The End of Time: Olivier Messiaen, Linda Catlin Smith

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Who would have thought that Messiaen needed rescuing? Yet all this time, in full view, his reputation has been in peril. Despite his secure position as one of the great figures of twentieth century music, he is often met with the Wrong Sort of apprehension – not for being “too modern” but for being too ornate and overbearing, loaded down with symbolism that he elaborates upon to an extent that tests the audience’s Sitzfleisch. He was teacher to a generation of avant-garde luminaries who waved off his radical techniques and gently dismissed him with the contempt bred by familiarity. Messiaen is now a double image that cannot be reconciled; he has been embraced by an audience at the expense of his modernity, while the more progressively minded continue to regard his modernity askance. We are only permitted to see him in part at any time. Advocating for him as an innovator is made to seem like a revisionist act.

It seems like a bold move for a new recording of Quatuor pour la fin du temps to be released by Another Timbre, a record label that’s made its name for working a rich seam of contemporary music while seldom straying beyond a range that extends from, say, John Tilbury to Wandelweiser. For those already familiar with this classic, this interpretation should come as a discreet but satisfying revelation. Rather than trying to reinterpret or (God forbid) ‘reimagine’ Messiaen, the musicians make a clear-eyed attempt to see his work plain. As with many twentieth century composers, first recordings of Messiaen have a rawness that comes with the strangeness of the new musical idiom and the need to emphasise the new, alien quality. A modern group taking this stark, ‘just the notes’ approach would be boring, uninflected and perversely colourless. For Another Timbre, the musicians are Heather Roche on clarinet, violinist Mira Benjamin, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, and Philip Thomas on piano. I’m sure I’ve discuss solo performances and recordings by all four musicians many times before. They each excel at new and contemporary music, through both technical achievement and interpretive nous. They approach the Quatuor as a contemporary work, combining flowing virtuosity with an appreciation for grit, never taking the composer’s craft for granted.

This performance-based approach produces rhythms and phrasing that are more deliberate (not necessarily slower) than other versions I remember. It stays true to the complex emotional experience of hearing the sute of eight movements while giving clarity to certain points. The opening “Liturgie de Cristal” emphasises is strangeness through its abruptness, hammered home by the sudden contrasts in the following Vocalise. Messiaen comes across as prescient of current musical trends here, particularly in the glacially slow clarinet solo “Abîme des oiseaux”, played by Roche with a tone that’s both pensive and unyielding, and “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes”. The latter, played by all four in unison, is the most arresting version I’ve heard: the lock-step precision produces a unique timbre and repeated phrases take on an urgency I haven’t heard before. Messiaen has the capacity to shock.

The Quatuor is paired with a piece for the same four instruments by Linda Catlin Smith, whose work has been presented on Another Timbre a couple of times before. Among the Tarnished Stars is an older work, from the late Nineties, which may be why it bears some more overt resemblances to other composers. In particular, it recalls late Feldman at his most extroverted, i.e. short fragments of lyricism in a tone that’s more wistful than claustrophobic. Piano plays against the clarinet and strings like a muted concerto. A less overtly dramatic work than the Messiaen, it still provides plenty of contrasts and incidents while still feeling compact at half an hour length. Heard alone, it could provide a fitting epilogue to the Quatuor, but in fact precedes it on the disc. It seems an unusual choice to have the later work first, but in this way it sets a new context in which Messiaen may be heard. Smith’s music is clearly a work of the present time without ornamenting itself with any overt signifiers of end-of-century fashions, whether cultural, social or technological. Messiaen’s connections with contemporary music may now be more closely observed.

Music We’d Like To Hear, 2019 season (part 3)

Wednesday 7 August 2019

(Part 2 here.)

The fiftieth Music We’d Like To Hear concert began with Séverine Ballon playing from her compositions for solo cello, which I’ve described before from a recital and her inconnaisance CD she released last year. These were followed by A line alongside itself, a new piece by Newton Armstrong which extended Ballon’s playing with electronics. By complete contrast, the second half the gig began with Michael Parsons’ 1995 electronic composition Tenebrio, an unusual piece quite unlike other pieces I’ve heard by him. Composed on a pair of Yamaha CX5M synthesisers (one such unit was on display for the audience to enjoy the authentic retro-techno vibe), the piece see-sawed between grainy drones and low-resolution noise.

I’m glossing over this stuff a bit because the final piece felt like a culmination of the entire series so far. The curators had flown over the American soprano Beth Griffith to perform John McGuire’s intricate vocal juggernaut A Cappella. Having presented a superb rendition of McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos two years earlier, this all-too-rare opportunity to hear his music was even more ambitious. A Cappella was written for Griffith in the mid 90s, weaving together brief samples of her voice with live singing, in melodic and spatial counterpoint between left and right loudspeakers. The piece unfurls with a steady, unyielding momentum, with the crispness and directness of rhythm and harmonies reminiscent of American ‘post-minimalist’ composers – without, however, any of the associated irritation. If heard inattentively, it resembles one of those 80s-90s pieces with a superficial brightness that quickly becomes inane and lethargic. That misconception soon disappears, as A Cappella continues to reveal new details and turns in expression without expanding upon the initial material. The piece is redeemed by this strong framework of compositional logic, resisting the need for subjective intervention while still being more sophisticated than simple bell-ringing patterns; there is also a suppleness to the rhythms engineered into the steady pulse. Griffith’s singing was essential to bringing out these shadings and depths in the musical texture to their fullest. Standing before the audience with a handheld microphone, she alternately led and followed the disembodied chorus that surrounded her, turning her head from one to the other, shifting effortlessly between registers, skimming the surface of the polyphony and then suddenly darting up to hover above it.

Music We’d Like To Hear, 2019 season (part 2)

Tuesday 6 August 2019

(Part 1 here.)

Music We’d Like To Hear‘s latest season continued their bold approach to reappraising recent music. The second concert began with a live performance of Timing by Phil Harmonic (aka Kenneth Werner) – a piece which had only existed up to now as a recording of a one-off, unscripted studio performance in 1979. Two performers on electric keyboards play chords, each telling the other when to change. It seems like nothing more than a simple excercise, but the performance revealed deeper implications. Each musician, and the music, is dependent on the other’s actions; yet neither can control what the other may do, only when they shall do it. Each knows what to do, but not when they may do it. In one way it is like one of Christian Wolff’s open scores where the musicians can only progress by consensus, but with an adversarial element. Each musician has the power, should they choose to do so, to subvert and disrupt as well as to collaborate. The spoken imperative to “change now” takes on a greater burden for the audience. Francesca Fargion and Tim Parkinson’s performance used a transcription of the same chords from the recording but in this piece, timing is everything.

I went to a fine performance of Alvin Lucier’s Chambers at one of these gigs a few years ago so it was slightly surprising to see it get another airing, except this was a completely different interpretation. The basic concept of filtering sounds through different, small acoustic spaces was reinterpreted by Rie Nakajima and Lee Patterson in a much broader way. Much of the sound was non-electronic and unamplified, particularly Nakajima’s. Any concave object or surface was considered as a potential acoustic filter for the transmission of sounds; even the sound of an open or hollow object against another surface is determined by the shape, down to a bottlecap pushed across the floor.

The gig ended with Enrico Malatesta performing Éliane Radigue’s Occam XXVI, circumnavigating a pair of cymbals with a violin bow, occasionally holding a frame drum to resonate above the cymbals’ surface. There’s a kind of meticulousness in these pieces in which the perfection of the player’s gestures in producing an immaculate surface of sound becomes fascinating in itself. Here, the music again seemed like a technical exercise but this time I struggled to find anything deeper. Radigue’s long history of work with synthesiser drones should mean that the apparently simple surface of harmonies reveal a more complex interplay of shifting overtones, but perhaps here the lack of precise control over the instrument’s harmonic spectrum and the overfamiliarity of bowed percussion sounds work against the odds of the listener finding an aural epiphany.

Music We’d Like To Hear, 2019 season (part 1)

Monday 5 August 2019

Summer has been cruelly disrupted, but not before I got to take in all of this year’s Music We’d Like To Hear season. I got to write about the 2018 season in more detail for last January’s issue of Tempo, but I still need to get a few things down about the concerts just passed.

It was the programme’s fifteenth anniversary and ended with their fiftieth concert. The 2019 series began with a recital for violin and piano by Mira Benjamin and Philip Thomas. The term ‘recital’ here perhaps ought to be used advisedly, but this gig was the most conventionally-formed ‘evening concert in a church’ out of the three – at least on the surface. MWLTH gigs, curated by composers John Lely and Tim Parkinson, always bring a combination of the brand new, the unfamiliar and the unjustly overlooked, often reviving works previously thought lost to live performance. Benjamin and Thomas ended their gig with a collaborative work, Marc Sabat and Matteo Fargion’s duet YOU MAY NOT WANT TO BE HERE (after Bruce Nauman). The words from the title phrase (taken from Nauman’s Poem Piece) were spoken in various permutations, or substituted with pitches on violin or piano. As twilight slowly faded through the church windows, slow exchanges between voice and instrument, instrument and instrument, untreated and prepared piano sounds inculcated a state of mesmerisation in the audience, subdued but held in suspense. I had to remind myself that Naumann was not directly involved in the composition of this piece – that impression may have been helped along by Parkinson worrying aloud in his introduction that the piece may rub some people the wrong way.

The concert began with Thomas Stiegler’s Inferner Park, a set of thirty-one slender pieces and fragments that skirted the boundaries between charming, obstinate and foreboding. The work is named after Paul Klee’s set of drawings. Works by Nomi Epstein, Tim Parkinson and Georgia Denham seemed to work together to form a sort of deconstructed violin sonata, each providing a distinct, isolated aspect of the players’ roles in the form. Epstein focused on gesture, attack and colouration, Parkinson on material with minimal interpretation, Denham on sonority and sentiment.

New Show! Like, For Real This Time! The Museum of Aphorisms and Platitudes

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Ah yeah, remember that art show I was in last month? Well, apparently I wasn’t. That was some kind of mix-up in the listings when I was in fact due to appear in the next instalment of The Museum of Aphorisms and Platitudes, curated by Phil Edwards. It opens at Rubicon ARI in North Melbourne on 24 July (that’s right now) and runs until 10 August – full deets on the Rubicon ARI website. Sadly, I won’t be there to see this one either, but I plan to give it some more online exposure after the show closes. My piece is a small musical score with an online sound realisation, so if you can’t make it to Melbourne then you won’t completely miss out.

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.

Samstag aus Licht in Paris

Tuesday 16 July 2019

A friend of mine once attended the summer school Stockhausen hosted at Kürten each year. When he told me about it, we joked back and forth about the ridiculousness of it all, the cult atmosphere, the white outfits, the harem, the cosmic consciousness, the megalomania. I asked him what the course was like and he suddenly got serious. “It changed my life.” He then stressed that he didn’t mean just music, he meant life itself.

Having experienced four of Stockhausen’s Licht operas now, I can fully understand my friend’s attitude. The premise is hopelessly overambitious, the substance absurd to the point of offensiveness, the execution demands the preposterous. And each time, the audience (sometimes with the performers) ends up milling around outside the venue afterwards in a state of euphoria.

After getting enthused about the Le Balcon’s staging of Donnerstag aus Licht at Southbank, I looked them up to see when they planned the next instalment of their proposed complete cycle in Paris, only to find out it was happening this summer. It was a short but unforgettable holiday. Le Balcon has been taking a relatively practical approach to staging these spectacles, so I was worried that the relatively stripped-back approach would take the edge off Samstag, which places a heavier reliance on theatrical presentation over libretto to tell its story.

No fear of that. Each scene depicts a single, bold image, detailed in music and gesture more than words. It is almost childishly simple. Of the three Licht protagonists, Samstag takes Lucifer as its subject, and your immediate hopes that this will make the opera suitably badass are pretty much fully rewarded. From the first scene where Lucifer stalks onto the stage, bangs out an ominous chord on a piano and summons his musician, this production captured the right mix of hermetic esoterica and giddy coups de théâtre. (Bass Damien Pass pulled off the portayal of Lucifer as self-possessed arrogance covering a deep-set core of anxiety.) Over the following scenes, the piano was pressed into service as a podium and then, end on, as a protruding tongue from a grimacing, demonic face. The use of projections was highly effective, illuminating the music and its underlying symbolic conceits without cluttering things up.

That theme of transformation was strongly present again. In Donnerstag, it is largely confined to the stage but from Samstag onwards Stockhausen turned his attention to transforming the audience. Le Balcon ran the first three scenes together into an unbroken span of three hours. Even on that supremely hot weekend, the punters stayed focused and enthusiastic throughout. (Props to the elderly lady who strolled away afterwards, bedecked with explosive debris from the first scene as a trophy.) The final scene of Lucifer’s exorcism and farewell took place in, and in front of, a nearby church. At six PM we were all calmly taking our seats in a concert hall; by eleven we were in a mob on the street rapturously cheering while passersby were inadvertently sprayed with debris by coconut-hurling monks chanting St Francis’ Salutatio Virtutum. “What’s going on?” one tourist asked me. We’ve exorcised Lucifer, have some coconut.

Lance Austin Olsen: Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You

Thursday 4 July 2019

This gets dark and disturbing. I’ve written before about Lance Austin Olsen, the artist and composer who uses his paintings as scores to be realised as music. “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.” His new release, Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You, is the most overtly musical of his tape works I’ve heard so far yet is the one with the clearest, most present narrative. It falls into three equal parts, The Event, The Descent and Lost – that middle title could describe the work as a whole. The triptych embodies a sinking into a new state of being, unwelcoming but inevitable. (In the accompanying booklet, Olsen obliquely relates the incident of an acquaintance having a stroke. The booklet includes the dense, black notebook drawings that form the basis of the work, of which this recording is only one version.) As with the previous recordings I’ve heard, Olsen has reworked and collaged recordings he made some years earlier, but here the materials sound less eclectic and more focused: voices, piano and organ recorded in a church. The feeling is less collage and more montage. The reverberant space casts the voices and sounds into a deep hollow that dominates all three parts. As implied by the titles, the three-act structure does not assure the listener with a redemptive arc, but guides into a personal abyss of private pain.

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. Lol nope it’s actually on at Rubicon ARI in July/August. 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.