Review: Rhys Chatham – Outdoor Spell

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

We continue our exploration of the catalogue of Northern-Spy Records with Paris-based American post-minimalist pioneer Rhys Chatham’s Outdoor Spell, a body of work largely based around trumpet and voice, rather than the guitar pieces for which Chatham is more widely known. Indeed, the only guitar present on the album appears in only one of the four tracks and is not played by Chatham himself, but by French avant-garde guitarist and GRIM co-founder (Le Groupe de recherche et d’improvisation musicales) Jean-Marc Montera.

I get the impression – though I have no means of propping up this theory myself as yet – that having some knowledge and appreciation of Chatham’s prior work might make for a more complete and rounded experience. As it is, coming to it without, a feeling is left (and not merely by the reviews of the work, though these have cemented this gut response) that this perhaps reflects a side to Chatham that is not as usual. It makes it harder, perhaps, to appreciate in isolation. Of the pieces herein, the one I would return to second most frequently (in actuality, one of only two tracks here I would revisit with any great enthusiasm) would be The Magician, a 12-minute band piece also featuring Kevin Shea on drums, but even this can seem at points as a roughshod free jazz ride in which it seems the whole thing holds its course only because all involved happen to be on the same vehicle, even if there is some doubt as to who is actually doing the driving. This seems most apparent by its lack of cohesive conclusion, as the track disappointingly fades out to close off the album.

For a more controlled ride, you might prefer title track and album opener Outdoor Spell, a drone piece that sees Chatham utilising effects on his voice to create a field in which his trumpet is allowed to burst forth in moments of play. It creates an opening salvo that the rest of the album cannot quite return. I would go so far as to say that this track fades too soon. As it dwindles there are signs that there are more ideas that could work here. Instead, we are plunged into the chaos of Crossing the Sword Bridge, an untidy track that seems cut together not quite at random.

Perhaps I am denigrating this release in too off-hand a fashion and maybe a little aural research into Chatham’s history might assist in winning me over, but as a standalone introduction to an artist, this does not do it for me. The research undertaken in preparing this article has done more of this for me, so perhaps I might recommend starting with that and coming around to Outdoor Spell only after exposure to some of his other works. An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, a 3 disc set released on Table of the Elements seems a not too unreasonable place to start, if you can get it.

Rhys Chatham: Official Website

Purchase: Northern-Spy Records (see also for audio and video samples)