I’m flying to Australia in the morning to see some friends and family, so instead of packing I’m listening through some recordings I’ve been making. It’s a more sophisticated version of the feedback piece I played at Goldsmiths earlier this year. The sounds are more subtle, more detailed, more focused and more organic. I’m recording short takes of concentrated, nicely balanced material.
The problem is: the more I record, the more interesting details I uncover. Simultaneously, I record more dross that should be edited out. So I listen back to edit out the less successful takes. The more I listen, the more details I find interesting, and so the more I want to preserve. Here is one of the better takes; a complete, stand-alone work.
Part of me is reluctant to throw anything out, for fear of losing a pleasing subtlety that becomes more rewarding over time. I’m probably kidding myself, and the bits that strike me as good straight away will have the same effect on other listeners. On the other hand, those ‘good’ bits might sound false and gimmicky once the novelty wears off.
The usual response in this situation is to set it all aside until I’ve forgotten what I thought about the piece at all, and salvage what I can after re-hearing it fresh.
The alternative is to make finished pieces and put them on Bandcamp with a pay nothing/anything option, and see which pieces people go for. I’m thinking of using it as a place of trying new work out, as something more interesting than just dumping finished work for sale.
(Also debating if setting a minimum price puts people off just because it’s a hassle clicking through payment options. It makes it seem like you’re making a commitment to something, even if it’s only a small price.)
I’ve been listening to these two CDs from Another Timbre as a sort of diptych. Each one is a single work for ensemble, 45 to 55 minutes. Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long is credited to the group Skogen, “composition by Magnus Granberg”. Would Fall from the Sky, Would Wither and Die is credited to Magnus Granberg, “played by Skuggorna och ljuset”. Four musicians are common to both groups. I’ve heard one other Skogen disc, the rather fine Rows with Anders Dahl. Rows has an alluring sense of off-kilter formality to it, like Christian Wolff’s Exercises. These two Granberg-related discs seem to share a similar, basic principle of “composed improvisation”, but by very different means.
Both Despairs and Would Fall share other similarities. Both inhabit a sound-world somewhere between the brooding quiescence of late Morton Feldman and the uneasy stasis of AMM. Both works are built upon the skeletal remnants of song. Despairs is a sort of meditation upon the ruins of a song by the seventeenth century English composer John Dowland. Harmonic and rhythmic material from the original are deployed into an entirely new work, whose origins would be otherwise undetectable. Would Fall excavates the 1930s pop song “If I Should Lose You”. Harmonic resemblance is further denatured by the presence of a prepared piano throughout Would Fall, live electronics throughout Despairs.
Both pieces open up spaces for introspection. Small melodic fragments emerge from time to time, suggesting their songlike origins without ever recalling them; textures wind down into repeating gestures before finally breaking up and resolving into more complex debris. A melancholy sense of entropy, held barely in check, prevails in both works, allowing room for both fatalism and hope. Of the two, Despairs feels a little brighter, at least at first, thanks to the source material. The electronics and larger ensemble of ten musicians create a subtle but richly textured tapestry of sound. Would Fall is sparser, an acoustic quintet reducing the material to its essentials. The heavier sense of psychological melodrama that informs 20th century pop makes its presence felt.
I’m over-analysing. I play each disc to set a mood in the house, and each time I find myself riding a different emotional narrative through the details.
“It sounds like the music of the future,” he said as he put the CD on. He was right. It was the Organ of Corti release of a Swedish high school orchestra and choir performing Terry Riley’s Olson III in 1967. They sing and play with an amateur ferocity – this may be partly due to the audience, where a riot has broken out. The musicians win, with their implacable chanting. The rhythm and intonation are all slightly out, giving everything an otherworldly quality that suggests a mashup of the soundtracks to 2001 and Chariots of the Gods. Like any glimpse of the future, it was awe-inspiring and a little frightening.
Riley is synonymous with In C, a piece which still holds the new music world in its thrall despite being half a century old. Olson III is a similar work – a common pool of short, repeating patterns through which each musician progresses at their own pace – with the addition of a choir singing a text, but the voices are not the critical difference. In C has patterns with varying lengths and rhythms, and typically needs someone playing a pulse to keep time. In Olson III the orchestra and chorus is the pulse: all the patterns have the same length and unvarying rhythm.
That Cortical CD came out 15 years ago. I’ve never heard anything by Riley that’s like it, nor anything which is such an overwhelming, almost exhausting experience. I’d often wondered how much of this was due to the composition, and how much to the recording – the schoolkids, the restless audience, the fraught circumstances, the struggle to keep time, the ageing, long-lost tape.
Last night’s Kammer Klang at Cafe Oto ended with the Klang players and Exaudi playing Olson III. It’s not just the tape. Heard fresh, clear and direct, the music combines Riley’s typically bright and lucid harmonies with an atypical, almost forbiddingly rigid and unornamented rhythmic pulse. This impersonal aspect is then subsumed by the trancelike effect that builds in the listener over time. A type of ecstatic experience.
This really was the music of the future. From one moment to the next it evoked the interlocking figures of Steve Reich’s ensemble music from the 1970s (10 years later), the gleaming lock-grooves of those hip, rock-influenced composers of the 1980s (20 years later), trance and rave culture (30 years later), new generations of Europeans and academics “rediscovering” principles of digital reproduction and incorporating it into the concert hall (so last year).
Olson III is one of Riley’s more obscure compositions. Fifty years ago there was one solid idea, an idea so strong that nobody can even agree on whether it’s time to let it go.
Same old problem: I keep making music without thinking about what to do with it after I’ve heard it. Some of it goes on Soundcloud, some of it gets uploaded to this site and when I’m procrastinating I make videos and put them on YouTube.
From a while I had a few stacks of CDs lying around but they’re almost gone now, hopefully for good. Occasionally someone asks me about getting hold of something old; there were small editions of CD-Rs but it seems like an excess of effort to burn off some more discs and print the covers.
I spent the winter break digging up some dusty old pieces and polishing them up to a standard I could live with. Now that they’re done, I’m taking the low road of vanity publishing and putting them up for sale on Bandcamp. It’s kind of like what people these days call “closure”.
Pricing, web design, promotion are all works in progress because I don’t know what I’m doing here. For now, you can get hold of mp3s or high quality lossless audio of tracks or albums with printable cover art. At the moment the albums are old releases I’m still happy with, but if things go well I might put up some new things I’ve been working on.