Joe McPhee & John Snyder - Pieces of Light


UMS/Atavistic 256

Current cognoscenti might not be comfortable with the claim, but Pieces of Light makes a convincing case for Joe McPhee’s place as a pioneering force in electro-acoustic improvisation. To be fair, his contributions to this 1974 saucer of vinyl adhere solely to the acoustic side of the spectrum. The ‘electro’ end falls to early ARP synthesist John Snyder who inserts his plugs and twiddles his dials to propagate a mostly responsive sounding board for McPhee’s improvisations. McPhee refers to the end products as a “music of tone colors and textures to be experienced physically as well as aurally.”

Snyder’s biographical details are few. But indicative of their varying degrees of musicianship the fit between him and McPhee is occasionally like oil and water. The best portions of the program occur when McPhee fares forward alone. Their differential is definitely in place on the opening “Prologue/Twelve” which starts with seven plush minutes of prime, tonally-adventurous McPhee tenor. Snyder’s successive turn in the concluding segment can’t help but sound incongruous and dated by comparison, starting out like a volley between dueling Pong paddles on an antique Atari game console and expanding to a vintage Vangelis vista by the close.

McPhee’s decision to pad his own palette AACM-style with a small cache of peripheral instruments proves another distraction from his work on his principal horns. Ceramic and bamboo wind chimes color the shapes on “Shadow Sculptures” while Nagoya harp and flute add welcome organic counterweight to the synthetic elements on “Windows in Dreams,” but neither piece ends up all that memorable in the larger scheme. “Les Heros Sont Fatigues” is more like it. McPhee doles out another dose of dolorous tenor, blowing a vaguely spiritual line unaccompanied prior to the entrance of Snyder’s reverberating constructions which take on the tonalities of Missile Command ordinance detonating over space port cities. Track demarcations during this center section of the disc are a bit confusing with “Red Giant” apparently tacked onto the end of the aforementioned piece rather than standing alone as indicated on the tray card. And speaking of the packaging, while it can’t replicate the album-as-art beauty that was the original vinyl pressing facsimiles of the inserts and McPhee’s thoughtfully-scripted liners stand up as a fine substitute.

“Colors in Crystal” occupies the entirety of Side B and takes the call and response tactics of the earlier tracks to temporal extremes. Individually McPhee makes strong statements on various brass and tenor, blowing vaporous trails on the former instruments and hard-bitten tonal morsels on the latter. Snyder’s responses fail to carry the same weight, sifting the same array of 70s sci-fi soundtrack sine oscillations. McPhee even does a glottal impression of Phil Minton as the vinyl’s inner edge draws nigh, before reinserting tenor mouthpiece and dueting with his own trumpet. Snyder takes the excursion out with a sustained drone and fleeting Doppler signal sign-off. This album’s last place entry in the Unheard Music Series project to reissue the trilogy of early CJR titles isn’t all that surprising; it’s easily the weakest of the three. But there’s still enough here of interest to recommend it reservedly to any listener enamored of McPhee.

~ Derek Taylor

Posted by derek on December 13, 2005 7:10 AM

My copy was *cough* borrowed back in the late 70s so I haven't heard this for ages but I recall that, even then, I wasn't too crazy about Snyder's contribution, finding it a bit too overtly programmatic (the bombs). Could feel differently now; who knows? Nice to see it back in print at any rate.

Posted by: Brian Olewnick at December 13, 2005 3:55 PM

I was disappointed by this release. The "bombs" Brian describes sound ridiculous. I thought I was listening to an Atari video game.

Posted by: David Jones at December 13, 2005 9:53 PM

I, too, found little of lasting interest with this recording. Much better is McPhee's 'Rotation' LP on Hat Hut; it still holds up as one of his best; Snyder is excellent here.

Posted by: Jim F at December 23, 2005 8:37 AM

Yeah, I can understand the reasoning behind releasing it - complete the CJR quartet and all - but I much prefer Trinity and Underground Railroad. Nation Time ain't bad, either.

Posted by: clifford at December 23, 2005 2:24 PM

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