Samuel Stephen Bowden is an English teacher (this is important) and electronic musician living in China. As 瘫滩疫 (literally “Paralysis Beach Epidemic”) he records punkish little electro tracks in a home studio with little more than a 15-key MIDI keyboard, field recordings and a computer. This is a fairly typical set-up for the home electronic producer of course, but it does have its limitations. What if, for instance, you want to just bash out some tunes on a piano? You have to load up Ableton, set up a piano patch, and then you’re restricted to little more than an octave. It was fortunate then that, when Sam begun working as an teacher, he found himself in a classroom with a full-size piano. So during break times the untrained pianist would settle down at the ivories, set his phone to record, and improvise, all with the intention of using ideas and recordings from these sessions in his 瘫滩疫 work. But this was a snagging point - whereas his electronic work is fairly straightforward, these sessions were anything but. Bizarre chords, close harmonies and irregular tempos are one thing, but more difficult is the highly vocal presence of his students. Transposing to a MIDI setup would have removed everything that made these recordings interesting. So he didn’t bother. Instead, he just released the recordings as is. Children and all.
The result is The Breeze - 26 short original minimalist compositions for piano in unconventional scales accompanied by an audience of, it has to be said, disinterested youngsters. This makes the listening experience quite unsettling - the performance seems to bear no relation to what is happening in the classroom, and the children seemingly offer no reaction to the music at all. What we seem to have is two unconnected albums - one of piano vignettes, another of school field recordings - played at the same time. On its own the piano recordings would have merit, indeed some of the pieces, such as opening track ‘Meadows’ are quite beautiful, but placed into this context it becomes something almost disturbing. Sometimes the children even enter the foreground, punctuating the performance by making silly noises into the microphone, as is their youthful wont. Some tracks, even by Sam’s own admission, are very samey, with a few simply being more refined versions of earlier pieces. The progression of the composer does make for intreguing listening though, and an insight you rarely get in the world of classical music. Reference points of Peter Broderick, Nils Frams, Hannu, Hauschka and even John Cage can all be heard, and I might add certain elements of The Cinematic Orchestra with them too. Arvo Pärt this is not, but if you like your piano with a twist, this might be of interest to you.
The Breeze is available for download from Bandcamp. Name your price. And thanks to Sam for his assistance with this article.