david simons-reviews

THE WIRE , April 2005 / Soundcheck pg 65/ reviewed by Brian Marley


Of the ten diverse pieces on Prismatic Hearing, only two share the same instrumentation. That the CD is nonetheless cohesive is due to the characterful nature of David Simons's compositions. He's a longstanding member of two very different ensembles, Music for Homemade Instruments and Gamelan Son of Lion, both of which play on Prismatic Hearing. He's also worked extensively in film, theater and dance, and the longest piece here, "Picasso/Rossinirape", composed in 2003 for BAD Co in Zagreb, Croatia, was written to accompany a dance in which a woman relives her rape in excruciating detail while contorting herself in the manner of a Picasso portrait. The source material is, as the title suggests, sampled from Rossini, his Messe Solonelle, but the music is fractured into new rhythmic and melodic shapes and rendered distinctly ominous, benefitting from Simons's virtuoso use of sampling technology.

The earliest of the compositions, written in 1974 while Simons was a student at the California Institute of the Arts, is "Crown of Thorns", for harpsichord, guitar, harp, cello, vibraphone, marimba and gongs. It plays for a mere 36 seconds. This is the only piece on the CD that's strongly reminiscent of another composer: the Frank Zappa of his most accomplished album, Uncle Meat.

Most of the other pieces on Prismatic Hearing were composed during the 1990s and the current decade, and by then Simons had a sure grasp of his materials and the ends to which they could be put. One of his innovations is to use a theremin both as itself and as a MIDI controller of sampled sounds. Theremin-triggered samples feature on "Information" and Dematerialized". The latter very effectively illustrates how orchestral sounds and voices, modulated electronically, can be shaped into a composition that transcends its source materials. During the final couple of minutes the intense drama of the piece is undercut by humour, as interleaved and patchworked voices recite phrases such as "A burgundy suede spider is humping an oil slick".

According to Simons, prismatic hearing is the process by which our minds reconstitute sounds while we're actively hearing them, filtering them according to our tastes and prejudices, etc. He points out that, in many cases, "this results in a more interesting phrase than the original". Something similar could be argued about his use of sampled material on Prismatic Hearing.