New music that stays new

Monday 23 January 2017

I need to talk about some recent releases on Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre label because I’ve got a small stack of them here and still more are due to come out in February already. There are over a hundred of these things now, all sharing a distinct aesthetic and sensibility while still exploring fresh terrain – last year’s albums of Jürg Frey’s guitar music and Linda Catlin Smith’s Dirt Road are good examples of this fresh growth. The music ranges from composed to improvised, and sometimes from somewhere in between, with composers and musicians from Britain and abroad, both familiar and new.

The hundredth CD has a little bit of everything. Seaside was recorded over two days at the pianist John Tilbury’s house, with the Palestinian oud player Dirar Kalash and composer John Lely on electronics. Group improvisations alternate with solo works by Lely and Christian Wolff. Instead of piano, Tilbury plays the clavichord; a very quiet instrument which is played unamplified throughout these recordings. Besides its delicacy, the sound is strange and exotic, aided by Tilbury making use of pitch bends and unusual intonations. The solo adaptations of two cyclical pieces Wolff wrote for Tilbury back in 1969-70 have a crystalline beauty. Kalash’s oud blends well with the clavichord, while Lely’s electronics are so discreet as to merge with the ambient sounds in and around the house. The group pieces effectively capture a moment, a place, but are less satisfying as coherent musical works. To my ears, at least; I have a problem with improvisation in general. My patience is tested.

I’m more comfortable talking about the two discs dedicated to composers, Dante Boon and Giuliano d’Angiolini. It’s fascinating to compare the two albums, particularly as each composer talks about their use of indeterminate means of organising their music. Both cite the influence of the “New York School” of composers who introduced indeterminacy to their music in the 1950s, with both of them placing particular emphasis on John Cage’s last compositions in the 1980s and early 1990s. The disruptive anarchy of the Fifties and Sixties avant-garde didn’t die away; a tradition emerged and evolved from it. It was largely unnoticed in the world of Serious Music, preoccupied as it was with certainties, whether proffered by Pierre Boulez or Philip Glass.

Cage found a peace between his philosophy and overtly “beautiful” music. Some twenty years later, Boon has assimilated Cage’s ideas well enough to be confident of using them for what he describes as “classical, romantic European art”. His album Clarinet (& Piano) features Jürg Frey as the soloist on all three works (Boon accompanies on piano on two). I’ve mentioned before how, as a composer, Frey has transcended the philosophical purity of his earlier Wandelweiser pieces to make music that more directly affects senses and sentiment without pandering to the listener. This trait becomes clear in his playing of music by others, too (and Boon discusses in more detail on the CD’s website). Boon’s music floats in that ambiguous realm of mood inhabited by Morton Feldman’s late music and similar works at the more introspective end of minimal music. The indeterminate composition makes both musicians work together, outside of externally imposed measures of time. Like late Cage, it’s simultaneously looser (as in more open to potential disruption, less claustrophobic) yet more impersonal (as in the way that nature is impersonal). It shows those works from the late 1980s were not an endpoint.

Giuliano d’Angiolini also speaks of his admiration for Cage and Feldman, and laments that indeterminacy “has been to some extent pushed to the margins, ignored or misunderstood. Too often art is artificial, and too often the artist tries to surprise us or force an emotion upon us. Indeterminacy or chance put a brake on our will.” His CD Cantilena presents works for piano, string quartet, mixed ensemble and multi-tracked flutes. d’Angiolini describes the pieces as “simple compositional machines” but the simplicity of the materials (gamuts of notes, scales) and transparency of the few rules used to perform them yield a restrained lyricism that flows through the entire disc. The slow-motion single notes of the piano piece Finale contrast with the succession of frail chords in the highest register in Allegretto 94.6. The string quartet (suoni della neve e del gelo) employs Cage’s flexible time-brackets to create a distinctive piece of short phrases and isolated sounds.

With both of these composers there’s an emphasis on producing subtle music from the simplest material, organised by simple methods to produce combinations that are complex – in affect if not in surface texture. Great reliance is placed on the performers to interpret the notation, but not in ways that requires subjective inspiration. In all this they show a lot in common with the musical thinking of Christian Wolff – another former footnote to critics of Serious Music who has recently re-emerged as a guiding spirit in the present time.