Janek Schaefer: Phoenix & Phaedra Holding Patterns

Phoenix & Phaedra Holding Patterns is precisely the sort of inspired conceptual soundwork we've come to expect from experimental composer Janek Schaefer, who was honoured a few years ago as British Composer of the Year (Sonic Art 2008). In this case it's an hour-long, live concert composition (recorded at St John the Baptist Church, Coventry, UK) that's “performed” with its creator offstage, a move that gives the piece more of a gallery installation-like presentation, despite the fact that the audience is collectively present to experience it. They aren't merely passive spectators, however, as their presence is needed for the piece to come into being; more specifically, the concert material is produced when a sound system and short range radio transmitter broadcast to a set of small radios held by the audience members.

In the inaugurating section “On Air,” crackly sounds—voices, lulling organ tones, and machine noises—drift through the ether, cumulatively forming a flowing symphony of abstract sound. With the advent of the subsequent piece, “Cyan Sees Through You,” an Eastern drone dimension emerges, with Schaefer adding the hypnotic sounds of the Shruti Box to the ethereal drift of hazy radio and sound wave textures. It's this style that predominates, appearing as it does during “Red Plumes” and “Eyes Close in Heaven,” with the former presenting eleven minutes of thick, absorptive swells of hiss and organ tones and the latter pushing the material's hypnotic drone potency to a higher level. On the album's longest piece, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” a speaker's melancholy delivery establishes a plaintive tone after which the eighteen-minute setting blossoms into a thrumming, immersive dronescape of oceanic scope. Though Schaefer created Phoenix & Phaedra Holding Patterns in celebration of the birth of his son Phoenix, there's little that directly ties the piece to that life-changing event aside from the pretty, lullaby-like melody that tinkles throughout “Eyrie of the Phoenix.” It's a detail of incidental note in a work that, while not necessarily signifying a radical advance, nevertheless contributes positively to the distinctive body of work he's in the midst of creating.

September 2011