Ex-Easter Island Head: A Guide to Minimalism

The experimental Liverpool trio talk us through the pieces that informed their idiosyncratic output, from Steve Reich to Colin Stetson

Feature by Jon Davies | 04 Aug 2016

Seven years strong into their conception and Ex-Easter Island Head are still exploring the ever-enveloping iterations of their pallette: mallet guitars, drums and sparse percussion.

Having evolved from a solo project to a larger 16-piece ensemble, before arriving at their current line-up of Benjamin Duvall, Jon Hering and Ben Fair, they're already notched a significant number of remarkable achievements. They've collaborated with the BBC Philharmonic and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestras, toured Japan at the invitation of the Tokyo Experimental Festival, and collaborated with American composer Arnold Dreyblatt. Stewart Lee numbers among their fans, which is understandable given the rhythmic focus and careful repetitions of their work – intelligent, striking and often unexpectedly moving. It's quite the CV.

With their new album Twenty-Two Strings due out this month, and ahead of an all-too-rare performance by revered minimalist composer Steve Reich at Liverpool's Metal gallery, we invite EEIH founder member Duvall to reflect on landmark minimalist pieces that have shaped the band’s sound.

Steve Reich – Different Trains

I first heard this piece about 12 years ago – the Smith Quartet performance as opposed to the Kronos Quartet. The thing with Steve Reich’s music is that you’re aware of its sound before you even sit down and listen to it. Minimalism crops up everywhere in pop culture like that, a familiar sound-world that's also really thrilling.

It’s the most emotional piece that Reich has ever written, in my opinion. The way that he uses the voices is so haunting. I also realised the ubiquity of his music when i first discovered it; it influenced big albums for me like Six Things To A Cycle by The Residents, drum patterns which I had been into for years before hearing Reich.

I don’t see minimalism in the same world as classical music, because there’s a perpetual dynamic. And when you listen to stuff like this, it’s immediately accessible and exciting – you don’t need a PhD to understand what’s going on.

Minimalism is also the first post-pop style of conservatory music, that’s stirred through all its sensibilities. Brian Eno was very influenced by Reich’s process, and you could sense the same dynamic of minimalism going through stuff like Neu!.

Laurie Anderson – O Superman

She probably doesn’t identify herself as a minimalist, she’s primarily a multimedia artist, but she was very much part of the New York Downtown scene which had lots of artists from different disciplines working with each other. Her album Big Science features various players who were also part of the Philip Glass Ensemble, and it’s a product of this scene where pop was inspired by minimalism and vice-versa.

This song was released in 1981, and went to number two in the UK charts, which is mad! I think people saw this as a novelty record, but the tune is so lyrical, multi-layered, allegorical. O Superman draws from El Cid, an opera by Jules Massenet in 1885, and creates a conversation between an answering machine and another voice.

It references so many things, from the American military industrial complex to an ancient Persian courier service. There are multiple zones of listening going on here, from the musical side and the meditative repetitions to the lyrical content being so dense.

What sets Laurie Anderson apart from so many other experimental pop singers was her background in performance, she has real presence and to an extent who she is, or what she embodies is very much part of her art. The video to O Superman has so many masculine gestures, and she often plays both male and female actors in her music.

Gavin Bryars – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Gavin Bryars was a student of John Cage for a while, and went from studying philosophy to entering music – firstly as part of the free music scene – then went on to become a composer. So he’s not as rhythmical as a typical minimalist composer, but rather because of the influence of Cage it’s conceptual and harmonically minimal.

We all took part in performing another piece of his, The Sinking Of The Titanic, in 2012 as part of the a.P.A.t.T. Orchestra, which Jon organised when he and Ben were part of that band. His approach to creating these open looping processes inspired the composition of [EEIH piece] Large Electric Ensemble, which sounds more drifty to our more rhythmical Mallet Guitars trilogy.

This is one of the most heartbreaking pieces in contemporary classical music. I read an amazing article in a Christian magazine about the spirituality of this Bryars composition. It’s based around a loop lifted from a documentary that Bryars’ friend was making, a homeless man singing, ‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.’ He left the loop to repeat whilst he was in an art studio, and upon his return found fellow students who were incredibly moved by the song.

I think Bryars is a good example of the difference between American and British minimalism; he uses longer, more ornate phrases with a traditional orchestral palette. The emotional power of the original source recording is complimented so well by Bryars’ orchestral arrangement around it – it doesn’t in any way feel exploitative. And the harmonies in the piece I find are strangely uplifting, it’s not exactly an miserable parade behind the homeless singer, which is what makes it so oddly moving.

Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld – Never Were The Way She Was

Again, Colin Stetson isn’t known as a dyed-in-the-wool minimalist composer, but he has drawn from the process of using small cells of music and having a purposefully limited resource of sounds – using a small array of instruments to create this vast piece of music. Even though he’s a master musician, it's extended technique in service of a musical language rather than showing off. His use of technique is a pursuit of a melodic goal, which I find is a pleasing angle to our compositional process.

The first time we met him was the day Lou Reed died. He’d done stuff with [Reed’s wife] Laurie Anderson, among other big indie names like Arcade Fire, who Sarah Neufeld is a member of, and Bon Iver. His performance seemed really empowered. He was clearly upset about the news and his performance was really furious; even as three people we couldn’t match his power.

In the same way a guitar is, a saxophone is a piece of mechanical engineering. A large part of his appeal is his deconstruction of this familiar instrument; doing something that wouldn't happen formally. But he makes this very emotive music, it's not technique for technique's sake. This record is really well complimented by Sarah Neufeld’s violin, and is a great document of how much you can do with very little.

Ex-Easter Island Head – Twenty-Two Strings

Among our major influences are Gamelan ensembles from Indonesia – each group is tuned within themselves, you couldn’t take a xylophone out of one ensemble and put it in another. We’re really interested in creating a sound world of our own. This may sacrifice a focus on melody, but it creates a totality that defines us structurally. We tune the guitars to the xylophones and the drums are tuned sympathetically.

This record is a culmination of the past seven years of building a compositional vocabulary we’ve carefully created from Mallet Guitars, Large Electric Ensemble and the tape pieces. This time we’ve tried to create balance between the drone and rhythm sections; using mallets you end up having both at the same time quite a lot. Here there’s been a conscious separation of what we believe are the fundamentals of our sound.

The title track is the most serious we've written. It’s certainly the most patient thing we've done because the first half contains more compositional density than we’ve never gone for before. The density has been deliberate because our previous records have had this slow accessibility; this time we wanted to get a good pace on the record, then have it really open up and loosen rhythmically.

We knew we wanted to conclude the album with real momentum, so we brought the whole record back to this forward-moving pulse that we explore on the LP’s first side. It’s a re-arrangement of a section of Large Electric Ensemble, and in many ways it’s the simplest compositional section we have on the whole record, ending the experience on a big emotional rush.

Twenty-Two Strings is released on 5 Aug