Tom James Scott School and Rivers

[Bo’Weavil; 2009]

Styles: minimalist, contemporary classical
Others: Fred Frith, Morton Feldman, James Blackshaw, John Cage

With 2007’s Red Deer, Tom James Scott earned himself a position as a member of the vanguard of those who continue to explore the possibilities of the acoustic guitar. That album’s closing track, “Openings,” which is arguably one of the most joyful and celebratory compositions written for guitar, exemplifies Scott’s ability to unite an engaging pop sensibility with mesmerizing and sophisticated technique. With School and Rivers Scott presents a vision through acoustic-centric soundscapes of a world in which the most significant education comes from a participatory observation of the movements of life in nature that are experienced in areas stumbled upon and frequently returned to in youth. The album art shows a recorder that has come to life; children are playing on and in it, diving off it and into the water that flows through and around it, a fish lunging out of its labium. The recorder implies a return to the naïveté that is the state of a young person’s first attempts at creating music, when everything sounds fresh and there are no demands from tradition or heteronomous influences. It is in this spirit that Scott offers us this album, namely in the spirit of youthful wonder and amazement at the possibilities that sound has for imagining and constructing worlds.

Scott’s compositions embrace a robust notion of space that allows the sounds to breathe, expand, and linger freely within them. The spatial intervals in the opening track are gradually filled by a piano and tuba that join the guitar, but then new spaces open up to accommodate for the materiality of these new sounds. The movements in the song revolve around several finger-picked transitions emphasized by a mischievous, sparkling piano, and the spaces between those movements are enhanced by the soft, droning tuba that provides the effect of infinity. The carefree yet contemplative mood of “School and Rivers” is transformed into a mysterious and almost frightening one as Scott reveals “Two Moons Behind The Horizon Sun.” The bow-scrapes eerily reverberate in the vast spaces, allowing traces of sound to remain and return. The occasional drum hits resemble the sound of a temple taiko one might hear on the moon, contributing to the strange tranquility of the piece. These mysterious traces spill over into “Seabird” and are eventually joined by Scott’s glistening finger-picking. The reintroduction of David Aird’s tuba — which at times almost feedbacks as if the space it creates cannot be accommodated by the world itself — supplies an immense area for Scott’s guitar to glide in and around, enthusiastically exploring the landscape below.

The first three tracks exemplify Scott’s understanding of space. He provides us with a feeling of limitlessness: a glimpse at the real freedom that sounds can embody when spaces are left for them to move within and around. In this spatial infinity, there is also a timelessness that allows us to carelessly float in the sounds as the seabird does in the air. For the listener, these spaces provide the outside world a chance to mingle with the world of the album. Depending on where one listens, one might hear real birds chirping from just outside their window, or the whistle of a passing locomotive. These spaces, then, allow for a relationship to develop between the real world and the world of the album, and this relationship tends to blur the distinction so that the timelessness of the one becomes an attribute of the other. This rigid distinction is removed on School and Rivers such that imaginative possibility can unite with the actual world.

With “Elephants,” however, we are momentarily brought back into time by the click of the metronome; in the transition to a land mammal we are reminded of the ground of inescapable time. One might perhaps feel displeasure in this reminder that the limitless feeling fostered by the joy of fresh discovery is always an illusion and that in the end time cannot be completely arrested. But despite this illusoriness, there is always the possibility for a temporary moment in which the distinctions can break down, and it is these moments that Scott has set out to explore. In the closing track, we once again begin our ascension, gleefully soaring, temporarily escaping the ground of time, and this is proof that Scott will continue to investigate the possibilities that swarm within the ambiguities between the idea of sound and its relationship with the world.

1. School and Rivers
2. Two Moons Behind The Horizon Sun
3. Seabird
4. Elephants
5. Crane in The North

Most Read