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.

Three LPs by Jamie Drouin and Lance Austin Olsen

Monday 6 July 2020

Good to see some people making better use of Covid-19 downtime than I have. It’s been a while since I wrote up any music by Lance Austin Olsen or Jamie Drouin (aka Liquid Transmitter) but I’ve just been hit with three new releases in short order by the two of them working together. Well, two of them are new: Snowfield is a reissue of a collaboration from way back in 2003. It began as a four-track sound installation, made up of field recordings of the two artists “interacting” with a small patch of snowbound landscape. On paper, it looks heavier on concept than on substance, but Drouin and Olsen have worked their material into seven distinct tracks of finely differentiated sounds that come together in collages that are very soft, very long, nearly white.

The two new collaborations show how their collaging chops have deepened over the years, mixing eclectic elements into something more complex yet equally organic. Both were conceived during, and resulted from, the self-isolation of pandemic lockdown. With direct working together now impossible, the pieces were created through a process of exchange, sending files back and forth online. The French Drop is a set of five pieces in which perspective and focus slip back and forth from one state to another; as in an optical illusion, each graspable image hovers between two identities, never fully resolving into one. Drouin’s synthesisers never settle into being a mere backdrop to hold Olsen’s objects and found sounds together: both sound palettes fuse into one portentous, if ambiguous, whole.

Olsen has worked this way before, with long-distance collaborations that cross the equator, not just across town. But what is space or distance these days, anyway. With less of a direct programme or idea driving the project, both The French Drop and This, And The Other Space, released a few weeks later, allow for a more purely musical experience than some of Olsen’s other work, so that the listener’s mind is free to conjecture as to what lurks beneath the surface. This, And The Other Space may be bolder in its contrasts, with more discrete elements sticking in the mind, but the dual storylines collaged together here merge into one experience which the listener may not disentangle. The two albums act as counterparts, each forming a double image of space, place and subjectivity.

Isolation Pianos (2): Lisa Ullén, Bobby Mitchell, Frederic Rzewski

Tuesday 30 June 2020

More odious comparisons: pianos, this time. This was going to get posted yesterday and include Alex White’s Transductions but I got a bit carried away about that one. I’m catching up on Takuroku’s weekly set of releases by musicians working in self-isolation over the past few months. Lisa Ullén’s Gold, 20-minute solo for prepared piano, was recorded in her living room on 1 June and I’ve just finished listening to it for a second time. Prepared piano is a difficult medium for musical expression; the overbearing timbres tend to push composers into resorting to extremes, either extravagant pyrotechnics or carefully isolated gems of sound. Ullén here stakes out a middle ground, and perhaps suffers for it. With paper threaded through the piano strings, she sets up a buzzing haze through which clear tones gradually emerge. From there, her concentration turns from timbral density to variety, picking out deliberate melodic fragments mixing muted and untreated piano notes. That middle ground of avoiding extremes makes it all feel a little safe, but then this piece isn’t about creating and resolving tension. It’s an extended study in contrasting timbres and textures, with the latter half cannily avoiding any perceptible shape to balance out the former.

Pianist Bobby Mitchell has given Takuroku something that’s as close to trad as the series will presumably get, with a suite of pieces from Frederic Rzewski’s Songs of Insurrection. A veritable Old Master of virtuoso piano composition, Rzewski shows that his compositional and motivational spark are as vital as ever with this piano cycle composed in 2016, drawing material and inspiration from popular songs of World War II soldiers, partisans and civil rights protesters. The slightly rough-and-ready recording conditions suit the idiom perfectly and Mitchell gets stuck in with the right attitude, playing with an athelticism that always lands with feet planted firmly on the ground, with a tenderness that’s never soft-hearted. There’s a great unity of purpose here between composer and pianist, each unafraid to get into some dense passages without fear of getting the listener muddled. Right now, there’s no other legitimate way to get hold of a recording of this piece so it’s kind of essential for late Rzewski.

Isolation Pianos (1): Alex White’s ‘Transductions’

Monday 29 June 2020

Alex White’s album Transductions came out on Room 40 early this month and I’m still getting over it. As a huge fan of pianos, real or virtual, being pushed beyond the physical dimensions of human playing, this set really spoke to me. It’s more than the simple surreal thrill of the instrument playing something otherwise technically impossible; it’s hearing the piano discovering new means of expression when considered separately from traditional means of performance. Nancarrow’s late player piano studies set a standard which later musicians have used as an insipration and a challenge.

“The confluence of the computer sequencer, the sampler, and Conlon Nancarrow’s work was a stimulus for many composers in the late 80s and early 90s. (Note to postgraduate students no. 2: A thesis exploring the many pieces written for computer controlled piano sounds in this period.)” – so wrote Warren Burt in 2000, reviewing Tristram Cary’s The Impossible Piano. People are still doing it today. While Nancarrow was demonstrating polyrhythms generated by temporal ratios, and Cary was exploring wider compositional concerns, Burt’s own 39 Dissonant Etudes used sequencing software to generate its own rhythmic and melodic material within broad parameters. Both “piano” and “player” operated largely autonomously, producing music outside of any overriding compositional considerations.

White’s Transductions play out in a similar tradition, but with technological advances deliciously subverted. While Burt and Cary had to work with mid-90s soundfonts and personal computers, White gets a real live Disklavier – a computer-controlled piano – and hooks it up to an analogue synthesiser. The synth’s voltage signals are translated into computer-readable MIDI data for the piano to play. Just typing that last sentence was a kick. Essentially, Transductions is a set of eight pieces for analogue electronics, oscillators and feedback, with all of the complexities and instability that implies, played through a piano instead of loudspeakers. It’s glorious. Erratic riffs and burbles emerge as spontaneously erupting chords and arpeggios that may loop, or self-mutilate, or decay within a free-flow of rhapsodising that teeters on the brink of order without ever being pinned down to any fixed structure. That feeling of discovery is an infectious joy: like with Nancarrow, you’re wowed by the theoretical implcations of what you’re hearing but at the same time, as long as you’re listening, you can’t stop smiling.

Takuroku Roundup No. 3

Friday 19 June 2020

The new music from Takuroku just keeps coming. This is London’s Cafe Oto download-only label for a series of pieces recorded by artists around the world waiting out the Covid-19 lockdown. It’s turned into a superb indicator of just how much music is being made out there; a relatively small niche, in this case, has opened up to reveal a wide range of practices and approaches with a common defining trait of inventiveness and curiosity. Toshimaru Nakamura’s Nimb #62 is a shining example of his trademark no-input mixing board method, creating mutating feedback patterns that start out with an almost funky rhythm. Things settle down after a while into a steady wash of off-white noise, with subtle colourations that gradually darken into a low, ominous hum that keeps threatening to break out again into discordant beats.

I’m trying to group things by superficial similarity here, as though I’m exercising some kind of critical skill for comparison. Ken Ikeda’s namaewamad@nai is another electronic work of similar dimensions, taking digital synth sounds and applying heavy dub effects to them. It’s a journey into a crepuscular netherworld, where King Tubby is half-morphed into Terry Riley. Drumlike sounds loop and overlap before dissovling into pulsing abstractions. Ikeda feeds sounds in to his effects box and them leaves them to slowly die away: it seems that much of the time we are listening only to the echoes of a sound that has long since passed. Like an overgrown ruin, it exerts a melancholy fascination, each sound forever beautifully fading away.

It’s got to be hell being a drummer living in self-isolation. There are a few percussion-heavy releases here, but I’ll quickly pass over Ikuro Takahashi’s Friu. A promising opening of descending cymbal rolls turns into a suite of sound-sculpture-like studies of individual percussion instruments, followed by a long exercise with a see-sawing oscillator that just made me glad when it was over. Solo percussion albums are fraught with dangers like these, which makes Valentina Magaletti’s A Queer Anthology of Drums especially welcome. Eight short pieces that deftly combine percussion instruments with electronics (of the analog bleeps and field recording variety), each managing to quickly establish a different mood and, more importantly, a sense of space. The temptation to crowd out the stereo field with pyrotechnics is resisted in favour of a restrained but distinct palette of sounds that draws the listener into each miniature. It’s reminiscent of Will Guthrie’s much-loved People Pleaser album, but cast in a more reflective mood.

I’ve just finished listening to Rie Nakajima’s Karu Kuru so I’ll talk about it now, too. It creates its own space, as well; as it needs to, for Nakajima’s toys and motorised objects to drift to and fro, making sound as they go. It’s a percussion album too, a loose arrangement of vignettes compiled into a single track. The sounds are mostly gentle, with the small contraptions accompanying her gestures giving the performance an almost whimsical air. It could all wander off into being twee, but Nakajima uses the machinery’s inherent indifference and the somewhat abstruse sonic capabilties of her array of objects to keep things focussed. Then there are darker elements, groaning friction sounds. The most intriguing section is at the beginning, where tiny chimes repeat an ascending major scale against a constant clockwork chatter. The incongruous juxtaposition of music and non-music at its most elemental implied something more than an exercise in musical craft was at stake, but this isn’t followed up.

What is the deal with Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s Sinfónía?

Thursday 18 June 2020

There have been so many times when I’ve been tempted to start a posting here with the opening sentence of that old Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait album: “What is this shit?” It’s a positive thing, mostly; an enouraging sign that the artist has made something that both engages and challenges the senses and the mind. The process by which the listener’s bafflement leads to a new form of understanding is fundamental to new art. The catch here is that this understanding may not always be a favourable outcome, for artist, audience, or both. All of this preamble is to say that for the past few weeks I’ve been resisting the temptation to use that quote when trying to say something about Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s Sinfónía.

My knowledge of Gunnarsson’s music was limited to hearing Ilan Volkov lead the Scottish BBC Orchestra in the premiere of his piece Sporgýla on the radio about five years ago. Sinfónía is a large-scale work, in four movements. Despite this formal arrangement, it’s an open composition: the score takes advantage of paperless computer-screen tech by being animated in ways intended to break down the established grid-like divisions of time and melody. Gunnarsson is part of the Icelandic art and music collective S.L.Á.T.U.R., so the concepts of collaborative working and a freer relationship between composer and performer. There’s a lo-fi, DIY element at work here too, so you’re already getting some idea in your head about what the piece might be before listening to it.

Then you put Sinfónía on and, well… it sounds like a bunch of kids blowing on toy recorders and banging crockery. There are assorted strings being twanged, too. You wonder where it will lead, and it leads to more twanging, tootling and banging. The second movement, more of the same; as with the third and fourth. It’s not a complete free-for-all, so you know it’s not a con: the balance between instruments change, the texture spreads out or tightens up, all done with a broad phrasing that indicates a compositional outline at work. (Okay, not an outline, a resultant interaction of compositional influences.) But it’s a damn job distinguishing one moment from the next.

The instruments are divided into three groups of three, played with a delicate conscientiousness by members of Fengjastrútur, another loose collective in downtown Reykjavik. The playing is noticeably restrained throughout and the recording sounds professional, not a cassette artefact. It’s all very dignified, which just raises more questions. Does the seriousness of the playing derive from the effort of musical concentration, or from keeping a poker face? It’s probably not satire: I don’t think the audience is being pranked here, nor is the concept of symphonies, or orchestras, being deflated. It isn’t even necessarily elevating the concept of a “home-made” music to symphonic status, but simply allows that such a status may exist.

The absence of rhetoric, the combination of computer-animated scores with ocarinas and found percussion, has produced a piece of music that a cultured audience literally cannot hear, in that it is almost impossible to strip away the metacultural associations and hear the music as anything other than a commentary on something else. It makes you wonder how often we hear music mediated through abstracted concepts. Listening again to Sporgýla, the relaxed, almost bucolic nature of loosely organised groups in civilised disputation, those floating wind instrument sounds, provided a better understanding of how Gunnarsson composes and that what we hear on Sinfónía is no accident. It may require patience, but not necessarily of the sort needed for forensic analysis of details. My complaint would then be my usual sticking point with arte povera, in that it shares what can seem like an overemphasis on means over ends and, with that, a compulsion for conceptual purity that will diminish the material for its own sake.

Gunnarsson’s Sinfónía has had me thinking a lot. It was worth my time but I still don’t know what to make of it. In the end, it may be fated like Self Portrait to be simultaneously praised and damned with the phrase “a qualified success”.

Unusual suspects: Magnus Granberg and Skogen, Angharad Davies, Klaus Lang, Anton Lukoszevieze

Sunday 14 June 2020

Thanks to the coronavirus snafu I misplaced the last batch of CDs from Another Timbre (will remedy this later) but now I’m happily getting amongst this even newer set from May. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “happily”; the word suggests I settled into this music too easily, when in fact both pieces here quickly clipped me over the ears for taking them for granted. unfurling is a trio improvisation by composer/performers Angharad Davies on violin, Klaus Lang on harmonium and Anton Lukoszevieze on cello. It goes about an hour, it’s got Klaus Lang, it’s on Another Timbre, even the title’s in lower case – we know how this is going to go, right? It starts as softly as you would expect, slow bowing sounds separated out, some harmonics, scraping… but then Lang joins in by shaking the bellows on his harmonium, agitating them into low thumping sounds. No panic; you think that’s OK, it’s just for texture, but all three musicians here are of the gently but firmly provocative inclination. Things escalate, and soon you’re caught up in these dense chords that extend endlessly into sirenlike wails. A nice, comfy hour of quiescent and peaceable improv is ruined. The dissonant chords finally exhaust themselves into voiceless breathing before breaking up into percussive knots of noise. This pattern of alternating between sinister drones and brittle spikes of tortured instruments repeats itself, continuously building momentum into a headlong rush that you hope will burn out before things go too far.

No reassuring certainty from the new piece by Magnus Granberg with the ensemble Skogen, either. Let Pass My Weary Guiltless Ghost promises the usual intricate blending of classical and folk instruments with objects and electronics, but things get off to a tense start. The electronics make their presence clear right from the beginning, set in stark relief against the prepared piano and percussion. Throughout the piece, sounds coexist in an uneasy truce that feels like it could end at any moment. Percussive sounds dominate, leaving the strings and winds to run the gauntlet. Electronics are more abrasive and confrontatial this time (Toshimaru Nakamura has joined thr group here), while never dominating. Instruments such as violin and sho are left to add shading, in ways that highlight the fraught atmosphere more than resolve it. Drums and untuned percussion emerge later – another disturbing addition to Skogen’s sound. By the end of the piece, the situation has insidiously accumulated a sense of urgency; the pace seems to increase slightly – something I haven’t felt in Granberg’s music before – as the music seems anxious to reach a conclusion: rushing, but slowly.

Cobalt Duo: Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm

Saturday 13 June 2020

Lost my internet over a week ago so I’ve been listening to more music but posting about it less. First thing of many I need to catch up on is this CD by pianists Kate Halsall and Fumiko Miyachi. They’ve been working together as Cobalt Duo since 2014 and I’ve managed to miss everything they’ve done until now. Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm is a great selection of pieces by contemporary composers, including Miyachi herself. It’s a neatly contrasting but complementary collection; making the album greater than the sum of its parts, even as each piece has nice little details that reward repeated individual listening.

The real oldie here is Egidija Medekšaitė’s Textile 1, a duet dating all the way back to 2006. A thoroughly beguiling interweaving of rippling piano lines that leads the ear through melodic and harmonic twists and turns without ever breaking its constant, pulsating flow, this piece opens the set and sets the tone for the album. Aspects of it recur in various guises in the subsequent pieces, including a similar, more inflected interplay at the end of Miyachi’s concluding suite. James Black’s Crow is a diptych in which a Cowell-like juxtaposition of dense block chords and strummed strings is followed by sequences of lightly tripping descending arpeggios. The deftness of touch in Cobalt Duo’s playing helps to bring off this heterogenous mix successfully. Their mixture of sureness and lightness shows these steady pulses and runs of notes to their best effect, with a tightly matched unanimity in their playing. These are real strengths in compositions such as these, which shy away from more flamboyant, romantic tendencies.

The music is still eclectic, though. Halsall and Miyachi play a small selection from the sity-two (and counting?) miniatures in Sarah Lianne Lewis’s I have observed the most distant planet to have a triple form, which range from the explosive, to the remote, to the utmost pointillism. Anton Lukoszevieze’s Sutra demands that unanimity of execution in exacting unison playing and singing. The final two pieces are for piano four hands: Michael Wolters’s Gisela Doesn’t Care takes the rippling arpeggios and tremoloes to an extreme, extending a classical cadence beyond all reason. As with the Lukoszevieze, Cobalt Duo play with a directness that can be heard as either high seriousness or sly irony. Miyachi’s own Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm is a suite of pieces dedicated to each quark. By far the longest piece here, the two central movements dominate despite containing so little stuff. “Top” slows down time with struck notes elongated by e-bowed strings, while “Bottom” brings it to a near-standstill, letting the gaps between sound becomes the foreground.

Lockdown Roundup (2): Nick Ashwood and Laura Altman, Agnes Hvizdalek, Jacken Elswyth

Sunday 31 May 2020

I’ve been busy while sequestered at home, but still listening, including some more new releases from the past few weeks. I’ve heard one record before involving Nick Ashwood, so it’s good to discover something new in his set of duets with Laura Altman. Battery was recorded inside a concrete bunker in a park near Hobart, Tasmania on a Sunday in March last year, with Ashwood playing acoustic guitar and Altman on clarinet with amplified objects. The three pieces here are expansive in scope but concentrated in their artistry: both musicians work together to create wonderfully detailed and mysterious sounds that can be both intimate and remote at the same time. The cheap electronics, prepared instruments and resonant recording space combine to transform the music into strange, ambient soundscapes. The players focus on tonal colouration and by the final track appear to be doing as little as possible to disrupt the space each sound opens up. The sense of place and altered reality is intensified by the presence of external sounds, especially when other people can faintly be heard nearby.

The presence of others in these meditative moments becomes all the more poignant right now. It can also be heard in the latter stages of Agnes Hvizdalek’s Backstage, another release from Cafe Oto’s Covid-related Takuroku downloads label. Going by the release notes, Backstage appears to be a work for solo voice. Now knowing anything about Hvizdalek before now, my usual approach to experimental vocal music is to brace myself in fear of the worst. I was completely wrong-footed here and blown away by the experience. Hvizdalek’s piece is as much about silence as sound, a wordless reflection on isolation that hovers uneasily between darkness and light. Soft, disarming bursts of electronic-sounding clicks coexists with a refrigerant hum that drones in and out through the piece. Where Ashwood and Altman used their music to create a space that opens out to the world, Hvizdalek maps out a space that moves ever inward. Her voice articulates both a resistance to and an uneasy accommodation with pervasive ambient noise and the world outside the self.

As something completely different, Jacken Elswyth’s Six Static Scenes would appear to be a set of direct musical statements. A set of song-length solos for banjo: what could be simpler? The appearances are deceptive. First of all, there are seven tracks, with one ‘scene’ broken into two contrasting parts. No obvious trickery here, with clear references to celebrated folk musicians and a consistent approach to traditional clawhammer technique. And yet… Scene 2, “after Dock Boggs” has an almost obsessive focus on a couple of triads – a very static scene – and gains a resonant halo of overtones from a wheezy-sounding shruti box. The following scene gains a drone in the form of a single tone held softly on a squeezebox. By this time, if you’re thinking Elswyth has made some sort of postmodern abstraction of Appalachiana, her picking becomes more elusive and fragmentary in that two-part fourth scene, setting her banjo in a mixture of drones that swirl together with a sinister calmness. The final scene gently extends a farewell cadence to five minutes, with a tenacity too subtle for the intellect.

Lockdown Roundup: Lucy Railton, Melaine Dalibert, James Rushford

Saturday 23 May 2020

Responses to Covid-19 are coming thick and fast now. Quarantined from the wider world, musicians are making music alone, where they can. Cafe Oto, the bold experimental music venue in London, has responded to the enforced downtime by launching Takuroku, a new netlabel dedicated to recordings produced under lockdown. As you might expect, the dominant mood right now is directed by isolation; introspective and melancholy – at least based on the three I’ve listened to so far. (In case I’m seeming more interested in analysis than advocacy, I’d recommend each of these three to the curious.)

Lucy Railton’s Lament in Three Parts adds hidden depths to this emotional state. Her work for solo cello with some additional electronics was improvised on one day in late April, with processing added a couple of days later. The music sounds much more substantial than this description suggests: as an improvisation, it definitely draws upon something that has been stored up for some time. Railton’s recent compositional work has extended beyond her cello into the use of electronics and field recordings. Earlier this year, she presented a sophisticated collaboration with synthesiser pioneer Peter Zinovieff, RFG Inventions for Cello and Computer. Lament distills Railton’s music and moves the focus away from technology: when electronics first appear at the end of the first part, it sounds like amplified bowing adding a further sighing texture to the slow chorale. Part two is a sombre melody that passes almost monophonically for its first half (I’m no expert but it sounds like she’s using Pythagorean intonation). The briefer final part resolves the preceding long line with an otherworldly sheen, the electronics adding just enough to transform the cello into something strange yet still beautiful.

My previous exposure to Melaine Dalibert consists entirely of two solo piano works which I did not like. Un Long Ralentissement is another piano piece, made as a specific response to the pandemic. As before, Dalibert takes an almost obstinately theoretical approach as justification for his carefully placed single tones, but this time it works musically. Preciousness has yielded to tenderness, and the understated rallentando adds a flexibility and flow to this slow music. The process of things slowing down is experienced, not just demonstrated, and there’s a humanising element present in the recording that makes this piece perversely relevant.

I’ve just done James Rushford recently but here’s another solo piece, this time made as a direct result of lockdown. Ouarzazate is a solo performance on a Rhodes electric keyboard. It is thirty-eight goddamn minutes long; almost twice the length of the Railton and Dalibert pieces. The contrast in his approach to the keyboard compared to his organ piece Clerestory is instructive. To work with such a limited timbral palette over such a long, unbroken span of time, you’ve got to be good. Rushford’s playing starts contrapuntally, generously paced enough to open up contemplation yet never lingering, lest momentum be lost to aimless meandering. It keeps the mind guessing with occasional leaps in register and changes in pitch sets, opening up one fork in the path after another.

On being won over: Alvear-Bondi-d’incise, NEF

Wednesday 20 May 2020

These came out over the last two months so may as well be classed as lockdown listening: the sort that relocates the attention. Both are from the Insub label, who have been turning out some monumental work lately. Neither of these are on quite the same scale, but still impress with the boldness of their conception and imaginative execution. Ocho pretextos is a set of short trios worked out by the performers in joint residences one spring in the distant past of 2019. Cristián Alvear on guitar, Cyril Bondi on percussions and d’incise on electronics; these three have become regulars on this site in one guise or another. Despite this, they keep coming up with new ways to surprise me.

The compositional nature of these pieces is immediately clear: each one works on a sort of grid of regular, repeated sounds, allowing for more ornate details to fill in the gaps. The other joint compositions I’ve heard by Bondi and d’incise are for larger forces, with variety generated by a small set of simple conditions. Here, more free play seems to be allowed within the constraints of repetition, giving each piece a greater or lesser degree of tension. What would normally sound like free improv gains a new perspective from a regular pulse that cuts across their playing. From one track to the next, the slow pulse transforms from a steady foundation to a jarring interruption, harshly strummed or snapped guitar chords mixed with insistent percussion.

I know nothing about NEF, not even why they are called NEF: the three musicians here are named Rodolphe Loubatière, Pascal Battus and Bertrand Gauguet. Seven improvisations, of the sort that are weathered and well-seasoned, always alive but never restless. Each ‘act’ of Intervalles builds up a series of complex textures from a variety of subtle tonal colours that never resolve into anything too pretty or too pat. The sonic intrigue makes sure that things never get dull and I was going to say that if you like that sort of improv you’ll love this, but then I checked the personnel again. The instruments listed are snare drum, “rotating surfaces”, alto saxophone, and nothing else. How did they make this? Where the hell was the sax? They’re even better than I thought.

Lockdown Roundup: James Rushford, Will Guthrie

Sunday 17 May 2020

Musicians everywhere are getting slugged by Covid-19 shutting down venues and travel for months. What can you do? Keep making music. New pieces are going out on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, streaming live on Youtube and wherever. I’ve talked about James Rushford and Will Guthrie each on this site several times before, but not in the capacity as solo composers. Rushford put up two new items on his Bandcamp on 1 May, the second fee-free day on the site this year. Clerestory is a solo organ performance from a gig at Hospitalkirche Stuttgart in 2017. Organ is always impressive, even John Zorn can’t mess it up too badly, but Clerestory is a more enlightening insight into Rushford’s musical thinking. It’s eclectic, but with an attention span that surprises the listener with unexpected connections instead of trying to dazzle with a rollcall of cultural references. Moody ambience yields to imperious bombast; when the sonorites and textures get thornier, the music perversely opens up into something more allusive and enigmatic for the imagination.

Prey Calling started as an installation at MONA FOMA in Tasmania earlier this year. The description of this stereo mixdown is horripilating: “a mashup of vintage synth and whale song, inspired by the story of Greenpeace expeditioners using the Serge modular synthesiser to communicate with humpback whales”. Blessedly, Rushford’s approach is closer to David Tudor’s in Soundings: Ocean Diary than a head shop: a kaleidoscopic array of complex electroacoustic sounds that verge upon whale song, recognising the ocean as a constant flux and not an inert medium. It constantly refreshes itself with the same invention and dynamism as his improvised duets with Joe Talia (see Paper Fault Line for a good, early example).

Percussionist Will Guthrie’s solo piece For Stephane is a bit older, going back to mid-March this year when it was released. I’ve spoken before about his holistic approach to percussion, observing how his performances resemble the curation of an environment of discrete but interrelated objects: an ecological method. This carries over into his work with electronics. For Stephane recalls the gamelan from his Black Truffle release Nist Nah, producing a hazy montage of distant gongs, sustained humming, hissing and rattles, muted recordings and faint radio broadcasts. The fragmented, ephemeral nature of the piece evokes memory, history, curdled nostalgia and remoteness.

Aisha Orazbayeva: Music for Violin Alone

Thursday 14 May 2020

The idea of violin, or of any musician, alone has taken on a new meaning in the last couple of months. It has further associations for Aisha Orazbayeva, a fine violinist who has spent “two years of creative silence” while starting a family. Her new release, Music for Violin Alone, was recorded in an empty house in early April as all work for the forseeable future was cancelled. The collection of seven brief pieces forms a closely woven suite that draws together themes of isolation and self discovery; the experience of a musician reorientating themselves, learning new ways of hearing and playing.

Orazbayeva opens with her interpretation of Angharad Davies’ Circular Bowing Study, an immersive exploration of a single technique that leaves performer and audience in a different place from where they started. After this act of orientation into a deeper understanding of timbre, the following 18-century pieces by Bach and Nicola Matteis Jr. have a clean, clear sound while still revealing their reliance on the violinist providing tonal colouration to give them life. Bach’s suites and sonatas for solo strings have long stood as exemplars of writing without accompaniment, and Orazbayeva’s interpretation of the Largo from the C Major Sonata frames the absences of sound, where the listener fills in the outline. It’s an introspective performance, accomplished without pulling the phrasing or pacing out of shape. Oliver Leith’s very recent Blurry Wake Song allows for greater pauses and more reticent phrasing, giving a greater melancholy weight to its repeated cadences on double-stops.

The extended span of James Tenney’s Koan is played fast, like Matteis’ arpeggios. The challenge of how to present Tenney’s process/exercise as a composition is addressed by Orazbayeva with a concentrated flourish. Ingeniously, the constantly rising intervals are transformed into becoming a vehicle for the real material of this recording, as tiny variations in timing and intonation are exposed and transformed into a kind of inadvertent cadenza. The following piece, John Cage’s violin arrangement of Eight Whiskus, was, like Koan, dedicated to Malcolm Goldstein. The Goldstein recordings I’ve heard of each are much more… well, demonstrative of the freedoms allowed in bowing and intonation. Orazbayeva’s version of Cage takes us back to her Bach, where the directness of the melody fuses with the subtlety of construction, each interpreted with a deeply nuanced but deceptively understated performance. The collection ends with Orazbayeva’s own Ring, a haunted study of close-miked bow on string.

The past two weeks has been spent making my own music and listening to recordings others have been putting out during lockdown. I hope to write up more of these over the next few days.

Telematic Concerts (with Pauline Oliveros)

Tuesday 28 April 2020

In these days of self-isloation I keep getting told that teleconfernced gigs held over Zoom are becoming a thing, only to be subsequently told that they’re not really a thing because the time-lag between participants makes coordinating the music impossible. I don’t know what technology was in play for this Telematic Concert from ten years ago, but synchronisation is neither a technical nor aesthetic issue. It’s an improvised duet between sometime collaborators Pauline Oliveros in New York and Reynols guitarist Alan Courtis “piped in digitally from Buenos Aires”. The two drag out sheets of sound between them with amped-up accordion and guitar respectively, each modifying their instruments until it can be hard to distinguish one from the other. When they do play acoustically recongisable sounds – never at the same time – their signal choice of sounds is instructive. Oliveros blasts a klaxon-like drone that jars with everything around it. Courtis’ feedback howls like Robert Fripp locked in a death-plunge with a Balrog. Whenever the situation threatens to settle into an ambient exchange, one goads the other into something more aggressive and sinister. Towards the end, both musicians suddenly crank up short, high pitched bursts until they create a chillingly evocative soundscape reminiscent of a dockside battening down for bad weather.

I think Spleen Coffin still has this on preorder for next month, coronavirus willing. I got sent a download which fades out halfway through to change LP sides, though it’s clearly a single piece.

It all just reminded me how much Oliveros’ presence is still missed today. A few years back I dischi di Angelica released another of her improv collaborations, but I’ve only heard it just now. We should be grateful for whatever we can get and, considering that Nessuno teams her up with Roscoe Mitchell, John Tilbury and Wadada Leo Smith, people should probably have gotten into this on the names alone. It’s a live set in Bologna from 2011, two large-scale pieces with a snappy encore. As with Courtis, all the players here know that sometimes it’s better not to play. There are moments when it starts to drift into something lugubriously spacey – a perpetual standby when keeping Jazz at arms-length – but the music constantly redeems and renews itself, with each member of the quartet deftly pushing anomalous sounds back and forth in an uneasy equilibrium; although, like this sentence, it seems more of a personal challenge than artistic necessity to sustain the structure for so long. It never gets outrageous, but it remains reassuringly strange throughout.