Richard Barrett's liner notes for
Navigations

Chris Burn's ENSEMBLE

Chris Burn - piano: John Butcher - saxes: Jim Denley- flute:
Stevie Wishart - violin, hurdy-gurdy: Phil Durrant - violin: John Russell - guitar:
Marcio Mattos - cello: Matt Hutchinson - synthesiser

"A dense forest that presents no obstacle to the mind or eye (or other sense)"
Cornelius Cardew, performing instruction in The Great Learning.

These "navigations" traverse an almost limitless landscape of sonic possibilities. Each member of Ensemble of course is an accomplished improviser; each has effectively recreated his or her instrument as an intricately flexible sound-generator. But the history of improvised music is littered with one-off projects which have attempted to bring together larger-than-usual numbers of such performers, and the majority of the results have ended up being somewhat less than the sum of their parts: there is a certain inertia about a large body of players, according to received wisdom, which needs the discipline of notated composition to channel its energies into something musically meaningful. The music on this CD is as eloquent a counterargument as you could wish for; while the sheer range of sound-colours is unfathomably vast, the musical momentum is maintained by spontaneous interactions at a lightning-quick level. Even when the entire group is simultaneously active, there's a transparency about the sound which belies their numbers.

On the other hand, there's very little 'soloistic' playing; however, this feature isn't felt as a type of activity being deliberately excluded, but as a discipline which constantly throws the attention onto the textures of the group, textures which at one point evolve seamlessly into one another, and at the next jump unpredictably between alternative worlds. So it somehow seems inappropriate to mention individual contributions: the ensemble is what matters - moreover, when one 'voice' does come to the fore, more often than not it falls silent or reintergrates itself with the 'landscape' almost before there's been time to identify it.

It's no secret that Ensemble organises its musical structures with the help of various skeletal kinds of score: these are 'navigations', after all, not speculative meanderings through uncharted territory. The scores exist to enable each member of the group to contribute his or her own music to Ensemble, each piece a differently-angled approach to this process, not a 'compositorial' setting-down of musical ideas-in the end, this group couldn't in any way be said to fall between the stools of composition and improvisation (if stools they are): what you hear on this CD is 'improvised music'. It does the things which only improvised music can do.

Which isn't to say that it has no roots in the traditions of 20th century composition (to name only these); though, again, a roll-call of 'influences' would miss the point - it's true that the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the eleven musicians all have some kind of part to play, but there's an overriding identity to Ensemble which I would say is stronger, more clearly delineated, than on its previous CD Cultural Baggage, even with the addition of three more players - and stronger than the identity of the majority of composers, be it said. This may be Chris Burn's Ensemble, but, having set the concept and the carefully-calculated instrumentation in motion, he isn't in the business of using it as a context for his own playing, except in as much as his ever-sensitive use of extensions of piano technique (using preparations and activating the strings directly in various ways) is a model for the way in which Ensemble extends the sound of its 'ensemble'.

Navigations is all the more convincing for being somewhat understated, not forcing itself on your attention, but beckoning you over to take a look down its aural microscope: before long, its myriad evanescent life-forms prove as captivating as anything you'll come across in contemporary music.

© Richard Barrett