In a way, I’ve been writing this review for years—since long before I first got wind that NEOS’s The Crutch of Memory, the first CD wholly dedicated to Aaron Cassidy’s music, was scheduled for release. In 2005 (or was it 2006?), Cassidy’s stance toward instrumental composition seemed utterly exemplary to this zealous young partisan of contemporary music.
Some of those early pieces that first captivated my imagination are on this disc: I think Frank Cox’s rendition of the title track (written in 2004 and played here by Graeme Jennings) must have been my first brush with Cassidy’s music. I also encountered 1999’s metallic dust and 2000’s asphyxia early on, two pieces that went a long way toward establishing Cassidy as a transatlantic composer to be watched. Listening to the two most ambitious new music woodwind players on the planet, Richard Haynes and Carl Rosman, blow through these pieces, it’s hard to imagine that ten to fifteen years ago Cassidy was laboring over these unbelievably painstaking scores (worth a look, if you ever get the chance) with little hope of a second performance, let alone a recording of them out on NEOS.
The more recent Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (2008-09) consists of three probably-somehow-related movements, each for a different solo or duo instrumentation. More things happen in these pieces than I’d anticipated from Cassidy, who once noted that his music doesn’t begin or end but rather starts and stops—is this still the case? I, purples, spat blood of beautiful lips and songs only as sad as their listener (both from 2006) show two quite different surfaces to Cassidy’s aesthetic. The first, for voice “with live, computer-generated pitch material,” gives the casual Cassidy fan a concentrated dose of exactly what he or she wants—an oral scrambling and grasping for purchase without letup. The second, for trombone, employs Cassidy’s familiar de-coupling tactic in service of an unexpected strategy—at least, I assume it does. More on this one later.
We could call Cassidy’s approach—those proliferating and always-changing approaches, rather—”extreme,” but that would be unfairly reductive: Not only (contra Cassidy’s critics) has their “extremeness” never been the point, but to label them “extreme” suggests that they occupy some remote point on a single historicist continuum of performed deconstruction. A listen through The Crutch of Memory, whose pieces show not only Cassidy’s growth as a composer but also the surprising multivalence of his pieces’ deliberately unstable material, will quickly dispel that prejudice.
And if the CD itself doesn’t dispel it, Evan Johnson’s enthusiastic and astute liner notes are bound to do the trick. Johnson identifies Bacon and Deleuze as Cassidy’s chief “extra-musical interlocutors,” but he hardly needs to: These influences are, like the score samples that decorate the inside of the CD’s packaging, integral to Cassidy’s branding as a composer. (A mutual friend once remarked that Beethoven could certainly have titled a piece Phänomenologie des Geistes, but chose not to.) The bottom line for us, as well as for Cassidy, is that fragmentation, instability, contradiction, and negation are the names of the poststructuralist game. Plenty of critics and bloggers have expended plenty of words trying to capture what Cassidy’s music sounds like, but in fact its whiplash changes and instantaneous contrasts are what make it unique. When you see a performance of it, you are seeing human behavior that strives not to cohere.
When you see a performance of it, that is. I’m one of the lucky ones: I’ve had the good fortune to see a number of interpreters realize Cassidy’s music, including on several occasions the musicians featured on The Crutch of Memory—the once-Australian group ELISION, avant-gardecore explorers (“The cutting edge of sound,” their logo proclaims) now based in northern England who have over the past few years kept Cassidy’s figurehead in regular rotation on the prow of their Santa Maria. Within the next decade, and maybe much sooner, new and unprecedented performance practices will undoubtedly emerge for technically dissociated music like Cassidy’s; for now, though, ELISION’s renditions of his pieces are, in effect, canonical. That every performance on the disc is superb goes without saying. It’s a great pleasure to hear them dig into this music, which they obviously esteem and—more importantly—enjoy.
Or, at any rate, to hear evidence of their digging. Let’s not kid ourselves: That’s what this CD is. For fans of Cassidy’s music who have had the chance to witness great performances of it in person, there’s something downright torturous about this disc. I’m listening to songs only as sad as their listener, whose “modest, mysterious, seemingly endless series of softly keening cries from the highest register of a heavily muted trombone” (well put, Evan) are as infuriating as they are beautiful; I know that there must be more happening here than 44,100 16-bit numbers every second allow me to perceive. If I could only see ELISION’s Benjamin Marks, no doubt that would go a long way, but even a Blu-ray DVD would rob me of that very poststructuralist fragility that Cassidy’s music generates with such tireless focus. This music, more than most, is supposed to be fleeting. A CD doesn’t fleet.
Cassidy’s work is a valuable contribution to an ongoing (and itself rhizomatic) project: to fracture the sedimented object-semblance of musical practices. Like those densely marked-up, multicolored, intabulated scores that everyone loves to marvel at on Facebook, The Crutch of Memory—which after all is the same every time you listen to it—is a capital-O Object. It doesn’t belong in Cassidy’s aesthetic-philosophical cosmos, no matter how many people are clamoring to hear it and how strong are the professional expectations that an early-mid-career composer Had Better Start issuing commercial CDs Or Else. For a man who takes so little for granted on the page, he sure seems pretty content with inherited channels and mechanisms of production and consumption.
And yet here I am, 18 euros lighter and fondling a luxurious gatefold cover. Maybe I could have wangled a free review copy from NEOS, but I decided as soon as I learned the disc was coming out to buy it myself instead—not because I especially want to own it (I don’t) or because I expect to listen to it again (I won’t), but because I want to support Cassidy. A recording of contemporary music is never more than a more-or-less informative document; in Cassidy’s case, it’s less, and it’s less in a particularly cruel way, to boot. Maybe it’s not his job to rethink our entire cultural practice—fine, so be it. I still consider his music exemplary, just as I did in 2005, and I know I’m not the only composer a few years his junior to feel that way. However, The Crutch of Memory is an impeccable answer to a tangential and distracting question.
You should still buy it.