You sometimes get the feeling that musicians these days are frightened of complexity. It seems to go back to the 1990s, when Pärt and Górecki captured the imaginations of a wider audience. Live musicians started to describe themselves as “lowercase”. Poor dead Feldman got conscripted to a bunch of causes. It’s still a big thing today.
I’m not saying it’s wrong, but sometimes you get the feeling that this hushed reverence for sound is an act of worship more out of fear than love. It’s nice then to hear musicians who aren’t trying to impress you with how damn much they care.
A bit over a year ago I heard Morphogenesis play their first live show since 2010. There was a piano, violin, tables of amplified objects, old cassette recorders, electronics ranging from the ingenious to the trashed. There were disputes, debates and openly aired doubts about the whole enterprise. One member resolved to perform entirely from his car parked outside the venue. The audience loved it: the music was always alive, filled with ungraspable meanings and a self-destructive potential that never dissipated. After more protracted debate, a recording of the event has been released on Otoroku. It sounds as good as I remembered, probably because enough time has passed that I can no longer recollect details.
I talked a few weeks back about Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim’s Entertainment = Control album, released on Pateras’ Immediata label. It’s one of a series of six CDs in which Pateras collaborates with other musicians in a way that renders the distinction between improvisation and composition irrelevant. The selections have been made from performances going back over 15 years. Each album comes with a transcribed conversation between the musicians, which are almost worth the price alone.
Subjects of interest crop up again and again: politics, money, sex. These aren’t presented as public statements of ideology (what was once the preserve of Nono has now been delegated to Lily Allen) but as a discussion of the messy context in which this music has been made, the forces which have shaped it into its present form, streaming through your speakers.
In 2009 we all flew to Baden-Baden, most of which the Russian mafia has bought up for weekenders. The place itself radiates the deadness that accompanies concentrated wealth: everything is simultaneously pretty and rotten, and psychotherapy was booming.
When the sleeve notes of the ensemble Thymolphthalein’s album Mad Among The Mad begin like this, you know you’re back in a more tumultuous, plain spoken era, far removed from the bland comfort and complacency that these days is too often mistaken for professionalism. I’ve gone on about the sleeve notes so much because they reflect the music so well. The musicianship on all the discs is highly polished but the musical forms are new: as much a renunciation as an accommodation of the prevailing social, financial and cultural factors in which new music is made.
Thymolphthalein was an electroacoustic ensemble working from a form of “systematized improvisation” (“Improv heads hated it, composers found it crass”). The sounds as well as the genres bleed into each other, a welter of details held taut in sharply-defined shapes. It all feels closely argued, enough to please a London Sinfonietta subscriber, with a confounding mix of electronics and technological manipulation that concert-hall composers are only just starting to catch up with. Occasionally there’s an outburst of mayhem to frighten the neighbours.
There’s more. Astral Colonels is an alter ego of Pateras and Valerio Tricoli, in which Tricoli has deconstructed and remixed improvisations between Pateras on various keyboards and Tricoli on open-reel tape recorders. The disc captures the feel of their old live shows, yet adds both complexity and space to the soundworld. The Long Exhale pairs piano and electronics with Anthony Burr on clarinet, in a set of carefully considered improvisations that focus inward on the sound of their instruments, as finely paced as a fully composed work without ever becoming reduced to the purely minimal.
A further year of development and the piece is now perfected.
The patch was constructed in AudioMulch, using only the components that come as standard with the software except for one freeware signal modeller at the very last stage.
In the above diagram it should be clear that there are no inputs to the system. None of the components play samples or generate signals. The patch is a network of interacting feedback circuits.
The network is played by sending MIDI instructions to the various controls on each component. During a performance, the system typically receives about 1000 MIDI commands per minute. To do this, I had to write a script that would generate a MIDI file containing all the instructions.
The script inserts commands and controller values according to (pseudo)random numbers. Randomness has to be used thoughtfully to get interesting, distinctive results, so a lot of revising, tweaking and polishing went into writing the script. The user can define basic parameters and bias weightings (duration, amount of activity) when the script is run.
Just now I’ve added another element: human intervention. For my upcoming live shows I will be playing these pieces directly from the patch and the script. Even when playing from the same score, the system will produce different sounds each time it is run: the score determines its behaviour, not its output. In the live shows I will be playing a MIDI controller to insert additional commands, which may have an immediate or delayed effect on the system.
In a couple of weeks I’ll be travelling to Australia to play some live shows, as part of the Inland concert series.
I’ll be playing a specially-prepared live version of Chain Of Ponds, my piece for computer-generated feedback. Lucky punters will get to hear chance-determined feedback signals created right on the spot. A sample of what you’re in for can be heard on Bandcamp.
I’ll be in Melbourne on Thursday 10 November 2016, 8pm at the Church of All Nations, 180 Palmerston St, Carlton. The Sydney gig will be on Monday 14 November 2016, 8pm at Glebe Justice Centre, 37-47 St. Johns Road, Glebe. Both shows are packed with great musicians I can’t wait to hear.
The new season of Kammer Klang kicked off this week at Cafe Oto. It’s about the most innovative and interesting new music programme going around right now. It works by tapping into a genuine enthusiasm for music that pushes boundaries, for an audience ready and willing to take risks. You can build a following without dressing things up with gratuitous video projections or signalling towards pop music in hope of luring the cool kids.
Each month promises something different. Tuesday night began with Martyna Poznańska, who works with field recordings and videos. I recently went off on one about field recordings, and this gig reminded me of another problem I have with the genre. Too often, it can focus on techniques of documentation that struggle to find material which meets the aspirations of the artistic intention. Punters were treated to the overly-familiar ambient hum and views out the window that have become a hallmark of the medium.
A set of what might usually be considered more conventional “contemporary classical” music followed, from the fine ensemble Distractfold. The term ‘conventional’ is a relative term here as the violins and cellos were augmented with a battery of electronic signal processors large enough to max out the channels on the house PA. Sam Salem’s piece Untitled Valley of Fear used this excess of tech to build up a sufficiently murky and mysterious aural mood. Mauricio Pauly’s string trio Charred Edifice Shining both amplified and altered the instruments into an array of disrupting and disorientating effects. Overall, the piece felt a little too long and loose, as the reliance on unusual sounds could be edited and focused to maximise the impact. You wonder if the processing could have all been done on a laptop, with a fourth performer operating to spare the musicians the distraction of knob-twiddling.
The last set of the evening was with the composer Miles Cooper Seaton, who had been workshopping in the Cafe Oto Project Space around the corner for the past few days. His piece, Transient Music #2, began with his ensemble standing in a loose huddle around him in the centre of the room, all dressed in white like they were about to perform Stockhausen’s Ylem. Someone mentioned that this was going to be a sort of “deep listening” type deal. It started promisingly with a lengthy vocal solo by Cooper Seaton himself, in a speech that thanked and praised in turn everyone who had assisted and supported him during his stay, no matter how incidental their contribution may have been. Just as his peroration reached its apparent conclusion, he took a short breath and continued. And again. And again, without strain or effort, the flow of fine words continued. It was quite captivating; he is the Charlie Parker of panegyrics.
Sadly, modesty forced him to cut his solo short. For the remainder of the evening, members of the ensemble gingerly navigated amongst the punters around the room, playing an extended, gentle cadence on a leading tone.
Are you playing an instrument or playing music? I’m old-fashioned enough to be leery of improvisation. Spent the weekend listening to new(ish) CDs of music that was not strictly composed; not in the authorial sense. For most of them I could make the argument that these are compositions, not improvisations.
There’s a growing, interesting genre of music that defines, develops and interprets compositional parameters as a joint process between musicians. These pieces aren’t an a priori realisation of a composer’s indeterminate score, nor are they spontaneously improvised. This seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of examples of these methods going back as far as “free improvisation” in the 1960s. There was “group composition” but that was just a term for improv musos who had to play art galleries instead of jazz clubs. It’s a sign that the genre is evolving, maturing.
I’ve been working through a rich vein of discs sent from the Another Timbre, Intonema and Immediata labels. Violinist Angharad Davies and pianist Tisha Mukarji recorded a set of improvisations over two days this February, released under the title ffansïon | fancies. In an interview on the website it mentions that the second day of recording was forced by “circumstances”, but this helped the album immensely. Material from the first day was evidently reworked, developed and refined for takes used on the final release. (“It struck me that this is a particularly fruitful way of using improvisation.”) The results show the benefit of additional time for reflection. Each piece reveals a focus on detail without losing sight of an overall direction or shape. Sounds are allowed to develop and change over time without rambling, giving each piece a character that can range from spiky pointillism to deconstructed folk music.
The St Petersburg-based Intonema label finds plenty of room to wander within what appears at first to be a pretty narrow range of music. The wandering is both musical and geographical. Tri presents a state-of-the-art improvisation in electroacoustic music with venerable electric guitarist Keith Rowe and Ilia Belorukov and Kurt Liedwart on various instruments, objects, computer processing and electronics. It documents a live performance and listening at home it’s hard to get too excited about all the technique on display. Sympathy to the guy in track one with the cough.
In contrast, Belorukov’s collaboration with Gaudenz Badrutt on electronics and “objects” and Jonas Kocher on accordion makes for fascinating listening. Rotonda is a live performance inside the Mayakovsky Library in St Petersburg. The musicians note that the space of the rotunda and its specific acoustics makes it “the fourth collaborator” in the piece. A compositional constraint is introduced: “acute attention to silences and extremely careful work with sound”. A slow, deliberately-paced music unfolds over nearly 50 minutes, each performer knowing that the resonance of the space will fill and colour their inactivity. A welcome relief from the horror vacui that affects so many musicians, without ever becoming a dry, didactic exercise in silence.
Tooth Car features Canadians Anne-F Jacques and Tim Olive playing live in the US: two fairly short extracts, which may be all that is needed for audio only. The limitations here are mechanical. Jacques constructs rotating surfaces that are played and amplified, while Olive amplifies other objects with magnetic pickups. The rotating devices provide regular ostinati throughout each piece and the various colours of metallic scraping suggest something close to sound sculpture.
For real group composition, Polis presents a combine, of intentional sounds and unexpected factors. Electroacoustic composers Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan and Louie Rice collaborated by preparing compositions and then mixed them, playing the mix through a car sound system that drove to various locations around the city of Porto. A complex but not impenetrable blending of sounds emerge, with different tracks overlapping each other, elaborated upon by different locations and live sampling of urban spaces. A neat convergence of pure sound, documentary, field recording and spatialisation.
Perhaps more conventional, Volume by the duo Illogical Harmonies on the Another Timbre label clearly identifies itself as a jointly composed piece. The violinist Johnny Chang and double bass player Mike Majkowski improvised together over several months, transcribing, performing and revising until they had sculpted this hour-long suite of five movements. This painstaking process has produced a beautifully restrained and focused performance, which at first sounds like a concentrated study on intonation and tuning but on closer listening reveals beautiful details of refined ornamentation and subtle relief.
Anthony Pateras has built a career out of being both a composer and an improviser, and his own Immediata label has recently produced a series of limited edition CDs of works that lurk in the grey area between the two domains. (Downloads are also available on Bandcamp.) I was going to discuss a couple of these now but I’ve just been listening again to his collaboration with Erkki Veltheim, Entertainment = Control. We’re back to straight violin and piano here and this bravura performance is part lost minimal epic, part social commentary, part virtuosic tour-de-force and part pisstake. I was going to say this disc is ideal if you think The Necks are too fussy or Charlemagne Palestine is too straightlaced, but then I started reading the extensive sleeve notes again. Pateras and Veltheim discuss fascism and sadomasochism, the Marx brothers, punk cabaret and the plague of El Sistema amongst other things and I can see I need to save all this for a separate post.