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Notes about the music on Utopia, Tom Kerstens’ G Plus Ensemble’s debut album on Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records

With respect to Stravinsky’s enthusiasm for music that is what it is and that denotes nothing, there is something about the pieces which feels somehow illustrative. Like, perhaps, highly condensed tone poems or Brian Eno’s Music for Films, there is a sense of some kind of quite intense drama being played out and of the evocation of mystery, passions and stories. None of these pieces are programmatic and yet they all seem to have a resonance beyond music. A characteristic of this lively, new, guitar-based chamber composition is that these, mainly short, pieces appear to be remarkable acts of compression, as though their brevity is the distillation of something much longer.

Works by Joby Talbot

Joby Talbot says; “Utopia, Cyanide, Dead Space and Incubator started life scored for rock band and string quartet and were originally composed during 2001 and 2002. I had spent the previous eight years dividing my time between performing in a rock band and composing classical concert music. I was keen to write some music that exploited the rhythmic drive of the former and the arithmetical precision of the latter. I assembled a group of like-minded musicians. The resulting six piece band teams up with The Duke Quartet to perform our first and sadly, penultimate gig at The Spitz club in Spitalfields, London, in July 2002. We were called Billiardman. I can’t remember why.

Four years later I received a call from Tom Kerstens who has heard the Billiardman tunes; he asked whether they might be performable by his new ensemble. With the help of composer Artem Vasiliev, new arrangements have been prepared and, at last, these pieces find their way back to the concert platform.”

We added four more pieces in 2007; Croydon Grand Prix, First Day of Summer, Iliac Crest and Polarisation.

1. Utopia
In Joby Talbot’s words, “the four square nature of the opening ostinato is gradually undercut by obstinate syncopations which refuse to obey the simple rules of eight bar phrasing.”

2. Croydon Grand Prix
In case you were wondering, there is no grand prix in Croydon. However, the first guitar; the celle and the second guitar jostle for position from beginning to end. This shimmering piece articulates guitar lines against a ground of resonant vibraphone and discretely ambient strings. Suddenly it begins to pick up speed, progresses towards an ecstatic climax and then slows down for an exquisite coda.

3. Cyanide
“Cyanide’s beautiful chords are gradually poisoned by a rogue F flat.”

4. Dead Space
“Dead Space is really two pieces combined. A slow hauntingly repeated figure is rudely interrupted by the relentlessly driven middle section before making an uneasy return as the piece fades into the final movement”.

5. First Day of Summer
This piece exudes joy, a feeling of lightness and a sensation of beginnings. Avenues are explored, possibilities emerge and there is a sense of delightfully natural energy that arises from its charming tonality. It ends with a moment of reflection and slight fading away, as though that much innocence and simplicity cannot be sustained for too long.

6. Iliac Crest
A Spanish sounding motif on he guitars leads to a piece that seems to echo and morph the spirit of flamenco and tango. In this piece the guitars’ and the strings’ Iberian plaintiveness and deft rhythms interweave. Col legno (played with the back of the bow) and plucked strings provide an edginess to offset the guitars’ search for resolution.

7. Polarisation
This opens with strong guitar figures set against hallucinatory vibraphone and yearning strings before picking up both tempo and volume to present a powerful sequence. This shifts to a jaunty section combining jagged and gently sequences music, which sustains the promise of dramatic events. As it advances, there is a sensation of troubled melancholy and passion, which leads almost to a resolution.

8. Incubator
A C minor ticking clock is underpinned by brooding bass chords rocking to and from with the ominous regularity of a life support machine.

Works by John Metcalfe

9. The Third Fire: Never Even
The Third Fire is a trio of pieces for solo guitar and digital delay. John Metcalfe has composed a piece for Tom Kerstens that is inspired by his love of electronic music and his time with the Machester band Durutti Column, whose guitarist, Vini Reilly, is a master of this way of approaching guitar music. The three titles relate to that period of John’s life, for example, Palatine refers to the original address of Factory Records.

During Never Even, Tom Kerstens’ guitar traces out a delightfully syncopated and intricate motif, a kind of courtship dance with itself. The piece unfold with grace as the guitar embraces a rich variety of sounds whilst it is being played with extreme dexterity.

10. The Third Fire: The Number 88
A kind of interrupted rhythm opens up spaces for the digital delay and, as with Never Even, the guitar displays an orchestral range of sounds.

11. The Third Fire: The First Trip to Palatine
This piece begins at speed with a trance-like, flowing beauty. The flickering and rippling delicacy of Tom’s playing and John’s writing are hugely expressive, yet gentle.

12. Silent Westway
John Metcalfe says that he starts from a sonic perspective and tends to bolt titles on after he has composed a piece. Despite that, he describes the source of this dreamy and haunting piece, as one inspired when he was mastering an album at a studio that overlooked the Westway, the raised section of the A40, in central London. The studio’s soundproofing insulated him from the noise of the traffic that hurtled past. We hear a kind of serenity, a dislocation from the busy-ness of the silenced urban highway in this sprightly and warmly melodic reverie.

13. Ochre Orange Freeway
In Arizona and Colorado, the squat crag-like buttes jutting out of the desert add to the burnt orange sense of a landscape that is primeval and parched beyond imagining. John Metcalfe sayd, “I have always enjoyed road trips in America…This is the kind of thing I might listen to in a thoughtful moment with my feet up on the dashboard and the roof down at sunset.”

14. As She Fell
This piece is for string quartet and one guitar. It is inspired by John Metcalfe’s mother’s death and is a way of imaging the moment she fell. It is an emotional piece both for him and for Tom Kerstens, whose father died at about the same time. It begins gently and hesitantly as though leaves are rustling in gusts of wind before it establishes a strange, almost overheard, sense of uncertainty. It rises in volume half way through but never quite asserts its presence. There is a moving sense that you are dreaming as you appear to overhear this piece.

Words by Tony Davis

Utopia is available to buy online here from Real World Records