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Exploring albums exclusively dedicated to acoustic music


Anthony Phillips Discography GuideSee all articles here


Sometimes in interviews you see Anthony Phillips describing himself as a guy who inputs notes into a computer via a keyboard and mouse. Despite his “day job” as soundtrack composer, though, it’s his acoustic “private” music the one to shine distinctively. This is particularly true for guitar music and especially 12-string.

Guitar albums

phillips guitar (2) phillips guitar (3)Albums

      • Gypsy Suite (recorded 1978, released 1995), w/ Harry Williamson
      • Antiques, PP&P III (1982 w/ Enrique Berro Garcia)
      • Twelve, PP&P V (1985)
      • Field Day (2005)

Overview and style

Untitled-1Guitar music holds a special place in Phillips’ work, making the most of the PP&P series and four monographic albums (also Dragonfly Dreams is mainly guitaristic).
When used as a solo instrument, a type of guitar is chosen for its timbre and its idiomatic possibilities.

      • In 12-string guitar is the most original approach. Phillips is one of the masters of the instrument and its relationship with it (rooting back to Genesis times) is the deeper. His insight of both timbral and rhythmic possibilities has no match in his overall guitar music and here you find a more unique and personal voice. His combination of folk/rock idioms (strums, arpeggiated chord sequences) and classical music (voice leading, structure and development) is pretty different from the output of other 12-string masters I’ve heard (say Robbie Basho) because here the classical writing is mostly dominant. Phillips really takes an instrument traditionally used for accompaniment work (and in rock/folk/blues environment), elevating it to the role of solo concert one.
        Performance is both picked and fingerpicked.
      • Classical or nylon string guitar pieces are more traditional. From simple shorties to structured tour-de-forces, they rely to a traditional idiomatic sound, meaning a certain feel now deriving from Nineteen century (classically moody), now from spanish folk (especially dark and mysterious, no flamenco here) and from south american one (which can be both cheerfully carnivalesque and melancholic). But there is room for a more ancient flavor, and some British folk maybe.
        Performance is safe exceptions fingerpicked.
        It’s interesting to notice that, taken aside, classical guitar pieces appear to be pretty consistent though the years, performing and recording quality aside.
      • Acoustic guitar pieces include etude-like tunes
        (usually picked progressions of broken chords) or fingerpicked pieces somewhere between folk and classical, with the steel string being used mainly for timbral reasons.

Duos or ensembles constitute a slightly different matter

      • Overall, the most close to “proper” duos are the classical ones, with the two parts being somewhat in dialogue and defined and a more structured writing.
      • Ensembles with different guitars take generally a different “studio” approach: sounds are layered, maybe doubled and mixed down to find the right “artificial” balance no matter how they would sound in a real environment. This is true whether the piece has a more classical or song-like structure.

Gypsy Suite

gypsy suiteThis album goes straight to advanced fan territory working as sort of a missing link between Geese and Tarka, as (one of) the result(s) of experimental guitar duo sessions started with H. Williamson back in ‘71 and carried on the following years, finally being committed to tape in a final shape in 1978. (Tarka’s First Movement will also feature the layered guitar tapestry they developed; while Tibetan Yak Music in PP&P I is likely to belong to the same sessions – Williamson is processing the guitar signal in real time).
It took it 17 years to be released, mainly because it’s incomplete: the music was supposed to be developed into a full ensemble but that never happened. What is presented here is but a demo of things to come.
Which partially explains the slightly strange feeling this recording gives: tracks appear to be structured, but somewhat they have something improvisational to them; sometimes one of the guitars is singing a clear theme easier to follow, but great part of the music is no or little more than broken chords (if not strums), reminding of the “basic tracks” of Geese and suggesting that more music, included the real melodic content, was supposed to be added later.
Like Geese is influenced by Rutherford’s contribution, Williamson’s presence gives a different feel to these tracks, sounding more melancholic and less direct than Phillip’s work of the same age.
Each of the four movements of the suite is built upon layerings of 12-string, acoustic, classical and what sounds like a clean electric guitar where parts are not classically separated but sort of complement (or confuse into) each other, sounding as a whole.

Antiques

AntiquesMostly acoustic, with only occasionally some electric guitar and effects, Antiques (portmanteau of Ant and Quique, from the co-composer name, Quique Barro Garcia) it’s a pastiche of guitar pieces, mainly duets, sometimes ensembles.
Side one features nylon string and generally a “classical” approach (safe the electric solo closing Suite in d); side two has more variety, featuring acoustic, 12-string and clean electric guitars to enrich the sonic blend and including more folkish pieces (as well as the mandatory revisitation of a tune from early Genesis times, Old Wives Tale).
Musically, the album is pretty uneven. The classical and vaguely impressionistic Hurlingam Suite (especially Bandido) is the obvious highlight; pieces taking advantage of alternating contrasting sections like the classical-folk hybrid Sand Dunes and the bipolar Otto’s Face end up more interesting than the other song-like tunes. An occasional blues colour, like in Esperansa or Suite in d, sounds a little out of place and dispersive to me.
More music from the duo is featured in PP&P vol. VII and IX but this time it’s mainly edits from longer improvised pieces.

Twelve

TwelvePlain and simple, I believe Twelve is the most important work Phillips has ever released (it could have been a nice pair with the aborted Flamingo concerto).
A cyclic suite of 12 descriptive pieces inspired to the months of the year, written in times of greater musical ambition (and free time), that, despite subtle differences suggesting subsequent times of recording, sounds as a cohesive and consistent work: there are not outstanding tracks and disposable fillers here, it works as a whole (pretty unlikely a standard PP&P, to the point that its inclusion in the series is of mere marketing convenience – too bold a step for the times releasing it as a “proper” standalone album).
The classically inspired structures are immediately obvious, and the descriptive quality conjures a progressive sliding of moods that brings you from the cold and stillness of winter to the placid hot of summer, and return, in a pretty naturalistic, pastoral perspective; it’s not difficult – or so it seems to me – to match the music with mental pictures of snowed fields, birds flying, streams flowing, autumnal storms and so on.
Technically, the album is pretty rich too. Phillips thoroughly explores the instrument’s idiomatic possibilities, way beyond the “usual” broken chords and expressive strums: tapping (to add color or to play extra voices), strings-like tremolo (fast movement nails over the strings), fingerpicked chords and fast arpeggios, harmonics, muted notes, timbral contrast; even unconventional tunings of the double strings. Everything always employed in a very personal way, certainly far from rock and folk stereotypes; with both coloristic and structural purposes, and never gratuitously.

Field Day

Field DayLacking the ambition and consistency of Twelve, Field Day nevertheless introduces itself as sort of a sampler of Phillips’ guitar work: in 61 brand new pieces (safe exceptions) collected in one place the listener can find pretty much all of the master’s different solo guitar styles, on different instruments like 12-string, acoustic, classical and nylon 10-string and also more coloured ones like bouzouki, charango, cittern, mandolin; and with the additional benefit of a clear and detailed recording.
So we have the idiomatic “concert” 12-string (à la Flamingo or Twelve) in Concerto de Alvarez, the nylon string structured piece (Weeping Willow, vaguely reminding of Villa-Lobos), the mandatory suites (an official one for acoustic guitar, Parlour Suite, and a second in disguise for 12-string, To The Lighthouse), the classical guitar both sombre (i.e. Oubliette) and animated (Field Day), folkish tunes for acoustic guitar, song-like melodies and étude-like pieces (notable, despite too short, High Fives), as well as the trademarked alternation of coloured broken chords, fragmented melodies and expressive strums (Fallen City).
A bunch of pieces sound no more than backing tracks of chord progressions; Credo, Rain On Sag Harbour and Sojourn received orchestral treatment and extra melodies on Seventh Heaven (while the same album contains guitar pieces: For Eloise, Circle Of Light and above all the guitar ensemble Under The Infinite Sky that wouldn’t disfigure as Field Day bonuses).
Finally, there are some notable (because atypical for Phillips’ standards) darker and meditative pieces like Tryst (classical gtr), the aforementioned Weeping Willow and the superb White Spider (12-string).
While the initial plan for a PP&P XI dedicated to his “negletted fretted fratenity” was scrapped in favour of an “official” two-hours double album (things have changed since Twelve) it can still be traced into the fragmentary nature of the collection.
A more cruel selection could have got rid of the fillers and shrinked the program to a more manageable single CD; but even in this form Field Day is a Phillips’ essential.

Piano albums

Albums

    • Ivory Moon (PP&P VI) (1986) (written between 1971-1985)
    • Soirée (PP&P X) (1999)

Overview

ivory-moonWith two monographic albums and only a handful of other scattered pieces, solo piano is certainly rarer then guitar in Phillips’ discography. Nevertheless defining it stylistically is harder. Phillips’ piano writing is something in between contemporary (new) classical and easy listening: not that complicated (safe exceptions), though not to be dismissed as background music, and where apparent simplicity can at times reveal subtle nuances on a more attentive listening, and other times being just too naive.
Ivory Moon mostly collects few long pieces from Seventies (Send Barnes years) plus a couple of themes from the musical Masquerade and a good piano rendition of Genesis’ Let Us Make Love; Soirée features shorter music from the Nineties and a recycled idea from early Genesis times, Creation.
As for the guitar albums, their inclusion in the PP&P series is a marketing necessity, even though they’re not mixed anthologies. None of them sounds more like a “proper” PP&P than Twelve does; Soirée ends up a little dispersive because of too many short pieces, but no more than Field Day.

Style and highlights

soireePhillips’ piano work is a little more derivative, and less outstanding, than his guitar counterpart; impressionism is obviously a deep influence, but also descriptive music, perhaps shaped through the practice of its limited adopted child: soundtrack music. Idioms variety and technical exploration are more restrained. Passionate moments are generally rarer than gentle and dreamy ones.
Given the great distance between the two albums it’s easy to spot the progressive turn, through the years, towards a simpler and more carefree formula.
A ternary structure with a singable, easy and obvious melody, and a contrasting, more interesting and free central section (moody, impressionistic, suspended) seems to be a favorite and recurs frequently in Soirée (see Passepied, Creation, Oregon Trail), as generally recurring is a song-like template with melody and accompanying arpeggio (sometimes versions of actual songs – maybe others just unused “songs without words”).
On the other side of the spectrum we have the old and more ambitious pieces, more structured, longer (the 15 minutes The Old House, an evocative suite in disguise whose sections flow seamlessly into each other), with sometimes a jazz-ish flavor (Sea-Dogs Motoring suite) or a descriptive feel (the nine-plus slow Winter’s Thaw).
At traits, old pieces seem overly complicated, while new ones too simplistic or sketchy (though more focused). The best of both words is achieved when a defined structure and a sufficient length marry a more mature, focused and essential writing: the dancing half-song-half-rondo Scythia and the impressionistic Rain Suite that are, IMHO, the highest peaks of Phillip’s solo piano work.

Some sparse tracks

Even if from another album, a special mention goes to the “piano version” of Squirrel. This (again) impressionistic and sombre piece is nothing more than the standalone piano track of the song from Wise After The Event (Remastered edition, bonus CD). Nevertheless, it works beautifully as it is.
Also worthwhile are Cathedral Woods and Now They’ve All Gone from New England.

Mill’s picks

      • Guitar: Twelve and Field Day (Phillips at his best. Get them both)
      • Piano: Soirée and Ivory Moon (they’re just two, not much of a choice)

Part 1: Large scale and instrumental works
Part 2: Guitar and piano music
Part 3: Series and collections
Part 4: Private Parts & Pieces

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