Violin+1: Bryn Harrison and Linda Catlin Smith

Monday 29 August 2016

First, I have to say that I had Linda Catlin Smith all wrong.

A couple of months ago Another Timbre released four CDs under the general title ‘Violin+1’: four violinists, each in duet with a different type of musician. Two of the discs are of composed works, the other two are jointly composed between the musicians through improvisation. Violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and pianist Mark Knoop play a new work by Bryn Harrison, Receiving the Approaching Memory. I raved about Harrison’s monumental piano piece Vessels a couple of years ago, hearing it live and on CD. At the time I made the inevitable comparison to Morton Feldman’s late works, but noted significant differences. Unlike Feldman’s carpet-inspired patterns, Vessels was more like a vast labyrinth, beguiling in the way Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano or Josef Matthias Hauer can be.

Receiving the Approaching Memory takes these aspects of Vessels and somehow makes them more subtle. The scale of the piece is less intimidating – scarcely more than half the length of Vessels and broken into five movements instead of a single, relentless span. The surface resemblance to Feldman is closer, like his last orchestral works: Harrison takes up a musical element and, rather than develop it, gently turns it from side to side, like the facets of a crystal catching the light. Any listener lulled by this apparent familiarity may not even notice that they are slowly becoming disoriented. As each new movement begins, the mystery deepens. Have we heard this part before? Did the last movement change at all, really? Are we starting over from the same place, or will we end up where the last movement ended, only not to remember it when we arrive? Does each movement differ at all? Which movement are we up to? The musicians make the music float, as though without any physical reference for the listener to hold on to.

Linda Catlin Smith seemed to be a composer a little bit outside the usual sound-world of Another Timbre. What little I’d heard of her music up until now showed influences of folk music, particularly of traditions from North America. Based on that, I’d lazily pigeonholed her with the current generation of American composers who have found commercial success through exploiting a ‘vernacular’ of a steady pulse and conventional harmony. This was unfair of me. Dirt Road, a lengthy set of 15 movements for violin and percussion, was written 10 years ago but is making a wider impression only now.

The title itself suggested an appeal to folksy authenticity that has been fashionable lately, in music as much as anywhere, and has already started to grate as much as the lumberjack shirt on an artisanal barista. Listening to the disc with that mindset becomes an astonishing revelation. The first movement is minimal, a violin drone supplemented with bass drum and occasional flourishes of vibraphone. The second suggests a folk influence, modal patterns to slow and brief to be considered full melodies. The pairing of instruments is peculiar, violin with percussionist, often on mallet instruments with occasional drum or cymbal. The first time I listened, the music went from pleasant, to strange, to captivating – it’s beautiful in a way that the listener can never settle into and take for granted.

Each new movement opens up a new perspective on the whole, returning to ideas heard before and presenting them in a new way, introducing a twist, opening up a new set of sounds that casts different light on what was heard before. Some movements can be quietly lyrical, others severely minimal, yet the work holds together as a unified experience, more than the sum of its parts. There’s a complexity of musical thinking going on here, belied by the simplicity of technique.

Violinist Mira Benjamin and percussionist Simon Limbrick play with a richly detailed grain to their sound, with edges just rough enough to give predominance to the physical sounds of the instruments that are so important to making the music work. Each moves effortlessly between foreground and background when needed. This CD has deservedly been getting a lot of attention. As Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes, “Smith’s time has, finally, come.”

William S. Burroughs: Curse Go Back

Sunday 21 August 2016

In 2016 I wrote the sleeve notes for a new LP release of a long, obscure tape experiment by William S. Burroughs. Recorded in London around 1968, only a tiny number copies of the tape have ever been publicly available until now. A slightly edited version of the tape is now released by Paradigm Discs with the title Curse Go Back.

In the late 1960s, the streets of Swinging London were haunted by the grim spectre of William Burroughs. Amidst the free love, paisley and rock’n’roll he slipped like a shadow, bent on a dark magic to wreak revenge and revolution. A perpetual exile, he found himself once again hiding in the margins. He had been the godfather of the 1950s counter-culture but in the 1960s, while the counter-culture became mainstream, he remained a cult figure, a touchstone for the underground’s underground….

Where Electronic Revolution dealt with theory, this recording, made by Burroughs sometime around 1968, shows Burroughs’ thinking in practice. It documents one of the purest, longest and most intensely focused of his tape experiments. Before one can break down language’s control over society, exercises such as these are needed to break down its control over one’s own consciousness. It’s an alchemical exercise, both in its transformative use of material and in its method, a mix of shamanistic ritual with the trappings and attitude of scientific research.

Curse Go Back can be ordered through Paradigm Discs. The complete sleeve notes are reprinted on my website.

Music versus material (3): Arturas Bumšteinas

Monday 15 August 2016

When is a field recording a composition? I suspect many musicians would like to keep this line as vague as possible, without considering how some more abstracted thought might clarify their own music-making. Arturas Bumšteinas’ new CD Organ Safari Lituanica seems to aim for the centre of a Venn diagram, at the intersection where improvisation, composition and field recording all overlap but instead of hitting this presumed bullseye the disc falls splat between three stools and you can’t help but imagine that this is, in fact, the inelegant consummation Bumšteinas had hoped for all along. The reviews on the record label’s promotional page start with “a mess of tooting dissonance and billowing air” and end with “I must admit I was quite lost after a while and gave up.”

Organ Safari is a project Bumšteinas has been working on since 2008. The title already invokes the realm of field recordings and pretensions to artless documentation, and the project is built out of a growing archive of recordings of church organs around Europe. In this instalment, Bumšteinas has restricted his source material to Lithuanian churches only, and edited the improvisations by Gailė Griciūtė into three compositions. (This is apparently part of a larger project titled Organ Archipelago, with a similar anthropological conceit. It was, naturally, made for Australian radio.)

The organ in modern music has long featured as a fetishised object as much as an instrument, a vehicle for cultural contemplation as much as for sound. This goes back at least as far as Kagel and Ligeti and continues today. Organ Safari Lituanica use of collaged improvisation recalls works such as Henning Christiansen’s Fluxorum Organum and, more closely, Wolfgang Mitterer’s Stop Playing. Mitterer focuses on the mechanical workings of the organ, while Bumšteinas takes a more holistic approach. The rattle of keys and hissing of air through pipes are present throughout, but so is actual playing of notes. Mitterer’s collages have a technical polish in their processed sounds, whereas on Safari the sounds are more simply cut and overlaid. Certain obvious motives repeat in all pieces, like the disingenuous chromatic runs, up and down.

Besides the reviews quoted above, I’ve also had friends reporting losing patience with this disc. Part of the problem is the approach to collage: as I mentioned at the start of this series, “the raw material can be so seductively rich and the means of composing with them so facile, that resulting work can be less than the sum of its parts”. The first piece, at a little over 30 minutes, tends to deafen the listener to the subtleties in the next two tracks. The middle piece, softer and clearer in its sounds while still resisting continuity, is quite lovely when heard in isolation. The final piece exposes the complexities and contradictions in this project. The details that can be appreciated start to get overwhelmed by muddled pools of organ sounds, thoughtless vamping on tuneless keyboards, fumbles, rehearsed bloopers.

The music ends up chasing its tail, an endless cycle of deflection, claiming and disowning one form of cultural expression after another. It’s music, it’s performance, it’s ritual, it’s documentation, it’s field recording, it’s anthropology, it’s pastiche, it’s satire. As said near the start, this would seem to be Bumšteinas’ goal, to produce that most infuriating of works: a piece that aspires to fail, and succeeds at it.

Music versus material (2): Lucio Capece

Tuesday 9 August 2016

When is a field recording no longer a field recording? I originally started to phrase this question “where is the line between field recording and…” but stopped when I couldn’t think of anything to put for the counter-example except “music”. As previously mentioned, field recordings in music tend to walk a fine line between being sufficiently dull to qualify as “sound art” or sufficiently rich to leave one “wallowing in timbre” (cf. Feldman, contrasting sound with music).

Do some of Alvin Lucier’s pieces count as field recordings? Considered as phenomena observed in a specific acoustic location, the line of distinction with field recordings gets blurred. I was thinking about this again when listening to Lucio Capece’s CD Awareness about. Similar considerations appear, of spatial location of sound as an acoustic characteristic, of the resonance of spaces. The last piece on the disc is a long recording made at the Halle des Expositions, Évreux, France, or rather of the Halle des Expositions. It’s part of a series titled Space Tuning – Conditional Music:

Performances involve the playback of recordings made in the space by placing a microphone inside cardboard tubes of differing dimensions. These recordings are analysed for their spectral characteristics and then edited into an assembled soundfile. The soundfile is played back live within the space via a PA, and is combined with three other sound sources: selected sine tones based on the harmonic spectrum and formants of the recordings, electronically produced white noise (both of which are amplified through mobile wireless speakers hanging from helium balloons), and some live sounds which I play on soprano saxophone.

Listeners familiar with Lucier would recognise features from some of his better-known works here. The resonance of the space (I Am Sitting In A Room), the cardboard tubes (Vessels), the movement of the sound image (Bird And Person Dyning). I’m not saying that the music is derivative, but that it consolidates and builds upon a legacy. Like many other pioneers in music, Lucier has often been described as a “one-off” – a term used more in hope than in admiration by musicians uncomfortable with the prospect of having to question their assumptions. It’s heartening to hear music so informed by a new tradition.

The soundworld of Space Tuning – Eiffel’s Halle des Expositions is satisfyingly cavernous without being overly ornamented. In two smaller pieces, Capece plays solo in his practice room then plays recordings of the sounds back into the room while binaural microphones attached to a helium balloon float around in circles. The resulting music stays clear but with a complexity of subtle details that never becomes dense.

The other long work, Groupings, is an entirely acoustic quartet but doesn’t sound like it. The slowly unfolding webs of sound are built out of auditory illusions, using white noise (air through an accordion, rasp on bow against string) as a filter for other sounds, playing off small differences in intonation of tones to emphasise or subtract from certain parts of the harmonic spectrum.

It’s a fascinating collection of pieces that focus on the most elemental but often neglected aspects of sound. Without being didactic, the musical beauty of the pieces allows the listener to explore for themselves how these sounds came about and consider how these phenomena appear in daily life.

Music versus material (1): Claudio Parodi

Monday 8 August 2016

I don’t trust field recordings. I’ve probably said this before, but I mean a certain type of field recordings: the ones with a pretence to authenticity. It’s a double whammy against their credibility as art. On the first count, there’s a failure to account for or even consider the role of mediation, be it technical (e.g. microphones) or subjective (e.g. editing, selection). On the other, they claim aesthetic failure as a virtue (“It’s boring, but that’s how it really happened!”). This approach inevitably leads to deceit, as bad novelists sell their crude fictions as searing autobiography and bad stage magicians parade their crude tricks as revelations of psychic powers.

You will note that I did not dismiss all types of field recording. They can be beautiful, important, but they can stubbornly resist becoming art. As with collage in the visual arts, the raw material can be so seductively rich and the means of composing with them so facile, that resulting work can be less than the sum of its parts: a vampire aesthetic.

Every warning is a challenge, so it’s interesting to find the different ways in which the problem can be tackled. (Plug: I’ve tried this myself, using various ways of foregrounding technical intervention in a sonic landscape.) As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been listening to a recent CD by Claudio Parodi which is composed from field recordings.

Prima del terzo comes across at first as soft, ambient noise. Faint details emerge and it becomes clear that you are listening to a space, or rather a place. The location is not immediately obvious to the casual listener; it may well be a montage of recordings superimposed. Then come some sudden shifts in perspective – not of the listener, but of the landscape as it suddenly moves its focus from left to right in the stereo spectrum.

Something is going on beyond simple documentation but the exact nature isn’t clear. “Nothing against pure field recording. But,” Parodi writes, “I felt to go deeper.” The recordings were made to capture the wind, heard while walking around the harbour in Parodi’s home town of Chiavari. The movements of the sound trace out the strokes of lettering in Hebrew words. The actions are redolent of some sort of ritual, both in walking out the paths for the recording and in their manipulation in the studio. The purpose of the ritual, however, remains obscure to the listener.

There’s a weird balance here between the deeply subjective process which led to this set of pieces being made, and the objective impenetrability of the process to the listener. For some reason it reminded of some of Alvin Lucier’s music, where an arbitrary object can become an irreducible fact in determining sounds. (He’s also written a piece called Letters.) There’s also a similar element of quiet subversion. Five pieces of wind, never rising to a storm but liable to suddenly change.