A Short Year

Wednesday 31 December 2014

“Composers are over, they’re last century.” This was the gist of one of the conversations I had over Christmas lunch; at least that’s how I remember it, being drunk at the time and much, much drunker soon after. I could see the point but wanted to demur in some way. The universities still seem to turn out fresh undead, as can be heard every year in premieres at the Proms, and even in Strasbourg, Donaueschingen and Huddersfield.

The conception of what it means to be someone who makes music has supposedly been changing for decades but it’s only now become possible to perceive a clear difference in the understanding of post-WWII music as it was at the end of the Nineties and now. The older consensus on where the mainstream lay had gone, but people still felt its after-effects and took a while to fully realise that it’s not coming back.

The best example I can think of this schism is the London Sinfonietta’s recent performance of Fausto Romitelli’s An Index Of Metals. The rhetoric of cyberpunk and rock’n’roll was dated at the time and wrong-headed from the start; Romitelli’s image of the composer as a visionary pioneer was a romantic throwback. It’s a tragedy he didn’t live to outgrow this phase to settle into being a neo-romantic old fart like Boulez, if not Glass.

(I must point out that Romitelli’s music is often much better than the claims made for it: explorensemble’s performance of the complete Professor Bad Trip trilogy last month was superb.)

Much of my musical year seemed to revolve around the Another Timbre record label, the ensemble Apartment House and the Wandelweiser school/movement/philosophy? – three corners of a triangle. I’m surprised at the way minimalism has stayed such a pervasive influence on so much music today. I thought by the mid-1990s it had been exhausted by ‘bands’ playing stuff that Probably Sounded OK In MIDI and ECM recording anyone who owned a cloak. Instead, much new music made these days, which could be easily lumped in together as “minimalist”, is returning to the experimental roots from which minimalism emerged.

Some of the best new-ish CDs I heard this year (Wandelweiser’s West Coast Soundings, Apartment House’s Laurence Crane collection, music by Bryn Harrison and Martin Iddon) could be thought of as having a broadly common sound-world, but they all shared an interest in picking up and pursuing lines of thought largely dormant since the 1970s. As a useful reference, three other events this year provided a comparison: The Scratch Orchestra’s Nature Study Notes, a concert/talk from Christian Wolff, and the opening concert at the LCMF which reunited leading figures from the British avant-garde from 40 years ago.

Parallels between the Scratch Orchestra performance and compositions by James Saunders seemed very clear. Another excellent record I heard only recently – Rows, a collaboration by Anders Dahl & Skogen – displayed similar methods to those used by Christian Wolff in his Exercises and other pieces. Between the generations there’s a shared interest in processes and the nature of sound, at the expense of “self-expression”.

I’m OK with the idea of the effacement of the composer if it means that the music continues to live. The alternative is a ghastly scenario presented by Who Killed Classical Music?, which offered a way for composers to still be considered ‘relevant’ in society, as long as their music could never be taken seriously.

As Christmas lunch carried on past midnight, another topic came up. One of the best gigs of the year, Thomas Buckner’s recital of works by Robert Ashley, was so poorly attended. “Now that Ashley’s dead,” my host said, “people are relieved that they don’t feel obliged to pay attention to what he had to say.”

Behind all this, one mystery lingers. What happened at that La Monte Young piano gig in January? Did it happen? Did anyone witness it?

Labyrinth/Minefield

Tuesday 2 December 2014

I’m working on a new piece of music, made from live digital electronic synthesis. The concept is quite simple.

COP01a

Lots of software patches, connected together into interconnecting circuits. None of the patches are designed to make sound, only to process it; but when you connect them into circuits they produce audible feedback. When you feed the circuits into each other they modify each other’s feedback. This can have a cascading effect, with unexpected consequences.

COP2a

I work on it: the piece starts to behave in the way I expected it to. It’s a bit rough around the edges, so I work on it some more: it sounds terrible. Next day I tweak a couple of points: suddenly it’s magnificent. All it needs is a little polishing: when it’s done the piece is unlistenable.

At each stage, it feels as though to make progress it is necessary to in fact step backwards and undo the most recent work. Listening back to previous stages, it is apparent that this is not the case. This creative process reveals itself more as a continual retracing of steps, rediscovering what was there all along. With sufficient patience, you could in theory approach asymptotically an idealised conception of the work.

In the meantime, here are two short test recordings. Each is the same, only the chance-determined weightings for each patch’s controls are different.