Sounds Heard: Aaron Cassidy—The Crutch of Memory

Sounds Heard: Aaron Cassidy—The Crutch of Memory

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The Crutch of Memory
by Aaron Cassidy
(NEOS 11201)
ELISION ensemble

In a way, I’ve been writing this review for years—since long before I first got wind that NEOS’s The Crutch of Memory, the first CD wholly dedicated to Aaron Cassidy’s music, was scheduled for release. In 2005 (or was it 2006?), Cassidy’s stance toward instrumental composition seemed utterly exemplary to this zealous young partisan of contemporary music.

Some of those early pieces that first captivated my imagination are on this disc: I think Frank Cox’s rendition of the title track (written in 2004 and played here by Graeme Jennings) must have been my first brush with Cassidy’s music. I also encountered 1999’s metallic dust and 2000’s asphyxia early on, two pieces that went a long way toward establishing Cassidy as a transatlantic composer to be watched. Listening to the two most ambitious new music woodwind players on the planet, Richard Haynes and Carl Rosman, blow through these pieces, it’s hard to imagine that ten to fifteen years ago Cassidy was laboring over these unbelievably painstaking scores (worth a look, if you ever get the chance) with little hope of a second performance, let alone a recording of them out on NEOS.

The more recent Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (2008-09) consists of three probably-somehow-related movements, each for a different solo or duo instrumentation. More things happen in these pieces than I’d anticipated from Cassidy, who once noted that his music doesn’t begin or end but rather starts and stops—is this still the case? I, purples, spat blood of beautiful lips and songs only as sad as their listener (both from 2006) show two quite different surfaces to Cassidy’s aesthetic. The first, for voice “with live, computer-generated pitch material,” gives the casual Cassidy fan a concentrated dose of exactly what he or she wants—an oral scrambling and grasping for purchase without letup. The second, for trombone, employs Cassidy’s familiar de-coupling tactic in service of an unexpected strategy—at least, I assume it does. More on this one later.

We could call Cassidy’s approach—those proliferating and always-changing approaches, rather—”extreme,” but that would be unfairly reductive: Not only (contra Cassidy’s critics) has their “extremeness” never been the point, but to label them “extreme” suggests that they occupy some remote point on a single historicist continuum of performed deconstruction. A listen through The Crutch of Memory, whose pieces show not only Cassidy’s growth as a composer but also the surprising multivalence of his pieces’ deliberately unstable material, will quickly dispel that prejudice.

And if the CD itself doesn’t dispel it, Evan Johnson’s enthusiastic and astute liner notes are bound to do the trick. Johnson identifies Bacon and Deleuze as Cassidy’s chief “extra-musical interlocutors,” but he hardly needs to: These influences are, like the score samples that decorate the inside of the CD’s packaging, integral to Cassidy’s branding as a composer. (A mutual friend once remarked that Beethoven could certainly have titled a piece Phänomenologie des Geistes, but chose not to.) The bottom line for us, as well as for Cassidy, is that fragmentation, instability, contradiction, and negation are the names of the poststructuralist game. Plenty of critics and bloggers have expended plenty of words trying to capture what Cassidy’s music sounds like, but in fact its whiplash changes and instantaneous contrasts are what make it unique. When you see a performance of it, you are seeing human behavior that strives not to cohere.

When you see a performance of it, that is. I’m one of the lucky ones: I’ve had the good fortune to see a number of interpreters realize Cassidy’s music, including on several occasions the musicians featured on The Crutch of Memory—the once-Australian group ELISION, avant-gardecore explorers (“The cutting edge of sound,” their logo proclaims) now based in northern England who have over the past few years kept Cassidy’s figurehead in regular rotation on the prow of their Santa Maria. Within the next decade, and maybe much sooner, new and unprecedented performance practices will undoubtedly emerge for technically dissociated music like Cassidy’s; for now, though, ELISION’s renditions of his pieces are, in effect, canonical. That every performance on the disc is superb goes without saying. It’s a great pleasure to hear them dig into this music, which they obviously esteem and—more importantly—enjoy.

Or, at any rate, to hear evidence of their digging. Let’s not kid ourselves: That’s what this CD is. For fans of Cassidy’s music who have had the chance to witness great performances of it in person, there’s something downright torturous about this disc. I’m listening to songs only as sad as their listener, whose “modest, mysterious, seemingly endless series of softly keening cries from the highest register of a heavily muted trombone” (well put, Evan) are as infuriating as they are beautiful; I know that there must be more happening here than 44,100 16-bit numbers every second allow me to perceive. If I could only see ELISION’s Benjamin Marks, no doubt that would go a long way, but even a Blu-ray DVD would rob me of that very poststructuralist fragility that Cassidy’s music generates with such tireless focus. This music, more than most, is supposed to be fleeting. A CD doesn’t fleet.

Cassidy’s work is a valuable contribution to an ongoing (and itself rhizomatic) project: to fracture the sedimented object-semblance of musical practices. Like those densely marked-up, multicolored, intabulated scores that everyone loves to marvel at on Facebook, The Crutch of Memory—which after all is the same every time you listen to it—is a capital-O Object. It doesn’t belong in Cassidy’s aesthetic-philosophical cosmos, no matter how many people are clamoring to hear it and how strong are the professional expectations that an early-mid-career composer Had Better Start issuing commercial CDs Or Else. For a man who takes so little for granted on the page, he sure seems pretty content with inherited channels and mechanisms of production and consumption.

And yet here I am, 18 euros lighter and fondling a luxurious gatefold cover. Maybe I could have wangled a free review copy from NEOS, but I decided as soon as I learned the disc was coming out to buy it myself instead—not because I especially want to own it (I don’t) or because I expect to listen to it again (I won’t), but because I want to support Cassidy. A recording of contemporary music is never more than a more-or-less informative document; in Cassidy’s case, it’s less, and it’s less in a particularly cruel way, to boot. Maybe it’s not his job to rethink our entire cultural practice—fine, so be it. I still consider his music exemplary, just as I did in 2005, and I know I’m not the only composer a few years his junior to feel that way. However, The Crutch of Memory is an impeccable answer to a tangential and distracting question.

You should still buy it.

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2 thoughts on “Sounds Heard: Aaron Cassidy—The Crutch of Memory

  1. Aaron

    Many thanks for this, Colin. I’m very, very touched by the kind words about the disc.

    I have two small responses. The first is a simple, practical thing: since you’ve mentioned the images of my sketches in the review, I’ve changed the privacy settings on that album so that non-friends can now view them as well:

    Second, I thought I’d perhaps just say a few quick words about this problem of documentation, and how we’ve approached the problem throughout this project. The disc is in some ways only one small part of a wider effort which includes two other discs (on the HCR label) and a series of videos on youtube and vimeo. Obviously, as you say, any documenting creates some sort of fixed object, and that fixed object always sits at some distance from the live experience of the piece, though a) I would argue that even the live experiences of the piece are still only giving a partial glimpse into the wider essence of the piece (as is true for any work, I think), and b) that the problems of documentation of my work aren’t really any different from the problems of recording any (or at least most) music intended for live performance.

    In this partnership with ELISION — about which I feel incredibly lucky, by the way — we’ve approached the documenting in a series of streams. The videos, such as the one you’ve posted, are totally live, uncut, unedited. (That is, even the cool, multi-camera ones like the voice solo are just single takes — they are documents of performance events, and they prioritize the physical/visual even at times at the expense of the audio.) There are then also some examples of live audio-only recordings — live performances of the trumpet and trombone solos from the three Bacon studies are included on the “strange forces” disc on HCR, for example, and provide a slightly different window into those pieces. As for this particular disc, and the approach to studio recording in general, there is a certain acknowledgement of its artificiality — it isn’t a performance, and we haven’t approached it that way. There’s an effort instead to create really pristine audio, to create some sort of ideal, almost super-real sonic experience of the piece. They allow an extremity of close, microscopic listening that brings a level of sonic detail that simply doesn’t exist in the concert hall (giving, in some ways, an even more intense sense of the physicality of the playing, the physical realities of the instruments, the sound of muscular tension or resistance, etc.) than would exist in a live performance). Credit here goes entirely to the spectacular team at Radio Bremen — the venue, the Sendesaal Bremen, is easily the best acoustic I’ve ever experienced, and the engineers and editors and producers did absolutely astonishing work. … All of this is to say, the ‘object-ness’, with or without the capital O, is totally intended, and the goal has been to use these various streams of performance and recording and video to increase the number of possible paths into the pieces.

    All that aside, I’m glad that somehow even in the audio-only form there’s a sense that one is missing the physical, visual, visceral act of playing. It means, for me, that that physicality is present in the sound itself, and that’s something I’ve worked very hard to achieve in these works (and others) — I’m quite pleased that it comes through.

  2. Pingback: Aaron Cassidy: rave review for Neos CD | CeReNeM Newsletter

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