Þráinn Hjálmarsson: Influence of buildings on musical tone

Thursday 8 November 2018

It’s easy to get jaded, to burn out on new music. You go listen to a lot of stuff and after a while you keep hearing the same things coming back, again and again, and you start referring to them as ‘tricks’. Everything sounds the same: a bit minimal, a bit spectral, a bit too tasteful. And if you step out of that comfort zone it comes over as forced and false – you just can’t win. You come home from another gig of exquisitely poised electroacoustic improvisation that immediately blurs in your head with a dozen others you’ve heard in the last year and you wonder what’s the point of it all.

I consider myself lucky to have been sent a CD by the Icelandic composer Þráinn Hjálmarsson a couple of months back. It’s been a kind of antidote. I’ve been playing it once or twice a week to remind myself that there’s plenty of great music still being made, that works in ways I still can’t figure out. Hjálmarsson shows a love for ’empty’ sounds – that idea Cage picked up from Japanese art – a mark made without full force, to allow ambiguities and finer details to emerge. Edges and surfaces are complex and subtle without being softened or frail. There’s a sensitivity to the finer details of sound, but it never feels precious; just as the music avoids dynamic contrasts without ever lapsing into that clichéd reverential hush. Everything feels decisive and structured while remaining alive to unexpected details appearing at every moment.

The violist Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir performs the solo Persona: a series of descending harmonics, high, hovering between breathy and raspy, harsh and soft. The sequence repeats itself in various ways, with the notes acting as a medium for the real matter of the piece, taking on distinct colouration each with each downwards pass. In Grisaille, the Icelandic Flute Ensemble play slow, staggered clusters, with each player either trailing away or lingering with faint, sustained breaths or suspended tones. At times, the music almost fades completely away, giving a new shade to the overlapping layers of sound as they eventually reappear, one by one.

There aren’t any electronics at work here, but the ensemble pieces often produce surprising timbral changes. Influence of buildings on musical tone combines solo string instruments with diverse percussion, each scraped and plucked and meeting a strange common ground, a contested site of complex tones that unexpectedly resolves into a muted palette of higher partials and silences. (MMXIV) mise en scène is even more frenetic at first, the kind of extended playing techniques that would not seem out of place at any polite new music recital, but the music stops and starts, with each new scene becoming more spare and elemental. The focus is on exploring new sounds, rather than pressing technique into the service of a theoretical language. It is probably the searching aspect of this music that makes for a haunting aspect to each piece as it progresses. With each piece, the music eventually reaches a stasis, but the end point is less a destination than some strange, new territory. The final piece preserves that rarefied, haunted atmosphere, as Lucid / Opaque begins at its destination, a refrain of three sounds that cycle throughout the piece, played by a “baroque ensemble of violin, viola and cello”. The simplicity of the material and the eloquence with which it speaks make it probably the most affecting work on the disc. Each pause feels like the end; you hope it never does.

Recorded over a couple of years with various dedicated ensembles in Reykjavík (Caput Ensemble, Nordic Affect, Enemble Adapter), this seems to be the first release dedicated to Hjálmarsson’s music. The CD version comes with a nice set of postcard photos, as per cover art. I’ve just noticed I’ve got a BBC recording on my hard drive of the first performance of his orchestral piece As heard across a room, played by BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov a few years back. I’d forgotten about this, but I can see at the time that I tagged it as “follow up”.

Matthew Shlomowitz, live and on record

Thursday 1 November 2018

I am not enjoying this. Freeze-dried samples set in stiff rhythms; that febrile, brittle texture of Eighties pop music and Eighties art musicians who wanted to be “with it”, the kind of false bombast used to disguise touchiness. Listening to Matthew Shlomowitz’s CD Avant Muzak, you wonder if it is supposed to be annoying and then you curse the music again for making you resort to seeking out an intellectual justification which may not exist.

My experience with Shlomowitz’s music up until now has been fleeting but benevolent, but with increased exposure it rapidly wore out my patience. Of the three works on this CD, played by the Norwegian group asamisimasa, two are for ensemble and sampler while the third is scored for a solo percussionist using midi pads and various devices. I’ve heard Håkon Stene play sections of Popular Contexts 8: Five soundscapes for a contemporary percussionist live and it did not help me appreciate what seems to be going on here. Shlomowitz talks about salvaging ignored, unvalued musical detritus and “ennobling” it (the ensemble pieces are titled Avant Muzak and Popular Contexts 7: Public Domain Music). It’s an admirable artistic goal, seemingly apposite for the present day circumstances of commodity culture, information saturation and social media. The approach, however, sounds like the enterprise is rooted in bad faith.

There’s that 1980s retro vibe, for a start, harking back to when sampler technology was new and full of promise. The rest of the asthetic seems to have been brought along with it, cargo cult style. The acoustic instruments repeat themselves in abrupt loops that grow as wearying as the overlaid sound samples. The ensemble itself (clarinet, cello, electric guitar, drum kit) recalls the Louis Andriessen wannabees from that decade. Perhaps that’s the point, but if it is then it reminds the listener that anything the music has to say about pop culture has already been said a generation ago and these shrill, grating compositions add nothing new. For all the claims of transforming the saccharine by taking it seriously, the music often plays out with the forced jollity of crude satire. The section titles have puns. In wishing to seem irreverent, it gives the lie to the earnestness of the musical material and the listener’s relationship to it. Each piece becomes a crass joke in which the punch line is smothered by nervous laughter and a quickly muttered “no, but seriously”.

The most disturbing aspect of this exercise in nostalgia is that, while professing to engage with the modern-day “real world”, it places the listener in an utterly anachronistic position, entirely at odds with the reality information age it seeks to embrace: a passive recipient. You can accept or reject these pieces, in toto, as is, nothing more. You can do either without feeling complicit, or conflicted, or compromised, regardless of your decision, with no impulse to pick-and-choose. This realisation hit home at last month’s Kammer Klang where another of Shlomowitz’s pieces was performed live. Lecture About Listening to Music is just that, with soprano Jessica Aszodi put in the position of delivering a spoken lecture to the audience, illustrated with musical examples on keyboard and saxophone. She talks, we listen, we’re supposed to get the point. The point is that we are supposed to recognise old pop culture artefacts, but not recognise them if they are sufficiently disguised. I listened on the assumption that any familiar musical references alluded to in the talk were bogus; it appeared that I was wrong and we were, in fact, supposed to “get it”. Again, Shlomowitz seemed to be trying to have it both ways, rewarding listeners’ complacency while passing off any shortcomings as social commentary.

Old Masters: Babbitt, Nono, Feldman

Friday 26 October 2018

“Babbitt?” One of the punters at the All That Dust record label launch party looked incredulous. As well as issuing CDs, the label is releasing extra titles as download-only. The first two are stand-alone revivals of works for solo voice and tape, Milton Babbitt’s Philomel sung by label co-founder Juliet Fraser and Luigi Nono’s La fabbrica illuminata sung by Loré Lixenberg. Both pieces have been mastered in binaural stereo, particularly suited for headphone listening. It’s a low-key but highly significant start to the online series.

I used that word revival for several reasons. The musicians have been perceptive enough to notice that certain pieces, certain composers, get taken for granted and start slipping into obscurity, right under our noses. Babbitt is a composer who was appreciated just enough to be accepted as a great artist in his lifetime, but not understood well enough to attract sustained interest of a type that sheds new light on his music. There is the sense that due obligation to the artist has been fulfilled, leaving one free to move on. In the great 20th-century critic Stephen Potter’s terminology, Babbitt is not presently “OK”. For punters with an innate allegiance to the experimental, the minimal, the ‘downtown’, Babbitt was a convenient figurehead of the anathema and in that respect Philomel was the one piece of his for which they would make an exception.

I tried searching for a link online to back up that last statement and found Kyle Gann asserting that “Philomel exists only in one incarnation, and may not even be repeatable in performance, so intimately is it based on Bethany Beardslee’s voice.” Fraser’s new recording renders this opinion nonsensical. As with her somewhat controversial performance of Feldman’s Three Voices earlier this year, she remakes the piece in her own character, with an intimate vulnerability that can change with the slightest inflection to icy, judgemental distance.

While Nono is more “OK” than Babbitt right now, most attention seems to be focussed on each end of his career, particularly the open expanses of sound in his late work and the light they cast on his early serial compositions. La fabbrica illuminata dates from 1964, the same year as Philomel, when his incendiary music and politics were at their most confrontational. Once a defining characteristic of his work, it is now a side of Nono too often effaced (at least in the UK). As Fraser had examined Babbitt’s notes to reconstruct a performance score, Loré Lixenberg returned to Nono’s manuscript to prepare her interpretation of La fabbrica illuminata. Her flamboyant, declamatory style suits Nono’s political indignation well: a futurist burlesque held fast by righteous anger. The sleeve notes don’t go into detail about the binaural mastering but the 54-year old tape parts sound great here. (I’ve only heard the older version of the Nono by Carla Henius before, on a Wergo recording that seemed a bit lo-fi.) Two fine compositions liberated from their status of recorded relics and reinserted into a living tradition.

Morton Feldman does not need to be revived, especially not late Feldman, but smart and skilful interpretations keep on drawing up new ways of hearing what he has to say. This 75-minute CD release of his 1982 violin and piano duet For John Cage is played by Aisha Orazbayeva and All That Dust co-founder Mark Knoop. I’m not looking up how many recordings have been released of this piece and I don’t know which, if any, are considered particularly outstanding but this one is now my favourite, for distinctive reasons that will persist even if I hear other great interpretations*.

It’s more colourful that any interpretation I’ve heard, more so than most late Feldman. The notoriously unhurried pace of this music often comes with sombre playing attached, but Orazbayeva creates a narrow but perceptible dynamic range to complement the greater variation permitted in her attack. Paired with Knoop’s piano acting at times like a foil, at others like a goad, their interplay can seem almost sprightly at times – relatively speaking. When things fall away again, the feeling of loss is almost palpable, with the violin reduced to frail keening or cut off altogether by an abrupt piano cluster. A lament carries through the entirety of the piece, in various guises ranging from a baroque sighing to nasal folk-song. The bold characterisation in the playing here makes the latter stages of the piece sound even stranger, when alien, rising harmonies take over. The playing between the notes is so good that I hope they’re taking some interpretative liberties with the score; the kind that are routinely taken with old masterpieces from previous centuries. Informed deviation from the notation can bring you closer to the music as well as uninformed deviation can take you further away. “Play it like Death and the Maiden,” Feldman helpfully suggested once to a daunted string quartet. It’s about time.

[* Disclaimer: my experience of this piece is limited to hearing Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea play it live once, the typically astringent Zukofksy/Oppens recording and The Hat Art One.]

Trip Report: An Assembly play Charlie Usher and Rowland Hill

Tuesday 16 October 2018

I’ve got some new recordings I need to talk about (Þráinn Hjálmarsson, All That Dust) but first I should follow up on that An Assembly gig previewed a couple of weeks back. The programme of new works commissioned by the ensemble has completed a small tour of the country.

Rowland Hill’s Tha-at’s right matches, or mismatches, 16mm film footage of three dancers in a studio with a live chamber ensemble. Both are drawn from Edwin Denby’s review of Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, taking Denby’s eccentric interpretations as a score to be, in turn, interpreted into a ballet. I was looking forward to this piece, commenting that “I’m a sucker for this sort of approach, acknowledging and exploiting transmission of information as a form of cultural distortion.” It didn’t disappoint. There’s a sly humour throughout the piece, made all the more subversive by never letting the audience relax into certainty over what, or who, is being made fun of from one moment to the next. Everything obeys an external logic of which the audience is aware of but not privy to. The film is disjointed, the setting informal like a rehearsal, but the dancer’s repeated movements and the abrupt changes of camera angles emphasise a structural rigour, following a logic that is never made clear. (Think audience alienation, more Godard than Brecht, but emptied of emotional or political manipulation, leaving the punters wary and bemused and ready to laugh or rein it in at a moment’s notice. The notice never comes.) The dancers bring a discipline and dignity to the ridiculousness. Like in a Robert Ashley piece, only with movement instead of words, the music does its work while the audience is distracted, a deadpan “No comment” while slipping a diffuse, brittle collage of chamber music past our ears.

Charlie Usher’s An assembly was, as promised, 122 pieces played in 45 minutes, each piece 13 seconds long except for an extended coda. The ten musicians, conducted by Jack Sheen, were augmented by modest electronics and occasional field recordings. One thing I didn’t expect from this work was the effect of writing, playing and listening on such a reduced scale for such an extended time. The description of the work’s form conjures up mental images of a kaleidoscope, or miscellany, but this possibility is never offered to the listener. Most of the pieces have titles and were dutifully listed in the programme (“they’re there to shade the content”): they read as notes for Usher’s own benefit, significant but insubstantial. There’s little in them for the audience to latch onto as an idea and besides, who can keep track from one piece to the next? 072 The green – believe it exists. 073 Strength with all sisters. 074 Music as a trace on your day. An artist’s notebook, instigating and susbtantiated by the music.

But what is the music? 13 seconds is almost nothing. Many of the pieces have scarcely any substance at all: sound is present, and that suffices. With no time to establish much beyond that, each piece is formed with due care but without any foolish attempt to assert its distinctiveness. The pieces were ordered in such a way as to “create a sort of flatness, an avoidance of shape and drama and to put everything on the same plane”. Usher described one meaning of the title as “45 minutes with sound”, the music forming a type of public space. Even when aware of the time structure, the listener loses interest in trying to distinguish one piece from the next. A new type of listening comes about, detached from both the immediacy of the continuous present and from the awareness of details. Those two descendants of Cagean thinking do not come into play here; the faint but indelible didacticism in Cage’s aesthetics is finally effaced. An assembly allows music and listener simply to coexist, without calling either to account.

Of course it’s not that simple. That last piece, 11 minutes and 10 seconds according to the programme, is a low sun that casts the preceding music into relief. A suspended, sustained harmonic shimmer that by this point seems to extend forever. It means nothing, but it opens up a vast space for reflection. As with painting, contemplation of abstraction on that scale can get emotional.

Séverine Ballon: inconnaissance

Monday 8 October 2018

I went to four unrelated cello gigs in about a week, each demonstrating some a aspect of playing and composing for the instrument. 840’s most recent gig at St James’, Islington focused on cellist (and composer) Anton Lukoszevieze, aided by pianist (and composer) Alex Nikiporenko. Some of these pieces are becoming old standards now, such as Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar and Laurence Crane’s Raimondas Rumsas; amongst the new work, the premiere of Christian Wolff’s six Small Pieces for Cellist was the highlight. Any new work by Wolff in the fruitful late phase of his career deserves our thanks, and the dedicatee Lukoszevieze brought out much more than you could imagine from a composer whose music so often looks unprepossessing on paper. The pieces alternated between full and open notation, with Lukoszevieze seizing the opportunity to add variations in attack and touch to Wolff’s discontinuous phrases, creating a kind of Klangfarbenmelodie.

The cello is a big and tactile instrument, which makes it ideal for observing technique, both in performance and in composition. The following weekend I was at the Old Dentist in Clapton, taking in the venue’s traditional BYO over the fire in the backyard before crouching in the cramped front room of the stripped terrace house to hear Judith Hamann playing solo again. This was a more focused set than the one I remember from Cafe Oto a while back: a pulse that slowly contracted and expanded, in feeling if not in tempo, as Hamann concentrated on drawing harmonic overtones from her instrument, from the endpin working up to the strings. There was no obvious systematic process at work here, nor anything reductionist or extreme to coax the listener’s attention to a different state: while setting up, she decided to go without any amplification. The cello became a sounding vessel, speaking in its own language of resonant vibrations.

Last Tuesday was the start of 10th season of Kammer Klang at Oto, with co-founder Lucy Railton performing Phill Niblock’s Harm on his 84th birthday. It was a kind of inversion of Hamann’s performance – “It’s loud,” Railton warned the punters, “and dense.” Here the overtones played the instrument, a wall of complex, pulsating colours that shimmered and darkened in ways beyond the solo performer’s full comprehension. In the midst of all this, Railton’s bowing alternately merged and fought with the backing layers of cello (previously recorded by Arne Deforce), a thin streak of oil over churning waters. After repeated tangential brushes with Niblock’s music played live, and hearing the man himself with laptop last month, I think I finally got the true live Niblock experience.

In amongst all this I got invited to the launch of All That Dust, a new record label started by London-based new music performers and producers Newton Armstrong, Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop. We were treated to live performances of excerpts from two of the new releases – cellist Séverine Ballon, and percussionist Håkon Stene playing part of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Popular Contexts 8 – as well as Knoop playing a piano piece by Tim Parkinson, part of a collection sheduled for next year.

I want to get around to all the current releases (three on CD, two download-only) in time. Séverine Ballon’s live set, and her CD inconnaisance, exclusively deals with her own compositions for solo cello. Having long been a skilled interpreter of other people’s music, she has spent the last couple of years developing a set of her own pieces. Witnessed live, you could appreciate the thoughtful placement of sounds paired with the care taken in touch and intonation. There are extended techniques appearing throughout, but used in unobstrusive ways that keep the focus on the sound: pedal tones, bowing behind the bridge, some of the more esoteric harmonics. Colouration from different bowing techniques are foregrounded. As might be expected, the music’s composition is clearly rooted in performance but is much more than a working through of a cellist’s favoured processes, as can so often be the case. The set of tracks on the CD can be heard individually yet clearly work as a suite, with each section presenting a distinct style and soundworld rather than an excerise in a given technique. On disc, the sound is beautifully captured, evoking the same experience of hearing it live at close range.

There’s confidence behind Ballon’s musical thinking, both in execution and in conception. At times, she lets the sound slip away to almost nothing without ever losing its presence, letting details recede and emerge, with contrasts in dynamics and activity that always feel natural. It all makes for a solid musical experience when heard alone, or even in ignorance of the skill required to make it.

New music preview: An assembly premieres a big new work by Charlie Usher

Monday 24 September 2018

The new music year has started; the Proms are over and I’m sitting at the latest 840 gig behind two punters agonising over whether to go to the Kammer Klang or City University concert next Tuesday. You can usually get to the former just in time for the start, after leaving the latter. The City Uni gigs, besides being free, present a lot of great musicians, both local and visiting, and new music that extends to the more adventurous end of contemporary composition.

The first gig next Tuesday evening is by An assembly, a local ensemble I’ve written about before. In addition to the latest in Louis D’Heudieres hall-of-mirrors Laughter Studies series, the programme features two new works commissioned by the ensemble. Rowland Hill has worked up a combined film/live performance based on Stravinsky’s Agon. “Based on”, as in “trying to recreate Balanchine’s ballet with nothing to go on but an old review of it.” I’m a sucker for this sort of approach, acknowledging and exploiting transmission of information as a form of cultural distortion. Jack Sheen, An assembly’s director, describes it as the “silliest piece I have ever commissioned”.

The other premiere is a long work by Charlie Usher, titled An assembly. It goes for about 45 minutes and, according to Usher, is mostly made up of pieces that are 13 seconds long. We’ve been exchanging some thoughts online about what it means to make music like this. I’ve heard the fragmentary nature of some of Usher’s earlier, shorter works and wondered how this approach would work in an extended timeframe.

Composing is now a routine, diligence, a way of moving through the week, and a practice… so making these small pieces has been uncomplicated. I’ve gathered a large amount written during a certain period into this 45-minute work, and that’s where the title comes from; An assembly – it’s an assembly of 122 pieces, activities, states and practices. Some of them stand alone, some of them end up in a series of pieces made from a common concept, and some of them are just self-declared filler; they were all just something to do and share.

Usually when hearing about a long piece made up of short, unrelated fragments, the result ends up either as a kaleidoscopic or mosiac-like work, or as a kind of diary. The form defines itself by its diversity or an implicit narrative. Usher talked about how some of the short pieces are reworkings or ‘lifted’ from other artists, some transcribe non-musical material into sound, others are “exercises in sensuality, making a surface that sags, bends or shifts in some way; something to seduce.” This approach, a miscellany of miniatures, seemed a familiar enough concept but then the twist came, when he went on to describe the work he put in negate the explicable interpretations of the music.

I didn’t want them played in the order that I wrote them, finding that too autobiographical, shapely, misleading. I grouped similar pieces together and, with the help of a program a friend made for me, spread them out as evenly as possible between the other evenly spaced pieces to create a sort of flatness, an avoidance of shape and drama and to put everything on the same plane, with no hierarchy.

“I’ve been conscious to avoid spectacle in my music for a while,” he added (the spectacle of miniatures?) “I’m not interested in disorientation, in sly tricks on the listener; it’s not a dynamic I find constructive. It’s the continuous present I enjoy more, a work being more a situation than a work.” I’d originally suggested ‘disorientating the listener’ to Usher when I was thinking of music that erased the anticipation of a climax or resolution, so it seemed we were thinking the same way.

I’m interested in sharing a sort of versatility, moving between active listening and passive hearing, and time not as something to be articulated but time as a place to spend some time. I thought that I’d rather spend 45 minutes with sound and friends than 45 minutes on facebook and youtube, so here’s 45 minutes set aside for that. An assembly, the title; there’s the social aspect too. Music is a public space.

I realised I’d been thinking of the continuous present, as experienced in music with more reductive means (the sixties minimal composers, Morton Feldman) and while Usher evidently shares their effacement of hierarchy in his musical material, there’s a more expansive, eclectic attitude at work here. John Cage, trying to say something nice about minimalists, suggested they were teaching us to be convivial; musicians reported that Feldman habitually dozed on and off when attending rehearsals of his late, long-ass pieces. It’s nice to know we can go to a new music concert without having to worry about getting it all, when just being there is the point.

Things Seen, Heard (2)

Monday 10 September 2018

Just quickly, I’m trying to keep a record of gigs I’ve been to lately. There were a few last weekend, all at Cafe Oto. It’s close by and the weather’s nice enough to sit outside with a G&T. On Friday I finally saw my old nemesis Phill Niblock in action. It was as I expected and I was glad of it. It’s always a learning experience to watch the old masters in action. Four sections, or panels, of sound, each made of drones of like instruments, sampled and combined on two laptops. The old films were projected. The pieces seem busier now and they probably are; a combination of increased understanding of how to listen and increased technical possibilities.

There was craft, first and foremost, displayed in all these gigs. Tim Shaw opened for Niblock – I knew nothing about him but he put his impressive rig of electronic components and array of bullhorns to good use. The slowly evolving drone that transitions from time to time can easily become trite but Shaw’s sounds were pleasantly rich and well resolved, with textural details emerging out of held tones in an organic way and not just another boring crossfade once each sound is played out.

Saturday was a duet of Angharad Davies and Phil Julian – what could have been an awkward pairing of violin and analogue electronics went together beautifully, each exploiting the knowledge of their own instrument to accent, comment, elaborate, support and contrast the other. At time you couldn’t be sure which was which, and each could be either.

The same night, cellist Lucy Railton played a solo set. I’ve only heard her playing other people’s stuff before. As expected, cello with electronics. Not expected: cello was dropped after a while, briefly returned to later and then abandoned for good. Railton spent the rest of the time working with a small table of electronic devices. The timbres were suitably gritty at first, then went happily off-piste into collages of divergent sounds, sometimes rubbing up aganst each other hard, ending with a unintelligible conversation under a wash of electronic hail. The setup was ripe for musical and physical fumbling but this was mostly avoided in a way that inspired confidence for further work in this vein.

Monday night was supposed to be spent at home but I was lured out by more G&Ts and the chance to see electroacoustic composer Bryan Eubanks do his thing live. Turned out that he was playing soprano sax as part of a sort of free jazz trio. He had what appeared to be a homebrew stompbox which transformed his instrument from time to time, sometimes moving away from pitch and into pure timbre, at others slashing away like an overdriven guitar. It was a useful insight into what makes him tick. Thinking of his previous work using windows as speakers, I listened to the second set outside.

Organs, Inner and Outer: Thomas Ankersmit, Rohan Drape

Thursday 6 September 2018

I’m a sucker for feedback synthesis* and therefore I’m very happy with Thomas Ankersmit’s new CD Homage to Dick Raaijmakers. There are two things that stand out after the first listening. Most obviously, there is the utilisation of inner-ear phenomena (the notes advise against using headphones for this piece) that predominate at certain times, creating those satisfying shifts in texture and tone when you move your head around while an otherwise static sound is playing. Almost as striking is the compositional sense at work behind the sounds. This type of music making can so often result in an overwhelming torrent of sounds that never let up, a cataloguing of technical effects or an unvarying slice of sound sculpture. Homage to Dick Raaijmakers flows with an almost romantic feeling for the material as it rises and then ebbs away, the mood passing between tension and relaxation. Repeated listening reveals new details, reflecting the blend of different media put to use here: analogue feedback units and oscillators are combined with contact microphones and tape manipulation. Multiple strands of electronic sounds are often at work, creating subtleties not noticed at first. The psychoacoustic effects arrive in two plateaux during the course of the piece, and even there the pulsing and pitches change from time to time while the listener is head-bopping.

The whole high-pitched beating frequencies thing made me remember that I wanted to mention a recent CD by Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras. Ellesmere is apparently the first commercial release by Drape – an event I’ve waited a long time for. I’ve heard him play live, in groups and solo, on several occasions and always been wowed by his technical knowledge, particularly his understanding of software as a means for making music, beyond using it as a tool to achieve a desired outcome. This virtuosity shines through from within the music, not as a flashy surface, so perhaps it should be expected that Ellesmere ignores high-end technology and consists simply of two duets for old electric organs. In the shorter work, Harleian, the two keyboards focus on high pitches, with the differences of intonation and overtones between the two instruments creating plenty of activity to keep the cochlea buzzing. The long piece, St Johns Wood, is in a more sombre register, a slow chorale for organ played as a strange double image, the matched keyboards creating microtonal chords and ghostly harmonics. The otherwise simple organ sound becomes disembodied, without background or perspective the instrument becomes unreal.

*To the point of using it myself, with both analogue and digital electronics.

Canadian Composers Concluded: Smith, Jang, Olsen

Wednesday 29 August 2018

I mean this as highest praise to say the new Linda Catlin Smith CD on Another Timbre is more of the same. The two previous releases of her music, Dirt Road and Drifter, are superb and this disc of ensemble pieces played by Apartment House continues with the same fusion of clarity and sophistication in conception and execution. Wanderer is less diverse in its sound palette than the two-CD set Drifter, but gains in coherence, with the selection of works coming across as an extended suite. The piano acts as a thread running through the music, with Morning Glory beginning as a solo before opening out into different instrumental colours. Smith has a striking way of using her instruments selectively, choosing for each one a time to speak and a time to be silent. The piano runs like a spine through the next few pieces, changing to harpsichord in a very melancholy Sarabande before finding sensuous depths in the restricted colour range of the piano duet Velvet. By the end of the disc, the piano is subsumed into the ensemble for Wanderer, contributing small fragments in contrast to the other instruments, before finally disappearing for the final piece, a pensive duet for cello and vibraphone.

As mentioned before, when hearing Apartment House play Stare at the River live at Cafe Oto, Smith is still capable of surprising the listener. That work appears here, along with other facets of Smith’s work not heard on the previous two albums. Knotted Silk’s abrupt, staccato piano chords and percussion held against sustained winds and strings are suitably evocative, while the brief piano solo Music for John Cage is unexpectedly winsome, both embracing his professed openness in aesthetics while teasing him for his asceticism.

I’ve suggested that the composers heard so far in this Canadian Composer Series share common interests in the usage of traditional forms and harmony, “repurposed into something new and – not so much strange, as uncanny.” There is also a similar usage of volume, constant and subdued, and a general absence of frenetic activity – the usual busywork of virtuosic presenteeism. The two other titles in Another Timbre’s Canadian series deviate from this formula, to lesser and greater degrees. I described Alex Jang’s piece distributed tourism as a more elusive presence, “with more diffuse sounds and an obscure structure that put the listeners on much less certain ground” when played live. His new CD, momentary encounters, opens with a softly whispered statement. For momentary encounters (5), clarinettist Heather Roche plays sustained, isolated tones outdoors; in this instance, out on Tooting Bec Common. The musician’s overt activity is minimal, the instrument acting as a framing device for the ambient sounds. Like an artist’s intervention on a found object, perspective is subtly but indelibly shifted, composing the surrounding sounds as much as the musician’s instrument.

The remaining works are conventional recordings of acoustic instruments in studio but that first piece is instructive. In any three players, members of Apartment House play a slowly drifting melody on melodica, vibraphone and cello, the three voices intertwining, merging and diverging. Their manner of playing produces sounds that may be characterised as faint or fragile, but are closer to Cage’s definition of ’empty sounds’, receptive to other adjacent sounds, variable in nature and open to interpretation, not crowding themselves out with absolute certainty of pitch or timbre. Cristián Alvear provides his skill for immobile inner calm when playing the solo guitar piece a gray, bent interior horizon, a work more silence than sound, each plucked note a muted harmonic, both ringing and stifled. When the disc ends with Apartment House playing the aforementioned distributed tourism, it feels almost normal.

The big new discovery in this set of discs would be Dark Heart by Lance Austin Olsen, if it were fair to call an artist in his seventies discovered only today. This CD is the outlier in the entire series, in background, method and sound. Olsen is a painter, musician and composer – his artwork appears on a number of the titles in this series. Visual arts are the instigations for several pieces recorded here and all the works are collaborations, each in a different way. Theseus’ Breath is both painting and graphic score and is presented in two realisations, one by members of Apartment House – who have form for this type of thing – and an ensemble including Ryoko Akama, Isaiah Ceccarelli and Katelyn Clark. When comparing the two versions, the most striking thing is how similar they are, despite the difference in instrumentation and musicians. There is clearly more going on than a visually ‘inspired’ improvisation. The presence of electronics in the sound mix is also a notable divergence from the other composers in the series. The electronics are lo-fi and homespun but not quaint; of the messy sort, not the domesticated.

Unlike at the Oto gig, conventional instruments disappear altogether for the two large pieces that fill the disc, pushing further into that nebulous region where sound becomes both the material and the subject. Both Dark Heart and A Meditation on the History of Painting are collages; like painting, a synthesis of gesture and editing, with traces of the two processes preserved in the medium. Dark Heart began as tapes guitarist Terje Paulsen sent to Olsen, which he then worked with, set aside for years, and then reworked. A low relief of electric guitar sounds, field recordings, snippets of television drama and other “found objects” string together narrative elements that never resolve into a clear message but remain obscured, like a journey recalled from a dream. The half-hour presented here itself an edit; the full version supposedly exists on the Another Timbre website, somewhere.

For A Meditation on the History of Painting the collaborators’ roles are reversed. The graphic score was made by the Venezuelan artist and composer Gil Sansón; Olsen produced the realisation. Outdoor sounds give way to distant voices, then a haunting mix of organ reeds signalling to each other like foghorns. It’s a tremendously eerie effect, pardoxially becoming more atmospheric as the silence intrudes more and more. The spacing and positioning of the sounds produce a paradoxially cinematic experience through listening, made all the more potent by the avoidance of explanation.

Cassandra Miller: ‘O Zomer!’ and ‘Just So’

Monday 27 August 2018

Everyone else has been raving about these two new Cassandra Miller CDs and I need to get in on it too. Like many others, I’ve been waiting for the second half of Another Timbre’s Canadian Composer Series to drop since the accompanying booklet came out with the first batch of discs in May last year. The booklet’s promised titles have now been delivered in full, including several fresh recordings from the first half of 2018. I’ve spent the long weekend playing these five CDs over and over, purely for enjoyment.

I added that last bit because I could have written up the lot after just one listening; each one of them leaves an extraordinarily vivid impression in the mind. I’ll get around to discussing all of them in the next few days but right now I need to mention the two I had been most looking forward to, dedicated to music by Cassandra Miller. I’ve been alternately baffled and knocked out but always charmed by her music, so here’s the chance to get some on record. O Zomer! includes the title piece and violin solo For Mira, both of which were played at the Cafe Oto gig a couple of weeks ago. The same musicians play here on the CD and so the performances are equally excellent – better, I should say, as the playing conditions would have been preferable. As with Mira Benjamin on For Mira, dedicatee Philip Thomas plays the piano piece Philip the Wanderer with expected authority. Any wandering in the piece is typically incongruous and beguiling: a slow rising up from the depths, followed by a declamatory pealing of bells and ending on a single, repeating scale ascending in the higher registers. At one point, the page turner starts to whistle in descant (here, the whistler is violinst Clemens Merkel from the Quatuor Bozzini). I could wonder why all this happens but it’s simply delightful as-is.

The disc includes the BBC’s recording of the monumental Duet for Cello and Orchestra, from its world premiere in 2015 at the Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. This was my introduction to Miller’s music and hearing it again in retrospect has only magnified its achievement. Cellist Charles Curtis with Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are superbly matched for this piece, an aural frieze that juxtaposes an almost immobile cello with rolling fanfares from the orchestra, like an inverted antiphony. As time passes, the orchestra is subdued by the cello and in turn subsumes it; only at the end does the soloist emerge for a brief, enigmatic statement, half whispered. The transcendentalism of Ives and Ruggles looms beneath the surface, that of a mystery that cannot be contained in words.

The second disc, Just So, consists of string quartets played by the Quatuor Bozzini. The major work here, About Bach, is a fitting companion to the Duet for Cello and Orchestra: viola and cello play in the manner of baroque viols, a chorale that crosses over itself again and again until it finally exhausted. Against this, the violins play endlessly rising harmonics in the stratosphere, ethereal and remote. The effect is sublime at first and then strangely affecting as the elegaic implications of the music embed themselves in the consciousness, the harmonics continuing unperturbed by the cadences below. Miller talks about this piece being shaped by Bach transcriptions, Jewish music and computer glitches, bringing order out of the messy circumstances of life. Quatuor Bozzini make the fiendish technical requirements of playing this piece with finesse all but invisible.

The other pieces contain elements of the folkloric, to varying degrees. Warblework names its four movements after species of birds, mixing up the mimetic, programmatic and impressionistic in an idiosyncratic way that deftly avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of Messiaen and John Luther Adams. The disc is topped and tailed by two brief works, the smart and sweet almost-a-solo Just So which sounds like a folksong transcription, and the more serene and sonorous Leaving which is, in fact, a transcription. It’s been worth the wait.

Ingrid Plum: Taut

Wednesday 22 August 2018

I got sent a digital version of the latest release from Graham Dunning’s Fractal Meat label: a book and CD of vocal compositions commissioned by Ingrid Plum. (Not sure if the download of the album also comes with an e-book.) Taut is a collection of brief works by fourteen composers that make use of Plum’s background in extended vocal techniques, improvisation, field recordings and electronics. The few times I’ve heard Plum’s music have all been solo improvisations, so it’s presumably something of a challenge for her to realise and interpret other artists’ compositions here.

Taut works effectively as a collective artistic statement. The album is said to be “inspired by studying with Meredith Monk” and so obviously focuses on the voice, and on Plum interpreting composers’ scores to reflect on this study. As you would guess, the scores are therefore very open to interpretation. The performances recorded here were all made live, at the first complete rendition of the collection at Iklectik in London earlier this year. (The sound quality is good; audience applause doesn’t intrude until halfway through the set.) The gig becomes an overview of Plum’s musical vision, a compendium of current experimental composers, and a masterclass in composing and interpreting graphic scores.

As might be expected in the circumstances, there is a focus on technique, sometimes to excess. Kev Nickells’ Tort/ taut/ &c. and Bobby Barry’s Contract and Remain Taut (after Lyotard) run through some familiar exercises, with the latter getting very close to Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody in places. Most of the pieces do not, in fact, rely on solo voice but incorporate recordings or other electronic accompaniment. Iris Garrelfs’ The Modular Vocalist and Stephan Barrett’s Taut: to be carried on the sea air make use of overtones and beating frequencies; other works overdub Plum’s voice in ways that are either conventional (Timothy Thornton’s canonic folk tune Where Queer Creatures Hide) or more surprising (the cut-ups behind Plum’s live singing in Lia Mazzari’s Speak Up).

A good half-dozen or so employ voice with field recordings, as ambience, as accompaniment or as disruptions. Graham Dunning’s Enoy Rtnbua deconstructs itself with sounds of rewinding tape, as befits its score. Pieces by Helen Frosi and Tania Chen interpolate solo voice with intrusions from the natural or urban world. Two of the most affecting pieces in the set are Lisa Busby’s Song Of Resentment (for Brighton Beach), in which overlaid voices and sounds of pebbles steadily accumulate with the dispassionate ruefulness of a medieval ballad, and Jez Riley French’s Score For Listening #87, which opens the venue’s windows to the amplified ambient sounds of central London, merging with small sounds made by the performer, often no more than a tap on the microphone.

I kept forgetting this was a single performance and didn’t appreciate at first how Plum could change her tone and mindset from one piece to the next, never feeling strained or artificial. The book includes the scores, interviews with the composers and Plum discussing her experiences working with each of them.

Real Live Canadians at Cafe Oto

Monday 20 August 2018

They were promised, and they delivered. It takes one hell of a strong programme to get me to bear an August evening inside Cafe Oto so of course I went to the Canadian Composers Series Concert last Monday. The first series produced some of the best gig moments from last year, launching the first half of Another Timbre’s series of ten CDs. Those first five releases were particularly strong and presented Canada as something of a hot spot for an intriguing group of contemporary composers. The long-awaited second half of the series has now finally dropped.

Two of the new discs are dedicated to Cassandra Miller, now resident in London. I’ve been hanging for these CDs to come out because Miller has a particular knack for messing with parts of my head that most other composers don’t reach. The Oto set was topped and tailed with her O Zomer!, a piece which perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about. A single, harmonic note is passed back and forth between cello and contrabass, over a muted vibraphone. It’s beautifully balanced, superbly judged, and then it all swerves into an unhinged whaling on piano, crotales and blaring trumpet. It stops, eventually. Crazy. For Mira is a brief but substantial work for solo violin which morphs back and forth between Bach partita and Handanger fiddle tune; it was played by its dedicatee, the Canadian Mira Benjamin. The musicians had the impertinence to start on time and so I missed the other solo turn, when Canadian clarinettist Heather Roche played Alex Jang’s momentary encounters (5) outside the venue.

Together with musicians from Apartment House and conductor Jack Sheen, they played four chamber works by Linda Catlin Smith, including Blackwing, a world premiere not listed in the advance publicity. I’ve praised Smith’s music on several previous occasions but I need to point out her ability to keep surprising me with pieces such as Stare at the River, where piano, trumpet, double bass and percussion evoke cool jazz before solidifying into a stately procession.

Another great part of the night was getting to hear two more composers with whom I’m not at all familiar. I’ve heard one short piece by Alex Jang, which suggested a similarity with other composers in this series: a use of traditional forms and harmony, repurposed into something new and – not so much strange, as uncanny. His longer piece played at Oto, distributed tourism, was quite different from this, with more diffuse sounds and an obscure structure that put the listeners on much less certain ground. The ambiguousness of its sound was more pronounced by being the longest piece played on the night.

There was also a sense of certainties breaking up into suggestive but nebulous sounds in the other premiere of the night, the appropriately named Shadow Worlds by Lance Austin Olsen. I’m completely unfamiliar with Olsen’s work other than as a painter, including the covers of several CDs in this series. The combination of trumpet, cello, double bass and percussion approached sound in a different way, skirting between sound as material (for harmony, for timbre) and sound as subject unlike any of the other composers in the series. I’m looking forward to listening through the new CDs and reporting back after further investigation.

Composed, Uncomposed, Discomposed

Monday 30 July 2018

I’m allergic to jazz; don’t know why. Probably from being raised on rock, but I always hated rock music that held on to the past as a crutch, as a sign of validation, instead of using it as a springboard for something new. I’m incapable of hearing that innovation in jazz; I keep hearing these callbacks to the past as a sop to the audience and critics, lest the musos fall from favour for getting too far out of line. Everyone’s playing something really wild and free when somebody just has to throw in a ii-V progression to reassure everyone that they’re still listening to jazz. Self-conscious rock is no fun either.

I’m listening to Guède by a French quartet of Frédéric Blondy, David Chiesa, Rodolphe Loubatière, Pierce Warnecke: piano, double bass, drums, electronics. Two pieces, each bang on 30 minutes. Everything flows and avoids resolution, seemingly without effort. Just as things start to get too cosy, pitched sounds fade away and the group plays on with noises. The pulse remains and nothing breaks the surface of restrained dynamics, a continuum is maintained while the material remains in flux. It’s improvised, so I get fussy and start wondering if it all moves a little too smoothly without a guiding compositional logic.

In some ways, the sound is similar to some of Magnus Granberg’s recent music. Granberg’s pieces are open in form, but still composed. His most recent release, Es schwindelt mir, es brennt mein Eingeweide, is a long work recorded late last year. The sextet’s playing here is more sparse than usual, with the spine of the work formed by isolated notes traded back and forth between Granberg’s prepared piano and Christoph Schiller’s spinet. Other instruments elide between violin and viola da gamba, some percussion and very subtle electronics. At times, the rest of the ensemble retreats to an almost inaudible background haze; there’s a small surprise when the violin finally plays a sustained note. The musicians give shape and structure to an hour of the slightest material, with turns in sound and instrumentation that throws each preceding section into relief.

I’ve talked before about several releases on Anthony Pateras’ Immediata label, but did not discuss North Of North’s 2015 album The Moment In And Of Itself. The nature of the trio – Pateras on piano, Erkki Veltheim on violin and Scott Tinkler on trumpet – set off my anti-jazz snobbery. The combination of instruments threatens a certain level of fussiness but this risk is immediately exploded on the group’s new self-titled album, released on their own label. There are three pieces, each titled ‘Church of All Nations’ after the recording venue. The out-of-sequence numbering of the tracks suggests that they picked out the best bits from their session, as does the strength of the playing and the coherence of the music. It’s improvised and it’s relentless, each musician serving up dense blocks of sound that alternately mesh and clash. The playing focuses on texture and timbre, with their highly developed technique and harmonic sense directed towards a greater artistic statement.

Things Seen, Heard

Thursday 12 July 2018

It’s been too hot to take writing seriously and I’ve been busy working on a piece of my own music for a change. Haven’t been out to a gig for a while so did three last weekend. Friday was the start of this summer’s Music We’d Like To Hear series, full of new and revived music that falls into that category “Essential But Overlooked”. So much of the time we pay lip service to the idea that music is art, only to get cold feet and start second-guessing at an ill-defined understanding of Accessibility and Bums on Seats. I should be writing at greater length about this year’s set of concerts for publication later in Tempo.

I’d skipped a few recent gigs by 840 so on Saturday I spent another summer evening in church, listening to new pieces for viola and cello duo (with some Orlando Gibbons mixed in). There’s a pleasant trend amongst some current composers for achieving a kind of blankness of expression in music, of the sort that Cage admired in Satie. As with painting, there is music that exists by referring to something outside of itself and music that exists for itself. Gibbons’ music from the Jacobean age shares a similar foundation in aesthetic rules instead of individualised subjective taste; it sat very well amidst pieces by Garrett Sholdice’s Gymel and Alex Nikiporenko’s Carré, adapting simple methods to create something clean and new. It’s always nice to hear pieces by Eva-Maria Houben and Marc Sabat played live.

On Sunday Silver Road and Café Oto staged a nine-hour performance by Farmers Manual. It must be fifteen years since I last saw them play live; not that they gig very often these days. The venue was the shaft to Brunel’s tunnel under the Thames at Rotherhithe. There’s a nice garden on top, with a bar selling beer and Italian wines. At this type of gig it seems inevitable that more time will be spent outside enjoying the interesting surroundings, the weather, chatting with acquaintances and drinking than in the space itself paying attention to the music. The group seemed pretty laid back too, taking time out for food or drinks, sometimes en masse while the music continued below. There was still that fine attention to combining sounds in a way that seemed natural and surprising without being too slick or contrived, but the generous pacing left everything a little too flat. It felt more like they were trying out various ideas and less on building a sonic environment that rewarded both close and distant attention.

Memory, Forgetting

Tuesday 26 June 2018

When I wrote about that new recording of John Cage’s Two², I tried to link to my recent review of some of Cage’s other piano music on Another Timbre. And then remembered that it wasn’t here on the blog. It got published in the previous issue of Tempo, with reviews of Lost Daylight, the collection of Terry Jennings’ piano music, and a large work for solo piano by Jürg Frey. You can read a large chunk of the review on the preview page, which pretty much gets to what I was saying about Cage’s new approaches to piano writing in the 1950s and how it reset understanding of later piano music, both by him and by others.

I ended up describing Frey’s La présence, les silences as Hammerklavier, or, more appropriately, his Concord Sonata. His use of silence, long considered by listeners to be the signature foreground material of Frey and other Wandelweiser composers, has receded but still remains a vital force behind the sounds. Here, it takes musical traits from tradition – continuity, harmony, teleology – and transforms them into something familiar but not yet known. It’s part of his album Collection Gustave Roud, dedicated to the poet who “wandered through the landscape as a flâneur, observer…. For me his work constitutes a kind of “field recording”, not with a microphone and sounds, but with his soul and body, recording his environment in the broadest sense”.

I didn’t have space to discuss the other large work in this collection, Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind for soprano, trumpet, cello, percussion and tape. The unusual combination of instruments at first evokes a kind of procession, with a slowly building drone made of high, bowed sounds. Towards the end, a slow drum-beat underpins the voice. The sense of wandering, of landscape, pervades the music; but this is not idle wandering, although there is no destination. It is travel for the sake of travel, a dérive to render the participant susceptible to enlightenment – in the sense of Cage’s “purposeful purposelessness” more than the Situationists’ political awareness. Once again, the listener finds music predicated on the transcendental in art. Voice and trumpet harmonise in unison, or each wanders alone but connected. It’s still one of the most satisfying recordings I’ve heard in the past year.