Music for pleasure

Jazz, Latin, contemporary classical - it's not simple to pigeon- hole the work of composer Orlando Gough. But it's so easy to enjoy. By Phil Johnson
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Though it's too little-known to fit into most of the end of year best-of lists, and too recondite to meet the demands of the new crossover chart for choirboys and opera pops, Message from the Border by the composer Orlando Gough is one of the albums of the year. A collection of pieces written originally for dance groups, including the Dutch National Ballet, Ballet Rambert and the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, the album shimmers with bright, shiny textures whose intricately worked tessellations should satisfy anyone with a regard for the earlier works of Steve Reich, the music of Miles Davis or the Latin salsa of Cuba, Colombia or New York. Indeed, the music is so diverse that it raises all sorts of problems about where to place it. As contemporary classical music, it's perhaps too rhythmically inventive for its own good. Unlike jazz, it isn't improvised, though it sounds as if it should be. And for the fashionable genre of new music crossing the borders of serious jazz and pop, like saxophonist John Harle's recent Decca disc Terror and Magnificence, it's not sufficiently po-faced: you can actually enjoy it, for heaven's sake, without wondering desperately what it's all supposed to mean, or cross-referencing each track with the footnotes in the CD booklet.

In fact, this may be the worrying nub of the matter: it's simply music, notes in the air, sensuous and sentient. Keyboard squeezebox noises provide a pulse for plangent muted-trumpet lines and the digital melisma of a sampled Flamenco vocal; the Smith Quartet's taut strings slice through the dense repetitions of the composer's own piano chordings; trumpet, horns, violin and an unlikely accordion summon up the melancholy beauty of a Spanish-flavoured arrangement by Gil Evans. In short, it's great, and anything but difficult; the kind of music that you might hear in a cafe or a bar and ask who it was by.

Before Gough took to dance - two of the album's three suites are from collaborations with the dancer and choreographer Ashley Page - he was one of England's earliest minimalists, pursuing a passion first conceived in 1972, when he attended one of Steve Reich's first concerts here, at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, where Gough was a student of mathematics. After graduating, he helped his brother Piers, the architect, in his practice in London, cooked professionally and then formed a band, The Lost Jockey, a minimalist mainstay of the Arts Centres of the time, and later subsumed into a second band, Man Jumping. Gough looks back on the experience with a mixture of affection and chagrin.

"The Lost Jockey was all about humping pianos and trying to get a bunch of talented hippies together for rehearsal," he says. "Man Jumping was much more organised but incredibly frustrating because I think we had a chance to do really well, but we schlepped around tiny venues with tiny audiences and always seemed to be on the point of some kind of breakthrough - the classic kind of frustration-band. We spent more and more of our time dragging ourselves to Sunderland, and when it ended it was absolute bliss, the best day of my life, which is no reflection on the band; we just couldn't get over the threshold. The idea of a band is really good but it's so hard! I'm occasionally tempted to start one again but I always shy away."

Gough's brother once described himself as a B-movie architect, and Orlando is happy to be considered a B-movie composer. "It's fine," he says. "It means we can tell a story." His training as an Oxford mathematician (he has even written a successful school textbook, The Complete A-Level Mathematics, published in 1987) can lead one into an easy comparison between the abstract formulae of pure maths and the compositional systems of musical minimalism, but Gough is sceptical.

"I think there is a connection," he says, "but it's not really conscious, and I don't write mathematical music like, say, Philip Glass. All the systems in my music are very simple and always liable to be broken at any moment; they're not very rigorous. I tend to have visual stimuli when I write and I find it difficult to write in the abstract; I've always got something fiddling away in my head and it's often part of a hidden agenda that may not turn up in an obvious way, like the idea of a place, whether real or imaginary. The music is full of influences but the way it is written is very particular, and that's what the pieces have in common. I write with the computer using Q-Base software, composing in a kind of minimalist way by building up little fragments so that the pieces work vertically rather than horizontally."

The analogy with dance may be more meaningful than that with mathematics, in that, as Gough says, such systems as there are in his music keep getting fractured and abandoned at arbitrary moments. "This is very like what Indian classical dancers do," Gough says. "The systems are set up but then broken at any point, which I find very refreshing. The best 12-tone composer for me was Alban Berg [Viennese composer of the operas Wozzeck and Lulu] because he never stuck to the system; he was always, always, doing something else. The way my music has developed is that the systems element has become less and less important while the indeterminate element has become more dominant."

Recently, Gough's music has increasingly begun to approach the methods of jazz and Latin music. "I've been influenced by jazz but have never really improvised," he says. "It's probably a kind of power-complex of wanting to keep control, of not daring to let anyone else have a real say. Of my generation of composers, we're all probably more impressed by late John Coltrane than we are by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, but I think that Mark-Anthony Turnage [whose recent concert work Blood on the Floor included free parts for jazz guitarist John Scofield and drummer Pete Erskine] is the first one of us to move into actual improvisation.

"It's really a matter of taste; I think Birtwistle does address the listener in a very direct way, but it's just that to me it doesn't really appeal. My music is probably like it is because I'm not a very complicated, angst- ridden person."

And that, of course - the pleasure principle being relatively rare in contemporary music of any persuasion - is something we can all drink to, especially at this time of yearn

`Message from the Border' is on BMG's Catalyst label (catalogue no: 09026- 68332-2)