Klaus Lang & Golden Fur: Beissel

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Usually, when someone says that a piece grows on you, they mean that they didn’t like it at first but then came to find at least certain aspects to admire. I’ve started to write this review without any clear idea of what I’m going to say about Beissel, because it is a work so protean in nature that it is much harder to define than its form at first suggests. The piece keeps growing with each hearing, accruing new qualities that both enhance and confound what had been heard before. Another half-dozen hearings and my review would be different again to what I had originally planned to write after listening the first time around.

To start with some facts: Beissel is a collaboration between composer/performers Klaus Lang and the trio Golden Fur (Samuel Dunscombe, clarinets; Judith Hamann, cello; James Rushford, viola and harmonium). The work is a group composition, performed in the abbey at St Lambrecht near Styria in Austria, in 2016. Lang is best known for his compositions made from faint traces of sound, at times hardly there at all (listeners may or may not notice that his early string quartet The Sea of Despair ends with 20 minutes of silence.) As an ensemble, I’ve only previously heard Golden Fur as interpreters of other composers’ works.

To continue my simplistic caricature of Lang’s music, Golden Fur have drawn him out of his shell for this session. The most significant moment in Beissel comes early on, when the harmonium rises up out of the church organ’s tones in a different intonation, at once wonky and radiant like a force of nature. It’s quite glorious and is emblematic of the music to follow. For forty-five minutes the music flows from rest to restiveness, at once disturbing and oddly reassuring. Each performer blends in yet can also act as a goad from time to time, pushing the sound out of any complacent consensus.

The other instruments combine in ways which can make them difficult to distinguish, giving them the aural trick of taking on qualities from whatever I’ve just listened to before. On certain hearings, the music has resembled electric guitar drones, string ensembles, large solo organ, pure electronics, a phantom flute. Like I said, the music is protean. The title refers to Johann Conrad Beissel, the 18th century religious leader who travelled to America to found a utopian religious community. He devised a compositional method of algorithmic permutations, designed to reinterpret the text of the bible as music. Beissel is apparently one of these hymns, slowed down to glacial stillness.

It would be nice to praise the playing as focused, but there’s a tremendous sense of freedom in what’s happening, of sounds discovered in a shared moment. The source material allows a rich field of possible combinations, where strange tunes and harmonies are liable to burst out at any moment. Beissel is a fine example of the artist as a critic, opening up new avenues of exploration in existing work. The playing of the four musicians captures an act of rediscovery, unveiling an alternative musical world.

Annea Lockwood at Kammer Klang

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Annea Lockwood is one of those composers who I like even when I don’t like their stuff: there’s always a point of view, an insight into how the world is experienced – a purpose, even if that purpose is sonic play. It has the deeper substance that distinguishes art from craft. Her work, like others consigned to the Too-Hard-Basket of the Sixties, is not nearly as well known as it should be, particularly in the UK. It took me by surprise again when, thanking the audience at Cafe Oto on Sunday night, she mentioned that she had once lived for some time in London.

There have been some great efforts to compensate lately, from last December’s LCMF to last weekend’s Kammer Klang mini-festival. Jennifer Lucy Allan was guest curator for this event, putting together a smart and neatly-contained programme over two nights. During the days, her four-channel installation of A Sound Map of the Hudson River played in the Project Space, with a Q&A session on Sunday afternoon.

Each concert followed the usual Kammer Klang format of opening with short, distinct works followed by a main course after interval. Those twin themes of sonic exploration and purposeful play in Lockwood’s work were announced in pieces realised by students from CRiSAP. EVOL’s 2011 piece Three hundred grams of latex and steel in one day shows what you can do with nuts (metal) trapped inside inflated party balloons. Sunday night began with a more technically conventional fanfare, Yoshi Wada’s putative composition Lament for the Rise and Fall of Handy-Horn, scored for an ensemble of air horns. (This may have been a revival of a one-off piece from the 1990s, or the world premiere of a piece Wada doesn’t know exists.)

Lockwood was represented by recent works: Buoyant and Dusk are two evocative electronic works that fill a mental space usually occupied by memory. Buoyant, a montage of field recordings that are vivid in suggesting a discrete place without ever defining it, was followed almost imperceptibly by the collage of modified scientific recordings and percussion in Dusk. Without knowing the source, the listener would most likely mistake it for another remembered landscape. “Exploration” is a term that’s been worn out lately when describing artistic projects, but the process of searching out transcendent qualities in sound became a theme that ran through the weekend.

Sunday presented new pieces, receiving their European premieres. Becoming Air is a solo piece made in collaboration with trumpeter Nate Wooley. At times, the piece threatened to become a simple catalogue of techniques and effects, a deliberately episodic procession of sustained timbres, but as the work unfolded it gained a kind of shape through a careful balance of contrasting timbres and dynamics, with focused playing that was striking without ever becoming attention-seeking. Each section was preceded by Wooley striking a tam-tam and towards the end, after a prolonged passage of overblowing drones that created a racket to rival a noise guitarist, the relatively gentle percussion noise altered the entire piece’s perspective. Water and Memory, an open work for voices with found objects and the dreaded audience participation got my hippie-bullshit meter twitching anxiously but admirably retained its dignity, and the faint microtonal halo of voices at the end sounded so lovely.

The big revelation, for me at least, were two conventional works for piano, played by Xenia Pestova Bennett. I hadn’t heard this aspect of Lockwood’s music before. By ‘conventional’, I mean treating the piano as an instrument, not as a fetishised object. Red Mesa (1993) and RSCS (2001) combine generous amounts of extended techniques inside the piano with keyboard sounds; the latter piece even draws its material from a tone row, from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Quartet. Pitch and noise were blended gracefully, with a clarity of textures and figures that never lapsed into pure sonority.

Besides Lockwood, the programme also featured recorder player Laura Cannell giving her interpretation of Peter Hannan’s RSRCH 4/83, transposed to suit her vocal range as the piece requires voice and instrument to merge. Any chance to hear more music by Chiyoko Szlavnics is also welcomed, so Evie Hilyer and Amalia Young playing two brief violin duets was a bonus.

I’ve enthused about Kammer Klang repeatedly on this blog, describing it as “about the most innovative and interesting new music programme going around right now.” Sadly, after eleven years, the series is coming to an end, with one last show to be held at the ICA on 31 May, dedicated to Maryanne Amacher. I’m glad they kept it up for so long and I saw as much of it as I could.

Julius Eastman: Femenine

Tuesday 2 April 2019

From time to time, the legend of Julius Eastman – tragic decline, obscurity, posthumous elevation to musical martyrdom – threatens to overshadow his achievements. He hasn’t quite attained the bedroom poster status of Che or Jim Morrison, emptied of meaning to become a vessel for the idolator’s own fantasies, but it’s important to get back to the music and refocus. Learning to hear it over again reminds you why his story has gained such renewed attention, and that his significance as a musician is still in flux.

Appreciating Julius Eastman’s music has been an act of recovery. Most Eastman fans probably first heard of him through the 3-CD set Unjust Malaise from 2005, the result of Mary Jane Leach’s quest to track down surviving remnants of his work. Another major step in this process was in 2016 when Frozen Reeds issued a tape of the large-scale ensemble work Femenine that had lain dormant for 40 years. For most of us, as listeners, the foundations of our knowledge of Eastman’s work has been through salvaged recordings that are part music and part historical artifacts.

What we heard was a lost strand of minimal music that was never fully pursued; a unique, vital voice in a style of composition that had seemed exhausted. Since then, new performances and recordings have started to appear, both premiering previously unknown works and reviving the inadvertent ‘classics’. At their best, these new interpretations reveal that those old tapes are merely scratching the surface of what can be found in even his most familiar pieces. The London Contemporary Music Festival in 2016 was dedicated to Eastman. At those concerts I heard that “When performed live by musicians who are not just skilled but are more sympathetic and knowledgeable than could be hoped for from a previous generation, the pieces took on a new life, with greater emotional depth and pure sensory delight than can be found in the old tapes.”

In that first LCMF concert, Apartment House gave the UK premiere of Femenine. That performance was recorded and is now commercially available on a new CD from Another Timbre. Their version benefits from greater accuracy and confidence compared to the 1974 tape of the SEM Ensemble, which allows the piece’s increasingly outrageous digressions to hit the listener with an tremendous force.

I’ve discussed the gig before and gone into more detail about Femenine in a review in Tempo. At first, the piece bears a superficial resemblance to Terry Riley’s In C, but Femenine evolves in a less predictable and more dramatic way. The musicians in Apartment House move from one figure to the next, sometimes together as a pack, at other times striking out individually or unexpectedly falling back. The relatively modest-sized ensemble take Femenine on a journey, making it expand, then soar, then self-sabotage with mock heroics, turn in upon itself and then recover and plough on ahead, stronger than before.

Eastman was an artist who refused to let himself be confined by the listener’s expectations, or by the logic implied the foundations for each of his pieces. His music repeatedly shows a desire to rebel against its own structures and is at its most powerful when the contrasting impulses to either transcend those constraints or destroy them combine to create the sense of a dramatic narrative, the meaning of which can never be fully resolved. Apartment House exploit these qualities to great effect, sounding both passionate and emotionally cool, depending on where you focus your attention. Recordings of mixed ensemble pieces that survive from Eastman’s lifetime seem relatively dry by comparison. Femenine is an essential work and, as significant as the 1974 version is, this new release has become the reference recording.

Debasing the Coinage of Popular Usage: Alan Courtis, Diatribes

Monday 1 April 2019

After hearing so many stripped-back works for solo guitar, it makes a fun change to get sent a guitar album that is cranked and processed halfway to heaven. Alan Courtis’ (bloke from Reynols) solo album Buchla Gtr mashes together one of those 80s-retro Steinberger headless electric guitars with a 60s-retro Buchla modular synthesiser into a seamless whole. The recordings were made over a week at EMS in Stockholm back in 2014 and then reworked over the next few years. As a double LP, each side presents a contrasting tableau of drones and buzzes that morph from ecstatic to sinister and from chilly to decadent. It’s a salutary lesson that the grey area between amplified guitar sounds and electronic oscillation is to be embraced rather than feared. If you were a spotty teenager who got off on Metal Machine Music, (No Pussyfooting) and Sonic Youth’s EPs then this album is a useful affirmation that your youthful tastes didn’t always suck.

Still speaking of guitars: I was at a Julia Reidy solo gig a while back and started thinking about how popular music gets used as material these days. Once, tropes from rock or jazz would be incorporated into other musical styles to act as a signifier of that genre; now, the substance is reworked into new forms. Reidy strummed a 12-string acoustic with live processing and drones provided by the laptop at her side. Chords were prolonged, removed from conventional structural function, sense or context. The point of focus became the tension between the sound in the moment enjoyed for its own sake and the potential for where it might turn next.

I don’t want to use the term ‘deconstructed’ to describe this style as it’s too often used as the smokescreen for ill-conceived pretentious food and even more pretentious music. I’ve just checked again and thankfully the blurb for Diatribes’ new release Echoes & Sirens doesn’t use it either. Here, the subject is dub, filleted and collaged into something that is decidedly not dub, however much one may be struck by a passing resemblance from time to time. No guitars here, except for the bass. A real horn section, with organ, drums and electronics that largely behave in the expected manner. The four tracks, each ten minutes long, imply that some other game is being played here, as does the fact that Diatribes is the duo of Cyril Bondi and d’incise, whom I have reviewed in various guises before.

There is a concept at work, according to the sleeve notes. Each track takes a classic of early 80s dub as a starting point and reworks elements of each by adopting techniques used on sound systems by MCs at the time. I have no authority to judge how successfully the album may be “considered as four imaginary moments of a sound system night” but that’s not the point as far as I’m concerned. While the material and technical concepts may be borrowed from popular music, the method by which they are adapted and applied to a new situations sounds entirely original and the whole thing sounds fresher when heard free of expectations to be true to an imagined model. Or, perhaps this is less an act of collage or d-d-deconstruction and more a cubist representation, incorporating time and subjective experience to move beyond simple mimicry. Each track focuses on a different approach, building up a chorus of echoing brass in ‘Dub fire will be burning’, stringing everything along a line of hi-hats on ‘Tell me, what do you see’, or chopped fragments in stuttering loops on ‘Continually’. A lot of these manipulations sound like they were captured in performance with a lesser degree of electronic manipulation later on, which is pleasing.