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Mark Fell - Intra Music Album Reviews

Mark Fell - Intra Music Album Reviews
Mark Fell enlists Portugal’s Drumming Grupo de Percussão to perform captivating computer-generated rhythms on the sixxen, a little-known invention of Iannis Xenakis.

The story behind the English musician Mark Fell’s Intra, which marks the first entirely acoustic major release of his 20-year career, starts about four decades ago. It goes back to the moment that the influential Greek composer Iannis Xenakis decided that his 1978 percussion work “Pléïades” required the invention of a new metallic instrument, which he called the sixxen. In his score for the piece, Xenakis specified that each of the six required sixxens should feature 19 irregularly distributed microtonal pitches, utilizing frequencies separated by smaller intervals than the standard Western semitone. Additionally, none of the sixxens was supposed to be in “unison” with the others. Somewhat comically, it has been said that Xenakis objected to every version of the instrument built during his lifetime; he admittedly could have been a lot clearer about what exactly he was looking for. The idea of the sixxen appears to be as dissonant as the instrument itself.

Written expressly for the sixxen, Intra—an album of meditative pieces for metallophone—is a far cry from the elastic, hi-def electronic music with which Fell is most closely associated. Performed by Portugal’s Drumming Grupo de Percussão, Intra is a measured, oneiric, and glistening set of eight instrumental pieces inspired by South Indian carnatic music systems. Despite the shift in instrumentation, the album’s subtitle—Computer Generated Rhythm for Microtonal Metallophones—ties directly back into Fell’s longstanding practice of working with limited technological systems to facilitate creativity. It also provides some insight as to why these entrancing pieces feel so strange.

The musicians performing Intra were not provided with a musical score. Instead of “composing” in the traditional sense, Fell used computer software to design systems that generated a series of electronic sound patterns. During the Intra recording sessions, the musicians of Drumming Grupo de Percussão were fed these patterns via headphones and instructed to follow them with their instruments in real time as accurately as possible. One can only wonder what Fell’s original electronic patterns were like, and how they might sound when interpreted through an instrument less tricky than the sixxen. The artist initially began using this non-standard approach to composition with his Focal Music series for solo violin, piano, and other instruments; some of these were released in highly limited edition by the Tapeworm, a British cassette label, last year.

Intra’s architecture of sound is spindly, lustrous, and bending. In many ways, these contemplative tracks do sound like algorithms or slowly unwinding algebra problems. Each piece is based on a repeating central motif that slowly morphs, and the results are as serene as they are eerie. “INTRA-8” sounds like the good version of getting caught in a spiderweb, while “INTRA-7” could be the product of an impromptu jam session involving kitchenware found on a campsite. Contrastingly, “INTRA-3” and “INTRA-9” are delightfully spacious, using slowness to rev up a sense of mesmerizing clarity and painterly depth.

It is in the procedural dimension of Intra’s shifting patterns that one can hear resonances with carnatic music, which Fell has praised for the variety and complexity of patterns its rhythmic structures are capable of generating. The album also strongly conveys the visceral sense of a computer modulating sound and executing code without prejudice. But if Fell’s processes suggest a hands-off approach to emotion, the sensitivity and expressivity of Drumming Grupo de Percussão’s playing is awe-inspiring. There is a whole world of textures in these tracks, from feathery to guttural and lots more in between. In the process the sixxen comes alive as a genuinely captivating instrument in its own right. Perhaps even Xenakis would have approved.

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