Exploring collections and series
One anomaly of Anthony Phillips’ discography is the overabundance of anthological albums over the major releases, as a consequence of his “day job” as Library music composer.
Their content is either a selection of (sometimes unused) library work or of pieces recorded or improvised in the spare time. The two main, long lasting series of this collections are called Private Parts & Pieces and Missing Links.
Private Parts & Pieces
- (I) – Private Parts & Pieces (1978; collecting pieces from previous years)
- II – Back To The Pavilion (1980; as above)
- III – Antiques (1982; brand new guitar duets w/ Quique Berro Garcia)
- IV – A Catch At The Tables (1984; last “Send Barnes” collection, 1979-82)
- V – Twelve (1985; a cycle of 12 old and new pieces for 12 string guitar)
- VI – Ivory Moon (1986; composed between 1971-1985; piano solo)
- VII – Slow Waves, Soft Stars (1987; library and demos. Mostly electronic)
- VIII – New England (1992; brand new pieces)
- IX – Dragonfly Dreams (1996; archive, mostly recent pieces)
- X – Soirée (1999; recent piano solo pieces)
- XI – City of Dreams (2012; electronic music)
It might sound strange for a collection of archival material to be among the most personal and “signature” work of an artist, but this is the case of the PP&P with Phillips, who was always unable to find a proper identity on the music market as a rock musician as well as an instrumental one (like, say, Oldfield). So it’s in this (sometimes not so) little and “private” pieces, written with no commercial purpose or pressure, that his true, free spirit emerges, especially in the guitar pieces.
It should also be kept in mind how revolutionary and untrendy those albums could be seen when coming out. Back in the days an official album, published by a record company and made mostly of small acoustic instrumental tracks, totally alien to any idea of profitability, had something heroic to it and no doubt that perception contributed to the strong image this series acquired to fans and allowed it to reach number XI in volumes (so far).
In fact, PP&P (no volume number) was initially a private demo, then submitted to Brian Eno’s new label but rejected because not ambient, later given away as a bonus disc with the rock album Sides and, only after its good reception, a standalone record. In other words, as it frequently happens, it wasn’t planned.
Vol. II basically repeated the “stock material” formula but since Vol. III the series widened its scope, becoming a macro-container for all things small scale and low budget, unfashionable, unmarketable, might them be brand new or unused/unpublished. Sort of a tradition to be carried on, quite freely. Some say it lost the original spirit, but you might say that its consistence lies in its eclecticism.
There’s a quote on the back cover of PP&P II this pretty much sums the whole series up: “This album is dedicated to those who still champion the old-fashioned ideals of beauty, lyricism, and grandeur in art against the tide of cynical intellectualism and dissonance”.
Elsewhere, Phillips describes the series as “acoustic dreamy albums which were quite loose and quite improvised but had a lot of feel to them”.
“Feel” is the key.
And incidentally it helps understand the otherwise totally baffling decision to include very short and undeveloped tunes, showing just a potential, in the track-list (and when I say understand, I don’t mean justify, because as much I can sympathize with Phillip’s decision, as a listener I can’t do much with what acts as no more than a mere filler). Overall, the presence of this fragments is abundant in the series and ends up making it, in my view, a little more dispersive and tiresome than it should be, somewhat distracting from the main dish of longer, quite structured and even “classical”, pieces: it’s what I call the “snippet factor” and it’s common to all Phillips’ anthological output.
As for “acoustic”, it well describes the vast majority of tracks included (classic, acoustic and 12-string guitar solos, duets, trios or ensembles, solo piano pieces, acoustic songs) but it must be noted than a certain number of tracks is partially or totally electronic and others can be broadly described as instrumental progressive rock (either acoustic or electric).
Anthologies vs monographies
Though the collection/anthology nature is common to the entire PP&P series, a good number of albums has a complete or partial monographic one.
Only four albums are in fact an even and eclectic mix of very different kinds of material (electric and acoustic with some songs and electronic stuff). These are: I and IV (mainly collecting music from the Seventies recorded in his home studio at Send Barnes); VIII and IX (mostly brand new pieces). They generally lack a cohesive nature but VIII – New England (all new music) is more consistent in terms of selection and sequence and works closely as a full album.
In four volumes the balance is more uneven: VII – Slow Waves, Soft Stars is mainly an anthology of electronic soundscapes interspersed some guitar pieces that sound out of context. Curiously, IX – Dragonfly Dreams is exactly the opposite: essentially an acoustic album with a couple of (good) electronic fishes-out-of-water. XI – City Of Dreams is as well mainly an electronic piece with some piano or guitar insertion, but reverberated enough to fit into the general mood.
Four albums, on the other hand, are totally monographic: VI – Ivory Moon and X – Soirée are committed to solo piano compositions, while V – Twelve and III – Antiques exclusively to guitar pieces.
Deciding which formula is the best one comes to personal tastes. The anthology format provides more variety but ends up being dispersive. Phillips favors it; I’m of the opposite view, preferring consistency. I also feel that individual pieces work better if re-assorted in playlists of coherent nature and cleansed from fillers (like all nylon strings guitar together).
Phillips’ stylistic approach changes in relation with the instrument(s) he’s writing for (a seen in the article about acoustic music), and through time, getting progressively refined but simpler and more straightforward.
His gentle and nuanced, a little conservative musical personality is a quality preserved even in more dynamic paces or guitar strums.
It’s a peculiar, personal and honest music, not afraid of being sometimes a little derivative, less ambitious than academic work but demanding more attention than plain easy listening. Classical listeners will possibly get bored by simpler works; others might find the complex ones too intellectual. On the paper, such a diverse mix should appear completely unmarketable. Which is exactly the cool thing about the series.
Missing Links and other Library Music
- Missing Links series
- I – Finger Painting (1989) (Library music 1979-89)
- II – The Sky Road (1994) (Library, archive, unreleased)
- III – Time & Tide (1997) w/ Joji Hirota (Library and TV music, 1993-97)
- IV – Pathways & Promenades (2009) (Library, rare, unreleased)
- Other library/soundtrack related works
- Sail The World (1994) (TV documentary)
- Ahead Of The Field (2010) (Library music for TV, 1985)
- Wildlife (2007) w/ Joji Hirota (TV documentary music, 1994-2003)
- Seventh Heaven (2012) w/ Andrew Skeet (orchestral, soundtrack-like)
(Note: additional library music is featured in some AAVV anthological CDs but covering them is beyond this article’s scope. See Phillips’ website for info)
The Missing Links series (as all other soundtrack related albums) is sort of the specular opposite of the PP&P. Most of the material included doesn’t sound “like Phillips” at all, and, unsurprisingly, when it does it’s acoustic and archival (when not library music at all).
Problem is: the series mostly selects tunes originally destined to be service music, not to be listened as standalone pieces; whether they were commissioned incidental music for television, commercials, documentaries or library music (generical stock music written beforehand and collected on CDs sold to professionals), they still lack the sparkle of the genuine, free creation; mainly synth/sampler based, the oldest material also suffers from outdated sound.
Phillips and his collaborators put a lot of effort into selecting and compiling suitable (“listenable”) material, anyway, sometimes creating artificial mini-suites from little separate fragments.
As it happens with PP&P, each ML/Library volume has its own distinctive character.
- Vol. I and II collect generic electronic music from the Eighties (the latter with some acoustic archival or unused material too); so does Ahead Of The Field
- Vol. III and Wildlife select exotic or new-age sounding music from the Nineties
Three special ones
While generally Phillips’ library work sounds impersonal and forgettable, three albums deserve a special mention:
- Wildlife. Sort of sequel of ML Vol. III (that’s quite pleasant on its own), features music expressly made for Survival, a British wildlife documentary series, written and recorded with Joji Hirota. The album is divided in suites, patched up from many little music snippets with recurring themes. This creates a gapless, almost impressionist flow of soundscapes, quite pleasant and relaxing. Great sound, too.
- Pathways And Promenades (ML – Vol. IV). Featuring rare acoustic tracks (from anthologies or collective projects) alternated with more recent library/soundtrack music, this eclectic mix is closer (in spirit and feel) to the PP&P territory and it is quite pleasant as a whole.
- Seventh Heaven. No samples here, everything is acoustic.
This double orchestral album (that features British conductor and orchestrator Andrew Skeet) was born as a library project but ended up with an independent life. It’s a mixed collection of not-quite-long pieces touching a variety of “movie inspired” generic (if not cliché) moods, with titles providing with visual references. There’s some opera sounding stuff, a taste of ethnic and celtic music, moody strings adagios, impressionistic dark sketches, etc. And some charming guitar tune.
Plus, some familiar tracks from PP&P, ML and Field Day receive orchestral treatment.
Live and archives
- The Archive Collection, vol I (1998) (Rare and previously unreleased, 1969-1990, mostly from the Seventies)
- The Archive Collection, vol II (2004) (As above, 1971-1988)
- The Living Room Concert (1995) (A live radio session from 1993)
- Live Radio Sessions (1998) w/ Guillermo Cazenave
- Radio Clyde (2003) (A “live in the studio” session, 1978)
Over the years Phillips has released a spare number of archival anthologies and live albums.
You can easily guess that an archive of unreleased material (or alternative versions) from a man whose discography is beefed up with unreleased material already goes straight to ultra-die-hard fans territory.
Not the kind of stuff to be addressed here (even though TAC II has more music from the Scottish Suite of PP&P II).
As for live albums, I must confess they’re the ones I have never listened to. I doubt any of them is essential. They are precious, though, ‘cause he almost never performs live.
Here I recommend albums based on their overall consistency (selection of pieces and fluid sequencing). Single noteworthy tracks in the PP&P series will be mentioned in a dedicated article. There’s no need to do the same for the ML series.
- Series: New England (PP&P VIII) and Pathways and Promenades (ML IV)
- Standalone library albums: Wildlife, Seventh Heaven (None of them really essential, though)
- Archives, Live: maybe later.