I’m off for the boat train to Belfast tomorrow for Sonorities 2013 at Queen’s University. I’ve prepared a new mix of Third City: Walking on Red and Blue to present at the Sonic Lab on Thursday, 25 April.
In the meantime, I’ve received a new toy in the mail, delivered in an oversized, passive-aggressive box with a warning label defying me to bend it.
I was so excited with my new mini recorder I left it out on the window while still plugged into the speakers and turned it up a little too loud. Please enjoy this video I made by accident.
This is a piece which has been developing for over 15 years now. It started as a pair of field recordings, documenting walks through the city of Melbourne. These recordings were played simultaneously into a third space, Bill Fontana style, as a sound element in my first visual art exhibition. In turn, these sounds were used as raw material to be digitally manipulated, according to a set of instructions obtained from a new interpretation of the maps that determined the route of the original walks. This digitally-transformed version was used in a later exhibition.
I’ve presented later re-interpretations of this material, with subsequent additions and subtractions, but it’s been a number of years since I last worked with field recordings or audio documentation. I’m looking forward to the trip to Belfast as a starting point for resuming this activity.
The theme for Sonorities this year is “beyond soundscape”, so it seems like an appropriate venue for my approach to soundscape work. Third City: Walking on Red and Blue presents two types of artificiality, or synthesis, in its soundscape. The first is through the conflation of two locations into one; the second is through the intermingling of digitally-processed and unaltered sounds. On first hearing, the listener can distinguish certain ‘landmarks’ as belonging to one realm or the other, while other details remain disorientating or misleading.
A bit more about the history of Third City: Walking on Red and Blue is on the main web site. The new remix will be in the Sonic Lab, Queen’s University, Belfast on Thursday 25 April, starting at noon.
Ever since first hearing about ‘the minimalists’ I’d been intrigued about other, lesser-known composers outside the three or four Big Names*…
In my last post I forgot to add the footnote to that asterisk. That’s okay, because part of my point was going to be that these footnotes should be elevated into the main body, at least from time to time. In fact, that post about Dennis Johnson is just such an example.
I particularly wanted to know about other minimalists, to find out whether such an ostensibly reductive approach to music was a viable artistic means, or just a term that could be applied to what Young, Riley, Reich and Glass were doing at the time. If you only followed the careers of the last three and their “successor” John Adams, you’d conclude that minimalism’s usefulness as a principle was limited. Perversely, the pervasiveness of minimalism as an influence in so many forms of music over four decades have reinforced the perception that this particular little group of composers are a Really Big Deal. In truth, minimalism’s potency is fuelled by a wide variety of musicians who continue to find their own ways of adopting its aesthetic values.
I was lucky that, immediately after first hearing a radio broadcast of the Philip Glass Ensemble, the announcer then put on Jon Gibson playing his own piece, Untitled. Straight away, I got the idea that there was more than one way to do it, and I wanted to find as many of them as I could.
This brings me back to Andy Lee’s two nights at Cafe Oto last month. The big event was his playing of Dennis Johnson’s November, but his first night’s recital of Paul A. Epstein, Jürg Frey and Alvin Curran was almost as significant. This was part of Lee’s “Minimalism in 12 Parts” tour, of which November was one more part of a larger statement about minimalism in music. All three composers on the first night take what they want from minimalism and apply (not dilute) in their own way.
Parts 2 and 8 from Curran’s Inner Cities cycle are long spans of harmonically, rhythmically and dynamically consistent music, written mostly through the 1990s. As Curran himself writes, “in all of these pieces the writing is instinctual, and obsessed with detail: how to use only two triads, then three, then none then one, then turn your back on the whole thing and use all the triads”. The reductive technique is used as a jumping-off point for a stream-of-consciousness flow of digressions, which in turn are reined in from excess by the reductive technique. Frey is best known as part of the Wandelweiser collective, and his Klavierstück 2 is appropriately focused on silence, isolated sounds, and a long stretch of obsessive repetition. I’ve heard only one other piece by Epstein, so it was good to hear some of his Drawings for piano and the premiere of his piano version of Landscape with Triads. These works gave the impression that the tonal and contrapuntal complexity of Milton Babbitt’s piano music had been digitised into a rhythmic and dynamic grid, with evident harmonic processes set to a regular pulse were developed into rich patterns just beyond full comprehension.
All these recent works had readily discernible connections to minimalist music at their heart. None of them relied upon an attachment to popular sentiments in the news or the cinema as a source of expressive power.
A lot of good things came together on the night of 9 March. A bit over five years ago I first heard of Dennis Johnson and his piece November, when Kyle Gann described it in some length on his blog: a minimalist piano piece written in 1959, which La Monte Young remembers being about six hours long but survived only as a wonky 2-hour tape from the early Sixties. Gann’s blog post gives a good rundown on what makes this forgotten piece of music so fascinating, particularly in the way it embraced so many neglected musical ideas that soon came to dominate new music over the next fifty years. Ever since first hearing about ‘the minimalists’ I’d been intrigued about other, lesser-known composers outside the three or four Big Names*, and Dennis Johnson’s mammoth piano piece sounded almost too good to be true.
Nearly two years later I heard a recording from a piano recital by R. Andrew Lee, which he’d uploaded, with a superb performance of Tom Johnson’s minimalist puzzlebox An Hour For Piano. I immediately became a fan and soon after started following his Twitter feed, largely in the hope of glomming onto some more mp3s.
Meanwhile, Gann announced that he had almost finished analysing and transcribing November. In 2007 he was trying out various, ultimately unsatisfactory methods of notation, lamenting that “we can’t ask Dennis Johnson about it: he’s disappeared.” By 2009 he’d discovered that November was more than “a kind of crazy, off-beat experiment… instead I’m thinking we’ll be unveiling a whole new formal paradigm that deserved to have more of an after-history than it’s had.” In the meantime, Daniel Wolf had provided a contact for Dennis Johnson, who in turn had sent the score.
Another two years later, I read some exciting news. Andy Lee has a copy of the score to November. I immediately forwarded it to a friend of mine, Mark Harwood at Penultimate Press, knowing that he gets excited about obscure and rediscovered artists, and wonky old piano recordings. We’d both heard and loved the recordings of November made by Kyle Gann and Sarah Cahill when the finished transcription was presented at a conference in 2009, as well as a rip of that old 1961 tape. The prospect of Lee recording November seemed unlikely, but tantalising.
On 9 March this year I finally got myself somewhere regular to live (still without regular internet) but I was more interested in being at Cafe Oto to hear and watch Lee play November in its entirety, as part of its joint release on CD by Penultimate Press and Irritable Hedgehog.
Over five hours, the music works a strange effect on the listener. The intervening decades of minimalist and ambient music have made us familiar with the concepts of long durations, tonal stasis, consistent dynamics, repetitions, but November uses these techniques in an unusual way. The sense of continuity is very strong, but there is no fixed pulse and few strict repetitions. The slowness, spareness and use of silence, with an organic sense of rhythm, make it seem very similar in many respects to Morton Feldman’s late music. The harmonic language, however, is very different. Johnson’s piece uses clear, familiar tonality to play with our expectations of the music’s ultimate direction, whereas Feldman’s chromatic ambiguity seeks to negate any feeling of movement in harmony or time.
The semi-improvised nature of November adds another element to a performance. It was interesting to watch Lee relax as he moved from the fully-notated transcription of the piece’s first 100 minutes, into the more open notation that made up the next three hours of playing. He seemed to go into a serene state of focused timelessness, perfectly matching the music he was playing. The music itself takes on the aspect of a musician feeling their way through the material, venturing into new areas then circling back onto familiar ground, adding new parts along the way to reveal older material in a different light. Lee’s interpretation of the open notation took on a similar character, meditative at times, almost casual at others, building up the strong impression of of a unified whole, gradually revealed. In effect, the music sounded like a inspired burst of improvisation, a fleeting run of chord changes and leading tones, slowed down 100 times to linger over every sensuous detail.
As I said before, it sounds almost too good to be true: a forgotten composer with a very short career (if it could even be called that), who disappears after writing a work of vast scale and great precedence, with said work languishing unknown for fifty years before it is rescued from obscurity, reconstructed and performed to great acclaim. The thing is that November is a truly great work, beautiful and captivating, which holds the listener’s interest more than could be hoped from a novel gimmick stumbled upon by a dilletante, and with far more substance and longevity than a piece of purely historical or musicological interest.
About twenty minutes into the performance Harwood held his phone out towards the piano for a while. He’d dialled Dennis Johnson’s number in California. Earlier that evening he’d told me a bit more he’d learned of Johnson’s career in mathematics: some of his work had gone into the Mars Curiosity rover programme.