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.

The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre: Sabat, Ceccarelli and live

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Three nights last week at Cafe Oto to hear concerts dedicated to The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre. As always, you get new perspectives on hearing and seeing music performed live, compared to what’s on the record. In their performance of Linda Catlin Smith’s Dirt Road, Mira Benjamin and Simon Limbrick revealed just how sparing, yet quietly decisive each gesture must be. The music’s language is pared back to the bones, yet never consciously feels empty or repetitive.

It was strange how different Chiyoko Szlavnics’ During a Lifetime sounded on the night. I’ve already noted how Szlavnics’ use of sine tones mixed with live instruments differs from their usual exploitation of psychoacoustic phenomena. This distinction became clearer in concert: the electronic tones act as an instrumental voice in their own right. At times, the musicians stop playing altogether, revealing harmonies – even chords – in pure tones before the instruments come in again to compound the sound. The music took on a poignant, melancholy aspect. The Konus Quartett reproduced their clear, pure tones beautifully.

The series ended with a world premiere, Lutra for solo cello, by Martin Arnold. I’ve drawn comparisons with Morton Feldman’s music before so I’ll add another here: the elevation of instrumental timbre as a compositional element, coupled with the determined restriction of that instrument’s sound. As with much of Feldman’s solo cello writing, Lutra remains constricted to harmonics and the highest registers throughout, without any of the instrument’s famous sonorous qualities. A long aria for countertenor, unaccompanied save by the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze humming (intentionally) for several passages. Taking sound at its most frail and revealing how it can endure.

The series began with a set of what were apparently largely improvised duets by Isaiah Ceccarelli and Katelyn Clark. Clark played organetto while Ceccarelli played percussion, a small keyboard or, unexpectedly, sang. Two such duets open and close his album Bow, while the rest of the disc contains compositions for string quartet and trio and two more semi-improvised duets, for violin and percussion. All of them share a strangely rustic aspect, with gently rocking, slightly ragged harmonies that, on occasion, give way to brief lyrical exclamations of utmost restraint. The subdued and homespun atmosphere kept reminding me of the British avant-garde in the early 1970s and, in a similar way, these deceptively simple pieces are staring to grow on me.

As a fan of James Tenney and Ben Johnston I was eager to hear more of Marc Sabat’s music. The two string quartets on Sabat’s CD, simply titled Harmony, share a soundworld closer to Tenney’s music for string ensembles, while combining both composers’ interest in making music for tuning systems outside of conventional Western equal temperament. The JACK Quartet gives nicely studied readings of 2012’s Jean-Philippe Rameau, in which Sabat uses just intonation to add a subtle torsion to an unbroken chain of chords, and the earlier, austere duet for violin and cello Claudius Ptolemy. In the latter work, sustained, isolated sounds brush up against each other like a piece by Webern in slow motion.

The other quartet, Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, is a longer and more varied work with occasional passages of more hurried activity. The tuning is based upon applying Euler‘s concept of the Tonnetz to pure harmonic intervals, without the need to restrict them to a palette of 12 fixed tones. The phrasing and some of the harmonies used are often reminiscent of Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, with added piquancy from the microtonal shifts in intonation. At Oto, members of Apartment House played a 2015 work, Gioseffo Zarlino, where Philip Thomas joined in on piano to make an oddly charming combination of tempered and untempered sounds. The night before, Thomas’ solo set included two more of Sabat’s works. Without having to wonder about tuning theory, Nocturne and Ich fahre nach Köln allowed me to admire the way Sabat could get lopsided figures to loop and intertwine without sounding congested, like an irreverent Scelsi, relieved of a spiritual burden.

The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre: Smith, Arnold, Szlavincs

Monday 1 May 2017

In its own quiet way, this is one of the major events I’ve been looking forward to in 2017. Over the past year or so I haven’t been alone in noticing how much of the freshest, most intriguing and affecting music has been coming from Canadian composers. This week, there are three nights of music this week focusing on new music by these composers and more at Cafe Oto. The gigs are to launch the first five releases in a ten-disc Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre. I’ve had all five on heavy rotation at home the last few days and will need to write more about them during/after hearing the live shows.

The double CD of works by Linda Catlin Smith, Drifter, opens with a duet for viola and vibraphone. Cantilena‘s instrumentation recalls the magnificent 70-minute violin and percussion Dirt Road Another Timbre put out last year and is a brighter, briefer work with fewer complications to mull over. Any suspicion that the album would offer diminishing returns are evaporated by the 2014 Piano Quintet and Drifter itself, another odd pairing of instruments, guitar and piano.

The Quintet presents a hothouse atmosphere of lyrical flourishes in the strings, framed by restive, unresolved harmonies in the piano. It’s like a passage from romantic European chamber music at its ripest, held in suspense, their details enhanced while their function is diminished. When the strings finally break into sustained drones against the piano, it serves only to maintain the cool tension already achieved. In Drifter, the two instruments play in turn, the guitar as an echo of the piano, the same chords but transformed by the change in timbre and decay, surprising the unsuspecting listener with the way the harmonic material appears to be subtly transformed. Eventually, each takes turns in leading on the other, or playing in unison, an unhurried interplay of two partners sounding out each others’ qualities.

Over ten pieces, Apartment House and Quatuor Bozzini present Smith as a composer capable of finding great diversity of expression within a single, coherent compositional voice that focuses on depth more than breadth. Suggestions and traces of other music styles are recalled, but never in pastiche. Those string arpeggios in the Piano Quintet relate equally to folk playing as to a salon. The clearly delineated phrases of the Ricercar for solo cello are modelled on Baroque music but do not imitate. Unexpected shifts in mood come in the strange processional Moi Qui Tremblais and in the final string quartet, Folkestone, a cycle of introspective fragments in fragile diminuendo.

A small book of interviews has been published together with the CDs. From what I’ve skimmed so far, some common themes emerge between composers: the isolation, allowing them to work in blissful ignorance of more common theoretical hang-ups occupying colleagues’ minds in the US or Europe, is spoken of approvingly more than once. There’s also a repeated referral to the legacy of John Cage, particularly via Morton Feldman. Previous generations who might have claimed such an influence would frequently be stridently avant-garde, often more in style than in substance. While never sounding derivative, distinct traits can be observed that show a firm understanding of Feldman’s music. Ambivalence of mood, the embrace of traditional harmony while simultaneously rejecting its traditional structural function. The allowance of stasis, a musical ‘surface’ of sustained dynamics, typically tending towards the quiet. A careful consideration of instruments’ attributes, enabling otherwise unusual combinations of instruments to be heard in new ways, in contrast or in complement.

Another echo of Feldman can be heard in Martin Arnold’s album, The Spit Veleta. The three works on this disc comprise a sort of extended suite. In each of them, the music continues in a slow and seemingly aimless way, yet always with a faint suggestion of a waltz. There’s always the sense of something a little faded, diffuse, of what might have once been a more rigid order. If the music that is left is more elusive, then it is at once more free yet more sophisticated. In Points & Walzes for solo piano and then in Slip Minuet for solo violin, each with titles referring to dances in triple rhythm, the musician (Philip Thomas and Mira Benjamin, respectively) circles elegantly, if a little erratically. The two combine on the final, title work.

In each piece, a change occurs halfway through. The delicate counterpoint of Points & Walzes gives way to a relentless tessitura of chords in the piano’s lower register. Slip Minuet suddenly turns to pizzicato, articulating a downbeat to a dance otherwise inaudible. There is more silence than sound, yet the underlying shape of the music is still clearly perceptible. It sounds like the violinist is accompanying a tune heard only in her head. In The Spit Veleta, the duo build a slow, complex rhythm of intertwining dances, before freezing, erasing almost all memory of the music with a succession of soft chords and dyads, played simultaneously. The piano sound decays, revealing the violin’s sustained tone underneath, a faint colouration of the silence suspended between one isolated chord and the next.

There’s a beautiful poignancy and melancholy in these pieces, found in the way that Arnold allows the matter of his music to be reduced to the most spare and etiolated state without ever suggesting that the music is withholding anything from the listener. For what could easily be considered as studies in decay, there is a welcome lack of postmodern didacticism. In fact, it reminded me more of modernist thinking. I’ve referred before to Guy Davenport’s quote that completing an image “involves a stupidity of perception“. Hugh Kenner observed that in the twentieth century, Westerners learned to interpret fragments outside of their original settings, gathering meaning from non-consecutive arrays. As Ezra Pound wrote, “Points define a periphery.” Perhaps in the respect these Canadians’ sensibility is like my own Australian one: as colonial cultures, we can accept ruins as what they are, not just what they once were.

This post is already too long and I want to write about Marc Sabat and Isaiah Ceccarelli after I’ve heard them live at Oto. Right now I need to mention Chiyoko Szlavnics’ remarkable During a Lifetime. Szlavnics pits live acoustic musicians against pure sine tones; a combination well-known for its use by Alvin Lucier, Warren Burt and others. While those latter composers typically exploit the small differences in intonation between acoustic pitches and pure tones, Szlavnics works with the same deceptively simple combinations to very different ends. During a Lifetime is for saxophone quartet and electronic tones, but for much of the piece sounds like neither. A large, complex multiphonic sound swells, pulses, grows rough and then smooth again as variances in tone between the instruments modulate each other as much as the sine waves do. The electronics merge and disappear, then emerge again as one of the voices in the ensemble. This played by the Konus Ensemble, who do an exceptional job of balancing clear tones against some subtle, raspier edges. I heard these guys’ superb performance of Jürg Frey’s Memoire, Horizon at Huddersfield a couple of years ago, and they’re playing both pieces at Oto on Thursday.

Format Trouble: Line Gate v Claudio Parodi

Thursday 27 April 2017

Spent the last month making music, listening to it, making notes but not wanting to expand on them until now.

All the music in my collection is ripped to digital audio files and saved on an external hard drive and tagged with meta-data. A freeware media player sorts these files into automatic playlists according to filters I’ve set for the meta-data. Everything I have can be instantly found in the one place.

Meanwhile, mappa have released another cassette in a wooden box. End of last year they put out the very severe Orienting Response by Sarah Hennies. This new release is a bit gentler toward the listener, but it still comes with an edge. The album is a single, 40-minute track titled Den by Line Gate – a Slovakian group, here manifested as a duo of violin and hurdy-gurdy with additional touches here and there.

At first, for a long time, it feels as if we’ll be in for a Manfred Werder type of experience, until things finally, literally, cough into life. What follows is a slow but sure improvisation of drones that evolve and grow, expanding the sound by focusing on what they are and what they could become. After the frangible start, the music steadily acquires momentum and presence without ever becoming overbearing. Incidents along the way are well-judged, throwing the listener into a pleasant doubt without worrying about getting blue-balled by gimmickry.

Den is a worthy extension of the “deep listening” tradition and in fact is very reminiscent of some of Pauline Oliveros’ music. Presumably the beginning is part of that meditative aspect behind the playing, allowing the sound to naturally emerge from the performers’ silence. The notes talk about variations in “the listener’s awareness and the wakefulness of the performer himself” but listeners attuned to La Monte Young (or Oliveros) will probably stay attentive throughout. The main caveat is if you’ve had enough of that type of sonic meditation, then this probably won’t say anything new to you.

The latest release by Claudio Parodi comes in a CD, again, literally. Right Error is distributed as a USB stick embedded in a CD with a circuit board printed onto it. There’s no case on the stick so I was a bit worried about grabbing on to insert and remove the device from my computer. The stick holds printouts and three different mixes of the music (stereo, binaural, quadrophonic). I have to make do with regular stereo.

It’s a very elaborate package for very austere music. An unexpected burst of line noise is stretched out over 40 minutes, with incisions of silence and shifts in spatial location. The work is divided into five parts and for the first part it holds interest as a dedicated listening experience. It seems at first as though the bursts of noise have been processed further, the harmonic spectrum expanding and contracting, but it appears that is not the case. The spatial shifts add a dimension of variability to the noise dynamics, a sort of counterpoint. Forty minutes, however, feels much too long, especially as the sound evens out to undifferentiated static, often dipping below usual audibility. The piece was originally made for 8-channel surround sound and might work well as an installation. At home, it’s a piece overly reliant on its concept and the last half-hour never recovers the initial interest it has lost. If anyone has quad sound it may work better, but I doubt a binaural hearing would be any fun.

Seeing, Hearing (2)

Tuesday 28 March 2017

To a shipboard acquaintance who thought the White Cliffs of Dover scarcely real, Eliot once replied, “Oh, they’re real enough,” a statement to which four meanings may be attached according as each of the four words in turn is stressed.

— Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era

rausch_white01a

There was a white painting in the Rauschenberg show at the Tate. I’d forgotten they were modular, made of multiple canvases. Stupid of me: the connections to Cage’s 4’33” became more obvious, both as music and as the second version of Cage’s score for the piece. Seeing, for the first time, those canvases placed side by side it struck me how much they had a presence as objects, not just surfaces. They looked pristine, untouched by time. Were they new? The card on the wall said just “Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. On short term loan.”

Among the most radical aspects of the series is that these works were conceived as remakeable: Rauschenberg viewed them primarily as a concept and allowed for the physical artworks to be repainted and even refabricated from scratch without his direct involvement. Many of Rauschenberg’s friends and studio assistants… either repainted or fully refabricated various White Paintings at different points in the series’ history. Although such efforts were often undertaken to maintain the pristine surfaces considered essential to these works, refabrication was sometimes necessary because Rauschenberg had reused the original canvases as supports for new paintings and Combines.

Like a Duchamp readymade, we can look at a replica and not care about authenticity. Is it possible to remake a piece of music? (Two rooms over in the Tate, Factum I and Factum II hung side by side.) What makes music a form of art, if it is art at all? What does it share with other art-forms, that move them beyond considerations of craft?

Seeing, Hearing (1)

Monday 27 March 2017

Lovely weather on the weekend so I went down to the Thames and finally went to see the Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern. In that first room, the early Fifties, John Cage is pervasive. The next rooms, the combines, the silkscreens, I wonder what I’m looking at. You look at them and you get the overall image but it’s the objects that dominate your vision and your memory, whether in three or two dimensions. The goat, the tyre, JFK, an astronaut, a suitcase on a rope. And around it is painting, the painted gestures. Do we see the painting, or are they holding the objects in place?

Like in representational painting, there’s a hierarchy of perception, but here it’s not clear what is figure and what is ground. Are the objects acting on the viewer in the way that T. S. Eliot wanted the meaning of his poems to act on the reader, keeping the mind diverted and quiet while the art does its real work? Or is it just me, like when I’m waiting for that bit in the middle of Stockhausen’s Kontakte or the Beckett quotes in Berio’s Sinfonia? There are times when I’ve composed music and the material, all the harmony and voice-leading and inner structure and whatever, all become a vast supporting framework for a particular surface effect in the instrumental timbre or registration upon which the whole piece lives or dies.

I’m thinking again about Feldman’s use of what he called “patterns” in his late work, motifs he used and re-used as transparent vehicles for the instruments to project their sound without undue interference. The objects and their containing images merge. Then I’m back in that first Rauschenberg room at the Tate, where object and image are indivisible: the black painting, the white painting, the erased De Kooning, the tyre print. That integrity appeals to me the most, but I suspect grappling with messier realities is more necessary.

Last Week at Silver Road

Thursday 2 March 2017

Sadly, Silver Road is no more. Last Thursday’s gig was one of the last. At least it went out with a bang. I got a few photos inside the performance space while setting up for the show.

I played another live set of pieces from Chain of Ponds. Recordings couldn’t do justice to the reverberant sound inside the tank, but you can hear some of the music on Bandcamp, or just here:

One of those wonderful moments where nobody knows what’s going on

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Went to the latest Kammer Klang gig a couple of weeks ago. It was recorded by the BBC and is on their website for the next month. Which is good, because I need to hear it again.

For me, the big event of the night was two world premieres by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller. I’ve heard only a few pieces by her – including a dizzying performance of her choral piece Guide by Exaudi last year – and liked it all a lot. There are times when you discover an artist and you need to hear more; more of that good thing that won you in the first place. Then there are artists whose work you find yourself exploring like an unknown island, kept in suspense over what you might encounter next.

In Tracery: Hardanger, singer Juliet Fraser sang against a recording of herself, doubling and approximating microtonal drones, one breath at a time. If there was a process, it seemed to be part of a meditative rite. This was followed by Traveller Song, in which the Plus-Minus Ensemble accompanied a tape of ragged, keening voices. Again, it seemed to be a documentation of some vocal ritual, with Western musical tropes laid on top. She’s from Canada, it must be something indigenous so I guess we better put up with those scratchy voices. But the ensemble – first just piano four hands, then clarinet, violin and cello, finally just an accordion – were playing some sort of game. At times deferentially minimal, then fulsomely mournful, astringently avant-garde and then, at inopportune moments, flamboyantly romantic. It just seemed to keep going, trying out different costumes and poses. By the end, I didn’t know if it was amazing or terrible.

Tonight I pulled up the programme for the concert for the first time and holy guacamole if the whole thing isn’t a headtrip that would do Kagel proud. The voices are Miller’s own, singing along to Sicilian folk-music without being able to hear herself, then attempting to accompany herself. She describes it as an attempt “to explore my own bodily impulses related to melody” and admits it sounds like “quasi-shamanistic keening” but the whole work is a tour de force in the creative potency of cultural transmission and reproduction. More than any simple cross-pollination from an “exotic” culture, the act of transmission itself is a necessarily distorting process; in which imitation becomes a transformative act that creates something strange and new.