Works on Paper: Gil Sansón and Lance Austin Olsen

Monday 18 March 2019

Feels like I’ve been away forever. I got a bunch of new albums I want to talk about and a superb Alvin Lucier concert I went to last week, but right now I have to say something about this new release by Gil Sansón and Lance Austin Olsen. I got all excited about Olsen’s music last year, with his visual approach to making music. A real artist, y’know? He makes paintings, some of which function as musical scores, and takes a very collage-type approach to his recordings.

On his Another Timbre CD last year, Olsen produced a multitracked realisation of a graphic score by the Venezuelan artist Gil Sansón. I’d described A Meditation on the History of Painting as “like painting, a synthesis of gesture and editing, with traces of the two processes preserved in the medium”. On this new album, Works on Paper, Olsen and Sansón give an extended presentation of their technique of creative exchange. Disc 1 features two realisations of Olsen’s painting/score Pra Mim, recorded by Sansón in Caracas. On the second disc the roles are reversed, with Olsen in Victoria, Canada recording two realisations of Sansón’s graphic score Meditations. For two hours, the air teems with tantalising connections, potentialities.

As with painting, the fabric of the music hovers between fragments of narrative and unspecified affect. It’s an elusive music, part radio drama, part collage, part pure sound. The sense of meaning is always present, both in content and form, but is left to the listener to find for themselves. Sampled music, taken straight or manipulated, combine with field recordings, musical instruments, isolated phrases spoken or sung and mysterious electronic clicks and buzzes. Similarities between the two artists abound, inviting further connections and comparisons to be made between the two minds at work, one in British Columbia and the other in Venezuela. The sounds are captured beautifully. Within each realisation, certain elements repeat, or seem to. Everything becomes suspended in a dream-like state, fully aware but inexplicable.

The pieces have been sequenced so that words, spoken or sung, appear less and less as time goes on. Pieces end on extended hiatus, with aural figuration giving way to empty spaces, alive with background sound. The final Meditation is wordless, with Olsen interpreting Sansón’s score with layers of sparse, amplified sounds and guitar. The album’s an ideal follow-up to last year’s Dark Heart release.

Things Seen, Heard (3)

Thursday 28 February 2019

Two gigs in churches in my neighbourhood this month. Áine O’Dwyer and Eva-Maria Houben at the Old Church in Stoke Newington. Primary reason for going was that I’d enjoyed hearing Houben play her piano pieces on a couple of occasions and wanted to finally hear her play the organ. O’Dwyer’s good value too: I still remember her gig at Silver Road a couple of years ago where for part of her set she climbed onto the roof and dropped mostly small objects onto the punters below. The two of them had obviously worked closely together on the joint performance and got along well. Perhaps a little too well: I was hoping for a tension between the restrained aesthetic of Houben’s compositions and O’Dwyer’s more demonstrative performance practice, but everything proceeded pleasantly. Faint sounds and singing heard from a distance as the audience assembled gave way to some tentative vocal duets from various parts of the church and culminated in a colourful, expressive organ duet. In the middle, O’Dwyer showed how to make the most of a harp that had been left unattended in a church in winter for a few hours.

More Houben last week, played by the Eos Ensemble for the 840 concert series. The evening was lighter and the weather milder in St James’, Islington. As well as Houben’s trio avalon orchard, the programme of music for violin, clarinet and piano included poignant arrangements of three songs by Komitas, a trio by Tim Parkinson and a particularly strong interpretation of Makiko Nishikaze’s Duo for bass clarinet and piano. There were also several premieres – always nice to see pieces dated from the current year in February. James Luff’s standing cycles and Alex Nikiporenko’s Two Waltzes both began as almost skeletal reductions of familiar genres. The simplicity seemed banal and irritating at first but each proceeded to torque their exposed structure into shapes that were both neat and intriguing.

Luc Ferrari, Tautologos, Situationism, Entropy (beginning, not to be concluded)

Thursday 21 February 2019

A map of the 16th Arrondissement drawn by Debord’s friend Paul-Henri Chombart de Lauwe, traces the routes taken by a student over the period of a year as she circulates between the School of Political Sciences, her residence, and the residence of her piano teacher.

Only got to one of the events as part of the Stereo Spasms festival, a week-long celebration of the life and work of Luc Ferrari. It was a good one: Tautologos III is one of my favourite pieces, heard before only from David Grubbs’ reissue of the 1971 LP version. Grubbs was on hand at Cafe Oto to join in with Apartment House and introduce the piece, first in ‘version 4’ as played on the record and then in the 2001 ‘Chicago version’. (Brunhild Ferrari joined in on piano for the latter.)

Grubbs reminded us of Ferrari’s particular definition of tautology, a repeated cycle of activity, as practiced in daily life, which was here transferred into artistic activity. While acting alone, yet necessarily as part of a group, individuals going about their business may interact with each other, on a regular or irregular basis. In doing so, their cycles are altered, which in turn may then intersect with and alter other cycles.

The music teeters on a precipice separating order and anarchy, and you’re never quite sure which side is solid ground and the other void. It’s a duality that seems representative of life in Ferrari’s native Paris, that particular understanding of liberté, an absolute freedom circumscribed by an innate sense of social order. A person is free to move anywhere, yet soon settles into a recognisable pattern. In Tautologos III, each performer is autonomous yet bound by obligations to others and thus the music begins to develop a logic of its own. As when reading a Perec novel, one becomes aware of persistent but elusive rules working beneath the surface, shaping a structure that at first seemed natural.

(Also played on the programme, the charming trio Bonjour, comment ça va? Bass clarinettist, cellist and pianist play interlocking repeating patterns, disrupted from time to time when each musician in turn is compelled to perform the social nicety of doffing their hat. Whether these breaks in each musician’s flow makes for an interruption or an ornamentation is a question left to the listener.)

For further consideration: in each version of Tautologos III it becomes clear that each cycle is contingent, subject to alteration. This mutability is a given condition of each performer’s loop. It’s a critical difference from other ‘minimalist’ works built on repetitions. There is no pre-existing, initial state for the material to be subjected to variation. The context of each performer’s interactions with each other becomes the defining force of the material. Everything is provisional.

In version 4, played first that night, the music started out varied and elaborate, and steadily reduced in melodic range and texture into a near unison of voices see-sawing between a handful of notes. As information*, any ‘message’ being conveyed was distilled to an essence, with increasing redundancy and lower entropy. As things became more and more familiar to the listener, was the music winding down, or becoming more forceful? Whichever may be true, would it be a good thing or bad?

* As with life: “Whether this information is valuable or worthless does not concern us. The idea of ‘value’ refers to the possible use by a living observer.” Leon Brillouin, Science and Information Theory.

Deeper listening: Mark R Taylor, Morgan Evans-Weiler, Michael Pisaro

Wednesday 6 February 2019

As I was saying, I’ve spent a few weeks getting to know a few CDs more closely. Two in particular have required closer attention, for differing reasons. I’ve been listening to Aftermaths, Teodora Stepančić’s collection of solo piano works by Mark R Taylor, a British composer I’m entirely unfamiliar with. I don’t get it and I dont like it because I think there’s something I’m supposed to get and I suspect that’s not how Taylor wants me to listen so I wonder if I’m hearing it all wrong. It would be easier to dismiss if I didn’t think there was some missing piece in the background that would change my attitude to the music. The pieces are relatively brief, each with the same undifferentiated surface (think Morandi in painting, Howard Skempton in music). Each piece is basically a chorale and they all sound the same to me. My first response is to never bother with this CD again, but I can’t help but think something must be going on. Most of the pieces are recent but others date back twenty, thirty, forty years. An admirable single-mindedness. One older piece uses the same method but progresses at a slow pace. One piece staggers the chords a little. Two tracks are listed in the wrong order, an entirely understandable mistake.

Taylor gets praise from musicians I respect. Maybe he’s not limited, just really focused, seeking out delight in the slightest differences. On the second listen I noticed differences in how each piece proceeds. I started to compile a list of the distinguishing feature to each piece (alternates between short and long durations, see-saws up and down, repeats in groups of four) but it quickly felt like I was trivialising the composer’s efforts. Also, I was starting to resent putting conscious effort into trying to appreciate the music.

After listening another three or four times I’ve noticed other small differences and begun to recognise a gradually emerging identity for each piece. I can appreciate it but I think I’m past the point where I need to put in any more work on the music in the hope of finding something in it. Perhaps it will hit me later; if so, it will presumably be when I unwittingly hear another piece by Taylor.

You become familiar with a style, get immersed in it and then become blasé. Here’s another Another Timbre CD of slow, quiet music. More of the same? Yes and no. It’s a specious argument, of course; every composer cannot help but be ascribed to one style or another, almost nothing is truly sui generis. I’m listening to this new Morgan Evans-Weiler and Michael Pisaro CD and wondering what it is I’m hearing, what makes it different from other works in a comparable style? There are so many pieces which are perfectly pleasant as background ambience, so why have I tagged the two pieces on this disc as preferred listening, worthy of repeat attention?

In my previous review, I mentioned that Johnny Chang’s Citaric Melodies III may suffer in comparison with the surrounding works on the album. Thinking over what I meant by that, I’m guessing it’s about what rewards closer attention. Between pieces of music in a broadly similar style, a common surface may be enjoyed, but some works can compel a deeper fascination.

Violinist and composer Morgan Evans-Weiler is the featured player on this disc, playing on Michael Pisaro’s Helligkeit, die Tiefe hatte, nicht keine Fläche (Grey Series No. 6) and his own lines and tracings. The Pisaro needs seven musicians, the Evans-Weiler five. It sounds the other way around. Compared to his austere Unfinished Variations (for Jed Speare), lines and tracings is sparingly sumptuous. A harpsichord is dotted throughout the fabric of the ensemble, violin moves from figure to ground and back again. A large part of the interest in this piece comes from the way instruments are carefully balanced throughout, with some disappearing for long stretches, creating contrasts and a sense of shape. It’s like a type of subliminal orchestration, marshalling a classical sense of form out of the slightest resources. In the Pisaro, Evans-Weiler’s violin stands out against a unfocused backdrop of finely nuanced shades of grey, played by the group Ordinary Affects. Bass clarinet, cellos (one with prepared strings) and hoarse electronics combine into a single instrument, complex and nebulous; at times sounding like percussion, at times like drone, at others like field recording. From time to time, the clarinet emerges with a spot of defined pitch as colouration, matched with a vibraphone. Nothing moves, but nothing ever feels at rest.

Catherine Lamb and Johnny Chang with or without Viola Torros

Monday 4 February 2019

When I got back to town, people told me I’d missed a great gig, with Johnny Chang and Catherine Lamb playing at St Mary at Hill. At the end of the year, I received a new batch of CDs from Another Timbre, including a double album of works by Chang and Lamb. I’ve been spending a lot of time with these discs over the past month.

The gig and the album centred on the music of Viola Torros. Interviews with Chang and Lamb and other promotional material offer up all sorts of details about Torros as an historical figure, all of which may be safely disregarded without any impediment to appreciating the fine music to be heard here*. The background reading doesn’t prepare the listener or shed any additional light on the music as such, which is all the better for being heard on its own merits outside of a putative back story. Viola Torros, mediated through these ‘augmentations’ is at most a strong example of the Third Mind at work, producing music that owes something to both and neither creator simultaneously. On the first CD, we hear the second and third of these interpretations, effectively creating a diptych that invites comparisons and contrasts.

The focus is on the two violas of Chang and Lamb playing in tandem. Their playing is expressive, employing a range of gestures, but highly restrained in pitch range, to the point where only microtonal adjustments in intonation are audible. The music recalls Cage’s description of the sound he wanted in his last, microtonal works, “melisma, florid song”. The listener’s attention focuses on the grain of the violas’ sound, the rasp of bow on string made sonorous by emphasising the lower registers of the instrument. It takes longer to tune in on the resonances used to enhance the violas, electronics that add subtle but indelible colours. Then the voices come in and the small, new world the violas have created is transformed again.

As with V.T. Augmentations II, so is V.T. Augmentations III. The approach is the same but the methods employed take on a different attitude. The viola playing is starker, with a range that is greater but lower, often singling out one player at a time. The exposed playing, without its resonant halo, creates a more sombre mood. When electronics do appear, the aded reverberation is more prominent, like a shadow. The voices, when they appear, are now exclusively female, giving the shape of the piece its own distinct turn.

The second disc presents two more pieces, each a solo work by one of the collaborators. Chang’s Citaric Melodies III forgoes electronics for a larger ensemble. With greater instrumental colouration, winds and electric guitar to supplement violin and viola to construct a varied but translucent web of overlapping sounds. The piece is brighter and more varied than the preceding works. As a stand-alone, it can feel more superficial in comparison with the other pieces, but in context it provides a pleasing contrast.

Finally, Lamb’s Prisma Interius VI (for v.t.) continues the series of works she has made from mixing live musicians with synthesized processing of external ambient sound. The initial theme of the album is resumed, with only the two violas and a cello playing within an ambient space of harmonised environmental sounds. It’s an urban environment, which can sometimes intrude harshly. The grey, unstable drone of city sounds and reduced instrumental colours create a piece that feels like the Viola Torros pieces with further layers stripped away. It’s never quite ‘nearly nothing’; the musicianship throughout is almost folkloric at times, but it’s folklore removed to a distant, half-remembered time and place. I’d have loved to have heard it live, but the CDs will do nicely.

* Fictional artists are a bugbear of mine, along with imaginary movie soundtracks. Both make me reflexively anticipate a conceptual smokescreen to mask an artistic deficiency.

Michael Parsons at 80

Monday 28 January 2019

A small bright spot, then another week of flu. I can still recall enough of that previous Friday evening with gladness, the ambience of bonhomie that filled Cafe Oto for the Michael Parsons birthday gig. Life is cold and gloomy this time of year, but there was cheer to be found in this array of brief (but not small) pieces. Apartment House played, in string quartet formation, abetted by pianist Philip Thomas. A selection of pieces by Parsons from across some fifty-odd years were interspersed with premieres commissioned for the occasion by fellow composers. Perhaps understandably, there was a more overtly charming side to some of these occasional works, such as the John Lely and Makiko Nishikaze pieces; but more unexpected were the terse and tough-sounding chorale by Christian Wolff, a contribution by Howard Skempton even more fleeting than usual, and a looser piano quintet by Laurence Crane that sounded likely to be tidied up sometime in the future.

The thing that impressed most in all of Parsons’ pieces was the attention to touch, the care given to the presentation and life-span of each sound, however brief. This facet, shown to full benefit by the musicians, kept appearing in different ways: in one piece, sounds would alternate between short and long, dying away, while in others the contrast came through alternations in register, or in single and complex sounds. A strong, consistent character emerged through the pieces spanning several decades, without ever betraying a simple formula. It was a portrait of a composer always experimenting, always exploring new ways of working with that contrast between attack and decay, seeking out a more subtle and complete means of expression.

A roaring start to the year

Thursday 17 January 2019

Last Friday night at Cafe Oto watching Frederic and Jan Rzewski play I felt like not only had the year really started, but I had finally restarted. It had seemed so long; I’ve missed so many gigs. Travel, friends and flu meant that I missed all of last month’s London Contemporary Music Festival. I also missed an extra Music We’d Like To Hear gig, launching Catherine Lamb & Johnny Chang’s Viola Torros project CD. As a consolation, I have the album now; a fine pair of CDs which I will do justice to in a review in the next few days.

Incidentally, the new issue of Tempo has just been published, which includes my review of the last Music We’d Like To Hear summer season. I have only two small regrets about the review. First, that I didn’t post about it on this site, to talk more about what a superb set of concerts it was. Second, that I omitted to mention Francesca Fargion’s performance of Michael Parsons piano piece Variations. I shall make amends for this by writing about tomorrow night’s concert by Apartment House, in celebration of Parsons’ 80th birthday.

Piano Sonata No. 1 (Toccata Furioso)

Monday 3 December 2018

Piano Sonata No. 1 (Toccata Furioso) is now available on Bandcamp. It’s a relentless fractal cyclone of microtonal madness, pushing rigorous systems and the concept of the piano as a keyboard instrument to the edges of chaos…

A pianist with three hands is playing three pianos at the same time. One hand to each keyboard. Each piano is tuned to a different scale; each scale is made of unique pitches, with no repeating notes, no octaves. None of the pianos share a common pitch between them. Our pianist not only has long arms; the fingers are also unusually long and flexible, so that each hand may cover the entirety of its respective keyboard. Each hand, of course, has only five fingers and so no more than five notes may be played on each piano at any time.

“Why make it a piano?” she asked. I finished my beer before replying. You strike the key and the piano does everything else. It’s like a computer: once you’ve executed the command, it’s out of your hands. The piano, eschewing the use of breath or continued touch, functions no differently than a digital device. “It’s transparent,” I said. You create a new synth patch and people try to figure out what it sounds like. With a piano, people don’t think about the instrument and listen to what the piano is doing instead.

Each of the pianist’s fingers is individually playing complex curves across the keyboard. The curves are segments of 1-dimensional projections of fractals created by iterated function systems; specifically, chance mutations of the Barnsley fern. The curves may be projected onto the keyboard in different ways. Each finger may be playing the same curve segment in different projections, different segments of the same curve, or different curves entirely. From one period to the next, the hands may all play in the same tempo, in different tempi, or with individual fingers in the same or different tempi. These tempi may change or stay the same. Dynamics are subject to the same possible combinations, independent of tempo. All these decisions, as well as other considerations such as length of each period and choice of hands, were guided by chance. The odds were weighted in favour of fast and loud, and the guidance was almost always strictly followed.

Does it still sound like a piano? Probably. In this instance, the sound of the piano is a simulacrum of a piano. A virtual representation of a real instrument; that instrument freighted with multiple burdens of bourgeois romanticism, modernist experimentation and reactionary postmodern attempts at negation. The Sonata is an initial expedition towards incoherence. There is no harmonic logic to the tuning or rhythmic logic to the simultaneous tempi. In form, the instrument retains its familiar representation as a vehicle for the manifestation of theory; in sound, it perhaps has become a little alienated from itself. “Last one,” I say but she explains she’s already called time.

A second sonata is in progress.

Mattin: Songbook #7

Friday 30 November 2018

I presume there is nothing unique about me associating Mattin with provocation. Thinking over it, every one of those provocative actions that I can remember was made in good faith. I received a nice email from him asking to give thoughtful consideration to his latest release, Songbook #7, as he is worried that listeners might not engage with it. There is much about the album that invites reading between the lines, but I suspect that approach would be to overthink it.

A small fracture appears when reading the liner notes: the record is credited to Mattin yet it states that “this record was made collectively”. It records a live performance, group improvisation to set texts, made in Cologne last November. The group includes Lucio Capece, Moor Mother, Colin Hacklander and Farahnaz Hatam, with texts recited by Marcel Dickhage, Cathleen Schuster and Mattin. I’m not sure how much editing was involved: each track is exactly seven minutes, possibly as an agreed structure. The premise is earnest: “Europe was (still is) slowly going down.” The seven tracks here seek to draw a comparison between revolutionary events in Europe in 1917 and 100 years later.

Looking back to the past may seem a reactionary gesture, but this is not done in hope of finding a solution. Contrast is made between two approaches, “a collective attempt at social transformation and a desperate lonely gesture”. The tension between the individual and the collective, already noted above, becomes the fabric of the music.

Each piece, except one, generates a swirling electroacoustic miasma, accompanied by texts declaimed in English or German. The use of electronics, including samplers, necessarily makes determining individual performances impossible; collective action is often the ideal of improvisation. The texts, juxtaposing events in Russia in 1917 with present-day events, emerge out of the music as often as the music acts as a backing for the texts. As is typical in these situations, the texts may either be ignored or will detract from the music. At times the sound is reminiscent of some of Nono’s tape compositions, particularly La fabbrica illuminata – which in fact gets namechecked in the sleeve notes. It sounds good, but we’re back to finding comfort in revolutionary gestures of the past – gestures which were all ultimately unsuccessful. Perhaps we don’t want change as much as we want to think it may happen.

Even though Mattin (and – possibly – his collective) isn’t foolhardy enough to propose solutions here, the project still seems designed to fail. It’s an honest response to a pervading sense of dissatisfaction in the current political consensus, but trying to “think the present through the lenses of radical historical moments” throws up a set of presumptions as to who is the Old Guard and who is the desperate radical. Like I said, some moments sound like 60s agitprop. There’s a bitter irony in the last track when a tirade making the usual gripes about elections is placed against the latest parliamentary machinations in Venezuela. Perhaps the whole thing is a wind-up, throwing nostalgic revolutionary noises and false equivalences around like firecrackers; the last track extends beyond seven minutes to include the audience applauding once the show is over, neatly packaged away.

Again, I may be overthinking it, but this album seems to work more effectively as a political statement if any earnest intentions are disregarded and taken instead within a gigantic pair of scare quotes. The audience is heard at one other point, on track six. This track is a discussion between Mattin and the other musicians about the nature of the projects, in the manner of Godard’s woolly fantasy of Maoist society. All other political debates referenced throughout the gig melt down here into the most essential, between individual and group. Towards the end, one voice shrugs off the debate, saying “I just like making sounds”. She received a round of applause.

Songbook #7 is available as a download or on vinyl LP – the material object is the only recorded music format that makes a profit.

Þráinn Hjálmarsson: Influence of buildings on musical tone

Thursday 8 November 2018

It’s easy to get jaded, to burn out on new music. You go listen to a lot of stuff and after a while you keep hearing the same things coming back, again and again, and you start referring to them as ‘tricks’. Everything sounds the same: a bit minimal, a bit spectral, a bit too tasteful. And if you step out of that comfort zone it comes over as forced and false – you just can’t win. You come home from another gig of exquisitely poised electroacoustic improvisation that immediately blurs in your head with a dozen others you’ve heard in the last year and you wonder what’s the point of it all.

I consider myself lucky to have been sent a CD by the Icelandic composer Þráinn Hjálmarsson a couple of months back. It’s been a kind of antidote. I’ve been playing it once or twice a week to remind myself that there’s plenty of great music still being made, that works in ways I still can’t figure out. Hjálmarsson shows a love for ’empty’ sounds – that idea Cage picked up from Japanese art – a mark made without full force, to allow ambiguities and finer details to emerge. Edges and surfaces are complex and subtle without being softened or frail. There’s a sensitivity to the finer details of sound, but it never feels precious; just as the music avoids dynamic contrasts without ever lapsing into that clichéd reverential hush. Everything feels decisive and structured while remaining alive to unexpected details appearing at every moment.

The violist Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir performs the solo Persona: a series of descending harmonics, high, hovering between breathy and raspy, harsh and soft. The sequence repeats itself in various ways, with the notes acting as a medium for the real matter of the piece, taking on distinct colouration each with each downwards pass. In Grisaille, the Icelandic Flute Ensemble play slow, staggered clusters, with each player either trailing away or lingering with faint, sustained breaths or suspended tones. At times, the music almost fades completely away, giving a new shade to the overlapping layers of sound as they eventually reappear, one by one.

There aren’t any electronics at work here, but the ensemble pieces often produce surprising timbral changes. Influence of buildings on musical tone combines solo string instruments with diverse percussion, each scraped and plucked and meeting a strange common ground, a contested site of complex tones that unexpectedly resolves into a muted palette of higher partials and silences. (MMXIV) mise en scène is even more frenetic at first, the kind of extended playing techniques that would not seem out of place at any polite new music recital, but the music stops and starts, with each new scene becoming more spare and elemental. The focus is on exploring new sounds, rather than pressing technique into the service of a theoretical language. It is probably the searching aspect of this music that makes for a haunting aspect to each piece as it progresses. With each piece, the music eventually reaches a stasis, but the end point is less a destination than some strange, new territory. The final piece preserves that rarefied, haunted atmosphere, as Lucid / Opaque begins at its destination, a refrain of three sounds that cycle throughout the piece, played by a “baroque ensemble of violin, viola and cello”. The simplicity of the material and the eloquence with which it speaks make it probably the most affecting work on the disc. Each pause feels like the end; you hope it never does.

Recorded over a couple of years with various dedicated ensembles in Reykjavík (Caput Ensemble, Nordic Affect, Enemble Adapter), this seems to be the first release dedicated to Hjálmarsson’s music. The CD version comes with a nice set of postcard photos, as per cover art. I’ve just noticed I’ve got a BBC recording on my hard drive of the first performance of his orchestral piece As heard across a room, played by BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov a few years back. I’d forgotten about this, but I can see at the time that I tagged it as “follow up”.

Matthew Shlomowitz, live and on record

Thursday 1 November 2018

I am not enjoying this. Freeze-dried samples set in stiff rhythms; that febrile, brittle texture of Eighties pop music and Eighties art musicians who wanted to be “with it”, the kind of false bombast used to disguise touchiness. Listening to Matthew Shlomowitz’s CD Avant Muzak, you wonder if it is supposed to be annoying and then you curse the music again for making you resort to seeking out an intellectual justification which may not exist.

My experience with Shlomowitz’s music up until now has been fleeting but benevolent, but with increased exposure it rapidly wore out my patience. Of the three works on this CD, played by the Norwegian group asamisimasa, two are for ensemble and sampler while the third is scored for a solo percussionist using midi pads and various devices. I’ve heard Håkon Stene play sections of Popular Contexts 8: Five soundscapes for a contemporary percussionist live and it did not help me appreciate what seems to be going on here. Shlomowitz talks about salvaging ignored, unvalued musical detritus and “ennobling” it (the ensemble pieces are titled Avant Muzak and Popular Contexts 7: Public Domain Music). It’s an admirable artistic goal, seemingly apposite for the present day circumstances of commodity culture, information saturation and social media. The approach, however, sounds like the enterprise is rooted in bad faith.

There’s that 1980s retro vibe, for a start, harking back to when sampler technology was new and full of promise. The rest of the asthetic seems to have been brought along with it, cargo cult style. The acoustic instruments repeat themselves in abrupt loops that grow as wearying as the overlaid sound samples. The ensemble itself (clarinet, cello, electric guitar, drum kit) recalls the Louis Andriessen wannabees from that decade. Perhaps that’s the point, but if it is then it reminds the listener that anything the music has to say about pop culture has already been said a generation ago and these shrill, grating compositions add nothing new. For all the claims of transforming the saccharine by taking it seriously, the music often plays out with the forced jollity of crude satire. The section titles have puns. In wishing to seem irreverent, it gives the lie to the earnestness of the musical material and the listener’s relationship to it. Each piece becomes a crass joke in which the punch line is smothered by nervous laughter and a quickly muttered “no, but seriously”.

The most disturbing aspect of this exercise in nostalgia is that, while professing to engage with the modern-day “real world”, it places the listener in an utterly anachronistic position, entirely at odds with the reality information age it seeks to embrace: a passive recipient. You can accept or reject these pieces, in toto, as is, nothing more. You can do either without feeling complicit, or conflicted, or compromised, regardless of your decision, with no impulse to pick-and-choose. This realisation hit home at last month’s Kammer Klang where another of Shlomowitz’s pieces was performed live. Lecture About Listening to Music is just that, with soprano Jessica Aszodi put in the position of delivering a spoken lecture to the audience, illustrated with musical examples on keyboard and saxophone. She talks, we listen, we’re supposed to get the point. The point is that we are supposed to recognise old pop culture artefacts, but not recognise them if they are sufficiently disguised. I listened on the assumption that any familiar musical references alluded to in the talk were bogus; it appeared that I was wrong and we were, in fact, supposed to “get it”. Again, Shlomowitz seemed to be trying to have it both ways, rewarding listeners’ complacency while passing off any shortcomings as social commentary.

Old Masters: Babbitt, Nono, Feldman

Friday 26 October 2018

“Babbitt?” One of the punters at the All That Dust record label launch party looked incredulous. As well as issuing CDs, the label is releasing extra titles as download-only. The first two are stand-alone revivals of works for solo voice and tape, Milton Babbitt’s Philomel sung by label co-founder Juliet Fraser and Luigi Nono’s La fabbrica illuminata sung by Loré Lixenberg. Both pieces have been mastered in binaural stereo, particularly suited for headphone listening. It’s a low-key but highly significant start to the online series.

I used that word revival for several reasons. The musicians have been perceptive enough to notice that certain pieces, certain composers, get taken for granted and start slipping into obscurity, right under our noses. Babbitt is a composer who was appreciated just enough to be accepted as a great artist in his lifetime, but not understood well enough to attract sustained interest of a type that sheds new light on his music. There is the sense that due obligation to the artist has been fulfilled, leaving one free to move on. In the great 20th-century critic Stephen Potter’s terminology, Babbitt is not presently “OK”. For punters with an innate allegiance to the experimental, the minimal, the ‘downtown’, Babbitt was a convenient figurehead of the anathema and in that respect Philomel was the one piece of his for which they would make an exception.

I tried searching for a link online to back up that last statement and found Kyle Gann asserting that “Philomel exists only in one incarnation, and may not even be repeatable in performance, so intimately is it based on Bethany Beardslee’s voice.” Fraser’s new recording renders this opinion nonsensical. As with her somewhat controversial performance of Feldman’s Three Voices earlier this year, she remakes the piece in her own character, with an intimate vulnerability that can change with the slightest inflection to icy, judgemental distance.

While Nono is more “OK” than Babbitt right now, most attention seems to be focussed on each end of his career, particularly the open expanses of sound in his late work and the light they cast on his early serial compositions. La fabbrica illuminata dates from 1964, the same year as Philomel, when his incendiary music and politics were at their most confrontational. Once a defining characteristic of his work, it is now a side of Nono too often effaced (at least in the UK). As Fraser had examined Babbitt’s notes to reconstruct a performance score, Loré Lixenberg returned to Nono’s manuscript to prepare her interpretation of La fabbrica illuminata. Her flamboyant, declamatory style suits Nono’s political indignation well: a futurist burlesque held fast by righteous anger. The sleeve notes don’t go into detail about the binaural mastering but the 54-year old tape parts sound great here. (I’ve only heard the older version of the Nono by Carla Henius before, on a Wergo recording that seemed a bit lo-fi.) Two fine compositions liberated from their status of recorded relics and reinserted into a living tradition.

Morton Feldman does not need to be revived, especially not late Feldman, but smart and skilful interpretations keep on drawing up new ways of hearing what he has to say. This 75-minute CD release of his 1982 violin and piano duet For John Cage is played by Aisha Orazbayeva and All That Dust co-founder Mark Knoop. I’m not looking up how many recordings have been released of this piece and I don’t know which, if any, are considered particularly outstanding but this one is now my favourite, for distinctive reasons that will persist even if I hear other great interpretations*.

It’s more colourful that any interpretation I’ve heard, more so than most late Feldman. The notoriously unhurried pace of this music often comes with sombre playing attached, but Orazbayeva creates a narrow but perceptible dynamic range to complement the greater variation permitted in her attack. Paired with Knoop’s piano acting at times like a foil, at others like a goad, their interplay can seem almost sprightly at times – relatively speaking. When things fall away again, the feeling of loss is almost palpable, with the violin reduced to frail keening or cut off altogether by an abrupt piano cluster. A lament carries through the entirety of the piece, in various guises ranging from a baroque sighing to nasal folk-song. The bold characterisation in the playing here makes the latter stages of the piece sound even stranger, when alien, rising harmonies take over. The playing between the notes is so good that I hope they’re taking some interpretative liberties with the score; the kind that are routinely taken with old masterpieces from previous centuries. Informed deviation from the notation can bring you closer to the music as well as uninformed deviation can take you further away. “Play it like Death and the Maiden,” Feldman helpfully suggested once to a daunted string quartet. It’s about time.

[* Disclaimer: my experience of this piece is limited to hearing Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea play it live once, the typically astringent Zukofksy/Oppens recording and The Hat Art One.]

Trip Report: An Assembly play Charlie Usher and Rowland Hill

Tuesday 16 October 2018

I’ve got some new recordings I need to talk about (Þráinn Hjálmarsson, All That Dust) but first I should follow up on that An Assembly gig previewed a couple of weeks back. The programme of new works commissioned by the ensemble has completed a small tour of the country.

Rowland Hill’s Tha-at’s right matches, or mismatches, 16mm film footage of three dancers in a studio with a live chamber ensemble. Both are drawn from Edwin Denby’s review of Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, taking Denby’s eccentric interpretations as a score to be, in turn, interpreted into a ballet. I was looking forward to this piece, commenting that “I’m a sucker for this sort of approach, acknowledging and exploiting transmission of information as a form of cultural distortion.” It didn’t disappoint. There’s a sly humour throughout the piece, made all the more subversive by never letting the audience relax into certainty over what, or who, is being made fun of from one moment to the next. Everything obeys an external logic of which the audience is aware of but not privy to. The film is disjointed, the setting informal like a rehearsal, but the dancer’s repeated movements and the abrupt changes of camera angles emphasise a structural rigour, following a logic that is never made clear. (Think audience alienation, more Godard than Brecht, but emptied of emotional or political manipulation, leaving the punters wary and bemused and ready to laugh or rein it in at a moment’s notice. The notice never comes.) The dancers bring a discipline and dignity to the ridiculousness. Like in a Robert Ashley piece, only with movement instead of words, the music does its work while the audience is distracted, a deadpan “No comment” while slipping a diffuse, brittle collage of chamber music past our ears.

Charlie Usher’s An assembly was, as promised, 122 pieces played in 45 minutes, each piece 13 seconds long except for an extended coda. The ten musicians, conducted by Jack Sheen, were augmented by modest electronics and occasional field recordings. One thing I didn’t expect from this work was the effect of writing, playing and listening on such a reduced scale for such an extended time. The description of the work’s form conjures up mental images of a kaleidoscope, or miscellany, but this possibility is never offered to the listener. Most of the pieces have titles and were dutifully listed in the programme (“they’re there to shade the content”): they read as notes for Usher’s own benefit, significant but insubstantial. There’s little in them for the audience to latch onto as an idea and besides, who can keep track from one piece to the next? 072 The green – believe it exists. 073 Strength with all sisters. 074 Music as a trace on your day. An artist’s notebook, instigating and susbtantiated by the music.

But what is the music? 13 seconds is almost nothing. Many of the pieces have scarcely any substance at all: sound is present, and that suffices. With no time to establish much beyond that, each piece is formed with due care but without any foolish attempt to assert its distinctiveness. The pieces were ordered in such a way as to “create a sort of flatness, an avoidance of shape and drama and to put everything on the same plane”. Usher described one meaning of the title as “45 minutes with sound”, the music forming a type of public space. Even when aware of the time structure, the listener loses interest in trying to distinguish one piece from the next. A new type of listening comes about, detached from both the immediacy of the continuous present and from the awareness of details. Those two descendants of Cagean thinking do not come into play here; the faint but indelible didacticism in Cage’s aesthetics is finally effaced. An assembly allows music and listener simply to coexist, without calling either to account.

Of course it’s not that simple. That last piece, 11 minutes and 10 seconds according to the programme, is a low sun that casts the preceding music into relief. A suspended, sustained harmonic shimmer that by this point seems to extend forever. It means nothing, but it opens up a vast space for reflection. As with painting, contemplation of abstraction on that scale can get emotional.

Séverine Ballon: inconnaissance

Monday 8 October 2018

I went to four unrelated cello gigs in about a week, each demonstrating some a aspect of playing and composing for the instrument. 840’s most recent gig at St James’, Islington focused on cellist (and composer) Anton Lukoszevieze, aided by pianist (and composer) Alex Nikiporenko. Some of these pieces are becoming old standards now, such as Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar and Laurence Crane’s Raimondas Rumsas; amongst the new work, the premiere of Christian Wolff’s six Small Pieces for Cellist was the highlight. Any new work by Wolff in the fruitful late phase of his career deserves our thanks, and the dedicatee Lukoszevieze brought out much more than you could imagine from a composer whose music so often looks unprepossessing on paper. The pieces alternated between full and open notation, with Lukoszevieze seizing the opportunity to add variations in attack and touch to Wolff’s discontinuous phrases, creating a kind of Klangfarbenmelodie.

The cello is a big and tactile instrument, which makes it ideal for observing technique, both in performance and in composition. The following weekend I was at the Old Dentist in Clapton, taking in the venue’s traditional BYO over the fire in the backyard before crouching in the cramped front room of the stripped terrace house to hear Judith Hamann playing solo again. This was a more focused set than the one I remember from Cafe Oto a while back: a pulse that slowly contracted and expanded, in feeling if not in tempo, as Hamann concentrated on drawing harmonic overtones from her instrument, from the endpin working up to the strings. There was no obvious systematic process at work here, nor anything reductionist or extreme to coax the listener’s attention to a different state: while setting up, she decided to go without any amplification. The cello became a sounding vessel, speaking in its own language of resonant vibrations.

Last Tuesday was the start of 10th season of Kammer Klang at Oto, with co-founder Lucy Railton performing Phill Niblock’s Harm on his 84th birthday. It was a kind of inversion of Hamann’s performance – “It’s loud,” Railton warned the punters, “and dense.” Here the overtones played the instrument, a wall of complex, pulsating colours that shimmered and darkened in ways beyond the solo performer’s full comprehension. In the midst of all this, Railton’s bowing alternately merged and fought with the backing layers of cello (previously recorded by Arne Deforce), a thin streak of oil over churning waters. After repeated tangential brushes with Niblock’s music played live, and hearing the man himself with laptop last month, I think I finally got the true live Niblock experience.

In amongst all this I got invited to the launch of All That Dust, a new record label started by London-based new music performers and producers Newton Armstrong, Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop. We were treated to live performances of excerpts from two of the new releases – cellist Séverine Ballon, and percussionist Håkon Stene playing part of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Popular Contexts 8 – as well as Knoop playing a piano piece by Tim Parkinson, part of a collection sheduled for next year.

I want to get around to all the current releases (three on CD, two download-only) in time. Séverine Ballon’s live set, and her CD inconnaisance, exclusively deals with her own compositions for solo cello. Having long been a skilled interpreter of other people’s music, she has spent the last couple of years developing a set of her own pieces. Witnessed live, you could appreciate the thoughtful placement of sounds paired with the care taken in touch and intonation. There are extended techniques appearing throughout, but used in unobstrusive ways that keep the focus on the sound: pedal tones, bowing behind the bridge, some of the more esoteric harmonics. Colouration from different bowing techniques are foregrounded. As might be expected, the music’s composition is clearly rooted in performance but is much more than a working through of a cellist’s favoured processes, as can so often be the case. The set of tracks on the CD can be heard individually yet clearly work as a suite, with each section presenting a distinct style and soundworld rather than an excerise in a given technique. On disc, the sound is beautifully captured, evoking the same experience of hearing it live at close range.

There’s confidence behind Ballon’s musical thinking, both in execution and in conception. At times, she lets the sound slip away to almost nothing without ever losing its presence, letting details recede and emerge, with contrasts in dynamics and activity that always feel natural. It all makes for a solid musical experience when heard alone, or even in ignorance of the skill required to make it.

New music preview: An assembly premieres a big new work by Charlie Usher

Monday 24 September 2018

The new music year has started; the Proms are over and I’m sitting at the latest 840 gig behind two punters agonising over whether to go to the Kammer Klang or City University concert next Tuesday. You can usually get to the former just in time for the start, after leaving the latter. The City Uni gigs, besides being free, present a lot of great musicians, both local and visiting, and new music that extends to the more adventurous end of contemporary composition.

The first gig next Tuesday evening is by An assembly, a local ensemble I’ve written about before. In addition to the latest in Louis D’Heudieres hall-of-mirrors Laughter Studies series, the programme features two new works commissioned by the ensemble. Rowland Hill has worked up a combined film/live performance based on Stravinsky’s Agon. “Based on”, as in “trying to recreate Balanchine’s ballet with nothing to go on but an old review of it.” I’m a sucker for this sort of approach, acknowledging and exploiting transmission of information as a form of cultural distortion. Jack Sheen, An assembly’s director, describes it as the “silliest piece I have ever commissioned”.

The other premiere is a long work by Charlie Usher, titled An assembly. It goes for about 45 minutes and, according to Usher, is mostly made up of pieces that are 13 seconds long. We’ve been exchanging some thoughts online about what it means to make music like this. I’ve heard the fragmentary nature of some of Usher’s earlier, shorter works and wondered how this approach would work in an extended timeframe.

Composing is now a routine, diligence, a way of moving through the week, and a practice… so making these small pieces has been uncomplicated. I’ve gathered a large amount written during a certain period into this 45-minute work, and that’s where the title comes from; An assembly – it’s an assembly of 122 pieces, activities, states and practices. Some of them stand alone, some of them end up in a series of pieces made from a common concept, and some of them are just self-declared filler; they were all just something to do and share.

Usually when hearing about a long piece made up of short, unrelated fragments, the result ends up either as a kaleidoscopic or mosiac-like work, or as a kind of diary. The form defines itself by its diversity or an implicit narrative. Usher talked about how some of the short pieces are reworkings or ‘lifted’ from other artists, some transcribe non-musical material into sound, others are “exercises in sensuality, making a surface that sags, bends or shifts in some way; something to seduce.” This approach, a miscellany of miniatures, seemed a familiar enough concept but then the twist came, when he went on to describe the work he put in negate the explicable interpretations of the music.

I didn’t want them played in the order that I wrote them, finding that too autobiographical, shapely, misleading. I grouped similar pieces together and, with the help of a program a friend made for me, spread them out as evenly as possible between the other evenly spaced pieces to create a sort of flatness, an avoidance of shape and drama and to put everything on the same plane, with no hierarchy.

“I’ve been conscious to avoid spectacle in my music for a while,” he added (the spectacle of miniatures?) “I’m not interested in disorientation, in sly tricks on the listener; it’s not a dynamic I find constructive. It’s the continuous present I enjoy more, a work being more a situation than a work.” I’d originally suggested ‘disorientating the listener’ to Usher when I was thinking of music that erased the anticipation of a climax or resolution, so it seemed we were thinking the same way.

I’m interested in sharing a sort of versatility, moving between active listening and passive hearing, and time not as something to be articulated but time as a place to spend some time. I thought that I’d rather spend 45 minutes with sound and friends than 45 minutes on facebook and youtube, so here’s 45 minutes set aside for that. An assembly, the title; there’s the social aspect too. Music is a public space.

I realised I’d been thinking of the continuous present, as experienced in music with more reductive means (the sixties minimal composers, Morton Feldman) and while Usher evidently shares their effacement of hierarchy in his musical material, there’s a more expansive, eclectic attitude at work here. John Cage, trying to say something nice about minimalists, suggested they were teaching us to be convivial; musicians reported that Feldman habitually dozed on and off when attending rehearsals of his late, long-ass pieces. It’s nice to know we can go to a new music concert without having to worry about getting it all, when just being there is the point.