Reviews: Andy Partridge Harold Budd: Through The Hill
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Gyroscope Records

through the hill

XTC's Andy Partridge and ambient composer Harold Budd - an unlikely combination or happy co-incidence? However surprising such a partnership might seem, here are two of modern music's more original exponents, who against (even their own) expectations have combined their highly individual abilities and disparate musical backgrounds to create almost an hour of very original music.

Harold and Andy were introduced by All Saints Records in the UK and Ray Hearn, a concert promoter in Tokyo. "I was in Japan opening a Virgin Megastore" says Andy. "Ray, who used to tour XTC in Japan, asked me over a very boozy dinner if I'd like to work with Harold. I said oooh yes please, then didn't hear anything for ages".

All Saints Records finally got word to Harold Budd about the possibility of a collaboration. Harold notes he "trailed out to Swindon to meet Andy. We spent the afternoon in his garden shed where his studio is situated, just getting acquainted and messing around with musical ideas. I'm always astounded by people who have very good ears, because mine are very mediocre and Andy's are superbly tuned".

"We didn't have a clue what we were going to come up with before we met" continues Andy "but we found a common ground between the kind of things that each of us likes and we created Frankenstein's Bathing Beauty".

After Harold returned to the States, he and Andy set up a furious two-way fax exchange, whereby each bombarded the other with ideas for titles, structure, visuals and more. Harold describes the exercise as "two architects designing a bridge between them and deciding how it was going to look before they built it. We hadn't the faintest idea what the musical part would look like, but that was the fun bit, because that's when we started decorating the bridge and deciding what the gargoyles would look like".

Once in the studio the two realised they worked in completely different ways. Harold tends to work improvisationally whereas Andy likes to know exactly what he's doing before he starts. The result was an enriching experience where both were able to learn from each other's recording technique.

"I tend to settle for approximations rather quickly" explains Harold, "because I want to get on to the next stage. Andy doesn't".

"I learned what not to play" adds Andy. "Criticisms have been justly levelled at me that I tend to over-ornament and baroque things up; this has been a great experience for me learning to leave stuff out and get as much out of the spaces or the "implied" as possible, rather than gargoyling everything to death".

Once they began there was no stopping them. Ideas sprang to life and titles grew from Harold's lifelong passion for archaeology and world history and from Andy's early training and continued interest in fine and illustrative art.

Through The Hill features Harold on acoustic piano, Hammond organ and voice-over, while Andy performs on acoustic and electric guitar, zither, shakers and cymbals ($1.49 from his local charity store) and some bells that Harold tucked away in his trans-Atlantic luggage.

An early Korg guitar synthesizer also makes an appearance (loaned from XTC's Dave Gregory). Andy comments "If you play one note it may eventually follow that note with a synthesized note that's kind of in relation to it. If you play two notes it can't decide what you're playing so it improvises somewhere between them and rests on one of them. So you end up with strange kinds of trumpet squiggles or tube meanderings till it finds the note it likes - it might not even be the one you played".

The duo also used a sample module, a Proteus, which allowed them to tune each note on the keyboard to a different pitch producing "archaic" or "argumentative" sounding chords.

All of which has resulted in an album of tightly focussed, yet extremely fluid musical passages called Through The Hill.

Soundscapes 1994

Andy Partridge/Harold Budd
Through The Hill

What's an explorer to do? The rainforests are dwindling to the size of vegetable gardens, the information superhighway is about to loop every neighborhood, and even the mysteries of the past are being commandeered by new age guerrillas.

Increasingly, the most viable option for those in search of the road less traveled, the genre not yet classified, is to set the compass inwards and tramp the virgin canyons of the cranium.

Something of that mindframe went into the making of Through The Hill, a new collaboration on the Gyroscope label by American pianist-composer Harold Budd and Andy Partridge, English guitarist, songwriter, and co-founder of pop group XTC. The working premise for this soundscape of instrumentals and occasional verse was "fake archaeology." Budd, with his proclivity for boldly improbable composition titles, shows his hand in such evocative place names as 'The Place of Odd Glances' (familiar to many of us, no doubt) and 'Ceramic Avenue.' As the focus shifts to artifacts that may be found in these regions, Partridge contributes verse, recited by Budd, about such priceless discoveries as 'Bronze Coins Showing Genitals.'

"We were really grasping in the dark until we could find ideas or alleyways that we had in common, and we seemed to gravitate towards this idea of archaeology," Partridge explained. "I don't know why. It seemed to be an area in which we both felt comfortable with each other. And we both liked the idea of fakes. So we decided that fake archaeology would be the order of the day."

"It's a record I've wanted to make for a long time," he added, "and doing it with Harold Budd is a bit of a dream, really. If you wanted to make an interestingly gentle, exploratory album, who would you make it with? There are very few people who I would find inspiring.

"It's a very contemplative, very meditative music, but I think it's also a very personal, very pictorial thing. It's you sitting down with a scrapbook or a picture book on your own. It's obviously not something you do with 15,000 other neo-Nazis punching the air in a stadium. You sit down and you draw the pictorial juice out of it yourself---I hope."

On the face of it, Budd and Partridge are improbable partners. At 58, Budd is nearly 20 years older than Partridge and, according to the latter, imparted a "benevolent uncle vibe" during their collaboration. Stylistic contrasts are just as evident. Budd's expansive foreboding minimalism is eons aways from quirky, hook-driven XTC hits like Partridge's 'Senses Working Overtime.' While XTC records have shown flashes of an introspective, instrumental side of Partridge, Through the Hill does seem weighted more towards Budd's signature sound. Partridge's guitar echoes the dominant resonance of the piano.

"This is clearly not an XTC album," Budd commented. "At the same time it isn't really the inner turmoil of my dark closet. Andy is there turning the lights on, while I have a tendency to dim things down."

Comparing the new album to his work with Brian Eno, Budd added: "I think this was two soundmakers on equal terms arriving at an agreement, whereas Brian is more apt to accept what I did. Frankly, these were fairly naked duets. The works with Eno, at least sonically, are not duets. They are collaborations of two different kinds of skills working on one another."

In Through The Hill and its fake archaeology, perhaps there is a metaphor that extends far beyond one album. Electronics has made it possible to create without leaving home, and Through The Hill is a good example, taking shape as it did from taped improvisations in Partridge's backyard shed in Swindon, England, followed by much faxing between Swindon and Budd's home in southern California.

Computerized mass marketing is on the music industry horizon, with the prospect of albums routinely downloaded by the customer direct from the performer. How long then before improbable collaborations are common, with musicians hooking up across the globe to record albums uncommercial by usual standards and yet each with its own small, dedicated constituency? It's a point to ponder, Partridge agreed.

"It would be nice to bust the industry wide open, really," he said, "I rather like the idea of the cottage industry and the small holder. You would get infinitely more interesting music and healthier attitudes, I think."

"I have gone personally from wanting to be a Monkee/Beatle/Rolling Stone to really wanting to be a songwriter specifically and not a performer. I just don't enjoy or think I have the gift for performing. I find actual performance rather fake. It is almost the opposite of writing a song in the first place--- reproducing the song over and over and geeing people along to enjoy the song. All that really smells funny to me. Over the years I've become much more interested in following the songwriter line, the backroom boy line, rather than the rock god levitating over the arena."

Partridge's remarks could almost be part of a policy statement from Gyroscope, a year-old label that by design has positioned itself outside standard formats. Gyroscope publicity czar Nick Clift describes the label's main fare as "new edge"--- in other words, exploratory instrumental without the crystals-and-catharsis image of much new age.

"New age is the bastard child of '80s experimental new edge artists," asserted Clift. The description seems particularly appropriate in view of ambient music pioneer Brian Eno's role in forming Gyroscope's parent company All Saints Records, as well as its spiritual predecessor, the defunct Opal label.

Gyroscope markets All Saints' products in the US and in addition generates its own releases, such as Californian guitarist/synthesist Gene Bowen's contemplative ode, The Vermilion Sea. Artists on the label also include Djivan Gasparyan, a master of the oboe-related Armenian duduk or nay, whose current release, Moon Shines At Night, is in the same mold as his US debut, I Will Not Be Sad In This World on Opal.

Actually Gasparyan could be considered the odd man out in the Gyroscope catalog. While his tortuous duduk solos satisfy the ambient definition surprisingly well, they are, after all, the product of a geography that needs no invention. The resonant, earthy timbre of the instrument evokes a region where the Middle East meets Europe. Haunting and brooding for the most part, Gasparyan's music makes no concessions to the listener in the way contemporary styles often do. Traditional to the core, it demands patience and perseverance.

This is not the case with The Familiar, a lushly orchestrated album composed and performed by pianist Roger Eno and ex-Dream Academy singer Kate St. John and produced by Bill Nelson, one-time guitarist for Be-Bop Deluxe. This is rich and accessible material with its plethora of melody, counterpoint, and the contrasting voices of piano, strings and various aerophones. Imagine chamber music embellished by St. John's crystalline soprano.

The Gyroscope soloists range from the warm soundscapes of zither player Laraaji on Flow Goes The Universe and Brian Eno's sparse but nurturing aural therapy of Neroli to the cataclysmic microcosms conjured by Toronto studio wizard Luke Koyle's structured ambience in the powers of 10, the most jazz-influenced of all these recordings. This ain't sipping music, and it's hard to imagine any of it finding much space on the radio. More's the pity, because all these releases are challenging and imaginative and deserve high fidelity attention. Gyroscope's one shortcoming is the lack of informative album notes. Who are these people and why are they doing this? The average consumer is given few clues.

Collaborations seem to be Gyroscope's passion at the moment. Along with the Budd/Partridge sojourn, the label is currently releasing a quietly evocative collage by Nelson, R. Eno, St. John, Laraaji and Japanese classically-trained cellist Mayumi Tachibana. Collectively they are calling themselves Channel Light Vessel, a name under which they may possibly tour in the US. Their first release as a formal entity is entitled Automatic, although The Familiar might be regarded as a dress rehearsal. Both the group name and the new album title were inspired by BBC radio weather reports, with reference to an unmanned lightship in the English Channel.

In spirit Automatic might be described as electronic back porch music. Not that all the music is made electronically. The instruments are mostly conventionally acoustic, and include oboe, cor anglais, and sax--played by St. John, Eno on piano and accordion, zither and m'bira (thumb piano) from Laraaji, Tachibana's cello, as well as assorted guitars. The melodic gentility of much of the material doesn't qualify as techno or spacey either. But there is a friendly improvisation in the way these musicians traded off-the-wall ideas and sounds, and then left it up to studio buff Bill Nelson to splice together the results into something artistically and commercially viable.

"We come from quite disparate backgrounds," acknowledged Eno, who like his brother Brian is best known for atmospheric soundtracks of a solo nature. "The tacit rule was that everyone would underplay, so that if anyone was doing anything interesting they would have the forefront. Then Bill put lyrics on and overdubbed a lot. It allowed a sparse canvas to work on, really. That's what we were aiming at, so there wasn't one person dominating throughout the thing."

The approach is in keeping with other projects by Nelson, whose 1993 album on Virgin Venture, Blue Moons And Laughing Guitars, centers on home-produced song sketches for a band that never came to be.

The metaphorical possibilities in Channel Light Vessel's name seem to fascinate Nelson, who characterizes the group as "the channel for the spirit of creativity without ego." Put aside the mystical overtones and the description seems even more apt. Studios and computers are proliferating around the planet in countless channels of light. One can envisage all kinds of link-ups between artists of different backgrounds, unfettered by style, status of geography. Showmanship, much less stardom, becomes incidental in these circumstances.

As with any exploration, it will be an uphill struggle at times. Worthless property will go on the market, and pathfinders will lose their way. But, if Automatic and Through The Hill are any indication, this territory is worth the effort.

September 1994

Andy Partridge and Harold Budd
Through the Hill
(All Saints / Gyroscope)

Through the Hill shuffles by like a slide show of someone else's vacation. Fragmentary titles offer to organize the material like so many anecdotes, but they just help to confuse matters. The album moves at a deceptively ambient pace -- molasses slow, inviting meditation -- because as each exceptionally pleasant track gives way to another, you're forced to readjust: to new textures, listening spaces, melodic strategies, reference points. With each new segment, the instrumentation shifts radically -- trance elements like synth drones and soft percussion, recognizable sounds like guitar, organ and piano, even composer Budd reading the poetry of Partridge (leader of the pop group XTC). Nothing develops, and little lingers. Guess you had to be there.
* * -- Marc Weidenbaum

[Transcribed by John Relph]

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23 February 2019