Born on January 13, 1959, in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, England. Education: Studied double bass under Peter Leah at Batley Grammar School and Huddersfield Polytechnic; master of arts degree in English literature, Cambridge University, 1984. Addresses: Record company--Bruce's Fingers, P.O. Box 57, Haverhill, CB9 8RD, England, E-mail: e-mail: email@example.com.
Beginning in the early 1980s, double bassist and bass guitarist Simon H. Fell enjoyed a growing reputation in the musical fields of improvisational jazz and experimental music, as well as classical composition. His musical vision, however, did not involve the separation of these genres; rather, Fell holds the notion that all of his passions can live in a single piece of music. He regularly throws together orchestral musicians, jazz performers, and improvisors to perform his extreme and ambitious works, always testing the limits of his collaborators' capabilities. "The classic situation for me," the self-taught composer declared in an interview with Julian Cowley published in the Wire, "is listening to an orchestral piece by someone like Richard Strauss or Mahler, listening to maybe Stan Tracey, listening to an Anthony Braxton quartet composition, and listening to Derek Bailey, and thinking, wouldn't it be great if you could have all these things at once?"
Initially making his mark playing double bass in free jazz contexts, most recognizably in his trio with drummer Paul Hession and saxophonist Alan Wilkinson, Fell found himself looking elsewhere for support to explore improvised/classical composing. In order to survive economically, he gave private instruction and lectured at Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge. And although he curtailed his educational activities somewhat toward the later part of the 1990s as he became more financially secure, Fell admits that institutional funding, coupled with numerous grants and bursaries from the Arts Council of England, enabled him to complete his most ambitious undertaking: the large-scale, highly acclaimed Compilation III For Improvisors, Big Band and Chamber Ensemble. Available on CD since 1998, this exhilarating kaleidoscope of styles suggested that jazz, improvisation, and contemporary classical music could, indeed, co-exist.
Fell was born on January 13, 1959, in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, England, and grew up in the town of Batley, also in Yorkshire. His middle-class parents, hoping for more for their son, he presumes, because he knew of no other family members who either studied or appreciated music, enrolled Fell in classical piano lessons at an early age. This introduction to music, though, led to nothing in particular, and fizzled out after a couple of years. Then around age 12 or 13, Fell, quite typically, discovered pop and rock music. His maternal grandfather happened to be interested in reel-to-reel tape recording, and under his guidance, Fell made several failed attempts at recording and editing. Eventually, he bought his own tape recorder and started making tape pieces.
At the age of 15, Fell picked up the double bass after learning that his school orchestra, who had the instrument available, was in need of a student to play it. Admittedly, he knew nothing about the double bass before this time, given the fact that all the music he listened to at the time used the bass guitar. However, within a year, Fell was playing the double bass professionally, accompanying renowned cabaret performers at the legendary Batley Variety Club. "Now, having played the double bass for nearly 25 years, I can't imagine my life without it," he said to Pepsch Muska in an interview for JazzLive. "Even if I couldn't play any more, I'd want to have a few basses around the house; I just love the way they're so big and get in the way all the time."
Aside from his participation in his school's music program and local cabaret, Fell's passion for music was fueled from various other sources, namely his friends, the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) Radio 3, and the Leeds Public Library. "I was very fortunate in having a small group of friends at school who were very interested in Captain Beefheart, Zappa, Faust, Can, Neu, Kraftwerk, etc. So we mainly tried to make music like these people's, often using lots of electronics and tape manipulations along with electric guitar and drums," he informed Muska. "Later on we also picked up influences from contemporary classical composers (especially Stockhausen) and the emerging U.K. punk rock scene."
Almost by accident, Fell stumbled across other styles that sparked a response within. "I decided I liked jazz after hearing King Crimson sneak in players like pianist Keith Tippett, cornetist Marc Charig, and bassist Harry Miller," he recalled to Cowley. "I'd go and see Miller's group Isipingo because it was full of people I'd heard on King Crimson records. I'd listen to Charles Fox hosting Jazz In Britain on Radio 3 because Harry Miller might be on, and hear Derek Bailey or Evan Parker." Fell's interest in classical music came about through trips to the library in Leeds, which held a large selection of classical music scores. Steadily, Fell worked his way through the library's record collection, though he admits, "There are huge holes in my listening because generally speaking if it wasn't in the library I didn't hear it."
During his formative years, Fell also drew inspiration from artists such as Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Charles Ives, Anthony Braxton, and, on a more philosophical level, John Cage. "Cage's explicit authorisation of the use of chance (and more importantly his undermining of 'The Composer' as some kind of special, gifted, musical being) is perhaps more than anything responsible for an untutored, 'ordinary' enthusiast like me ever considering composition," Fell said to Muska. "For me, Cage's ideas breached the impenetrable walls of the conservatories, universities and special schools where the musically gifted are indoctrined into the 'proper' ideas about composition (and many other things); whilst 'classical music' is still too much the preserve of the 'classical musician,' Cage's unique resignation of musical responsibility and obligation makes it impossible to think about composition as anyone's 'special preserve' ever again."
"Ultimately, however, if any one musician has consistently inspired me for the past 20 years it's Anthony Braxton," Fell continued. "He incorporates some of the qualities of the other people in this list with one key addition. His melodic writing is perhaps the most wonderful musical sound it's possible to imagine hearing. The first Braxton record I heard was New York, Fall 1974 and after the first 8 bars of the first head I was well and truly hooked for the rest of my life ... if I ever were to ask myself why I would still be interested in playing jazz in the 21st century the answer would be 'Braxton.'"
From 1978 to 1984, Fell studied English literature at Cambridge University, where he earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. While he spent much of his time as a student pursuing outside musical interests, such as serving as a founding member of the Leeds Musicians' Collective, his coursework left a lasting impression. "When I read a poem I pick up on multiplicity, polyvalence, ambiguity," he explained to Cowley. "A possibility of multiple readings. It's my feeling that compared to modern poetry, or the fiction of Joyce or Beckett, music is too clear-cut, too two-dimensional, on account of its time-based nature." Recalling a lecture with distinguished poet J.H. Pryne, Fell remembers "being amazed at the different ways he could find of reading through a four-line extract. It led into a new dimension. I'm trying in my music to reintroduce some of the element of listening as an active contribution."
In 1983, Fell formed his own record label, Bruce's Fingers, after failing to receive responses from record labels he had sent tapes to. Since then, Bruce's Fingers has documented Fell's long-term and informal playing situations, as well as his improvisational-related compositions. Over 70 of Fell's compositions and performances have been issued thus far. The trio comprised of Fell, pianist Andy Street, and drummer Tony Shepherd recorded the label's first album, and the ongoing duo of Fell and Charles Wharf recorded four. But his most important early successes were with Paul Hession and Alan Wilkinson. Hession/Wilkinson/Fell, a free-form jazz trio, earned significant acclaim for their decisive and passionate improvisation.
His other regular groupings include the trio Something Else with Mick Beck, Badland, Descension, the Brötzmann/Wilkinson Quartet, VHF, Butch Morris's London Skyscraper, the Steve Buckley Trio, the Arc with Orphy Robinson, and the string trio IST. His own groups include SFQ with Alex Ward and Alex Maguire, and London Trio with Ward and Gail Brand. Additionally, Fell has worked with small groups with Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Lol Coxhill, Orphy Robinson, Joe Morris, and Keith Tippett, and is a founding member of the London Improvisors Orchestra, for which he penned the compositions Papers, Happy Families, Köln Klang, Ellington 100 (Strayhorn 85) and Three Mondrians.
Spending much of his career attempting to synthesize composition, improvisation, and jazz, Fell, in 1989, received an Arts Council Jazz Bursary to complete the composition Compilation II For 9 Musicians and Electronics, released on record in 1990. Then in 1993, Fell won a composer's research and development bursary by the Arts Council to compose his Compilation III, a large-scale work for concert pianist, free jazz trio, rock guitarist, jazz orchestra, electronics, and tape. A revised recording of the two-hour, 42-piece ensemble work appeared in 1998. Fell's talent has also earned recognition through commissions from, among others, Eastern Arts, the Termite Club, Leeds University, Haverhill Town Council, and the Yorkshire and Humberside Arts Council.
Regardless of the inherent difficulties of working in different musical fields, Fell remains driven to explore both jazz and classical music. "In my case, I love playing improvised music and couldn't imagine my life without it, but trying to realise intellectual concepts about structure and form is also something I could never abandon," he explained to Muska. "My whole career has been a question of juggling these two often contradictory elements. I'm sure if I'd restricted myself to just playing improvised music, I would have a lot more work than I have now (and probably be a better player). But I can't get this composition thing out of my system."
by Laura Hightower
Simon H. Fell's Career
Started playing double bass at age 15; started playing professionally at age 16; formed Bruce's Finger label, 1983; released over 70 recordings of his compositions/performances with various groupings; released recording of large-scale work Compilation III For Improvisors, Big Band and Chamber Ensemble, 1998.
- Selected discography
- The Coming of Kazar , Bruce's Fingers, 1985.
- Compilation I , Bruce's Fingers, 1985.
- Free Nelson , Bruce's Fingers, 1986.
- (Wharf/Fell) Pride and Prejudice , Bruce's Fingers, 1987.
- L'huile Sur le Feu , Bruce's Fingers, 1987; reissued, 1989.
- (Persuasion A)Two Steps to Easier Breathing: A South African Suite , Bruce's Fingers, 1988.
- The House in Paris , Bruce's Fingers, 1989.
- Five on Genius , Bruce's Fingers, 1989.
- Termite One , Bruce's Fingers, 1989.
- Termite Two , Bruce's Fingers, 1989.
- Laid Back Leisure Spots , Bruce's Fingers, 1990.
- (Hession/Wharf/Fell & Kretzschmar) Millions of Wishes Come True in Plastic Film , Bruce's Fingers, 1990.
- (Hession/Wharf/Fell) Laid Back Leisure Spots , Bruce's Fingers, 1990.
- Compilation II , Bruce's Fingers, 1990.
- (Wharf/Fell) Songs About Housework , Bruce's Fingers, 1990.
- M.M. , Bruce's Fingers, 1990.
- Eight Classic Jazz Originals You Can Play , Bruce's Fingers, 1991.
- Max , Bruce's Fingers, 1991.
- Bogey's , Bruce's Fingers, 1991.
- Foom! Foom! , Bruce's Fingers, 1992.
- Rear Quarters , Bruce's Fingers, 1992.
- (Wharf/Fell) Frankenstein , Bruce's Fingers, 1992.
- Start Moving Earbuds , Bruce's Fingers, 1993.
- Music for 10(0) , Leo Lab, 1993.
- (With Martin Archer) Ghost Lily Cascade , Discus, 1994.
- Network: Volume Two , Discus, 1994.
- (Simon Rose/Simon Fell/Mark Sanders) Badland , Bruce's Fingers, 1995.
- (Something Else), Playing With Tunes , Bruce's Fingers, 1995.
- (Hession/Wilkinson/Fell/Morris) Registered Firm , Incus, 1996.
- (IST) Consequences (Of Time and Place) , Front, 1997.
- (With Graham Halliwell)9 Points in Ascent , Bruce's Fingers, 1997.
- Pure Water Construction , Discus, 1997.
- Compilation III , Bruce's Fingers, 1998.
- (London Improvisers Orchestra )Proceedings , Emanem, 1999.
- (With Martin Archer)Winter Pilgrim Arriving , Discus, 1999.
- Selected writings
- "Report On the Composition of Improvised Music No. 1," Rubberneck , No. 15, 1993, pp. 28-33.
- "Report On the Composition of Improvised Music No. 2," Rubberneck , No. 17, 1994, pp. 30-35.
- "Report On the Composition of Improvised Music No. 3," Rubberneck , No. 24, 1997, pp. 30-35.
- "Report On the Composition of Improvised Music No. 4," Rubberneck , No. 28, 1998, pp. 22-27.
- Avant, No. 8, July 1998.
- Improjazz, No. 50, June 1998.
- JazzLive, No. 121, 1998.
- Rubberneck, No. 28, 1998.
- Sound Projector, No. 5, 1999.
- Wire, August 2000.