James Weeks has popped up on this site quite frequently as a conductor with his vocal ensemble EXAUDI and elsewhere, but this is the first time I’ve encountered him as a composer.

As an opening sound the first section of Looping Busker Music is not the most inviting. As its title suggests, this is a piece that involves a great deal of repetition, working-out on just a few notes like someone on a gym machine, but also exploring varieties of counterpoint and timbre. That opening is very ‘dirty’, and will be a familiar sort of sound to anyone who has handed out instruments to a group of enthusiastic children. Sounds from a construction site are added in further along to create a cacophony of Michael Bentine-like comic proportions. If you can get past these first six minutes without too much of a headache then there is a reward provided in the form of a gentle reply that emerges from silence, the sparing notes from the musicians visited by moments of street sounds from Newcastle city centre, distant voices and footsteps creating vignettes of altered perspective and perception.

Three Trios has as its aim, “to strip back the material towards a point at which it marks little more than the time passing: a study in pure structure (a canonic motet) and content nearing transparency (a window, nearly).” The initial impression is a little like something by Morton Feldman: an intimate group of musicians inside a bubble, each listening carefully to one or two notes. Recorded sounds caress this atmosphere, the sound of a distant airliner flying overhead, voices or other indistinct and atmospheric additions that have the effect of placing the musicians in an acoustic of the imagination.

Signs of Occupation is a musical response to James Wilkes’ poem ‘Approaching Cleavel Point’, and has the poet’s mellow, slightly melancholic voice reciting as the words are “divided into paragraphs which are overlapped with paragraphs of music for the clarinet – a counterpoint to the sound of the speaking voice (a walking companion) as well as an evocation of terrain.” The poem isn’t printed in the booklet but with the clarity of the reading there is no need for a printed text. This is a sort of enhanced poetry reading. As ‘a walking companion’ the clarinet has less to contribute with the scarcity of its notes, but it is the right kind of mirror for the words. One could imagine something more animated and overtly descriptive, but the risk is always of wandering into Oliver Postgate territory.

The title Digger refers to the Diggers or True Levellers, “a group of landless poor who occupied common land on St George’s Hill near Weybridge in Surry in 1649.” The sounds of the de-tuned guitar accompany a text by Gerard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers. There is a mixture of the earthy and the philosophical in the way the music underlies Winstanley’s sense of inspired idealism with disarming folk-like directness.

The final piece, common ground, is a ‘chance’ score, the parameters of which involve a restricted range of pitches and rhythm, in performance introducing elements of canon. Weeks describes this as “a scenario in which three people movie across an imaginary, shared space, each independent of the other, with their own route, purpose and thoughts… music and musical space shared, the ground over which we pass.”

Recorded with a dry, strikingly clear sonic perspective, this is an intriguing wander through a mind filled with culture and creativity. I have nothing against music which uses only a few notes – ‘more for the rest of us’ goes up the cry, but there are few if any places throughout this recording that I felt much of an emotional connection or an investment in the music’s past or future. The rewards here are in intellectual reflection, in moving towards spaces that examine ideas like objects on a microscope slide. Sometimes they will emerge as something big and scary, but more often they will have you looking closer and closer to find out more about what is going on. The beauty of such a canvas is that what you discover throws your own thoughts into sharp relief – it’s not so much about the pieces themselves, but what kind of mirror they hold up to the listener. If you like what you see will very much depend on yourself.

—Dominy Clements