell, a stretching of the communicative wire until it becomes so taut that one of the three is either unable or unwilling to continue and so signals a change of direction that may be understated yet significant in its impact. And this is surely where the strength of this music lies; in its subtlety of movement and its questioning stance---i.e. how do we define music at the end of the twentieth century whilst carrying the accumulated cultural baggage of the preceding years?
The previously mentioned Morton Feldman, John Cage and the early efforts of the AACM (especially Anthony Braxton) all inform Extracts. I have grown wary of attempting to define one music by comparison with another yet nothing exists in a vacuum and I feel sure that the preceding influences could each be acknowledged by one or more of VHF. Cage in particular, despite his aversion to improvisation has been a titanic force of influence on improvised music.This is particularly true of the European variety. The music on this disc has a very definite European identity and I do not think that it could have been created at any time other than the present. It is music that ebbs and flows in its refusal to be pinned down by any context other than its own. The minutiae of sounds accumulate into small whirlpools that dissipate into fragments, shards, bits of sonic information which it is the listeners task to re-assemble, thus becoming a fourth party. It is as though the trio are saying look, you too can hear these things but like us you have to really listen.
There seems very little point in singling out individual tracks for analysis; in a sense they are seven episodes in one long piece of improvised composition (I know for certain that all of the music is improvised yet there is an exactitude of placement both of sound and silence that makes it composed). If there is little or no point in discussing individual tracks there is even less point in considering individual contributions. VHF have produced music of rare democratic brilliance, a music that eschews virtuosity in favour of a group aesthetic. Listen carefully. Be generous with your time.
Motion, Gil Gershman
Simon H. Fell has written extensively about the composition of improvised music. Immediately, such a phrase poses any number of problems. In interviews, Fell defends the inherent contradiction by stating that he'd no sooner surrender the structured elegance of composition than he would abandon the joy and freedom of improvisation. The duality of Fell's music has made the double bass player/composer something of an inconstant for the British improvisation community. Moreover, his formal works (such as the brilliant Composition No. 30) have been ignored - or, at best, abided - by the contemporary compositional establishment. None of which has proved a hindrance to Fell, whose admired yet relentlessly unconventional Bruce's Fingers imprint has served as an efficient outlet for much of his activity. Fell's low but active profile and affinity for involving student and lesser-known musicians in his numerous projects suggest a comfortably self-sufficient existence on the fringes of the improv brother-and-sisterhood. 1999's Extracts, the exciting opening bid by the NYC-based Erstwhile Records, introduces VHF, Fell's unclassifiable composition/improvisation trio with Graham Halliwell (alto sax and percussion) and Simon Vincent (drums and tone generator). Compiled from a series of impeccably recorded 1998 performances, and combining aspects of traditional, improvisational, free jazz, and electroacoustic ensemble interaction, Extracts radiates a subtly thrilling inner intensity. At times, the music teeters on the brink of silence, obliging you to tune your ears to VHF's quiet frequency and peer in for a closer look. This is where the extraordinary clarity of the mastering becomes most apparent. Fell's playing is a model of temperance throughout, his signature groans and bends grippingly resonant. Halliwell favors a cordial, brassy purr or a sinuous sibilance, but his occasional flights and fancies are expressive - and particularly playful on the standout "Xt," "Tr," and "Ct." Vincent rides cymbal crescendos and pensive pattering to equally tingling ends, his restrained electronic gurgles providing ambiguous accents. Extracts' informal and unpretentious comport also welcomes such sporting devices as the ping pong ball clattering down the slopes of "Ra" and the miscellany of percussive crackling, winding, and sloshing noises that enliven "Xt." The players' exploratory signatures are often rich with familiar inflections but rarely writ large. A wonderful album.
Resonance, Alan Wilkinson
The first word that came to mind on playing Extracts was understatement, with an almost oriental minimalism and profundity on display. At times I was forced to check whether sounds were coming from the speakers or from outside. However, this is a far cry from the Radu Malfatti school of implied music since it is very much about close group interplay. Simon H. Fell's sonorous bass is of particular note, underpinning, colouring and giving the proceedings a kind of still, stately authority. Likewise the alto sax of Graham Halliwell and percussion of Simon Vincent display a high level of craft, inventiveness and sensitivity over a wide band of low volume musical challenges. It is extremely difficult at this level to hold the listener's interest before s/he concludes there's nothing happening. These three not only overcome this but also produce some hauntingly beautiful music.