Alvear plays Sugimoto; Sugimoto plays Duplant

Wednesday 28 March 2018

I went a Taku Sugimoto gig in a community centre in Footscray about fifteen years ago and he didn’t do shit. For an hour or so he sat there, guitar on his lap, adjusting the volume knob on his amplifier once or twice. We were all partly listening, partly waiting, straining to hear if there would be anything to hear. We watched to see if anything was happening that we hadn’t heard and so we listened to hear if anything was happening that we didn’t see*. He’s playing tonight with the singer Minami Saeki at a club a few blocks away from me but I’m not going, mostly because it’s miserable out and I’m a bit hungover and will be impatient and inattentive. He’s playing in Sheffield tomorrow night and you should probably go.

Instead, I have been listening to two new recordings of him playing. On one, he plays Bruno Duplant’s composition lEttEr to tAku. On the other, he is joined by Cristián Alvear for a guitar duet composed by Sugimoto. On paper, both pieces may well look much the same: single notes, scattered here and there. For lEttEr to tAku, recorded in a Park in Tokyo last year, Sugimoto is credited with “guitar, small amplifier, bow, park”. Guitar notes are played and heard, in what would be a splendid isolation from each other. As at that Footscray gig, there is an attentiveness, a precision in how he plays and in how he doesn’t play. Is he responding to the sounds in his environment? Duplant says “Taku played a lot with them while respecting the score” (emphasis mine). It seems that the piece is a field recording, with the sounds of the park and the surrounding city taking up most of the attention. Yet the guitar is always present, as much in its anticipation as its sound. The guitar sounds themselves are gentle, but pure and clear against the indeterminate tapestry of sounds. The guitar defines the context, allowing the city to become a musical accompaniment, but also acts as a frame, elevating the background noise to the foreground of attention. It’s like an aural work of urban environmental art, a small intervention that transforms the substance of a piece of everyday life.

Sugimoto’s guitar duet, simply titled h, is closely related to his songs with Minami Saeki which I’m not hearing tonight. h was also recorded in Tokyo last year, but indoors, at a concert. The piece is essentially one of Sugimoto’s songs, with the voice part transcribed for guitar. He and Cristián Alvear each play slow, wandering melodies that weave an irregular counterpoint between the two instruments. (Alvear’s playing has that same quiet, imperturbable patience as Sugimoto, as heard on his recordings of Sarah Hennies and d’incise.) The voice part plays in harmonics, against the more fully sounded notes of the other guitar. Both parts have sufficient lightness as to almost merge and colour each other at times. When the two overlap, tiny differences in intonation emerge (the guitar’s frets enforce a type of equal temperament, at odds with the harmonic overtones). Halfway through it feels like it’s about to outstay its welcome but it never does. The colouration, unpredicatble melody and irregular exchanges and overlappings between the two instruments holds a sort of quiet fascination.

* This is another example of seeing and hearing music.

Jürg Frey & Magnus Granberg: Early to Late

Monday 19 March 2018

This Friday Music We’d Like To Hear is presenting a one-off concert outside of their usual summer season, of Ensemble Grizzana playing two new pieces by Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg. It’s a repeat of their two premieres at Huddersfield last year, which I wanted to get to but couldn’t, so I’m happy.

Even better, the gig is a launch of a new CD containing both works. Simon Reynell at Another Timbre made this recording “immediately after” the premiere concert in Huddersfield, with sound that is much cleaner and clearer, with greater immediacy and intimacy than usually possible to hear from the audience at St Paul’s Hall. For all their newness, these works are played by Grizzana play with deep knowledge and empathy for this style of music. After all, both composers play as part of the group. They respond to the contrasting expectations in the scores (Granberg allowing freedoms, Frey specifying precision) with great discipline, a studied awareness of how sounds may arise and combine. This judgement, restraint without hesitation, brings countless small, brilliant details to the ear’s attention in a natural, spontaneous way that never seems forced.

Listening to Granberg’s Nattens skogar last year I commented that “I’m starting to think of Magnus Granberg’s music the way I think of late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different.” On this CD, his How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights? combines individual sounds and small fragments of material into a type of mobile structure, allowing the musicians to draw from one group or another at different times. A resemblance to late Feldman comes here from the sense of hearing patterns overlap and repeat, only never quite the same. The music feels like one extended moment, constantly changing in appearance but never changing in substance. Most strikingly, compared to previous works I’ve heard by Granberg, is the sense of a steady flow, if not a pulse, behind the piece. The counterpoint between the instruments forms a strong but delicate web that holds the sounds together. Wisps and shards of electronic sounds permeate this texture, which create an effect that makes the notes played by the acoustic intruments less like pitches and more like sounds. Like his preceding pieces, it again takes its inspiration from existing music; in this case, William Byrd’s consort song “O, Lord How Vain”. With this in mind, its possible to hear the music in light of the Elizabethan’s awareness of mortality – a defence, fragile but assured.

I neglected to write here about the last Another Timbre release of Frey’s music, Collection Gustave Roud (that’s coming up in the next issue of Tempo). In the two longer works in that collection, there’s a sense of movement in Frey’s music that has been steadily developing in recent years. From the earlier wanderings of his pianist, alone pieces, there now comes the feeling of the music being a journey: not a traditional sense of arrival at a destination, but of the travelling itself, similar to Nono’s late lontananzas. Here, his Late Silence shows no reticence about addressing its subject with sound. It’s a sombre, tender work. As with Granberg’s piece, mortality is present: the inspiration comes from Ockeghem’s lament Déploration sur la mort de Binchois. The journey here is one of the emotions, of thought.

Pairings of instruments call and respond, in slow antiphonies. Their sounds combine in surprising ways, letting harmonics and pure tones linger. Unlike the Granberg, no electronics here, but there are harmonicas and stones, used in the same way as in Frey’s epic meditation on time and space Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit. Even more suprising is when the sounds change, as intruments drop away to replaced by others. One feels the loss as much as the new arrival. Other lonely episodes are encountered, but are never allowed to have the last word. I found listening to it a profoundly moving experience, encompassing a range of experience that belied its relatively brief length of just over 30 minutes.

I can’t remember if Cage was referring to Zen or his own preferences when he said that the purpose of the artist is to hide beauty. Both Granberg and Frey touch upon this matter of beauty in art. (Frey: “Beauty happens as a sideline. When beauty comes into focus as an end in itself, then beauty begins to disappear.” Granberg: “I guess I’m just trying to make a music which can hopefully do something to encompass and reconcile such categories with one another.”) Yet still, both composers have developed their craft to a point where they can let beauty be revealed rather than leave the listener to find it.

MP Hopkins: Aeroplanes & Puddles

Monday 12 March 2018

Australians have a knack for eviscerating the more rarefied pretentions of psychography. While the Europeans drew upon an inherited mythology, the Americans self-mythologised. Meanwhile, the Australians remained reluctant to ascribe meaning to a landscape they understood only as alien, where there presence was never entirely legitimised, or even voluntary. Eventually, the outback was eulogised but the urban landscape remained void of significance, self-consciously imitative of both the UK and US while understanding it could never be accepted as either.

One of the finest cultural artefacts of the last century is Barry Humphries’ tape Sandy Agonistes, recorded in a basement flat in London in 1960. In a slow, somniloquent voice, his character Sandy Stone recreates the city of Melbourne in his mind, in a contextless, trance-like litany of street names, brand names, radio jingles, train stations and advertising slogans. The recitation loops back upon itself, nothing is added, nothing is learned. If Leopold Bloom’s jumble of half-finished thoughts made manifest the failure of the Enlightenment, then Sandy shows that a further half-century of commodity capitalism has delivered the coup de grâce. Far removed from the left bank of Paris, he relentlessly paces the city but never appropriates its space; instead, its spectacle appropriates his character, completely. He is the anti-flâneur.

Rather than praise or damn the metropolis, the Australian artist is more likely to treat it the same way as the natural landscape, inscrutable and indifferent. Given the vast majority of the population lives there, it’s hard to conceive living outside of it. When the differentiation does occur, the countryside becomes the “other” where the darker side of human nature is revealed, shorn of the civilising veneer that is assumed to be normal.

The opening sounds of MP Hopkins’ Aeroplanes & Puddles suggest the work is another one of those terribly earnest field recordings, all about faithful documentation of the soundscape of some very real place. The place is indeed real, a run-down industrial part of Sydney that has resisted redevelopment, not through struggle but through circumstance. Electronic sounds and treatments inflect the soundscape, reminding us that this is a work of artifice. There are the mildest disruptions, intruding just enough to stir the listener from complacency, throwing the shape and direction of the work into doubt.

Hopkins speaks, his voice low and close-miked. “A political fantasy…?” he ruminates. He does not elaborate. Further comments appear from time to time, in the same slow, thoughtful, faintly ironic tone. There are oblique fragments of wit, hinting at a satirical discourse that never reveals itself to the listener. Like the sounds of water and traffic, the words are also a collage, quotes from local politics, local economics. Throughout, the ubiquitous dull roar of the city weaves in and out, an undefinable mixture of distant aircraft, traffic and industry that echoes through the air.

Is it all a joke? In a way, but a joke of the highest seriousness. The collage is part survey, part critique, part elegy and part exorcism, a meditation on interior and exterior space and how one affects the other. The tone is personal, even intimate, but any hermeticism in the work is keenly aware of the external factors that condition it, whether the space itself or the circumstances of urban planning upon which it depends and by which it may soon disappear. Keeping this complex of motivations in play, Aeroplanes & Puddles simultaneously embraces and refutes the tenets of psychogeography.

When I mentioned Americans self-mythologising, I neglected to discuss Robert Ashley. His operas often deal with the issue of how mythology is created, or is allowed to create itself. Meaning becomes engendered in places simply through the act of occupying them, or avoiding them. As colonists, it’s an experience common to Australians. Having no mythology in the landscape, significance is nonetheless attributed to it, even though the nature of that significance is unknown. Ashley’s music often expounds on this process. Hopkins’ piece shares a similarity, in this respect. In both, the need for the listener to directly experience that process becomes paramount, with all narrative or explanation subverted, leaving the art as complex as the reality it illuminates.

This piece has been released by the small Slovakian cassette label, mappa. They send me their intriguing releases every now and then. It’s available as digital download but, unlike the previous releases I’ve reviewed, this one seems particularly suited to the cassette format, with its focus on the personal, the run-down and on technological mediation. There are also texts and photos included.