Tom Phillips’ ‘Irma’, for real

Wednesday 20 September 2017

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

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

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

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

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

This Is The New Music: Unstained Melodies

Monday 11 September 2017

I’m sorry, everyone.

It started out with the urge to test music to destruction, removing structure, context, all momentum and teleology from existing pieces of music to see what musical qualities may still survive in the desiccated remains. (This test was to prove that musical ‘meaning’ is an irreducible quality induced through any phenomenon being perceived as music.) I had previously composed a piano piece titled Benches, made entirely from the final bar taken from a large number of compositions. Each quotation was taken from a point at which all supposed momentum had been exhausted, yet when pieced together they could not help but form a new continuity.

Unstained Melodies is a set of piano miniatures designed to test internal continuity in harmonically-structured composition. The source material was a found object: a very old and damaged edition of pedagogical organ pieces demonstrating “Stainer’s Organ Method.” (I do not recall if the book was by John Stainer himself.) Taking only what was presumably the least valuable material, I systematically extracted only the last beat of each bar from each piece. To disorient the material, the extracted up-beats were reassembled in reverse order. In fact, I started with the last intact page and steadily worked backwards through the book, assuming that the pieces would tend to become shorter and simpler until the process ceased to be viable; a study in regression. This recording is a crude realisation of the written music, using computer-controlled piano samples, playing from algorithmically edited MIDI files. No physical keyboard playing was involved.

Ryoko Akama: places and pages

Tuesday 29 August 2017

This is a vast work, in duration and scope, made from the briefest notations. It shows that there is so much more to be explored in and understood by the term ‘minimal’ in music. Akama states simply that “places and pages is a collection of fifty texts to be performed at random places”. The texts are as gnomic as any score by George Brecht, La Monte Young or Yoko Ono in the high times of Fluxus. There seems to have been a resurgence in text scores lately, or perhaps a rise in people who know how to play them. Akama’s texts are exceptionally brief, in a way that simultaneously risks an interpretive free-for-all yet also seems forbidding in its plain lack of information. They do, however, place an emphasis on procedures, either in performance (one simply states “forty-four: walks”) or structure (“fifty overlaps”). She has published an essay describing the pieces and thinking behind them in more detail.

Another Timbre has released the recordings Akama made in various locations around Switzerland over one week last summer as part of a group with Cristián Alvear, Cyril Bondi, d’incise, Christian Müller and Stefan Thut. Over two and a half hours, forty-five of the fifty are presented. The realisations range from solos to sextets, using musical instruments, found objects, field recordings; the locations range from the recording studio to the streets. From such insubstantial slips of writing comes a sonic landscape big enough to get lost in. The musicians’ ingenious interpretations can sound in turn like a flight of inspiration or a solution to a puzzle. In the mosaic-like arrangement of pieces, this album takes on the semblance of an aural movie in which a band of explorers make a quixotic survey of their surrounds, with only a roughly-sketched map for guidance.

Some patterns seem clear on casual listening while others remain unknowable. Brief vignettes intrude, certain themes and settings reappear, new elements are introduced and these simple little pieces accumulate a history and a complexity not previously considered. There are aspects reminiscent of Cage’s Song Books, Ferrari’s audio travelogues, Fluxus happenings, yet it sounds like none of these. As the joint project of six artists, it allows for a variety of distinct approaches while maintaining an overall coherence. The more overtly musical segments put the less obvious ones in a new light, admitting a broader range of sounds as music. In turn, when the ‘music’ returns it is heard as one of a range of possible activities permitted by the score. Taken as a whole, places and pages shifts back and forth between categories: composition, performance, documentary, collage, field recording. It is a true composite.

The Most Influential Rock Album Of The Last Twenty Years

Monday 21 August 2017

I live in a country where Oasis is still treated as more than a punchline so I can’t help but notice that their album Be Here Now was released twenty years ago on this day. Whatever the relative artistic merits of them or it, Be Here Now still casts a long shadow over all subsequent rock’n’roll to this day. The album, as everyone knows, is an epic of empty bombast and false bravado that tries to simultaneously distract and intimidate the listener from observing the meaningless void it barely covers. There’s nothing wrong in itself with braggadocio in rock; the genre was created as a vehicle for blagging. But Oasis weren’t blagging to get in anymore – they’d made it. Looking down on the world from a small mountain of blow, it was their moment for untouchable self-indulgence. Instead, they flinched and looked over their shoulder. The bombast was purely defensive, the arrogance a deflection from a bad case of impostor syndrome. They were blagging just to stay put.

It was a turning point in rock music. For the first time, a band on the upswing made an album whose primary motivation was not the hunger to conquer the world, but the fear of failure. Fear of losing what you already have has become the dominant mode of rock. Into the new century, hundreds of bands have copied Be Here Now‘s example: cajoling anthems, singalongs fishing for assent from the crowd, hoping the mob doesn’t turn on them. Once, people in the audience wanted to be in the band; now, the band pleads to belong with the audience. Each new act, each new record reeks of focus groups and flop-sweat. This is Be Here Now‘s legacy, held tight like a comfort blanket.

The Presence of Julius Eastman, in full

Monday 14 August 2017

While I was away a new issue of Tempo came out, which includes my review of last December’s London Contemporary Music Festival. This is a much expanded and improved version of the post I made here at the time, discussing the remarkable music of Julius Eastman, Arthur Russell and Frederic Rzewski. More context is given and Gay Guerrilla is misspelled – entirely my oversight. If you have access to journal articles you can read the whole thing on the Tempo website.

Airplane Shuffle Summer Mix 2017

Friday 4 August 2017

Back from a quick holiday, will still be writing over summer about some cool music I’ve heard lately. In the meantime, I’m amusing myself by uploading a half-hour mix of the tracks that played when I hit Shuffle on my phone during the flight home.

Boring Like A Drill Airplane Shuffle Summer Mix 2017
(30 minutes, mp3, 53MB)

Pianos (I): Parkinson Dalibert Pateras

Tuesday 25 July 2017

For reasons economical as much as ideological the piano has become the one-man* laboratory for the composer as autonomous author or auteur using the instrument as a vehicle for musical manifestos. Music and ideas about music have become inseparable to the extent that to try such a separation is a theoretical statement in itself. That could be heard as a less direct demonstration of an aesthetic argument. In a similar way each piece of music may be heard as exemplifying a certain theoretical principle to a greater or lesser degree. When Feldman protested that he abjured systems he created a new means of approach for other composers to follow.

You make music out of sounds and not ideas but composition as a demonstration of a theoretical principle can be very direct and unadorned yet still be aesthetically pleasing or at least interesting even if nobody really wants to play the first part of Boulez’s Structures and skips straight to Book 2. Tom Johnson has created an oeuvre of compositions that rigorously follow even the simplest and most predictable processes yet can charm and delight through a counterintuitive adherence to an obvious pattern. The reason things get unexpectedly complicated is because there is a difference between letting a theory play out in your imagination and experiencing it as a physical acoustic phenomenon. If the idea is evident then it has to operate on musical terms.

I’ve been listening to Philip Thomas play two of Tim Parkinson’s eponymous piano pieces released by Wandelweiser a while back. The two pieces from 2006 and 2007 are discontinuous and ostensibly anonymous. Unconnected gestures and patterns separated by pauses accumulate in an arbitrary sequence. Parkinson describes the earlier piece as a constant state of beginning that is beginning with nothing. An echo of Cage’s dictum of chance starting over from zero at every instance comes to mind but here it is not chance but performance. Patterns of piano playing come to mind and are reflected on when starting over again. The latter piece is described in terms of work. Writing and playing in a given space of time and finding things new whether by playing something new or playing something heard before but hearing it new. In each case a give-and-take between the composer and the instrument reveals something unexpected.

I don’t know much about Melaine Dalibert’s music or his new album Ressac on Another Timbre. His plays two of his own compositions for solo piano. Like on the Parkison album the pieces are written in successive years. The 2014 piece is short and the second from the following year is long. Other than length it is difficult to tell the two apart. Each one is made entirely of single notes spaced widely apart with each note left to fade away. It gets monotonous but as each pitch is different from the next it is never monotonous enough to become interesting. Apparently there is some algorithm behind the sequence of pitches but this conceptual process is not demonstrated in an interesting way. The two pieces demonstrate nothing more than an idea that need not be heard. Letting each note decay so completely unfortunately recalls a previously fashionable style of ‘holy minimalism’ that assigned a superstitious reverence to each note played.

Two more piano pieces again played by the composer on Anthony Pateras’s Immediata release Blood Stretched Out. I’ve just looked and yes again the pieces are from successive years albeit in reverse order. Chronochromatics from 2013 plays like the latter Tim Parkinson piece albeit filtered through Pateras’ more manic sensibility. His programme notes list a set of ideas ideals idle thoughts obsessions and reference points which may well constitute the score for the piece. There may be autobiography in here encoded into the patchwork of allusions exercises and outbursts. As with the Parkinson anything familiar is rendered strange through context. As an idea the piece Blood Stretched Out seems simpler upon hearing it although the act of playing it seems much more arduous. An extended trill that thunders away for nearly 45 minutes would sound on the surface as a single exercise in timbre. The sleeve notes to this work are in the form of a diary compiled over two years collating thoughts on culture and music equally with reflections on society and philosophy. The opening of the piece establishes a parallel with Wagner and then starts to transform itself in a defiant attempt to break through the constraints of multiple traditions to which the most progressive musician may paradoxically find themselves bound. To distance oneself from classical tradition now puts one in debt to the past century of the avant-garde and to renounce both leads into an equally burdened history of improvisation. Pateras has carefully considered the odds and the options before deciding to launch a full-frontal attack in which competing ideas are subsumed entirely by acoustic phenomena.

Christoph Schiller & Morgan Evans-Weiler: spinet and violin

Thursday 20 July 2017

It describes itself as “an extended improvisation” but I don’t believe it. A few years back Another Timbre put out a solo album by Christoph Schiller titled Variations – a strange hybrid of improvisation and composition. Schiller worked inside an amplified spinet and piano with various objects to compose a canon out of improvisations of predetermined length. His working methods were inspired, producing evocative sounds that only occasionally betrayed their origins.

Someone could carelessly say that improvisation is about spontaneity, but that only goes some way towards a satisfying musical experience. When away from the club, the theatre, the sense of community, the bravado, the booze and only the sound remains. As Schiller said, “A recorded improvisation is as fixed (or even more fixed) as a written piece.” Improvisation is about heightened senses of judgement, knowing when and how to act, even if only on a subconscious level.

This new duet by Schiller and violinist Morgan Evans-Weiler, titled simply spinet and violin, exercises such a fine judgement over such a long time that it’s difficult to believe that, as Evans-Weiler confirms in the accompanying interview that the music was completely improvised, or that they haven’t been playing together for years:

It was clear from the second that we started playing what direction it was going to go. I think we have both become increasingly interested in pitch and so the focus was very much on permutations of pitch sets and working through these sets over time.

The focus on pitch yields a fascinating study in timbre and texture. Carefully choosing when to deploy each new note creates a beautifully paced slow arc of sound that builds up ominously before dying away to almost complete silence halfway through. Strangely, this stillness and subsequent stirring into activity again feels like a natural progression than a break or a structural argument. The shifts in dynamics throughout the piece are all the more striking and effective for being confined to a relatively narrow range.

Both musicians hover in a state halfway between definite pitch of ‘proper’ playing and the indeterminate sound of ‘extended’ techniques. The piece begins with Schiller plucking muted spinet strings against Evans-Weiler’s frail violin drones. Any tendency to pursue a particular gesture or sound gets reined in by an emphasis on pitch, yet the pitch itself remains a nebulous ideal which may be approached but never possessed. This ambiguous haze persists throughout, like a familiar image that preys on memory but never quite resolves into recognisable focus. Sustained double-stops float microtonally, the strings from both instruments rasp and buzz, a rare plucked note dropped like a pebble into a pond. The spinet rattles and echoes – at times it seems like there are electronics involved, with lower pitched sounds welling up in the background. It’s all hard to tell. I haven’t heard many pieces this year composed as well as this improvisation.

Late Feldman live and on record

Monday 17 July 2017

Last September Mark Knoop, Aisha Orazbayeva, Bridget Carey and Anton Lukoszevieze played Morton Feldman’s last piece, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello at Cafe Oto. I’ve written before about the playing conditions at Cafe Oto in hot weather, particularly when playing Feldman. Watching the musicians wilt in the airless heat, a sense of solidarity builds between the players and the punters, the understanding of dedication to a common interest.

In these circumstances, rough edges inevitably appear, attention can wander, but the sense of occasion gives an insightful edge. The exposed seams in how a piece is made, how it is played, helps the listener to understand more about what goes into the music. After the September gig, one of the players described it as “a nice run-through” of the Feldman. Another Timbre has now released a recording made by the same musicians in the more sedate climate of Henry Wood Hall in January. The differences are striking.

Yes, it’s more polished. Of course it is. The performance here is different in other ways. The four musicians, superb under pressure, now bring a new coherence and focus to the sound. The polish isn’t a layer of gloss, but a new surface, as simultaneously opaque and transparent as a late Rothko canvas. Compared to my memories of the Oto night, this new version is more sombre but also more settled. Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello seemed to mark an advance from Feldman’s other last pieces, in that it seemed more organic, even relaxed in its unhurried traversal of 74 minutes. In this recording, that more discursive aspect has diminished – presumably the musicians were able to pay more attention to each other. It’s replaced by a unified sound, closer in feeling to the more commercially celebrated Piano and String Quartet.

In playing together more closely, the strings produce a more otherworldly sound. The piano balances this tone beautifully, as though outlining a pattern visible within the surface of the strings. Heard in this way, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello now incorporates and resolves the monadic mysteriousness of preceding works like Coptic Light and For Samuel Beckett, allowing both the stillness of contemplation and an invitation to breathe again.

John Cage’s ‘Concert For Piano and Orchestra’

Monday 10 July 2017

The programme notes for the St John At Hackney gig last Thursday admitted that Cage’s Concert For Piano and Orchestra is a work more often seen than heard. Its spectre haunts all music that aspires to the condition of art as surely and as silently as his more notorious 4’33”. The score for the piano part acts as a signal, here be dragons. It’s a visual manifesto for Cage’s aesthetics of chance and indeterminacy, as forbidding as it is liberating. Critics worry, often without having heard it, that the music is random, meaningless. The meaning of, say, Haydn is a question that has never troubled them.

Live, the first performances I heard of the Concert were sparse and bracing, with that quality of openness that so often distinguished Cage’s music from other atonal composers of the Fifties. Years later, I heard a much more raucous, impetuous performance, with a larger orchestra. The comic qualities of the Concert have come under greater focus in recent years. The score itself conveys its own mischievous humour for the performer, the notation allows scope for an uncommon exuberance, the conductor has their own, independent part which may be safely ignored. For a “random, meaningless” work, it carries a lot of signs that it is a Concert of Misrule.

There’s too much precise working out of details to consider the work as a Dadaist stunt. Critics could, of course, complain that Cage’s anarchism isn’t anarchic enough. Despite all attempts to dismiss it – as a joke, as conceptual art, as a philosophical statement – the Concert persists as a discomfiting presence in music. Describing the music as ‘abstract’ or non-referential is not enough to diminish its power – this should be obvious to anyone who can hear. How, as a piece of music, does the Concert continue to exert such force on the imagination, nearly sixty years after its premiere?

At St John At Hackney last Thursday night, pianist Philip Thomas joined conductor Jack Sheen and ten musicians from Apartment House for a performance of the Concert. The piece has always sounded protean, a mass of competing forces that never find equilibrium, always on the verge of becoming identifiable but never resolving into a fixed state at any time. Cage often talked about observing and imitating nature’s methods of operation and, in this piece, nature seems always on the verge of exceeding its bounds.

Thomas had scrupulously devised a new realisation of the piano part. In this incarnation the solo, often pointillistic in other interpretations, frequently assumed a studied fury, with extended loud phrases in restricted registers, elaborate figures and, every now and then, sudden interruptions of added colouration through extended techniques and objects. The orchestra members, scattered to various points around the church, called out to no-one, expecting no reply. As the sun set and the church darkened, quieter moments felt more like fatigue than rest; silences, always unnervingly unpredictable, opened up in the music like chasms.

Cage expressed the belief that any meaning to found in music comes from within the listener. This is not a renunciation of meaning in art, but a more complex understanding of how meaning may be found. After Cage’s death, a clear trend emerged in performing his work in a heightened state of quiescence, embracing the accidental harmonies found in his late work. This attitude carried over into new realisations of pieces from the Fifties and Sixties, which typically received more abrupt, abrasive performances at the time. The Apartment House performance of Concert opened up a new way of hearing this music. As the discordant voices rose, coalesced, fell apart and were silenced, the piece became an ominous, unreadable symbol for the times, refusing to explain itself but portending dark times ahead. I’ve never heard a more powerful performance of the piece, live or on record.

It’s fitting that the companion work on the night was a new piece by Christian Wolff, titled Resistance. Written for the same forces, it was premiered by Apartment House in Leeds the weekend before. Wolff’s resistance is not obstructionist; the piece synthesises several different approaches he has used to composition over the years. At times fully notated, at others partially or completely open, the conductor gives direction as needed, marks time when required, or stands aside. In contrast to much of Wolff’s recent music, the sense of a shaping force was present, allowing greater contrast and affective shading to emerge while still not compromising the ‘consensual’ working of the musicians. It worked backwards through allusions to Cage’s Music For ______ series, Cardew’s ensemble music of the early Sixties, and Wolff’s own, earliest rule-based works, drawing upon them as principles to be maintained into the next century.

A Post-Cage World: Antoine Beuger’s Ockeghem Octets

Wednesday 28 June 2017

In my mind I’ve worked up Antoine Beuger as my personal nemesis. Never met him, but his music has always aroused a vehement antipathy, sufficient for me to have resolved to avoid further encounters wherever possible. (The only other composer I’ve singled out for this treatment, more or less arbitrarily, is Wolfgang Rihm.) Whatever I’ve heard has always struck me as being imprisoned in theoretical purity, beholden to presenting an idea at the expense of any musical considerations; a dry, academic routine left to run its course. I found it devoid of aesthetic interest, but never in a way that challenged or provoked, and so felt no need to pursue it further.

So, when Another Timbre sent me their new recording of Beuger’s Ockeghem Octets last week, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my impartiality by getting really stuck in. I’m happy to report that those hopes have been dashed. This is quietly intriguing music. Maybe I needed to hear more Beuger after all, but what seems to set this piece apart from previous works I’ve heard is that the idea here focuses on musical considerations.

Each page of the score contains two lines of four tones. The tones are all to be played long and softly. Four of the musicians play one line of tones, each in their own time, and the four others play the second line. This recording realises twenty-five of the fifty pages of the score.

There’s a simple scheme in play here, not unlike some of my preferred music by Eva-Maria Houben. From this simplicity, a pleasing subtlety is allowed to emerge. As the title suggests, the piece is an homage to Ockeghem and Beuger observes that each page of the score “constitutes a kind of double canon”. The structure of the piece – musicians independently playing shared material within loosely-defined time-frames – bears a clear similarity to Cage’s late ‘number’ pieces. Indeed, the sound-world of soft, overlapping pitches strongly resemble many of those works.

There are distinct differences, however; borne out of differences in musical thinking. Firstly, Cage wasn’t one to think in terms of canons. Each page is circumscribed as a miniature, self-contained piece. Where Cage allows some interpretive freedom, Beuger stipulates long and soft notes throughout – those ‘lines’ of four tones take, in this recording, 2-3 minutes each. With potential for harmonic and textural complexity thus reduced still further, other qualities come to the fore. The instruments (flute, alto flute, melodica, concertina, harmonium, accordion, cello, e-bow zither) divide differently between the two lines on each page, producing strangely sophisticated tone-colours. The mix of instruments used here, combining “high” and “low” cultures, brings out unexpected beating frequencies and other acoustic phenomena. It’s a work that lovingly exemplifies the beauty of instrumental sounds, all through simple play that removes any faint traces of didacticism that linger even in Cage’s most beguiling works.

It figures that I must have been missing something all this time. Still wary of diving into Beuger’s back catalogue, but now because I’m worried I’ll spoil the mood.

Convulsive Amnesia and Disruptive Technology

Monday 26 June 2017

How does a composer respond to the modern world? Do you try to shut it out as a distraction and risk irrelevance? Or do you try to engage with it and risk co-option to commercial and political interests? Are you sufficiently aware of the changing currents in society, able to record them in such a way that your music doesn’t grow as stale as last year’s fashion?

Synergy percussion ensemble is approaching their 40th anniversary and commissions a new work to mark the occasion. They ask Anthony Pateras, who responds with an hour-long percussion sextet using over 100 instruments, with electroacoustic improvisations, written over two years. Now released on CD and download, Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All is a huge, ambitious work, far beyond a celebratory showpiece for technical virtuosity.

The title immediately recalls a misquote of Breton’s dictum, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” In fact, it’s a direct quote of the conclusion to Sylvère Lotringer’s essay The Dance of Signs. As with all the releases on Immediata, the music comes wrapped in ideas. The disc is accompanied by a booklet of interviews between Pateras, Lotringer and Jérôme Noetinger.

Presently, amnesia is impossible because we are immersed in the omnipresent archive of the Internet. The techno-utopia we have collectively bought into makes it more difficult for creative processes that consciously seek new worlds, because the weight of the past is magnified and indulged. If we cannot forget, how do we stumble on the beautiful?

Lotringer replies, “Surprise doesn’t surprise anymore. It’s already inscribed in the machine.” Cage typically liked to see the bright side of the emerging postmodern condition (we will become omni-attentive, i.e. electronic) but Lotringer cites another quote from Cage, on the need for art to “help us to forget” when we “drown in an avalanche of rigorously identical objects.” Right now, as any tech billionaire will tell you, information is an industry, rapidly defining for itself its own standards of manufacture and reproduction. Pateras notes that ubiquitous technology has given us a surfeit of self-representation, at the expense of self-awareness.

In a cultural sense, technology has allowed us to be consumed by inertia. How to break this hold? A percussion work too often asserts a return to primal origins, an attempted negation that in fact is a regression to accumulated cultural baggage and prejudices. Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All makes a regression of a more complex kind. It starts out sounding like a recording from the 1950s, the highest frequenices deadened, a faint hiss and rumble throughout. Despite the appearance of tape recorders later in the piece, at this stage everything is in fact acoustic, all sounds created by low, muffled percussion instruments of various types. An invisible act of technological disorientation.

The music is difficult, virtuosic in its complexity of composition and performance, but never in a flamboyant way. The polyrhythms and timbral shifts between instruments form a coherent hole, with no single voice standing out for display. Throughout the piece, the percussion is overdubbed with improvisations by Pateras and Noetinger on Revox tape recorders, reproducing, manipulating and distorting the percussion sounds. At times, the percussion sextet’s playing acts as an armature for the electronics, and at other times, vice versa. For all the small-scale restlessness in making the sounds, and the large-scale flux in densities and textures, the piece feels curiously monolithic. It creates its own meaning, leaving it to the listener to discern.

The question of whether the electronic and acoustic here exist in symbiosis, or instead prey upon each other in turn, is effaced by the electronic technology appearing to be obsolete (tape, open reels). To a less obvious extent it is also effaced by the ‘primitive’ percussion including highly-developed instruments and newer inventions such as Xenakis’ Sixxens. Freed from the distractions of being “cutting edge”, technology here is embraced for its truly disruptive properties, over an empty gesture of futilely attempting to renounce technology. Percussion and tape introduce complexities and complications which digital technologies have tried so hard to expunge.

We are living now in the half-forgotten legacies of the last century, from a time when first percussion music, and then tape, were seen as means of liberating sound. The use of older technology here is not an act of nostalgia but of taking up again a promise of the future left unfulfilled. If the music here seems foreboding, it still may be a utopian alternative to digitally-enforced cheerfulness.

I bought 10 Edition Wandelweiser CDs for 50 Euros and now I’m posting tweet-length reviews after drinking beer in the sun.

Thursday 15 June 2017

Tim Parkinson: cello piece
A study in self-knowledge triumphing over self-expression, allowing the personal to speak for the universal.

Eva-Maria Houben: von da nach da
She calls them ‘pictures’ and I love how reductive and transparent these pictures are. Sophistication is heightened simplicity.

Eva-Maria Houben: Works For Tromba Marina
An acoustic version George Harrison’s Electronic Sound LP.

Michael Pisaro: an unrhymed chord
How to present sound as subject without diminishing the power of composition. Open format gives acoustic and digital samples equal stature.

Michael Pisaro: Hearing Metal 1
How to turn Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I into a Harry Bertoia sculpture. Congratulations, I guess.

Tim Parkinson: piano piece piano piece
I plan to discuss this in greater detail in the near future.

Eva-Maria Houben: orgelbuch
Like a transcription of von da nach da. The rigorous economy of playing seems natural and gentle, as though fulfilled.

Eva-Maria Houben: dazwischen/immer anders
It’s a nice day so I’ll just leave the windows open and pretend this CD is playing.

Jürg Frey: String Quartets
Earlier quartets by Frey. Heard now in retrospect they reveal an exploratory nature, quietly restless (just not on the surface).

Beat Keller, Tom Johnson, Joseph Kudirka: String Trios
The Keller trios are so brief they make the larger works by Johnson and Kudirka seem equally ephemeral, hard to pin down.

What Is, What Will Be

Tuesday 30 May 2017

I’ve been working on my own thing for the past couple of weeks, and listening to a lot of stuff at home. Right now I’m playing Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All by Anthony Pateras, with Jérôme Noetinger and Synergy Percussion. It’s an ambitious and complex work, as you might expect for an hour-long piece featuring sixxens and about 100 other percussion instruments, plus electronics and live tape manipulations. I want to write about this piece in more detail soon, along with a series of posts about a whole bunch of piano music I’ve been hearing lately.

Writing may be slow because there’s a bunch of cool gigs coming up in June, a lot of them for free. City University’s holding a City Summer Sounds festival right now and over the next week or two you can hear everything from Ives’ Concord Sonata to “multimedia piano” (like I said, I’m on a piano kick right now) to Agata Zubel to Michael Finnissy. Later in the month other free gigs include Stockhausen’s rapturous Freude and the opportunity to give his Harlekin another chance.

For paying gigs, next week there is more vital recovery work being done on the late Twentieth Century. Away from the slightly claustrophobic canon of hits and memories of the post-war concert hall, Edges Ensemble with Hugh Shrapnel are playing pieces by Scratch Orchestra composers, La Monte Young and Earl Brown. The preceding two nights, Kammer Klang is presenting work by Else Marie Pade and Apartment House giving the first UK performance of an adaptation of Henning Christiansen’s Requiem of Art (NYC) – Fluxorum Organum. More and more it seems like nothing is ever truly lost.

(These shows are all in London, by the way. This post is largely a reminder to myself not to miss things and to plan out my drinking now the weather’s getting nicer.)

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2017 Totally-Not-Political Edition

Wednesday 10 May 2017

It seems to come earlier every year. Just noticed the first semi-final happened already, but then I have never watched the semi-finals and recommend that you should just stick to the final. Eurovision is best played stud, with every entrant in the final coming as a complete surprise.

Remember, Eurovision is a celebration of song and culture and absolutely nothing to do with politics so there will be no rules about presenters or contestants commenting on Brexit, the Crimea, the EU or Russia, nor will anyone in the audience be waving this flag about. Because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen.

Everything below, however, 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; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…

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, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and anomalies in German 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!” 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 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 Russia.

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.