Alvear plays Sugimoto; Sugimoto plays Duplant

Wednesday 28 March 2018

I went a Taku Sugimoto gig in a community centre in Footscray about fifteen years ago and he didn’t do shit. For an hour or so he sat there, guitar on his lap, adjusting the volume knob on his amplifier once or twice. We were all partly listening, partly waiting, straining to hear if there would be anything to hear. We watched to see if anything was happening that we hadn’t heard and so we listened to hear if anything was happening that we didn’t see*. He’s playing tonight with the singer Minami Saeki at a club a few blocks away from me but I’m not going, mostly because it’s miserable out and I’m a bit hungover and will be impatient and inattentive. He’s playing in Sheffield tomorrow night and you should probably go.

Instead, I have been listening to two new recordings of him playing. On one, he plays Bruno Duplant’s composition lEttEr to tAku. On the other, he is joined by Cristián Alvear for a guitar duet composed by Sugimoto. On paper, both pieces may well look much the same: single notes, scattered here and there. For lEttEr to tAku, recorded in a Park in Tokyo last year, Sugimoto is credited with “guitar, small amplifier, bow, park”. Guitar notes are played and heard, in what would be a splendid isolation from each other. As at that Footscray gig, there is an attentiveness, a precision in how he plays and in how he doesn’t play. Is he responding to the sounds in his environment? Duplant says “Taku played a lot with them while respecting the score” (emphasis mine). It seems that the piece is a field recording, with the sounds of the park and the surrounding city taking up most of the attention. Yet the guitar is always present, as much in its anticipation as its sound. The guitar sounds themselves are gentle, but pure and clear against the indeterminate tapestry of sounds. The guitar defines the context, allowing the city to become a musical accompaniment, but also acts as a frame, elevating the background noise to the foreground of attention. It’s like an aural work of urban environmental art, a small intervention that transforms the substance of a piece of everyday life.

Sugimoto’s guitar duet, simply titled h, is closely related to his songs with Minami Saeki which I’m not hearing tonight. h was also recorded in Tokyo last year, but indoors, at a concert. The piece is essentially one of Sugimoto’s songs, with the voice part transcribed for guitar. He and Cristián Alvear each play slow, wandering melodies that weave an irregular counterpoint between the two instruments. (Alvear’s playing has that same quiet, imperturbable patience as Sugimoto, as heard on his recordings of Sarah Hennies and d’incise.) The voice part plays in harmonics, against the more fully sounded notes of the other guitar. Both parts have sufficient lightness as to almost merge and colour each other at times. When the two overlap, tiny differences in intonation emerge (the guitar’s frets enforce a type of equal temperament, at odds with the harmonic overtones). Halfway through it feels like it’s about to outstay its welcome but it never does. The colouration, unpredicatble melody and irregular exchanges and overlappings between the two instruments holds a sort of quiet fascination.

* This is another example of seeing and hearing music.

Jürg Frey & Magnus Granberg: Early to Late

Monday 19 March 2018

This Friday Music We’d Like To Hear is presenting a one-off concert outside of their usual summer season, of Ensemble Grizzana playing two new pieces by Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg. It’s a repeat of their two premieres at Huddersfield last year, which I wanted to get to but couldn’t, so I’m happy.

Even better, the gig is a launch of a new CD containing both works. Simon Reynell at Another Timbre made this recording “immediately after” the premiere concert in Huddersfield, with sound that is much cleaner and clearer, with greater immediacy and intimacy than usually possible to hear from the audience at St Paul’s Hall. For all their newness, these works are played by Grizzana play with deep knowledge and empathy for this style of music. After all, both composers play as part of the group. They respond to the contrasting expectations in the scores (Granberg allowing freedoms, Frey specifying precision) with great discipline, a studied awareness of how sounds may arise and combine. This judgement, restraint without hesitation, brings countless small, brilliant details to the ear’s attention in a natural, spontaneous way that never seems forced.

Listening to Granberg’s Nattens skogar last year I commented that “I’m starting to think of Magnus Granberg’s music the way I think of late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different.” On this CD, his How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights? combines individual sounds and small fragments of material into a type of mobile structure, allowing the musicians to draw from one group or another at different times. A resemblance to late Feldman comes here from the sense of hearing patterns overlap and repeat, only never quite the same. The music feels like one extended moment, constantly changing in appearance but never changing in substance. Most strikingly, compared to previous works I’ve heard by Granberg, is the sense of a steady flow, if not a pulse, behind the piece. The counterpoint between the instruments forms a strong but delicate web that holds the sounds together. Wisps and shards of electronic sounds permeate this texture, which create an effect that makes the notes played by the acoustic intruments less like pitches and more like sounds. Like his preceding pieces, it again takes its inspiration from existing music; in this case, William Byrd’s consort song “O, Lord How Vain”. With this in mind, its possible to hear the music in light of the Elizabethan’s awareness of mortality – a defence, fragile but assured.

I neglected to write here about the last Another Timbre release of Frey’s music, Collection Gustave Roud (that’s coming up in the next issue of Tempo). In the two longer works in that collection, there’s a sense of movement in Frey’s music that has been steadily developing in recent years. From the earlier wanderings of his pianist, alone pieces, there now comes the feeling of the music being a journey: not a traditional sense of arrival at a destination, but of the travelling itself, similar to Nono’s late lontananzas. Here, his Late Silence shows no reticence about addressing its subject with sound. It’s a sombre, tender work. As with Granberg’s piece, mortality is present: the inspiration comes from Ockeghem’s lament Déploration sur la mort de Binchois. The journey here is one of the emotions, of thought.

Pairings of instruments call and respond, in slow antiphonies. Their sounds combine in surprising ways, letting harmonics and pure tones linger. Unlike the Granberg, no electronics here, but there are harmonicas and stones, used in the same way as in Frey’s epic meditation on time and space Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit. Even more suprising is when the sounds change, as intruments drop away to replaced by others. One feels the loss as much as the new arrival. Other lonely episodes are encountered, but are never allowed to have the last word. I found listening to it a profoundly moving experience, encompassing a range of experience that belied its relatively brief length of just over 30 minutes.

I can’t remember if Cage was referring to Zen or his own preferences when he said that the purpose of the artist is to hide beauty. Both Granberg and Frey touch upon this matter of beauty in art. (Frey: “Beauty happens as a sideline. When beauty comes into focus as an end in itself, then beauty begins to disappear.” Granberg: “I guess I’m just trying to make a music which can hopefully do something to encompass and reconcile such categories with one another.”) Yet still, both composers have developed their craft to a point where they can let beauty be revealed rather than leave the listener to find it.

MP Hopkins: Aeroplanes & Puddles

Monday 12 March 2018

Australians have a knack for eviscerating the more rarefied pretentions of psychography. While the Europeans drew upon an inherited mythology, the Americans self-mythologised. Meanwhile, the Australians remained reluctant to ascribe meaning to a landscape they understood only as alien, where there presence was never entirely legitimised, or even voluntary. Eventually, the outback was eulogised but the urban landscape remained void of significance, self-consciously imitative of both the UK and US while understanding it could never be accepted as either.

One of the finest cultural artefacts of the last century is Barry Humphries’ tape Sandy Agonistes, recorded in a basement flat in London in 1960. In a slow, somniloquent voice, his character Sandy Stone recreates the city of Melbourne in his mind, in a contextless, trance-like litany of street names, brand names, radio jingles, train stations and advertising slogans. The recitation loops back upon itself, nothing is added, nothing is learned. If Leopold Bloom’s jumble of half-finished thoughts made manifest the failure of the Enlightenment, then Sandy shows that a further half-century of commodity capitalism has delivered the coup de grâce. Far removed from the left bank of Paris, he relentlessly paces the city but never appropriates its space; instead, its spectacle appropriates his character, completely. He is the anti-flâneur.

Rather than praise or damn the metropolis, the Australian artist is more likely to treat it the same way as the natural landscape, inscrutable and indifferent. Given the vast majority of the population lives there, it’s hard to conceive living outside of it. When the differentiation does occur, the countryside becomes the “other” where the darker side of human nature is revealed, shorn of the civilising veneer that is assumed to be normal.

The opening sounds of MP Hopkins’ Aeroplanes & Puddles suggest the work is another one of those terribly earnest field recordings, all about faithful documentation of the soundscape of some very real place. The place is indeed real, a run-down industrial part of Sydney that has resisted redevelopment, not through struggle but through circumstance. Electronic sounds and treatments inflect the soundscape, reminding us that this is a work of artifice. There are the mildest disruptions, intruding just enough to stir the listener from complacency, throwing the shape and direction of the work into doubt.

Hopkins speaks, his voice low and close-miked. “A political fantasy…?” he ruminates. He does not elaborate. Further comments appear from time to time, in the same slow, thoughtful, faintly ironic tone. There are oblique fragments of wit, hinting at a satirical discourse that never reveals itself to the listener. Like the sounds of water and traffic, the words are also a collage, quotes from local politics, local economics. Throughout, the ubiquitous dull roar of the city weaves in and out, an undefinable mixture of distant aircraft, traffic and industry that echoes through the air.

Is it all a joke? In a way, but a joke of the highest seriousness. The collage is part survey, part critique, part elegy and part exorcism, a meditation on interior and exterior space and how one affects the other. The tone is personal, even intimate, but any hermeticism in the work is keenly aware of the external factors that condition it, whether the space itself or the circumstances of urban planning upon which it depends and by which it may soon disappear. Keeping this complex of motivations in play, Aeroplanes & Puddles simultaneously embraces and refutes the tenets of psychogeography.

When I mentioned Americans self-mythologising, I neglected to discuss Robert Ashley. His operas often deal with the issue of how mythology is created, or is allowed to create itself. Meaning becomes engendered in places simply through the act of occupying them, or avoiding them. As colonists, it’s an experience common to Australians. Having no mythology in the landscape, significance is nonetheless attributed to it, even though the nature of that significance is unknown. Ashley’s music often expounds on this process. Hopkins’ piece shares a similarity, in this respect. In both, the need for the listener to directly experience that process becomes paramount, with all narrative or explanation subverted, leaving the art as complex as the reality it illuminates.

This piece has been released by the small Slovakian cassette label, mappa. They send me their intriguing releases every now and then. It’s available as digital download but, unlike the previous releases I’ve reviewed, this one seems particularly suited to the cassette format, with its focus on the personal, the run-down and on technological mediation. There are also texts and photos included.

Words and Music: Opera?

Wednesday 28 February 2018

There’s a CD rip of Samuel Beckett’s play Words and Music in my MP3 player, with the music composed by Morton Feldman. I’ve tagged it as an opera. Earlier this week I replied to a tweet asking what composers think of Philip Pullman’s comment that “Structure is a superficial feature of narrative”. My hot take was that narrative is really a subset of structure. Thinking about it now, Beckett’s dramatic works exemplify this concept beautifully. Beckett wrote several radio plays that juxtapose words and music and, even when there is no specific musical content much of his later writing eschews development of plot or character in favour of structural procedures such as repetition with variation, elaboration, transposition and recapitulation.

Last Thursday the new music ensemble An assembly, directed by composer/conductor Jack Sheen, presented a double bill of words and music that may or may not be opera at the Round Chapel in Hackney. Beckett’s Words and Music, conceived as a radio work, was given a live, stage performance with Feldman’s accompanying music. Beckett wrote the play in 1961 but was never fully satisfied with the music that others composed for it. Feldman’s music was composed in 1987, the last year of his life. Some ten years earlier, the two had consciously collaborated on an opera, Neither. Both men shared an expressed dislike of opera. The opera had one singer, no characters, no plot, no specified staging and almost no libretto.

The staging of Words and Music in Hackney was a fitting counterpart to Neither. The musicians, singer and dancer from the first half of the programme vacated the space and the audience in the balcony looked down onto the large empty room below as the drama between the music and two voices played out, unseen. If it is not opera then it is, at least, as Luigi Nono described his Prometeo, a “tragedy of listening”. In alternation and then, reluctantly, together, the voices of actors Alex Felton and Peter Clements and the musicians of An assembly search for a way of giving meaning to sentiment. Listening with an ear for music, one is struck by the musical aspects of the words; not just in vocabulary but more particularly in construction. The counterpoint between one voice and another, between voice and music, the introduction of themes, reoccurence of phrases, turns and changes of subject. The words are heard as part of a joint composition with the music. Feldman’s unusually brief musical interjections are surprising in the way that each presents such a distinct contrast in mood from the preceding one. Like his last work, it suggests ways in which his music may have developed had he lived longer. It also makes you think it’s a pity he got fired from his job as a soundtrack composer.

The first half of the evening was the premiere of Anton Lukoszevieze’s Opéret OPERA Operec. Better known as a cellist, Lukoszevieze’s piece is perhaps unsurprisingly composed for four cellist, supplemented by a keyboard player, percussionist, singer and dancer. It has ‘opera’ in the title so let’s say it is. With the dancer and coloured floor lighting, the staging recalled Lukoszevieze’s chamber arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s fluxorum organum, adding a layer of oblique theatre and ritual. With voice provided by Josephine Stephenson, the collage-like nature of the work also suggested a connection with the realisation of Tom Phillips’ opera Irma from last year.

Opéret OPERA Operec juxtaposes, through no objective necessity, the words of Georges Perec and Benjamin Péret. Perec is presented through dance, composed out of material from Perec’s Species of Spaces and performed here by Rachel Krische, ranging far and wide across the available space, at times part of the ensemble before striking off on her own again. Péret’s poetry was presented in music: the singing was fairly plain and simple throughout, while the musical accompaniment was, according to Lukoszevieze, generated through “phonetic patterns, voice pitch translation, braille and puns”. This may explain the strange sense of collage throughout the work, despite the absence of diversity in the material’s sources. The music was by turns arbitrary and incongruous, redolent of other genres yet never confirming to a recognisable model. It had the air of old-school dada, as an insolent travesty of a salon recital or cabaret show. Rather like Satie’s theatrical music, an array of familiar objects were subjected to some capricious outside force to create something more unnerving than amusing. Then the work unexpectedly ended with a long litany intoned over a harsh, juddering wall of sound as the percussionist displayed and discarded a series of posters containing progressively more complicated spurious equations. Make sense who may.

My only complaint is that at times the words could be hard to hear, but this is the consequence of playing in the boomy acoustics of a church, coupled with balcony seating and, thanks to the late onset of cold in February, a head full of gunk. Most punters kept their coats and scarves on, but it was worth the trouble to hear and see such and imaginative and thought-provoking programme.

Principal Sound: Feldman and Nono in particular

Wednesday 21 February 2018

In the days when information was scarce, one of the few readily available recordings of Morton Feldman’s late work was the CD of Joan La Barbara singing Three Voices. It was an invaluable, but unusual, entry point. A rare example of Feldman working with tape – the only one outside of his experiments in the early 50s – and a long work for voice alone, with other small curiosities that set it apart from his other pieces of the time. Last weekend, the Principal Sound festival at St John’s Smith Square presented a chance to hear this strange music in a new way.

Having just written about the importance of seeing/hearing music performed live, Juliet Fraser’s performance of Three Voices was a perfect example of what can be gained from the concert experience. I haven’t heard Fraser’s recording of the piece from a couple of years ago, but her performance on Friday night showed this piece and Feldman’s musical qualities in general at their finest. Imperceptible shifts in shading to the voice(s) kept the music hovering in an ambiguous emotional space, between tender and cold, sensuous and forbidding. Fraser’s perceptive programme notes mentioned that she chose to disregard the score’s instruction against vibrato; this had the added effect of softening the edges of the notes, slightly blurring the distinction between the live voice and the ‘tombstoney’ loudspeakers at each side, inviting a connection to be made between them. Working, unusually, with such a ‘full’ sounding instrument as the human voice, Feldman’s constricted harmonies cause beatings and overtones to emerge between the voices – this was clarified somewhat by the spatial distinction across the stage, particularly when the three identical voices hocket back and forth on the same pitch.

It was a smartly-programmed concert. Feldman is the source of inspiration for the concert series, but the programme this year focused on Luigi Nono, particularly his late works, which share Feldman’s need for hushed expanses of time searching for a form. Each work contained an elegy or dedication of some sort, and the choice of Feldman’s work echoed Nono’s use of electronics and spatialisation of sound. The series began with Nono’s A Pierre. Dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum: flute and clarinet hidden away in the upper reaches of the church, swathed in trailing streams of harmonic resonances and echoes that circled around the audience below.

Over the weekend I got to hear the Quatuor Bozzini play again, after hearing them play Jürg Frey so well in Huddersfield, years ago. Their rendering of Nono’s Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima was a telling contrast to the interpretation I heard the Arditti Quartet give ten years ago. In his late works, Nono contructs fragile webs of sound out of the most meagre of materials. Stark, unpolished, often rudimentary instrumental gestures, broken off from any phrasing or context. With Arditti, Nono’s quartet became a transcendence of musical refuse into thwarted lyricism. With Bozzini, it became more coherent, like remnants of an ancient culture that has endured the ravages of time, faded but still refulgent. The following afternoon, the Bozzini’s two violinists played the duet “Hay que caminar” soñando. Nono’s last piece remains one of my favourite works, for its miraculous capturing of sonorities in the same realm as his electroacoustic works, produced entirely through acoustic means. Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung’s use of bow pressure, placement and angles brought out colouration of the violins’ sound that rivalled the electronics heard on the first night.

I don’t want to run down a checklist of everything that happened, so I’ll just mention a few more things that stick in my head now. Hearing Exaudi premiere a new work for unaccompanied chorus by Linda Catlin Smith, getting to experience Aisha Orazbayeva and Mark Knoop playing Bryn Harrison’s Receiving the Approaching Memory live and relishing that it’s as labyrinthine for them as it is for us, the Bozzini Quartet playing something by Claudia Molitor that has finally made me start to pay attention and, conversely, something by the wonderful Aldo Clementi that I found, to my surprise and shame, dull.

Hearing it, seeing it.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

I’ve seen a few cases of really petty criticism lately about people talking of ‘seeing a concert’ instead of hearing it. It’s a stupid argument based on false pedantry. This doesn’t mean there are significant differences between hearing a recording of a piece of music and hearing it performed live. Apart from context, the visual aspect plays a large role.

I’ve written in the past about the advantages of being at a live concert over listening to a record, and of the problems in how to present live music with minimal visual content (i.e. laptops). Last week’s Kammer Klang gig at Cafe Oto highlighted some of these contrasts in a very stark way, juxtaposing a tape-only work by Hanna Hartman (who often plays live with an elaborate, visually-intriguing setup) with two chamber compositions performed by Distractfold that both used theatrics. (This was all followed by Jennifer Walshe so, yeah, Performance.)

Even in the most traditional music gig, visual cues to the music abound, drawing attention to structure and the interplay of elements that may not be immediately obvious to a casual listener. (Walshe’s piece, Is it cool to try hard now? included a section that referred to how these gestures can be faked to elecit an emotional response.) Distractfold played Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s piece The man who couldn’t stop laughing, a work I’d previously heard on the radio. In addition to electronic playback, the musicians dress up for the piece and are required to grimace or gesticulate at various points in the score. It adds another layer to the piece, one which I had been unaware of when hearing it the first time. I don’t know how much it helps to have the theatrical part. In a crowded space like Oto (Kammer Klang nights seem to be habitually rammed) it’s easy to miss a lot of what’s going on; plus I’m biased towards sound and less well disposed to the cabaret-like stylised subjectivity on which the theatre was based.

The first piece, Barblina Meierhans’ May I ask you something? also used theatre, but with a different approach, at once both more naturalistic and more deconstructive. Beginning with a kind of meta-narrative of the musicians discussing the piece and performance instead of playing, then sliding back and forth between music and theatre. The approach came across like the work of one of the composers associated with Bastard Assignments – with a focus on speech, performance gesture, memory and social context – only with more overt ‘music music’ content. Again, it could be hard to see, but it became activity that merged with the surrounding audience.

I want to finish with a counterexample. I first heard John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings performed by Anton Lukoszevieze at a live concert and was a little underwhelmed. Even for my reductionist tastes it seemed a little too simple: a slow sweep up the length of a cello string, from low to high, pressing lightly to produce harmonics. Months later, I bought the CD recording and became intrigued. Harmonics don’t ascend in the same linear arrangement as fully-sounded pitch, but emerge and disappear, sounding lower or higher according to each harmonic node reached. As sound only, without watching that finger progressing up the fingerboard to each successive node, the music gained a depth and complexity that my eyes had denied me.

Repost: The Fall and the Liminality of Kitten Kong

Wednesday 24 January 2018

(Originially posted 2006. RIP Mark E. Smith, who my girlfriend thought “looked pretty good for sixty-five” at the time.)

Has anyone made a comedy map of Britain? I don’t mean a map indicating clubs and the birthplaces of comedians; I mean a map marking the real locations inhabited by fictional comic characters, haunted by absurdist conceits. The more anonymous and duller a place is, the more likely it is to have been infused with significance by generations of comic minds: dormitory suburbs, brownfields, dead ends, postwar nowheres. Balham, Putney, Hendon, Cheam: London and the counties are held together in an invisible network of bathetic, negative landmarks. The enervated traveller crossing these liminal spaces is suddenly seized with a numinous inversion of meaning with which the no-place has become invested. What ley-lines connect these psychogeographical lacunae; do they awkwardly bisect the zones of conscious importance, or sneak behind and between through forgotten territory?

Last Friday night a self-selected cross-section of Londoners and American tourists were sharing a small frisson at finding themselves congregated outside a bingo hall in Cricklewood, reminding each other that The Goodies lived in Cricklewood. This wasn’t the reason we were all there; we had come to see a different British institution, of similar cultish appeal. We had come to see The Fall; or not see The Fall, as the case may be.

The Americans amongst us were hopeful of seeing a real, genuine Fall gig, having been repeatedly exasperated at home by the nominal band’s touring habits: either gracelessly imploding on stage or working a setlist top-heavy with interminable ten-minute dirges about supermarket car parks in Salford. (Mark E. Smith has his own appetite for psychogeographical nullity.) Perhaps they didn’t know that the band’s London gigs tended to be equally perfunctory: it seems anything south of Birmingham is much of a muchness, as far as Smith is concerned.

To get an idea of the venue, take a look at their website (proletarian visions of prosperity). No really, it’s priceless. A gilt-edged coffin for Punk’s corpse, WMC Blobs laid to boozy rest with Celtic troubadors and cowboys from Carlisle. As a harbinger of the muzzy haze of regression that threatened, the opening act was John Cooper Clarke, preserved like Sharon Osbourne.

Perhaps it was the faded premises on the cultural and subcultural margin that made the band turn up and play. The band, such as it is, all vestigal entity outside of Smith himself having long departed and now routinely replaced with such regularity that even fans can’t keep track of the musos’ names, has a reputation for only partly turning up, in body or mind; with Smith himself late, drunk, or a no-show. Instead of a vicarious trainwreck thrill we got the embodiment of a Rock Band at Work, of performance as routine.

Smith, famously looking 20 years older than his real age, stumbled round the stage snarling and hollering incoherently as usual, into one or two mics, as usual, dropping one or picking up the other, peripetetically bemused by their technical failings, nonconsensually futzing with his bandmates’ gear, as usual. Performance as routine, stripped of its romance and mythology when seen plain on stage as schtick – in the same way that he refuses to play any songs more than a few years old, Smith’s performance denies his fans the delusion of shamanism, of recollection of an intangible psychic resonance. What is left is form and technique, with no invocation of the past, to impress the punters – not appeals to faith. (My companion for the night, oblivious to The Fall’s history and significance, attested to this.) The conventional becomes experimental.

The band confined themselves to solid riffs, one per song, starting out OK and then locking into a tighter groove that propelled the music and voice into the higher levels, into the lower reaches of the transcendent state a good rock gig can give. After this peak it was in the recoil of the interval, ebbing into a slower, muted rhythm, “Blindness”, its protracted disorientation nudging the punters into a dreamlike semiconsciousness. Smith himself had delayed his entrance onstage, like Elvis in Vegas, but then disappeared early as well, before and after the encore, effacing himself backstage inconspicuously, not to return. It seemed over too soon.

Catching the band in an upswing of collateral cool thanks to John Peel’s untimely death, the crowd was a mixture of disoriented tourists, middle-aged punks in mufti, prematurely-aged anoraks comparing notes on Tuesday night’s gig (and observing that one band member had been sacked in the interim), curious students, a mosh pit, bright young things their dowdy finest, a pair of them dancing like frenzied muppets on the balcony behind the band, alternately irritating and amusing the more sombrely dedicated punters. And of course, the indifferent regulars up the back getting their pints in all the while.

Opera as Entropy: Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2

Monday 22 January 2018

Many years ago I experienced a production of John Cage’s last three Europeras in Cologne. Soon after, I blew the chance to see the first two of the set – the “big” ones with greater complexity and more elaborate staging. Don’t know how but somehow noticed that a new production of Europeras 1 & 2 was happening just before Christmas, at Staatstheater Braunschweig. It seemed a little odd that Cage was being presented in what appeared to be a fairly small, regional theatre. “It’s where theatre people in Germany get their first real job” someone explained to me.

The company raided the theatre’s sets and props to an appropriately disorienting effect. The singers and actors seemed enthusiastic enough as they threw themselves into the melange – literally so, in the case of the soprano with the dumpster. Beside the singing, the orchestra parts are particularly strange: a type of collage both fragmentary and unaltered, which is unusual for Cage. The peculiarity came from its success as music in its own right instead of a mere concept, as so often happens in these situations. Like a paticularly unfocused piece by Berio, it persisted without differentiation or structure, distinctively undistinguished Euro-mood music that faltered, wobbled, but never ceased.

There were rough edges – the handling of the Truckera tape collage’s appearances was clumsy – but no obvious horseplay, cutting up or general piss-taking by the musicians. Hopefully those dark days of self-sabotage are behind us. There was occasional mugging or playing up to the audience, which is forgivable to some degree; it’s a comedy, after all. The biggest revelation was in the lighting. In the Cologne productions I saw, Cage’s detailed lighting cues were ignored. In Braunschweig, lighting made all the difference. Onstage antics between singers, dancers and actors were cast in a dim, reflected glow, or with long shadows, while a bright spot was cast on the side of a pillar downstage, or focusing on a discarded watering can. Scenes played out half-hidden in the background, comedy in chiaroscuro. The audience’s attention was effectively decentred, wandering over scenery and actors without overt direction: Cage’s conception of the circus contained within a proscenium arch.

As for the audience, it was small for Europera 1 and, after the interval, noticeably smaller still for Europera 2. It looks like there are more performances scheduled in June, so perhaps summer might be more of an occasion than a cold, wet night in December.

I’ve commented before on how Cage’s music, like other great art, continues to speak to the world in surprising, often disturbing ways. In the thirty years since the Europeras first appeared, the apparent shift in attitudes towards ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture has only accelerated. At the time of its conception, the work would have been viewed by many, whether pro or anti, as an iconoclastic exercise in irreverent anarachy, in the footsteps Chuck Jones and the Marx brothers. It’s hard to get that same feeling, these days (although the defecting audience members in Braunschweig might disagree). Opera, once a signifier of the rich, the powerful and the cultured, is now a signifier of the old and out of touch. The stereotype of the top-hatted toff persists, but as much as an anachronism as of a symbol of privilege. These days, real power prefers the corporate hospitality at the football and backstage access at the U2 gig.

In this time, the opera is an institution more to be pitied than mocked and here Cage’s celebration of the genre was more wake than circus. The persistent image was one of entropy: the disassociated costumes and props seemed like salvaged detritus, fragments which could no longer make a whole. As opera, even as an idea, recedes from popular culture and consciousness, iconoclasm becomes a moot point. Pure indifference has already done Cage’s work for him. At various times, stagehands brought out portraits of opera composers, propped them up and later knocked them down, unless they fell of their own accord, sometimes immediately. As the evening progressed, the empty stage accumulated clutter of cast-off inventory from the theatre’s storage, presented and abandoned. Rather than removing meaning, perfoming Cage’s Europeras now seems like an act of finding new meaning, whatever it may be and wherever it may lay.

I remember how in the programme for Einstein on the Beach, audience members were encouraged to talk quietly amongst themselves, if they so wished. Never noticed it happening, though. In Braunschweig, the group in the row in front of me kept up a quiet conversation throughout, pointing, commenting, debating. I didn’t get the impression they even liked Cage particularly much, but they were engaged with the opera and weren’t noticeably dismissive or disruptive. Nothing they said or did was a distraction; in fact they slightly enhanced the musical and theatrical experience.

Working With Limitations: Olivia Block

Wednesday 10 January 2018

How do you compose through improvisation? Just let go and try not to think about it? Keep it as it is, or go back and revise? If you revise, do you cut back or elaborate? This new release by Olivia Block is an untitled, 35-minute suite of three movements, played on and inside a piano, with additional parts on organ and some electronics. She has stated that this piece was created over several years of rehearsals and performances. Musical material was developed, but in a way which left lots of space for improvisation, an open structure where placement of the composed elements was never entirely fixed.

The scope for improvisation is thus circumscribed. In doing so, the improvisation becomes of a piece with the composed elements, each seeking out a coherent context. At first, the piano sound predominates, with untreated and prepared piano notes combining with harmonic resonances. The central movement introduces contrasting percussive sounds from inside the instrument. The final movement returns to the keyboard but much sparser, with silences becoming more persistent and occasional intrusions of electronic distortion. Each time I listen to this CD, I hear the performance as an act of heightened responsiveness. Aesthetic decisions are made, but always in reaction to what is heard. Sounds are augmented, changed, reduced. It isn’t continuous, the changes are perceptible, the sounds and sections are clearly differentiated – still, the three movements play as an organic whole.

Working With Limitations: Insub Meta Orchestra

Saturday 30 December 2017

13 unissons: thirteen groups of two to three musicians each, playing one note in unison. Each group may play whenever they want but never with more than three or four groups playing together.

27 times: four larger groups each play at three different moments. In each moment, each musician must play a sound three times in sequence on three occasions, the same sound each moment.

Simple enough? The scores for the two pieces that fill this new release on Another Timbre are sufficiently clear and succinct to fit in a tweet. Every musical score could be described as a balance of restrictions against possibilities. The pieces played here by the Insub Meta Orchestra have heavy restrictions placed on them by simplicty, but allow for an unexpected amount of detail to emerge.

A critical factor here is the orchestra itself: 32 musicians, including voice and electronics, provide a wealth of timbral and textural variety, opening up the reductive score to an unexpected amount of complexity. A smaller ensemble could also give a satisfying performance – in a more severe, minimal style – but here the diverse instrumentation is the point. Cyril Bondi & d’incise, who have previously collaborated on projects such as Ryoko Akama’s places and pages, have here coordinated and composed works that provide a rare maximal interpretation of the minimal. To a casual listener, any sense of a single, top-down rule governing each performance would not be evident.

With its overlapping single tones and accidental harmonies, the sound of 13 unissons shares many traits with Cage’s late number pieces. (The absence of potentially short, loud or other punctuating sounds indicates a key difference in the composition.) The longer 27 times presents an even more haunted atmosphere, and is more distinct. Sounds emerge, make their presence felt, and then fade from consciousness, only to reappear later. In the meantime, the instrumentation and the groupings of sounds have changed, so that a succession of moods are established and then transformed. Some musicians choose to play very softly, even compared to their colleagues. This adds a beautifully subtle sense of shading to each relatively louder sound when it is repeated.

It’s unusual to assemble such a large group as this on an ostensibly ‘open’ form of performance; even more so to take all that musical talent and sublimate it into a focus on giving finer nuances to a single, coherent body. This disc elegantly negates the usual paradox of applying limitations to give freedom to the performer. In this case, the removal of overbearing notation or programmatic continuity reveals more of the musicians; not of their ‘personalities’ but of their understanding of how to give music life.

An Update

Monday 11 December 2017

Just got back from a trip and caught the last night only of this year’s London Contemporary Music Festival – which was great, except for all the people telling me about all the cool stuff I missed on the other nights. I’ve been listening to the latest batch of releases from Another Timbre, including the reissue of Lost Daylight. My review of this, and new recordings of John Cage’s Winter Music and Jürg Frey’s La présence, les silences, should appear soon in the new issue of Tempo.

I’ve got several new posts jostling for attention here: reviews of some more Another Timbre releases, a live staging of Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 in Braunschweig last week, some unfocused guff about music and art. In the meantime, I’m giving out free download codes for one of my older albums on Bandcamp, Chain of Ponds. Codes are below and can be redeemed on the Bandcamp page for the record.

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Sophisticated — God, I’m almost sophisticated

Monday 20 November 2017

I’ve been running with the same crowd too long. Like-minded people. It’s all very agreeable, as you slowly encourage each other to become more and more jaded with your circle. Haven’t been to too many gigs lately; I’ve been busy with making my own music, but it’s also easy to claim high standards as a reason not to go. They’re playing Stockhausen at the Barbican tomorrow night: Stimmung and Cosmic Pulses. I’ve already been to three live performances of both – same with Trans at Southbank next month. Before I arrived in London I’d have considered myself lucky to ever hear even one of them live, once.

Saw someone on Twitter last week complaining that no-one blogs about music anymore. I silently agreed, but can’t really remember those who did, or did not. Some of people you used to see around started families, but it’s a surprisingly small number. The public attention shifts.

I went to the Apartment House gig at Cafe Oto last Tuesday, even though I’ve seen them too many times already and been to Oto too often. They were playing composers I hadn’t heard live, or at all. I know they’ll be played well. Oto is easy for me to get to from home. The place was full, or at least the seats were. I drank, which I swore I wasn’t going to do. The new pieces were a string quartet by Georgia Rodgers and a piece for cello and electronics by Antoine Chessex. The main impression the Chessex left on me was that it was definitely, unquestionably a work for cello and electronics. The sounds and the techniques were all front and centre but I get hazy in recalling what purpose they served. I want to hear more of Chessex’s music to get a better handle on it. Rodgers’ Three Pieces for String Quartet presented panels of sound made from overlapping swells of pitched and unpitched string bowing. You could hear elements of various trends in late 20th Century music distilled into a secure but distinct musical language. I want to hear more of Rodgers’ music because I liked this piece. There’ll be some at next month’s 840 gig, which I must attend lest I slip further into complacency.

The second half was dedicated to Old Masters. Kagel, Mosolov and Zimmermann (Bernd Alois), however, don’t get much of an airing these days, at least not in Britain. I’ve heard lazier critics wave away this sort of neglect by saying the artists are “out of fashion”, in a way that would accuse either composer of being a tragic style-chaser and not an indictment of the fickleness of supposedly artistic values. (Just don’t mention Leonard Bernstein.) The musicians’ work here was in equal parts affirmation and refutation. The concluding, computer-enhanced version of Kagel’s Prima Vista was particularly fine, offering up depths, colours and textures beyond at least half of the recent Proms commissions, despite these qualities being supposedly in vogue right now. Tamriko Kordzaia’s rendition of Kagel’s An Tasten acquired new layers of ironic commentary in the somewhat noisy Oto environment, aided by the commercial elevation of neoclassical banality in the forty years since Kagel wrote the work. Generations exposed to Philip Glass will hear this piece as entirely relevant, in a way Kagel or his audience could have not envisaged at the time.

Maybe five years ago I was chatting outside Oto with some musicians wistfully considering getting a performance of Zimmermann’s Intercomunicazione together. In these pessimistic times, you’d think the world would be ready for his increasingly bleak outlook. Sadly, 2017’s fashionable nihilism is still too rooted in certainties, vague spirituality and simplistic answers. Zimmermann is not holy enough, sees that the world is too messy to be true to one’s own principles, and takes grim satisfaction in reminding his listeners that they have become part of the problem. One this night, Intercomunicazione came across dark and brooding, disconnected moments of torpor from which piano and cello would sullenly lash out. I’m sure this was the first time I’ve heard anything by Zimmermann played live.

Magnus Granberg: ‘Nattens skogar’

Monday 30 October 2017

I’m starting to think of Magnus Granberg’s music the way I think of late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. The restrained but taut atmosphere of extreme focus prevails, over an extended span of time. Other than that, I don’t want to make comparisons. That shared attention to the small details living inside sound comes from a different place. Granberg’s scores, described as “rather open”, seem designed to allow more liberty to the performers than Feldman would permit. This approach needs the tradition of free improvisation that has developed over the last half-century, and skilled, sympathetic performers.

His regular ensemble of players, Skogen, has released several discs on Another Timbre, ranging from a ten-piece electroacoustic ensemble to a quintet. On this new release from Insub, his 2015 ensemble piece Nattens skogar is presented in a version reduced to just four musicians. Again, everything’s the same yet it’s all different. As with other recent works, Nattens skogar (it’s the Swedish translation of Nightwood) draws inspiration and material from pre-existing music; in this case, Erik Satie’s nocturnes and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood”. As before, any resemblance to the source would not be detected by the uninformed listener. The nocturnal theme suits Granberg’s, and his musicians’, palettes of sounds both dark and frail.

In this setting, every sound is set in stark relief. Part of this may be due to the recording, which sounds very close. Background noises, seemingly inadvertent, colour the music, unless it is Cyril Bondi’s percussion. Granberg plays his prepared piano in slow motion, Anna Lindal’s violin merges with harmonicas played by Bondi and d’incise. d’incise adds electronics and ‘tuned objects’ – the buzz and hum of line noise and distortion adds an unnerving edge to the music. Anything that may be construed as a slow, unhurried flow through the fifty minutes or so is upset by subtle but indelible shifts in mood; this may be down to the shadowy presence of Satie. At the beginning, events are punctuated by an ominous knocking; in the latter half of the piece, intrusions such as electric organ or bass drum cast the other instruments in a new light. It strikes me as the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed and might be the best place to start for newcomers. Ensemble Grizzana is premiering a new work by him next month in Huddersfield, which I would like to witness.

One quibble: Insub have released this on vinyl, as so many small, adventurous labels must to make ends meet these days, and as a download. It’s a shame the download version preserves the fadeout and break into two tracks from the vinyl instead of offering an uninterrupted experience. In the pause, you can hear how the ‘silence’ is charged with electrical hum, ambient noise, hiss.

Pianos (II): Epstein Abrahams Pateras

Thursday 19 October 2017

Nobody has made it…. Nobody is accessible*.”

At the last Music We’d Like To Hear concert this summer I heard the first live performance in the UK of John McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos (completed in 1980). The work could be considered ‘minimal’: a continuous span of some 50 minutes, dynamically and texturally static, with a single, clear principle underlying the cycling of the material through harmonic and rhythmic changes. As a tour de force of compositional engineering, it first sounds like an evolution of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase: a unifying process developed to a point of elaboration where the inner workings of the method remain elusive to the listener, yet the presence of an intelligible principle of operation is intuitively apparent. (Works such as this are sometimes described by critics as ‘postminimalist’, inasmuch as it displays a greater development of Reich’s ideas than Reich himself achieved.)

I started thinking about this when listening again to R. Andrew Lee’s album of piano pieces by Paul A. Epstein. The relatively brief pieces here, all written in the 2010’s, achieve a similar type of complexity as in McGuire’s epic, aimed towards a different end. Epstein writes of “reducing surface repetition while retaining the ‘limited means’ that remains for me a crucial aspect of minimalism and postminimalism.” It’s probably not a coincidence that he has also written a perceptive analysis of Piano Phase. Pieces with intellectually provocative titles such as Drawing No. 4 (triangles, broken horizontal and vertical lines, rectangles, and parallelograms) hint at objective processes at work underneath the shifting mosaic of notes and chords. Rhythms are not steady but appear to conform to an underlying grid; pitches and harmonies are transformed according to rules that remain unknown to a casual listener but clearly follow a coherent order. For something that immediately sounds so straightforward, this music hovers in an ambiguous place. Typically, any music moving away from strict minimalism to greater complexity is perceived as a turn toward subjectivity, but Epstein trips our sensitivity for affective sounds through entirely rational means.

The difference in hearing this type of complexity is a little like distinguishing a knot from a tangle. Complexity, and the designing intellect behind it, can come in many forms. Music In Eight Octaves is a vast, churning ocean, cryptically credited on the front cover to “176”. This reveals itself to be the piano duo of Chris Abrahams (him off The Necks) and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard years ago that these two had recorded an album with them each improvising for an hour at a time on each octave of the keyboard in turn, then superimposing the results. From time to time I wondered what became of it. The sessions, recorded in 2005, have finally been released.

Has there been much editing of the raw material? Am I remembering this correctly? The sleeve notes don’t give anything away, instead dedicating themselves to Pateras interviewing Abrahams about the musical environment in which he developed, ranging from jazz to the avant-garde to pedagogical studies to the Australian alternative rock scene of the 1980s. (Nothing is said of Pateras other than as a reflection, a succeeding generation inheriting Abraham’s legacy.) The music is as overwhelming and ultimately pounding as you might expect, but much of the exhaustion comes from the sheer wealth of differentiated material, more than overbearing volume. The “all-over” nature of the music at first recalls Pollock’s drip canvases, but it progressively becomes clearer that a closer analogy would be to Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings. Besides the overlaying of material, the aleatory montage of different images, alternately hidden, distorted and revealed, there’s the way the music is treated as a source of further development. In the way that Richter photographs, cuts up and re-photographs some of his abstract canvases, the two pianos here seem to have been cut up, cut away, sculpted into its present form. Certain registers drop away from time to time and I’m still getting to grips with the piece to determine if there is silence or admirable restraint by the two players.

I just replaced ‘improvisers’ with ‘players’ in that last sentence. Even without editing, the act of playing in these circumstances was a compositional strategy, with the awareness that the material would be layered and combined. As a monolithic block of sound, it reveals itself to have a complex, multifaceted shape of many-coloured faces.

Tom Phillips’ ‘Irma’, for real

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Tom Phillips’ opera Irma is nearly fifty years old and at the pre-performance talk on Sunday evening the host, the director and others were still a little squeamish about directly calling it an opera. (It’s anti-opera, it’s a work with operatic elements, the word after all is from the Latin for…) Even after Phillips expanded the work in 2014, adding more overtly musical notation, its allusive fragments remain tantalisingly elusive as an experience. On record, one could hear realisations by Gavin Bryars and AMM, each transforming the work into a pastiche of their own recognisable style and neither fully comfortable with the score’s hedge of limitations against possibilities. Comparing the two recalls the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Over the weekend South London Gallery presented two performances of a new version of the opera, with staging by Netia Jones and music direction by Anton Lukoszevieze, whose ensemble Apartment House played as a string trio with keyboards and percussion. Apartment House have form in making music out of scores better known for their looks than their sounds. In this realisation, with two singers, an actor and chorus, staged with choreography and video projections, the collaged nature of the work, like much of Phillips’ art, came to the fore. In its expanded form, there’s greater liberty to include and omit, but many elements familiar to listeners to either recorded version persist and remain indelible to the work.

Irma has an indulgent quality to it, and this quality is what truly makes it an opera. The romanticism in Phillips’ poetic fragments is overt and spreads from the libretto to musical and stage directions. The Victorian-era source material is redolent with the same atmosphere. This production gratefully accepted the score’s implied invitations to operatic conventions of tragic heroes, idolised heroines, thwarted love, melancholy, intrigue, the ballet. As Grenville, Benjamin O’Mahony was suitably gentlemanly in his anguish, while singers Josephine Stephenson and Elaine Mitchener evoked characters from their contrasting parts as Irma and The Nurse respectively, in roles that might otherwise become ciphers for the expected values of the audience. All coped well with the added demands placed on how they moved in the space during the second half.

The music itself adopted a new guise with each scene, in turn overtly dramatic then austere, ranging across the approaches taken by his contemporaries in the British avant-garde: Scratch Orchestra-like free-form, quietly minimal, affectionately atavistic. Rather like Cage’s operas, the Babel of collage created a type of Ur-Opera more than anti-opera. Elements from outside the score were permitted, with allusions to more pieces by Phillips and other operas. Precisely halfway through, a gunshot rang out and everything so far seen and heard by the audience was repeated, in reverse – a neat reference to another opera’s use of formal constraints to reign in romantic excess.

Casting the opera as a palindrome raises questions about the ephemeral nature of theatrical experience, not to mention the difficulty of getting music like this performed in public. At least the audience will have heard it more than once. It also highlighted the fact that we were only hearing yet one more possible interpretation of Irma and that only a certain amount of material was used. Irma remains elusive, its score suggesting a lost Platonic ideal that cannot be recreated, but at South London Gallery it gained a distinct identity for itself.