John Wall in conversation with critic and
composer Simon Cummings
Rafia Longer
by John Wall & Alex Rodgers
release date: Oct 2015
Label:Entr'acte 193

A side
"Rafia Longer"
B side

John Wall computer/editing/sound manipulation.
Alex Rodgers Voice [ real and computer-generated text-to-speech ]

Abstract, cut-up, liquified brilliance from the incisive duo of John Wall and Alex Rodgers, back on Entr'acte following three albums of exploratory electronics.
The A-side's 'Rafia Longer' is exactly the kind of warped gem that we hunt for daily. Rodgers' blunted vocals are serrated into bad-skype-connection phonemes and woven in fluid pattern with a sort of warped, grubbing mix of Lotic's supple awkwardness and Pole's earliest dub refractions to manifest one of the oddest, most compelling electronic sides of 2015.
On the flipside, a four-part composition stays well out there with a mix of text-to-speech articulations and microscopic edits vacillated with processed field recordings and kinetic noise, constantly disturbing the pattern with unpredictable protrusions and sharp left turns.


LCMF Present

Shelly Parker
Tom Mudd
John Wall (solo laptop)
+ many others

Friday 11th Dec
University of Westminster
35 Marylebone Rd

John Wall (solo laptop)
Perks Ensemble
"Above Earth's Shadow"
by Michael Finnissy

Tuesday 5th April
Cafe Oto

The SC. series, as well as the MutaVariations consist of a number of short concentrated compositions that have been in development since 2006. The original sound sources being predominately included and rejected material from Cphon, Hylic and Construction5-7.
Those original sound files and their now unrecognisable reworking's have been subjected to many processes of granular disfiguring, using MaxMSP. Supercollider. AudioMulch. Ppooll. and Reaper.
All this material will be released in a sonically superior* CD format in, hopefully, autumn 2015

*Soundclounds automatically transcoded / compressed 128kbps mp3 playback system gives rise to inevitable distortions especially when uploading extreme frequency/dynamic range computer music files
by John Wall & Alex Rodgers
Release date: January 2015
Label: Entr'acte

Amazement is a word that seems fitting for John Wall’s
collaborations with Alex Rodgers, the latest of which,
Work 2011–2014, is now out on Entr’acte. A single
piece lasting 27½ minutes, it establishes a profoundly
intimate sensibility at the outset, Rodgers’ words
practically being spoken directly into one’s mind. The
context Wall fashions for them is typically restrained,
soft and low but full of impact, his electronic sounds
projected into high and low bandwidths more than
anywhere else. When he’s manipulating materials like
this, the results are simply beautiful, but when he
pushes them outward, lets them grow, sharpens their
edges, it’s just heart-stopping. The nature of the inter-
action between Wall and Rodgers, as it was in their
previous collaboration Work 2006–2011 (which, having
been out of print for some years, has happily now been
re-released) is deeply enigmatic; Rodgers is often low
in the mix, audible but not intelligible, and when he
is suddenly exposed, his stream of consciousness —
kind of like Tourette poetry—feels urgent, insistent,
all the more so for being constantly tinged with fiery
emotional subtext. It’s a paradox that continues even
when the text is delivered by an entirely synthetic
voice, its vicious expletive-strewn phrases like robotic
piranha in a viscous sonic ooze. The diverse means
of expression demonstrated here are disconcertingly
imaginative, almost intimidating so; Wall has an innate
sense of shaping music that’s simultaneously abstract
yet capable of sledgehammer-like emotive blows.
The closing gambit, in which Rodgers voice somehow
becomes embedded within Wall’s materials, is utterly

Below is a detailed breakdown and clarification of the various
sound/text pieces used to make up this complete work.
Improvisation applies only to the sounds generated on computer.
The words are fixed and all from Alex Rodgers written texts.

00:00 to 01:44 "bill and coo" (AR computer/voice)
with some sound manipulation by JW
01:45 to 03:10 Construction 50 (JW) computer
03:19 to 06:28 "angular cluster 1" (JW) computer (AR) voice
06:31 to 08:31 "pitfalls" (JW) computer (AR) voice
08:38 to 09:50 Construction 54 (JW) computer
(AR) voice/computer.
09:51 to 11:29 "pomp" (AR) voice/computer.
11:30 to 13:07 Edited improvisation (JW) computer (AR) voice
13:08 to 15:47 Untitled (JW) computer (AR) voice
15:50 to 17:19 "the same(JW) computer (AR) text to speech programme.
17:20 to 19:12 "nutters" (JW) computer (AR) voice
19:12 to 20:16 Construction 56 (JW) computer
20:26 to 22:16 "Were I was going" (JW) computer (AR) treated voice
22:22 to 24:02 "Fall away" (JW) computer (AR) voice/computer
24:07 to 26:23 "rdondo" (JW) computer (AR) voice/computer
26:18 to 27:36 "angular cluster 2" (JW) computer (AR) voice






Jan 2013

sec A
Alex Rodgers. untitled
(with some sound manipulation by John Wall)
sec B
John Wall/Mark Durgan. untitled
(extract from edited improvisation)
sec C
John Wall.
(sound fragment)
Impassion by CutHands
Pithoprakta by Iannis Xenakis. 1995
Full moon by DeatnGrips
-noO2. Beautyon 1997
Hibiki Hana Ma by Iannis Xenakis. 1970
Depression by Vadar. 2008
Plexure by John Oswald. 1992/3 sections 5.6.7.
Thief severed hand by Muslimgauze
Dedans-Dehors by Bernard Parmegiani 1997
Continuum for 2 player pianos by GyorgyLegeti 1970
Jack MacGowran reading from Watt by Samuel Beckett
bsf.tyk 5 by Florian Hecker
Aitsi by Giacinto Scelsi 1974 (short extract)
sec A
John Wall/Mark Durgan untitled
(extract from edited improvisation)
sec B
John Wall/Alex Rodgers untitled
(heavily edited/rearranged by JW )
El Mundo Frio by Corrupted
A laugh by Alex Rodgers


An unreleased composition from 2005-6

Constructions 46
is one of many sound files
composed specifically for live performance.
The sound file then undergoes some serious
use and abuse in a Max/MSP patch built
specifically for me by Tom Mudd

CD by John Wall & Mark Durgan
Released date: March 2012
Title: 139
Label: Entr'acte

I expected this duo’s debut to be a lot harsher than it actually is, which probably says more about me than either John Wall or Mark Durgan. The impression partly derives from Durgan’s work as Putrefier and his involvement in the reformation line-up of The New Blockaders: and partly from Wall’s sporadic live performances in London over the past few years, typically last-ing no longer than 15 minutes and involving abrasive sprays of calibrated, acutely complex digital noise. It’s certainly not without some caustic passages; indeed it’s more notable for its discipline and restraint.

Wall and Durgan limit themselves to a relatively narrow dynamic in terms of sound selection and volume and activity levels, yet locate a wealth of diversity within it. It’s a pleasant surprise to discover how well-matched Wall and Durgan are as a duo. Considering their contrast-ing backgrounds and approaches, their respective vocabularies mesh very successfully, yet retain a healthy amount of contrast and tension. Durgan’s contributions, generated from modular and pressure-sensitive synthesizer, develop the vocabulary which began to emerge on his 2009 PAN album Ploughing Furrows From Rotten Burrows: thick, relatively slow-moving sounds, concrete-style slaps, oscillating granular pitches and crude percussive blurts which hint at looping patterns.

Wall uses a computer, which presumably allows him to move and react more quickly. Consequently his playing is more volatile and diffuse, deploying fraying frequencies and jittery, sibilant textures, which evolve rapidly into detailed fractal-like clusters; or glassy surfaces ruptured by bursts of tonal splintering and structural disintegration. The album’s incident-packed six tracks — the 34 minute running time fairly zips by — are compiled from improvisations recorded last July. And, given that neither is primarily known as an improvisor, the duo’s interaction is impressively accomplished. Wall is the more dominant voice on the opening track (all are untitled), and Durgan on the second.

From there the balance of power slides back and forth, sometimes precipitously but always equitably. It’s often hard to tell who's doing what or how much is in real time or not — in the sleevenotes Wall is credited with “severe editing” (to my knowledge, he’s never ever been credited with “mild editing”). His excisions seem more evident on the album’s second half, in particular its labyrinthine fourth and fifth tracks, which continually shift focus and perspective. Regardless of how the music was created, or how much reconstruction was involved, this is a powerful start for a gratifyingly simpatico pairing.

review by Nick Cain

139 Download

139 Review (2)

139 Review (3)

CD by John Wall & Alex Rodgers.
Release date: May 2011
Label: Entr'acte

A fascinating release. A bit has been written on what a departure this is for Wall, but I'm not sure. I may have missed something along the way (I have five releases of his on Utterpsalm) but aside from the obvious prominence of Rodgers' voice, I hear it as a not too wayward extension of the previous works. Yes, it was constructed, laboriously one imagines though not so much as had been the case on earlier releases; built from improvisations but so had much of his music been before. It's pared down in terms of elements--just Wall and Rodgers--but much of his music had been as well, even if there were half a dozen contributors at a given moment; it tended to sound sparse and astringent.

Rodgers' texts are not at all improvised, though Wall seems to have taken liberties rearranging and editing them. From what I understand, the slight warping and other electronic effects imparted to his voice are of his own devising as well as having recorded into a cheap dictaphone, hence perhaps the up-closeness of his sound. Wall balances his own contributions equitably, Rodgers phasing in and out of a mix that's not all too unlike Wall's past work despite (one assumes) not be derived from the instrumental work of others and, as stated, having been improvised. It retains the silvery thinness heard before, a unique and beautiful sound-world; I've little doubt I would have recognised the music as Wall's in a blindfold test. I often visualise a think plate of copper or zinc, with various bumps, scratches and other "imperfections" arrayed across its softly gleaming surface. Rodgers, his words slurred, bitter and Beckettian adds just the right amount of soot...or suet. It really meshes perfectly, not foregrounded so much, more embedded.

While certainly episodic in construction, the piece cleaves together seamlessly as a whole, a bleak cascade of shards and syllables, like little else you'll hear. An excellent recording.

review by Brian Olewnick

The cd WORK 2006-11 by John Wall and Alex Rodgers is divided into four sections for no other reason than to make it easier for a detailed breakdown and clarification of the various sound/text pieces used to make up the complete work.

Section A
00:00 to 01:42 Construction 12 (JW)
01:43 to 02:58 Laptop improvisation(JW) Voice(AR)

Improvisation applies only to the sounds generated on computer.
The words are fixed and all from Alex Rodgers written texts.

02:59 to 03:41 Construction 13 (JW)
03:42 to 07:05 Laptop improvisation(JW) Voice(AR). No title
07:06 to 08:51 Construction 14 (JW)
08:52 to 09:45 Laptop improvisation(JW) Voice(AR). No title
09:46 to 11:28 Construction 15 (JW)
11:47 to 13:22 Laptop improvisation (JW) Voice(AR). No title

00:00 to 00:03 silence

00:00 to 00:41 Laptop(AR) "ununameur
00:42 to 04:42 Voice (AR) "Fingerlessly Asleep
at 02:52 sound (JW) added to original recording
04:43 to 08:29 Construction 20 "BitFracModify" (JW)

00:00 to 00:03 silence

00:00 to 01:10 Construction 17 (JW)
utilising sound samples that were used in the following piece
01:11 to 02:53 Laptop improvisation (JW) Voice(AR). No title
02:54 to 03:17 Laptop improvisation (JW&AR)
heavily edited to function as a sound bridge to...............
03:18 to 05:07 Voice/Laptop (AR) "me washing's all fucked up"
05:19 to 07:03 Construction 22 "Organ" (JW)
07:04 to 09:02 Voice/Laptop (AR)
09:03 to 09:31 Construction 23(JW)

00:00 to 00:03 Pause

00:00 to 00:50 Laptop improvisation (JW) Voice(AR). No title
00:51 to 02:04 Construction 34 (JW)
02:05 to 03:34 Voice/Laptop(AR)
03:35 to 03:58 Laptop improvisation (JW&AR)
extreme edit taken from 21.09.10 session.
03:59 to 04:19 Construction 24(JW)
function as a sound bridge to.......
04:20 to 06:06 Voice/Laptop(AR) "Horn-ed"
Laptop(JW) added/edited in later
06:07 to 08:30 Construction 16 (JW) “8thru(metasin)
John & Alex sharing a happy moment with a photographer
and by extension you the audience


CPHON (2005)

This single composition, lasting slightly over its 20-minute pre-set constraint, comes up just short of Wall’s longest piece to date, ‘Fractuur’. Given its constructive process: the patient and precise piecing together of thousands of heavily worked minute samples, each one with the potential to exert a generative pull on the caring listener, demanding listening is our diet here. The reward: an intense engagement with a bizarre and various compositional soundfield whose restless agitation hallmarks this composer’s work.
You could take as your initial, unlikely guide into the piece the sustaining, dim, cricket-like pulsing that arises early, establishing a potential frontal focus to allow an array of other sound sources to poke out of inner sides and ceilings. As accomplice, its polar opposite: a breathy pipe-blow whose alternation with our cricket-pulse establishes both as the boundary markers within which the characteristically wide sonic field can emerge. Characteristic too is the attack-action of certain sound events: a globular throb whose full growth the end of the piece awaits, and again in opposition, crescendo sharpenings to electric glass motes. These, together with the odd polyp and lip-fizz, represent what remains an essentially minimalist terrain, one that tempts layers of impression to accumulate on whatever does arrive: could we, for example, hear that original cricket-pulse as bcoming something like a trace of our waiting time? Anticipation grows an attention’s slow gather, one made more urgent by the vicious action of a sudden slice, or by increasingly dense, upper pitch ticks and clickings.

At eight in, coming on the end of one of those crescendo sharpenings, we suddenly have the presence implied: no glass mote, but rather, unbelievably by juxtaposition, a piano, huge (it’ll prove over 6-minutes tall), that seems to be more testing its growpen’s limits out than actually being played. It alerts most for the sheer, brutal, but weirdly welcome, acoustic sound that it is amidst this sparse electronic outerzone we’ve been drawn by polite hijack into. Ludicrously, I feel I’m watching a dinosaur eating trees but then mirage-like, over time, its strong stridencies begin to suffer muffle, harsh swervings occur it into a glacial metallicism until finally it regresses to laboured, insistent, heavy stubs; the descent unstopped by occasional back-bells and electric-excites working as if to re-animate its initial tonal range and vibrancy.

You could hear the hilarious comic quacks that duck in late on as perverse representations of what now lasts for life here as, in the final section, an engineered phase shift intrudes a kind of 4-wheel boulder roll, whose banal, grubby, indifferent ‘progress’ inevitably absorbs all the minute variations that are this work’s living cells. Looking back, one might want to trace its beginnings in the corrosive viral action enacted on the piano, an action that has now morphed into this bizarre hybrid drone, biologic in action, geologic in rhythm, that signals destructive ends minutes before the composition’s final ping. A concluding dystopic mood then, but having become deeply implicated in the action of the composition’s process, we might now be able to say that it is a mood whose strength of intellectual pessimism is vitally matched by an optimism’s will to build amidst these sonic ruins. Which leaves us where we’d perhaps hope to be: necessarily and freshly agitated.

Rob Holloway
HYLIC (2003)

Gustave Flaubert is said to have been such a fastidious writer that he'd agonise for a week over the placement of a comma. This almost fanatical attention to detail is characteristic of the London-based composer John Wall. Hylic, Wall's sixth release, has been nearly two years in the making. It's a tripartite suite, of twenty minutes duration, and in material and form it's both a consolidation of, and a departure from, his earlier work. Hylic is derived from the word hylo – of or relating to matter.
At one time, much of Wall's often microscopic matter/material had been sampled judiciously from other people's recordings. Indeed, on his second CD, Alterstill,some of the samples were presented nakedly in their new environment, and only the integrity of his recontextualisations made them work on his behalf. But although he was, and to some extent remains, a sampling artist, the compound irony and political confrontationalism of plunderphonicists such as John Oswald and Negativland play almost no part in his work. To Wall, samples are just source material: things to work on rather than with. Over the years, his reliance on samples has steadily decreased, and those used in Hylic have been modified to such a degree they're all but unrecognisable.

Like Bernard Parmegiani, Wall constructs transformative electroacoustic soundscapes of remarkable individuality. His is a muscular, energetic music that seems to contradict itself by being perpetually on the verge of doubt and disintegration. Structural integrity is of paramount importance to him, but he makes no great play of it; nor of anything else, though there are many things in his music worth savouring. Even the most minimal of these soundscapes has, for example, an astonishing degree of inbuilt complexity, although it may consist of little more than the endlessly varied colouration, weight and placement of bumps and clicks, as in the opening minutes of Hylic Part I. This music is absolutely of its time, but Wall has few equals, and I'd be very surprised indeed if his work were to fall by the wayside.

Brian Marley


The opening track breeds characteristic active attention as the evolving electronic particles achieve form through carefully built relation. The precision focus into momentary morse code adds potential figural shape to the intrusive sound bass plunges and the act of listening is drawn into one of visualisation: barren post-apocalyptic vistas, screens blinking to the pulse of the military/industrial complex. These are already overdetermined, but certainly, as has been said before, the cinematic feel of this sound is unavoidable, bringing with it a further investment in tension as the minimal tones sit lying-to-attack the attention induced by the underlying drone.
An organicism intrudes massively from the beginning of the second track: achieved from a synth-generated pulse, left as it were to find its own way blind. Again, such figuration is encouraged, and added to by breath-like modulations, unsurprising given this CD's initial conception as opera. There is nothing restfully ambient in this focus however, for this is a heavily bruised sound, morphing by contortion. Working in opposition to it however, is the fiercely imposed minimalism of sharp, incisive tones already apparent in the first track to which it eventually succumbs, creating a sound field of increasingly chilling sparcity.

Given the over-arching minimalism of the first two tracks, the cymbals that crash open the final track generate a flooding richness of impact by juxtaposition, one that is strongly maintained as its ripplings are meticulously charted out in a manner reminiscent of the earlier 'Fractuur' CD. Carrying these is a shining, airy drone that gives a further indication of operatic context. The drone works to particularise a huge range of metallic timbres into active-listening play, with the later introduction of stone and crystalline textures. Voice is materialised in the gestural physicality of improv sax breathnotes that in turn morph into a signature fragment from Constructions II, to confirm these pieces' extension of that particular exploration.

This signature fragment is, as it were, the sonic form of that most difficult of existential pivots, Beckett's 'I can't go on, I'll go on', and provides the core of the minimalism that rules these three pieces. This is the ground that the fragments and the relations built between them have been allowed to work their extension from, and at times it makes for difficult listening. Given the work's constructive process, the minute piecing together of sampled fragments, the kind of sonic reductiveness often apparent here is risky, raising as it does the spectre of that process becoming victorious over the products it is achieving. What saves them from this fate ultimately is the trained attention of this composer's ear, that continues to promote the differentiation of a wide array of sonic occurrences, which however minituristic, signal necessary innovations in a field increasingly occupied by legions of laptop soundalikes.
Rob Holloway

Construction I
Construction II
taut serenatic
Construction III
Construction IV

The highly-anticipated culmination of ideas sketched out in his previous two releases. Entirely, thoroughly, and unequivocally fulling the promise forged by avant-garde music in the latter half off this centuary, "constructions" marks the seamless convergence of disciplined composition, sampling methodology, live improvisation, electrocoustics and serendipity. Working with fragments (samples) of Xenakis, Kagel, Nono, Ikeda, Penderecki,Evan Parker, Helmutt Lachenmann and many more, merged with live fragments of double bass, percussion, clarinet, cello and trumpet, Wall weaves an unprecedented fabric of sound that effectively lays bare the essence of recomposition previously only hinted at by the likes of Oval, John Oswald, Albert Ayler, Nurse With Wound, Pierre Henry, Stockhausen (from "Gersang der Juenglinge" through "hymnen"),and even Stock, Hausen and Walkman.

John Wall invites comparison with David Shea as a composer who works by sampling direct from other musical sources, however, whereas Shea makes a point if dramatising the cultural associations of his samples into collaged cinematic narratives, Wall takes a compleatly opposite turn, using digital technology to homogenise sonic textures from many sources into a coherent aesthetic. the result is a stunningly complex mix. There is no way that this could ever be scored for live performance,instead, its a culmination of all the performances he has incorporated, call it "Ur-Performance." ...... A summary of where we have been and a blueprint for where we are headed.
Kenneth Goldsmith

Untitled No3

Fractuur is the third album by London based composer John Wall. The album brings together four pieces Wall has been working on almost constantly during the last two years since Alterstill's release, a crucial period for Wall, in terms of both process and aesthetics.

Any of the obvious descriptions any writer might care to attach to Wall's music somehow fall wide of the mark. Yes, in the past he has built music exclusively out of manipulated samples and on Fractuur too, the vast majority of the music is composed of sampled fragments of other's recorded works. Does that make Wall a sampler composer? David Toop has pointed out that lumping Wall together with other sampler composers, say, David Shea, or Negativland or Christian Marclay, is about as helpful as associating David Bowie with John Coltrane on the grounds that they both play saxophone. So how about Musique Concrete? Well again, Wall's music is made up essentially of found sound, but it has little in common - either formally or sonically - with any music to which the (generally misplaced) suffix concrete has been added. As for "collagist": to the most casual of listeners, Fractuur and its predecessors reveal both an absolute seriousness and a certain disinterest in mainstream culture which is at odds with any of the Pop Art sensibilities with which collage, however unfairly, has become associated.

If one had to choose a single word for Wall's music it would have to be "meticulous". There is no doubt that John Wall's music really does bear the unmistakable hallmark of constant reworking and revision.

The great methodological leap forward for Wall since the release of Alterstill has been the conversion to hard disk recording and editing. Wall's methods have always been painstaking. Paul Schutze's Alterstill sleeve notes describe him combing "through hundreds of recordings, meticulously extracting a vocabulary of fragments from which to work". But hard disk composition has allowed Wall far more scope for this attention to detail, and, for that matter, a far wider palette of sound processing methods. It's also allowed him to layer concurrent sound with an often astounding density. Again, this has always been there - the Wire's Tony Herrington has pointed out that Wall's compositions are episodic, linear, but all the drama occurs in the horizontal, non-linear pile-up of sound files." But with Fractuur it's this aspect of the music which immediately grabs the listener.

The period during which Fractuur has come together has also seen Wall begin to work more widely with other musicians; alongside captured fragments from over thirty musicians and composers, Fractuur features the playing of violinist Peter Sheppard, double bassist John Edwards, bass clarinettist Jorg Widman, cellists David Fitzgerald and Phillip Sheppard, and clarinettist Guy Cowley. Wall has worked with these musicians - particularly with Edwards and Peter Sheppard - in much the same way that he would with samples, recording their improvisations and then extensively editing them. What is remarkable is that he is able to integrate these recordings so completely with the sampled work.

None of this should give the impression that Wall's music is overwrought. Out of such exacting, precise working methods he produces music of an often breathtaking spontaneity. There are passages throughout Fractuur which give the impression of being somehow improvised, if it were possible for several large chamber ensembles, a couple of jazz groups, and the odd electronics manipulator to jam with some kind of clarity or direction!

It's this sense of spontaneity which adds to Wall's standing as one of the most original composers working in the last decade of the twentieth century, and Fractuur his most essential work to date.
Simon Hopkins

Alterstill (nothing is sacred)
Belief Not
Stunde Null (I)
Stunde Null (II)

In the late 1920's, Max Ernst re-defined the nature of collage with two "graphic novels" - Femme 100 Tetes and Une Semaine de Bonte, ou Les Sept Elements Capitaux. These books were made entirely from parts of old engravings and by using the memories and associations which attach to such "classical" source material he was able to produce, by vivid collision of reference and convention, and end product which
is well beyond the sum of it's parts......

Wall's music shares with Ernst's books a complete transcendence of its scavenger origins, as well as an acute instinct for the "weighting" of association and recollection induced by the elements of familiarity in the component parts. His method is more plastic than that employed by Ernst's pictures and his tools allow more subtle manipulation of the fragmemts he uses, but there are fundermental similarities which make the work analogous. Wall's pieces are unconcerned with their own construction and he in no way engages in debate musical or otherwise, as to the cultural baggage the process may carry. His pieces always have a total (and quite formal) musical idendity which belies their construction and the violence done to other work in order to give them form........

Ironically, in Alterstill the author is most manifest at the precise point where the "authors" are effectively extinguished.

John Wall's compositions manage to assert the persona ofthe author over the machinery of both theory and of process, and that alone sets them apart from the work which is lost in the contemplation and process of its own birth and the mechanisms of its own meaning.

Paul Shutze

If there's a possibility that your
interest in my music extends to wishing
to purchase (CD format only) then go to:-Metamkine 0r Rumpsti-Pumsti(Musik) or Art into Life(japan)



JohnWall and Alex Rodgers interviewed by

Richard Pinnell for the WIRE 2011

May 2006: John Wall is standing at the side of the stage at London’s ICA. He's hunched behind a mixing desk that sends a recording of his electronic composition to an impressive, specially configured sound system. He has been here before, almost a decade earlier, in similar circumstances, but the task now is no less daunting. The sizeable audience is impressed by what they hear: carefully constructed, precisely crafted assemblages made up of hundreds of tiny samples. But Wall leaves that night frustrated and disenchanted, certain only of the conviction that something has to change about the way he works.

For more than a decade previouly, Wall had built a name for himself as one of the most exciting experimental composers working with the new digital technology. Over seven albums, from 1993’s Fear Of Gravity to 2005’s Cphon, he worked alone in his home studio welding together increasingly smaller and more complex samples and sound fragments to build compositions that became steadily shorter as they took increasingly longer to create. Beginning with his early albums with samples culled from his CD collection, through to the later works that used sounds specifically recorded for him by improvising musician friends, Wall’s compositions were received with acclaim, drawing critical parallels with the likes of Lachenmann, Parmegiani and even Xenakis. His approach to composition became increasingly detailed, and it took him more than two years to complete the 20 minute Cphon. The journey towards concluding that CD had been long, arduous and all-encompassing. At one point, when he thought he had finished the piece, he played it to a friend, who after listening attentively, told him that while most of it sounded incredible, one small section felt weaker than the rest. This set him back again as he returned to his computer and closed the studio door behind him for a further six months. Wall’s reputation as an uncompromising perfectionist impressed some and frustrated others, but after Cphon’s release and his experience on stage at the ICA the following year later, he was desperate to find a new, less torturous way to work. Talking with him recently at his North London home studio, he still sounds annoyed about the position he found himself in: “It stems from that concert at the ICA, which of course wasn’t really a concert, I was just playing something back in a sterile situation. I had the realisation there and then that I was just so utterly bored listening to my own material in that environment. I knew I had to change something, I knew that for sure. At that point I just knew it couldn’t go on that way.”

A chance meeting with laptop musician Lee Gamble at a backroom gig at London’s Red Rose Club set Wall thinking that maybe improvisation could be the way to go: a possible means of loosening the shackles that had bound him creatively for so long. Several years later, after a string of live concerts in his new role, Wall has reappeared with a new CD on the Entr’acte label, Work 2006–2011, a collaborative composition born out of work with one of his regular improvising partners, the poet and artist Alex Rodgers. Typically for Wall, though, the journey to this point hasn’t been an easy one, and the new album isn’t a straight recording of improvisation. “I didn’t have any real ideas at the start,” he says, “I just floundered around for a while, trying to find new ways of coming up with stuff. It wasn’t that I immediately thought about going into improvisation, I just knew I had to come up with some way of working that wasn’t the same selfconscious hard grind. So when I met Lee, and we got on, and began working together, initially not with any great sense of organisation, it felt great. But it wasn’t just the music; it got me out of my studio, which was important. The social element made a real difference. I needed that extra something outside of me, meeting people, getting out there, doing something different. Eventually we thought, ‘Well, we might as well organise a concert, an improvised concert’, and things just went from there. My original idea was to use this scenario to create ‘material’ that I could then go on to use in a potential composition. This hasn’t fully realised itself yet the way I intended it to, but this new improvisation experience has lead to how I have worked on the new CD with Alex.”

Wall has been selective over his improvising collaborators, but one significant meeting was with bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders, two of the musicians Wall had asked to generate sounds for his earlier compositions, raw material he would shape and sculpt into something completely new. They played a couple of trio concerts in 2009. “I was so surprised that it worked as easy as it did. It really seemed natural. I could keep up with them, and didn’t overwhelm them, two things that I had been worried about. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, though, having known them so long, and having sampled the fuck out of them for so many years!”

Inspired by these successes, Wall pushed on, performing at a string of concerts that saw him gradually find his voice in an improvised setting. He discovered the open source software lloopp and its various derivations, using it to bend and shape prepared samples in live situations. Keen for more honesty about his role as a computer based musician, he began to work more with purely digital sounds. The treated instruments of his earlier compositional works were still there somewhere, but twisted and mangled to the degree that all their original acoustic presence was lost. Lacking the technological knowhow with software like SuperCollider, though, and unwilling to learn now that he had entered his sixties, Wall has taken to giving sounds to more savvy friends to “mess up a bit”, in a way reflecting his earlier use of sounds created by friends, and also conjuring images of the master painter having colours mixed for him, canvases stretched, brushes prepared.

Despite the focus on improvisation, Wall still found himself spending hours in his studio, pulling these raw materials into minutely constructed sections ready for use in the live context. “I’ve never actually abandoned all sense of composition,” he explains. “I would make these little sections, mini-compositions if you like, samples, or rather composites of many samples, maybe up to a couple of minutes long, quite complex, but put together under the condition that they would be used in an improvisational environment, changed in certain ways, manipulated in the live situation.” While the live improvisations have not yet produced complete compositions that Wall feels able to share with the wider world, the task of preparing sounds has generated material, and a lot of it, with some of it finding its way in some form onto Work 2006–2011.

For Wall, the move into improvisation has been vital. It has blown away the cobwebs formed from years of lonely studio frustrations and reawakened his creative energies. Ever the contrarian, Wall has turned to improvisation just as so many improvisors are increasingly adopting compositional strategies, but it is clear that his heart will always remain in the studio, where he can retain complete control. “The next thing for me will probably see me returning to composition again, maybe alongside the improvisation. This new CD with Alex is basically a composition that I have put together, and it has made me realise that this is what I do best. In many respects I’ve also discovered that I don’t want to listen again to what I’ve done in an improvisation. It’s just something that exists in one time and space, and has a certain validity in that context, but outside of that space I’d rather just let it lie there and move on.

“I guess with the improvisation I am trying to create something that has a compositional value, but on the hoof, if you like. I’m not just throwing sounds around. It is certainly different, though. For instance, I did some gigs at the Foundry and I really enjoyed doing them, but they were all about there and then. There’s this sense of the social context, how the night was, how I enjoyed being with the people there. Then there’s the volume – you just don’t get it like that back at home. So everything that really made that occasion, everything that existed in that space, is lost when you try and listen back later. It’s a weird situation, because I enjoy improvising a lot, but when I hear what I did later, all I hear are the flaws, the bad decisions, the naff sounds here and there. I hear just the failures, and while failure is fine it needs to stay in that room. This whole situation is quite against the nature of my personality, which naturally tries to impose some sort of control over everything I’m working on, but with the improvisation I can arrive at a point where I don’t know what the hell is happening. But I’ve found I quite like being in that position.”

The loss of control, and the need to accept failure as a possibility, are elements that would not have been found in John Wall’s music of a decade ago. His tolerance of these necessities has not been as difficult as might be imagined, though, and Wall just shrugs his shoulders at the changes he has gone through. “Part of it this lies with the fact that I just care less these days. Now, I don’t mean this to be misunderstood, but it’s about losing the ‘preciousness’ of it all. To be very clear: I still approach the sounds, the samples, and how I make them the same, I still want them to be just right, but when we look at the world, all the things that are going on out there right now… You know, I’m known for being a bit of a pessimist, but you’ve got to ask yourself where the world is going, and then you have to ask where do you place yourself in all of this mess? This is something that Alex and I constantly talk about – what is a valid form of cultural activity in this situation? So this sense of not caring as much when you consider the work against the bigger picture is something that has grown in me over recent years, and yet at the same time I constantly contradict myself in that I’ve spent a lot of time on this new CD. I’ve considered it in minute detail, and parts that others wouldn’t think important I’ve spent hours and hours on. So maybe we are back to the old John Wall really.”

Whichever John Wall was at work on the new album with Alex Rodgers, it certainly sounds like a significant departure from his previous releases. Wall’s sounds are more fluid, and thoroughly digital, still full of tiny detail and leaping contrasts between loud and quiet, but now they have a real menace to them, a snarling, barbed wire edge that leaves the listener feeling assaulted. For those that heard the earlier albums but have not been able to keep up with Wall’s more recent improvisational explorations, it will come as a bit of a shock. My suggestion that improvising has directly influenced his sound is one he acknowledges, but guardedly, since things didn’t go quite the way he planned. “In theory, going into improvisation was a means to generate, in a more fluid and unrestricted way, sound material for future compositions. I had wanted to achieve something like the way I had seen and heard good improvisors arrive at certain sonic spaces which I couldn’t do in the studio, but it doesn’t seemed to have worked out that way. Most of my live improvisations, when and if they worked, worked because of the time and place they were created in, the volume and quality of the sound system and the immediate environment, all coupled with my personal head space at the time…

“This new CD must be considered as a complete composition that has obviously has been influenced by my last five years of improvising, but my original intention was turned on its head and I ended up composing short, complex sound files, generated entirely in the studio, specifically to play in live situations, intended to be heavily manipulated, layered, etcetera… These sound files are the ones that have found their way on to the CD. They have then been edited and composed and woven around and onto Alex's solo recordings and some of our studio improvisations together. Working at the improvisations just generated sound material. Ultimately that thing called composition rears its ugly head when you try to corral all of this material together. Sequences of sounds have to make sense together, otherwise you just get a ‘sound sample library CD’, disconnected bits that carry no emotional, aesthetic, structural or conceptual weight. Just more shit filling up time and space.”

I pushing Wall further, trying to pinpoint what drives his decision making processes, how he decides which sounds make the cut, where he draws the cursor across the screen. His response is predictably difficult. “How long is a piece of string? Intuition plays a big part, combined with many hours spent working with the material.” Clearly he knows his material very well. Many of the sounds that appear on the new album have been with him for many years, but have followed him on his journey, often becoming completely altered along the way, but he has a clear idea of their provenance. Sitting with him in his studio, he will repeatedly reach for the mouse and illustrate his thoughts by picking out a particular part of a composition on the screen, showing how it came to be, how it was manipulated.

Even as the music has become a little looser and free flowing, he can still pin down its origins. The one compositional decision making process he seems to be able to articulate clearly is knowing when it is time to stop. “When two contradictory emotions hit equilibrium. When I’m sick to death of hearing it and I’m unable to find any fault in it. As for what it is that make me choose that particular moment to stop working on the piece? Well, again, how long is that piece of string?”

Wall has also made it clear that he has no interest in disguising the sound of his computer, and the departure from any recognisable instrumental sounds for this new project is another marked change in his working methods. “Well, if I am going to deal with this machine, this computer, then I want to get to the essence of what this thing is all about. I am producing data sounds with a computer: they may have begun life as something else, but that is what they are now, and I don’t want to pretend otherwise. Regardless of whether it is successful or not, that is not the issue; it’s to do with the honesty of the engagement. I’m convinced that there are possibilities within computer music to make meaningful work.”

However, while assured of the possibilities of the computer as a music making instrument, Wall is wary of the idea that new technology automatically generates interesting music: “New digital sounds generated by new software or a computer programming language does not automatically imply, just because they may be new to our ears, for a few days at least, that they might be good or relevant or lasting or whatever. All sounds will inevitably become ‘old’ sounds. So what other qualities would these sounds need to have to be able to say something to us now and in the future? If we assume that the post-oil, medieval future that faces us will feature some sort of digital playback system – sarcasm intended – and also assuming that most people who listen to or create this type of music do give a fuck about whether their efforts last, well, then we are back with that old chestnut: structure and composition, how one sound follows another with its its own structural logic. If that isn’t there then, as I said before, it’s just a sound sample library CD useful for giving your dance tracks a bit of edge.”

Now in his sixties, John Wall is increasingly and angrily pessimistic about the world around him, and his frustration and contempt for so much of the human race’s condition can be heard in Work 2006–2011. But he has also found a perfect working companion in Alex Rodgers. The poet’s contributions are acerbic, partly surreal spoken word parts that are delivered in a gruff, raw voice tinged with a sense of Beckettian hopelessness wrapped in an Essex accent. A self-confessed bitter and angry commentator, Rodgers isn’t really at home making CDs. “I’ve never really wanted to have much to do with that fucking nonsense,” he says.

A friend of Wall’s for more than 20 years, Rodgers is something of the archetypal outsider artist. At art college in the post-punk years of the early 1980s, he has remained active ever since as a visual artist and poet, but has remained vehemently antagonistic to the mainstream art world ever since, a trait he shares with Wall and a key driving force behind both their personal and creative relationship. In his twenties he messed about in groups around the vibrant Essex scene, but his love of words, inherited from his parents, always led him to return to writing his anarchic, fractured form of poetry alongside any musical or visual art. He tells me that while he has little to show for his efforts – no books, no exhibition catalogues, no CD releases prior to this one – he has never stopped working hard. “I used to spend hours carving something into the tiniest of stones, I’d do that a lot, but then just throw it away straight after. I also spent years writing an infinite number of ‘wraths’ on the walls of toilets, so maybe only men could ever see them, but I put a lot of work into it. They were just lines of stuff I’d written, maybe poetry then, and I named them wraths after a line from a brilliant AR Ammons poem that went something like, ‘The townsfolk returned to their small wraths of ease’. I really like that hard working creative sensibility, but I just can’t stand all the fucking fannying about with the morons that run all of the art world. I’ve done a lot of stuff, but I’ve avoided all of that. I’ve been working hard for many years, but few people knew it. John knows it, so maybe that’s why we can work together.”

Now a resident of Cornwall, where he lives with his partner, Rodgers splits his time between bringing up his daughter and working by day building stage sets for business conferences and (if he’s lucky) theatre groups. His outward persona of the middle aged labourer with a chip on his shoulder hides a sharp, intelligent mind. On Work 2006–2011, Rodgers’s words come across as disjointed and sometimes unconnected, like some kind of aural automatic writing, but he is at pains to make it clear he is not just burbling random words in a stream of consciousness manner. “I could claim to be really high-minded about it, and on one level the meaning of my words is really important. The words you hear on the CD are all carefully written and selected from a lot of work. It’s like that Paul Klee quote, ‘taking a line for a walk’: I start off early in the morning, after a lot of coffee, and there’s an idea, a particular seed if you like, and I just take it with me during the day to see where it goes. There are usually two things in my head, that initial seed and then the urge to play about with it, see what happens. I like the idea of being illusory, which is something John also does very well in a kind of abstract way, that idea of playing the fool with something actually really important. Much of what you hear on the CD was recorded on a really cheap MP3 recorder in hotel rooms while away with work and often pretty ill, coughing and spluttering and stuff, but the words aren’t just randomly thrown out there.”

As the title suggests, Work 2006–2011 was pulled together from elements collected over a five-year period, but the duo had never set out to make a CD. Somewhere along the line, their experiments together suggested something to Wall, but it was the interest, attitude and encouragement of Entr’acte label boss Allon Kaye that provided the inspiration to put the disc together. Rodgers took some convincing, but Wall has always thrived on the input of others, and the injection of both Rodgers’s recorded voice and his contribution to the way Wall works in the studio were very welcome. “I’ve always asked people to listen to the music for me as I compose it,” Wall acknowledges. “One reason for asking someone’s opinion is for them to expose the weaknesses in the work and to reinforce your own criticism of it. This validation of your doubts is all that is needed to get on with the removing, reworking of the offending parts and finish the work. Alex played an even greater role but his input worked in a similar way.”

Perhaps only the trust he felt in an old friend made Rodgers’s first venture into published work possible, but while Wall undertook all of the compositional work, Rodgers didn’t just sit back. “John does whatever he feels he needs to do with the stuff, but he knows how far he can go, and I do say no at times. The ‘sense’ of things is what matters, and if he changes the sense of my words then I stop him.” Rodgers didn’t veto very much, though, and his presence and influence has in fact helped unstick the glue that has held John Wall’s output in abeyance for so long. The likelihood of the floodgates now opening is somewhat slight, but this one might keep us going for the next three or four years.


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