Apartment House get obscure, live and on record

Monday 26 September 2022

There’s too much stuff about Apartment House here already but they keep playing gigs near my house and making records of stuff I really want to hear. Beginning of this month they played three nights at Cafe Oto, first of which I missed but was heavy on stuff from their recent batch of Another Timbre albums. The next two nights got a little more esoteric, with an evening of mostly short, newer pieces by the likes of Adrian Demoč, Ryoko Akama and a Jordan Dykstra premiere. In amongst these were longer renditions of two of Stockhausen’s pieces from his often overlooked Für kommende Zeiten cycle of text compositions. Apartment House played a selection of these on Southbank back in 2019, but here Bird of Passage and Japan were played with different musicians sans percussion, making each an elongated study in transformation, from the discrete to the homogeneous in one, back and forth between noise and melody for the other.

Although dating from 1972, the Stockhausen was a taste of what was to come on ‘Sixties Night’, where things got really obscure. The theme was the American avant-garde from that decade, with the best-known works being a concluding piano rendition by Kerry Yong of Terry Riley’s Keyboard Study No. 1 and Simon Limbrick giving a delicate but authoritative version of Morton Feldman’s The King of Denmark – standing up the back I really did have to make an effort to hear it, as is correct. One the whole, the programme felt very West Coast, with composers exploring ways of making music flat and empty while still holding attention. The other striking thing were the anomalies: Philip Corner’s Attempting Whitenesses was in fact unexpectedly colourful and almost lyrical, compared to his usual unremittingly dry aesthetic. Conversely, Pauline Oliveros’ Sound Piece was barely there at all, a brief work of silence activated by the faintest wisps of sound. Joseph Byrd’s Loops and Sequences was coloured by a layering of buzzing prepared piano, as was a trundling, proto-minimalist piece titled White on White by Albert M. Fine. (“Anyone heard of him?” asked bandleader Anton Lukoszevieze. We hadn’t.)

On record, they’ve just added a new Cage release, following on from last year’s box set of Number Pieces. Kathryn Williams and Mark Knoop perform the flute and piano duet Two with the requisite self-effacement and subtlety. The first of Cage’s so-called Number Pieces, it’s a miniature masterclass in his skill at coming up with great ideas and then hiding them so the idea can’t be heard, only the sounds that result from it. Each musician plays within overlapping time-brackets of flexible duration, yet the piano plays discontinuous sounds while the flute is constrained to but a handful of pitches, all to be played softly and thus become a kind of shading. Cage just kept coming up with ways of frustrating expectations we didn’t even know we had, opening us up to consider sound in new ways. This is felt most strongly in Score (40 Drawings by Thoreau) and 23 Parts, a piece from the mid 1970s which I don’t think has had a proper recording until now. Cage took casual nature sketches from Thoreau’s Journal and split them across grids for the musicians to interpret as pitch. In Apartment House’s hands, each glyph becomes an organic aural knot, as strange as observed biomorphology, with each specimen separated by profound silence. The rejection of expressionism makes these gnarled, undulating pitches surprisingly natural and fascinating, the uncanny effect enhanced by Cage’s instruction that the playing is followed by a recording made at dawn near his then-current house at Stony Point, New York: art and life in counterpoint. (The recording here was made at the time by David Behrman, warts-and-all with traffic in the distance.) The album concludes with Hymnkus, where any number of musicians reiterate small gamuts of pitches in irregular time. A mesmerising piece, with rougher edges to the sound than an earlier performance I heard by the same ensemble: the violin, cello, flute, clarinets and piano come with an extra huffing and shuffling throughout.

Finally, I need to mention Somatic Refrain by Allison Cameron, another composer I’d never heard of. I think she’s Canadian. Apartment House perform two ensemble works here, Pliny from 2005 and Retablo from 1998. The former seems to work as a kind of woozy, off-kilter canon with loose ends and tangents, while the latter is made of three movements spread across twenty-five minutes that seem to elaborate on this same process in different ways*, at times falling into unison, at others lapsing into free-form or allowing dinky percussion sounds to intrude. There’s an unhurried, deliberate pace in all of these works, even in the opening title piece, a slo-mo virtuosic solo for bass clarinet casually littered with complex multiphonics which are played so cleanly here by Heather Roche that she makes it even sound nonchalant. The strangest and most effective work here is H, a piece from 2008 heard in a performance by Cameron’s own bad of guitar, electric guitar, banjo and bass harmonica. Still unhurried but determined, it walks as though fighting the urge to run, all while maintaing an unreadable attitude to rarefied language and low instrumentation.

* Chronologically, it is, of course, the other way around.

Organ x 2: Pateras, Arkbro

Saturday 24 September 2022

Krakow’s Sacrum Profanum festival ended this year with two performances on the organ at the Philharmonic Hall; new compositions by Anthony Pateras and Ellen Arkbro, each with the composer at the manuals. Pateras’ Organ Work for Jim Knox was the world premiere, while Arkbro’s Untitled for organ has been played previously this year. Two large-scale works for organ almost inevitably means the evening is going to get kind of lugubrious, no matter how bright the music may be: the instrument is culturally saturated, overfilled with potential and connotations to the point of implosion. As it happened, both works focused on timbre and intonation, subjecting each to close inspection. That’s not to say the music was entirely static – at least the Pateras piece moved, constantly and inexorably, but with deceptive slowness. In keeping with his other recent work, the restless activity heard in his music has been sublimated from melody and gesture into texture and tone. A miniature in filigree, blown up under a microscope, the shape of the piece emerged for the listener in the meshing of overlapped pitches heard through multiple stops, each one introducing a change in colour. The Philharmonic organ doesn’t allow for half-open stops or other subterfuge, so shifts in intonation were made through the discrepancies in each stop’s tuning, a change in register altering each chord in both timbre and temperament.

Arkbro’s piece was more dronelike, making use of sudden switches back and forth between contrasting voices, inside a larger scheme of more gradual changes. Despite this, the colouring was restrained and development was made without resorting to overt drama, although the piece did build to a more forceful section before falling away again at the end. Arkbro’s usual interest in intonation was present, but in a more austere fashion, the small differences in pitch being expressed in a linear progression while harmony was thinned out. The piece suffered in this setting for being the second of two works programmed with a superficially similar nature, with nothing to clear and refresh the mind in between. That said, the muted ending didn’t seem to come off as intended here, with the unexpected change in force sounding like the music’s energy had dissipated rather than transformed.

Maya Bennardo: four strings

Monday 19 September 2022

Violinist Maya Bennardo has just released an album of two pieces for solo instrument, titled four strings. This is all new to me, except that I have heard other works by Eva-Maria Houben. The first piece, Duk med broderi och bordets kant, is by Kristofer Svensson and centres on a bright but wistful theme which is teased apart by Bennardo in various ways. The complete melody can only be inferred as the pattern is repeatedly broken up with gaps, or pauses, or through time being prolonged or momentarily suspended. It’s a playful act of analytical scrutiny, taking something that hints at a whole and deconstructing it into redolent fragments, each of which may be taken as sufficient in itself.

Bennardo’s playing is alert to the possibilities contained within such brief moments, a point which becomes even more important in the titular work by Eva-Maria Houben. Houben’s music reflects a kind of obsessive care over each sound, even when the sound may be particularly unprepossessing. This can sometimes be offputting to the casual listener, or even not so casual, as you wonder what she may have heard in them in the first place. Bennardo presents Houben’s four strings in a generous interpretation, balancing its stringent emphasis on high pitches and its allowances for free sounds and improvisation. Within the score’s constraints, she presents each note in a unique way, taking the slenderest of material to build a substantial piece of light and shade, from silence and sound.

Greg Davis: New Primes

Sunday 18 September 2022

There’s something pleasing and aspirational in the idea of making music out of nothing but pure sine waves; even moreso when employing principles of the mathematics of tuning as purely as possible. (Disclaimer/shamless self-promotion: I myself have made just such a piece.) Joseph Branciforte’s greyfade label was set up just for such pieces of conceptual purity, whether in tuning (see Christopher Otto’s rag′sma) or other systems-based procedures. The new greyfade release is New Primes, an LP of six pieces by composer Greg Davis using nothing but sine tones tuned to prime-numbered harmonics of the harmonic series. Okay, he cheats a little bit by transposing down the intervals which inevitably bunch up in the higher octaves, creating a kind of filtered just-intonation scale favouring exotic intervals.

Before going further, there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed when critiquing microtonal compositions. Too often, the purity of the mathematics and the elegance of the underlying system take precedence at the expense of the music, displaying a primary need to function as a proof of concept over consideration of showing the listener why the intellectual effort was warranted in the first place. In New Primes, Davis admirably takes up the messier consequences of his apparently simple methods and follows them in new directions, but doesn’t seem to fully get a handle on the difficulties of form. The purity of the concept gets muddier when encountered by human ears: as you prolong the range of intervals in the series, the harmonies become strange as they move outside the usual 12-tone scales we’re used to, but then move into something that’s close to familiar but not quite right. With each successive interval getting smaller, even once only prime factors are considered, the ear habitually interprets them as approximations of what is expected. Davis uses this to his advantage, making small differences emerge and fade to temper and colour otherwise static harmonies with a subtlety that softens the stark sine waves. More importantly, each piece works by becoming a study in timbre, even moreso than in harmonies. Aside from the usual beatings and psychoacoustic phenonmena, Davis lets different pitches overlap in complex ways that produce smoothly-shaped textures with a depth that makes you forget the building blocks from which they were created.

That said, there’s not much to distinguish one piece from another. This is hardly a problem, but it reveals that while Davis had a clear method to his process when selecting and combining his materials, form was less of a consideration. “The pieces you hear on the finished record are snapshots of an endless generative music that could last for hours, days, or even longer,” he writes, confirming what can be guessed from listening to each piece fade in and out. It’s a technical point, but one which highlights the problems in making pieces from open-ended processes, raising the question of what differentiates a work of music from a passing moment of interest in an acoustic phemonenon.

Summer is ending. Normal service resumes next week.

Thursday 8 September 2022

Regular updates return later next week, with more new releases and gigs reviewed. In the meantime, why not check out my own crummy music.

Block Rockin’ Summer Slam, Part 2

Monday 15 August 2022

Getting back to Germaine Sijstermans’ Betula: each of the compositions is written for a small minimum of pitched instruments, mostly without getting too fussy about type or number. Only one seems to specify that the instruments should sustain. All the instruments used here, can (Rasten plays guitar with an ebow). The musicans here produce a tour de force of ensemble playing, making each of Sijstermans’ intensely focused studies on small variations reveal a unique character while never deviating from a central principle. They embody stillness at its most alert, alive to incipient motion, when so much of this style of playing heard elsewhere can seem merely inert.


By comparison, two other discs I’d heard earlier, Hope Lies Fallow by Johnny Chang & Keir GoGwilt and Landmarks by Katelyn Clark & Isaiah Ceccarelli, now seem almost extroverted. Having previously been one half of Illogical Harmonies and Viola Torros, Chang teams up with GoGwilt to create violin duos that seem modern and ancient at once. Each piece is a solo composition, three each for the two string players. Their references are Hildegard von Bingen and Orlando di Lasso. In making something new they excavate something old, adding to it by creative subtraction, as though details have been effaced by time. Their slow, attenuated counterpoint is bowed raw but soft. Performed in a church in Auckland (Aotearoa), Chang even has his pieces recorded from further away, making them more frail and remote. For the last three pieces they are joined by Celeste Oram’s voice, haunting the music wordlessly as another layer of echo. Ceccarelli and Clark have previously presented some duos with organetto, but Landmarks gives an entire album to their work with various organs and percussion, this time credited as joint compositions. The church atmosphere prevails, with deep cowbells and bell plates complementing the keyboards, but the duet here brings out the more ancient, ritualistic aspects of European religion. The set begins dramatically with rich chords, gongs and rumbling deep bass drum, but each of the longer works becomes slower, turning into almost drone-like processionals. There’s an improvisation on ‘Kyrie Eleison’ that is more about sublimation than augmentation. It all ends with two brief, gnomic episodes respectively on organ and percussion alone, with no synthetic resolution.

I ventured outdoors again last week to see the rather odd improv trio of John Wall, Mark Sanders and John Edwards at Cafe Oto. Edwards on bass, Sanders on percussion, Wall on laptop working digital synthesis and processing of live sounds (tech permitting). I’m calling them odd because they don’t run the usual gamut of extended licks and technical obligations that dominate the genre. With your eyes shut it can be hard to tell who’s doing what at times, as they each turn their instruments into means of exploring boundaries between attack and decay, pitch and noise. As a group, they seem most interested in ways of ferreting in between the others’ sounds, settling down into them before breaking them apart. There was a focus on computer music and electronics on the night, with the other acts being Tom Mudd demonstrating a semi-chaotic synthesiser using feedback resonators to elide from detuned chorales to coloured bursts of static, and a too-rare chance to hear some of James Clarke’s compositions for manipulated orchestral samples. In some ways, these pieces resemble drawings of his works for live musicians, stretching and extending gestures and sonorities as a way of opening up microcosmic structures.

I’ve worked my way back from purity to newness, so I need to briefly mention a new release on Tripticks Tapes by guitarist/composer Matteo Liberatore. Lacquer strongly draws on noise rock, to the point that I’m not sure if there isn’t an electric guitar involved somewhere at some stage of this album described as “analog synthesis”. The riffs and the aggression are there, as are the attacks in the sudden injection and withdrawal of heterogeneous layers of noise. Some of the off-kilter patterns strongly resemble stomp boxes left to their own devices in a closed circuit, which gives the racket a youthful exuberance. The noise may be cheap but it’s the sophistication with which Liberatore cuts and pastes it all together that prevents anything outstaying its welcome or, more importantly, gives each piece the substance to be taken seriously and not as just a throwaway goof.

Block Rockin’ Summer Slam, Part 1

Monday 8 August 2022

When you listen to a lot of new stuff at once you start lumping pieces together, which is great for developing an authorial conceit, not so good for the music, and very bad for ever finishing writing about it. It’s best to remember that music never ends.

Last time, I was thinking too much about newness; now I’m thinking about purity. Since the late 20th Century a narrative has emerged, of schools of composers working under the thrall of lessons learned from minimalism by way of Morton Feldman, with an insidious spiritual imperative, either religious (Pärt) or secular (Wandelweiser). Material reigns supreme (sez Feldman), construction is kept at a minimum. The material is always ‘on camera.’ There’s a difference between purity and authenticity, but when that spiritual imperative meets digital audio the two can get confused. The lingering minimal influence becomes a way of transmitting authenticity with as little artifice as possible. Listening to the pieces discussed here reminds you that lack of artifice is not the same as lack of skill.

Well, really, Ian Power’s pieces ain’t all that pure. The collection Maintenance Hums begins with a duet for piano and percussion that clatters about with obtuse, single-note arpeggios dogged by a lone cowbell that eventually takes over with numbing hammering. There’s a sly humor in the three pieces here that, depending on your musical taste, either teeters on the edge of grating on your nerves or just shoves you over that edge immediately and keeps on plowing ahead. aspirapolvere, sega, spettro, tenere, possedere is a trio for accordion, saxophone and guitar that emphasises mechanical apparatus while trying to make each instrument sound like a cheap melodica combating blasts of distortion and feedback. Power himself plays the solo BUOY (after Laurence Crane) with what sounds like an organ coerced into life by a vacuum cleaner, except the organ here is in fact electric (und Kagel und Hoffnung sind auch dabei). For his Edition Wandelweiser release, Diligence, he smartens himself up to appear more reverent, but the two solo works presented here still have messy edges to their slow, widely-separated and often repeated sounds. The cello piece occasionally triggers obscuring smears of electronic schmutz, while the clarinet piece makes its material and development from periods of ragged note-bending, smudged attacks and self-conscious repetitions that come across much as rehearsals.

Some of Power’s music, with its aesthetics of deconstruction and warped pedagogy, reminded me a little of Tim Parkinson. Deconstruction really isn’t a fair term for Parkinson, despite external appearances of pieces like his opera Time With People. For his solo and chamber pieces, the musical language isn’t overtly self-referential, except through the tacit admission that musical language is itself arbitrary. As I listen to more of Parkinson’s music, the more it changes, as with the new collection of recordings by Apartment House, put out by Another Timbre under the revealing title an album. The previously discontinuous-sounding phrases and patterns have started to take on a sort of internal logic, inscrutable to observers. This is not a function of maturation: the phenomenon can be heard in both violin and piano piece 1998 and violin and piano 2017. The latter makes fuller use of chorale-like sounds while the former leans towards sparse, high notes – a critic could draw a line of development from one to the other in either direction, were they to confuse which was which. A lot of this may be down to Apartment House, here specifically violinist Mira Benjamin and pianist Siwan Rhys, whose attentive playing captures both the delicacy and the indifference, like a work of nature. That wayward and arbitrary phrasing that once sounded like Wolff now more resembles Wolpe. So this is really reconstructive music, although Parkinson is building something new out of the old, rather than something old in his own image.

Sylvia Lim is a younger composer who is developing her own idiosyncratic language, a mix of pure acoustic phenomena with peculiar methodology. In her album of five pieces, Sounds which grow richer as they decay, the opening track is unfortunately the dullest, with her Piece for three tuned cowbells never becoming more than an inert set of studies in timbre and rhythmic texture. In the shorter vignettes that follow, things get promisingly weird. The piano piece flicker, played in Texas by Alvin Leung, takes a quirky approach to muted strings, ornate yet artless. Cellists Christopher Brown and Natasha Zielazinski played the duet Reordering the Unconsumed in London, producing strange sounds that fall away into electronic-like reverb. The title work is most striking, using a beaten harp and two trombones to extend noise into held tones, producing a grotesque of Scelsi at his most hieratic. The unlikely acoustic combinations are less bizarre in the longer Colour Catalogue: Whites, where flute, bass clarinet and cello produce overtones of each other, alternating in pairings in a succession of fading panels. This last piece suggests we can look forward to imaginative ways of forming more complex works in the future.

I’ve been catching up on some large releases on Elsewhere this year. Most recent is a double-decker by composer/clarinetist Germaine Sijstermans. Betula is a collection of ensemble pieces that emerged from her recent performance practice with a close group of fellow musicians. This kind of practice can lead to development into elaboration or refinement into purity; Sijstermans has taken the latter path. The ensemble, recorded here over a few days in September 2019, is an all-star band of performer/composers who take a like-minded approach: besides Sijstermans’ clarinet there is Antoine Beuger on flute, Rishin Singh on trombone, Johnny Chang on viola, Fredrik Rasten on guitar and Leo Svirsky on accordion. On the seven pieces ranging from seven to thirty-one minutes in length, “the six musicians’ sounds overlap with each other while slowly moving forward in parallel.” On the first listen, everything seemed so refined and pure that each piece sounded the bloody same. On the second hearing, it all opened up and each piece took on a distinct character, with a marked difference in timbre and coloration, even when the instruments stayed the same. What’s most surprising about this change was not that it happened but that it took place so quickly. I want to go into more detail about Betula but this will have to wait until next time.

What’s New? Remixes, Fluxus, Drones, Industry, Potatoes.

Saturday 30 July 2022

What do we mean when we talk about ‘new music’? The term carries multiple meaninings: for starters, there’s what strikes us as outside our previous experience, or there’s what signifies to us as looking towards the future. I’m listening to Flash Crash + Remixes, credited to Jascha Narveson & Ashley Bathgate + Guests. The cover art and the cello-plus-remixes concept symbolises newness and the futuristic, but is the music truly new? The modern understanding of the term ‘remix’ has been around for over forty years now, so the music presented here should be a fairly comfortable accommodation of folk art turned commercial practice. There’s no obligation for the music to beat us over the head with novelty, and Narveson himself says the project is inspired by his “love of community, collaboration, and techno”, all nice comfy ideas. But still, we register the package as consciously modern.

Flash Crash itself is a 2016 work composed by Narveson for cellist Ashley Bathgate with computer-controlled electronics, apparently derived from stock market data. Everything co-exists pretty harmoniously, actually, so it all works out in the end. The remixes, and the original appeals to techno, risk becoming excessively derivative of a more vital culture, the relative vitality being a matter of one imitating the other. Some, like the Lorna Dune mix, start promisingly before turning to pastiche. Matthew D. Gantt’s version substitutes MIDI instrumental patches to create a work reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s Synclavier compositions as a nod to retro-futurism. Things get more interesting later, with Lainie Fefferman’s Repairbot Q sent to Engine Room 3, working through the loneliness and Angélica Negrón’s Choque Súbito transforming the original beyond all recognition into disturbing, atmospheric works. Vladislav Delay’s remix finally delivers on the expectation of a disruptive, desconstructed (sorry) transformation of the original, pulling its elements apart to create something new.

The Wire has been celebrating its 40th anniversary with various events, including the gig Apartment House Play And Music at Cafe Oto. This was a loose grab-bag of old pieces, made new by the fact that but nobody has ever heard them. A Tony Conrad quartet (two violins, two cellos) was revived, agreeably sawing and grinding through off-kilter rhythms; a Clark Coolidge text piece rendered in voice and instruments; a fragmented ensemble piece, composed by Derek Bailey. The most familiar face in this lineup was Anthony Braxton, represented by a lively rendition of one of his Ghost Trance pieces, mixing bass clarinet, strings and prepared piano. All these old works remain new not just by being unheard, but by pointing towards future practices in music, typically in ways that suggest other approaches that remain unexplored today.

Michael von Biel, a composer usually known only by name, if at all, was represented by his Quartett mit Begleitung, where the string quartet’s Darmstadt-worthy precision is adulterated by graphic abstraction and the presence of an extra cellist left to improvise with objects. Yoko Ono, the world’s most famous unknown artist, wrote Overtone Piece in 1964; Apartment House’s realisation made it into a surprisingly deep piece of rigid, early drone. I said the setlist was loose because the promised pieces by Terry Jennings and Ben Patterson were forgotten as the evening progressed. Things got looser still when the gig finished with Henning Christiansen’s Kartoffelopera​, a 1969 composition receiving its UK premiere. The premise is simple: potatoes are scattered across five straight lines on the floor, forming a score for the musicians to play. The audience is invited to bring their own potato or move the potatoes, from time to time. Things, perhaps inevitably, get unruly. As the opera’s dramaturgy is determined by the audience, this was a distinctly British staging, with irritating playfulness that never escalated to physical injuries.

While almost all of our musical experience is now electronically mediated, we still think of it as a primarily acoustic, organic event: the presence of electronics in music still extends to us the expectation that something will be done to make things new. Where electronics predominate, it implies something outside of the human experience – possibly transcendental (new age), ecstatic (techno), cathartic (noise) or a kind of negative dialectic of entertainment (industrial). As a genre, industrial music has typically become more post-industrial, revelling in entropy and decay in a sort of romantic or nihilistic (same diff) reverie. Deison’s Magnetic Debris vol. 1 & 2 isn’t industrial, but it does make that common use of decayed tech, a romance of ruins. The fourteen tracks are composed mostly from old media and found sounds: aged cassettes, broken records and elettromagnetic interference. At first, the resulting pieces seemed inert, smoothing away the interesting details that may be found in the material. On repeated listening, however, each piece revealed a compositional depth and character that showed Magnetic Debris was not an exercise in documentation, but a restrictive means to an end in producing music that rewards subjective consideration.

One of the things with New Stuff is you don’t know at first if it’s really worth your time. Thetford, a release from the duo UNIONBLOCK, is described by the musicians “epic subterranean dirge” and so it comes with heavy associations of drone and industrial noise that already suggests a love-it-or-hate it affair. The sounds are prolonged by an abrasive buzzing, which turns out to be down to both the material and the means. Recorded in an 18th century church in Vermont, Jack Langdon plays a tracker organ (i.e. mechanical linkages) and Weston Olencki ekes drones from electromagnetic devices placed on banjos. As a grotesque reimagining of 19th century American vernacular it has its strengths, particularly in playing up the instruments’ mechanical noises and stop/start of technology. The grim conformity of the drone is broken by an interlude of more playful (in both senses of the word) improvisation before resuming. It reminded me of Pancrace’s The Fluid Hammer, but with Pancrace the music was more varied and the historical and social context was expressed with greater clarity and detail. After half an hour of Thetford‘s drones, the remaining twenty minutes becomes more muted and in this diminished state seems to have run out of things to say.

It also reminded me of Ian Power’s piece BUOY (after Laurence Crane) from his album Maintenance Hums, but this post is already too long and I’ll get around to that later.

Silence, Directness and Naïvety: Lang, Lely, Stiebler & Kanitz

Sunday 17 July 2022

I’ve been re-reading some of James Pritchett’s writing about John Cage and was reminded of how much there is still to understand about his music. This time, it was about the role of silence; not just as a presence but as the fundamental upon which all of his music is based, as an essential element for sound to exist at all. As with much of Cage, it’s a simple observation with profound implications that are easily overlooked. As it happens, the idea became suddenly relevant to me when listening to the new collection of pieces on Another Timbre by Klaus Lang, a composer who has specialised in silences, often prolonged, sometimes unresolved. The pieces on Tehran Dust confound his reputation by having sound always present, yet treating sounds as the consequence of silence gives rise to strange effects. The means used here – a simple trio – are clear enough, but the methods are not. The first piece, origami. from 2011, creates a ghostly presence of shadowy tones whose origins are obscure, even as you read the sleeve notes for the personnel involved, gradually establishing a more recognisable material form. Trio Amos (Sylvie Lacroix, flute; Krassimir Sterev, accordion; Michael Moser, cello) make the most of the ability of each instrument to range from thin and reedy to sonorous and full. While the cello-accordion duet tehran dust. makes for a more conventional chorale, the longest piece darkness and freedom. from 2017 builds something more substantial from the preceding ideas, transforming sound and structure in a more sophisticated and less obtrusive way. Lang joins the trio on organ for two brief arrangements of Ockeghem and Pierre de la Rue, just to orient you on where he’s coming from.

After the bleak austerities of his earlier music, does this mean that Lang is softening, or have our ears hardened? Probably both: he has to listen, too. (Another overlooked facet of Cage is his recognition that silence changes with the times.) Is John Lely softening too? His music has been, and continues to be, a matter of process, naked and unadorned. His The Harmonics of Real Strings play out like one of James Tenney’s Postcard Pieces and his piano release from last year, Orrery, displays a similar single-mindedness. Meander Selection, one of a set of five new Apartment House albums, presents a set of seven pieces that seem almost lyrical by comparison. Focusing on string quartets and solo piano, the first four works could almost function as a suite, despite being conceived in different circumstances over eight years. The held, homogeneous chords of Doubles from 2012 alter with the staccato repetitions of 2020’s Karnaugh Quartet, a contrast produced by track sequencing which highlights Lely’s predominant interest in contemplating each compositional element in isolation. The looped, whispered electrical static of Pale Signal makes a brief, enigmatic interlude before the title work, arranged here for string quartet as a steely counterpart to Doubles. If there are processes at work here, they are less obvious. The two piano works use similar patterning of single notes heard in Orrery, but their manner is less readable, even as the affective value is more tractable. The brief Nocturne slows things down to induce introspection, while for Philip allows notes to decay over each other, with variations in patterning, alternations and repetitions that suggest two voices, solo and accompaniment. Stopping at the Sheer Edge Will Never Abolish Space (2020) is also arranged for string quartet, but with two violas instead of the extra violin. The moving and the motionless are brought into collision here, with plaintive cadences rolling out against an unvarying, repeated note. Colouring changes, but slightly, as each instrument takes its turn to provide the pulse. The preponderance of violas add to the melancholy, while faint percussive disturbances add to the unease.

Is it even right to call this opening out of a straitened musical world a softening? I’ve already used the word ‘sophisticated’ once in this post, but that doesn’t necesarily means the methods at work are less direct. Ernstalbrecht Stiebler‘s earlier music is as direct as it could be, while refuting our complacent association of directness with frankness (vide Robert Hughes summing up Those Bricks at the Tate: “Anyone except a child can make such things.”) In the same way, we like to think we can understand the Naïve in art, mistaking it for the Primitive, which we assume to be guileless. The adamant stasis of Stiebler’s music from the 1980s and 1990s has lately loosened to permit messier shapes and textures, but the expressive substance is more closely related than it first seems. The connection with the Naïve is overwhelmingly demonstrated in Stiebler’s recent collaborations with cellist Tilman Kanitz: recorded at Kanitz’s studio over the past year with Stiebler on a slightly shaggy piano, the two unite in improvisations that verge on the sentimental yet somehow retain their decorum. The Pankow-Park Sessions Vol. 1 selects a half-dozen of these recordings, apparently 85-year-old Stiebler’s first concerted attempts at improvisation. It’s all very different, in its freshness and its seeming normality, capturing the two performers in spontaneous dialogue, informal and at ease in each other’s company. I don’t think they ever lapse into quotation, or even put their earnest romanticism into quotation marks, but they inhabit this genteel language so comfortably that I don’t dare think it could be disingenuous.

GBSR plays Barbara Monk Feldman live

Friday 15 July 2022

Last year I gave a brief rave for the all-too-rare Barbara Monk Feldman album released by Another Timbre. Since then its quiet presence has steadily grown in stature, amongst listeners in general it seems, for the the fineness of its composition and execution. Last week the same musicians regrouped at St. Anne and St. Agnes Church in the City to perform pretty much the entire album live.

The GBSR Duo (George Barton, percussion; Siwan Rhys, piano) and violinist Mira Benjamin play these pieces with an intensity of focus that gives weight to the slightest gestures, with each new moment compounding what has preceded it. In my review of the studio recordings, I said that “that delicacy never lapses into preciousness, as Monk Feldman keeps the balance of sound and silence in constant tension, always holding energy in reserve and only occasionally letting short, lyrical flourishes burst forth.” Observing as well as listening, it becomes clear just how much detail goes into these pieces, simply by watching the way Barton used different techniques on the vibraphone to produce subtle variations in attack and decay. Rhys, meanwhile, evoked similar shadings from an instrument which is comparably more clear-cut and remote. In solo, duet or trio form, each piece makes the most artful use of simple language, as rightly demonstrated in the articulate sureness of Benjamin’s phrasing, echoed by each musician. Most tellingly, the pieces varied in length from five minutes to half an hour, yet each one established an equal prominence, creating its own sense of scale. In the intimate space of the church, with a small audience of faithful and new converts, Monk Feldman’s music continued its slow journey to assert its importance.

Minimalistic: John Tilbury plays Terry Riley, plus: Kaori Suzuki

Sunday 10 July 2022

I got two discs of minimalist music here. To quote T.S. Eliot: “Well here again that don’t apply. But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.” Last night I went to a glorious concert of Barbara Monk Feldman’s music (more about that soon); the promoters described her as a “Canadian minimalist composer”. She isn’t, of course, but what really amazes me is that we’re still batting this term around after half a century, long past the point where it lost any useful meaning. (P. Glass interviewed on his dislike of labels, in 1986: “Remember back when people described some composers as impressionist? They used to call Debussy an impressionist.”) We’re hoarding the tools for our understanding against future generations.

Besides repetition, what gets called minimal often involves a reduction of one typical aspect of music to create a basis for better emphasising excess in another. Kaori Suzuki’s Music For Modified Melodica is an album given a title to conjure up a mental image of exotic timbres and mutes. The preparations, however, involve retuning the melodica’s reeds and fitting it with foot-pedalled bellows, effectively fitting the frail instrument with an overpowered exosuit. The album’s single track, Air Born Of Light, consists of a single, overblown block chord held for twenty-six minutes, pushing the wheezy little melodica to its physical limits. It makes for an enormous slab of reinforced concrete that demands you appreciate each finely-graded variation in its surface details as it grinds its entire length against your ears. It sucks, it blows, it exhausts. You cannot try this at home. If you try to play it at the appropriate volume your neighbours would call the police, except that before then you would have already chickened out and turned it down. As a recording, its failing is that it allows you the control to diminish its power.

“Recorded in Hamburg, some time between 1975 and 1995 – details forgotten.” It was a simpler time, when one could forget. The idea of John Tilbury playing Terry Riley may seem alien now but shouldn’t be surprising, given the adventurous character that laid the foundations for his exalted status. The three pieces recorded here are key solo works from 1965 that served to define Riley’s career as a performer and a composer – that close connection between the two roles sets him apart from his erstwhile critical confederates and goes some way to explaining why his musical practice, however softened by time, has retained a vitality that has abandoned Reich and Glass. Tilbury’s performances here respond to this quality, his piano rendering of Keyboard Study No. 1 swings as much as it flows. The piano sound is mellow and warm; the quality of these archival recordings, brought to public light at last by Another Timbre, is just fine. For Dorian Reeds, Tilbury switches to an electric organ with an evocative mid-70s quality, producing something smoother than Riley’s own sax interpretation. Tape delay – sorry, time-lag accumulator – is employed here to layer contrasting figures, introduce counterpoint and provide segues from one section to the next.

Tilbury’s free elaborations of the material are masterfully self-contained, maintaining an overall consistency while opening out each piece with variety, expressivity and direction that makes you forget the critics told you this music is minimal. For Keyboard Study No. 2 he overdubs piano, electric organ, harpsichord and celeste, fading each in and out over each other in a delirious rotation of colours and patterns. It’s the longest piece here, easily sustaining the trippy mood for half an hour. Besides repetition, what gets called minimal often involves a reduction of one typical aspect of music to create a basis for better emphasising excess in another.

Number Pieces live (part two), plus John White and Mark Ellestad

Thursday 30 June 2022

(Part one here.)

It was wonderful to hear Cage’s Eight played live, in the round no less, at the Music We’d Like To Hear concert in St Mary at Hill. I said I’d found the version in the Apartment House box set from last year a relative disappointment, owing to the potential for dynamic contrasts in the piece that were passed up. Sitting in a small church, however, with the winds and brasses encircling you, the small differences in timbre and force of breath became alive. With greater spatialisation, Apartment House’s emphasis on sustained tones at the expense of short sounds set the flexible structure of Cage’s composition in clearer relief: having created anarchic harmony, he made anarchic antiphony possible as well.

The sounds in the church seemed particularly warm that night. Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze played Mark Ellestad’s violin and cello duet In the Mirror of this Night, having recently recorded it for Another Timbre. In this setting, at close range, it all sounded particularly sumptious. As a communal listening experience, the piece’s wandering is less unknowable, becoming more of an exemplar of what Cage had called purposeful purposelessness.

The previous evening, members of the Plus Minus ensemble played works by Sarah Hennies, Alexey Shmurak and John White. White is a composer who should be appreciated now to avoid the rush. The pieces selected – involving piano, clarinet, double bass, percussion – were characteristically short, such as the two examples of his piano sonatas, Nos. 105 and 143. Less Scarlatti and more a late bagatelle by a Beethoven who interests have turned from tonality to oblique commentary, the piano sonatas exemplify the dual traits of White’s music appearing both benign and threatening. Each miniature, neatly assembled and considerate of your attention, conceals a nagging interrogation of the assumptions upon which it rests: a forced extension, a moment of stiffness, an unresolved lapse. In another time and place, his brief, pleasant pieces would have had him gaoled as a subversive. In this time and place, he instead suffers the small mercy of being regarded in much the same way as an outsider artist, despite his significance and achievements. He’s what, eighty-five now? The compositions heard were composed between 1989 and 2004, with the exception of his old party piece, Drinking And Hooting Machine, where Plus Minus were joined by volunteers from the audience to alternately drink from and blow across bottles, running down to empty.

John Cage’s Number Pieces live (part one)

Wednesday 29 June 2022

I still take John Cage for granted, forgetting how long it’s been since heard any played live. After the much-discussed box set of Number Pieces played by Apartment House on Another Timbre last year, it was good to hear the ensemble interpret several of them in person. At three gigs in one day at Wigmore Hall (missed the third) they played Four6 and Seven2, while at Music We’d Like To Hear the following Saturday they played Eight. Four6 doesn’t specify the sounds to be played by the four performers, just that they select twelve repeatable sounds, to be played when cued by the score’s elastic time-brackets. For this version, Heather Roche on bass clarinet, Anton Lukoszevieze on cello and percussionists Simon Limbrick and Chris Brannick fulfilled Cage’s wish that the sounds emerge as though without source, brushed into being. The sounds remained calm, without the sort of punctuation that Cage’s score permits, serene and transluscent even when at their most complex. Apartment House’s realisations of the Number Pieces strongly favour sustained sounds, while remaining sensitve to Cage’s way of thinking to avoid a ‘top-down’ approach that can destroy the delicacy of this music. It also seemed a very “full” version of the piece, with faint but pervasive sounds; in some interpretations Four6 can sound like articulated silence (Lukoszevieze’s programme notes drew a direct comparison of this piece with 4’33”).

Perversely, I was more aware than usual of the silences that open up during Seven2. This long piece (52 minutes, Four6 is 30 and Eight one hour) may the ultimate example for a case to be made for Cage as an ‘ambient’ composer, enfolding the listener in a bath of sustained low-voiced sounds. Cello, bass clarinet, bass flute, bass trombone and double bass are joined again by the two percussionists. The percussion is again unspecified, and Limbrick and Brannick’s knack for unusual but subtle sounds seeped into all of the instruments’ colouration, making this performance particularly warm.

The two Wigmore Hall matinees were supplemented by two more pieces. Ryoanji, Cage’s mid-1980s piece for soloists playing organically sliding tones over a hieratic rhythm, played in this case by two percussionists instead of the usual one, taking advantage of exploring Cage’s interest in “staggered unison”. The rarely-heard Speech 1955 is a long work for five radios accompanying a person (in this case, Miles Lukoszevieze) who occasionally reads from newpaper articles. It’s an arid piece, which is perhaps a sign of how a good piece of art can change to reflect the times in which it finds itself. Nearly seventy years on, it’s hard to imagine how the piece may have first sounded to an audience yet to be immersed in pop art. Cage’s ideas about globalism and multiple attentiveness were still developing, but however this piece may have once heralded the dawn of an information economy, it now effectively demonstrates its current dismal state. In this respect, it’s unnerving how Speech 1955 refuses to entertain in the function of a quaint anachronism.

A Week’s Diary part 2: LCMF

Wednesday 22 June 2022

I’m not buying into the premise of this year’s London Contemporary Music Festival, back after a Covid-induced hiatus, but after two hot nights beginning in bright light under the skylights at the Woolwich Fireworks Factory the third evening turned grey and rainy and I prepared for the gig by looking out over the bleak lower reaches of the Thames while a cold wet wind blew through me. The first act I caught was Andy Ingamells giving Nam June Paik’s classic Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia a dedicated performance that was still very British in its repressed melancholy. I’m going to focus on the compositions here, as the improvisations, poetry and videos left me wondering if I understand anything about them. (The videos were a mix of “spent an hour too long looking up something on Wikipedia” and a revival of the early 80s New York genre “I’ve been here so long I assume my personal fuckups are generally relatable”.)

I’ve now heard more Evan Johnson, as much as it is possible to hear his music. Richard Craig perfomed his solo bass flute émoi with a confidence that made its faint sounds seem sourceless, a low sighing between a breath and a hum that floated through the large, populated space just audible but undeniably present. A big moment was the premiere of a new Frank Denyer piece, commissioned by LCMF. Five Views of the Path matched soprano Jessica Aszodi with the Octandre Ensemble playing an eclectic mix of instruments ranging from baroque to homemade inventions. With Denyer, the exotic colouration is used as expressive material, sound as evocation. Aszodi had a thankless role sitting among the musicians, picking out high notes in vocalise that mingled with the trio of recorders and struck berimbaus. Strange colours and percussion were a recurrent theme, particularly on the following night. The Explore Ensemble gave the first UK performance of Clara Iannotta’s Eclipse Plumage, a complex woven rope of small sounds that intertwined to produce an ominously indefinite chord that continually transformed its medium and displacement. Percuissionists and normal musicians alike operated a large array of small percussion and amplified objects, backed by a grand piano rigged with an electromagnetic device to induce sinister emanations.

Also receiving its first British performance was Rebecca Saunders’ percussion duo dust II, an extraordinary work quite unlike anything I’ve heard by her before. Caspar Heinemann and Christian Dierstein gave a bravura performance as they moved from the audience to the front of the room, onto and eventually across the stage, managing a dizzying array of instruments. Saunders adopted a more relaxed pace than usual, allowing the intrinsic complexity of the sounds to provide her busier textures. Sounds were combined beautifully, with a strong focus on metallic semi-pitched sounds. The firm grasp on the material and the progression (in sound and movement) from one place to another made the piece work as music and not just a virtuosic exercise, even as the momentary effects were dazzling. To complement this, the evening began with Crystabel Riley‘s requiem of solo drumming, a prolonged study in fusing rhythm into timbre.

The Saturday evening gig began with another revived Fluxus piece, Ben Patterson’s First Symphony getting its first British airing. Someone asked me to sit on the left side of the hall for this piece, but I didn’t trust them and so sat on the right. There were four premieres that night, commissioned for the event. Cerith Wyn Evans’ …)(. finally got its complete airing, long deferred since the preview given in 2019 for its expected debut the following year. At that time, “the hieratic, slow-paced performance on piano and gongs was betrayed by a perfunctory and non-committal ending” and here the pay-off was a listless antiphonal chorale from the orchestra. Not the orchestra’s fault, given the heartfelt work they put into Tyshawn Sorey’s tone poem for cello and orchestra, For Roscoe Mitchell. Soloist Deni Teo and the pickup orchestra conducted by Jack Sheen played this beautifully scored and phrased work with rapturous solemnity, reminiscent of Feldman’s Cello and Orchestra but with fuller, less stifled voicing for the cello.

Hard not to roll the eyes at the prospect of an orchestral premiere by Elvin Brandhi aka one half of Yeah You: this kind of crossover almost never works. Except this time it kind of did. Brandhi’s GIFF WRECK took her usual materials of noise and vocal aggression and displaced them onto a video screen of two vocalists sitting at home deploying auto-tuned effects, mimicked and counterposed by dense bursts of orchestral textures. Brandhi herself kept true to her peripatetic style, pacing round the perimeters of the hall occasionally adding her own amplified interventions. Oliver Leith’s
Pearly, goldy, woody, bloody, or, Abundance trended heavily towards the jokey side of his work and probably went too far. That was probably the point but it’s at the expense of the piece’s staying power. An exuberant mish-mash of triumphant fanfares, complete with aural pyrotechnics, its self-conscious humour is good fun but disposable in the manner of Wellington’s Victory, which again is probably the point.

Mariam Rezaei’s frenzied activity on turntables and samplers for her lengthy solo SADTITZZZ was a remarkable achievement, being a virtual skronk solo that had all the singlemindedness of your typical free improv muso while being more inventive and fun than about ninety percent of them. It also worked as a nice teaser for the concluding act of the night, when Roscoe Mitchell himself appeared. He’s eighty-one now, I think. Typically considered to be jazz, which is an all too limited understanding of his musical achievements. Having just subjected people to my jazz-deafness, I prepared for disappointment but didn’t hear it in that way at all. A slight figure but mesmerising on stage, he captures the audience through plain statements that he then eloquently expands upon into detailed arguments, extending motives in different directions and then relating them in ways that are intuitively clear without ever exact repetition. He also knows when to stop, and deploys silence to pointed effect. Solos on soprano and baritone sax were then followed by percussionist Kikanju Baku, who emerged from the back of the hall as a disruptive trickster figure. Once at his drum-kit, his relentless attack acted as harsh colouration with rhtyhmic variance. Mitchell played off and against this barrage, equally unruffled whether he was matching the flow or simply commenting with isolated notes. A captivating ending.

A Week’s Diary part 1: Morphogenesis, Lucy Railton

Sunday 19 June 2022

I’ve been out all week and my brain is fuzzy. Last Sunday it was to see Morphogenesis playing at Cafe Oto, for the first time since 2015 I think. This was touted as featuring the original members but Clive Hall had to drop out and was replaced by Jonathan Bohman. At least this time they were all in the same venue: for their previous gig Ron Briefel preferred to broadcast his part from his car parked out front. This could be taken as a sign that the group has mellowed with age, now that they’re approaching the end of their fourth sporadic decade; however their sound check consisted of them playing out on the street for about an hour, inviting passersby and musos from the matinee show to get amongst it with their equipment.

Their group improvisations, made with a plethora of random objects, electronics and digital/analog interference (also a piano), deftly elude the do-a-bit-of-everything-all-over-the-place performance style that such a setup usually invites and quickly gets tedious. They play with a wealth of detail while maintaining a coherence in mood that is achieved through group activity: each follows their own path without any pressing concern to defer to the others, a novel consensus achived through the simple expedient of letting everyone talk over each other. The gig broke into four distinct pieces, each heavier and more sharply defined than the last. It’s like eavesdropping on a group of awkward middle-aged nerds doggedly pursuing their particular passion: intriguing, colourful and even illuminating, even as you fail to understand the subject. I can relate, as someone trying to learn how to socialise again after an extended reclusiveness.

Back again on Tuesday for Lucy Railton’s long-deferred two evenings, mixing her interests in modern composition, electronics and cello improvisation. The improvisations grouped cello with voices and saxophone (Sharon Gal, Caroline Kraabel, Sophie Fetokaki) and with two basses, electric and acoustic (Farida Amadou and John Edwards). The former was sparse and pure to the point of excess, the latter blunt and busy. The two compositions were a new work by Catherine Lamb and Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field. The Feldman is a sadistic piece, right out of the gate demanding melismas in harmonics from the cello and octave-leaping chords from the piano, all rapid, all pianissimo. Ten years ago in the same place I heard it played in the most gruelling of circumstances, so by comparison this occasion seemed deceptively benign. Railton and Joseph Houston played it in a plainspoken style, at a pace neither forced nor lugubrious. It was a demystifying performance, which favoured presenting variations in colour and tone over maintaining a single, ambiguous state, even offering moments of surprising brightness.

I didn’t catch the title of Catherine Lamb’s piece, if it was mentioned. It was born out of the two of them working together in Berlin, originally as a solo work for cello augmented by Lamb’s use of resonant spectral synthesis. On this occasion, it was played without electronics, with Lamb instead joining in as second musician on viola. At times I’ve found Lamb’s solo compositions for acoustic instruments excessively plain, but this was not the case here. For the viola part, she extrapolated the overtones implied in Railton’s playing, creating a sort of counter-melody that would emerge and disappear as a distinct entity. They played in relative tuning, Lamb basing her intonation on the harmonics of Railton’s pitch, a kind of sonic tightrope-walk that showed strength and resilience even as the apparent means of support were almost imperceptible.

For the rest of the week I was at the London Contemporary Music Festival, with additional excursions to Wigmore Hall for Apartment House playing John Cage. I’ll get around to these later, for my own sake. After seven days of live music, people and art-venue beers, it’s all been a little too much. In fact, I should be back at LCMF right now but the pull of a night in and a home-cooked meal is too strong. Doubtless I will regret it later.