Inexhaustible x3: Nick Ashwood, Ferran Fages, TRUSS

Thursday 21 January 2021

Thanks to my habit of neglecting to read the sleeve notes, I only just realised that all three albums here are from Inexhaustible Editions. Also thanks to this habit, I was completely unprepared for Nick Ashwood’s solo release Unfolding​/​Overlay. I glanced over it, saw ‘acoustic guitars’ and figured we’d get to hear a solo approach as heard on his group improvised efforts, so my first listening was spent mostly getting over the shock of how it sounded. A steely tambura drone opens the album-length piece, which I figured was going to be the groundwork for some trancey guitar noodling until it gradually dawned on me that this was the trancey guitar stuff. Ashwood’s made this piece from two long, unedited takes of bowing on an acoustic guitar and then superimposing them. As performance, it’s a meditative experience, at once introspective yet open-minded, with the slow but purposeful drifting that comes from bringing the mind to an alert passivity through concentrated action. As a composition, the listener hears the constant weaving of bowed chords as a single, braided strand, with illusory harmonies and timbres and breathing pulses that can become either strong or frail, simple or complex, always evolving into something new of its own accord.

Just a small spoiler: the first fifteen seconds of Ferran Fages’ From Grey To Blue are silent. You might want to keep that in mind before cranking the volume. Not that the piece is loud, but it is clearly present: a forty-minute work for a full and closely-miked piano, played by Lluïsa Espigolé. Thinking back to Fages’ Un lloc entre dos records, a work for solo guitar and sine tones, and remembered that it was difficult to get a grip on: “The mind struggles to reconcile the parts into a whole”. Fages pushes the unresolved shapes of his music even further here, perhaps past breaking point. The piece falls into three parts, but in each the phrases are brief and widely separated by silences. Fages and Espigolé have collaborated over a couple of years and her playing, although described in the notes as “without emotion”, captures something tentative, even reluctant to proceed. At least there’s no sentimentality, even though the gently paced combinations of single tones and minor chords (rarely more than dyads) could lend themselves to drama. In the central section, the sounds themselves seem to thin out; when more chords return in part three everything happens more slowly. It’s described as a study in resonances and the spaces between sounds, but I’m usually pretty skeptical of pieces which make a virtue of reticence. With each successive listening, however, the sounds start to feel more tied together and playing it loud reveals the piano mechanism at work and the voids start to fill in as though they’re making some sort of connection; but as to what those connections might be, I’m not sure.

Fages is also part of the group TRUSS, playing acoustic guitar and feedback with Alejandro Rojas-Marcos on clavichord and Bárbara Sela on recorders. Todos los animales se reúnen en un gran gemido is a set of seven tracks recorded on one day in late 2019. They are apparently group improvisations but I keep hearing Fages’ methods at work. There are sustained high, keening passages as heard in his earlier piece Radi d’Or and, as the album progresses, the sounds start to break up into irresolute fragments. It’s stupid to attribute this to one musician when there are three at work. It sounds like Rojas-Marcos is using various extended techniques on his instrument, complicating the picture of who plays what when paired with Fage’s guitar. Sela’s recorder can either lead or shadow the high-pitched bowing and feedback, or otherwise derail and obstruct the continuity, forcing new approaches. The way the tracks are sequenced, the early sections are distinct and sometimes busy in that conventional group improv way, but around halfway through things become more fraught, with the music never quite succumbing to silence but always on the verge of breaking up, all the same. It’s not a comfortable experience, but it asks more questions of the listener than I originally bargained for.

Maya Verlaak: All English Music Is Greensleeves

Sunday 17 January 2021

There’s more irony in this title than first appears. This collection of pieces by Verlaak is itself a hearkening back to a golden age, but her reiteration of the past deals with the rediscovery of forgotten ideas and making them new. Time and again, her compositions recall the spirit of exploration and discovery in the British experimental music scene of the early 1970s. Amongst the alumni of the Scratch Orchestra and their fans, the dividing line between music and art had never before been so dangerously blurred. They too reworked the past, drawing upon folk and popular classics and then subjecting them to analytical processes with varying degrees of irrationality. This British strand of the avant-garde was typically playful and subversive, but with a gentle side that embraced amateurism and acknowledged the inherent sentimentality of their means and methods. It was a fertile scene, but its fading seems in retrospect to be as much a product of commercial forces as of ideas moving on. By the 1980s, much of what was presented as the cutting edge of music was given over to second-guessing the audience’s tastes in a quest for ‘appeal’. For a younger generation, a cursory study of the early 70’s uncovered a lot of unfinished business.

In Another Timbre’s All English Music Is Greensleeves, Verlaak brings back this quiet, forgotten 70’s as a living tradition. The title work, which has been performed live in various forms, does not deal with the implied subject as an artefact, but as the outcome of the history of English music teaching and performance practice, as observed by a young Belgian composer recently arrived from studies at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague. In a modern twist, the music’s controlling processes are fluid and automated by a computer which decides which pitches chosen by the ensemble will cause a pre-recorded performance of the same piece to start, or stop. It’s a clever exploitation of the practice of sight-reading, and Apartment House’s rendition here captures the genteel, pocket-sized grandeur suggested in the title, refracted into a more fragmentary, ghostly formality.

Some of Verlaak’s pieces have tended towards the stunty (cf her Tape Piece collaboration with Andy Ingamells or Females premiered at Music We’d Like To Hear in 2018) but in this collection the focus remains on the music. Ideas are clearly present to substantiate the sounds we hear, but their means of operation remain tantalisingly unclear without further explication. The two solo works, Formation de Sarah and Formation de Mark respectively pit violinist Sarah Saviet and pianist Mark Knoop against a remorseless computer-generated tutor. Each performance creates a new system of pitches to which the performer must respond and negotiate. In Formation de Sarah, violin plays against sine tones and bowed nails; for Formation de Mark the relationship between performer and computer model is more fraught, with electronic tones replaced by recordings of an untrained voice attempting to sing perfect pitch. The computer’s vocalised cues sound more like a rebuke than a guide. The wobbly coexistence of objective formal rigour with human imperfection, with mechanisms of reproduction as a confounding factor, recall the early 70s works by composers like Gavin Bryars and Christopher Hobbs while still posing vital questions surrounding authenticity to the present-day listener (and performer). The music is still direct and clear, using its simplicity of means to bring those complicating perturbations of sound to the surface.

The remaining ensemble pieces are more overtly playful, in a serious, childlike manner. Lark uses formative childhood experiences as material and means, transcribing recovered cassettes of the four-year old composer improvising songs and using a music-box to regulate the musicians. The simple melodies and cultural references add pawky sentimentality to the staggered runs of single notes, always slightly off-kilter. Song and Dance ‘An excessively elaborate effort to explain or justify’ is an exercise in analysis taken in earnest, expecting the musicians to interpret a listening study of the music and infer the music from the written analysis, at a remove from the notes themselves. In each of these pieces, the joke is for (on?) the musicians, but the wit is audible to the listener as the ensemble struggles to achieve a coherent performance despite everyone’s best efforts. With Apartment House playing, it’s probably not much of a struggle really, but they beautifully convey the delicate synthesis of gracefulness and humour required to make these pieces work most effectively, without ever needing to milk it for pathos or a laugh.

EMNIOX: a simultaneous ambient playlist

Tuesday 12 January 2021

After an idea by Kraig Grady: what happens if you play every ambient album you can think of at the same time? I threw this mix together while Christmas dinner cooked and then decided it would be nice to have a video to match. EMNIOX is best viewed full screen with the lights out. It starts quietly and slowly builds steam.

Old rituals, new grounds: Hermann Nitsch and Mark Harwood

Sunday 10 January 2021

From time to time I remember that there was a Hermann Nitsch retrospective held a couple of years ago in Croydon. I didn’t go. Even in these Covid times, I don’t regret it; not because it was Croydon, but because I’ve never found shock or catharsis to be enlightening in itself and the invocation of pagan ritual always seemed artificial and derivative. Too much of the art’s supposed power depends upon dedicated promotion of the image of the artist. The real meat, so to speak, was always in the incongruity of the action and its context, or lack of it, but that’s something I’ve never heard Nitsch address and it seems to work against the goals he himself claims.

Like a good Fluxus artist, Nitsch is also a composer. I Dischi di Angelica have just released his Orgelkonzert, performed at the AngelicA festival in Bologna in 2019, in which Nitsch goes to work on the grand organ at Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi for over an hour. It’s a well-recorded, beautiful-sounding document of his later musical practice, allowing the listener to assess the music in its own right, away from its wider associations. This, however, may be a mistake, as Nitsch is not concerned with sound alone and so the reductive approach gives us much, much less to work with.

The Orgelkonzert is improvised, but cast in a form designed to impose on the audience, a large-scale, four-movement structure recalling romantic-era symphonies. The material has moved away from Nitsch’s earlier approach and is neither brutal nor bruitiste as such, relying on drones, or rather on long-held chords. For long periods of time you will hear the same chord, with occasional notes added or subtracted, with periodic flashes of movement or sudden changes. Assistants use boards to hold down clusters. There is a loose sense of alternating between consonance and dissonance, but with only a few overly dramatic clusters suddenly crashing onto a peaceful dyad. There are shifts in register and timbre too, but these are less dramatic. Much of the time you are left simply bathing in sound, a feeling all too familiar and comfortable for new music fans. The trouble with playing the organ this way is that it can so easily feel derivative, as it did when I heard John Zorn improvising on the St Paul’s Hall organ at Huddersfield years ago. There were the same clusters, keys held down by weights, drones – all the Gothic trappings and connotations that become the real material the musician plays with, more image than sound.

I’ve seen Mark Harwood’s live performances several times but haven’t really bothered with recordings until now – some exceptions aside. The gigs are disingenuous exercises in deflection from the absurdity of the audience-performer situation, typically shifting the burden of attention somewhere else, such as on a collaborator or the venue itself. A Perfect Punctual Paradise Under My Own Name is his first solo release away from his previous persona of Astor and the self-reflexive title is a heads-up to the paranoiac-critical method he employs here. As much a ritual as Nitsch’s actions (though Henning Christiansen is the more appropriate avatar here), Harwood offers up a platter of scraps, a baffling collage of field recordings, garbled dialogue and musical moments too unformed to be considered doodles. The slow-paced restlessness never settles in the push and pull between ego and self-negation, trying to present himself in as an unflattering light as possible without tipping into romanticised self-abasement. In trying to deflect from himself, Harwood creates a collage out of the musical equivalent of a child trying to register the exact moment he falls asleep. For this ritual, whatever transformative effect it had on the artist is beside the point; it is left to the listener to meditate on what significance may be found in this unconscious arrangement of unresolved residua.