Released under the experimental music label Slip Discs, Crystals are Always Forming is the result of a collaboration between virtuoso cellist Oliver Coates, winner of the Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artist Award 2011, and Leo Abrahams, whose varied career history to date includes working with Brian Eno on the album Small Craft on a Milk Sea and the releases of several solo albums, themselves considerably varied stylistically (even within the album The Unrest Cure there are direct influences from soul, jazz, electronica, post-punk and folk rock).
The result of this collaboration was bound to be, at the very least, very interesting – seemingly the only thing that Abrahams and Coates have in common musically is that they both studied at the Royal Academy of Music. Coates already has a formidable track record in contemporary performance, commissioning pieces from most composers of his generation and working directly with more established composers such as Thomas Adès, Harrison Birtwistle, Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, Helmut Lachenmann, Sofia Gubaidulina and Jonathan Harvey on their music. Abrahams’ musical stall, on the other hand, I would struggle to describe succinctly – however, it does not include any form of classical performance, old or contemporary, and he did not take well to his composition course at the Academy, leaving to go on tour as a guitarist with Imogen Heap.
Crystals are Always Forming was not a traditional composer-performer collaboration – in Abrahams’ own words, he “…took a non-performing role – directing Oliver Coates in initial improvisations, and developing and arranging the material that resulted. All the raw material was recorded in a day, and then worked on gradually and sporadically over the following year.” The album consists of eleven anonymous tracks, each of which presents at most three ideas which are layered in varying combinations and any development is simple and linear (e.g. manipulating a sound to render it more resonant, bring out higher partials etc.). Themes which characterise these layers (across the whole album) include rhythmic regularity versus irregularity (and layering regular rhythms at different speeds to give the illusion of irregularity, as in the fourth track), short sounds which punctuate the texture versus sustaining sounds, foreground versus background and resonance versus dryness. The harmony is always spectrally derived from the cello; the presence of open fifths and/or overtone series is felt in all tracks apart from the fourth and sixth.
Each track in itself is very well conceived and, admittedly relative to my limited knowledge and experience of electronic music, I found the exploration of texture very imaginative and appealing. The problem I found as the album progressed however, is that the simple (and near identical) structure of each track becomes wearing and simply presenting new material in the same template becomes less and less sufficient for sustaining interest. More harmonic differentiation could have helped and whenever sharp contrasts are presented, such as the cutting out of harmony halfway through the fifth or a third of the way through the last track, these are usually inconsequential and only part of a block ternary form with the opening material returning without transformation. Coates admits that “the space and stasis are themselves framed, so that meaning might be activated by the listener”, so perhaps this album is not intended to be listened to linearly and as a whole and serves more as a sort of stimulus for reflections on sonorities, but the numbered titles of the movements and consistency of compositional method seem to suggest an intended overall trajectory. To reiterate, I have little knowledge and experience of electronic music, so perhaps a different reviewer might shed more light on the sonorities in isolation.
My overall impression, however, is that this is the result of a fruitful crossover of musical backgrounds and an album well worth a listen. I thought each track was superbly crafted in isolation and contextualising it with the small amount of electronic music to which I have had exposure, I would rank it near the top of what I have heard.
Crystals are Always Forming is due for release on October 8th 2012 as the second release [SLP002] of the label Slip Discs.