‘The Curfew Tower Recordings’ documents Sophie Cooper’s week-long stay at the titular artist’s residency in Northern Ireland (owned by Bill Drummond, dontcha know), edited into two lively audio collages. Beatific trombone drones drift into chunks of everyday banter. Astringent vocal and brass improvisations transform into field recordings evoking a mythical coastal idyll. While the informal, personal nature of these pieces gives them the feel of an audio diary or fly-on-the-wall documentary, Cooper’s sympathetic edits snip out the longeurs characteristic of untrammelled self-documentation. These cuts are almost as important as the content here in offering different perspectives on Cooper’s time in the tower, and although the transitions often signal drastic changes of mood or style, the jumps are rarely jarring.
Side A’s initial drone workout, for example, could easily have been stretched out to a whole side of immersion by an artist of less inquisitive bent. A thin Shruti box whine is thickened by the warm trombone tones cozying up to it, their slow phase forming a cloudy crepuscular shimmer. It’s great stuff, with wordless moans and strange ethereal rattles adding to the meditative cast.
But before one can say ‘durational Dream House jam’, we’re thrust back into the world, thanks to an excerpt from Cooper’s (in)famous Dial-A-Bone sessions, in which callers are invited to request a personalised trombone piece. It’s like being woken from a particularly refreshing afternoon nap by a friend bearing a lovely cuppa – it should be annoying, but you can’t help appreciating it. There’s another telephonic intervention about two-thirds of the way through (several occur on side B, too), with Cooper’s indefatigable cheeriness reminiscent of a tourist information guide who really really loves their job. Although in this case, the job in question is delivering free-form oopmh to all and sundry.
Dial-A-Bone may be funny, but it holds within it the formative virtues of free improvisation – that ceaseless quest to find new things to say with an instrument, to play the same object differently every time. It’s both a set of narrow parameters to challenge Cooper’s technical and melodic invention and a challenge to twist the often very personal act of improvisation into a social process.
‘The Curfew Tower Recordings’ is, perhaps, best seen as progressing across several axes simultaneously – the interior worlds conjured up by Cooper’s low-end chorales contrast with the human activity of her Antrim request line; the naturalistic reveries of the field recordings opening side B are mirrored by the fuzzy machine scrapes, looped parps and muttered fragments later on. The personal is set against the social; human interaction against solitary meditation; the natural rubs up against the technological. That this structure seems to arise organically, through the process of assemblage, rather than being imposed from the top-down, only adds to the charm. ‘The Curfew Tower Recordings’ may be fun, and deliberately ragged in places. But synthesis, not compilation, is the name of the game.