This Is The New Music: 144 Pieces For Organ

Monday 19 September 2016

I’ve added another album to my Bandcamp store. The album costs £5, or you can download (most, not all) of the individual tracks individually for free. There are 144 tracks so you can feel like a big shot and pay for pure convenience. It’s about 90 minutes of music and the album comes with printable cover art, detailed sleeve notes and a video displaying attractive colour study scores for each piece.

The 144 Pieces For Organ were composed in 2014, generated entirely from a set of formulas in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Think of them as musical snowflakes: each one a unique outcome from a single set of rules.

Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 14 September 2016

You wish Morton Feldman’s life hadn’t ended so soon; not least because his work was still revealing unknown territory. For all that his late works give the impression of having arrived upon a truly unique understanding of music, there’s always an element in them that suggests there’s still further to explore. Pieces from his last couple of years such as Coptic Light and For Samuel Beckett imply that he had distilled his musical language to an unbroken, monadic surface; but then his very last work, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, treats what’s gone before as a starting point for something new.

It had been played in London only once, 1999. Last night at Cafe Oto Mark Knoop, Aisha Orazbayeva, Bridget Carey and Anton Lukoszevieze played it for a second time. It was the hottest September day anyone could remember. Oto is a small concrete box with a bar up the back and passersby in the street just outside. The gig was sold out. For seventy-five minutes, we all sat or stood in stillness. It was an actual example of “if you build it, they will come”.

We stayed focused in the airless heat and humidity partly to avoid any excessive movement, mostly to follow the music, and partly out of respect for the imperturbable stoicism displayed by the musicians. You could see the conditions were taking their toll but they never let their heads drop. They carefully balanced their pacing and tone to enable the piece to unfold in a state of suspension, outside of typical musical concerns of linear time.

Feldman’s last piece draws on the lessons learned from his preceding work and wears its wisdom lightly. Its material is allowed to appear and evolve in what seems to be a more natural, organic way. For all the well appreciated subtleties of his music, the lack of obvious sections and cycled repetitions in this piece makes his other late works seem almost crude in comparison. When an obvious change is introduced – a short sequence of piano arpeggios, an exchange of pizzicato notes between the strings – it doesn’t come as a shock, but as the deepening of a plot. Each motif that appears, whether familiar or new, feels like a piece of a puzzle falling into place, revealing more of an image realised only on completion. The music feels more open, to the listener and to the world, without ever sacrificing its profound ambiguity of mood. Like John Cage’s best music, seeking to imitate nature, nothing’s a surprise but nothing is expected.

Eva-Maria Houben at Cafe Oto

Thursday 1 September 2016

A warm Tuesday night in London and Eva-Maria Houben is playing piano at Cafe Oto. She’s chosen to play three short sets, so people can enjoy the outside air, a drink and a chat, and refresh their focus on the music. Her music is typically slow and quiet, with a virtuosic use of silence. Such pieces can be very long, but not tonight. Two of the works are being played in public for the first time; one of them, Dandelion, is a loose collection of pages. Houben explains that it could go on “for hours” but tonight she’s selected just three pages to play.

Alex Ross, in the latest issue of the New Yorker, gives a good description of challenges and pleasures the new listener finds when discovering the Wandelweiser collective.

Eva-Maria Houben, a mainstay of the group, has written, “Music may exist ‘between’: between appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something ‘nearly nothing.’”

He also observes the group’s “slightly cultish atmosphere” but this has started to fall away in recent years, as individual voices from within the group have become more recognisable. At Oto, Houben gives a short introduction to each piece, enthusiastically describing her inspirations. These sources are surprisingly diverse, as is her music.

She begins with another premiere, Tiefe – Depth for Piano. It’s a consummate study in decay and resonance. Isolated notes are struck and released immediately, held a short time and allowed to die away, sometimes being cut off, sometimes allowed to fade. Throughout the evening, there’s little use of the sustain pedal to colour, or cover, the frequent silences. Rather like Jürg Frey’s guitar music (another Wandelweiser composer), she sets the piano’s sounds within the surrounding silence and not against it.

Dandelion draws on prose inspiration rather than fixed notation, with the instrument’s strings mostly plucked by hand. For her Sonata for Piano No. 10 she explains how she was intrigued by Enescu’s talent for producing bell-like sonorities in his piano chords. The dedicatee for each movement is a very unWandelweiserish composer: Mussorgsky, Enescu, Schumann, Liszt, Messiaen. The semblance of each composer is evident in each movement’s set of tolling chords.

For all the emphasis on silence when describing this type of music, Houben gives particular attention to the piano’s capability for producing harmonic resonances and overtones (she refers to them as “partials”, suggesting a wish to complicate the instrument’s harmonic characteristics even further). In another work, the score is four pages of three lines each, single tones on a single stave in the treble. The piece ends with a long, steady drumming on a dense cluster of notes in the bass. The resonating strings produce a halo of high notes whistling over the top. No need for this low chord to be written down or on the music stand.

I still can’t get my head around this composer. The first pieces I heard seemed too bald – dependent on a theory, underdeveloped. Then I heard pieces which seemed much more warm-blooded to me. Others had a hint of veering into New Age meditation or whimsy, still others embrace tintinnabulation not unlike Arvo Pärt. Tonight, the music ranges from finely nuanced (Tiefe, Dandelion) to obsessively single-minded, as in the Sonata and another piece made entirely of single notes in groups of three, stacked end to end. Far removed from the sacerdotal austerity of Wandelweiser’s image, this is living, messy, human music.

Violin+1: Bryn Harrison and Linda Catlin Smith

Monday 29 August 2016

First, I have to say that I had Linda Catlin Smith all wrong.

A couple of months ago Another Timbre released four CDs under the general title ‘Violin+1’: four violinists, each in duet with a different type of musician. Two of the discs are of composed works, the other two are jointly composed between the musicians through improvisation. Violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and pianist Mark Knoop play a new work by Bryn Harrison, Receiving the Approaching Memory. I raved about Harrison’s monumental piano piece Vessels a couple of years ago, hearing it live and on CD. At the time I made the inevitable comparison to Morton Feldman’s late works, but noted significant differences. Unlike Feldman’s carpet-inspired patterns, Vessels was more like a vast labyrinth, beguiling in the way Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano or Josef Matthias Hauer can be.

Receiving the Approaching Memory takes these aspects of Vessels and somehow makes them more subtle. The scale of the piece is less intimidating – scarcely more than half the length of Vessels and broken into five movements instead of a single, relentless span. The surface resemblance to Feldman is closer, like his last orchestral works: Harrison takes up a musical element and, rather than develop it, gently turns it from side to side, like the facets of a crystal catching the light. Any listener lulled by this apparent familiarity may not even notice that they are slowly becoming disoriented. As each new movement begins, the mystery deepens. Have we heard this part before? Did the last movement change at all, really? Are we starting over from the same place, or will we end up where the last movement ended, only not to remember it when we arrive? Does each movement differ at all? Which movement are we up to? The musicians make the music float, as though without any physical reference for the listener to hold on to.

Linda Catlin Smith seemed to be a composer a little bit outside the usual sound-world of Another Timbre. What little I’d heard of her music up until now showed influences of folk music, particularly of traditions from North America. Based on that, I’d lazily pigeonholed her with the current generation of American composers who have found commercial success through exploiting a ‘vernacular’ of a steady pulse and conventional harmony. This was unfair of me. Dirt Road, a lengthy set of 15 movements for violin and percussion, was written 10 years ago but is making a wider impression only now.

The title itself suggested an appeal to folksy authenticity that has been fashionable lately, in music as much as anywhere, and has already started to grate as much as the lumberjack shirt on an artisanal barista. Listening to the disc with that mindset becomes an astonishing revelation. The first movement is minimal, a violin drone supplemented with bass drum and occasional flourishes of vibraphone. The second suggests a folk influence, modal patterns to slow and brief to be considered full melodies. The pairing of instruments is peculiar, violin with percussionist, often on mallet instruments with occasional drum or cymbal. The first time I listened, the music went from pleasant, to strange, to captivating – it’s beautiful in a way that the listener can never settle into and take for granted.

Each new movement opens up a new perspective on the whole, returning to ideas heard before and presenting them in a new way, introducing a twist, opening up a new set of sounds that casts different light on what was heard before. Some movements can be quietly lyrical, others severely minimal, yet the work holds together as a unified experience, more than the sum of its parts. There’s a complexity of musical thinking going on here, belied by the simplicity of technique.

Violinist Mira Benjamin and percussionist Simon Limbrick play with a richly detailed grain to their sound, with edges just rough enough to give predominance to the physical sounds of the instruments that are so important to making the music work. Each moves effortlessly between foreground and background when needed. This CD has deservedly been getting a lot of attention. As Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes, “Smith’s time has, finally, come.”

William S. Burroughs: Curse Go Back

Sunday 21 August 2016

In 2016 I wrote the sleeve notes for a new LP release of a long, obscure tape experiment by William S. Burroughs. Recorded in London around 1968, only a tiny number copies of the tape have ever been publicly available until now. A slightly edited version of the tape is now released by Paradigm Discs with the title Curse Go Back.

In the late 1960s, the streets of Swinging London were haunted by the grim spectre of William Burroughs. Amidst the free love, paisley and rock’n’roll he slipped like a shadow, bent on a dark magic to wreak revenge and revolution. A perpetual exile, he found himself once again hiding in the margins. He had been the godfather of the 1950s counter-culture but in the 1960s, while the counter-culture became mainstream, he remained a cult figure, a touchstone for the underground’s underground….

Where Electronic Revolution dealt with theory, this recording, made by Burroughs sometime around 1968, shows Burroughs’ thinking in practice. It documents one of the purest, longest and most intensely focused of his tape experiments. Before one can break down language’s control over society, exercises such as these are needed to break down its control over one’s own consciousness. It’s an alchemical exercise, both in its transformative use of material and in its method, a mix of shamanistic ritual with the trappings and attitude of scientific research.

Curse Go Back can be ordered through Paradigm Discs. The complete sleeve notes are reprinted on my website.

Music versus material (3): Arturas Bumšteinas

Monday 15 August 2016

When is a field recording a composition? I suspect many musicians would like to keep this line as vague as possible, without considering how some more abstracted thought might clarify their own music-making. Arturas Bumšteinas’ new CD Organ Safari Lituanica seems to aim for the centre of a Venn diagram, at the intersection where improvisation, composition and field recording all overlap but instead of hitting this presumed bullseye the disc falls splat between three stools and you can’t help but imagine that this is, in fact, the inelegant consummation Bumšteinas had hoped for all along. The reviews on the record label’s promotional page start with “a mess of tooting dissonance and billowing air” and end with “I must admit I was quite lost after a while and gave up.”

Organ Safari is a project Bumšteinas has been working on since 2008. The title already invokes the realm of field recordings and pretensions to artless documentation, and the project is built out of a growing archive of recordings of church organs around Europe. In this instalment, Bumšteinas has restricted his source material to Lithuanian churches only, and edited the improvisations by Gailė Griciūtė into three compositions. (This is apparently part of a larger project titled Organ Archipelago, with a similar anthropological conceit. It was, naturally, made for Australian radio.)

The organ in modern music has long featured as a fetishised object as much as an instrument, a vehicle for cultural contemplation as much as for sound. This goes back at least as far as Kagel and Ligeti and continues today. Organ Safari Lituanica use of collaged improvisation recalls works such as Henning Christiansen’s Fluxorum Organum and, more closely, Wolfgang Mitterer’s Stop Playing. Mitterer focuses on the mechanical workings of the organ, while Bumšteinas takes a more holistic approach. The rattle of keys and hissing of air through pipes are present throughout, but so is actual playing of notes. Mitterer’s collages have a technical polish in their processed sounds, whereas on Safari the sounds are more simply cut and overlaid. Certain obvious motives repeat in all pieces, like the disingenuous chromatic runs, up and down.

Besides the reviews quoted above, I’ve also had friends reporting losing patience with this disc. Part of the problem is the approach to collage: as I mentioned at the start of this series, “the raw material can be so seductively rich and the means of composing with them so facile, that resulting work can be less than the sum of its parts”. The first piece, at a little over 30 minutes, tends to deafen the listener to the subtleties in the next two tracks. The middle piece, softer and clearer in its sounds while still resisting continuity, is quite lovely when heard in isolation. The final piece exposes the complexities and contradictions in this project. The details that can be appreciated start to get overwhelmed by muddled pools of organ sounds, thoughtless vamping on tuneless keyboards, fumbles, rehearsed bloopers.

The music ends up chasing its tail, an endless cycle of deflection, claiming and disowning one form of cultural expression after another. It’s music, it’s performance, it’s ritual, it’s documentation, it’s field recording, it’s anthropology, it’s pastiche, it’s satire. As said near the start, this would seem to be Bumšteinas’ goal, to produce that most infuriating of works: a piece that aspires to fail, and succeeds at it.

Music versus material (2): Lucio Capece

Tuesday 9 August 2016

When is a field recording no longer a field recording? I originally started to phrase this question “where is the line between field recording and…” but stopped when I couldn’t think of anything to put for the counter-example except “music”. As previously mentioned, field recordings in music tend to walk a fine line between being sufficiently dull to qualify as “sound art” or sufficiently rich to leave one “wallowing in timbre” (cf. Feldman, contrasting sound with music).

Do some of Alvin Lucier’s pieces count as field recordings? Considered as phenomena observed in a specific acoustic location, the line of distinction with field recordings gets blurred. I was thinking about this again when listening to Lucio Capece’s CD Awareness about. Similar considerations appear, of spatial location of sound as an acoustic characteristic, of the resonance of spaces. The last piece on the disc is a long recording made at the Halle des Expositions, Évreux, France, or rather of the Halle des Expositions. It’s part of a series titled Space Tuning – Conditional Music:

Performances involve the playback of recordings made in the space by placing a microphone inside cardboard tubes of differing dimensions. These recordings are analysed for their spectral characteristics and then edited into an assembled soundfile. The soundfile is played back live within the space via a PA, and is combined with three other sound sources: selected sine tones based on the harmonic spectrum and formants of the recordings, electronically produced white noise (both of which are amplified through mobile wireless speakers hanging from helium balloons), and some live sounds which I play on soprano saxophone.

Listeners familiar with Lucier would recognise features from some of his better-known works here. The resonance of the space (I Am Sitting In A Room), the cardboard tubes (Vessels), the movement of the sound image (Bird And Person Dyning). I’m not saying that the music is derivative, but that it consolidates and builds upon a legacy. Like many other pioneers in music, Lucier has often been described as a “one-off” – a term used more in hope than in admiration by musicians uncomfortable with the prospect of having to question their assumptions. It’s heartening to hear music so informed by a new tradition.

The soundworld of Space Tuning – Eiffel’s Halle des Expositions is satisfyingly cavernous without being overly ornamented. In two smaller pieces, Capece plays solo in his practice room then plays recordings of the sounds back into the room while binaural microphones attached to a helium balloon float around in circles. The resulting music stays clear but with a complexity of subtle details that never becomes dense.

The other long work, Groupings, is an entirely acoustic quartet but doesn’t sound like it. The slowly unfolding webs of sound are built out of auditory illusions, using white noise (air through an accordion, rasp on bow against string) as a filter for other sounds, playing off small differences in intonation of tones to emphasise or subtract from certain parts of the harmonic spectrum.

It’s a fascinating collection of pieces that focus on the most elemental but often neglected aspects of sound. Without being didactic, the musical beauty of the pieces allows the listener to explore for themselves how these sounds came about and consider how these phenomena appear in daily life.

Music versus material (1): Claudio Parodi

Monday 8 August 2016

I don’t trust field recordings. I’ve probably said this before, but I mean a certain type of field recordings: the ones with a pretence to authenticity. It’s a double whammy against their credibility as art. On the first count, there’s a failure to account for or even consider the role of mediation, be it technical (e.g. microphones) or subjective (e.g. editing, selection). On the other, they claim aesthetic failure as a virtue (“It’s boring, but that’s how it really happened!”). This approach inevitably leads to deceit, as bad novelists sell their crude fictions as searing autobiography and bad stage magicians parade their crude tricks as revelations of psychic powers.

You will note that I did not dismiss all types of field recording. They can be beautiful, important, but they can stubbornly resist becoming art. As with collage in the visual arts, the raw material can be so seductively rich and the means of composing with them so facile, that resulting work can be less than the sum of its parts: a vampire aesthetic.

Every warning is a challenge, so it’s interesting to find the different ways in which the problem can be tackled. (Plug: I’ve tried this myself, using various ways of foregrounding technical intervention in a sonic landscape.) As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been listening to a recent CD by Claudio Parodi which is composed from field recordings.

Prima del terzo comes across at first as soft, ambient noise. Faint details emerge and it becomes clear that you are listening to a space, or rather a place. The location is not immediately obvious to the casual listener; it may well be a montage of recordings superimposed. Then come some sudden shifts in perspective – not of the listener, but of the landscape as it suddenly moves its focus from left to right in the stereo spectrum.

Something is going on beyond simple documentation but the exact nature isn’t clear. “Nothing against pure field recording. But,” Parodi writes, “I felt to go deeper.” The recordings were made to capture the wind, heard while walking around the harbour in Parodi’s home town of Chiavari. The movements of the sound trace out the strokes of lettering in Hebrew words. The actions are redolent of some sort of ritual, both in walking out the paths for the recording and in their manipulation in the studio. The purpose of the ritual, however, remains obscure to the listener.

There’s a weird balance here between the deeply subjective process which led to this set of pieces being made, and the objective impenetrability of the process to the listener. For some reason it reminded of some of Alvin Lucier’s music, where an arbitrary object can become an irreducible fact in determining sounds. (He’s also written a piece called Letters.) There’s also a similar element of quiet subversion. Five pieces of wind, never rising to a storm but liable to suddenly change.

Who is neither in nor out

Thursday 14 July 2016

If there’s a Renaissance this century it will come from rediscovering what happened last century. So far it feels like a lot of modern musical activity is a matter of catching up on what’s already happened. I went to the musikFabrik production of Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury in Paris last month. It seems the piece went unplayed from 1969 to 2007. Partch’s unique instruments have now been lovingly replicated and were skilfully played by an ensemble from Cologne. Hearing a large-scale work by Partch live instead of from not-particularly-hi-fi recordings from half a century ago seemed miraculous.

In October this year the quasi-popular music duo Matmos are performing scenes from Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives at the Barbican. It’s been slipped in as part of a programmed series titled “Reich, Glass, Adams: The Sounds that Changed America”. (Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning is not on the programme; it gets its UK premiere in January.)

Recovering vital pieces of the past is one thing, but they need to be consolidated into present activity. I’ve been getting my head around a set of discs sent to me by the Italian composer Claudio Parodi. Right now I’m listening to A tree, at night, a sort of hörspiel* for intoning voices, shakers and thumb piano. One voice narrates, mostly in Italian, another chants phrases over and around the speaker. There are nine chapters, mostly similar in style.

There’s a story going on here but my Italian’s not good enough to follow it. (The CD booklet gives a link to an English translation.) The voices’ rhythms are lulling, as are the shakers that play almost throughout. The simple instruments are derived from storytelling traditions “in Africa” but I keep thinking of Robert Ashley’s operas – for all the words, you get lost in their music. (Ashley was also not averse to translating his libretti into foreign languages.)

The story is something about moving house, exploring a neighbourhood; and this gets me thinking about some of Alvin Curran’s old sound collages, mixing music, narrative and street recordings around Rome into a personal, oblique narrative. There are no field recordings in A tree, at night but, by some strange means in the music, I keep misremembering this simple fact.

As for the listening experience: how much of it is down to Parodi, how much to me, and how much of it to what’s in the music, waiting for either of us to find it?

There’s another CD here by Parodi which does use field recordings, and a couple of others by different composers and I need to talk about them in my next post.

* I just checked the website and it literally uses the exact wording as I did. Must have a good ear.

Donnerstag aus Licht in Basel

Tuesday 28 June 2016

As with Cage, so with Stockhausen: composers who upset the musical establishment are told their music will not survive them. On Sunday I was at the new production of Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht in Basel. This version featured many performers from a new generation who brought out the depth and feeling within Stockhausen’s score and made the many technical demands seem natural to them. Stockhausen’s legacy continues to propagate without his physical presence.

As the first opera written in the Licht cycle Donnerstag is the most conventional, although already straining at the limitations of the opera hall. It foreshadows how later parts open out into the world while also immersing the audience deeper into a less compromising insistence on his idiosyncratic cosmology. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that the opera is a work of transformation. In unison with Michael’s emergence from the appearance of a relatable, if not typical, childhood into a spiritual presence in the universe, the matter of the opera steadily leads us from drama to religious contemplation. The music moves from drama to symbolic explication and meditation. Stockhausen’s later music has a remarkable ability to convey elements commonly associated with minimal music – timelessness, communion – while still generous and abundant with activity and detail. The soloists, chorus and orchestra in Basel all carried this duality beautifully.

Tragically, the staging of this production was incapable of escaping its earthbound origins, in conception and in execution. At critical points it betrayed a failure of nerve, with fatal consequences. The Greeting in the foyer and the first act started with intrigue and promise, establishing the material foundations of Michael’s first appearance (even though the Greeting’s 70s lounge suits didn’t connect with the Act I’s tracht and dirndl). Things go horribly wrong during Michael’s examinations at the end of the first act, which here were perversely interpreted as medical examinations as Michael succumbs to madness, same as his mother. The second act, Michael’s Journey Around the World, is thus set in a mental hospital; or rather, a 1970s caricature of a mental hospital. The ensuing antics are hackneyed and the use of mental illness to explain away Michael’s journeys and encounters is the middlebrow version of the tired old fallback of “it was all just a dream”. The whole second act becomes something of a bummer, which I’m pretty sure should never be the desired affect in a Stockhausen opera.

Throughout the opera, the scene returns to a dumbshow repetition of Michael’s childhood. Even in the third act Michael cannot move on from this display, and so the transformative essence of the opera is lost. This failure of Michael’s becomes a failure of this production. The director has taken a 1970s religious opera and regressed it to a 1930s expressionist psychodrama.

To honestly address Stockhausen’s operatic vision, one must fully commit to it – however bizarre it may be – if it is to work at all. Time after time this staging pulled its punches, retreating to a comfort zone of irony and psychology instead of grappling with the thornier issue of how to present a 21st century mystery play and the difficult implications of taking the text seriously. In Act II and the first half of the third act the action often becomes muddled, fussy and fidgety, as though to distract from the music. Michael’s homecoming in Act III is undermined by prolonged stage business which resorts to simply disregarding what is being sung.

Things on stage improve greatly when genuine conflict is introduced on stage through Stockhausen’s own libretto, as Michael confronts various manifestations of Luzifer. Finally, the action on stage returns to illuminating the music. The concluding scene is also handled very well, at last allowing the audience to focus in stillness on what has gone before. By this time the production has almost redeemed itself. Even here, though, the various personifications of Michael appear as in youth, from the first act. The director just cannot move on.

You can set the New Testament in a bowling alley in space for all I care, but if you present the Gospel as the story of one man’s journey to overcome obstacles in search of self-fulfilment then it will seem worse than strange, it will seem shallow and ignorant. No new light is shed.

So often in the Licht cycle Stockhausen takes banal and simplistic scenarios and somehow manages to elevate them through his music and his sense of experience shared through an audience. Too often this staging in Basel took elements of the mystical and fantastic and beat them down into the banal.

Composing or improvising, or… (II)

Thursday 16 June 2016

For the last fifty-odd years there’s been a grey area between what is composed and what is improvised. At home, I’ve been listening to some more new CDs from Another Timbre. Goldmsiths is a neat collection of four pieces for an ensemble of exceptional musicians equally adept at playing from a score or making it up. Everything is new, from last year: a piece each by Jürg Frey, Sarah Hughes and John Lely, and an improvisation. The pieces here alternate from being governed by a relatively strict, reductive principle of organisation (Frey, Lely) to music which opens up room for wider interpretation (Hughes). The improvisation is, theoretically, entirely free, but here the situation is not so simple.

The musicians take the same “hazardous course” described by John Tilbury in yesterday’s post (and Tilbury is the pianist on this disc.) They respond to the immediate circumstances of the musical situation with keen awareness of mood and a sureness of touch. Their performances of Frey’s Circular Music No. 6 and Lely’s First Page for Five are subtly coloured with a sustained sense of atmosphere.

Although it is more diverse in its material, the improvisation could easily be taken as a composed work, of a piece with the rest of the programme. This feeling is compounded by the opening work, Sarah Hughes’ A Reward is given for the Best Inframammary Fold No. 4, which sounds as though it may be a companion improvisation. The piece is in fact composed, with a determined structure, contrasts, gestures and harmonic material all specified. How the contents of this structure are to be presented is left to the musicians. Here, the music flows and ebbs as though through a spontaneous collective activity, even though these elements and overall scheme were determined in advance by the composer.

In the improvisation, with no hierarchy, the musicians must find their own constraints. They do a remarkable job of falling into the background when needed, providing tiny but essential shading that gives the music life. This becomes particularly clear in the strange, affecting coda.

Marek Poliks’ new CD hull treader sounds, at first, like another type of electroacoustic improvisation. There are two pieces, separated by a minute’s silence. In each, the sounds are amplified or entirely electronic. Music appears as large blocks of timbre; typically moving from one block to the next in sequence. The sounds are complex, verging on noise; extended techniques prevail. In an interview, Poliks talks about his interest in industrial goth, dark ambient.

Strangely, closer investigation reveals the situation to be more complicated. Firstly, it’s significant that Poliks himself doesn’t play on this disc: the performers are the ensemble Distractfold the duet of John Pickford Richards and Beth Weisser on violas(!?) and electronics. I haven’t seen the score for these pieces, but others I have seen suggest that these works are fully notated, at least down to details of techniques motifs and finer points of phrasing.

Despite the often harsh and unfamiliar sounds we’ve returned, in a roundabout way, to a type of composition from the classical era, where notation sought to preserve and then mimic the spontaneous flow of improvised music. The techniques, means and materials are however very different, after the intervention of a century or so of new thinking. Poliks’ music takes some unexpected twists and turns, as though following some internal logic beyond the knowledge of the performers. There are sudden, decisive shifts in tone, like the ominous rumble that suddenly appears a third of the way through the viola duet treader always in station and then refuses to leave. It’s like taking in a landscape – industrial, or post-industrial, in this case – only to discover the scene is in fact a vast organism with a mind of its own.

Composing or improvising, or… (I)

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Each composition is built upon a computer program governing interaction between performers and the system, and creates situations rather than set pieces. The performers have options rather than instructions, and the exploration of each situation as it unfolds is up to them.

— notes for David Behrman’s Interspecies Smalltalk

When it comes to a theoretical approach to music, the one thing I’ve taken away from Morton Feldman is how he worked within contradictions. He kept setting up mutually exclusive expectations of what he wanted his music to do; from there, composing became an act of constant negotiation with paradoxes. He made concessions, then made new demands, never reached a settlement.

A few weeks ago I went to the David Behrman residency at Cafe Oto; two nights of pieces ranging from early 1970s to more recent. He played duets and trios with fiddler Cleek Schrey and cellist Anton Lukoszevieze. These were pieces composed for live musicians performing with computer-controlled electronics – the computer interacts with the musicians as much as, if not more than, the reverse. What impressed most was that there was no flashy display of technical or technological virtuosity. On both nights, the music could have been comfortably plugged by a promoter as “ambient”. Lukoszevieze and Schrey listened and responded; Behrman’s computer was equally sympathetic. They were making music together.

(“Nobody’s trying to impress me with how difficult it is to do whatever it is they’re doing.” Something I don’t remember writing, about I gig I don’t remember going to.)

We’re back at that famous quote from Barthes’ The Grain of the Voice, “that the harpsichord playing of Wanda Landowska comes from her inner body and not from the petty digital scramble of so many harpsichordists.” John Tilbury picks up on this quote when talking about playing Feldman’s piano music.

Tudor and Cardew were virtuosi, which has nothing to do with velocity or petty digital scramble (Barthes), by virtue of the extraordinary sounds they drew from the piano. Their performances steered a hazardous course generating risk and excitement: the phrasing and articulation ‘situational’, determined spontaneously by the idiosyncrasies of individual sounds at particular moments, by ambience and acoustics, by the imperfections in the instrument and the dimensions of the room.

I’ve been listening to a lot of this type of hazardous music-making lately, both in composed and improvised situations, live and on record. A week or so after hearing it at the Behrman residency, I was back at Oto listening to Ora Clementi play. This duo work with what is almost the standard mix of devices for improvisers these days: stray instruments, found objects, cheap electronics, raw voice. With very different means and material, they achieved an effect similar to Behrman et al., of sounds blended together, alternately revealing small details or combining in complex ways. Very different music, but they shared a focus on using their instruments to achieve a particular end – not even a type of sound, but a particular way of listening. If Ora Clementi pushed the sounds, it was just a little bit, and only to see which way they might go.

The next night I was at St John’s in Hackney to hear what was apparently the penultimate performance by Marginal Consort. Their improvisations work on a larger scale, in time (three hours), in space (four musicians, each at their own corner of the church nave) and in equipment at their disposal. Their aesthetic approach was also writ on a larger scale: both regard to themselves and to each other a kind of thoughtful thoughtlessness prevailed. At various times each performer would drown out another, fade to near-silence, draw attention to themselves or withdraw, dwell on a particular sound of pursue a particular activity. Things came together by chance while some events were evidently planned. Overall, it was as though a number of smaller, self-contained compositions were presented serially and simultaneously to produce one hyper-work. Contradictions arose throughout and were always resolved by a seeming indifference to them. It was reminiscent of an enlightening interpretation of Cage’s Cartridge Music played a few years ago, which leaped back and forth from delicate to abrasive through a virtuosically disinterested performance by Marginal Consort mentor Takehisa Kosugi and… David Behrman.

This post is too long already, so now I’ve closed the loop I’ll post the rest separately tomorrow.

Jürg Frey: guitarist, alone

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Decades of heavily amplified popular music have ingrained the idea of the guitar as a loud, swaggering vehicle of individualism at its most potent – an image that extends from rock and blues to the unvarnished grit of flamenco and folk singers. The title of Another Timbre’s new album of Jürg Frey’s music, guitarist, alone, carries a similar connotation of outspoken defiance.

It’s easy to forget the reason why the guitar is so often amplified in the first place. Without supporting technology, the guitar is a frail-voiced instrument. The plucked notes decay quickly, the dynamic range struggles to reach past what other musicians would consider mezzo forte, sustain and resonance is limited to a few natural harmonics on the lowest strings. Frey’s writing for guitar takes precisely the opposite route almost every other composer would follow, eschewing continuous flows of notes, strummed chords and secure bass. On these two CDs, he demands the instrument be presented at its weakest, unaccompanied, its technical shortcomings mercilessly exposed.

Frey almost exclusively demands the guitar play single, unsupported notes, only occasionally allowing harmonies to appear. At first, it would seem that we have a situation similar to that of Michael Pisaro’s Mind is Moving IX for solo electric guitarist, discussed here recently: a series of isolated incidents, exquisitely timed. With a classical acoustic guitar, such an approach becomes almost impossible. The sounds are too faint and fleeting to significantly establish their presence.

Unlike some of Frey’s more recent, “figurative” music, guitarist, alone leaves us back in the position of being able only to suddenly listen. relikt, from 1987, works simply by juxtaposing one note against another, in succession. It’s a work of tremendous restraint, both in composition and interpretation, setting sound against silence in a carefully maintained equilibrium.

Cristián Alvear’s playing is a beautiful study in concentration throughout the collection. There are no extended techniques called for here, and so he produces each sound cleanly and clearly, with extraneous noise on the strings, neck or body of the instrument (that “authentic” grit of folk music) almost entirely eliminated even when the music is near silent. At the same time, the playing and recording never sounds so polished as to be sterile. Tiny, inevitable incidents in the sound and the background give the music a physical presence. For wen 23 Alvear stretches the piece out to half an hour, a mere dozen or so notes suspended on a sea of silence. (I’m not Joseph II so I’m not going to count them.)

The most recent work is the title piece, from 2014. It shares a title and a style close to that of his two works titled Pianist, Alone. The title now seems more plaintive than defiant. Contrasted with the piano, the thinness of the guitar’s sound suggests a less certain, more tenuous narrative behind the musical meandering. The guitar is a private, intimate instrument.

The 50 Sächelchen from 1989 take up the entirety of the other disc. These bagatelles, arranged in alphabetical order, imply a playfulness that might seem at odds with Frey’s typically hushed aesthetic. Funnily enough, this is exactly the case. These brief, sometimes very brief, pieces move from closely-studied miniatures to jaunty little stings (Jürg Frey ringtones?) and even snatches of music that are fast and even, as much as it is possible, loud. But only for a little while, now and then.

Postscript to The Curse of Taste: Christian Wolff

Monday 16 May 2016

There was another typically eclectic Kammer Klang night a couple of weeks back (the music of Christian Wolff, Vinko Globokar and… Chicks on Speed?). A new piece by Wolff received its premiere, Wade In The Water for violin and piano.

There’s a common criticism frequently made about Wolff’s later compositions. Simon Cummings neatly summarises this problem, that Wolff’s music is “sufficiently disjointed and internally inconsistent that it simply sounded incompetent.” As someone who enjoyed the performance of Robert last year, I’ve begun to think that Wolff has actually made a sort of aesthetic breakthrough. There is no deep harmonic interest in his music, no contrapuntal interest other than by accident, no sense of teleology, structure or process, rhythm and melody that’s arbitrary and nondescript.

All this negation of musical attributes has been done before and has resulted in types of music that were, at first, new. Drones and types of minimal music come immediately to mind. Pieces like Michael Pisaro’s Mind is Moving IX, discussed before, also fit this description. Wolff has done something different, retaining just enough of conventional musical expectations to disguise the fact that his music is working on a different level.

It comes back to Wolff’s associates, Cage and Feldman. The idea of “letting sounds be themselves”, outside of serving a functional hierarchy. The focus on sound over pitch. Cage used chance to break up conventional musical logic. Feldman used indeterminacy. Both are alienating devices, both for musician and audience. Late Feldman used repeating motifs and patterns as a vehicle for conveying instrumental timbre and pitch as an end in itself. Wolff’s late music works toward the same end by alienation through banality, removing any interest in the listener for his “material”. He is the anti-Feldman.

By the same comparison, I’m finding that Wolff’s pieces are all different in the way that they are all the same. Wade In The Water‘s directionless meandering took on its own mood, with sudden but passing gestures of impatience or urgency that soon dissipated, stronger hints of playfulness and austerity from one moment to the next. A lot of this was due to the playing of Aisha Orazbayeva on violin and Joseph Houston on piano. They preceded the premiere with a realisation of a Wolff score from his earlier, more respectable careeer, the indeterminate For 1, 2 or 3 People. Their performance was exemplary in its subtlety, constrained richness and coherence. It went a long way to informing and illuminating Wade In The Water.

The Curse of Taste: Marchetti, Pisaro

Monday 16 May 2016

From the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries Western aesthetics were founded upon a fraught consensus of taste. The romantic understanding of art that was naturalistic and intuitive became, strangely, a social agreement on what constituted a sufficiently congruent analogy to its subject. This was a question of subjective judgement, which brought with it a greatly increased risk of failure.

Those old romantic notions still pervade contemporary culture, possibly more so in music than any other art form. There are, however, some composers who work in engagement with these ideas – this is different from accepting them or submitting to them. Back in March I heard Reinier van Houdt play two piano pieces: Walter Marchetti’s Per la mano sinistra and Michael Pisaro’s Green Hour, Grey Future. Both works are long and make use of pauses, isolated chords, notes, brief fragments. After a while, you think there may be some repetition or recapitulation at work, probably. The scale of the work and the dynamics recall late Feldman, but there’s none of Feldman’s patterning or obvious sectional movement. In this respect each composer seems to have allowed themselves more freedom to wander, and possibly extended this to the performer, too.

The Marchetti piece meanders purposefully, a soft-spoken but poignant monologue. The Pisaro piece isolates individual piano sounds, using silence as their context. In fact, both works are accompanied: the Pisaro with electronic tones that colour and shadow the piano, the Marchetti by an umbrella, held in the pianist’s left hand throughout, leaving only the right free to play.

When isolated sounds are separated so far by silence, how do you know that it’s music? I’ve been listening to another solo piece by Pisaro, Mind is Moving IX for electric guitarist. This is another recent release on the Intonema label, which I wrote about a little while ago. Recording this piece was a two-year process: “we made several recordings in different spaces, listened and discussed all the details with the composer and the performer” before capturing the final version released on this CD.

Without an independent electronic part, Mind is Moving IX sounds even more sparse and austere, to the point of breaking up any sense of musical continuity. Single, separated notes of various length; towards the end a descending sequence of intervals becomes a major development. Occasionally there is a long tone on bowed guitar or, in contrast, the guitarist whistling, or static from a small radio. There is a clicking of stones at certain points. Each element seems to appear more than once during the piece, suggesting some faint traces of an overall shape.

As suggested above, the piece depends heavily on how it is interpreted and performed. Those “details” that were discussed, on what did they depend? The sense of timing becomes critical. The qualities needed to make the piece succeed are the same that can make it fail: we’re back into the realm of taste. With a reliance on personal judgement, the challenge becomes immense. You can hope that you’re immersing yourself in the nature of the music, away from aesthetic second-guessing, but always have the fear that your interpretation is a more or less accurate approximation of aesthetic decisions previously heard in other music. In this recording, Denis Sorokin’s performance seems as finely nuanced as you could hope for, with a sufficiently dispassionate seriousness.