Christopher Butterfield: Souvenir

Sunday 26 March 2023

Christopher Butterfield catches you off-guard and continues to do so for the duration of this album. Souvenir (Redshift Music) collects four of his ensemble pieces, adroitly played by the Aventa Ensemble. His melodic material appears at first to be innocuous, or casually beguiling, but as his instrumental lines merge into each other they refuse to coalesce into a unified statement and as they continue to politely bicker amongst themselves the listener is kept constantly on edge, hoping for a resolution that may or may not arrive.

Souvenir (1995) begins with a steady shuffle and quirky counterpoint that immediately suggests the chirpy ‘post-minimalism’ (ugh) of a generation ago, but everything is too precarious and off-kilter to fall into the bluff certainties of that genre. In any case, as soon as you’re starting to get your head around it, it stops and then restarts in a different direction. Each new episode plays off divergent, hopping melodic lines against a pulse in the percussion that is never quite at tempo. To unsettle things further, a very faint field recording of tree frogs chirps away steadily in the background, at odds and indifferent to all around it. The piece peaks when most of the instruments fall away to spotlight a duet between horn and violin that is no duet at all, with each soliloquising oblivious of the other.

My prior knowledge of Butterfield’s work was limited to the disc of his music for string ensembles by the Quatuor Bozzini a while back. For this set, the presence of percussion adds a more tangible bite to his friable rhythms and meters. parc (2013) expands upon this in the form of a percussion solo, with Rick Sacks on vibraphone and Aventa running interference on each other. At one point, Sacks resorts to a small set of woodblocks instead of the vibes; the crude, limited gamut of pitches hints that any sophistication observed here is a veneer to more direct and basic impulses. Butterfield’s sleeve notes reveal his use of chance, serial procedures and malfunctioning electronics (the melodies in Souvenir) to shape his music. His confident handling of unreliable systems gives the capricious twists and turns in his compositions a sense of openness reminiscent of Cage, even while sounding nothing alike.

Cage is acknowledged explicitly in Frame (2012), a piece built on the premise of staggered unisons. Even as asynchronicity is a recurring feature in these pieces, Butterfield cites Cage’s Ryoanji as Frame‘s impetus (“he called it “Korean Unison,” although I’ve never come across the term anywhere else”). The piece begins with appropriate Cagean decorum but inexorably unravels until it spawns an obstinately erratic drum-kit solo that steps all over the meticulously uncontrolled counterpoint. Finally, Port Bou (2001) is probably the most elaborate piece in the set, using a mixture of techniques to collage together a richly coloured but poignant memorial to Walter Benjamin. In its seemingly arbitrary juxtapositions, Butterfield finds a pathos amongst the absurdities, giving and added depth to dispel any remaining suspicion that his musical language can be summarised simply as playfulness.

I’ve been sleeping a lot this month and I’m relieved this album arrived to wake me up.

More Timbres: Frank Denyer, Evan Johnson, Bryn Harrison

Monday 6 March 2023

Another Timbre continues to advance the noble cause of Frank Denyer: the latest is a double, making his complete Melodies cycle from the mid 1970s available to the public for the first time. Composed over several years, it’s a series of twenty-six short compositions for a multicoloured array of small ensembles and soloists. Listening to the cycle as a whole gives a fascinating insight into Denyer’s conception of sound and composition; he makes the most startling leaps in imagination appear to occur to the musicians naturally and spontaneously. Melodies begins as a series of ‘one-note’ melodies, opening out in range until it reaches an epilogue made up of fifteen pitches. It’s a steady spiral of growth, sound more organic than mathematical. The peculiarity of Denyer’s music is always very human and direct: the ‘one-note’ pieces use flexible intonation and rhythm to create something alive from the most marginal substance. Solo horn is accompanied by clicking stones, added as though the percussion is an incidental, semi-conscious articulation. From there the cycle doesn’t exactly build upon itself, but expands upon its initial driving urge, using instruments that are muted and modified, baroque and exotic, or simple voices including, at one point, the composer’s own. The performances here were compiled over several months, with the Scordatura Ensemble, Luna String Quartet and vocal ensemble Mad Song making each piece feel like inspired improvisation (with some thrilling unison work from the Lunas near the end). In its means and materials, Melodies draws upon and then confounds what was then our emerging understanding of art that had been traditionally labelled ‘primitive’, raising its cumulative effect into a powerful statement.

A new set of solos, duos and trios by Evan Johnson titled L’art de toucher follows on from the set of piano pieces lists, little stars put out on All That Dust in 2021. The title is highly appropriate for Johnson’s music, even as it references the three pieces here titled L’art de toucher le clavecin, none of which include a keyboard. The focal instrument in this triptych is the piccolo, that most friable of instruments, heard solo, with violin, and with both violin and percussion, although not necessarily in that chronological order. The brittle and the ethereal are the two extremes Johnson tries to embrace at once in his highly detailed compositions, eking out a hard-won yet fragile physicality in sound. The music is all about touch, or its absence, where it begins and ends, hovering on that threshhold where physical contact is manifested as sound, leaving you wondering at times if you’ve heard anything at all. The mechanical intervention of the piano in lists, little stars prohbits such subtleties being employed to their full effect, so the pieces here come across as more readily intelligble and less precious in their reticence. Richard Craig and Susanne Peters interpret their piccolo parts with a blessed absence of affectation, accompanied by violinist Sarah Saviet and Rie Watanabe on percussion. The larger piece Plan and section of the same reservoir is performed by the acclaimed Trio Accanto with the rarefied brilliance you would expect. Most haunting is thaes oferode, thisses swa maeg, in which Juliet Fraser and Séverine Ballon play a duet for soprano and cello that blends their sounds in ways that suggest they are being shadowed by a ghostly clarinet.

Sarah Saviet returns for a bravura performance of Bryn Harrison’s violin solo A Coiled Form. Before hearing it, immediate comparisons can be drawn with his earlier piano piece Vessels: both began as short pieces that were then extended to over three times their original length. Both require a tightrope act of calmness and concentration to sustain and preserve a moment to immense duration; in effect, both are small pieces, just very long. The unexpected difference comes in the flow of the music. Whereas Vessels and other pieces by Harrison unroll in a steady, unbroken cascade, A Coiled Form is disrupted by crosscurrents and eddies. Bowed sowftly sul pont throughout, Saviet’s violin flits and skitters like a Sciarrino caprice, negotiating a pathway through a maze of twisting little passages, all different. At times, the music doubles back upon itself, or gets caught in a cul-de-sac and loops for a while before taking up a previously-discarded thread. The quietly obsessive persistence of the piece can be enervating, but Saviet doesn’t let it show. Even heard as background, its sudden conclusion after some fifty minutes leaves a profound absence in its wake.

Short Cuts: Rawlinson, Friedl, Steiger

Thursday 23 February 2023

Pulsar Retcon by Jules Rawlinson (Superpang): nine quick takes of electronic noise that cram a lot into sub-twenty minutes. It all bustles about constantly, alternately scratching, squelching and beeping in a nice mad-scientist way. When it starts to sound like it’s just rolling back and forth to keep busy, it’s because that’s exactly what’s happening: “Improvised buffer scratching, corpus scrubbing and waveform scuffing of material sourced from New Pulsar Generator.” I wanted something truly surprising to happen but instead it gets comfortable with itself, which is kind of forgiven by the means of its construction. Rawlinson’s trying out licks on a reluctant instrument and looks for a groove before trying to bust it up, which justifies the human noodling gestures heard through the emotionless static and also keeps things lively to the end.

Old Neo by Reinhold Friedl (also Superpang): Friedl has a lot more gear at his disposal than Rawlinson, taking all the sounds for his thirty-ish minute opus from a Neo-Bechstein. (If you don’t want to right-click that name, it’s a brand of 1930s electric piano of which two functioning instruments survive.) Presumably the Austrian museum curators won’t let you go hog wild on the thing so Old Neo is an extended slab of sombre mood music, all ominous drones and keening feedback harmonics. I’m left teetering between admiring the way Friedl doesn’t want the piece to become a gimmick and instead puts the instrument into service to produce a piece of music, and wishing he could find something more distinctive in this strange device than electronic ambience that only becomes remarkable when you find out how the piece is made, thus inadvertently sealing its fate as a gimmick.

Loud Object by Billy Steiger (Otoroku): kind of electronic, disguised as violin yoga. It’s one of those deals where the fiddler obsessively hammers away at a short riff and sees where it leads them, one per LP side or digital simulacrum. It feels like I’ve heard half a dozen of these but the twist here is that Steiger thriftily recycles his rejected takes by feeding them into a sampler to loop in bogus psychoacoustica, adding a complexity both to the sound and the concept. You can never be exactly sure that what you’re hearing is the work of a skilled musician making the notes from his acoustic instrument bounce around the walls organically, or a skilled musician layering in digitial hallucinations. Either way, you end up doubting what you think you’re really hearing, which is a nice way of shaking you out of any complacent trust in authenticity and to make you probe a little deeper. The sleeve notes are worded in a way that allow the possibility that at times Steiger may let go and leave his digital past selves to do the talking for him.

Strange sounds: Martin Iddon, Eden Lonsdale

Sunday 19 February 2023

A couple of albums here that excel at being distant and eerie, but with substance far deeper than just setting a mood. Another Timbre has released a couple of albums of Martin Iddon’s work before, but Naiads adds a new dimension to understanding his music. A cycle of five chamber compositions composed between 2012 and 2017, Naiads foregrounds aspects of Iddon’s style implied in his previously released recordings, combining the gnarled phrasing with subtleties of perception, the complex with the minimal. The five works have a vegetal quality, organic but in a way that slips between the natural and the constructed, as though diligently cultivated then left to run wild. In the sextet crinaeae and the trio limnades, regular pulses appear, rising up at odds through the flowing sounds before subsiding again. In between, the string trio pegaeae dwells on whispered sounds that rise and fall on sliding pitches. The use of soft attacks, harmonics and multiphonics make these cycles and pulsations sound more primal than mechanical, even when layered into a more complex interplay on potameides. The final piece as heard in this album’s sequence, eleionomae reduces the material to unpitched sounds, faint rasps and ominous tapping. The musicians of the Apartment House ensemble play through all of this world of extended techniques as though such rarefied language comes naturally to them. There appear to be more layers at work in these pieces than on the previous Iddon albums, which is strange as all the compositions date from around the same period. It points to a consistent but varied body of work that needs to be considered on a wider scale.

Eden Lonsdale is a new composer to me and presumably to most people: the oldest piece on his album Clear and Hazy Moons was written when he was still a student, in 2021. His music can be described as spectral, as long as you consider the word in both its meanings. He fits in with a group of other modern composers who have assimilated an understanding of electronic processing of sound and applied it to acoustic instruments, using them in combinations that produce alterations to their usual timbre and acoustic phenomena, rather than use them primarily to differentiate between voices. In the “old” piece Oasis, a muted piano plays a reiterated note that is given resonance and colouring by clarinet, violin, cello, electric guitar and percussion, drawing out unusual overtones for as long as possible before opening out into clouded chords. In Billowing, a slowly descending line repeats, accentuated by small flourishes on solo strings while muted trumpet mixes with flute, saxophone and clarinet to produce high notes that shimmer and beat against the slow phrasing. The same instruments combine in Anatomy of Joy, written last September and only played in the studio so far, which immerses a chorale in a simulated reverberation chamber that recalls glass armonica and reed organ. A notable characteristic in these compositions is the way each one seems about to fade away at any moment, as though ready to conclude, pausing and then continuing, always softer in its hamonic language or diminished in force. Each of these is again played by Apartment House, who instigated the first and last pieces here. The exception is the title work, composed for the new ensemble Rothko Collective. The reverb heard in Clear and Hazy Moons owes something more to its surroundings, as it was recorded by the composer on a handheld device during its dress rehearsal in a church. This may explain why it has an uncanny electronic sound to it, even while the instruments remain unadulterated. Lonsdale’s close chords and small clusters here sound not so much muddied as acoustically synthesised as they bounce off the walls, leaving the microphone to mix winds, strings and percussion.

Movement and stillness: Radigue, Pateras

Monday 6 February 2023

Nearly twelve years ago I was in the audience for Rhodri Davies giving the first performance of Éliane Radigue’s Occam I for prepared harp, little suspecting the proliferation of acoustic pieces that would follow in the series. I’ve blown hot and cold on them ever since that equivocal premiere, having heard various Occam iterations for solo, duo and larger groups which I found either intriguing, technically interesting or just rote. Occam Delta XV, composed for the Quatuor Bozzini in 2018, is the first Radigue piece that’s got me really enthused since hearing her Naldjorlak trilogy at that same gig so many years ago. While Naldjorlak creates awe through its sublime, immaculate surface, Occam Delta XV is far more turbulent. The drones that make up Radigue’s compositions have always been in constant motion, but this string quartet draws on an inherent complexity in the material seldom heard since she abandoned the use of analog synthesiser. A lot of that can be attributed to Quatuor Bozzini, too. Radigue taught them the piece orally and their peculiar quality of playing – making music sound both very new and very old all at once – comes to the fore here. Two performances are presented here, recorded live on consecutive nights in late 2021. It’s a piece that depends on communication and mutual feedback between the four musicians to guide its progress, and so the two versions vary greatly, with each sounding more like a studio creation than a live gig. In the first, variations in the bowing produce a handwoven, folk-like aspect to the music, stretched and suspended into watery, wavering overtones like a Canterbury hippie’s pastoral reverie. Pitch material varies over the course of the piece, thickening into a dense passage of multiphonics while transforming further and further away from its tonal origins. From the second night, things are calmer but darker, thinning out into wisps of harmonics before ultimately resolving in more conventional fashion. I wonder if other quartets could produce astonishing results from this piece, but I suspect they would be very different from the Bozzini.

Speaking of constant movement in one place, I’ve also just listened to Anthony Pateras’ Two Solos. We’ve established now that Pateras is in the second phase of his compositional career, having progressed from florid and convulsive activity to more focused and studious work. The two solos here are in fact each for soloist accompanied by themselves on tape. On Palimpsest Geometry Callum G’Froerer plays double-bell trumpet, a thicket of staccato repeated notes that vary in texture, timbre and (microtonally) in pitch through rapid shifting between mutes, changes in articulation and the compunding effect of the layered trumpets on tape. The combination of multicoloured brass and bustling motion with a steadfast refusal to take any particular direction makes it sound like an unusually disciplined work by Lucia Dlugoszewski. At first hearing, it was great while it lasted but still felt like a less substantial work than some of his other pieces. Following it with the flipside, There Is A Danger Only Our Mistakes Are New for voice and tape, put the album into a new perspective. Clara La Licata gently sings small phrases that rock back and forth between two pitches, overlapping each other into a babble that both lulls and disturbs. The vulnerability of the voice contrasts against the preceding brass and opens up more profound implications in both works, with communication made clearer even as the voice is wordless.

Returning again: Eventless Plot, Magnus Granberg

Tuesday 31 January 2023

I hear lots of nice stuff and I appreciate it. I thought you were supposed to get less tolerant as time went by, but attempting to listen critically just makes me find things to appreciate about craft even if I doubt there’s any point to what I’m hearing. There isn’t a particular point to art, anyway. I don’t expect, or really want, to be shocked by art, but at times I start to wonder if I’ve reached a state where I hear everything in the same way. Luckily the recent albums by Eventless Plot and Magnus Granberg have gently nudged me out of that complacency again. The Greek group composition ensemble Eventless Plot have recorded two contrasting pieces both titled Memory Loss. In the first, the trio is joined by sometime collaborator Chris Cundy on bass clarinet, who holds sustained pitches against analog synth tones over a backdrop of occasional psaltery and other analog electronics, with some digital processing. What’s most striking about this piece is not just the clear, unadulterated use of pitch, but that it’s keyed to delicate but purposeful activity, in a way which makes you realise how much recent hushed, low-level unnotated music has been getting fussy and mannered in its obsession with small details. The second piece is for the trio alone (Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas and Yiannis Tsirikoglou) and the main instrument is piano, replacing the sustained pitches with a fragile continuity that eventually breaks up rather than resolve or fade away.

Always a good thing when new music gets a second recording so soon after the first; or in this case, the other way around. Last year Another Timbre released a 2021 recording of Magnus Granberg’s How Lonely Sits the City? and now the Japanese Meenna label has issued a performance from 2020. The earlier version is for quartet only (Eva Lindal on violin, Leo Svensson Sander, cello and Stina Hellberg Agback on harp around Granberg’s usual prepared piano), without the electronics or percussion of the Another Timbre seven-piece version. Of the latter, I wrote that it had “the sparsest texture I’ve yet heard in Granberg’s compositions, even more so than in his quartet Nattens skogar…. while Granberg added parts for a larger ensemble, the prevailing mood remained small and sparse, with each musician adding to the overall work as sparingly as possible, making each individual sound count.” Hearing it now in its original form, it’s curious how the texture is even more open, while sounding less wintry or alienating. The combination of instruments is a little warmer, even as the group’s playing is just as faint and attenuated (save the cellist, all returned for the later recording). What’s most intriguing here is the way the work falls open, like a loosened knot, revealing details in its construction, showing how Granberg’s techniques change over the course of a piece to produce different interplays of sound. At times, the music falls into near silence as violin and piano tentatively exchange single notes, like a Cage piece in times when he was at his most reticent.

Reinier Van Houdt: drift nowhere past / the adventure of sleep

Saturday 28 January 2023

It took a long time to come around to this one. Have we all had enough of Lockdown Art yet? I think I wanted to move on, and this thing from Reinier Van Houdt just seemed too much. Two hours long, ten pieces, needs editing, too indulgent, too slick, too simple. As time went by these complaints started to contradict each other in my head and those nagging contradictions started to do the work that the apparently facile quality of the soundscapes concealed. drift nowhere past was recorded in instalments over six months, turning in an aural report on the 22nd of each month during the uncertain languors at the start of the pandemic. The indulgence is tempered by the obligation, the loose structure of each episode an effect of the enforced improvisatory approach. Van Houdt lingers over each of the redolent fragments he has collected, letting each collage play itself out where he could have edited more tightly. Heard in retrospect, it captures those early months of Covid admirably, contemplating what has been lost and what may never return, with no certainty of where the course of events is leading. It presents a series of soundscapes in which events pass by with little recollection of details beyong the overall impression, blurring into a dreamlike passage of time.

The last three years seem to have passed for most people as a void and for me, personally, the past month has gone by as a half-remembered dream. Before this collection was released the elsewhere label asked Van Houdt to make a companion piece, for Covid’s second wave. the adventure of sleep collects four pieces made of more brittle materials, but worked into layers where events are effaced even further than before. Distant sounds and echoes linger as the predominant theme here, steady rhythms instill a suitable torpor that seems to stretch out beyond the work’s thirty-five minutes, evoking the same sort of crowded emptiness that closes in on the mind as it slowly forgets consciousness.

Routines: Rasten & Dupleix, Bondi & d’incise, Astasie-abasie

Thursday 12 January 2023

There are some pieces that act like a microcosm of dealing with new music – composing it, playing it, listening to it – in the whole: observed from a distance, these activities boil down to a matter of repetition, reiteration, routine. In this situation, the importance of the act of concentration is heightened, becoming almost an aesthetic goal in itself. When listening to such music, the question is whether composer, performer and audience can all find a comparable level of concentration.

Routine differs from repetition, in that a repeated set of actions can lead to changes in those actions, as they adapt to new possibilities observed from the results. Fredrik Rasten and Léo Dupleix’s Delve II takes a composition by Rasten made from reiterated elements, expanded over thirty-eight minutes as a duet for 12-string acoustic guitar and spinet. Short gestures are repeated in near-unison, producing a composite instrument in which the features and contents are in a slow but unceasing flux. The arepggiated chords are not so much elaborated – or even extended, in the manner of an old-school minimal composer – as they are pursued into new articulations, as though allowing some natural process of musician’s curiosity to take its course. Chords are slowly pulled apart and reassembled, with new aspects casually introduced or removed, all at a seemingly steady, breath-like pace. The effect is entrancing.

Ian Andrews has made two albums now under the name Astasie-abasie. The first one, Molecular Gamelan, didn’t interest me too much as it was all too much like sound sculpture and wasn’t working as foreground. The new one, Elliptical Gamelan, is much better. As before, the pieces are all made from amplified metal objects motivated by electrical devices, so loops and cycling sounds are the base material here. Where Elliptical Gamelan succeeds is in the details, with the sounds more intrisically complex so that they are less recognisable with each repetition, overlaying each other in patterns that may be inferred but cannot be identified rhythmically. Each of the ten short pieces here evolve as they progress, giving each one a distinct sound and form, making them work as music instead of just exercises in instrument-building. One of us was paying closer attention this time.

The excessive focus on instruments has a detrimental effect on Cyril Bondi and d’incise’s latest collaboration, Le secret. Bondi made an extensive investigation into Swiss Alpenglocken before the two musicians were let loose on a large collection of bells. The focus here is on the differences in tone and timbre of bells, as they’re played in slow, antiphonal permutations, to the exclusion of almost all other considerations. Unless you want to invest it with your own significance, the arrangements here seem overly reverential and dry. Perversely, d’incise’s solo album καῦμα (kaûma) is all electronic but feels more lively and capricious, even as it tries to maintain a steady state of repeated actions. Synthesiser is mixed with analogue filters and reverb as well as digital processing, creating a fuzzy, saturated set of small riffs that perpetually drift off course. The material is simple and unassuming, but in d’incise’s renderings they become tantalisingly indistinct. It recalls the fin de siècle interest in glitchcore and lowercase, returning to follow up on where those two subgenres had left off before fully delivering on their promises.

Electric guitars etc.: Gavin Bryars with Sergio Sorrentino, Pauline Oliveros with Reynols (also Monique Buzzarté)

Saturday 31 December 2022

The listening pile grew big while working on my own stuff, so I almost overlooked these three little nuggets of Gavin Bryars’ work for electric guitar. It’s not a complete overview of his work for the instrument, but it makes for a piquant EP. The guitarist is Sergio Sorrentino, whom Bryars has worked with before but not in a solo capacity. The opening and closing tracks were recorded live at the AngelicA festival and sound remarkably close and clear. Catalogue is a duet for piano and electric guitar Bryars wrote for Derek Bailey way back in 1965. The indeterminate musical language is of its time, but Bryars and Sorrentino work together to make the piece speak clearly, with fresh colours and a sense of balance that keeps the pointillistic texture intriguing. The two join forces again for a take on The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge, the 1971 piece for guitarists ‘walking’ their fingers up and down the fretboards of two instruments at once and which the nerds who read this blog probably remember from one of the indifferently-pressed LPs Brian Eno put out in the Seventies. This version is cleaner, letting more of the anticipated inadvertent details to be heard and so giving it interest beyond its initial quirkiness. It’s also much shorter, which will either help you focus on the music or prevent you from immersing in the ambience. I haven’t kept up with Bryars’ recent compositions, so it’s good to hear Burroughs II, a work from 2014. This is a studio recording Sorrentino made shortly before the Angelica gig, multitracking himself on six electric guitars and two electric basses. The melodic work is typical of later Bryars – stymied late romantic decadence, out of whack, never quite at peace with itself – but not as cosy as I expected, set against strummed chords at a gallop. It’s striking but at four minutes it feels like a fragment, a sketch for something more resolved.

A couple of years back I got into a recording of the telematic duet from 2009 between Pauline Oliveros in New York and Alan Courtis in Buenos Aires. Their adeptness at using the long-distance jam session for mutual inspiration and provocation is less of a surprise when you learn that this was not their first rodeo. Half a Dove in New York, Half a Dove in Buenos Aires is a mixdown of another online intercontinental gig, held ten years earlier. (The mind boggles at the effort needed to get an “improvisation NetCast” running effectively in the days of 56k modems.) On this occasion, Oliveros with her just intonation accordion is joined by trombonist extraordinnaire Monique Buzzarté, while in the southern hemisphere Courtis is playing with his band Reynols. Oliveros and Reynols had a shared feeling for sound and while this earlier outing is less convulsive, none of the assembled musos are afraid to lead (or push) the others to greater extremes when the moment seems right. Oliveros and Buzzarté lay down drones rich with overtones, which Reynols thicken out with guitars and electronics until somewhere around the middle of Side 1 a jet fighter takes off. By Side 2 you start thinking this a Reynols gig with added instrumental colour, only to hear the brass and reeds come surging back for the rest of the disc, wailing and keening in a strange tonality which the electronics match with distorted harmony. Shamefully, Buzzarté doesn’t get a namecheck on the front cover.

Keyboards without Ego: Golub, Svensson, Tolimieri

Saturday 17 December 2022

“Who cares if you listen?” becomes something of a Zen koan when listening to these three collections of keyboard pieces: all at once they are personal in their conception and execution yet impersonal in their aims and affect on the listener. Phillip Golub’s Filters is a set of four piano pieces released on Greyfade, a label dedicated to process-based composition. Golub composes loops, simple repeating patterns which he then layers and alternates into subtly varying patterns. He has used these to create installations of indeterminate length, but for this LP he reduces his material to a couple of interlockling loops played on piano to create four modest but substantial pieces of roughly equal dimensions. Roughly equal characters, too: Golub has selected his materials (and his takes – the track titles indicate that one piece was discarded) to sound similar internally and externally. As each piece resembles the others, so does each moment of a piece resemble its others, allowing the listener either to ignore any difference or to listen closely in an attempt to distinguish each loop’s start and end. The overall pattern resembles a loosened knot, where each part may be examined but not pulled free from its structure. Golub’s language resembles Satie, in its recursiveness and use of familiar harmonies detourned through being stripped of direction and functional purpose. The pieces were recorded on “a beautifully maintained Steinway D” and its soft, buttery tone is well captured here.

A more spindly sound is offered for the two compositions by Kristofer Svensson on Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz’s stilla sv​ä​va. You may remember Svensson from Maya Bennardo playing his Duk med broderi och bordets kant for solo violin on a previous Kuyin release. You may remember Persson and Scholz from their various recordings of Cage and Feldman etc. (their double CD of Christian Wolff’s piano duets is an excellent introduction to that recondite composer). The keyboards heard here are older instruments: Persson plays a clavichord on the half-hour suite I Sommarluft before being joined by Scholz for a four-hands duet on a 19th century square piano in Kori Kamandungan. Both works require the instruments to be returned into a just-intonation system of Svensson’s devising. It all makes for a bracing combination, with the slowness characteristic of much just-intonation music at odds with the sharp attach and quick decay of the instruments. Composer and musicians work together here to make music of finely engraved lines and points in a slow, thin counterpoint. The material draws on themes from various cultures and periods of history, ranging from Sundanese tradition to Mamoru Fujieda’s study of floral electrostatics. Some notes on the square piano sound prepared, unless Svensson has really exploited the harmonic potential of the instrument’s stringing. Otherwise, the retuning does not draw attention to itself other than to give clarity to the fragile shapes and a faint resonance to highlight the delicate craftmanship deployed here. Both works are recorded in their first full hearing, with the mics hot enough to capture the room and extraneous sounds as well as all of the strings’ qualities.

The above pieces can be heard as being created out of a sense of compulsion and obligation to their art more than a goal of moving a listener in a given way; this goes double for Quentin Tolimieri’s three-hour set of piano solos Monochromes. A cycle of fifteen compositions, it begins gently enough with the slowly circling Monochrome 1, before really leaning into the title’s premise. Number 2 obsessively rags on arpeggiated clusters in the top register, then number 3 obsessively hammers a muted string until a emits a veil of harmonics. It’s a catalogue of forms shaped by techniques, in unison with material created as by-product of those techniques, overtones and beating frequencies, damped and muted strings. Some pieces are little more than gestural exercises, such as the exhausting 35-minute marathon of tremoloes that makes up the entirety of the central number 8. Number 12’s similarly taxing roll of alternating high clusters also suggests that both pianist and listener need to be prepared and in the right state of mind before launching into some of these pieces, so that the fruits of your respective labours can be best appreciated. The wacky thing is that the overall cycle’s structure is not nearly as rigorous as it intially appears, as a run of several highly reductive pieces is suddenly interrupted by a soft, beguiling work as number 13, one of several works where melody and changes are free to unfold. As a reflection of Tolimieri’s own musical practice as composer and performer, it makes you question how deeply you listen into any piece, regardless of its surface detail.

Out of time: Ad Hoc, Passepartout Duo

Wednesday 14 December 2022

All these little cracks and gaps in the record, with people here and there steadily working to fill them in one at a time. Ad Hoc were a small group of improvisers in Melbourne in the late 1970s. In this recovered and restored tape they were a trio: James Clayden, Chris Knowles, David Wadelton. By the time I became acquainted with the Melbourne music scene in the mid 1990s, they were already a dim recollection from the past, at a time when the previous generation of any movement was as distant and obscure as an origin myth. All I really knew about them was that they had morphed into another group called Signals, who had the reputation of playing the loudest and most abrasive gigs imaginable.

Distance is not like that. It’s not like much of anything else going on in improvisation at the time, in fact. The closest resemblance that comes to mind is The Makers Of The Dead Travel Fast, but while TMOTDTF and similar groups started with skewed pop tropes (ahem, ‘deconstructed’) and repurposed them into ambient soundscapes, Ad Hoc began with ambient stasis and built from there. Distance was their one legit release, a small-run cassette issued in 1980, now cleaned up and reissued by Shame File Music, archivists par excellence of the Australian scene. With a fuzzy, but not grungy tape sound, reminiscent of the pastoral side of 1970s British prog, the trio create gently pulsing and shimmering textures that find a low-key groove and lock into it. Their savvy use of an AKS suitcase synth and their self-restraint in refusing to elaborate on their melodic material makes it all sound strangely contemporary, especially on the track “The Bridge”, which sounds like someone remixed a futurist library music record for the chillout room.

While listening to Daylighting by Passepartout Duo I had to check whether this was also a reissued Eighties tape, this time from Itlay (the musicians are Nicoletta Favari and Christopher Salvito) instead of Australia. The Duo makes music from instruments they build or modify themselves, making pieces out of interlocking repeated patterns. As such, it captures that same simple directness and muzzy sound that distinguishes the avant-garde side of punk-era DIY cassettes. The sleeve notes discuss it all like a mathematical proposal, but the results are eclectic and beguiling. Some tracks ponder over burbling synth textures, while others like “Indentations” pair off homebrew percussion with buzzing FM synths playing old computer game tunes. The title track is a chorale for moth-eaten electric organs that could be a rejected demo from Music For Films, or indeed another lost Australian tinkerer from forty years ago recording in their bedroom.

Freitag aus Licht in Paris

Monday 12 December 2022

Stockhausen’s grand Licht cycle of cosmic mediaeval mystery plays get hardest to follow when he’s trying to explain what it all means. At their best, the theosophical tableaux he presents do their work on an immediate, sensory level, but when he wants to show how all the elements relate to each other you can get bogged down. I’d been looking forward to Le Balcon’s staging of Freitag aus Licht, because it’s a Stockhausen opera and Le Balcon have done a great job on a modest budget with previous parts of the cycle, but also to see how it handles one of the less likeable instalments. Freitag is the one in the cycle which gets stick for its evidently hokey “natural pairings” of objects as a conceptual framework for its theatrical and philosophical premise (cat and dog, foot and ball, needle and arm etc.) which persist throughout the performance, but for me the problem had always been that, on record, the opera sounds unusually flat.

In this staging, the issue was in some ways a little better but in others a little worse. Part of Stockhausen’s grand conception of Freitag was that three layers of drama were to be presented simultaneously throughout the opera, rather than in succession. The side effect is that it all sounds somewhat undifferentiated, particularly with the droney electronic score of synth merged with sampled voices that forms the entrance music in the lobby, plays through all the scenes and then again in the lobby as you leave. When you return to your seat after the interval for part two and the low, buzzy synths start up again you can’t help but feel a small sinking sensation in your stomach. Things pick up a little, and the final chorus is gorgeous, but the whole affair struggles to attain the feeling of transformation and transcendence that arises through the other four Licht operas I’ve experienced. Worst of all, the “sound scenes” focused on the electronic score are the first time I’ve felt like Stockhausen was spinning things out as he rang the changes on all the permutations his system implied.

It didn’t help that the staging was not immersive, presented on a conventional concert stage where the audience looked on, as back with his first opera composed in the cycle. The greeting and farewell are also impersonal. Compared to other parts of the cycle, it couldn’t help but feel distant, a demonstration more than an embodiment of Stockhausen’s skewed vision. That said, his musical writing was beautiful and clear as ever, sticking to his strengths of voices and winds (apart from an appearance by a children’s orchestra of flutes, clarinets, violin and cello, the only other acoustic instruments are a solo flute and bassett horn). Le Balcon’s singers and musicians (listed here) nailed the right blend of hieratic stillness with personal warmth. The role of Synthibird was split into two Keytar-slinging messengers dressed like they were moonlighting from a Jodorowsky film, which was also pretty boss. It’s tempting to say the children stole the show, but that would be unfair to both them and the others: they were integral to making it all work to the extent it did. As orchestra, chorus (Stockhausen really doesn’t dumb down his musical language for them), chorus-turned-dancers, with additional children pressed into service as mimes for the duration in this interpretation, they all excelled. Thanks to them (and their parents in the hall) it got a rousing ovation at the end, which was the most uplifting part of the night.

Lost in music: Greenwald, Behzadi

Monday 7 November 2022

How much of a piece of music do we hear as itself, compared to what we hear in it as a reflection of our selves? Perhaps its greatness may lie in what it personally reveals in the listener, previously unsuspected. Having said that, the number of times I’ve heard a piece which seemed normal enough, only to find the critical consensus is that it is weird or disturbing in some way, is often enough to make me wonder if I listen with a childish naivete or with a somnolent inattentiveness. Some of this is probably because I don’t buy into expressiveness much: if any art starts to get too emotional with me I suspect it of chugging.

The upshot is that with so much music around, us listeners, no matter how enlightened, are in the position to dictate terms. Perhaps that’s why there seems to be a new generation of composers emerging from North America who all appear to be Polite Young Men. (This may be a trait amongst the women composers too, under-exposed as always, but the only one I’m aware of Caroline Shaw.) A lot of perfectly nice pieces by pleasant people who are quite sure they don’t want to make too much of a fuss. It’s hard to care too much about this music, and I haven’t even found a critic yet who says that it’s quietly subsersive about something or other. Perhaps there is and I haven’t paid the right attention, a thought that occurred to me only after the sixth time I played Apartment House’s recording of Kory Reeder’s seventy-minute chamber piece Codex Vivere on Another Timbre. It’s not just the length, but the odd shape it contains and the elongation of passages that are obviously more than note-spinning that suggest something deliberately off-kilter at work below the surface.

On the other hand, there’s Andrew Greenwald’s cycle of chamber works A Thing Made Whole, seven pieces totalling seventy minutes, collected on a new release on Kairos. Here, surface and substance merge in a queasy uncanny valley of sound. The music is all activity, but at a dreamlike pace and with appropriately elusive results. Extended techniques are used to make pitch quiver and rattle, while the ensemble playing never unifies into a coherent image. Although self-contained (with different recording ensembles, venues and dates), each piece follows on from the last as an effective suite, much like Feldman’s Durations or Vertical Thoughts; the opening piece being an extended solo for violin comes across as an homage to Grisey’s viola Prelude. Four longer pieces are followed by three shorter ones, as an extended coda. The music wears its mysteriousness on its sleeve: in A Thing Made Whole II the piano part sounds like a battered upright in an empty hall, although no electronics are indicated in the sleeve notes. The pseudo-electronics are carried on by the trombonist using his mouth piece to layer white noise over the strings, while vibraphone rolls in the background simulate pure overtones. While the details are busy, the atmosphere is hushed throughout, with the biggest disruption occuring in piece number five, where a clear-voiced piano unexpectdedly plays a gentle pastorale above a strained string quartet. The opening piece is played by violinist Austin Wulliman, with Wild Up and Ensemble Pamplemouse performing the next two works; the rest are from the Contemporary Insights Ensemble. I can’t imagine how their interpretations could be technically improved, given the consistency in their calm approach to the finicky scores (examples reproduced in the booklet) while injecting the right amount incongruous eclecticism when needed, which all adds to the precisely blurred dream quality.

Like I said, expressiveness doesn’t necessarily do it for me, and I don’t want to have to do background reading to find out what the big deal is. Take that admission of crassness as a caveat that I might be missing something even more important when I say that the TAK Ensemble’s recording of Ashkan Behzadi’s Love, Crystal and Stone is a damn fine piece of craftwork. Behzadi studied architecture in Tehran, and his cycle of seven songs draws inspiration from tapes he heard at that time of Iranian revolutionary poet Ahmad Shamlou reading his Farsi translations of Lorca. The TAK Ensemble (soprano Charlotte Mundy with Pierrot minus cello) stage a tour de force in presenting Behzadi’s finely detailed settings of Lorca. Any Spanish or Persian exotica is strictly sublimated, or present only through association. It can make for compelling listening when you focus on each moment, but I haven’t made all forty minutes hang together in my head to make something more than the moments. That might be helped if you splurge on the whole package, which comes with an art book and parallel translations.

Lost in music: Gunnarsson, Frey redux

Thursday 20 October 2022

I’ve wrestled with Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s music before, trying to pin down exactly where it’s coming from (hint: Iceland). This may be the wrong approach, as his music, even as it seems obvious when it hits the ear, becomes elusive when the significance of that sound sinks into your brain. Even the score slips about, as he composes with animated notation, using computer screens to create structures and intonation that never settles into definite place. Landvættirnar fjórar is a cycle of four related works, each in three movements, drawing inspiration from Iceland’s four divine guardian spirits. While the notation is hi-tech, the instrumentation is resolutely homespun and dinky: recorders, ocarinas, whistles, rabbit calls, bottles (blown and struck), melodicas, toy pianos, a guitarlele. I don’t want to say I’m getting used to it, but after the shock of the incongruities of his earlier Sinfónía, the sound-world can be accepted as a given, opening up other questions for contemplation. How do we hear this? As when confronted with an alien culture, we can’t be sure that we perceive an artefact in the same way as it’s creator. (To take the example of the cover art, one can mistake art brut for irreverence.) Gunnarsson explains his method further, about reduction, placing sounds into four categories: “short quick notes, long sustained notes, short percussive sound, unstable glissando sounds — I couldn’t reduce them any further.” With the smaller scale of these pieces, the shaping of events is easier to discern as changes in the textures of instrumental groups, speed and density wax and wane with an organic certainty – diffuse and irregular, but with a definite pattern working somewhere underneath. The ensemble playing here is Steinalda, a group of six Icelandic musicians who each move between three to four groups of instruments to perform the scores.

Recordings of new music are scarce; multiple recordings of it are scarcer still. Jürg Frey has ascended to this rarefied plane, with several highly talented and sympathetic pianists having committed interpretations of his solo music to disc and/or download. Reinier van Houdt has returned to piano playing after several releases of his own, atmospheric compositions, with a three-hour selection of Frey’s piano pieces. Lieues d’ombres is a kind of companion piece to his similarly-sized set of Michael Pisaro’s music, the earth and the sky. The seven Frey pieces date from between 2007 and 2018, with the exception of the very early Sam Lazaro Bros, from 1984. It’s an instructive inclusion; a beguiling piece of simple textures in which melody keeps reverting into chorale. Over the next twenty years he refined his language to the point that risked becoming notorious for immobility and silence, before allowing that feeling for melody to re-emerge under greater self-discipline. van Houdt imbues the piece with quietness and clarity, which becomes a signature of his interpretations throughout. From the remaining pieces, I’ve managed to hear other recordings of La présence, les silences (Dante Boon on Another Timbre), Lieues d’ombres and Extended Circular Music 9 (Philip Thomas, also on Another Timbre), Les tréfonds inexplorés des signes (24-35) (R. Andrew Lee on Irritable Hedgehog) and Pianist, alone (2) (both Thomas and Lee). This means I get to play at being critic and make comparisons. Well, they’re all very fine and the differences are in nuance, with each being part of varying collections of Frey’s works. I’ve previously likened La présence, les silences to a late romantic work, taking musical traits from tradition – continuity, harmony, teleology – and transforming them into something familiar but not yet known. In van Houdt’s performance, it begins almost inaudibly, risking sounding ethereal by eschewing any hint of rhetoric as the piece slowly rises and falls over its 40-minute span. Lee foregrounds the starkness of Frey’s materials, drawing out the inertia of the compositions when they lapse into repetitions or stasis. Thomas adds a hint of deliberation at each step, grounding the longer passages in a sense of inevitability. With slightly more distant and reverberant sound, van Houdt seems to float over these details to present a wider overall picture, giving a bird’s-eye view of recurring phrases and motives that shape each piece, with less direct experience of the terrain at ground level. If you’re not familiar with Frey’s piano work, this set’s a good orientation point.

Lost in music: duets

Sunday 16 October 2022

I’ve been listening to a lot of music without having time to write about it, so now I’ve got them all muddled together in my head and I’m trying to sort out what’s what. Some of it’s not doing much for me, so here’s some of the things that got my attention, even if it’s through beating me over the head with extravagant noise like Kyle Motl & Carlos Dominguez’s Field of Fried Umbrellas. Motl plays a double bass through distortion pedals while Dominguez plays a ‘feedback mixer’ which sounds like it has a few extra distortion and modulator pedals plugged into themselves. The album’s blurb throws out some nice theorising behind the music, talking about “acoustic and electroacoustic phenomena” and “interaction between certain modes of bass playing and feedback structures”, which might be why this high-falutin’ excuse for noisy fun hangs together so well for so long without becoming a chore to listen to. For five tracks on an LP-length tape, recorded over one day/night in the hipster mecca of Boca Raton, Florida, Motl and Dominguez keep moving from one idea to another before you can start to analyse them too much. These are crude tactics but they’re used effectively here to keep immediate sonic impressions foremost in your mind.

While sorting through these I’ve just realised that most of them are from Tripticks Tapes and these are all duets. Duets can be the bane of an experimental musician’s livelihood, where bookers keep setting you up on blind dates with random musos and the results are often just as productive. Camila Nebbia (tenor sax) and Tomomi Kubo (ondes Martenot) “first met the day they started recording at Tomomi’s studio in Barcelona” – it doesn’t say who put them up to this, but it all worked out astonishingly well. As wacky a pairing as Motl and Dominguez’s bass/feedback, Nebbia and Kubo’s Polycephaly goes in hard with the psychedelia on the opening tracks, with Kubo’s exuberant streams of sci-fi exotica given a pop-art sheen by Nebbia’s sax licks. Both use loop pedals and reverb, which do a lot of work later on to smooth out the initial roccoco playing into strange and highly evocative textures, moving beyond the initial novelty of the pairing (and, y’know, the ondes Martenot). By the last couple of tracks things have settled down a little, allowing Nebbia some solos while Kubo provides an otherworldly accompaniment in the background.

Besides Motl’s double bass, I’ve got two sets of bass duets here. Both are live performances. Amanda Irarrázabal and Nat Baldwin’s Grips is another first-time meeting in which the Chilean and the American engage in a grouchy but good-natured argument for the better part of half and hour, each one jumping over the other to rebut the other while elaborating their own part. It’s a packed conversation. By contrast, the duet between Bára Gísladóttir and Skúli Sverrisson, recorded at the Louth Contemporary Music Festival this June, pairs two short sets of Gísladóttir’s acoustic bass with Sverrisson’s electric instrument. In Live from the Spirit Store Gísladóttir, whose work I know only from her enigmatic and slightly threatening compositions, lays tropes and embellishments over Sverrisson’s heavy washes of ambient fuzz. The electric part dominates, chorused to provide a kind of slow cantus firmus, while the acoustic adds more poignant overtones and dips into the electric texture for additional shifts in tone and direction. The second set is half as long and offers less of a contrast than a repeat of the first, but cast with a more urgent and confronting perspective.