Boomkat Product Review:
You may have heard of Gentle Fire, but could be forgiven for not knowing much about them. They were a 6, then 5 member group of composers/improvisers/performers based in London and Yorkshire. Most of the writings that cover the pioneers of experimental, electronic and improvised music have given them scant attention. In addition to this, their recorded output is slim, the main item being a long out of print LP (for EMI Electrola), featuring their interpretations of graphic scores by Cage, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff. Despite recordings for BBC Radio 3 and many German radio stations, it seems extraordinary that there were no other substantial releases of their repertoire, or any of the 6 Group Compositions they created.
Most of the existing Gentle Fire archive was kept privately by Hugh Davies, a member of the group. After Hugh died in 2005 it was shared between various institutions. This release owes much to Hugh’s meticulous record keeping as well as the archives at the British Library and Special Collections at Goldsmiths, University of London. Listening sessions at the British Library were a revelation, it was like discovering a missing link in the evolution of experimental music, but above all it sounded so undated and fresh.
The release is divided into 3 sections. The first CD, recorded between 1970 and 1971 contains 4 studio and 2 concert recordings of graphic and text scores: 2 parts of Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen, and one piece each by Earle Brown, John Cage, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Christian Wolff. Gentle Fire were active between 1968 and 1974 and were especially active during the early 70s, appearing at numerous European avant garde festivals, playing their own Group Compositions and a wide variety of experimental scores. They even ended up in Iran playing in Stockhausen’s Sternklang, and improvising at dawn at Hafez’s tomb. The text and graphic scores that they were innately drawn towards have large elements of interpretive freedom to them, where the composer provides a skeleton and steps back allowing the players to give it flesh. They were in regular communication with the composers of these piece, so it’s no surprise that their interpretations were sought after by concert organisers and composers alike. There are very few examples of groups working at this time with direct contact to the composers, which makes these recordings especially precious.
CD2 and 3 focus on their own works, CD2 dates from 1973 and was recorded during a 2 day residency at Radio Bremen. The 5 pieces on this disc cover a wide variety of styles and include a 23 minute version of Group Composition VI which is their only text based piece and uses processed and filtered speech.
CD3 is a recording of their appearance at ICES 72, a legendary festival that took place at the Roundhouse in London. Over the course of 2 chaotic weeks a vast number of the world’s experimental musicians took to the stage. Miraculously the whole of the Gentle Fire concert has been preserved. It consists of a performance of their Group Composition IV, centred around a large metal sculpture that all members of the group could play at the same time. The piece actually had its première the previous year on the original pyramid stage at the first Glastonbury Fair. There are several photos of the event included in the booklet that accompanies the CDs.
At last it is possible to assess the importance of this group’s work, both their own work and their interpretations of scores, and to give them their proper place in the history of live experimental/electronic music."