By Hugh Morris February 25, 2022
In a suburb south-west of Sheffield, Simon Reynell lives with his enormous collection of music. As he describes it, there’s not much to see, “except for a chaotic spare room filled with boxes of CDs and a few computers.” If its founder weren’t so humble, Reynell’s Another Timbre label could become an all-encompassing force in the world of contemporary music. Instead, their commitment to elevating darkness and their intimate, minimal aesthetic have cultivated a dedicated following that shares their passion for understatement.
Nowadays, the name Another Timbre is a bit of a misnomer; the label moves away from textural explorations in favor of pitch-focused compositions. Why the change? Reynell cites the influence of Laurence Crane. A London-based composer renowned for his quiet, small-scale and careful songwriting, Crane and Reynell worked together on a double album of chamber works which was originally recorded in 2013. “Laurence is a lovely guy, but he’s quite meticulous,” Reynell says, “and so this double album took an unusually long time.” Two years after accepting the project, Reynell released the disc of Crane’s compositions with his aesthetic vision completely reversed. “I went from timbre, extended techniques, electronics and indefinite pitch to saying ‘I want melody! I want melody!’” he laughs.
Like Reynell’s own tastes, Another Timbre’s production is unfazed by fashion and popularity. The revenue generated by the ambitious and critically acclaimed box sets of Another Timbre (John Cage’s Number of pieces with Apartment House, and Morton Feldman’s Complete works for piano performed by Philip Thomas) has been sent straight to more obscure choices – their latest releases include works by Mark Ellestad (a Canadian composer who stopped writing in the mid-90s), gently floating drones by Gabriel Paiuk and a collection of delicate pieces for string quartet by Kunsu Shim and his friends.
Reynell founded the label in 2007 as a passion project to supplement his television work. It quickly took over his life. “I took advantage of COVID to review my finances and realized that I could stop working in television altogether. Which was awesome,” he laughs. With Reynell as the label’s lead recording engineer, Another Timbre’s catalog has grown to include nearly 200 releases. Cover art mostly follows a distinctive house style – white CD cover, black text sans serif and a small square of illustrations, usually abstract in nature.
“[Music] has always been a bit of a strange thing [for me], because I’m not a musician,” Reynell says, mentioning a sense of impostor syndrome when engaging with musical crowds. “Having grown up in Bradford, a place where there wasn’t a lot of contemporary music culture, [being into music] was very dependent on recordings. Stockhausen and Berio LPs came into his life through his mother, a liberal-minded music teacher, and even with relatively close experimental music communities (Huddersfield, Manchester, Leeds), Reynell remained loyal to the recordings. “I didn’t really go to concerts and I didn’t meet musicians or talk to musicians. I just listened to their LPs then CDs. This has been true for decades.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the Reynell catalog erred on the small side. “I don’t really go out for hero worship,” he says. “My overwhelming experience of music was in recordings, and I listen to recordings in the privacy of my own bedroom. And I lay on my bed, I close my eyes, and it’s an intimate experience, like having the musicians with you. This is also reflected in the way Another Timbre’s music is produced, preferring the intimacy of a close mic to capturing a wider picture. “I want you on stage with the musician rather than in a seat in a large auditorium.” Reynell is attracted to chamber music rather than symphonic music (“I recoil a bit from anything that seems to present itself as grand in any way” ), focusing his efforts on finding a specific audience rather than widening his net, he prefers instruments to vocals, indeterminacy and improvisation to fixity and notation.
All of this gives Another Timbre a distinct character, like a quiet, slightly eccentric person you might encounter in a pub: insightful if probed but reticent otherwise. Visiting their website, for example, is an adventure into a land that graphic design has forgotten, an onslaught of text delivered in a bouncy red and orange and white font. But with every new release comes a generous chat with the composer and a significant portion of the output ripped onto YouTube. “For the kind of people I’m trying to make music accessible to, in the clunky, non-trendy nature of the website, there’s a kind of accessibility that comes with it,” Reynell says. The label and the music it houses all boil down to one maxim (although it’s pronounced rather softly): try it! It’s less scary than you think.
Here are some highlights from the Another Timbre discography.
Wandelweiser und so weiter
“I went through a phase of releasing a lot of Wandelweiser music,” Reynell explains. “In a way, I could have stopped with that because I still love him.” Although Reynell focused on pitch and harmony, the spirit of the Wandelweiser collective still hovers around the label. Founded in 1992, Wandelweiser (which loosely translates to “signpost of change”) is a network of twenty composers, all committed to the audacious pursuit of silence in music. Using John Cage’s seminal 4”33 not as a cheap joke but as an artistic starting point, they create music of sparse fragility, with low-level sounds and small instrumentation and demanding absolute stillness.
But is it completely still, or could it move, just very slowly? This six-CD set certainly suggests the latter in its tracks – ‘Drifts’, ‘Crosscurrents’ and ‘Eddies’ all feature a particularly organic kind of movement. The vast compilation is full of intrigue and diversity of approaches. The uneven sonic tension of James Saunders’ “various distinct spatial or temporal locations” lasts only two minutes; “2 ausfuhrende” by Manfred Werder, with its long painful silent interruptions, lasts a full 30 minutes. Has the music stopped, paused, or is it in full flow? Wandelweiser’s music certainly leaves you guessing.
Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg
early to late
The theme of divergence carries this album together with the music of Wandelweiser Collective member Jürg Frey and Stockholm-based composer/improviser Magnus Granberg. Both began with the same shards of old material (“How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights” by William Byrd and “Deploration sur la mort de Binchois” by Johannes Ockeghem), similar instrumentation (the 11 performers of the Ensemble Grizzana on strings, keyboards, electronics, winds, and more obscure instruments like zither, glass harp, and harmonica), and a lead premiere (at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival). From these agreed principles, the two works unfold with striking independence. Frey’s “Late Silence” is more bodily, with growling double basses and a pronounced “sighing” harmonica; Granberg creates a battle of textures between the sounds, as pure celesta tones jostle with string plucks and dulcimer tones, underlined by loud ensemble swishes.
Explore Ensemble and London-based composer Leith are regular collaborators, and their character relationship shines through in his second outing for Another Timbre. Leith’s concepts add a playful melancholy to music that spans the heartfelt and the silly. “664 Love Songs Guaranteed to Heal Heartache,” a singer-less three-song set, is overwhelmed with a meticulously constructed sense of nostalgia, with strings, bass flute, and synthesizer mimicking crooner singers of all eras of pop music history. Gently labored strings underline “Me Hollywood” to create something resembling a silent film score; the sounds of doorbells and bubbling liquids add curious effects.
For all their focus on the small, Another Timbre’s program is ambitious. Smith is lyrically driven Vagabond is part of the Canadian Composers Series, a collection of 10 portraits of composers. This recording of a selection of his chamber music works also highlights two key ensembles in Another Timbre’s history—London’s Apartment House and the Bozzini Quartet of Montreal.
Smith’s “Drifter” features Satie-like groves of parallel piano chords that spin thoughtfully and sustain guitar improvisations before breaking into extended, blurry unison lines. There’s a similar lyricism to the Bozzini Quartet’s rendition of “Folkestone,” but its rhythmic unisons lend it a more graceful elegance, and the general haziness aligns the sound with something older, like a set of viols.
Cassandra Miller gets not one but two portraits in the Canadian Composers Series. Again featuring the Bozzini Quartet, Miller’s string writing is more mobile and ornate than Smith’s, with glimpses of folkloric melancholy on “Leaving” also heard in the lilting rhythms and rustic open strings of “Just So.” . There is, however, little sentimentality in the sound of the Bozzini Quartet. They are clean, agile and demanding, especially in the ensemble chorales and stratospheric violin writing of “About Bach”.
Better you do that for me
The career of musical polymath Jim O’Rourke has been anything but simple. Film music for Werner Herzog on guitar with Sonic Youth and even as a musical consultant for school of rock (2003), Better you do that for me represents another diversion, a 2020 commission from Apartment House. One of the rare albums by Another Timbre to feature voices, this 58-minute piece for vocalizing string trio is composed of a series of gestures, each coupled with a vocalization: a whistle, a buzz, a sung note. Apartment House leans into the vulnerability of O’Rourke’s songwriting: it’s a risky business that constantly slips into the upper registers using exclusively thin harmonics, tiny arching tremors and high-pitched hisses that sound like sine waves. A score arranged in a non-linear form – cellist Anton Lukoszevieze has called it a “permanent mobile of sonic events” – adds another fluctuating element to a piece already firmly committed to unpredictability.