This album follows on from two previous ones which are called “Hornwaves: Quartets for Solo Horn” (myself), and “Back to Back: two part discoveries for horns” (myself and Jonathan). All three were freely improvised and all were recorded in the highly stimulating acoustic of St. Silas The Martyr, Chalk Farm, by the equally stimulating engineer, Mike Skeet. Without him, none of this peculiar music would have come into existence; so many thanks to Mike. My thanks also to Jonathan and Richard for lending their unique talents in such a harmonious and democratic way.
For the third album, the addition of Richard Bissil to make a trio was an obvious choice despite our never having improvised together before. His playing is well known for its combination of mercurial musical wit, Chevrolet-like smoothness and power, and extraordinarily agile grace. He, like Jonathan, is an inspiration. (The technically minded might like to know that throughout the recording Richard played a Yamaha double horn, Jonathan played an Alexander single B♭+A horn and I played an Alexander 103 double horn).
Our approach, as for both of the previous albums, was simply to start the tape machine rolling and make up lots of pieces over a couple of days, sifting through them afterwards to find the best ones for the album. As it happens we have kept about a third of what we recorded and the pieces are presented here in the order in which they happened. The titles were added later just for fun. “Overtures” was the very first piece we played and “God Help The Queen” was the last. We agreed to stop at that point because things were clearly getting silly.
Before each attempt at a piece we would sit in our chairs, carefully positioned for the best stereophonic sound (difficult with three horns in a rectangular hall) and discuss how we might begin, which one of us would take the lead and who might be first to follow. We would also usually agree beforehand on some kind of tempo, mood or style. Sometimes we decided to start recording with no ideas at all to see what would happen, but at the opposite extreme, as in “Fanfare” we spent a few minutes scribbling a dozen or so notes down. Definitely cheating! (Incidentally, this piece has a more spaced out sound than the others because we re-positioned ourselves to the sides and end of the hall).
In order to give a unified form and style to what might otherwise have been three disconnected lines of solo improvisation it was important that we listen very carefully to each other whilst playing, to catch any material which could be echoed, developed, exaggerated, extended, decorated, accompanied or used as accompaniment, or simply left alone. The result is music which seems to have a peculiar coherence of its own.
One inherent characteristic of the French horn which can cause problems is the way that its sound projects out behind and to the right of the player. We discovered that when we sat in such a way as to have eye contact our bell flares would point away from each other. This made analytical listening difficult for us, because our sounds spread out through the church before returning, richly dressed in the complex reverberation of St. Silas’. On the second day we tried sitting “back-to-back-to-back” and found that it gave us a much clearer and more immediate aural impression of what we were all up to together. From then on we were playing without eye contact, getting clues and cues only from what we could hear, but this lack of contact made us heavily reliant on luck for our beginnings and endings, adding an extra tantalising frisson of insecurity and suspense. Most of the pieces presented here happened on the second day of recording.
St Silas has, without doubt, a wonderful resonance with the sound of French horns, which is why we chose it, despite its noisy location. You may hear the shouts of children playing outside and the throb of aeroplanes overhead. In “Slow Ripples” Richard and I were well into the piece when a synchronistically influenced jet plane strayed into Chalk Farm air space. We carried on playing, despite the interference, because we enjoyed the way its engines joined in with us on some of the notes we were just about to play … Serendipity!
Pip Eastop 1994