Tuesday, 14 January 2020

An anarchic approach to the every day: Bastard Assignments debut album

Bastard Assignments
Bastard Assignments; Bastard Assignments (Caitlin Rowley, Timothy Cape, Edward Henderson, Josh Spear)
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 January 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
The composer/performer group brings their trade-mark anarchic approach to disc in typically thoughtful manner

The composer/performer group Bastard Assignments (Edward Henderson, Josh Spear, Timothy Cape and Caitlin Rowley) has released its first album, titled quite appropriately Bastard Assignments, which features five pieces performed by members of the group, Caitlin Rowley's dot drip line line 8918: EDGE, the group piece PrEP, Timothy Cape's Enya, Do You Need a Tambourine Player, I'm Pretty Good, Edward Henderson's Hold and Josh Spear's Comedown. The disc gives those who have had no possibility of seeing one of the collective's live shows to a chance to come to know and appreciate the group's particular anarchic brand of music theatre.

Bastard Assignments is a composer/performer group which was formed at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in 2011 (where all four trained). We first saw them live in 2015 at Tête à Tête:The Opera Festival and have caught a number of their live programmes since then, most recently at Mountview in Peckham last year [see my review] in a show which showcased material developed during the group's residency at Snape Maltings where this album was developed and recorded.

Bastard Assignments performances tend to be highly visual events, with the musical element shading into theatre and creating a sometimes complex music theatre. Their material is often the stuff of every day life, I still vividly remember a solo piece from Caitlin Rowley, Thing I Found in Boxes: Opening, which, deceptively simple, involved her opening a cardboard box full of screwed up paper, and was inspired by her recent experiences in real-life packing. Yet the result was a carefully calibrated audio piece using the percussive qualities available, ranging from the sound of a hand running over corrugated paper, to cutting paper and screwing it up.  And there is often reference to pop culture too, I was very much aware at the Mountview show that we did not 'get' all the popular references in the pieces.

What intrigued me about this debut album was quite how the group's brand of highly visual music theatre would transfer to disc. In fact, the repertoire has been chosen carefully, and one or two of the highly visual pieces showcased last year are not here, instead we have works which have a strong audio component. Though with a work like PrEP we have to imagine the four performers' devastatingly deadpan performance style which produced humour thanks to the contrast with the highly anarchic performance material.
The disc opens with Caitlin Rowley's solo piece dot drip line line 8918: EDGE. When I heard this live it felt rather disturbing, perhaps because of the seriously intent way that Rowley created all the sounds just with her mouth, vividly articulated yet wordless. On disc, it takes on a more abstract quality, and we can appreciate the sheer bravura of Rowley's performance.

This is followed by the group improvisation, PrEP, for prepared brass (brass instruments with woodwind mouthpieces on). The result replaces the slightly dead-pan humour of the piece with the seductive quality of the sheer variety and texture of the sound created, though I did miss the sense of group dynamic which came over live.

Next comes Timothy Cape's Enya, Do You Need a Tambourine Player, I'm Pretty Good, performed by Cape with audio playback. It is a largely spoken piece, but what matters is not the text but the way Cape creates a quietly fascinating audio sequence from a mixture of spoken text, percussive live actions and musical. There is a thoughtful, contemplative, stream of consciousness feel about this piece, yet Cape articulates everything to create a subtly rhythmic pulse. Though Cape tricks our expectations by allowing the work to develop into a striking and vibrant audio collage.

Edward Henderson's Hold is a four-part piece performed on two pianos by Henderson and Spear. The piece starts very much as one of those minimalist phase pieces, with two similarly but subtly different lines drifting in an out of phase. But  there is something slightly more vibrant in the quality of the playing and it gradually becomes apparent that Henderson is more intent on exploring the different sonic possibilities offered by a pair of pianists playing repetitive chords. The result is hypnotic, but at nearly 20 minutes I felt it rather outstayed its welcome as the hypnotic shaded into insistence.

Finally, there is Josh Spear's Comedown, performed by Spear with the other three members of the group playing glass bottle percussion. This is one of those pieces where there is a clear reference to elements of popular culture in Spear's vocals yet overlaid with all sorts of other aural effects. It is short and to the point, leaving you wishing for more.

This debut disc successfully showcases Bastard Assignments collective creative impulses and should certainly make anyone who hears it want to experience them live. Whilst the purely audio sometimes misses the humour and drama which comes in the collective's live performances, it does demonstrate their bravura ability at creating complex musico-dramatic impulses from apparently every day.

For those interested in catching the group live, they will be appearing with flautist Kathryn Williams at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge on 11 June 2020, in a programme which promises to mix Brian Ferneyhough's Unity Capsule from Williams with Bastard Assignments own material. Full details from the Kettle's Yard website.

Bastard Assignments
Caitlin Rowley - dot drip line line 8918: EDGE [5.23]
Bastard Assignments -  PrEP [6.48]
Timothy Cape -  Enya, Do You Need a Tambourine Player, I'm Pretty Good   [7.52]
Edward Henderson -  Hold [19.38]
Josh Spear - Comedown [1.06]
Bastard Assignments (Caitlin Rowley, Timothy Cape, Edward Henderson, Josh Spear)
Recorded 2018 by Jamie Hamilton
BASTARD ASSIGMENTS 1CD [40.47]

Available from Bandcamp, Amazon, or stream via Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Deezer, etc

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