Label: bigo and twigetti
Release Date: 27/04/2015
A 30 minute work that uses the moves of 1953 championship game of Go as stimulus for harmonic, rhythmic and melodic material.
More information on this work can be found here.
When I learnt this work was inspired by a championship game of Go, I hadn’t the wildest clue what to expect. How can a musical work be based on a Japanese board game? According to Brisbane composer and guitarist Chris Perren, who lived in Tokyo for half a year, he would “take the position numbers from a sequence of [Go] moves and translate that to pitches or rhythmic durations, and other times…turn the shapes of stones on the board into melodies”. Well, whatever he did, it rocked – quite literally. Nonsemble’s latest release for chamber septet fuses post-rock and minimalism to craft a monumental contemporary classic.
‘Prelude’ opens the album cinematically, with rich strings and gentle piano. It’s dark, and it’s serious. There’s the occasional ill-fitting note, but the resulting crunch is all part of the auditory satisfaction. The start of ‘Movement I’ combines percussive strumming with open tuning, and quickening interjections by the piano. Repetitive rhythms give a strong post-rock drive as drums support jolts from the strings. Despite the inspiration for the album, it doesn’t really sound all that Japanese – and would no doubt be highly disruptive during a game of Go. It appears to reflect the tension one would encounter in a mind game as opposed to a board game. As the movement reaches its middle, the piano pounds disturbingly on every beat before returning to the fullness of the previous movement. It all comes together toward the end, crazed as the Dresden Dolls and powerful as Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
‘Movement II’ is perhaps the most Eastern sounding, and haunting strings begin with upward pitch bends. Though each movement is close to 10 minutes, it’s the sort of music that would work well in a longer form – if all the tracks were joined together, it’d be just as effective. Having said this, I feel exhausted and emotionally drained after every movement. By the time ‘Movement III’ comes about – gentle as droplets of liquid (or the clinking of little Go pieces) – I welcome the momentary change of pace. A stunningly played cello solo with minimal vibrato is a standout in this track, which reaches its climax with a series of thumping, metronomic, percussive pulses.
‘Postlude’ is a much needed meditation on every sound my mind was forced to soak up in the past half hour. I start to feel anxious that there will be no closure – but the work acknowledges the energy it steals from the listener and finally rewards with a few major chords. They don’t linger too long – but thank goodness the album ends on one.
Having listened to the entire album, do I now understand how the work sounds like Go? Not really. But I sure as hell will return for repeated listenings to continue to figure it out.
4zzz, 29 April 2015:
– Go Seigen Vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke is the second long-form release from Brisbane self proclaimed indie-chamber ensemble Nonsemble, and follows on from 2013’s Practical Mechanics. Nonsemble is the compositional brainchild of one Chris Perren, previously of the math-rock and post-rock influenced Mr Maps, and whom also recently released his first solo release under the guise of Software of Seagulls. Perren’s music is largely defined by its pairing of strong rhythmic pulses (often in non-standard time signatures) with intricately interwoven melodic ideas. Nonsemble takes those qualities and stretches them further than the aforementioned acts through the complexity of their compositions, which are all based in various mathematical patterns – in the case of Go Seigen Vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke those patterns are taken from a famous game of Go, a board game popular in China and Japan that reached its zenith during a 1953 match between the titular characters. Perren used patterns extracted from the various data provided by the 168 moves in the match as a basis for the main rhythmic and melodic phrases that underpin Go Seigen, taking properties such as the distance between pieces on the board and translating those into concrete musical ideas.
The result is a thirty minute long piece of music broken into five parts – a Prelude, three longform compositions simply titled I, II and III, and a Postlude that takes us back to our starting point. Furthermore, each of the main three movements are themselves broken up into three sections: an introduction of the main theme, a contrasting section, and then a return to the main theme with a variation. At this point it’s all sounding very high-minded and intellectual, but the reality is the results are anything but – this is not necessarily difficult music to listen to. At any point where a piano might be playing a repetitive motif in a non-standard time signature, it’s likely to be accompanied by an achingly beautiful string section or a pounding drumkit. Indeed, those familiar with Mr Maps will find much of Nonsemble to be in a similar vein, just with the more abrasive guitars replaced by the enhanced presence of strings and piano, even a hint of mandolin. This is music that tempers its intellectual conceits with dramatic musical flourishes and bombast – there’s as much similarity here with emotionally manipulative acts like Explosions In The Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor as there is with modern composers who mine more high-brow territory, such as Phillip Glass and Steve Reich.
In a way it makes sense that such music can come from such prosaic materials as pure mathematical patterns, for isn’t much of the world around us defined by such patterns? The Fibonacci Sequence appears throughout nature, and the Golden Ratio informs much of what we find innately pleasing to the senses. Similarly, Nonsemble mix these rational elements with human intuition to create something that satisfies in a conceptual and intellectual way, but that also resonates at a deeper, subconscious level.
Ominous piano chords resound; a violin is strummed with growing anxiety; shuffling percussion imbues a sense of agitation. Just over a minute in, drums enter and the clouds break, the piano briefly bestowing calm before whisking us somewhere else. What relentless drama is unfurling before us?
Fans of traditional strategy games will likely be surprised that the drama – the inspiration for and the name behind Go Seigen vs. Fujisawa Kuranosuke – is in fact a Championship game of Go played in 1953. It’s a delightfully novel idea, but does raise the question (especially having watched videos such as this on YouTube) of exactly how composer and guitarist Chris Perren drew stimulus from such superficially dry source material. The answer involves broadening one’s understanding of “inspiration” and appreciating that, while a significant match, this Go championship game played over 60 years ago holds no unique, ineffable power – as Perren explains:
‘It really could have been any game. It’s not like I believe there was some mystical aesthetic beauty locked in the numbers which I just had to decode. What the game held was a wealth of interesting abstract patterns, and manipulating interesting abstract patterns is sort of how I come at music. So… rather than decoding those patterns directly into music, what I was really trying to do was throw them into the pond of my mind and see what ripples they made.’
The context helps better understand the composition, which is presented across five tracks and performed by Nonsemble, a Brisbane-based ‘indie chamber ensemble’ now on its second release. Perren, who quickly returns to ACL following the marvellous Software of Seagulls LP in April, here plays with timings and polyrhythms in wonderfully intricate ways both overt and subtle. The start of the second movement (“II”) introduces a simple two-note violin/viola refrain that builds above drawn-out piano and cello progressions. The refrain starts in 4s but in time switches to 3s, then shifts to and fro once more, each time jarring the momentum steadily building. The strings cease with the section’s abrupt end, but return 20 seconds later in a higher register – and this time remain in 3s. The momentum has been shifted up a gear.
The seven players that comprise Nonsemble are four strings players, a pianist, a guitarist and a drummer, hinting at a fusion between chamber composition and post-rock that seems to grow more pronounced through the movements. Employing a full drum kit emphasises the music’s mathematical complexity, each hit conforming to the metre as rigidly as Go stones do to the board’s grid, while the bowed strings seem to evoke the emotions of the players. The drums also serve in moments with more prevalent guitar to steer the music closer to post-rock – with the middle passage of “II” and the breakdown in “III” reminiscent of the trickier passages of The Samuel Jackson Five. These parts perhaps upset the otherwise assured balancing of genres; the finest composition can be woven to create whatever tapestry one wishes to perceive, but a band performs something of its own creation, whose mood to which we must adapt.
Minor niggle aside, this is well worth your attention. The biggest triumph of Go Seigen… is how it delivers such mathematical abstraction in such an appealing package, stirring the heart with a soaring line or arresting mood change. The sweeping string melody that emerges in the final movement of “III” initially bears an infusion of sorrow before building dynamics render it in more strident colours. Simultaneously, we feel the subconscious warmth of familiarity – the same melody was hinted at in the fifth minute of the previous movement. It’s a wonderful close to a record that, for all its laudable experimentalism and cerebral source material, doesn’t forget to also make us feel.