Ed Bennett: Dzama Stories

Paul Dunmall, Decibel (QTZ 2082)

9 December 2010 5 stars

Ed BennettThis new disc pairs the formidable improvising saxophonist Paul Dunmall with the composer Ed Bennett's own ensemble, Decibel, in Bennett's startling recent work Dzama Stories, adding to this a piece from 2001 for amplified female voice and electronics, I Need This.

Dzama Stories situates indeterminate solo music within a written structural design. Each of its four main movements takes as its subtitle the name of a Marcel Dzama picture. Dzama is a young Canadian artist who has received much acclaim for his evocative ink and watercolour drawings. It is always something of a fool's errand to attempt to trace the precise contours of an ekphrasis, particularly one that features a rendition of art as music, but we can certainly pick out a general correspondence here between Dzama and Bennett's work. The queer urgency of Dzama's art rests on its ability to hint at odd and disconcerting narrative scenarios often childlike in their sensibility, and Bennett's music, with its uncanny planes of intensity and momentum, powerfully evokes cruel worlds and uncanny valleys apposite to the subject, however loose the symbolic relationship between the art and the music might be.

The opening nine minutes of Dzama Stories, comprised of the 'Introduction' and 'Part One - Vagabonds and Blood From The Earth', strike with an unexpected immediacy.

A warm electronic drone that recalls Eleh in its baldness, gently whirring, sits below quiet interjections from ensemble. Then, suddenly, a sustained blitzkrieg of turbulence, throbbing and thumping in turn, tries to contain the yowling and screaming sax of Dunmall, who is as relentless here as a bereaved poltergeist in a storm. The sheer unforgiving intensity of this section reminded me of Brotzmann's Machine Gun, though the sense of tone-colour (Decibel, with its clarinets, viola, bass trombone, saxes, voice, double bass, electric guitar, piano and percussion, is fascinatingly constituted) and ensemble is a little more sophisticated in Bennett than it is Brotzmann. Jerry Hunt's bizarre Song Drapes seem another applicable reference point.

Dzama Stories offers a salutary lesson in well worked contrasts. 'Part Two - After the Flood, Before the Fire' (see image), begins as if the performers are coaxing music to be itself again - in syntax as much as its sonics - following its ritual torment in the preceding section. These opening few minutes are gorgeous, a quiet repeated viola, wind and e-bowed guitar major second and then third backed by pattering electronics gradually opening out for the entrance of the soloist. Dunmall's velvety gestures sit timbrally here in just the right space, at ease but creating a sense of tension against the sustained tones of the voice. A repeated three note motif from the saxophonist signals a change in direction. From here on in he is more anguished, never quite at rest, seeking always some final resolution that will free him from the quietly mounting colotomic ritual music of the group.

A short interlude functions rhetorically much as the Introduction had, droning into a nothing out of which comes an everything. That everything, 'Part Three - You Gotta Make Room For the New Ones', really needs to be heard to be believed. It bastardises gypsy oom-pah music with the soul of Louis Andriessen. Bang bang, Bang bang, Bang bang. It does this for the first seven minutes. At around that seventh minute a bass breaks free and takes a little bilious walk, before more isolated group attacks mark a transition into some hushed and shy reptilian chromaticism from piano, clarinets and sax.

The intensity builds slowly (transition, as much as stark contrast, is a compositional strongpoint of Bennett's). A high viola pedal point and bare piano stop everything for a short, vertiginous cadenza from Dunmall. The bilious bass from earlier now frames a staggered progression spread through the whole ensemble, a sort of schlock horror dance that manages to be both terrifying and ridiculous at the same time. We accelerate to the close, bemused by what is happening but glad that it is happening. This is music that knows it needs to be heard.

We expect by now that after such a climax Bennett will extend to us some respite, and so it proves here. At least in some respects, that is. Because it is not the element of the curious that is moderated in 'Part Four - Fades Away', but simply those of volume and speed. A flabby and dubby American voice recites a cosmic litany to an eyeball at the track's head whilst music is picked out in piano shards around him. The voice fades and the music sustains. The piano, now on its own, brings the cycle towards its close with elusively tonal chords wrought in spectral echo. The ensemble, arrested over a pedal point whilst the soloist cadences, emerges unexpectedly to close.

Dzama Stories is a glorious addition to the contemporary canon. It would be interesting to hear the work performed with a different soloist, but it is hard indeed to imagine anyone bettering or even coming close to Dunmall's staggering form here.

I Need This can't help but sound a little superfluous after Dzama Stories, but it works well in providing sonic and emotional contrast to the main programme whilst also offering much musical substance in its own right. It processes voice samples to a point of fever and contortion worthy of Trevor Wishart or Joan Le Barbara. Noise effects, radio fuzz and feedback, and occasional spacey or blustery drones mark out a disorderly and often hilarious course. The vibrato-less voice of Steve Halfyard sits on top of the texture obsessing over something or other, affective at times, pleading at others, and angry at others still. A riff in static punches us in the ear, before massed and now comparatively pure vocal drones bring the piece to a stunning conclusion.

I haven't heard a new disc of Irish composition as vital and as urgent as this in a long while. Make room for the new ones indeed!

Update 15 January 2011: Dzama Stories is now available for purchase here

By Stephen Graham

Image: Dzama's After the Flood, Before the Fire


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