Canadian Composers Concluded: Smith, Jang, Olsen

Wednesday 29 August 2018

I mean this as highest praise to say the new Linda Catlin Smith CD on Another Timbre is more of the same. The two previous releases of her music, Dirt Road and Drifter, are superb and this disc of ensemble pieces played by Apartment House continues with the same fusion of clarity and sophistication in conception and execution. Wanderer is less diverse in its sound palette than the two-CD set Drifter, but gains in coherence, with the selection of works coming across as an extended suite. The piano acts as a thread running through the music, with Morning Glory beginning as a solo before opening out into different instrumental colours. Smith has a striking way of using her instruments selectively, choosing for each one a time to speak and a time to be silent. The piano runs like a spine through the next few pieces, changing to harpsichord in a very melancholy Sarabande before finding sensuous depths in the restricted colour range of the piano duet Velvet. By the end of the disc, the piano is subsumed into the ensemble for Wanderer, contributing small fragments in contrast to the other instruments, before finally disappearing for the final piece, a pensive duet for cello and vibraphone.

As mentioned before, when hearing Apartment House play Stare at the River live at Cafe Oto, Smith is still capable of surprising the listener. That work appears here, along with other facets of Smith’s work not heard on the previous two albums. Knotted Silk’s abrupt, staccato piano chords and percussion held against sustained winds and strings are suitably evocative, while the brief piano solo Music for John Cage is unexpectedly winsome, both embracing his professed openness in aesthetics while teasing him for his asceticism.

I’ve suggested that the composers heard so far in this Canadian Composer Series share common interests in the usage of traditional forms and harmony, “repurposed into something new and – not so much strange, as uncanny.” There is also a similar usage of volume, constant and subdued, and a general absence of frenetic activity – the usual busywork of virtuosic presenteeism. The two other titles in Another Timbre’s Canadian series deviate from this formula, to lesser and greater degrees. I described Alex Jang’s piece distributed tourism as a more elusive presence, “with more diffuse sounds and an obscure structure that put the listeners on much less certain ground” when played live. His new CD, momentary encounters, opens with a softly whispered statement. For momentary encounters (5), clarinettist Heather Roche plays sustained, isolated tones outdoors; in this instance, out on Tooting Bec Common. The musician’s overt activity is minimal, the instrument acting as a framing device for the ambient sounds. Like an artist’s intervention on a found object, perspective is subtly but indelibly shifted, composing the surrounding sounds as much as the musician’s instrument.

The remaining works are conventional recordings of acoustic instruments in studio but that first piece is instructive. In any three players, members of Apartment House play a slowly drifting melody on melodica, vibraphone and cello, the three voices intertwining, merging and diverging. Their manner of playing produces sounds that may be characterised as faint or fragile, but are closer to Cage’s definition of ’empty sounds’, receptive to other adjacent sounds, variable in nature and open to interpretation, not crowding themselves out with absolute certainty of pitch or timbre. Cristián Alvear provides his skill for immobile inner calm when playing the solo guitar piece a gray, bent interior horizon, a work more silence than sound, each plucked note a muted harmonic, both ringing and stifled. When the disc ends with Apartment House playing the aforementioned distributed tourism, it feels almost normal.

The big new discovery in this set of discs would be Dark Heart by Lance Austin Olsen, if it were fair to call an artist in his seventies discovered only today. This CD is the outlier in the entire series, in background, method and sound. Olsen is a painter, musician and composer – his artwork appears on a number of the titles in this series. Visual arts are the instigations for several pieces recorded here and all the works are collaborations, each in a different way. Theseus’ Breath is both painting and graphic score and is presented in two realisations, one by members of Apartment House – who have form for this type of thing – and an ensemble including Ryoko Akama, Isaiah Ceccarelli and Katelyn Clark. When comparing the two versions, the most striking thing is how similar they are, despite the difference in instrumentation and musicians. There is clearly more going on than a visually ‘inspired’ improvisation. The presence of electronics in the sound mix is also a notable divergence from the other composers in the series. The electronics are lo-fi and homespun but not quaint; of the messy sort, not the domesticated.

Unlike at the Oto gig, conventional instruments disappear altogether for the two large pieces that fill the disc, pushing further into that nebulous region where sound becomes both the material and the subject. Both Dark Heart and A Meditation on the History of Painting are collages; like painting, a synthesis of gesture and editing, with traces of the two processes preserved in the medium. Dark Heart began as tapes guitarist Terje Paulsen sent to Olsen, which he then worked with, set aside for years, and then reworked. A low relief of electric guitar sounds, field recordings, snippets of television drama and other “found objects” string together narrative elements that never resolve into a clear message but remain obscured, like a journey recalled from a dream. The half-hour presented here itself an edit; the full version supposedly exists on the Another Timbre website, somewhere.

For A Meditation on the History of Painting the collaborators’ roles are reversed. The graphic score was made by the Venezuelan artist and composer Gil Sansón; Olsen produced the realisation. Outdoor sounds give way to distant voices, then a haunting mix of organ reeds signalling to each other like foghorns. It’s a tremendously eerie effect, pardoxially becoming more atmospheric as the silence intrudes more and more. The spacing and positioning of the sounds produce a paradoxially cinematic experience through listening, made all the more potent by the avoidance of explanation.

Cassandra Miller: ‘O Zomer!’ and ‘Just So’

Monday 27 August 2018

Everyone else has been raving about these two new Cassandra Miller CDs and I need to get in on it too. Like many others, I’ve been waiting for the second half of Another Timbre’s Canadian Composer Series to drop since the accompanying booklet came out with the first batch of discs in May last year. The booklet’s promised titles have now been delivered in full, including several fresh recordings from the first half of 2018. I’ve spent the long weekend playing these five CDs over and over, purely for enjoyment.

I added that last bit because I could have written up the lot after just one listening; each one of them leaves an extraordinarily vivid impression in the mind. I’ll get around to discussing all of them in the next few days but right now I need to mention the two I had been most looking forward to, dedicated to music by Cassandra Miller. I’ve been alternately baffled and knocked out but always charmed by her music, so here’s the chance to get some on record. O Zomer! includes the title piece and violin solo For Mira, both of which were played at the Cafe Oto gig a couple of weeks ago. The same musicians play here on the CD and so the performances are equally excellent – better, I should say, as the playing conditions would have been preferable. As with Mira Benjamin on For Mira, dedicatee Philip Thomas plays the piano piece Philip the Wanderer with expected authority. Any wandering in the piece is typically incongruous and beguiling: a slow rising up from the depths, followed by a declamatory pealing of bells and ending on a single, repeating scale ascending in the higher registers. At one point, the page turner starts to whistle in descant (here, the whistler is violinst Clemens Merkel from the Quatuor Bozzini). I could wonder why all this happens but it’s simply delightful as-is.

The disc includes the BBC’s recording of the monumental Duet for Cello and Orchestra, from its world premiere in 2015 at the Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. This was my introduction to Miller’s music and hearing it again in retrospect has only magnified its achievement. Cellist Charles Curtis with Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are superbly matched for this piece, an aural frieze that juxtaposes an almost immobile cello with rolling fanfares from the orchestra, like an inverted antiphony. As time passes, the orchestra is subdued by the cello and in turn subsumes it; only at the end does the soloist emerge for a brief, enigmatic statement, half whispered. The transcendentalism of Ives and Ruggles looms beneath the surface, that of a mystery that cannot be contained in words.

The second disc, Just So, consists of string quartets played by the Quatuor Bozzini. The major work here, About Bach, is a fitting companion to the Duet for Cello and Orchestra: viola and cello play in the manner of baroque viols, a chorale that crosses over itself again and again until it finally exhausted. Against this, the violins play endlessly rising harmonics in the stratosphere, ethereal and remote. The effect is sublime at first and then strangely affecting as the elegaic implications of the music embed themselves in the consciousness, the harmonics continuing unperturbed by the cadences below. Miller talks about this piece being shaped by Bach transcriptions, Jewish music and computer glitches, bringing order out of the messy circumstances of life. Quatuor Bozzini make the fiendish technical requirements of playing this piece with finesse all but invisible.

The other pieces contain elements of the folkloric, to varying degrees. Warblework names its four movements after species of birds, mixing up the mimetic, programmatic and impressionistic in an idiosyncratic way that deftly avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of Messiaen and John Luther Adams. The disc is topped and tailed by two brief works, the smart and sweet almost-a-solo Just So which sounds like a folksong transcription, and the more serene and sonorous Leaving which is, in fact, a transcription. It’s been worth the wait.

Ingrid Plum: Taut

Wednesday 22 August 2018

I got sent a digital version of the latest release from Graham Dunning’s Fractal Meat label: a book and CD of vocal compositions commissioned by Ingrid Plum. (Not sure if the download of the album also comes with an e-book.) Taut is a collection of brief works by fourteen composers that make use of Plum’s background in extended vocal techniques, improvisation, field recordings and electronics. The few times I’ve heard Plum’s music have all been solo improvisations, so it’s presumably something of a challenge for her to realise and interpret other artists’ compositions here.

Taut works effectively as a collective artistic statement. The album is said to be “inspired by studying with Meredith Monk” and so obviously focuses on the voice, and on Plum interpreting composers’ scores to reflect on this study. As you would guess, the scores are therefore very open to interpretation. The performances recorded here were all made live, at the first complete rendition of the collection at Iklectik in London earlier this year. (The sound quality is good; audience applause doesn’t intrude until halfway through the set.) The gig becomes an overview of Plum’s musical vision, a compendium of current experimental composers, and a masterclass in composing and interpreting graphic scores.

As might be expected in the circumstances, there is a focus on technique, sometimes to excess. Kev Nickells’ Tort/ taut/ &c. and Bobby Barry’s Contract and Remain Taut (after Lyotard) run through some familiar exercises, with the latter getting very close to Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody in places. Most of the pieces do not, in fact, rely on solo voice but incorporate recordings or other electronic accompaniment. Iris Garrelfs’ The Modular Vocalist and Stephan Barrett’s Taut: to be carried on the sea air make use of overtones and beating frequencies; other works overdub Plum’s voice in ways that are either conventional (Timothy Thornton’s canonic folk tune Where Queer Creatures Hide) or more surprising (the cut-ups behind Plum’s live singing in Lia Mazzari’s Speak Up).

A good half-dozen or so employ voice with field recordings, as ambience, as accompaniment or as disruptions. Graham Dunning’s Enoy Rtnbua deconstructs itself with sounds of rewinding tape, as befits its score. Pieces by Helen Frosi and Tania Chen interpolate solo voice with intrusions from the natural or urban world. Two of the most affecting pieces in the set are Lisa Busby’s Song Of Resentment (for Brighton Beach), in which overlaid voices and sounds of pebbles steadily accumulate with the dispassionate ruefulness of a medieval ballad, and Jez Riley French’s Score For Listening #87, which opens the venue’s windows to the amplified ambient sounds of central London, merging with small sounds made by the performer, often no more than a tap on the microphone.

I kept forgetting this was a single performance and didn’t appreciate at first how Plum could change her tone and mindset from one piece to the next, never feeling strained or artificial. The book includes the scores, interviews with the composers and Plum discussing her experiences working with each of them.

Real Live Canadians at Cafe Oto

Monday 20 August 2018

They were promised, and they delivered. It takes one hell of a strong programme to get me to bear an August evening inside Cafe Oto so of course I went to the Canadian Composers Series Concert last Monday. The first series produced some of the best gig moments from last year, launching the first half of Another Timbre’s series of ten CDs. Those first five releases were particularly strong and presented Canada as something of a hot spot for an intriguing group of contemporary composers. The long-awaited second half of the series has now finally dropped.

Two of the new discs are dedicated to Cassandra Miller, now resident in London. I’ve been hanging for these CDs to come out because Miller has a particular knack for messing with parts of my head that most other composers don’t reach. The Oto set was topped and tailed with her O Zomer!, a piece which perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about. A single, harmonic note is passed back and forth between cello and contrabass, over a muted vibraphone. It’s beautifully balanced, superbly judged, and then it all swerves into an unhinged whaling on piano, crotales and blaring trumpet. It stops, eventually. Crazy. For Mira is a brief but substantial work for solo violin which morphs back and forth between Bach partita and Handanger fiddle tune; it was played by its dedicatee, the Canadian Mira Benjamin. The musicians had the impertinence to start on time and so I missed the other solo turn, when Canadian clarinettist Heather Roche played Alex Jang’s momentary encounters (5) outside the venue.

Together with musicians from Apartment House and conductor Jack Sheen, they played four chamber works by Linda Catlin Smith, including Blackwing, a world premiere not listed in the advance publicity. I’ve praised Smith’s music on several previous occasions but I need to point out her ability to keep surprising me with pieces such as Stare at the River, where piano, trumpet, double bass and percussion evoke cool jazz before solidifying into a stately procession.

Another great part of the night was getting to hear two more composers with whom I’m not at all familiar. I’ve heard one short piece by Alex Jang, which suggested a similarity with other composers in this series: a use of traditional forms and harmony, repurposed into something new and – not so much strange, as uncanny. His longer piece played at Oto, distributed tourism, was quite different from this, with more diffuse sounds and an obscure structure that put the listeners on much less certain ground. The ambiguousness of its sound was more pronounced by being the longest piece played on the night.

There was also a sense of certainties breaking up into suggestive but nebulous sounds in the other premiere of the night, the appropriately named Shadow Worlds by Lance Austin Olsen. I’m completely unfamiliar with Olsen’s work other than as a painter, including the covers of several CDs in this series. The combination of trumpet, cello, double bass and percussion approached sound in a different way, skirting between sound as material (for harmony, for timbre) and sound as subject unlike any of the other composers in the series. I’m looking forward to listening through the new CDs and reporting back after further investigation.