Malapert and Erratic (Linear Obsessional)
The Prejudices of History (Linear Obsessional)
Genial Decay (Confront)
52 Noisy Little Clouds: Ruined Finery (self-released CDR)
If the beauty of free improvisation is that it dismantles the ideas of composition, melody and harmony that confine other sound making approaches, the frustration for listeners is that too often these old rules are simply replaced with new practices that are followed slavishly. Exploration becomes programmatic.
Not so the work of Mark Browne. His fiercely individual approach gives his recorded work a unique feel, as if he is remaking the world with each new recording. The sonic territory he is mapping touches combines the spikiness of European free improvisation and the soul of free jazz with the jarring jump cuts of musique concrete and the textures of contemporary electronic music.
Browne has been active since the 1980s, and also plays as part of free improv outfit Crush!!! but his recent solo recordings continue to demand attention. His two albums for Linear Obsessional, Malapert and Erratic and The Prejudices of History, are full of teeming glory, eccentric musical collages that showcase Browne’s virtuosity with saxophone and guitar, as well as his omnivorous appetite that sees him devouring all manner of sound making objects.
Although the records use a similar sonic palette, the results are wholly different. Malapert and Erratic carves out an austere and ruined musical landscape, brooding and hostile, while The Prejudices of History is aggressive, ritualistic, dissonant.
Vertiginous saxophone flurries sit side by side with caustic scrabbles of percussion, gongs and metallic scrapings, animal howls and mouth harp squiggles. At one point in Malapert and Erratic, an weathered and decrepit piano in Browne’s garden is whacked with bunches of canes, their woody rustlings contrasted with some pleasingly atonal yet resonant clonks and bangs.
Elsewhere an arcane construction of boiling water, hot fat, synths and saxophone is manipulated, offering up a carpet of low-decibel purrs and spaced out drones. In The Prejudices of History, a rudimentary trumpet, formed from a human thighbone, blows ancient whistles and game calls screech horrifically.
These two albums are like walks through shifting alien landscapes, an anti-Alice in Wonderland perhaps, or the bewilderingly non-human ghost world in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. It’s an impression heightened by the baleful animal skulls and decorated bone relics that stare balefully out from the pages of their accompanying PDF booklets.
Browne’s recent CD for Confront Recordings, Genial Decay, eschews this sonic restlessness for a renewed focus on horns – soprano, sopranino and damaged French military band instrument, the Couesnon Tenor. The improvisations from these instruments have been edited together seamlessly by Browne into a single, hyper-real piece of around 40 minutes.
The playing ranges from extremely controlled microtonal exercises, through earthy foghorn blasts of dissonance to thrilling, high-velocity twists and turns. These later passages are particularly enthralling. When Browne gets going his streams of notes are as complex as birdsong, trilling and hooting in rapid-fire clusters, or like some elastic material stretched out and moulded into impossible shapes.
Speed – as in velocity rather than amphetamines – seems to play a key role in Browne’s creative process. Malapert and Erratic’s variegated soundscapes were recorded over a 24-hour period and assembled in a week. The Prejudices of History was recorded in a single evening. This self-imposed limitation seems to push Browne into intuitive leaps of composition and assembly. Browne says it keeps things feeling closer to an improvisation or performance.
This spontaneity is something Browne continues to refine in his 52 Noisy Little Clouds project, in which he produces one recording per week for 52 weeks. Started in 2000, it is now in its third incarnation, progressing along the way from single-disc solo saxophone improvisations to handsome, hand-made boxed CDRs which include photographs, postcards and other material.
I was lucky enough to receive of the recent boxes, number 25 to be exact, titled Ruined Finery. The box contains a scrap of Jamaican shirt, various enigmatic photos (moss, a fly, a dummy, a driftwood sculpture) and plenty of Browne-related promotional postcards. Scraps, orts, fragments.
In one photo, a youthful Browne grins out of a photograph from 1989, sax in hand, white shirt, black tie, ready for anything. Another shot, taken in 2010, sees Browne, bald now, in full flight, duetting with Lol Coxhill. Both photographs have ‘Aylesbury’ scrawled on the back, and the year. Coxhill died in 2012. Memory traces.
The music is characteristically bracing. A percussion chorus starts things off, snares and toms, cymbals and all sorts of clatters, almost threatening to break into a discernible rhythm, before cutting out to give way to another furious saxophone incursion, whirling and diving before dropping down into low, long feedback-like tones. Is this a ramshackle celebration of memory or a furious attempt to conjure up the dead?
An abrupt cut to what sounds like a ratchet or wooden rattle amps up the shamanic feel, its abrasive noise seemingly designed to drill through the walls of perception. The final sections move from restless sax whorls into stately un-melodic drones, before dying out in a whisper of glistering cymbals.
While somewhat astringent, and a tad forbidding in places, Ruined Finery isn’t an arduous listen. Rather than being bogged down by memory, Browne’s horn playing is buoyant, almost weightless in places, with its percussion interludes sure to prevent any sense of torpor setting in. Circling around, it is a dance, with memory its music.
UPDATE: After I published this piece, Browne got in touch to clarify a couple of points and reiterated a point he’d made in his notes to Genial Decay. He said: “Many years ago I thought that variation (timbral, volume, rhythmic) was what made a good improvisation. I now think that the main virtue is the FORM. Whether improvisation or composition, the way each sound relates to the whole is critical.”
Genial Decay is available from the Confront Recordings website.
There’s a Facebook page for 52 Noisy Little Clouds here.