Bits Of Wood/Bouts De Bois
by Ian Simmons
[ bookreviews ]
Will Menter is a man who is serious about wood and has developed a pretty unique relationship with it, building sound sculptures out of it and making music with it and the environment in which it is placed. He's been exploring this field for well over 20 years and has produced a fascinating and thought-provoking array of CDs that give us a chance to share his unique sense of sound and space, exploring not only the tonal qualities of wood, but also slate, water ceramic and, indeed, the air itself – many of his recordings feature sculptures activated by the wind and, in one case, being destroyed by a storm. He has now ventured into print with the bilingual Bits of Wood/Bouts de Bois (Menter, though British, has long been resident in France), which collects beautiful photos of his sculptures in situ as well as images of found pieces of wood that he has appreciated, from wind-felled trees to timber bearing cryptic loggers' marks in fluorescent spray paint.
This book reveals Menter to be a first class appreciator of the aesthetics of wood, sharing a passion with the better known Thomas Pakenham, who wrote Meetings With Remarkable Trees and the regrettably late Roger Deakin whose Wildwood is one of those rare books that not only reads beautifully but was a delightful artefact in its own right, with decent binding and a fine cover. Arguably Menter gets deeper into the soul of wood than either, though, through his sculptural pieces in which he tries to leave the material as close to its elemental state as possible, while still coaxing sound out of it. From the photos here, it is clear how well he succeeds at this; his pieces sit completely at home in their landscapes and have such a natural structural harmony that they can make the transition to a gallery without losing their sense of balance. Again, the physicality of his work comes out here as well, there are many pictures of people interacting with the works, often groups of children, and it is clear they demand to be touched, played with, climbed on as part of their purpose, lovely friendly absorbing works. If I ever get to own my own wood, I will be commissioning something for certain.
Menter's writing reveals just how attuned his senses are to sound, picking up in the rich array of sound sawing wood for the fire creates, from the grate of the sawed wood to the ring you get from chucking it on the woodpile. The simple technique of hitting two pieces of wood together has led him into music, from ensembles of wood-hitters to wooden xylophones and their African relatives, and on to slate and other natural materials. Menter's recordings are, I feel, at their strongest when he leaves the wood to speak for itself, as on most of the tracks on the CD contained in Bits of Wood, where it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the music from wind-blown sculptures and that produced with human intervention when he starts to bring in human voices, as he does on Feuilles Entrelacées. The piece, while always pleasant, is never quite as interesting as when the wood is left alone. The same is true for the Song Sculpture , which also features some lovely pictures of Menter's work on the sleeve and accompanying booklet. This CD focuses on his songs, which, not surprisingly are unlike anyone else's, with meandering, thoughtful lyrics and accompaniment coming mostly from the sculptures and simple instruments. (I am slightly reminded of Robert Wyatt at times, mainly from a commonality of attitude rather than a similar sound.) But pleasant though these are, the addition of violin, a saxophone, voices and a double bass detract from the simple and absorbing sounds of Menter's sculptures and natural instruments, which I always find myself trying to listen to round the others.
However, I wouldn't want you to get the impression I am damning with faint praise. This is still a lovely, calm piece of work, conjuring a beautiful stillness out of an array of simple and elegantly constructed sounds, and well worth the investment of anybody's time and money.