spirit and technique: thoughts on helicopter quartet and musicianship in ‘noise’

August 13, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Posted in musings, new music, no audience underground | Leave a comment
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Helicopter Quartet – Leading Edges (self-released download)

helicopter quartet - leading edges

Now then, participant in the no-audience underground, to what extent do you consider yourself a ‘musician’? Does your creative endeavour place you in that category? What does the word mean to you? Is it even a helpful term to bandy about?

Take me, for example, as I always do. I have performed and recorded as midwich on and off for about fifteen years, have played many gigs to more or less appreciative audiences and have a back catalogue of releases on a number of different labels. Basically I’m a national treasure and my unparalleled genius is agreed upon by all cultural commentators of worth. However, I’ve managed all that despite not being able to read music, being ignorant of its theory, having barely paddled in the shallows of its history and, crucially, not knowing how to play any instrument. You’d think that having built a <cough> ‘career’ out of leaning on three keys and tweaking the cut-off knob I’d at least know what it was cutting off but: no, no idea.  Dunno what gets reattached when I swivel it back the other way either.

Thus me claiming to be a musician would be like claiming to be a carpenter after having muddled through the assembly of a simple piece of flat-pack furniture, all the while showing a wilful disregard for the instructions.  Or am I making a mistake in associating the word ‘musician’ with the ‘craft’ of making music? Is it elitist or undemocratic or just plain silly to limit the application of the word to those who have the qualifications, or, I suppose, the ‘chops’ to prove it?

I have heard a famed scenester dismiss ‘mere virtuosity’ in a moment of grumpiness suggesting that learning how to ‘do it properly’ runs the risk of tethering your spirit to ‘mere’ technique. It is a tempting, flattering thought for a vain and lazy ‘artist’ such as myself: my will to self-expression trumps your hours of practice. It certainly feels like there is something to the argument. Despite the absence of training my music has successfully, I think, expressed intended aspects of my emotional life, it has been enjoyed by others on a meaty, visceral level and even, on rare occasion, stood up to a bit of contemplation and analysis too. So who needs study, eh? Why bother with musicianship?

Well, to say so is to ignore the hours I have, almost by accident, put in over the years learning to do… whatever it is I do. My stuff is, I think, better than it used to be: more accomplished in expressing the informing thought, more involving or, dare I say it, entertaining and this is a result of, for want of a better word, practice. It is probably too late for me to ever ‘do it properly’ but nowadays I have a better understanding of how craft can serve spirit and spirit can illuminate and vivify craft. I guess my personal preference is for spirit to have the upper hand – I love a bit of fast-burning chaos, or work borne of a driven will-to-become, but I suspect that the greatest art involves a mutually enriching blend of the two.

So to Helicopter Quartet. The duo of Chrissie Caulfield (violins, synthesizers) and Michael Capstick (guitars, bass) clearly has weapons grade musicianship at its disposal. Mike has played in actual bands that perform actual songs (Editor’s note: a ‘song’ is like a nursery rhyme but for adults so they can be about sex and/or feeling miserable etc.), Chrissie has played in an actual orchestra (Editor’s note: an ‘orchestra’ is a massive band with loads of members. They’ve been around since the 1960s when they were invented by Sun Ra) but the set up is noise. Chrissie’s daisy chain of effects pedals is, for example, so extensive she could just tap one with a coin and retire to the bar whilst the kit played itself.

Leading Edges, their third full album, comprises five tracks totalling a shade under 40 minutes and is available as a paid-for download via that Bandcamp. The opener, terrifically titled ‘The Way It Never Was’, is like a dramatization of key moments from a series of therapy sessions. It begins in ferocious denial – No! I don’t want to be here! – then Chrissie’s violin starts circling the central issue, unable to leave it alone despite the hurt it contains – like the irresistible urge to prod an aching tooth with your tongue – then, towards the end, there is a beaten but liberating resignation: OK, I guess we need to talk about what happened. It’s exhilarating and provokes a complicated response.

‘Refuge (2014)’ is a recarved offcut from the sessions for the last album. The original version was released as a ‘single’ for download and I wrote about it here. In summary…

It is coloured with the yellow-grey tones of weather-worn Yorkshire sandstone and has the soul-calming grace of a slate grey sky over Swaledale.

…and – spoiler alert! – those downloading the album will be treated to a further remix as an unadvertised sixth track. The ‘Pierrotechnique’ version uses a simple beat and some minimal, skittering electronics to add a sheen of glitchcore melancholia.

The central track ‘110’ has a deeply satisfying opening passage setting the scene for a Gothic mystery.  A bass drone pans to and fro along the x-axis as scraped strings ascend the y-axis, bristling the hairs on the back of your neck as they pass.  The violin walks determinedly through bosky, mist soaked woods before arriving at a small, windowless cabin.  A crescendo of panic swells as the door opens and…

…on to ‘Trailing Edge’, an uncategorizable five minutes of slow, oddly shaped electronic bobbling dropped into a tank of translucent blue liquid.  The suspension starts with the viscosity of golden syrup but agitations cause it to harden and expand, straining the corners and bowing out the glass.

Finally then: ‘Hothouse’. This begins with the alien majesty of a serac – an overhanging weight of blue/white ice and snow held in place by the same laws of physics that make it appear impossible.  At around the six minute mark a scything guitar moves the scene to the personal psychodrama unfolding in the tent of a climber at base-camp.  He is due to make an ascent tomorrow but has just heard the news of a very bad accident on the mountain and is having a moment of crisis: why am I here?  What am I doing?  Despite the temperature outside being well below zero, he is sweating…

As a whole, the album expresses a profound vision with an austere but soulful beauty.  Imagine a slate-blue version of Ashtray Navigations psychedelics or a restrained take on the intensity of, say, Swans without the self-loathing bombast. The band may jokingly self-describe as ‘semi-melodic mournfulness’ but this is a deeply serious music with, I think, plenty to say about the difficult, forlorn, wonderful, awe-inspiring condition we find ourselves in.

So briefly back to my preamble to tie everything up with a bow.  Helicopter Quartet are, to my tired ears, a near-perfect example of how musicianship can be harnessed in a noise context.  Chrissie and Mike balance their considerable skills with an understanding of how to use noise to pluck the soul of the listener and have it vibrate with a slightly discordant, emotionally complicated, seriously intended, profoundly satisfying resonance.  Is this great art?  By the definition offered above, it could well be.


Helicopter Quartet

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