Okay, so we have the Chair of the title and the chair on the front cover, but where does this revelation take us? Not very far, since although there are obvious analogies to make between the chair’s status as a piece of furniture, as constituting a part of the “domestic ambience,” and the hospitable note-showers that are coaxed out of a piano on Simon James Phillips’ latest project, there’s little to superficially connect the two objects.
Or is there?
No, there isn’t. Or maybe there is, and it’s just a matter of listening closely, extracting (and contriving) parallels that somehow elevate our conception of both, the pieces of furniture and the pieces of minimalist classical music that recall the Strumming Music of Charlemage Palestine and the Music for 18 Musicians of Steve Reich, thereby creating a unified two-way abstraction that’s more than the mere sum of its parts, a hybrid furniture-music cognitive aid that would never have come into existence if we had taken its components in isolation.
But I digress.
So allow me to move straight to comparison number one: the chair is predominantly a mass-produced object, manufactured in droves and at inhuman speeds on conveyor belts. Thus they represent incessant industrial activity and the progress this striving purportedly achieves, with the implication of a noun like “progress” being teleological, suggesting some advance toward an endpoint where your shit won’t stink. Correspondingly, “Set Ikon Set Remit” involves the accelerated yet “economically” narrowed repetition of piano keys, dual-tone alternations that produce a sense of happening, of incipience and passage toward some transition or overhaul. There’s something enjoyably perplexing about this, that a harmonically static reproduction of couplets can engender an atmosphere of movement and evolution. And although delicate insertions are made into the piece’s train of self-plagiarizing thought, you can’t help but get the feeling that its variably monotonous procession is exposing some tendency on the part of us moderns to confuse frequency and acceleration with consequence and meaning.
So that’s one (very loose) analogy.
Another is an extension of the first, in that the homogeneity and standardization of the average chair is the very foundation that, by virtue of tiny personalizing deviations from an originary model on which a million-strong series of facsimiles are based, permits individuality to emerge in distinction. Moreover, it seems that with compositions like “Ellipsis” and “The Voice Imitator” the subtlety of slight turns away from the concourse of doubled ivory results in a greater impression of sublimity, as if the quasi-imperceptible lightness of these slips — the fact that they might possibly be missed in the nearly uniform rush — protects them from large-scale appropriation and thus makes them all the more profound and precious.
And this is the beguiling paradox of Chair.
Added to this is the puzzling contention that chairs don’t actually exist, that the definition of a word such as “chair” is so vague and changeable, ranging over anything with four legs and a back-rest to anything with no legs and no back-rest, that the whole concept breaks down, despite the systematizing efforts of mass industry, and that what we’re left with is a nebulous mass of materials that occupy veering positions along a cavernous spectrum. Accordingly, the album presents us with a study like “Poul,” where Phillips’ instrument dissolves and thickens into a massified cluster of keys and chords, and where esoteric ripples of sound pursue a constancy that always eludes them, a fidelity to a fundamental archetype they never find precisely because there is no such archetype.
They never find the objet petit a.
But there’s also the other side of the album, involving three numbers where everything is much slower and restrained, despite the fact that they all make use of the same pallette that had previously been exploited to invoke purposive cavalcades. Here, with pieces like the faltering, fractured “9er On Off Switch,” it could be claimed that Phillips is underlining the necessity of tempo and rhythm in constructing a sensation of rational activity and development, or to put it another way, in hiding the emptiness that inhabits an element in a sequence when it’s distanced from its pack. Similarly, the significance of any chair resides in its position within a multitudinous array of objects, in the fact that there are millions of other chairs used in a certain manner and given a certain function by their millions of users. When you subtract those millions of chairs and their inhabitants, little remains besides an unintelligible hunk of plastic or wood, or in the case of Chair, a divorced vibration of piano wire.
Okay, but is the record any good?
Well, it is good, and with its undeterred waves and branches of single notes, there are moments when the listener is carried from one state of heightened repose to another. But like the chair, which if nothing else is an inviter and manufacturer of (an individual’s) passivity, the LP’s seven cuts sometimes contain vaguely dispossessing redundancies and impotent lulls, and combined with how from a stringently formal perspective it doesn’t do too much to advance the groundwork of its above-mentioned forerunners, the prevailing mood is one of passive recreation rather than active creation. Then again, I realize that the idea of entirely autonomous innovation is more of a regulatory myth than a descriptive fact, and so it should simply be said in closing that Chair is much more rewarding and much more interesting than its generic name implies.