Got yer art right here: Zach Rowden, Derek Baron

Sunday 20 September 2020

I’ve ranted about field recordings before, spouting off a poorly-connected set of complaints which can be boiled down to the medium’s general tendency towards complacency. No such thing in Zach Rowden’s piece We were listening to music on his new Takuroku release We were talking about music. The signal intrusions of electronic mediation, duplication and distortion hiss and crackle throughout, mixed with various levels of fidelity. Pipes and bowed strings slowly loop and drone amongst a persistent grey hum of urban open spaces. It is music as a practice, of activity located in space. If the dirgelike playing reminds you of folk music, then it is only because those qualities have been buried, unearthed and denatured to the point that any tenuous claim to authenticity comes from the act of claiming those traditional roots through modern practice. Rowden constantly reminds you of the self-reflective aspect to this music, turning it into both an archive and a document that calls into question any authentic representation, other than of itself.

Is music an art form? Of course, you say, that’s an easy one. But is it really? Music, I mean. Derek Baron’s Fourteen Latches of Heaven and Earth hits you with art of the uncomfortable kind, the sort that you may first wish to dismiss as music. Its fourteen tracks are less collage and more mosaic, each element working together to present an image of music that causes us to question and pursue the deeper workings beneath the bland assumptions we typically make when we listen. Yes, every element is musical – in most cases, a brief sketch on upright piano – but labelled in a way to imply that these have been turned out and casually filed away over the years: ‘e j05 copy (2013)’ is a typical example. They’re pretty and charming miniatures, but presented here as unfinished or as offcuts. The titles reflect personal references without any accompanying significance. Other elements intrude, the ambient background, drum machines, a harmonium solo, uncategorisable sounds. The juxtapositions resist context, neither thematically nor through quotidian accumulation. The centrepiece is a long, tortuous runthrough by Baron and with Dominic Frigo of Bach’s Herr Gott, dich loben wir on recorder and guitar; their laboured playing presents music as a form of cultural transmission at its most unpolished and brutal. The album ends inconclusively with an excerpted recording of a choir being taught a mediaeval Salve Regina, another unresolved act of musical pedagogy. Far from a diary or sketchbook, Fourteen Latches of Heaven and Earth is an artistic statement, presenting music as work; uncommodified labour as both its material and its technique, the machinery of how music makes sense of the world laid bare.

Urban subjectivity: Bill Orcutt, Ed Carter & Jessica Lee

Tuesday 15 September 2020

…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.” A gig I heard last year popped back into my head when listening to Bill Orcutt’s new solo guitar album, Warszawa. Having come to know his music relatively late and largely by accident at a gig in Brighton maybe ten years ago, I hadn’t made the connection to more recent experimental guitar music until now. What I remember from the Brighton gig was insistent activity that stayed resolutely in one place. The connections to rock came from that focus on the grain of the sound against its rhythm, listening inward, using the consistency of sound as a vehicle for the smaller timbral details to come to the fore. Warszawa is a more relaxed and varied affair, even as it features nothing more than Orcutt’s electric guitar without further adornment. The two untitled tracks are taken from a gig in the titular city last autumn. In the first, Orcutt plays melodic figures with varied pacing and elaboration, from gentle arcs to frenetic zig-zags. It’s all grounded by the open bottom string, plucked repeatedly to give a root to all the ornamentation. For all the activity, there’s a calm, steady concentration to the playing that can make it all unexpectedly sound soothing. The second piece (or side, I think this started as a cassette) is even more relaxed, which perversely makes the music even more fraught. The fixed bass is still there, but less frequent, the pace often slows to a pause, breaking the track into several sections. The restless pensiveness counter-balances the calm activity of the first half: Dürer’s Melancholia in reverse.

A superficial, fragile calm can also be heard in Threshold, a collaboration by Ed Carter and Jessica Lee. A lockdown recording, it combines Lee’s clarinet – layered over itself in slow, overlapping harmonies – combined with ambient sounds in and around her house. The environment may be encroaching upon the purity of the unaccompanied clarinet, or perhaps the clarinet is intruding into the everyday suburbia. The ambiguities are enhanced by the use of binaural microphones that open up the context and prominence of each sound, and by an Aeolian harp that is threaded through the piece, blurring boundaries between figure and ground even further. The clarinets and harp sound sweet and unhurried, but as the ear becomes trained on the details beneath the surface it all takes on a more troubled aspect. The sounds hover in limbo, neither private nor public – music heard on the doorstep, unsure of whether to venture outside or to welcome the listener in. For now, it marks time in an uneasy balance; a smile of optimism with a furrowed brow.

Jérôme Noetinger with Anthony Laguerre and Jean-Philippe Gross on Takuroku

Monday 14 September 2020

A long year ago I wrote about Jérôme Noetinger’s sublime collaboration with Anthony Pateras, A Sunset For Walter. Cafe Oto has now put out two new Noetinger collaborations, recorded over Covid summer, again featuring his use of a Revox tape recorder as an instrument. Noetinger’s live shows typically have a playful element, exploiting the unpredictable nature of bending sounds through manipulating tape directly, with the mad-scientist theatricality adding to the off-kilter element in the music. As stand-alone recordings, they retain that spirit of adventure recording-only adventures through the slightly messy technology at work and provocative formal conceits that challenge the musicians’ creativity.

The concept behind Propagations is simple. Noetinger and Anthony Laguerre exchange tapes they have made and do a number on each other’s recordings, “just like in the 80s”. Although no longer dependent on physical media and the postal service, both Laguerre and Noetinger seem to be using their tape decks in their ‘edits’ of each other’s work. Each of the two 15-minute tracks is a noisy, chaotic ride of electronic sounds that never stick around for too long. This is just as well, for as with all chaos there are occasional irritating and boring moments mixed in between effects that range from cheesy to inspired. It keeps you guessing, particularly with questions like: is it all really that simple? In an attempt to drill down and distinguish the two pieces and the two artists’ work I kept hearing similarities arise between them, with a kind of symmetry that suggests each track started as the reverse of the other before the additional transformations took hold. Maybe I’m hearing things, but authentic-sounding chaos usually carries an underlying design.

The concept behind Nos cadavres is simple. Noetinger and Jean-Philippe Gross exchanged tapes, but only the last 10 seconds of their recording for each one to carry on after the other in a game of Exquisite Corpse. So the exchange passes back and forth, each new contribution adding a new twist to a hallucinatory continuity that makes itself up as it goes along. In lesser hands, this lack of greater context would wear thin pretty quickly. The length of each section, however, was allowed to be anywhere from ten seconds up to seven minutes, so that moments of stability are allowed to emerge and define an overall shape, however mysterious it may be. Gross and Noetinger are also smart enough to vary sounds from the continuous to discontinuous, allowing silences to both break up the information overload and create more distinctive sonic forms. Between them, they manage to put together a dazzling range of interesting sounds over the course of the two extended tracks. Surprisingly, each listening has added further intrigue, so far.

Alvin Lucier on Black Truffle

Thursday 10 September 2020

As well as releasing lots of fine music by new composers, Black Truffle has been preserving the legacy of the old masters. In particular, they have been steadily releasing recent pieces by Alvin Lucier. I went into details last year about a magnificent concert given at the Round Chapel in Clapton by the Ever Present Orchestra. That gig was recorded by the BBC but I don’t think it’s been broadcast. At least, the new ensemble pieces from that concert have been recorded and released a couple of months ago by members of the same group. Works For The Ever Present Orchestra is made up of new recordings of these works that coax iridescent interference patterns from the interaction of acoustic instruments and electronic tones. In this case, the electronics are provided by e-bowed electric guitars, adding another subtle layer of complexity and colouration. The pace here is brisker and the textures sound more transparent than what I remember from the concert: this may be due to the resonance of the Round Chapel, a reduction in personnel or just that my attention is no longer distracted by the theatrical presence of the large ensemble at work in intense concentration.

Lucier doesn’t so much reward attention as demand it. As writer Brian Olewnick observed after listening to String Noise, another release from this year, “Alvin Lucier once again testing my patience. And testing it well.” If I thought Lucier was getting lush and lyrical in his old age, these three hefty pieces for solo and duo violins brought that conceit crashing down around my ears. Tapper is the solo work, from 2004, written for Conrad Harris who plays it here for nearly an hour. The performer repeatedly taps the body of his instrument with the butt end of the bow while moving around the performance space. That’s the piece. No strings involved at all – except, of course they are. As I said, his music demands your attention. It’s no Fluxus exercise in mundanity, and Harris plays with the same combination of rigour and flexibility afforded a Bach partita. Lucier fans will spot the connection to his 60s echolocation piece Vespers and how the sound is shaped by its surroundings, but Tapper removes the extramusical rationalisation and focuses on the sound as music itself. If you don’t listen, you miss the tiny gradations in decay and shading, augmented by the resonance of the violin’s body, as well as its strings.

The two remaining works are played here as duets by Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris. In Love Song, from 2016, they play long tones using only the open E string, while moving in a circular motion around the performance space. Their two violins are joined at the bridge by a long wire, which transfers resonating tones between the instruments. As the players move, changes in the wire’s tension adds to the complex microcosm of tones produced by this minimum of overt activity. A fascinating sound, if you’re paying attention. Halo, composed last year, is similar to Tapper, but requires the violinists to move through the space bowing long tones, making each slight shift in sound less prominent while producing the finest detectable gradations in sound colour. The alchemical qualities of Lucier’s music persist to this day, with less focus on the demonstrative or pedagogical angles and a more assured reliance on their art.

Home recordings: Takuroku

Friday 28 August 2020

It’s inevitable that most of the releases on Takuroku are home recordings to some extent and most of them have avoided the obvious. An excessive focus on domesticity can lead to the petty dullness for which musique concrète was once criticised. The obvious and the simplistic are easy to do badly and very difficult to do well; domesticity can be put to good use by a truly creative mind. A number of solo Takuroku recordings are by musicians simply playing at home (or, in the case of Chik White, playing his home). Where these pieces may not be great artistic statements, they contain a directness that refutes any such pretension and so they gain a new value through their candour.

At other times, they can reveal more about the musician’s relationship to music than first expected. Hannah Marshall’s Clouds is a set of six improvisations for solo cello, recorded in a friend’s suburban spare room with an open window. The setting is itself much of the piece, but when heard at a low level the background disappears and the ordering and arrangement of the music comes to the fore. Everything is plucked or tapped, never bowed. If the pieces are numbered in order of performance, then they have been sequenced to provide a more complex and balanced structure, with one omitted. At first, they began mostly with silence, the gradually filled into rhyhtmic studies that acquire a sprightly melancholy as they progress. Unorthodox tunings are used, but this is used less for the sake of tuning and more for learning to explore the strings in new ways.

The house isn’t so much heard directly in Juliet Fraser’s My Adventures With The TC Helicon Voicelive 3, but its presence is implicit throughout. The twenty-two tracks were recorded over a six-week period, as Fraser decided to use her enforced downtime to finally learn how to use the titual piece of electronic equipment she had bought for a specific piece five years earlier. “No critical reflection” is the watchword here, with the album acting as an artist’s sketchbook, learning new effects, trying out various techniques and just singing, for the hell of it. Folksongs and poetry are here, with some garden recordings, made-up rhymes and experiments with looping, harmonising and pitch shifts. The cumulative effect becomes as much personal as it is pedagogical, an extended series of exercises in purposeful play. The deliberate gimmickry is used as a veil of modesty over Fraser’s superb vocal artistry, but can never fully obscure it. As it ranges from silly to sweet, always oddly charming, the album can’t help but become an informal portrait of Fraser herself, if not a strongly skewed view of her home life.

Eventless Plot: Parallel Words

Friday 21 August 2020

Beats me how people find these things, but I’m glad that they do. Eventless Plot is Vasilis Liolios, Yiannis Tsirikoglou and Aris Giatas, a trio of musicians in Thessaloniki. The music they make can be hard to describe. It is typically referred to as ‘group composition’, a term that usually implies homogeneous improvisation or undifferentiated free-for-all, but that’s far from the case here. For starters, their newest release, Parallel Words, sees them working with a small ensemble of flute, clarinet and strings in addition to their own playing on instruments an electronics. This ensemble takes its lead from compositions jointly worked out by the trio; these compositional structures may, or may not, allow them certain degrees of freedom. Such strategies can often be highly reductive, but Eventless Plot work in a more idiosyncratic way, with intriguing results.

The title work had its material composed conventially at the piano and was then developed with instrumentation and electronics dividing the music between them into two independent strands. In its unhurried pace, the piece moves back and forth between tension and release as the strands – flute and piano versus strings, with electronic sounds thickening the plot – drift in and out of synchronisation, at times in conflic and at others in accord. The piece moves with an aleatory fluidity, while also creating a slow-motion contrapunctal call and response, each instrument in turn commenting on the others.

The opening work, Cosmographia, consists of a structure where the overall shape and individual parts were created to give rise to “common melodic slow shifting patterns and acoustic textures”. From one section to the next, each musician is allowed greater or lesser control to vary pacing and elaboration, with alternate tunings and extended techniques introduced both as variation and as material itself. The works on this disc fall into the “soft and slow” school of music but the playing on both these pieces, together with the imaginatively developed compositions, allows for a complexity of texture and detail to match the typically careful focus on timbre. Eventless Plot’s ‘group compositions’ guide the ensemble with a mercurial intelligence that is both human yet beyond individual subjectivity, quietly confounding expectations as each turn creates a new hybrid of sound.

That impersonal, third mind approach can be heard more explicitly in the final work, Conversion, which seems to be closer to some of the group’s previous work. The trio gently strike various percussion instruments and objects, each with contact microphones attached. The amplified vibrations are transformed into strange gong and marimba-like sounds, with bowed cymbals and electronic filtering producing continuous tones. These soft, sustained sounds are augmented and shaded by a viola, played by Stefanos Papadimitriou, who appears on all three pieces. The emphasis on exploration and discovery is at the forefront here, but that same tendency can be heard in the other pieces, applied to compositional principles.

Senses of place: Takuroku

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Isolation drags on – at least it does for me. I’m vaguely aware of the passing of time, and kind of aware that I’ve been staying in one place for months, but a complacency sets in such that the sudden realisation of other times and places comes as something of a shock now. Cafe Oto’s Takuroku series of download releases continues for the foreseeable future, made by musicians coping with lockdown. As music made from necessity, it tends to fall into two categories, being either solo recordings at home or long-distance collaboration. The latter type is facilitated by online communication and typically takes the form of an exchange, or a series of exchanges between two or more musicians. The results are a type of montage, such as the decelptively complex sketches made up of multiple images by Ryoko Akama, Anne-F Jacques and Tim Shaw in their Takuroky album In Another Place. On the other hand, Otto Willberg and David Birchall have taken things further by exchanging the places themselves.

Willberg is a double bass player in London, while Birchall is a guitarist in Manchester. Their joint release Murky Sovereignty performs a rite of psychogeographical alchemy, by each recording a space near them and playing them back to each other. Each has scaled their playing back to forms of electronic treatment laid over the recordings, enhancing the audible space and layering them with acoustic tropes. The spaces chosen are liminal – the pair of works are titled walking about under junction 7 of the M60, singing and spending lunch time under the link road at Thamesmead a couple of times – concrete traffic overpasses with distinct acoustic characteristics yet also oppressive on a human scale. The baleful hum of traffic sets the tone for both works, a grey film that settles over every sound and darkens it. If this sounds too much like grim social realism, just remember that there’s a purposeful idleness at work in these recordings, in defiance of the utilitarian surroundings. An inadvertent performance takes place as people pass through the scene, in various guises. Willberg and Birchall are activist observers, finding life in supposedly dead spaces.

There’s a stark contract of place and time in Ute Kanngiesser and Daniel Kordík’s 5AM, recorded early one June morning not far from here, where I’ve been sitting for the past five months. I’m well aware it’s summer now, but everything I’ve been hearing this year suggests a perpetual British spring, slow and belated. Kordík’s recording of Kanngiesser playing cello on the Hackney Marshes began at 4:48 AM and it instantly reminds me that it was the right time of year to coincide with the dawn chorus. The piece is, in fact, a recording of birdsong gently accompanied by Kanngiesser adding faint sounds, usually harmonics. As an artistic statement, it’s simply an act of joining in with the surroundings, yet that simple act was both liberating and transgressive. Reading Kanngiesser’s notes reminds you of the evasive action needed to record this piece, at a time when “essential” travel was restricted. It seems later than I remembered, yet also so much longer ago than I thought. This release comes with writing by Evie Ward and is available in WAV format, as recommended by the musicians.

Tom Wheatley’s Round Trip returns to home, or stays at home, or both. The space itself becomes the subject as it encroaches upon his double-bass playing, at times disrupting it entirely. Or, the bass recedes into background noise amidst the domestic sounds that form the basis of this crowded landscape. With attentive listening, one hears musicianship frustrated by ambient obstacles; with casual listening one hears the bass notes merging into the space, a settled occupant, even if never fully at ease.

Hyazo v Levitas

Monday 17 August 2020

Just had a couple of weeks off, going nowhere, of course. Listening to this 2020 release hyazo by Cyril Bondi, Pierre-Yves Martel and Christoph Schiller, the same trio who have us tse a few years back and the brilliant awirë with Angharad Davies in 2019. The three pieces on hyazo are a purportedly different proposition from those previous albums, with each of the pieces here a more controlled composition – two by Schiller, one by Bondi – than an improvisation. The ensemble is much the same as before, with Bondi on harmonium, Martel on viola da gamba, and Schiller on spinet, with the usual additional of pitch pipes. While tse and awirë made use of compositional restrictions on their improvisations, hyazo shifts the balance and allows improvisation within a more encompassing compositional conceit. Where tse and awirë built their improvisations out of limited pitch gamuts, hyazo‘s three pieces use entire, pre-existing music as a reference point: Bondi’s title track is based on a saxophone solo, while Schiller’s Palestrina is self-explanatory. Perhaps the more elaborate structure has cramped the musicians’ style a little too much, perhaps their instrumentation and style is so distinctive… For whatever reason, while hyazo has that same impersonal beauty as their previous work, it’s hard to distinguish these three pieces from them, or indeed from each other.

A couple of weeks later, Bondi released another, larger piece, this time in conjunction with his regular collaborator d’incise. Levitas (Lane, De Asís, Mécanique, Majkowski, Garin) is another group effort that had me worried I was in for more of the same, again. Wrong, wrong. No explanatory notes are given here, but it seems that Bondi and d’incise are the composers but (supposedly) do not play here. The five piece electroacoustic ensemble are listed in the title and includes Rebecca Lane on bass flute and Clara de Asís on electric guitar, with other musicians I’m not familiar with. The true identity of Golem Mécanique, credited with “voice, tapes, electronic”, remains a mystery. The music itself is equally mysterious, falling into sections and episodes that betray the initial impression of a monolithic exercise in the minimal. Various poses and and attitudes are taken up, toyed with and discarded in a seemingly capricious way, with a solemn playfulness that keeps you guessing to the end, wondering if equilibium will be restored if the whole thing is going to blow up. It’s refreshing to hear something this imaginative, with some searching musicianship, permanently incongruous.

Sam Ridout: Aspect Spur Disjecta

Monday 3 August 2020

Over the weekend, someone on a popular social media site shared the following video, titled “Tree branch falls on power lines – high voltage – Wicked Effect”.

The first reply was:

It’s a fair point, at least for electronic (or in this case, electrical) music. As making it has gotten easier, so has it sounded more and more constricted by a curious quality of inertness. Either it becomes too easy – acceptably interesting timbres generated almost by default, without any larger musical impetus – or it gets worked over into a highly polished surface with all spontaneous disturbances buffed out, all sheen and no substance.

I got sent a new album of music by Sam Ridout the same week I bought the latest release off John Wall’s bandcamp. Fittingly, each composer has reviewed the other’s work: you could call it logrolling but listening to both reveals a strong resemblance in thinking and purpose, if not in sound. Both share a dissatisfaction with the obvious and facile, in form and matter, each using samples which are heavily reworked into complex sounds. While Wall’s M – [ B ] extends further into richer sonorities, the pieces on Ridout’s Aspect Spur Disjecta make a virtue of restraining their sonic pallette to shades of grey. The sounds are finely shaped, textured and layered to make those greys turn iridescent. The pieces, composed between 2013 and 2017, are short. Nothing stretches beyond four minutes and the entire set is over in twenty. Each piece is a distillation, inviting and rewarding concentrated listening. As with Wall’s pieces, there’s an awareness of space, depth, perspective and silence often lacking from the ‘experimental’ side of electronic music – but that’s enough for comparisons. There’s a liveliness in this music so often missing in electronics, which is all the rarer for not trying to ingratiate itself with the listener. Those heavily-worked sounds do not try to justify their presence, but exploit acoustic phenomena in ways that create seemingly natural forms that have otherwise never existed.

Takuroku: Viola Torros, Orazbayeva, Duplant

Tuesday 28 July 2020

My personal setbacks from coronavirus have been trivial compared to others. One of the disappointments has been the second missed chance to see Johnny Chang and Catherine Lamb’s Viola Torros Project performed live. Their double CD was one of the outstanding releases of 2018 and I was looking forward to hearing them at Counterflows in Glasgow this spring. As a small consolation, Cafe Oto’s Takuroku series has now given us Preliminary Study for V.T., a sketch exploring pre-mediaeval musical styles across Eurasia. While the Viola Torros pieces use spectral augmentation through reverberation, subtle feedback and voices, this Preliminary Study features just Chang and Lamb in a viola duet, recorded back in 2017 and reworked into a piece this year. It’s starker and more subdued, of course, closer to first principles that make it seem as much a distillation as an embryonic version of the music’s later, more developed forms. The interweaving violas play modes derived from Arabic, Byzantine and Indian music, all within a very narrow range of pitch and dynamics that brings attention to small changes in the grain of the instruments as much as their intonation. I did not give much attention to the musicological implications of the finished works at the time, as the material by that time had been transformed into a vehicle for broader timbral exploration. On the Takuroku recording, the material is heard more clearly, making it a useful addition to what I hope is a continuing series of V.T. works.

I listened to Aisha Orazbayeva’s Music for Violin Alone a couple of months ago and have come back to it repeatedly since then. Her Takuroku release Slow Change continues in a similar vein of home recordings for solo violin. Two of Orazbayeva’s exploratory works sandwich one of Orlando Gibbons’ viol fantasies, which is here played with a deliberately light touch to produce and fluting, breathy tone; Gibbons’ Jacobean sense of impeccable order faintly outlined in what Cage would call “empty” sounds. The Fantasia carries over from the first piece, in which Orazbayeva plays with paper threaded between the strings, muting and distorting the notes. For the title piece, she has created her own answer to James Tenney’s Koan from her previous release, a gradually evolving tremolo whose sonic metamorphosis is brought about by imperceptibly guiding the bow from bridge to nut.

It’s easy to describe features of Bruno Duplant’s music but he’s still hard to pin down. In his earlier Chamber and Field Works there are musicians and there are the environments they occupy, where each are present but neither makes demands of your attention. Each frames the other, with emergent properties. His Covid lockdown piece insaisissable(s) instant(s) is a piece about time, where time is an empty space upon which competing emotions and thoughts may intrude unbidden. There is a piano, sometimes, and the outside world can be heard, but at a distance. The piano’s silence becomes the subject, speaking of withdrawal indoors, moving back and forth between contemplation and impatience. As for ambience, the piece is measured out in regular domestic squeaks and thuds from around the room with a steady insistence of overfamiliarity that threatens incipient cabin fever. An electrical hum comes and goes, which may or may not help to relieve the tension. Who said this stuff is relaxing?

Ends and beginnings: Ernstalbrecht Stiebler

Sunday 26 July 2020

Like many people – judging by the interview on this album’s web page – my knowledge of Ernstalbrecht Stiebler’s music centres on the CDs of his 1990s music released on Hart Art. Based on this, I had mentally labelled him as “Euro-Niblock”, listened to it, enjoyed it and never went into it too deeply. An album of new pieces has now been released on Another Timbre, works for strings composed between 2007 and 2016: Für Biliana shows both how Stiebler has continued to develop as a composer and how listening has changed over the past quarter-century. Beginning with two short solo works for violinist Biliana Voutchkova, Für Biliana is made out of double-stops in which held notes are harmonised on the other string, alternating in almost cadence-like figures; in Glissando the moving tone on the double-stops slides in, or out, of unison with the held pitch. In each piece, the music is formed of phrases instead of a steady drone, with occasional tremolos in Glissando that make the piece resemble a slow caprice. Heard in retrospect, the attenuated romanticism in these brief works becomes more evident in those Nineties pieces. There’s a continuous balancing act between the instability of the harmonic language used and the stability of its immobility, where neither can truly claim precedence.

Voutchkova is joined by cellist Michael Rauter for Duo 4 / Parallelen, a longer work from 2007 where each plays overlapping dissonances in a kind of antiphony. The language is pure Fifties avant-garde, an unresolved major seventh, but it is transformed by its stasis, effectively becoming its own tonal centre. Nevertheless, the tension between the two suggests a resolution is still needed and Stiebler achieves it through silence, as each successive iteration starts to fade away into something more gentle, eventually finding rest.

I lied when I said this album was made of newer pieces. Stiebler’s Extension for string trio was composed way back in 1963 and it’s incredible in the ways it both resembles and differs from his recent work. Joined by Nurit Stark on viola, Voutchkova and Rauter play the ephemeral material with a steady, unaffected solidity, adding inflections and articulation to a recurring tritone for almost twenty minutes. It’s a prescient work that goads the critic into drawing comparisons with La Monte Young’s trio, but it’s more interesting to compare it to Stiebler’s own Duo 4 / Parallelen. Both with essentially the same subject, Extension prolongs the harmonic stasis with differentiations in attack, phrasing and dynamics, elaborating a detailed chamber work out of a minimum of developed material, while Duo 4 / Parallelen takes the same approach, but with greater subtlety and refinement. Where the earlier piece uses pizzicato disruptions and changes in speed to vary the texture, the latter work makes use of alterations in solo and duo voices, phrasings and rests.

This weekend I dug up those old Hat Art discs again and heard how those works sound much less like a function of a process than I remembered. Thanks to Für Biliana we can hear now how those pieces relate to the music that came both before and after it, simultaneously.

Words and non-words, subjects and objects

Tuesday 21 July 2020

I’ve been puzzled by Leo Chadburn’s pieces for speaking voice and ensemble: Freezywater dispassionately lists place-names that encircle the greater London area, The Indistinguishables pits a string quartet against a list of species of moth, recited with equally solemn blankness. The music is undemonstrative but fraught with the potential of escalating to the tragic, offering no readily apparent commentary on or illumination of the text, nor vice versa. Each achieves a semantic impasse that simultaneously invites and resists interpretation. Hearing them both, my mind kept protesting that there was less going on than met the ear.

Chadburn’s new record, The Subject / The Object, gives both ears and mind something more formidable to grapple with. The cool surface presented in those earlier chamber compositions has become more resistant here: The Subject / The Object can exist only as a recording, a fixed object, as it were. Instruments are reduced to voice and electronics, precisely machined into two halves of exactly twenty minutes each. The Subject is a sentence, underpainted with ominous synth rumbles that churn up the background. The spoken sentence continues in a single breath through an endless cascade of conjunctions and modifiers through which the subject slips without ever being pinned to a defintion. It’s an ingenious work of linguistic construction, vocal intonation and editing, that impresses your conciousness while the sounds get to work on the lower levels of your mind.

If it reminds you of Robert Ashley’s works for speaking voice, it might first be the resemblance in the editing that hooks you in, but really it’s the lure of a narrative thread that continually pulls you along even as you lose the sense of it. The voice is speaking and you listen, long after the words have ceased to register in your head. As with most of Ashley’s stories, I’m still not sure how it ends and if I were to go and hunt down the conclusion to find out what it all means then I’m sure I would be looking in the wrong place. The Object is the wordless counterpart, a necessary negative of multiple drones of vocalise. It plays the voice like a sampler with an empty memory, where void becomes meaning by default.

When you’re writing a violin solo. YOU, A HACK: [bunch of notes on staves]. GEORGE BRECHT, AN ARTIST: [* polishing]. One night after too many drinks I announced to nobody in particular that Fluxus invented dank memes. Both are hellbent on stripping away context and explanation to find an irreducible, irrefutable non sequitur. It came back to me when happily listening through all fifty-seven minutes and forty-nine seconds of Luciano Maggiore & Louie Rice’s Synthesised voices and low frequencies to eat crisps with. The title tells you exactly what it is. The synthesised voices, though, they speak words; a barest minimum of semantic content – an exhaustive list of permutations of the words NO PA PA ON – rendered beyond any semblance of or desire for comprehensibility. Like a bad joke told well, it should be intolerable but for its frankness and savvy stupidity, with no prospect of nor attempt at a payoff. It is easy to forget that the truly impersonal is also guileless. As with Chadburn, the words dissolve into sound and produce music. Strange, but still music, of a type that reminds you that no music has any truly existential reason to exist at all. The blurb gives you the links to the websites they used to generate the piece, should you wish to make a copy for yourself. There’s no point to having one version of this, so why not have two?

Takuroku Shooting Gallery

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Takuroku put out a batch of cool new stuff each week and I want to do them justice but I’m lazy. Will get more detailed on some of them later but for now:

Astral Social Club – ACID BARF. Neil Campbell dishes out a beat that just won’t quit despite it being subjected to every synth-pop indignity under the sun. The perverse will to endure becomes a gag that’s beaten into the ground and then beaten some more until it gets funny again.

Aylu – Frida. It starts out more normal than Astral Social Club but somewhere along the way it slips into madness and random goofiness made all the more winning after the straight beats have revealed themselves to be po-faced pop. Second guest appearance by pets.

Cam Deas – Rhythmic Landscapes. The blurb namedrops David Tudor’s Rainforest, which got my hopes up too high. In fact, it’s a nice set of field recordings of birds mixed in with overlapping patterns of percussion sounds. After a while it sounds too much like being on a verandah out in the country, sitting too close to the windchimes with a killer hangover.

Floris Vanhoof – Falala Falderiere Falderaldera. Nifty phasing electronics that jitter back and forth appealingly, interspersed with a frog pond that sounds just as electronic but isn’t, probably. It’s better than the title and I’m not dissing the electronics when I wish the frog track was longest.

Johnny R. Spykes – Less Effective Rhetoric. Plenty of action, but while sax and harsh electronics can be great fun in a pub they’re hell on the home listener. Most extreme is the mismatched stereo separation, except for one skronk recorded in low-bit mono.

Kazuhisa Uchihashi – Breathing Vegetables. Plenty of action, but at least we can have as much fun as Uchihashi is with obsessive pitch-bending, bouncy one-string guitar action and ditzy loops. The manic glee is infectious. There is a daxophone.

SHLIMP WARC – THGIE DRSOW. Acid Mothers Temple veterans Tatsuya Yoshida and Makoto Kawabata dust off some leftovers from a trio album only without Richard Pinhas, which helps brighten things up a little. Kerrazy drumming with ironic 80s guitar squalls and random keyboard barrages. Party like it’s 1994.

Naima Karlsson – [Vital Organs]: I. Heart Protector. A mere fifteen minutes, but one of the most substantial releases so far. A genuinely hypnotic piece for organ and electronics that retunes the listener’s awareness simply by breathing.

Ecka Mordecai – Critique + Prosper. A cellist and vocalist, Mordecai produces a set of personal recordings that aren’t so much introspective as self-possessed, letting the listener find their own space inside her sounds. I like to think this album was also made in a shed.

Otomo Yoshihide – 「Small Stone」. Frenetic atonal guitar soloing that unexpectedly cools into a clear-eyed reflection on the nature of protest, from the independence of public prosecutors in Japan to the independence of Hong Kong from China. A surprisingly moving sonic essay on the anxious balance between peace and vigilance.

Later thoughts on Mittwoch aus Licht

Thursday 9 July 2020

The morning after I saw Mittwoch aus Licht in Birmingham, I turned on the news and heard that Neil Armstrong had died. Suddenly, the Helicopter String Quartet made sense to me; in particular, the instruction that the scene be introduced by a compere who then leads a Q&A session with the performers and the audience after the quartet has been played. Like so many aspects of Stockhausen’s operas, it seemed an inexplicable but surprisingly rewarding decision to frame the scene in this way. Why single this scene out for audience explication? Next morning, it all became clear.

All mankind went to the moon; Armstrong was our delegate. The astronauts brought back photos and moon rocks for us to marvel over and discuss. Stockhausen couldn’t get all of us hovering in the air over Birmingham, so he brings the musicians and the pilots back to the audience so we could ask them what it was like. Birmingham Opera Company just streamed a video of the entire opera over the weekend and this line of thought came back to me. I didn’t write about Mittwoch at the time – it was all overwhelming and took too long to get down in words. Besides, many others wrote so well about it. In particular, there was analysis of the double image presented by the opera, which the production didn’t make overt but was present enough for the observant audience member to detect, in disconcerting glimpses.

The Helicopter String Quartet is a key part of the double image: like the moon landing, a technical triumph of ultimately limited value. The central figures of Licht – Michael, Eva and Lucifer – are largely absent from Mittwoch until the final, complex scene. Instead, we witness humans coming together in noble endeavours that are thwarted by their own vulnerabilities, compromised from the start by flawed premises. Each success, whether sending a string quartet into the air, a “world parliament” reaching agreement, or orchestra musicians passing audition, is heavily qualified by mundane, material considerations and circumscribed by limited vision. The Licht operas function as 21st century mystery plays: in Mittwoch, we witness humanity acting on its best impulses yet stumbling in the dark without the guidance of the divine. When the great planet-shitting camel (work with me, here) makes its entrance in that last, complex scene and starts singing in the signature bass tones of Lucifer, it’s a warning that we have been led astray.

Home listening with Han Bennink, Yoni Silver and Xenia Pestova Bennett

Tuesday 7 July 2020

The variety on display at Takuroku continues to amaze. Here are three home recordings, made during and for the mitigation of Covid lockdown. Han Bennink’s Musical Collage for Mara captures the restless energy of his live percussion sets, jumping between casual tabletop drumming, interventions by a couple of pets, and household members rolling metal boules across the wooden floors. It’s like a set of snapshots of life in a very musical house, which gives it all a charming air of casual spontaneity. When things do settle down, it’s because something has grabbed Bennink’s attention, such as how many different timbres can be coaxed with a pair of brushes out of what I like to imagine is an upturned Quality Street tin.

Yoni Silver takes it outside with his Sun and sky and garden breeze, a compelling contribution to the undervalued ‘men in sheds’ genre. Inside the makeshift musical temple in his backyard, he evokes a suburban bucolic idyll out of wind and string instruments, supplemented by his voice and various found objects. While Bennink takes action, Silver is contemplative, allowing the sounds of the surrounding birds and breezes to provide an outline for his music to shade in, building up a gently shimmering soundscape of a quiet, self-contained summer.

Since we’re imagining that home recordings are glimpses into a musician’s home life, then Xenia Pestova Bennett‘s Atonal Electronic Chamber Music For Cats seems to fit right in here. Perhaps her house really is littered with superannuated electronic detritus; in any case, she’s made a succinct collection of pieces using old keyboards that have just reached that awkward age of sufficient cheesiness. (She kindly specifies for synth nerds exactly what she’s working with: Yamaha CS1X, Korg MonoSynth 2000, MicroKorg Synth Vocoder.) It’s always a kick to hear an album that’s as good as the title. Each piece sounds like a groovy bit of background music from an episode of Tomorrow’s World that goes just a leetle too far. It’s ridiculous fun, precisely because each pastiche is so well made, with affectionate care. Expect to see a massively overpriced vinyl edition for a future Record Store Day.