Vol. 39 Issue 4 Reviews

CJ Symon: Twelve Day Today Preludes and Fugues

Compact disc, 2014, available from CJ Symon Music, 2/10 Paterson Street, Ainslie ACT 2602, Australia; electronic mail cjsymonmusic@gmail.com; http://cjsymon.bandcamp.com/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

CD CoverCJ Symon's compact disc entitled Twelve Day Today Preludes and Fugues represents a curious undertaking by an Australian composer that  "has been passionate about sound, music and art as long as he can remember" (quoted on the composer's Bandcamp site). When I first encountered this recording I was skeptical that it would be worth reviewing. The premise for this collection of pieces: to create preludes and fugues using samples of everyday items such as zippers, saucepans, locks, and plastic bags, seemed, on the surface, to resemble the practice of a pedantic schoolmarm. But after scratching the surface a little one discovers some timbral gems and unfamiliar contexts well worth listening to.

According to Symon Twelve Day Today Preludes and Fugues “is difficult to classify.” He continues: “Is it classical music, sound art, electronic/digital experiment, or noise music? It has motion and pulse, physicality and visuality; some find it relaxing and meditative, others find it tense. Abstract art and Baroque counterpoint and pulse provide the inspiration” for this series of pieces.

Symon acknowledges debts to preludes and fugues by J. S. Bach and Dimitri Shostakovich. Each of Symon's preludes and fugues explores its subject matter from a traditional formal perspective, but common sound palettes replace concepts such as key, and contrapuntal procedures are reflected in sound file duplication and overlapping, layering, and spatial interactions throughout the stereo spectrum.

Bach's preludes and fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier all sport numbers and key names in their titles. Symon's titles use numbers but add additional layers of meaning in the form of descriptive subtitles that indicate which everyday sound was used for each piece. For example, the first piece is entitled Prelude No. 1 - Zipper. The primary sound samples for the other pieces include samples of a pan, lock, door, chair, water faucet, curtain or blind, plastic bag, lid, paper, cutlery, and a coat hanger. All are common household items. Besides the everyday aspect of these sounds, the fact that most of these sounds are usually associated with being indoors, imparts a certain contemplative inwardness to the project, and provides opportunities for the composer to juxtapose these ‘inside’ sounds with others, such as a flowing river or an urban traffic setting.

Symon's subtitles also seem to engage with the akousmatikoi myth in which Pythagoras' pupils heard his lectures from behind a screen, in order to better concentrate on the content. However, the subtitles for Symon's pieces serve to provide the listener with the originating cause of his primary source materials, which makes them function more like nineteenth-century programmatic labels. Symon claims that in Twelve Day Today Preludes and Fugues, "each sound carries, even if unconsciously and subtly for its observer, a spatial, physical, visual, psychological, cultural and symbolic significance. Each sound will solicit some familiar emotional response or recognition." More will be said about this in the conclusion for this review.

The disc begins with a thorough examination of sounds made by a zipper. Processing techniques also found in many of the other pieces are first heard here. These include: time expansion and compression, retrogression, pitch shifting, flanging, spatialization and depth techniques, and frequency filtering.  Additionally, in the fugue, Symon utilizes many traditional contrapuntal devices such as canon, and imitation. There is even a miniature stretto section toward the end.

For each prelude-fugue pairing the prelude lays out the conceptual arena in which the primary sound source is presented in various forms, while each fugue focuses on the presentation of the primary sound sources within contrapuntal frameworks. For the most part the term 'fugue' can only loosely be applied to the fugues on this disc. One is hard put to identify the three customary fugal sections, and even the basic idea of the subject is not always clearly in evidence. There are several reasons why this is the case. First, the samples Symon uses for his subjects are mostly already concatenations and highly dense. When used in combination with other 'voices' the music reaches maximum textural density very quickly and since the composer eschews suggestions of tonality it is difficult to track each 'voice'. Second, in a Bach fugue one typically experiences the individual melodies within a consistent harmonic framework that serves to simultaneously unify them while also helping to keep each part distinct. Symon uses spatialization and to a lesser degree equalization to distinguish his parts, but due to the fact that each part comprises a combination of primary sounds, and that maximum density is reached early on in each piece, the sense of part distinction is largely compromised.

On his Bandcamp site Symon writes that for this compact disc "phrases are created out of associations. Polyphonic lines of sound are structured out of these phrases." But, although he employs some contrapuntal techniques, the musical texture is not polyphonic since there is no discernible principle of verticality that ties his lines into a harmonic, or other, framework. Instead the overall texture, or rather effect, resembles John Oswald's Plunderphonics pieces in which numerous samples are traversed in a short amount of time, with little change in textural density.

The first prelude and fugue contain many compositional and processing devices that can also be found in the other works on this compact disc. A favorite and effective device used by Symon is time compression and expansion. The simple application of this device can radically alter the semiotic significance of a given primary source. For example, applied to the zipper sample, Symon conjures buzzing insects and motorcycles, applied to a sample of a lock he conjures a ticking clock or rain sounds. It should be mentioned that the time altering algorithm that he uses produces very clean results, without the annoying digital 'artifacts' common to this type of processing.

Often in the fugues on this disc, Symon first presents his source material by itself, and then in combination with copies of itself, to produce thick layers of heterophony. Although this produces in the composer’s words “motion and pulse” the sense of pulse resembles a chaotic heterophony more common to pre and post-Baroque periods than to the Baroque itself. In combination with the prelude and fugue references it offers a floating historical perspective that makes this music unique.

The two best pieces on this disc are Prelude and Fugue No. 9 – Lid and Prelude and Fugue No. 11 – Cutlery. In the first work Symon decreases density to create a translucent texture. In the recorded text that accompanies the lid samples one hears the words “beautiful” and “glorious” spoken in a neutral manner. Perhaps the composer is, tongue in cheek, characterizing the new texture. This is effectively combined with a more subtle degree of control and development of the source samples. The fugue employs a sample of a lid rapidly oscillating on a hard surface as it falls down. The oscillations gradually speed up as gravity carries the lid to a state of rest. The changes of speed create a simple yet dynamic effect that is not present in the previous preludes or fugues.

After the ‘wall of sound’ density found in many of the previous preludes and fugues, Prelude and Fugue No. 11 – Cutlery sounds refreshing. It is one of the only works to utilize pitched material, produced from samples of metal utensils. At times the prelude sounds like a giant mbira, clock chimes, or tubular wind chimes. Evocatively (and humorously) the piece begins with the sound of a drawer being opened, and ends with the sound of it being closed. In the fugue the samples of cutlery are altered, through pitch shifting and filtering, to produce a menagerie of analog pinball sounds.

The concept behind this compact disc raises some interesting questions. For example, without the aid of the title would a listener be able to identify, by ear, the source samples? Since, for the most part, little is done to sonically disguise the sources this may very well be the case. According to Symon, each sound triggers a familiar emotional response or recognition. But ultimately it is the triggering of the unfamiliar that makes a listener sit up and take note. Perhaps this was caused by an unusual combination of sounds, or an unlikely twist in the sonic plot. This disc offers us obvious sonic traces left intact, combined with those that are harder to identify, heard from behind the mythological curtain as it were.