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Max Syedtollan & Plus-Minus Ensemble
Four Assignments Tom Bolton , November 17th, 2021 08:35

Tom Bolton is delightfully baffled by a new release from artist-composer, Max Syedtollan

Max Syedtollan, who has previously recorded as Horse Whisperer, is not a man tied to a particular style. His work is gleefully unclassifiable, combining a dizzying array of influences and ideas in collages that float somewhere in a borderland between experimental and outsider music.

Four Assignments is released by the Greater Lanarkshire Auricular Research Council or GLARC, the home of Still House Plants. On the surface, GLARC might sound like a Ghost Box style retro-futurist outfit, but they are far more playful and self-mocking. The title track is a spoken word piece narrated like a chat in the pub, over a collage of twentieth-century musical forms, from jazz age marches to free post-punk. The latter are provided by a London/Brussels collective called Plus-Minus Ensemble. There are moments that sound like Sergeant Pepper, some like Cardiacs, and others that could be snipped from Ornette Coleman, all side-by-side.

The narrative could be a cut up of a script discarded by Patrick Keiller. It’s a story involving a narrator sent around the USA and Scotland on elliptical missions by his “employer”. This was written around photographs acquired by pressing the Google ‘random article’ button. There are indigenous earthworks, turkeys, counterfeiters, inexplicable inscriptions and a set of puzzles that cannot be solved. It has the unreality of a novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, referenced in the accompanying material, whose Nouveau Romain style dispensed with linear narrative, with characters at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The narrative is wilfully and hilariously unmusical, but also captivating, while the eclectic accompaniment is influenced by the experience of listening to online torrents of anything and everything all at once. It’s an entire novel and/or film squeezed into thirteen minutes.

Four Assignments contains two further tracks, in the same spirit of complete relaxation about what might be used to make music. ‘The Remainder by Tom McCarthy’ is a summary of the novel of the same name, conversationally narrated by a friend of Max’s who sent him the recording. He lays it over dropping notes from a synth tuned using half-comma meantone which, he says, is a system “with its origins in the Renaissance that never really caught on”. Finally, ‘Grass Jelly No.3’ is named, apparently, after Max’s favourite bubble tea served at a Chinese cafe in Glasgow. It is “a palette cleanser” which, in Syedtollan’s world, means a solo piano piece in the style of Paul Hindemith, naturally enough. It is charming, with the atmosphere of a tone poem about a sunny day by the river.

Four Assignments is a totally unexpected listen, bearing little resemblance to anything an audience might reasonably expect to hear. This is an exciting prospect. It is extremely rare to come across a record that baffles, confounds and delights in the way this does. As an expression of a completely unfettered individual vision it is a triumph, and it strongly suggests that the experimental music scene in Glasgow in general, and at GLARC in particular, is a thriving, creative force.