Hearing it again: awirë

Tuesday 25 June 2019

I was at this gig and I swore I’d written something about it, but nope. My memory gets hazy and my mind wanders. It happens sometimes when listening to music and I think it happened at this gig, but I could be wrong. Cyril Bondi, Pierre-Yves Martel and Christoph Schiller were playing at Cafe Oto to promote their fine album tse. At the end of the night, the trio were joined by violinist Angharad Davies for an improvised set.

This kind of scenario where musos work together for the first time in front of an audience is often the bane of free improvisation, where the potential thrill of risk-taking and discovery usually succumbs to awkward longeurs or unsatisfying busywork. At Oto, the quartet seemed to be at pains to keep out of each others’ way, working with a highly restrained palette and seemingly determined to make as little sound as possible. Scratch ‘possible’, replace with ‘necessary’: as they played it became clear that they were deliberately taking this approach, each of them focused on the unique timbres of their instruments (violin, viola da gamba, prepared spinet, harmonium drones and pipes) with an absolute minimum of embellishment or extraneous context, other than that provided by their fellow musicians.

Still, I couldn’t fully let go of my hang-ups about improvisation and kept listening out for any signs that the music was becoming too hesitant or precious. Live, in a bar in Dalston, it held together but on the frailest of threads. It felt like a delicate, shared experience that couldn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. I was therefore very surprised when Another Timbre (which had released tse) decided to release this set as a 30-minute CD, now with the title awirë. The short length isn’t the issue; it’s hard to think of anything that could be reasonably paired with it that would not detract from attention to this one piece. Was it really that good?

It would be trite to say that listening to the CD was a revelation, but you get the idea. First, the recording sounds damn good (it has been cleaned up to remove the Unber Eats scooters outside and me spilling Westmalle inside) and what could have been indistinct now sounds incredibly resilient. For thirty minutes the four players spin out a long, thin line of sound, held taut and in suspension without ever slacking or letting it drop, even as they pass it back and forth between each other. The small sounds stand out as significant elements in a self-reinforcing structure that’s as strong as it is light.

As it turns out, there was a compositional method at work. Besides the premeditated approach, a chance-determined gamut of pitches was drawn before playing, keeping the quartet focused on certain notes for a given time, with occasional opportunities for ‘free’ playing. This goes some way to explaining the coherence of the piece, but to work so well as music requires the skill and imagination of the quartet. The arbitrary pitches and structure inspire creativity as much as they impose order, and there is a superb sense of pacing and nuance that ensures that every gesture places the whole attention on sound over idea. A kind of virtuosity that is invisible. Even at the moments of greatest stillness, the music is never at rest.

New Show! The Museum of Aphorisms and Platitudes

Monday 17 June 2019

Anyone in Melbourne over the next month has the chance to see (and hear) a new work of mine at the group show The Museum of Aphorisms and Platitudes, curated by Phil Edwards. It opens at c3 Contemporary Art Space in The Abbotsford Convent on 19 June (6 to 8 pm for the launch). The show runs until 14 July – full deets on the c3 website. Sadly, I won’t be there to see it, but I plan to give it some more online exposure after the show closes.

The MoP&A – The Museum of Platitudes and Aphorisms is part of a series of exhibitions and events that explore how individual artists and audiences explore their thinking about the presence of art in a studio or a gallery environment. It seems that there is a kind of peripheral vision that occurs in all artist’s practices that, once recognised, avoids or extends the awareness of the role of art and galleries in our lives. The aim of the project is to ask both makers and observers to reflect upon their own values in the experiences of making, encountering and looking at art. The role of the museum or gallery as the psychological architecture used to reflect upon accepted knowledge is also in review.

Stockhausen For Times To Come

Monday 10 June 2019

The Stockhausen fest at Southbank which started with Donnerstag aus Licht reverted to business as usual with a quick tour of the standards – Kontakte, Stimmung, Klavierstücke, Mantra – with one notable exception: a Sunday matinee in the Purcell Room of selections from Für kommende Zeiten, given by the always-adventurous ensemble Apartment House. A sequel of sorts to the notorious set of “intuitive music” compositions Aus den Sieben Tagen, the short texts that make up Für kommende Zeiten are less metaphysical than those of its predecessor and more focused on musical means. They are also much less known, sufficiently obscure that even freaky music buffs who like Aus den Sieben Tagen never seem to have heard of them.

It shouldn’t be hard to appreciate that Aus den Sieben Tagen is truly composition, not conditions for improvisation. The texts set rigorous conditions for the musicians’ mental state and receptiveness and to play intuitively from those conditions instead of a fully-articulated score. Damned if I can tell one from another though, when listening to most of them. Für kommende Zeiten is more explicit and so allows for a more obvious identity to each piece, but even so the nature of that particular identity can be open to interpretation. It takes a concentrating mind to make music from Stockhausen’s instructions with an approach that remains faithful to the meaning in the text. It’s too easy to lapse into self-absorbed noodling or a dry technical exercise, with the composer’s strictures crowding out any other concerns. Conversely, particularly in the case of Für kommende Zeiten, any straying from the score becomes especially obvious, even when the texts work through images and allusions.

For this event, Apartment House consisted of Rhodri Davies on harp, Simon Limbrick on percussion, Philip Thomas and Kerry Yong on piano and keyboards, with Anton Lukoszeveize on cello. Their playing was exemplary in making a coherent, satisfying musical experience while still feeling spontaneous – “intuitive” as Stockhausen would put it. Whether Stockhausen would have recognised or approved this interpretation is another matter; part of the freshness of this gig was the sneaking suspicion that he would not. He did tend to impose a sort of aesthetic austerity coupled with expressive technique. Apartment House favoured clearer, simpler (but not easy) gestures, which gave everything a more open texture throughout.

Eight pieces from the set of 17 were played, each one overlapping to make a continuous work that lasted around 75 minutes. It was nevertheless very clear when one piece gave way to the next, through a combination of smart sequencing and playing that combined fidelity to the score with imaginative interpretation. Beginning with the blindfold piano duo Interval, the isolated sounds were taken up by the others to create Elongation and then gathered together again for Bird of Passage before spreading out into sustained harmonies for Presentiment. Japan allowed breathing space, with more silences and added rainsticks to match Stockhausen’s evocative little poem, before the harmonising resumed in various patterns through Halt, Spectra and the more agitated Vibration to reach a conclusion.

Gentle use of electronics, amplification and extended techniques further distnguished and coloured each piece without distracting from the overall cohesion of the five instrumentalists. The punters in the surprising well-attended stalls appeared to enjoy it and it seemed to be over in less than an hour, which is always a good sign. This piece is about half a century old; can it now be considered safe? Stockhausen’s intuitive compositions still have the reputation of being a bit beyond the accepted limits of the avant-garde, but there’s so much about them now assimilated into musical practice. Despite this, Stockhausen always manages to imbue his music with a wayward silliness that leaves you with some nagging doubt that there’s some other level to it that we’re still not getting, yet.

Maryanne Amacher’s GLIA at Kammer Klang

Thursday 6 June 2019

The last ever Kammer Klang was a celebration in their typical brilliant and daring style. Two nights of talks and films about Maryanne Amacher at the ICA, culimating with a live performance of GLIA for seven musicians and tape.

Although Amacher died only ten years ago, this gig was an act of rediscovery – she only rarely composed for live musicians and these few works are seldom performed. Before the concert, a talk by Bill Dietz and Amy Cimini gave the long backstory to GLIA in which the challenges in performing Amacher’s music became all too evident. Beside the trademark loud, harsh electronic sounds of her fixed media and installation works, her notation for the musicians was often vague, allusive rather than instructive, in need of rehearsal with the composer (at one session, she shouted “Coltrane!” at the musicians, by way of explanation). Fortunately, several of the musicians on the night had played the premiere of the piece back in 2005 and Dietz, who controlled the sound diffusion, had collaborated with Amacher.

GLIA is a massive (70? 75 minutes?) block of sound that nevertheless falls into several distinct segments. The musicians sat at one end of the room, installed on a wedge of low platforms that rose in the centre to make a kind of pyramid. (Why? It was Amacher’s idea.) The audience were invited to mill around four loudspeakers marking out a large square in the centre of the room. Earplugs were handed out. After a surprisingly harmonious opening of synth tones and wavelike surges in the instruments, the visceral punch came.

The electronic sounds weren’t loud, as such, but seemed to replicate the effects of hearing overly loud sounds: high pitched and closely spaced, designed to set off the middle ear with the crunching, pulsating distortion that typically signals your hearing is in imminent danger. It creates an unnervingly physical dimension to the act of listening, an awareness that the music will not let you ignore. The small ensemble of strings, flutes and reeds acted as a supplement to the electronic sound, sometimes adding background coloration and shade, other times becoming a kind of harmonic filter. At a couple of points in the piece, two musicians left their platform and circulated with the punters, playing accordion and piccolo, to more directly enhance the physical effects being experienced.

Despite being at the end of years of research, development and interim compositions, GLIA was clearly not a culmination of Amacher’s work but just the latest stage of a work in progress. It’s hard to imagine that the piece would not have undergone further revisions and refinements had she continued with it. The musicians, from Ensemble Contrechamps and Zwischentöne, played heroically but their instruments could have really used some amplification, if only out of consideration for their physical wellbeing. At times they needed to make every effort just to affect the overall sound, even if being heard wasn’t the prime consideration. Spatial effects are a large part of the piece, but encouraging the audience to move around detracted a bit from the sound’s impact, and so many bodies in the room would have had a deadening effect on some of the more subtle acoustic effects (another reason why amplification may have helped).

The ending, however, was just about perfect, in its simplicity and effect. A long, long, long fadeout from near-deafening to silence, the only change being in volume as the ear picked up a gradual spectrum of timbres and overtones and then lost them again, fainter until each one seemed like it would be the last.

Donnerstag aus Licht on Southbank

Tuesday 28 May 2019

A head full of pseudoephedrine and gin was never going to be an obstacle to enjoying a second performance of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht. If needed, there were plenty of empty seats around Royal Festival Hall to loll around in but once again I found myself sitting attentively through the whole thing, even when it should have been soporific, by all rights.

This production, by French company Le Balcon, is the first of what is intended to be a production of the complete Licht cycle in Paris. The performances were just fine, while the staging was minimal, if not rudimentary. It was at least a massive improvement over the staging in Basel a few years back, which was less concerned with illuminating the drama than sheepishly rationalising it away. It’s no bad thing to have a stripped production of a Stockhausen opera – it suits the mystery-play nature of his theatre – but a bit of audacious spectacle would make for a better match with the music.

Experienced on stage without the Basel dramaturgy running interference, so much more of the drama inherent in the music was revealed; not just that overall theme of transcendence, which Basel tried valiantly tried to extinguish, but in recurring motifs that changed from one appearance to the next, allowing the audience to at least intuit some development in Stockhausen’s often tortuous parables. Using a bare orchestra stage, lighting and a few props, the music was trusted to carry the burden of the drama. It’s remarkable how different a place the stage seemed in Act Three compared to that in Act One.

Things I’d forgotten: Stockhausen’s use of musical space. Act One seems the most conventional, yet for most of its hour duration features just three voices in counterpoint against a soft, almost droning tape. Solo interjections from trumpet, basset horn and trombone are rare and brief. Like an x-ray of a traditional opera. Later, the held chords, sustained for ages with no dramatic foreground, aural or visual. Perhaps the real subject of the opera is simply the triumph of holding one’s nerve. I’d still like to see a production which can afford to be more ambitious without getting in the way.

Similarities and differences: Cyril Bondi & d’incise, Magnus Granberg

Monday 20 May 2019

Listening to the latest release by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, it’s easy to hear similarities with their previous releases with the Insub Meta Orchestra. The sound pulses and flows without any overt movement or direction, each moment self-contained. Here are three shorter works, Mem, Aleph, Lassis, each around ten minutes. The twist is that each is played twice, first by quartet The Pitch (clarinet, vibraphone, pump organ and double bass), then by Bondi and d’incise on various small organs with Mike Majkowski on double bass. The differences are subtle, with the latter trio sounding softer, more homogeneous without the percussion to add articulation. An echo, diminuendo. The shorter durations and consequent reduction in scale gives each piece a more definite, almost subjective shape. It’s pleasant listening, but that pleasure is sequestered within a comfort zone. It sounds more modest, but that may be because I’m coming to if after hearing their other recent album of deconstructed dub under the guise of Diatribes.

When I wrote about Magnus Granberg’s last release, Nattens skogar, I compared his music to late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. This new CD, recorded with his regular group Skogen, again contains a single ensemble work. Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn is nearly an hour long and features nine musicians but retains the starker sound-world of the quartet in Nattens skogar. It begins with a scraping sound punctuated by two chords on prepared piano. The consistently low volume levels throughout belie the sharp relief of the sounds being played. This low but distinct relief continues throughout; a slow, irregular rhythm of percussive sounds, some electronically amplified, against a faint background of string drones, electronic buzzing, field recordings, or silence. At one point, a high keening can be heard from either a violin, a recorded bird, a bowed vibraphone or feedback, or possibly a combination of the above. Where earlier works by Granberg presented a continuity of sound, here the interplay of sound and silence builds a more complex image, making each new sound’s introduction or withdrawal all the more striking, whether it’s bursts of line noise or recordings of wildlife. I’d described Nattens skogar as “the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed” and Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn continues that development, where the overall image grows more mysterious even as each element comes into clearer focus.

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2019 “What? Again? Already?” Edition

Friday 17 May 2019

Reposted from last year with trivial changes, because people seem to like it. In these days of online content, I recommend that you do not view anything Eurovision related until the final on Saturday night. Eurovision is best played stud, with every act coming as a complete surprise.

(Everything below has happened.)

CURTAIN UP

At the first appearance of the presenters, drink to the health of Masha and Pasha.

PHASE I: THE SONGS

A. Every instance within a song:

I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).

I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.

B. Once per song only:

I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.

I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.

I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.

I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.

I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.

I.B.6 The GreeksRussiansGreeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)

I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…

I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.

I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.

PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.

I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.

I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it.

PHASE II: THE VOTES

II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.

II.2 The Gimme. When Greece maxes out its points to Cyprus.

II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.

II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, the United Kingdom gets its first point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.

II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.

II.6 The Wogan. Any blatant display of favouritism between particular countries in the jury, or a hasty correction by a flustered announcer when reading out results. Keep an eye on Russia, Ukrainelol nope, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and anomalies in votes for Slavic and Balkan countries.

PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so a liberal interpretation is allowed.

II.7 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.

II.8 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.

II.9 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.

II.10 The Master of Suspense. This hasn’t happened for a few years but people might get confused by the new rules: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.

PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

II.11 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all vote for each other, or a former Soviet republic votes for Russia. Do not attempt without medical supervision.

THE WILDCARDS

W0: Australia! Any person may lead a toast amongst all drinkers by shouting “Australia!”, “Aussie!”, “Oi!”, “Hawkey!” or any suitably positive Australian word or noise. This can happen any time during the night as many times as wished for no reason whatsoever because OBVIOUSLY NOBODY AT EUROVISION GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES.

W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b why the United Kingdom is in it;
W1.c why ItalyTurkey isn’t in it;
W1.d why Russia Ukraine isn’t in it this year;
W1.e where the hell is Moldova?; or
W1.f Australia?

W2 Drink to any display of national resentment or self-pity related to current events. Pay close attention to Armenia/Azerbaijan, Ukraine/Russia, Greece/Germany, anybody/United Kingdom, Australia.

W3 Pretend to drink when someone makes a disparaging comment about the United Kingdom. Finish your drink if someone makes a disparaging comment about RussiaAustralia.

W4 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W5 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

Oren Ambarchi at 50

Thursday 16 May 2019

A three-day weekend at Cafe Oto: less a showcase of Ambarchi’s talents, more a swag of really cool birthday presents. Here’s a quick trip round the bits that stuck in my head.

It’s been long time since I’ve seen a gig made up of sets by a bunch of different artists where everything was equally satisfying, then there were two on successive nights. Everything was distinct, but the two evenings had a cohesiveness that made things seem to flow naturally from one set to the next. Then there was the selection of musicians – innovative thinkers, all capable of playing with a mixture of sound technique and inspiration.

Two nights only, because I’m a dickhead who didn’t get to the first night with David Rosenboom. Luckily, I have friends who were there and have been rubbing in what a great show I missed.

The solo electronic sets (Joe Talia playing his work Tint, Eiko Ishibashi, Kassel Jaeger, Massimo Toniutti) could be appreciated individually. The technology is now sufficiently widespread and trouble-free that these sorts of shows can often get samey and tedious – kind of drone, kind of field recording, montage, crossfade, introduce a narrative element, mix to taste and repeat – but each artist had a contrasting approach in the way they juxtaposed sounds and managed their sonic palette, producing a distinctive experience.

It’s also been a long time since I had to queue to get in. I booked ahead for the Monday night gig, which was just as well because that show sold out.

James Rushford on portative organ with Will Guthrie on percussion: it’s hard to believe that they haven’t been working as a duo for years. Their set was a superb demonstration of their sureness of touch, with the odd combination of instruments sounding as one immensely variable voice. Each gesture was decisive even at its most fleeting, often suspended in the grey area between extended techniques and flat-out playing. There was an audible connection between this set and the electronic pieces.

Acoustic gigs always have an edge over electronic. It can’t be helped; there’s the theatrical aspect, the appreciation of physical skill and the sense that, accustomed to thinking of electronic sounds as a medium instead of an instrument, you’re hearing something more that could be heard in any recording. Arnold Dreyblatt’s duo with Konrad Sprenger combined the two just delightfully, but at the core of it all was the thrill of Dreyblatt’s double-bass harmonics live in person.

It must be twenty goddamn years since I’ve heard a set like the Alvin Curran and Oren Ambarchi duet. Oh sure, I’ve heard lots of attempts to do what they did on Sunday night – a manic electroacoustic free-for-all wowing the punters with a relentless barrage of wacky sounds and killer musical chops – but these two somehow managed to defy history and pull it off. In theory, such a gig should be fun, but in practice this has seldom been the case. Once upon a time, this sort of gig would almost inevitably devolve into insufferable wankery, stale jokes and undifferentiated sludge, but more recently they have settled into being mannered and sedate. Watching Curran, furiously working his sampler and keyboard, facing off against Ambarchi hunkered down with his guitar behind a bank of electronics was like witnessing the rediscovery of a lost technology as they showed it is in fact possible to be fast, loud, stoopid and about as thematically stable as a channel-surfing cokehead without ever getting boring. Part of the giddiness it induced was because I don’t know how they did it.

The whole thing ended with a 20-muso blowout appropriately named HUBRIS. Built on a steady pulse and monomaniacal riff carried by half-a-dozen guitars, it acquired a two-note bass line and just kept getting louder. It had the same driven rock impulse of Ambarchi’s Sagittarian Domain, but stripped of content in exchange for overwhelmingly excessive force. It’s a ballsy move to raise your audience (and bandmates) up into birthday bonhomie by battering them into submission, but he somehow got away with it. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been to a gig where my ears started to hurt, so thanks for the dash of nostalgia.

Klaus Lang & Golden Fur: Beissel

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Usually, when someone says that a piece grows on you, they mean that they didn’t like it at first but then came to find at least certain aspects to admire. I’ve started to write this review without any clear idea of what I’m going to say about Beissel, because it is a work so protean in nature that it is much harder to define than its form at first suggests. The piece keeps growing with each hearing, accruing new qualities that both enhance and confound what had been heard before. Another half-dozen hearings and my review would be different again to what I had originally planned to write after listening the first time around.

To start with some facts: Beissel is a collaboration between composer/performers Klaus Lang and the trio Golden Fur (Samuel Dunscombe, clarinets; Judith Hamann, cello; James Rushford, viola and harmonium). The work is a group composition, performed in the abbey at St Lambrecht near Styria in Austria, in 2016. Lang is best known for his compositions made from faint traces of sound, at times hardly there at all (listeners may or may not notice that his early string quartet The Sea of Despair ends with 20 minutes of silence.) As an ensemble, I’ve only previously heard Golden Fur as interpreters of other composers’ works.

To continue my simplistic caricature of Lang’s music, Golden Fur have drawn him out of his shell for this session. The most significant moment in Beissel comes early on, when the harmonium rises up out of the church organ’s tones in a different intonation, at once wonky and radiant like a force of nature. It’s quite glorious and is emblematic of the music to follow. For forty-five minutes the music flows from rest to restiveness, at once disturbing and oddly reassuring. Each performer blends in yet can also act as a goad from time to time, pushing the sound out of any complacent consensus.

The other instruments combine in ways which can make them difficult to distinguish, giving them the aural trick of taking on qualities from whatever I’ve just listened to before. On certain hearings, the music has resembled electric guitar drones, string ensembles, large solo organ, pure electronics, a phantom flute. Like I said, the music is protean. The title refers to Johann Conrad Beissel, the 18th century religious leader who travelled to America to found a utopian religious community. He devised a compositional method of algorithmic permutations, designed to reinterpret the text of the bible as music. Beissel is apparently one of these hymns, slowed down to glacial stillness.

It would be nice to praise the playing as focused, but there’s a tremendous sense of freedom in what’s happening, of sounds discovered in a shared moment. The source material allows a rich field of possible combinations, where strange tunes and harmonies are liable to burst out at any moment. Beissel is a fine example of the artist as a critic, opening up new avenues of exploration in existing work. The playing of the four musicians captures an act of rediscovery, unveiling an alternative musical world.

Annea Lockwood at Kammer Klang

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Annea Lockwood is one of those composers who I like even when I don’t like their stuff: there’s always a point of view, an insight into how the world is experienced – a purpose, even if that purpose is sonic play. It has the deeper substance that distinguishes art from craft. Her work, like others consigned to the Too-Hard-Basket of the Sixties, is not nearly as well known as it should be, particularly in the UK. It took me by surprise again when, thanking the audience at Cafe Oto on Sunday night, she mentioned that she had once lived for some time in London.

There have been some great efforts to compensate lately, from last December’s LCMF to last weekend’s Kammer Klang mini-festival. Jennifer Lucy Allan was guest curator for this event, putting together a smart and neatly-contained programme over two nights. During the days, her four-channel installation of A Sound Map of the Hudson River played in the Project Space, with a Q&A session on Sunday afternoon.

Each concert followed the usual Kammer Klang format of opening with short, distinct works followed by a main course after interval. Those twin themes of sonic exploration and purposeful play in Lockwood’s work were announced in pieces realised by students from CRiSAP. EVOL’s 2011 piece Three hundred grams of latex and steel in one day shows what you can do with nuts (metal) trapped inside inflated party balloons. Sunday night began with a more technically conventional fanfare, Yoshi Wada’s putative composition Lament for the Rise and Fall of Handy-Horn, scored for an ensemble of air horns. (This may have been a revival of a one-off piece from the 1990s, or the world premiere of a piece Wada doesn’t know exists.)

Lockwood was represented by recent works: Buoyant and Dusk are two evocative electronic works that fill a mental space usually occupied by memory. Buoyant, a montage of field recordings that are vivid in suggesting a discrete place without ever defining it, was followed almost imperceptibly by the collage of modified scientific recordings and percussion in Dusk. Without knowing the source, the listener would most likely mistake it for another remembered landscape. “Exploration” is a term that’s been worn out lately when describing artistic projects, but the process of searching out transcendent qualities in sound became a theme that ran through the weekend.

Sunday presented new pieces, receiving their European premieres. Becoming Air is a solo piece made in collaboration with trumpeter Nate Wooley. At times, the piece threatened to become a simple catalogue of techniques and effects, a deliberately episodic procession of sustained timbres, but as the work unfolded it gained a kind of shape through a careful balance of contrasting timbres and dynamics, with focused playing that was striking without ever becoming attention-seeking. Each section was preceded by Wooley striking a tam-tam and towards the end, after a prolonged passage of overblowing drones that created a racket to rival a noise guitarist, the relatively gentle percussion noise altered the entire piece’s perspective. Water and Memory, an open work for voices with found objects and the dreaded audience participation got my hippie-bullshit meter twitching anxiously but admirably retained its dignity, and the faint microtonal halo of voices at the end sounded so lovely.

The big revelation, for me at least, were two conventional works for piano, played by Xenia Pestova Bennett. I hadn’t heard this aspect of Lockwood’s music before. By ‘conventional’, I mean treating the piano as an instrument, not as a fetishised object. Red Mesa (1993) and RSCS (2001) combine generous amounts of extended techniques inside the piano with keyboard sounds; the latter piece even draws its material from a tone row, from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Quartet. Pitch and noise were blended gracefully, with a clarity of textures and figures that never lapsed into pure sonority.

Besides Lockwood, the programme also featured recorder player Laura Cannell giving her interpretation of Peter Hannan’s RSRCH 4/83, transposed to suit her vocal range as the piece requires voice and instrument to merge. Any chance to hear more music by Chiyoko Szlavnics is also welcomed, so Evie Hilyer and Amalia Young playing two brief violin duets was a bonus.

I’ve enthused about Kammer Klang repeatedly on this blog, describing it as “about the most innovative and interesting new music programme going around right now.” Sadly, after eleven years, the series is coming to an end, with one last show to be held at the ICA on 31 May, dedicated to Maryanne Amacher. I’m glad they kept it up for so long and I saw as much of it as I could.

Julius Eastman: Femenine

Tuesday 2 April 2019

From time to time, the legend of Julius Eastman – tragic decline, obscurity, posthumous elevation to musical martyrdom – threatens to overshadow his achievements. He hasn’t quite attained the bedroom poster status of Che or Jim Morrison, emptied of meaning to become a vessel for the idolator’s own fantasies, but it’s important to get back to the music and refocus. Learning to hear it over again reminds you why his story has gained such renewed attention, and that his significance as a musician is still in flux.

Appreciating Julius Eastman’s music has been an act of recovery. Most Eastman fans probably first heard of him through the 3-CD set Unjust Malaise from 2005, the result of Mary Jane Leach’s quest to track down surviving remnants of his work. Another major step in this process was in 2016 when Frozen Reeds issued a tape of the large-scale ensemble work Femenine that had lain dormant for 40 years. For most of us, as listeners, the foundations of our knowledge of Eastman’s work has been through salvaged recordings that are part music and part historical artifacts.

What we heard was a lost strand of minimal music that was never fully pursued; a unique, vital voice in a style of composition that had seemed exhausted. Since then, new performances and recordings have started to appear, both premiering previously unknown works and reviving the inadvertent ‘classics’. At their best, these new interpretations reveal that those old tapes are merely scratching the surface of what can be found in even his most familiar pieces. The London Contemporary Music Festival in 2016 was dedicated to Eastman. At those concerts I heard that “When performed live by musicians who are not just skilled but are more sympathetic and knowledgeable than could be hoped for from a previous generation, the pieces took on a new life, with greater emotional depth and pure sensory delight than can be found in the old tapes.”

In that first LCMF concert, Apartment House gave the UK premiere of Femenine. That performance was recorded and is now commercially available on a new CD from Another Timbre. Their version benefits from greater accuracy and confidence compared to the 1974 tape of the SEM Ensemble, which allows the piece’s increasingly outrageous digressions to hit the listener with an tremendous force.

I’ve discussed the gig before and gone into more detail about Femenine in a review in Tempo. At first, the piece bears a superficial resemblance to Terry Riley’s In C, but Femenine evolves in a less predictable and more dramatic way. The musicians in Apartment House move from one figure to the next, sometimes together as a pack, at other times striking out individually or unexpectedly falling back. The relatively modest-sized ensemble take Femenine on a journey, making it expand, then soar, then self-sabotage with mock heroics, turn in upon itself and then recover and plough on ahead, stronger than before.

Eastman was an artist who refused to let himself be confined by the listener’s expectations, or by the logic implied the foundations for each of his pieces. His music repeatedly shows a desire to rebel against its own structures and is at its most powerful when the contrasting impulses to either transcend those constraints or destroy them combine to create the sense of a dramatic narrative, the meaning of which can never be fully resolved. Apartment House exploit these qualities to great effect, sounding both passionate and emotionally cool, depending on where you focus your attention. Recordings of mixed ensemble pieces that survive from Eastman’s lifetime seem relatively dry by comparison. Femenine is an essential work and, as significant as the 1974 version is, this new release has become the reference recording.

Debasing the Coinage of Popular Usage: Alan Courtis, Diatribes

Monday 1 April 2019

After hearing so many stripped-back works for solo guitar, it makes a fun change to get sent a guitar album that is cranked and processed halfway to heaven. Alan Courtis’ (bloke from Reynols) solo album Buchla Gtr mashes together one of those 80s-retro Steinberger headless electric guitars with a 60s-retro Buchla modular synthesiser into a seamless whole. The recordings were made over a week at EMS in Stockholm back in 2014 and then reworked over the next few years. As a double LP, each side presents a contrasting tableau of drones and buzzes that morph from ecstatic to sinister and from chilly to decadent. It’s a salutary lesson that the grey area between amplified guitar sounds and electronic oscillation is to be embraced rather than feared. If you were a spotty teenager who got off on Metal Machine Music, (No Pussyfooting) and Sonic Youth’s EPs then this album is a useful affirmation that your youthful tastes didn’t always suck.

Still speaking of guitars: I was at a Julia Reidy solo gig a while back and started thinking about how popular music gets used as material these days. Once, tropes from rock or jazz would be incorporated into other musical styles to act as a signifier of that genre; now, the substance is reworked into new forms. Reidy strummed a 12-string acoustic with live processing and drones provided by the laptop at her side. Chords were prolonged, removed from conventional structural function, sense or context. The point of focus became the tension between the sound in the moment enjoyed for its own sake and the potential for where it might turn next.

I don’t want to use the term ‘deconstructed’ to describe this style as it’s too often used as the smokescreen for ill-conceived pretentious food and even more pretentious music. I’ve just checked again and thankfully the blurb for Diatribes’ new release Echoes & Sirens doesn’t use it either. Here, the subject is dub, filleted and collaged into something that is decidedly not dub, however much one may be struck by a passing resemblance from time to time. No guitars here, except for the bass. A real horn section, with organ, drums and electronics that largely behave in the expected manner. The four tracks, each ten minutes long, imply that some other game is being played here, as does the fact that Diatribes is the duo of Cyril Bondi and d’incise, whom I have reviewed in various guises before.

There is a concept at work, according to the sleeve notes. Each track takes a classic of early 80s dub as a starting point and reworks elements of each by adopting techniques used on sound systems by MCs at the time. I have no authority to judge how successfully the album may be “considered as four imaginary moments of a sound system night” but that’s not the point as far as I’m concerned. While the material and technical concepts may be borrowed from popular music, the method by which they are adapted and applied to a new situations sounds entirely original and the whole thing sounds fresher when heard free of expectations to be true to an imagined model. Or, perhaps this is less an act of collage or d-d-deconstruction and more a cubist representation, incorporating time and subjective experience to move beyond simple mimicry. Each track focuses on a different approach, building up a chorus of echoing brass in ‘Dub fire will be burning’, stringing everything along a line of hi-hats on ‘Tell me, what do you see’, or chopped fragments in stuttering loops on ‘Continually’. A lot of these manipulations sound like they were captured in performance with a lesser degree of electronic manipulation later on, which is pleasing.

Solos: Félicie Bazelaire, Ferran Fages

Tuesday 26 March 2019

I’ve been listening to some new releases by d’incises, working in collaboration with various composers and musicians. (This is the guy who’s part of the Insub Meta Orchestra.) L’épaisseur innombrable is described as a “double bass solo by Félicie Bazelaire, based on a composition by d’incise”, which suggests a more esoteric process of transformation than a simple transcription or arrangement. (The packaging tells us nothing more than the above quote.) A thirty-six minute double-bass solo, L’épaisseur innombrable maintains a consistent level of activity throughout, inviting comparisons to Stefano Scodanibbio’s solo pieces or Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a. Unlike these two examples, Bazelaire does not give us constant, motoric activity. Much of the piece maintains a steady alternation of long and short, like a heartbeat. On one level, it’s soothing; paying closer attention unmasks darker undercurrents, the alternating harmonies by turns wistful and portentous. Later, the pace broadens out further into sustained tones, a glacial rallentando. Bazelaire’s realisation of this piece creates the skeletal outline from some long-lost slow movement from the late romantic era.

I got some exciting new releases from Another Timbre but I first have to give some time to Ferran Fages’ CD from the end of last year, Un lloc entre dos records. Fages plays his own composition for solo acoustic guitar and sine tones. It took me a while to come around to this one. I’ve heard a few great recordings in recent years by Cristián Alvear and Clara de Asís, playing severe, restrictive compositions for the guitar. Perhaps keeping those in mind a little too much made this piece seem to not quite gel for a while. Unlike, say, a piece by Alvin Lucier, guitar and sine tones are kept separate – no psychoacoustic trickery to enjoy here. After an opening section of widely spaced dissonances (semitones displaced across octaves à la late Feldman) a long passage of sustained sine tones reduces the harmonic and timbral palette to almost nothing. The guitar resumes, with strummed, dense, unresolved chords. The mind struggles to reconcile the parts into a whole. This piece is part of a trilogy exploring different guitar tunings, and Fages refers to Feldman in his other pieces in the series. Feldman worked in a subjective way that resisted an overall logic, but his audience has now become accustomed to his way of listening. Un lloc entre dos records suggests a new type of listening at play and, despite the Feldman references, Fages’ piece suddenly became more sympathetic when recognising the connections to the type of wandering aesthetic heard in some of Jürg Frey’s solo pieces such as guitarist, alone. Fages approach comes from the inside, as a guitarist, with a more forthright harmonic language made from the retuning of open strings.

Alvin Lucier at the Round Chapel

Saturday 23 March 2019

Almost ten years ago, I saw Alvin Lucier in one of the most memorable gigs I’ve been to, performing Bird and Person Dyning at Wilton’s Hall. It’s a magnificent piece in the way it leads the listener to consider the act of listening as an aesthetic act, the underlying phenomena and the consequences of this newfound awareness, all in one simple, seemingly effortless gesture. It’s this sort of thing that makes me consider Lucier one of the most important living composers.

He was supposed to be back in London at the Round Chapel in Clapton last week, but had to cancel at late notice due to a health problem that prevented travel. The concert otherwise proceded as planned: a three-hour tour de force that affirmed Lucier’s presence as a composer of superb music.

A couple of his classic/notorious works were presented in the second half, but the focus was on his newest music and was so much the better for it. The evening began with a recent work that signalled intent, Ricochet Lady from 2016: Trevor Saint on a glockenspiel off in a dark corner of the hall, hammering out rapid arpeggios in the highest register. The repeating figures created the psychoacoustic effect of sustained tones – the type that people who have heard early Philip Glass will immediately recognise – emphasised to the extent that the aural effects became the musical material instead of the notes played. A combination of the hall’s reverberation, the instrument’s bright timbre and the overtones of close-spaced high frequencies created a series of metallic buzzing and humming sounds beyond the physical scope of the instrument.

Vespers and I Am Sitting In A Room were each performed live in the Round Chapel. Two of Lucier’s best-known works, each now fifty years old; both pieces still fascinate in the way they reveal fundamental qualities of aural perception taken for granted and complacently disregarded by musical theory. Hearing Vespers performed live reveals the spatial qualities of the sound, as the four blindfolded players traversed the hall by means of echo-location, while the electronic clicks they emitted were subtly transformed by their movements. This is minimal music, in a manner similar to that of a sculpture by Serra or Judd, exposing liminal phenomena of space, mass, sound or light through supposedly undifferentiated material.

The larger part of the concert was given over to four works for acoustic ensemble paired with electronics, all from the 2010s and all with one evident premise. Lucier has long exploited the effects gained from combining pure sine tones with acoustic instruments, allowing interplay of beating frequencies and differences through small differences in intonation and the harmonic spectrum of the instruments. The Ever Present Orchestra was founded for the purpose of playing these pieces and their performances showed just how effectively musical Lucier’s music can be, in the conventional sense, when interpreted with inisght and sensitivity. (Guest performers on the night included figures as diverse as John Tilbury, Jennifer Walshe and Thurston Moore.)

As with Cage, there’s often a didactic quality behind Lucier’s earlier music, those most famous (or notorious) pieces. A phenomenon is demonstrated. As with Cage, a superficial exposure to Lucier’s work suggests that he is more about ideas than music. The late works played at Round Chapel should go a long way to refuting this misapprehension. First and foremost, Lucier composes music – a point that his work has continued to make clearer and clearer over the years. While Vespers and I Am Sitting In A Room are “about” sound, Ricochet Lady is “about” music, treated and filtered without electronics. The ensemble pieces are all ostensibly “about” the same idea, but now this is obviously not the point. Like Cage’s music, the ideas serve merely as a means to an end.

The ensemble is violins, cellos and saxophones, augmented on occasion by piano, vibraphone and e-bowed guitar. As played by the Ever Present Orchestra, when the winds and strings begin, the sounds combined with the sine tones are almost indistinguishable, producing a complex blend of tone that is hard to define. In Two Circles, Semicircle and Tilted Arc (a reference to a Serra’s destroyed public sculpture), the fundamental shapes suggested by the titles are perceptible in the trajectory of the music but subsumed within a broader, compositional form. Musical sense takes precedence over logical intelligibility. In Two Circles, a reduced ensemble of violin, cello, two saxophones and piano slowly interweave, their harmonies growing more distant, opening up into wider registers before resolving to a dense, multiphonic unison. Seimicircle mounts in a glorious ascent, brassier sounds to the fore, only to fall away again in a slow motion landslide.

The grouping of instruments and electronics blend into a complex harmony and tonal colouration far removed from the usual stark palette expected from Lucier. This was felt most strongly in the world premiere of EPO-5, probably the high point of the evening. Using a large ensemble, the usual variations in harmonic intervals moved in ways that couldn’t be anticipated. For me at least, acoustic and electronic voices all seemed to move in different directions and any attempt to reduce the piece to a single concept was futile. It was simply music, lush and dramatic, intricate without becoming opaque, with strangely lingering effects that unfolded at a deliciously languorous pace. Listeners were carried along without feeling pushed. I can’t imagine hearing these pieces played better.

The BBC were recording the event, so hopefully I get to hear it all again soon.

Works on Paper: Gil Sansón and Lance Austin Olsen

Monday 18 March 2019

Feels like I’ve been away forever. I got a bunch of new albums I want to talk about and a superb Alvin Lucier concert I went to last week, but right now I have to say something about this new release by Gil Sansón and Lance Austin Olsen. I got all excited about Olsen’s music last year, with his visual approach to making music. A real artist, y’know? He makes paintings, some of which function as musical scores, and takes a very collage-type approach to his recordings.

On his Another Timbre CD last year, Olsen produced a multitracked realisation of a graphic score by the Venezuelan artist Gil Sansón. I’d described A Meditation on the History of Painting as “like painting, a synthesis of gesture and editing, with traces of the two processes preserved in the medium”. On this new album, Works on Paper, Olsen and Sansón give an extended presentation of their technique of creative exchange. Disc 1 features two realisations of Olsen’s painting/score Pra Mim, recorded by Sansón in Caracas. On the second disc the roles are reversed, with Olsen in Victoria, Canada recording two realisations of Sansón’s graphic score Meditations. For two hours, the air teems with tantalising connections, potentialities.

As with painting, the fabric of the music hovers between fragments of narrative and unspecified affect. It’s an elusive music, part radio drama, part collage, part pure sound. The sense of meaning is always present, both in content and form, but is left to the listener to find for themselves. Sampled music, taken straight or manipulated, combine with field recordings, musical instruments, isolated phrases spoken or sung and mysterious electronic clicks and buzzes. Similarities between the two artists abound, inviting further connections and comparisons to be made between the two minds at work, one in British Columbia and the other in Venezuela. The sounds are captured beautifully. Within each realisation, certain elements repeat, or seem to. Everything becomes suspended in a dream-like state, fully aware but inexplicable.

The pieces have been sequenced so that words, spoken or sung, appear less and less as time goes on. Pieces end on extended hiatus, with aural figuration giving way to empty spaces, alive with background sound. The final Meditation is wordless, with Olsen interpreting Sansón’s score with layers of sparse, amplified sounds and guitar. The album’s an ideal follow-up to last year’s Dark Heart release.