Caught by the River

Modern Nature’s Journey to the Stars

Ian Preece | 4th November 2023

Clogged with moss and melancholy: Ian Preece takes in recent releases by Michiko Ogawa, Lucy Railton and Modern Nature.

I was labouring up the hill, Kings Road, Leytonstone, one summer evening about 25 years ago – and it was either at the top of there, or along the next stretch, Woodriffe Road, that a gentleman was cleaning his car in his driveway, polishing his headlights while a piece of classical music drifted out of the open doors from the dashboard. I don’t have many regrets in life, but not stopping and asking him what he was listening to is definitely one. I was almost certainly too shy, or too done in from work, or both. Or, a bit like cricket, there’s all that off-putting socio-cultural baggage that comes along with scores for strings and woodwind that means you never quite make it over that hurdle to become a hardcore Radio 3 junkie when, let’s face it, you know nowt (you couldn’t even ring a simple note out of that pink plastic recorder, and your violin-scraping broke windows in the home economics block fifty feet away). I’m not particularly proud of that, nor am I at all advocating such blinkers – it’s just how it is; I spent too long listening to Radio Trent while having egg and chips at my nana’s for tea; preferring to watch Grange Hill rather take her up on the offer of rudimentary piano lessons[1]; favouring Plastic Bertrand on Top of the Pops over another dismal attempt at the opening bars of ‘Moonlight Sonata’. But I have been kind of searching for those lost strings and airborne melodies – the sound, maybe, of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ ‘dapple dawn-drawn falcon’ surfing currents of air in its wimpling-winged ecstasy – ever since. I’ve come close, with Stars of the Lid and Max Richter’s Sleep, the desolate beauty of Jóhann Jóhannsson in Antarctica or Leila Bordreuil playing the cello in the New York subway. And now I’m getting hooked on Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre label – unadorned, minimalist, austere, understated (never bombastic) sometimes chilly CDs available as seasonal batches from the Another Timbre’s Sheffield HQ, or from the likes of Boomkat, where I picked up my current contender for sounds-like-what-the-man-washing-his-car-was-listening-to: Michiko Ogawa and Lucy Railton’s sublime fragments of reincarnation – an open-ended, low-lit 45-minute piece of sustained, rumbling organ notes and sombrely beautiful cello strokes and shō. For, in truth, I’m not even sure it was ‘classical music’ I heard on the breeze that summer evening. More like something open and expansive, something that would tap into – as Kate Molleson writes, quoting experimental Filipino composer José Maceda in her exemplary history of radical 20th century music and composers, Sound Within Sound  – ‘larger space, infinity, a metaphysical construct of the universe’; i.e. ditching the obsessions of the western canon (closure, climax, major keys and chords) where, Maceda lamented, ‘There is less room for qualities like patience, sorrow, doubt and humility, and other spiritual attributes which are spurned by the righteousness of logic and precision.’

I’ve got a major dilemma next month as Michiko Ogawa and Lucy Railton are opening for Modern Nature at Café Oto – the same evening that Forest v Spurs is to be broadcast live on TV. Jack Cooper of Modern Nature would understand. He, also, is on a similar journey to many of the radical composers discussed in Sound Within Sound. Playing their new CD, I literally have no fixed reference point in space when it comes to Modern Nature. I was dozing when Cooper’s former groups Mazes and Ultimate Painting slipped by (though remember a photoshoot in front of ‘Bad Blocks’, just down the road from here, on Wanstead Flats); my first real encounter with Cooper came with his recent solo cassette on the ace, often jazz-flecked Astral Spirits label from Austin, Texas. Arrival is a beautifully sparse threnody of quiet lugubriousness, with Alexander Hawkins on piano, and two members of new music ensemble Apartment House (Another Timbre’s Funk Brothers) on cello and clarinet[2].

No Fixed Point in Space feels the next stop down the line. Slightly knotty and slippery, on what I guess would be side A there’s a lot of pulling and pushing and probing; a pulsing swell of strings and woodwind; quite a bit of circling, flickering and murmuring – it’s difficult, initially, to lock onto the languid shimmer of the opening couple of tracks, other than to clock the ceaseless ebb and flow of the tide. 1960s folky echoes begin to break through the autumnal mist on ‘Orange’ – that could be Espers or Feathers, early Pink Floyd or even Donovan or Jackie o’Motherfucker quietly strumming a vaguely recognisable chorus over there in the woods. ‘Cascade’, by contrast, sounds almost like a hollowed out, unplugged acoustic moment of post-punk intensity from a decade further on – a slowed-down, spaced-out, lost Magazine or This Heat B-side clogged with moss and melancholy (albeit with a beautiful string coda). ‘Sun’ circles back and around itself, shimmering in a heat haze like the opening tracks ‘Tonic’ and ‘Murmuration’.

When I finally read the Bandcamp sleevenotes it all made more sense. Cooper is striving to throw off the shackles and all the bullshit of ‘sterile music informed by the grids and convenience of digital recording’. Where there’s no fixed point, everything becomes decentred, deconstructed and dispersed – as he continues, ‘the vocals are no more important than the bass.’ While there is structure, there’s not the usual verse–chorus–verse; descending/ascending chords, etc, etc – rather, everything ‘moves in an organically unpredictable way. Like a flock of birds or school of fish, notes breaking the surface and then disappearing. A football crowd singing a melody swells and pulses with a microtonal monophony. That’s how I want this music to feel,’ Cooper concludes. ‘Music needs the swing of humans for it to resonate on any level beneath the surface.’ It works: after a few listens days – weeks – apart, you find that fragments and shards, mournful or febrile strings, a moment of bass rumble or echoing hi-hats have all worked their way beneath the surface, have mulched down into the subsoil of the mind, are instantly familiar. It comes together as a beautiful tapestry of sound in the last two tracks. I love the rich deep bass in ‘Tapestry’, which is full of swing – almost a groovy jazz feel, overlaid with elegant cello figures. Then the best is saved till last. ‘It’s a lot to take in/it’s impossible to see’ sing Cooper and avant-jazz-vocal luminary Julie Tippetts in beautiful harmony on ‘Ensō’ (a Zen coming together of the circle of life), the vocalisation stretched over stepping stones, just like the sky clearing and the sun streaming through after the stormy showers of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden suddenly leavened with Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Green’s gorgeous organ on ‘I Believe in You’, or the monumental chord change in the middle of Low’s ‘Lullaby’ from I Could Live in Hope.

[1] Note for younger readers: in the 1970s, before television ruined the nation, it was still fairly common to find an old piano in a typical council house.

[2] Another major regret in life is not catching Apartment House’s string and woodwind-based rendering of the back catalogue of The Fall as well as Nico’s The Marble Index at Café Oto. Ditto their three-hour résumé of sixty-plus years of ‘experimental and contemporary music practice’ for The Wire’s 40th birthday celebrations a couple of summers back – my mate Doug said he was meeting Tim in the Duke of Wellington just down Balls Pond Road, and I ended up spending the evening in there.