Is This Wandelweiser? West Coast Soundings

Monday 27 October 2014

I think I’ve ragged on Wandelweiser a few times recently, finding fault with its apparent sense conformity and complacency. It’s not completely true, of course, and as it happens I was just sent a copy of the new Edition Wandelweiser release West Coast Soundings, a double CD which makes an excellent case for the whole Wandelweiser aesthetic and the musical thinking behind it.

This album was crowdfunded last year under the name “Cage’s Grandchildren” (this title still comes up in the CD metadata). It might well have also been called “Tenney’s Children”: James Tenney is the only featured composer from a preceding generation, and his Harmonium #1 dates from 1976 while all the other works are less than 10 years old. Most of the composers here studied with Tenney, or at Cal Arts. Harmonium #1 isn’t the point of origin for all the music here and the album makes no such claim, but the work appears later on Disc 1 as a touchstone for this genre of music.

Like John Cage, Tenney produced a bewilderingly diverse body of work which opened up so many potential new paths of discovery. West Coast Soundings takes Harmonium #1 as a reference point for one particular set of ideas: a focus on the qualities of sound itself as a subject, listening in the present without narrative context, an emphasis on process and structure, but aimed towards elaboration of the sonic content, not teleological development.

Having complained about Wandelweiser’s output getting too samey, this collection is beautifully varied and balanced, presenting different facets of the above mentioned musical concerns while still maintaining an overall mood. I’ve played it in various situations and, for twelve pieces over two hours, surprisingly it’s never felt like an endurance test. More “typical” works – long-held tones blending together, a gentle but implacable aimlessness – are given a distinct identity by being thrown into contrast against music like the sinuous electronic drone of Chris Kallmyer’s Between the Rhine and Los Angeles. Liam Mooney’s 180°, in which performers press triangles against dry ice, recalls Cage’s interest in finding new sounds, Tenney’s percussion music, sound sculpture and Fluxus happenings.

The smaller, slighter works play an important role. Mark So’s brief segue makes a mysterious introduction to the album, with cellist Anton Lukoszevieze acting as the text’s reciter. Casey Anderson’s possible dust can’t add more to Cage’s works for multiple radios, but is sequenced here as a distinctive palate cleanser before Michael Pisaro’s quietly powerful A single charm is doubtful (Gertrude Stein).

After being disappointed with Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight last month, I was very pleased to find her piece Frame for Flute the highlight of the two CDs. Written for (not so fast!) grand bass recorder and cello, the two instruments echo off each other. The sonorous notes played by Lukoszevieze and recordist Lucia Mense merge and diverge, creating rich but subtle differences in tone that often sound as though they were electronically manipulated.

Brian Olewnick’s blog gives a good summary of all the pieces played and who plays them. West Coast Soundings turns out to be one of the best kind of surprises, one that is satisfying instead of sensationalistic, when you were only expecting more of the same.

Old-Fashioned Modernism: An Index of Metals

Monday 13 October 2014

Just reading about what Fausto Romitelli hoped to achieve with his final work, the “video opera” An Index of Metals, is enough to cause apprehension. The wish to immerse the audience in a solid, all-consuming mass of sound and light was never going to be realised, certainly not with an electroacoustic ensemble and three video screens in a concert hall. The gap between the ambition and the physical reality was always going to be too big to ignore, rather like the dreams of futurists from 100 years ago whose reach exceeded their grasp.

Also like the futurists, Romitelli seems to have been stridently demonstrative about wanting to be modern, but did so in ways utterly beholden to the past. A piece for solo electric guitar titled Trash TV Trance written in 2002 is obsolete before its première. I went to see Hila Plitmann and the London Sinfonietta play An Index of Metals last week and found that like his fellow Italians a century earlier, Romitelli preferred to wax romantically about what modernity could be like than be modern himself. Reviews seem to be divided between what you would like it to be as imagined in your head and what you actually heard and saw on stage.

The music worked hard a creating a persistent mood throughout the evening, which I suspect will make it all sound as quaint as Antheil in a generation or so. The playing on the night seemed to lack both the coherence and the bite that Romitelli had in mind. There were video projections; I’ve seen plenty worse. Romitelli’s sound world is distinct and striking, but it has an exotic decadence about it which sits oddly against the claims to be a bold pioneer.

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Tuesday 7 October 2014

They sent their sonnets off to a newspaper, which printed both. The honest Smith called his “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.” Shelley called his “Ozymandias.” Genius may also be knowing how to title a poem.

— Guy Davenport

I am learning to accept that titles are as important as I have always wanted them to be. It seemed like an easy distraction, that one could dream up titles all day for works that would never be started, let alone finished; that a mediocre work could be elevated to the illusion of greatness by a few choice words to flatter the audience’s sensibilities. How many works of art exist as little more than armatures for the finer feelings expressed in the title?

“I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity,” said Krzysztof Penderecki of his work originally titled 8’37”. Some works can find a match in subject and surface; others can’t bear the weight of expectations the title imposes upon them. The title finds its purest expression in John Barton Wolgamot’s trilogy: the titles are the Substance which live through the text’s Accident (thus beating Alain Robbe-Grillet by at least 20 years).

For years I laboured under the illusion that disregarding the frippery of the title for the real meat of the work itself was a sign of maturity. It’s a simplistic position. A few years back I heard Helmut Lachenmann praising Morton Feldman’s use of titles and I’ve been reconsidering ever since.

A while ago I finally got to hear Apartment House play Harley Gaber’s masterpiece The Winds Rise in the North live. Afterwards I kept thinking, “what a great title.” The string quintet keens and sighs for two hours, always changing but never deviating from what it first presents itself to be. The title’s a reference to ancient Chinese poetry and Taoism, which invokes a whole other realm of associations, but throughout it all is the evocation of wind, wind as a portent. It may rise to a murmur or a roar, either of which may be imagined at any point in Gaber’s music. A merging of subject and substance, between categories.

144 Pieces For Organ: The Movie

Wednesday 1 October 2014

I was going to write a blog post tonight but I started thinking about creating graphic representations of 144 Pieces For Organ – in Excel, of course.

Four of them are on YouTube now. Any resemblance to John Cage’s late prints is purely coincidental.