John Cage’s Number Pieces live (part one)

Wednesday 29 June 2022

I still take John Cage for granted, forgetting how long it’s been since heard any played live. After the much-discussed box set of Number Pieces played by Apartment House on Another Timbre last year, it was good to hear the ensemble interpret several of them in person. At three gigs in one day at Wigmore Hall (missed the third) they played Four6 and Seven2, while at Music We’d Like To Hear the following Saturday they played Eight. Four6 doesn’t specify the sounds to be played by the four performers, just that they select twelve repeatable sounds, to be played when cued by the score’s elastic time-brackets. For this version, Heather Roche on bass clarinet, Anton Lukoszevieze on cello and percussionists Simon Limbrick and Chris Brannick fulfilled Cage’s wish that the sounds emerge as though without source, brushed into being. The sounds remained calm, without the sort of punctuation that Cage’s score permits, serene and transluscent even when at their most complex. Apartment House’s realisations of the Number Pieces strongly favour sustained sounds, while remaining sensitve to Cage’s way of thinking to avoid a ‘top-down’ approach that can destroy the delicacy of this music. It also seemed a very “full” version of the piece, with faint but pervasive sounds; in some interpretations Four6 can sound like articulated silence (Lukoszevieze’s programme notes drew a direct comparison of this piece with 4’33”).

Perversely, I was more aware than usual of the silences that open up during Seven2. This long piece (52 minutes, Four6 is 30 and Eight one hour) may the ultimate example for a case to be made for Cage as an ‘ambient’ composer, enfolding the listener in a bath of sustained low-voiced sounds. Cello, bass clarinet, bass flute, bass trombone and double bass are joined again by the two percussionists. The percussion is again unspecified, and Limbrick and Brannick’s knack for unusual but subtle sounds seeped into all of the instruments’ colouration, making this performance particularly warm.

The two Wigmore Hall matinees were supplemented by two more pieces. Ryoanji, Cage’s mid-1980s piece for soloists playing organically sliding tones over a hieratic rhythm, played in this case by two percussionists instead of the usual one, taking advantage of exploring Cage’s interest in “staggered unison”. The rarely-heard Speech 1955 is a long work for five radios accompanying a person (in this case, Miles Lukoszevieze) who occasionally reads from newpaper articles. It’s an arid piece, which is perhaps a sign of how a good piece of art can change to reflect the times in which it finds itself. Nearly seventy years on, it’s hard to imagine how the piece may have first sounded to an audience yet to be immersed in pop art. Cage’s ideas about globalism and multiple attentiveness were still developing, but however this piece may have once heralded the dawn of an information economy, it now effectively demonstrates its current dismal state. In this respect, it’s unnerving how Speech 1955 refuses to entertain in the function of a quaint anachronism.

A Week’s Diary part 2: LCMF

Wednesday 22 June 2022

I’m not buying into the premise of this year’s London Contemporary Music Festival, back after a Covid-induced hiatus, but after two hot nights beginning in bright light under the skylights at the Woolwich Fireworks Factory the third evening turned grey and rainy and I prepared for the gig by looking out over the bleak lower reaches of the Thames while a cold wet wind blew through me. The first act I caught was Andy Ingamells giving Nam June Paik’s classic Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia a dedicated performance that was still very British in its repressed melancholy. I’m going to focus on the compositions here, as the improvisations, poetry and videos left me wondering if I understand anything about them. (The videos were a mix of “spent an hour too long looking up something on Wikipedia” and a revival of the early 80s New York genre “I’ve been here so long I assume my personal fuckups are generally relatable”.)

I’ve now heard more Evan Johnson, as much as it is possible to hear his music. Richard Craig perfomed his solo bass flute émoi with a confidence that made its faint sounds seem sourceless, a low sighing between a breath and a hum that floated through the large, populated space just audible but undeniably present. A big moment was the premiere of a new Frank Denyer piece, commissioned by LCMF. Five Views of the Path matched soprano Jessica Aszodi with the Octandre Ensemble playing an eclectic mix of instruments ranging from baroque to homemade inventions. With Denyer, the exotic colouration is used as expressive material, sound as evocation. Aszodi had a thankless role sitting among the musicians, picking out high notes in vocalise that mingled with the trio of recorders and struck berimbaus. Strange colours and percussion were a recurrent theme, particularly on the following night. The Explore Ensemble gave the first UK performance of Clara Iannotta’s Eclipse Plumage, a complex woven rope of small sounds that intertwined to produce an ominously indefinite chord that continually transformed its medium and displacement. Percuissionists and normal musicians alike operated a large array of small percussion and amplified objects, backed by a grand piano rigged with an electromagnetic device to induce sinister emanations.

Also receiving its first British performance was Rebecca Saunders’ percussion duo dust II, an extraordinary work quite unlike anything I’ve heard by her before. Caspar Heinemann and Christian Dierstein gave a bravura performance as they moved from the audience to the front of the room, onto and eventually across the stage, managing a dizzying array of instruments. Saunders adopted a more relaxed pace than usual, allowing the intrinsic complexity of the sounds to provide her busier textures. Sounds were combined beautifully, with a strong focus on metallic semi-pitched sounds. The firm grasp on the material and the progression (in sound and movement) from one place to another made the piece work as music and not just a virtuosic exercise, even as the momentary effects were dazzling. To complement this, the evening began with Crystabel Riley‘s requiem of solo drumming, a prolonged study in fusing rhythm into timbre.

The Saturday evening gig began with another revived Fluxus piece, Ben Patterson’s First Symphony getting its first British airing. Someone asked me to sit on the left side of the hall for this piece, but I didn’t trust them and so sat on the right. There were four premieres that night, commissioned for the event. Cerith Wyn Evans’ …)(. finally got its complete airing, long deferred since the preview given in 2019 for its expected debut the following year. At that time, “the hieratic, slow-paced performance on piano and gongs was betrayed by a perfunctory and non-committal ending” and here the pay-off was a listless antiphonal chorale from the orchestra. Not the orchestra’s fault, given the heartfelt work they put into Tyshawn Sorey’s tone poem for cello and orchestra, For Roscoe Mitchell. Soloist Deni Teo and the pickup orchestra conducted by Jack Sheen played this beautifully scored and phrased work with rapturous solemnity, reminiscent of Feldman’s Cello and Orchestra but with fuller, less stifled voicing for the cello.

Hard not to roll the eyes at the prospect of an orchestral premiere by Elvin Brandhi aka one half of Yeah You: this kind of crossover almost never works. Except this time it kind of did. Brandhi’s GIFF WRECK took her usual materials of noise and vocal aggression and displaced them onto a video screen of two vocalists sitting at home deploying auto-tuned effects, mimicked and counterposed by dense bursts of orchestral textures. Brandhi herself kept true to her peripatetic style, pacing round the perimeters of the hall occasionally adding her own amplified interventions. Oliver Leith’s
Pearly, goldy, woody, bloody, or, Abundance trended heavily towards the jokey side of his work and probably went too far. That was probably the point but it’s at the expense of the piece’s staying power. An exuberant mish-mash of triumphant fanfares, complete with aural pyrotechnics, its self-conscious humour is good fun but disposable in the manner of Wellington’s Victory, which again is probably the point.

Mariam Rezaei’s frenzied activity on turntables and samplers for her lengthy solo SADTITZZZ was a remarkable achievement, being a virtual skronk solo that had all the singlemindedness of your typical free improv muso while being more inventive and fun than about ninety percent of them. It also worked as a nice teaser for the concluding act of the night, when Roscoe Mitchell himself appeared. He’s eighty-one now, I think. Typically considered to be jazz, which is an all too limited understanding of his musical achievements. Having just subjected people to my jazz-deafness, I prepared for disappointment but didn’t hear it in that way at all. A slight figure but mesmerising on stage, he captures the audience through plain statements that he then eloquently expands upon into detailed arguments, extending motives in different directions and then relating them in ways that are intuitively clear without ever exact repetition. He also knows when to stop, and deploys silence to pointed effect. Solos on soprano and baritone sax were then followed by percussionist Kikanju Baku, who emerged from the back of the hall as a disruptive trickster figure. Once at his drum-kit, his relentless attack acted as harsh colouration with rhtyhmic variance. Mitchell played off and against this barrage, equally unruffled whether he was matching the flow or simply commenting with isolated notes. A captivating ending.

A Week’s Diary part 1: Morphogenesis, Lucy Railton

Sunday 19 June 2022

I’ve been out all week and my brain is fuzzy. Last Sunday it was to see Morphogenesis playing at Cafe Oto, for the first time since 2015 I think. This was touted as featuring the original members but Clive Hall had to drop out and was replaced by Jonathan Bohman. At least this time they were all in the same venue: for their previous gig Ron Briefel preferred to broadcast his part from his car parked out front. This could be taken as a sign that the group has mellowed with age, now that they’re approaching the end of their fourth sporadic decade; however their sound check consisted of them playing out on the street for about an hour, inviting passersby and musos from the matinee show to get amongst it with their equipment.

Their group improvisations, made with a plethora of random objects, electronics and digital/analog interference (also a piano), deftly elude the do-a-bit-of-everything-all-over-the-place performance style that such a setup usually invites and quickly gets tedious. They play with a wealth of detail while maintaining a coherence in mood that is achieved through group activity: each follows their own path without any pressing concern to defer to the others, a novel consensus achived through the simple expedient of letting everyone talk over each other. The gig broke into four distinct pieces, each heavier and more sharply defined than the last. It’s like eavesdropping on a group of awkward middle-aged nerds doggedly pursuing their particular passion: intriguing, colourful and even illuminating, even as you fail to understand the subject. I can relate, as someone trying to learn how to socialise again after an extended reclusiveness.

Back again on Tuesday for Lucy Railton’s long-deferred two evenings, mixing her interests in modern composition, electronics and cello improvisation. The improvisations grouped cello with voices and saxophone (Sharon Gal, Caroline Kraabel, Sophie Fetokaki) and with two basses, electric and acoustic (Farida Amadou and John Edwards). The former was sparse and pure to the point of excess, the latter blunt and busy. The two compositions were a new work by Catherine Lamb and Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field. The Feldman is a sadistic piece, right out of the gate demanding melismas in harmonics from the cello and octave-leaping chords from the piano, all rapid, all pianissimo. Ten years ago in the same place I heard it played in the most gruelling of circumstances, so by comparison this occasion seemed deceptively benign. Railton and Joseph Houston played it in a plainspoken style, at a pace neither forced nor lugubrious. It was a demystifying performance, which favoured presenting variations in colour and tone over maintaining a single, ambiguous state, even offering moments of surprising brightness.

I didn’t catch the title of Catherine Lamb’s piece, if it was mentioned. It was born out of the two of them working together in Berlin, originally as a solo work for cello augmented by Lamb’s use of resonant spectral synthesis. On this occasion, it was played without electronics, with Lamb instead joining in as second musician on viola. At times I’ve found Lamb’s solo compositions for acoustic instruments excessively plain, but this was not the case here. For the viola part, she extrapolated the overtones implied in Railton’s playing, creating a sort of counter-melody that would emerge and disappear as a distinct entity. They played in relative tuning, Lamb basing her intonation on the harmonics of Railton’s pitch, a kind of sonic tightrope-walk that showed strength and resilience even as the apparent means of support were almost imperceptible.

For the rest of the week I was at the London Contemporary Music Festival, with additional excursions to Wigmore Hall for Apartment House playing John Cage. I’ll get around to these later, for my own sake. After seven days of live music, people and art-venue beers, it’s all been a little too much. In fact, I should be back at LCMF right now but the pull of a night in and a home-cooked meal is too strong. Doubtless I will regret it later.

anthem, an album

Friday 10 June 2022

As someone who instinctively distrusts curatorial conceits, this new album from the Birmingham Record Company should be welcome. anthem is an LP-length collection of five works with no common composer, ensemble, event or location; the presence of each piece becomes its own anomaly, which is kind of refreshing in itself. The sleeve notes are distractingly apologetic, in the British manner. A couple of pieces are ‘meta’-music, while others could claim to be but are not.

Emily Abdy’s anthem begins the set well by thwarting expectations and raising apprehensions. Abdy, armed with electric guitar, chants a repeated phrase that grows in intensity even as it folds in upon itself; behind her, the Thallein Ensemble play a swirling crescendo. It all collapses like a facade, retreat followed by a giddy mess of inarticulate revelation and dismissal. The whole thing takes on the rhetorical devices of “empowering” art and deploys them in the opposite direction of the genre’s null certainties. I hope I will never understand it.

I’ve described one piece by Andy Ingamells before (in collaboration with Maya Verlaak). In Petting Zoo, his method is similar to Tape Piece in that the ‘music’ is created through the inadvertent consequences of competing activities. Ingamells is emcee and narrator, describing the process by which he made, or didn’t make, the piece while inviting members of the audience onto the stage to pat, stroke and otherwise gently molest the musicians in Apartment House as they play. It can occasionally err on the side of trying to bluff its way through its own self-consciousness, but leaves open the question of whether an attempt to fail at making music constitutes a failed attempt.

Genevieve Murphy’s suite of five short pieces F.I.N.E (it stands for Fucked Insecure Neurotic Exhausted) comes from a concert by the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam in 2015. As with the other pieces mentioned so far, it’s a live performance with audience reactions apparent throughout. For the recording, we are of course disconnected from the experience, and the album shrewdly excises the applause from the end of each piece to preserve their status as isolated musical artefacts for contemplation. F.I.N.E is a pop-art style of redolent fragments, both found and created, juxtaposed in apparently arbitrary fashion to create a whole. Musical topics are touched on at arm’s length, through spoken permutations, hymn tunes and recorded conversations. Again, the question rises as to whether the nature of music is being interrogated or swerved.

Maybe a composer should just sit down once in a while and write a piece of music. Between Petting Zoo and F.I.N.E, Ryan Latimer’s orchestral bon-bon Gorilla and Orange Sun drops in like an uninvited guest, appearing all the weirder for it. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra give it the refined enthusiasm it needs to fulfil its mission. Its qualities – full, colourful, innocuous and short – make for an archetypal BBC Proms commission, but took a wrong turn here and landed in Huddersfield by mistake. The closing track, Corey Mwamba’s kr-ti-sa, compounds the bewilderment by not being a concert recording at all. Mwamba withdrew from live performance a few years ago by way of protest and now makes his jazz through overdubbing himself in a home studio. I cannot meaningfully comment on jazz as all I can hear is that it sounds like it is meant to sound. In that respect, it shares a quality with a Proms overture.

Night Music: Jack Sheen, Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras

Tuesday 31 May 2022

If not dark (pace Lorca), then indelibly crepuscular; SN Variations’ release of Jack Sheen’s large ensemble work Sub arrives just in time for northern summer. A broad, dank thicket of furtively scurrying sounds, Sheen’s ensemble writing in this piece both invites and repels comparisons to Haas and very late Feldman’s writing for large ensembles. Sub is played low: alto flutes and violas with trombones, bass clarinets, piano and percussion. The fifteen musicians of the Octandre Ensemble, conducted by Jon Hargreaves, play winding figures over and through each other, with sounds tending towards the breathy and brushed, all muted and blurred by a backdrop of audio tracks that let grey noise seep into any remaining cracks that might admit outside air. While teeming with microscopic, sightless life, Sheen’s composition is never allowed to relax into an organic flow. Cyclical passages are cut up into eleven movements over forty-seven minutes, divded by silences of varying lengths, with some sections dying away and other unnaturally stopped dead. After about twenty minutes, when you think you’re settled in to a work of moody textures, things suddenly lighten up, only to plunge back into redoubled activity. From there on each section becomes more sharply contrasted in sound balance and rhythm, always sounding stranger with the ensemble’s playing turning more febrile as the parts get simpler, until they resemble a muzzy tape recording of a full orchestra. It’s an uncanny, paradoxical work that thwarts movement while remaining in motion, yet never finds balance while remaining in place.

Rohan Drape and Anthony Pateras’ earlier work with keyboards and electronics has been discussed here before but finally received its long-awaited follow-up last year. The traces of a mistake, the most simple one possible the reactions of even younger children presents three related works, including two versions of the title piece. Originally scored for piano, violin, two organs, drums, electronics and Revox tape deck, the piece first appears here in a version for solo piano haunted by an electronically processed haze. Pateras’ piano playing here is uncharacteristically restrained, maintaining an aura of stillness even as the notes gradually fill up the spaces left by Drape’s flickering microtonal drones that slip in and out of consonance. In the middle work, Distance bestows then takes right back, the duet adds pipe organ to the mix, elaborating the ideas from the earlier work into thicker sonorities and more forthright piano work that plays within and around the shifting harmonic space. The final track opens out further, returning to the opening work in an ensemble version with violin and percussion, Drape on piano and Pateras reworking material on a variable-speed tape. Violin adds high overtones and resonance, drums the sub-bass beating signals: even as the texture becomes more active and fraught, with electronic taps and echoes, the suspense and powerful atmosphere is maintained and amplified across all three of these superbly judged and executed works.

Cage/Not-Cage: Opening Performance Orchestra’s Chess Show

Thursday 26 May 2022

“John Cage has become a playground for second-rate minds”, or words to that effect, is one of the more pertinent comments Richard Kostelanetz has made about the late composer who, all things being otherwise normal, would have been turning 110 this year. Kostelanetz has supplied one of several sets of sleeve notes that come with this double CD, although that quote is not included. Chess Show (Other Memories of John Cage) is a part-hommage, part-cargo-cult, part-remix (sorry) made in Cage’s name, certainly not the first and equally certainly not the worst; far from it, the piece comes across as one of the better examples of a genre that is obliged to be derivative. Listening to it allows the mind to contemplate questions and for me the questions always returned to wondering how well it all worked as a musical experience and how well it resisted using Cage as carte blanche.

Cage devised the simple concept of the Musicircus in the mid 1960s: Step 1. have a lot of stuff all happening at once, Step 2. that’s it. The Czech experimental ensemble Opening Performance Orchestra first began playing with the idea of creating a potted Musicircus made of samples from recordings of Cage’s music in the 1990s and have since developed it into an audio-visual work (video component not included here). There are two performances recorded here, each 64 minutes: a live performance at Ostrava in 2017 and a studio version from 2021. Like Cage’s immersive works, it’s dense but not impenetrable or oppressive. Despite the uneasy mix of chessboard structure and chance-determined deployment of recorded material, it sounds curiously consistent. The quodlibet of Cage fragments favour a prevailing texture of sustained sounds, rather like a rendition of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis or 103 with disruptions. (Perhaps the former work is favoured here, as the musicians cite it as a key inspiration behind the concept of Chess Show.) In the live version, the laptops are accompanied by Reinhold Friedl performing excerpts from the Song Books and occasional snatches of keyboard music. For the studio incarnation, the Song pieces are replaced by lively contributions from pianist Miroslav Beinhauer. The soloists are the only immediately observable difference in the two versions.

While not misappropriating Cage as a pretext, the focus on his public image in the music world becomes the piece’s raison d’être. My only other experience of Opening Performance Orchestra’s work is their performances of Milan Knížák’s Broken Music pieces; perhaps this led me to expect something more iconoclastic here. Perhaps because it’s all made up from digital soundfiles, everything comes together too neatly, with no seams showing or any feeling of imminent disruption. I wonder if it all could have been re-created to similar effect through an adventurous realisation of one of Cage’s more open scores. Chess Show is a serious work, conceived, lived with and developed in earnest. The abundance of texts in the package are present both as a justification and to place the work in a gerater context of musical and artistic practice. This is all a long way of saying that my only real problem with it is that it’s overly reverent. That’s OK, for Cage is still in need of grand acts of consolidation and affirmation, but true respect for Cage’s legacy would be to build on it rather than simply preserve it.

Ostrava Days Live 2019–2021

Friday 20 May 2022

Real life, honest-to-god concerts are happening again, so here’s a quick primer on what you’ve been missing. The Ostrava Center for New Music has put out a two-disc compilation of highlights from the last two biennial Ostrava Days festivals. The selection of pieces sets out the Ostrava Days’ credentials on disc one by starting with Ostrava founder Petr Kotík and the ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra killing Xenakis’ Aïs. This piece is now over forty years old and it still confronts the listener with its wild falsetto baritone and thumping percussion. Baritone Holger Falk whoops and wails with just enough control that you forget he’s the same man when he sings in his natural register. This 2019 performance is the work’s premiere in the Czech Republic.

A mix of the old cutting edge and the new is carried through the first part of the album. Xenakis is followed by Kotík leading the Ostravská banda in the world premiere of Christian Wolff’s Small Orchestra Piece. In its own way, it is an equally strange and singular work to the Xenakis, although Wolff playfully acts out of character throughout this piece. His signature late, discontinuous style is elaborated into coherent passages which seem to invite comparison and comment as they abrupty stop and change course. Listeners’ ears will keep pricking up at what appear to be passing references to other music styles or even pieces, such as when the violins come in about two-thirds way through, echoing a Copland pastoral before mimicking Webern’s Symphony.

The next two works form an elegy to the late Frederic Rzewski; as pianist and composer. Kotík’s own Spontano is the oldest piece here (1964), revived here by Rzewski as soloist with Ostravská banda. It’s still a bold piece in a brutalist way as it tries to put sounds together in new ways, or rather keep them apart as much as possible. Rzewski is fittingly brusque in playing terse, unresolved statements against silence, or disrupting occasional blocks of sustained chords built up from overlapping layers of pitch. The final (marked ‘furious’) of Rzewski’s 2019 Six Movements for piano appears by way of an encore.

The remaining pieces consist of new work by later generations of composers. While a musical avant-garde emerged immediately after World War II from a compulsion to create something entirely new and reject pre-existing models, subsequent generations have felt this imperative less and less, preferring, perhaps wisely, to take stock of where all these upheavals have led us today. From this too-close perspective, approach is one of assimilation and transformation, of building something new out of what they understand they already have. That understanding has continued to change and artists have learned to adapt to constantly shifting ground. Earlier attempts at assimilation and transformation resulted in collage and pastiche, as a form of deconstruction, but in recent decades this consolidation has become more sophisticated – a blessing and a curse. As ever, the identifying signs of a truly radical work lie in the differences between that which please and that which astonishes.

Martin Smolka’s Quand le tympan de l’oreille porte le poids du monde, played here by the PKF – Prague Philharmonia conducted by Roland Kluttig, seems to explores a given sonority, turning it back and forth, but then moves beyond this reductive method by expanding the material into extramusical concerns of dramatic build-ups, suspenseful ebbings away, before rising to a calamitous yet inevitable climax. The drama, however, comes from the musical means exploited by the orchestra. Petr Bakla’s There is an island above the city (Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra /Peter Rundel) is another preimiere, which at first seems as still and reverent as the beginning of Smolka’s piece, but takes a different turn by pursuing the more sinister implications of settling down in one place. A benign chorale steadily grows more fraught, developing a more turbulent aspect to its character, with an ominous humming rising up behind the strings.

Violinist Hana Kotková and the Ostravská banda (conducted this time by Jiří Rožeň) perform Ana Sokolović’s concerto Evta (2017). Each of the seven movements is named for a colour in the rainbow, proceding through the spectrum and played without breaks. The movements, or perhaps sections is a more appropriate term, are distinguished less by contrasts in mood as by means of construction. If there is any syneesthetic programme here then it is particularly obdurate on the senses: Kotková and the ensemble, both together and apart, pick up the nervous energy in the writing and produce fidgety patterns made out of reiterations of ascending and weaving patterns that slide and stutter over each other. The piece becomes a study in tension, where knots are slackened from time to time but never undone, only to be pulled tight again in the next phase. The soloist eschews the traditional roles of protagonist or adversary, acting much as a figurehead for the combative, querulous mob. Just checked the notes and there’s talk of chakras and folklore.

Led again by Kotík, Ostravská banda’s premiere of Devin Maxwell’s Bonneville Park II sees a return of brutalist construction. A sequel to his earlier electronic work of the same name, fixed media is also present here in a subtle way to flesh out the acoustic sounds. Here, the emphasis is on clashes of sonority over any movement in pitch, dwelling on contrasting colours and textures in succession to make a piece that is more stimulating than likeable. After a short but satisfying choral work by Georgina Bowden (The Fainting Sun, premiered here by Canticum Ostrava) the set concludes with a rousing finale: Miroslav Srnka’s Eighteen Agents for nineteen strings. Members of Ostravská banda & ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra (Bruno Ferrandis conducting) serve up a suitably hot and sour string ensemble, agressively hazy with its fast chromatic runs played in individual meters so that they sound, if not microtonal, then blurry and melted, even as the phrasing is aggressively jagged. It all winds up with a flourish, playing up to being the tricky but spectaular new-music-crowd-pleaser which then makes you wonder if it’s a little superficial. The piece is ten years old now and perhaps seemed more pointed at the time – like I said, the ground keeps shifting beneath our feet.

Richard Emsley: Still/s

Tuesday 26 April 2022

“It’s like looking at someone with short hair. We could tell if that person had long hair in the sixties and now has short hair, as opposed to the guy who’s always had short hair since the fifties.”
Peter Gena, in conversation with Morton Feldman

Having first heard parts of Richard Emsley’s for piano series, started in the mid 1990s, I little suspected that these pieces signalled a change in style from his earlier work as an accused member of the British New Complexity School. The austere arrangements of undeveloped points and blocks of sound in for piano start to make a new kind of sense with this background information: the static sound-world of these later works isn’t necessarily a disavowal of the B.N.C.S.’s frantic activity, but a fresh approach to some of its values. Where the B.N.C.S.’s notorious ‘black page’ approach to notation asymptotically aspires to re-create musicianship in free flow, Emsley’s unadorned sounds can be heard as emulating the interior processes of musicians, in reflective contemplation of the stuff of their art.

Still/s is a cycle of twenty-four pieces for five musicians, composed between 2002 and 2019. On Saturday, they were played in their entirety for the first time by Apartment House as part of Music We’d Like To Hear. There were two concerts, of about two hours each, to get through the whole set. The first hint of Emsley’s approach is that each piece is for only one to three of the five instruments (the musicians here were Mira Benjamin, violin; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello; Heather Roche, clarinets; Nancy Ruffer, flutes; Kerry Yong, piano). The series was originally conceived as a counterpart to artist Joan Key’s painting, the juxtaposition of repeated shapes and muted, near-white colours finding an analogy in Emsley’s music.

These are not pieces to be approached with a restless mind, unless one is seeking to silence the internal monologue. Many of the pieces stick to one or two pitches, echoed back and forth between instruments. The apparent stasis is at odds with an inherent instability in each piece, as Emsley notates his isolated sounds in aperiodic settings, frustrating any definable pattern that might otherwise emerge. Other pieces set out gamuts of notes to be played in irregular permutations; more rarely, a piece will be made up of a brief motive heard in variations. Successive pieces will seem to vary only in instrumentation, before the next abruptly introduces something entirely anomalous: simple sounds presented in a way that is anything but simplistic.

In retrospect, the series unexpectedly reveals a microcosm of musicianship, with minor forays into studies in timbre, intonation, extended techniques and rhythm. With their focus and their awareness of the potential inside each unprepossessing piece on paper, the musicians of Apartment House steadily zoomed in on this microcosm, expanding on each hidden facet while remaining as near-monochrome as possible. What impressed most was the use of instrument tone and register, with flute and violin, clarinet and cello at times blending almost indistinguishably, at other moments coming close to mimicking each other, alto flute against cello harmonic, E-flat clarinet in just the right place to match the muted violin.

More Lost Canadians: Michael Oesterle, Mark Ellestad

Friday 22 April 2022

Thanks to the musicians who keep exposing me to contemporary Canadian composers I’d have otherwise never heard of. Quatuor Bozzini’s set of Michael Oesterle’s Quatuors opens with a nice comfy chorale that almost immediately drops away to a near-inaudible skein of harmonics. This piece, Oesterle’s String Quartet No. 4, is the latest and longest of the four pieces heard here (but not the entirety of his output for string quartet). The piece moves casually back and forth between slow pulses of alternating chords and scurrying patterns of harmonics, before returning to chorales and whispers. Oesterle gives no programme other than to assert that his musical materials are always “geometric, expressive, and puritanical”. It is the most subtly disorienting piece in the collection, as each passage yields to the next without any formal structural division, while beguiling sounds are tempered by a secretiveness as to where, if anywhere, the music may be directed. Quatuor Bozzini’s style of playing ideally evokes that shrouded expressivity, never loud but each phrase always indelible, however softly it is played.

The remaining three pieces are more easily apprehended, each falling into neatly digestible sections. String Quartet No. 3 “Alan Turing” from 2010 explores patterns, gestures and textures with an appropriate sense of wonder and discovery mingled with loss and regret. The Bozzinis bring out the gentle playfulness of each movement, slightly darkened by the melancholy of its subject. The harmonic language and gestures at times recall the freshness of a previous generation’s “post-minimal” tonality in its first flowering, before it was worked in harness to the service of Hollywood soundtracks. The titles of 2016’s Three Pieces for String Quartet evoke various animals but Oesterle’s notes again cite geometrical puzzles as each piece’s prime mover, claiming inspiration from Stravinsky and Cage. I can hear a kinship with Ruth Crawford in here, which is the highest of praise. The earliest piece here, Daydream Mechanics from 2001, is the most extended and hushed movement in the collection, with genuine whispering, searching out unexpected consequences from an otherwise confined grid of chordal patterns. Quatuor Bozzini’s championing of this composer, matching his language with a refinement of style that moves from rapid filigree to near-stillness in the same mode of emotion, reveals depths slowly swirling below the undemanding surface.

Mark Ellestad’s career as a composer has moved slowly, with extended pauses. Another Timbre has revived him from obscurity in the new collection Discreet Angel, drawing together three pieces written between 1988 and 1994. I’ve listened to these many times now and still haven’t gotten any closer to what’s happening inside them, despite the intimacy of instrumentation, performance and recording. The 1994 piece, Sigrid, is a brief tape of Ellestad overdubbing pump organ and Hardanger fiddle, the interweaving chords layered and worked into aural broadcloth. The dedicated application of craft to an undemonstrative result is the signature of the three pieces heard here.

Sigrid appears as an interlude to the larger-scale works of much lower density. Both are, in context, memorials for Ellestad’s parents. Discreet Angel itself is for guitar, with just enough musical stuff to expose the instrument’s vulnerability when played at anything less than a continuo. The pauses and unaccompanied notes allow the silence to leak through, creating music that is neither whole nor broken, neither active nor still. For guitarist Cristian Alvear, expert interpreter of some of Wandelweiser’s most esoteric works, the balance of sound and silence is deployed into the fullest and most lyrical playing I’ve heard from him. In the Mirror of this Night is a duet for violin and cello, played here by Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze. Equally slow, it finds its own path as it meanders across forty-five minutes, but again, even when all has been heard, the ultimate course of that path remains obscure. At any given moment in each of these pieces, the music itself is never forbidding, but the wider context defies the listener’s attempts to comfortably accommodate it inside any known form or structure. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze trade solo parts or join in unison almost as often as they work together. Ellestad himself praises the musicians for their “restraint, patience, stillness and a willingness to bring flexibility to time and repetition.” I can’t really add more to that, save that they convey the music with immediacy while still keeping it unknowable.

Guitar? Solos? Fredrik Rasten, Lauri Hyvärinen

Saturday 16 April 2022

I guess there is still a lot more that can be done with guitars; as with pianos in previous centuries, the synergy between artistic creativity and technological development is prodigious. It’s still a bit of a mystery what exact role technology plays in Fredrik Rasten’s solo album on Insub Svevning, where what sounds like an electric guitar is not. When previously heard in his collaboration with Vilhelm Bromander, Rasten’s guitar was mostly bowed to produce complex overtones. Here, everything is plucked and, while the overtones are simpler, they predominate. Svevning is two prolonged studies in arpeggiation, each successive note combining with the last to produce beating frequencies. There’s tremendous sustain in the harmonics, which suggest they have been electronically induced, yet Rasten also sings pitches against the guitar to extend and perturb the resonance of the strings. Despite the technical emphasis on psychoacoustic phenomena, a different effect takes over as content is subsumed by duration. With each piece running to forty minutes, the consistency becomes mesmerising for the listener while it becomes wearying for the player, leading to turns in the course of the music that suggest human need over theory.

Meanwhile, Intonema have released a solo album by Finnish guitarist Lauri Hyvärinen. Cut Contexts crops selections of the guitarist’s practice over the past two years of Covid retreat, presenting a set of five scenes of aural portraiture. Guitar playing is heard as a work in progress and as an activity in place, a given situation subject to transformation. While the guitar here might focus on technique, the emphasis is shifted by the locating presence of environmental sounds and by relocating device of setting each piece into a seven-minute window of time, framed by silence as needed. It creates a kind of cubist presentation, in which the often cosy domesticity of the subject matter is skewed by an oblique depiction in strictly formal terms. The method neatly excises the potential self-indulgence of the diary format that lurks beneath other pandemic documentaries. Why are there not seven pieces? Probably because that would be too many.

Out of Character: Eva-Maria Houben, Magnus Granberg

Sunday 10 April 2022

What a strange piece! What I’ve heard of Eva-Maria Houben’s music tends to fall into either of two categories: static, dispassionate music that becomes oddly affecting by its very remoteness, or static, dispassionate music that refuses any sympathetic connection with the listener. together on the way is neither: a collaboration with the GBSR Duo that’s built on the premise of suspense, in which the processes of time are suspended even as you are aware of time’s passing. At least, that’s how it comes out in this live recording of the piece in Huddersfield. I suspect the piece may take on a slightly different character each time it’s played, as a continuing collaboration between the three musicians. (Sadly I couldn’t make the London performance last weekend.) The piece is an extension of Houben’s previous work with pianist Siwan Rhys, A peaceful, silent place, premiered at LCMF in late 2019: a work of inner calm and patients that ranged from subdued to almost imperceptible. For together on the way, Houben’s organ playing and Rhys’ piano is joined by GBSR partner George Barton on percussion and while the pacing and textures are similar, the newer work sounds like an inversion of the previous performer dynamics. Houben maintains a steady drone throughout, too soft but too rigid for the listener to believe that it can stay the same. Barton and Rhys add brief, isolated interventions that provoke but never disrupt the stasis, leaving the listener perpetually waiting for a change that may never come. It’s unexpectedly dramatic, even ominous, if you allow it to be. You wonder, between the three of them, when they will allow the impasse to break, either change or drop away, or whether they can keep up the suspension of the faintest of sounds indefinitely.

The latest Magnus Granberg release reunites him with Skogen, here as an ensemble of seven musicians recorded last June. How Lonely Sits the City? wends its way around Granberg’s prepared piano, joined by harp, tuned and untuned percussion and amplified objects. A pair of violins complete the ensemble. The predominance of plucked and struck instruments here gives the piece the sparsest texture I’ve yet heard in Granberg’s compositions, even more so than in his quartet Nattens skogar. Allowing for finer shades of dark and light, it’s a cold and spiky piece, with soft but short sounds played in denuded textures. Occasional bursts of electronic noise add to the alienating experience. While recorded in summer, the piece sounds empty and wintry, largely it seems as an effect of Covid; a reflection on the world shutting down and doors closing for musicians everywhere. Interestingly, the piece also began as a quartet, but while Granberg added parts for a larger ensemble, the prevailing mood remained small and sparse, with each musician adding to the overall work as sparingly as possible, making each individual sound count.

Pandemic Reflections: Robin Fox, Francesco Serra

Sunday 3 April 2022

The pandemic’s legacy of space and contemplation lingers in the most social of artforms, even as things are just starting to open up around me. Francesco Serra’s Guest Room is a triptych made from empty space, vacancies that seem to offer nothing more than pure resonance. The apparent purity of floating harmonics is deceptive and false, as with the serenity of a depopulated landscape; in each successive iteration, Serra reveals more of how the evenness of sound is eerie and disturbed. Using a month-long residency in Teatro San Leonardo in Bologna, by then closed to the public, he arranged microphones beneath the vault of the church’s nave to record the echoes of his electric guitar off the walls and ceiling. The diffuse clouds of sound are hard to discern as guitar-like; the notes also mention the presence of snare drums, which you suppose are there for high-end resonance until the third part hits with dramatic force.

I haven’t really discussed Robin Fox’s music here, despite admiring it for many years and having played on the same bill as him several times. Fox’s special way with vintage synthesiser and electronics was frequently married to a visual component, keying his music to oscilloscopic light projections or to dance performance. For the former case in particular, the integrity of the concept required music of relatively simple sounds and gestures to be most effective, to the point that considering audio recordings of many of his compositions seemed to be an exercise in bad faith. The two parts (in fact, separate but related pieces) of Threnody To Now are a different matter. Recorded alone in the studio during lockdown, using a modern modular synth, each is a focused, meditative activity in clear, direct tones and gestures. The two parts clear an internal space, with the repeated harmonic movements moving beyond frustration into equanimity. Too restless and hard-edged to be a New Age sop, it gives you the real deal instead, quietening the mind through considered action. It’s a concise study of the effectiveness of Fox’s deceptively minimal musical language.

Early Attempts To Speak With The Dead

Friday 1 April 2022

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, partly because I finished up a new piece of music. It’s on Bandcamp if you want to take a peek. Normal service will resume shortly.

I had a bunch of unused recordings left over from making my feedback synthesis piece Chain of Ponds. Not wanting to waste them, I fed the recordings into the feedback system used to make them in the first place, creating eight 30-minute stereo files of more complex sounds.

These files were at first mixed together to make a composite piece titled An Entire Bottle of Hospital Brandy in 2021. I eventually decided the piece needed more work. For this new piece, the eight recordings were fed into a matrix mixer that randomly switched outputs so that any of the 16 channels may be modulated by any other. Each of the resulting eight modulated signals were then fed through a gate controlled by a different signal path, so that only certain parts of each output are audible. After a half-dozen or so revisions, the system is now capable of producing a more varied range of sounds and textures over an indefinite period of time, using only minimal additional processes.

Gate sensitivity and volume level are controlled manually, but this performance uses minimal intervention. The eight outputs are panned across the stereo range. Inspiration was drawn from David Tudor’s performance practice and from Henri Pousseur’s Paraboles-Mix.

Alvear-Bondi, d’incise etc.

Sunday 20 March 2022

I’ve been catching up on Insub’s recent releases. Guitarist Cristián Alvear with Cyril Bondi on percussion, mostly, have produced a trilogy of recordings of which I have heard the first two. So far, each has paired two works by different composers, most of whom I’m not familiar with at all. The exception is d’incise, whose 40-minute Sigh (carried away) adds electronic enhancements to Alvear’s guitar and Bondi playing four cymbals. The piece suits their patience and inner stillness, often alternating between the quickly dying tones of the guitar and the rustle of percussion. It spells out a flat, thin sonata made of metallic edges and sounds extended beyond their confortable zones, keeping you alert and wary while never raising its voice. Its companion piece, Santiago Astaburuaga’s grado de potencia #2, adds field recordings which seem to take up the foreground, the musicians introducing brief snatches of speech and sound that appear and disappear in alternation. Time passes in a dreamlike state, with no logical connection or momentum, and so will either soothe, frustrate or disturb you.

Percussion and electric guitar return for Nicolás Carrasco’s sin título #26, a study in stasis that progresses slowly while seemingly making no headway. Alvear plays obstinately reiterated notes that expand into obstinately reiterated chords, counterweighted by a series of recurring percussive noises. The juxtaposition keeps everything slow but taut. Anna-Kaisa Meklin’s Ground in Cis changes things up with the composer adding her viola da gamba to Bondi on harmonium and Alvear’s guitar, making a piece that seems almost rustic by comparison. The three play in harmony over each other before briefly, one by one, breaking into a more florid melody as though allowed to lapse into normal time. It’s all rather charming, particularly as the gentle electric guitar, homely harmonium and sweetly sonorous viola da gamba make such mismatched companions. These recordings were all made in Covid-straitened times last year, with Alvear in Chile added to the other musicians based in Switzerland.

Bondi and d’incise have collaborated on compositions a number of times over the years. The 45-minute Zgodność, made over 2020-2021, is written for a seven-piece ensemble with an accompanying tape part. It sounds a bit different from their earlier pieces, with this one less beholden to processes and with greater variability in its texture and mood over time. In its instrumentation of winds (trumpet, bass clarinet, accordion, harmonium) and strings (viola, cello, double-bass) and its ebbs and flows in texture and dynamics, from faded or frayed high sounds to tutti swells and lugibrious tessitura in the low registers, Zgodność comes across to the listener as a kind of pastoral symphony, in the margin. Stringently compressed in its range and its orchestration, the playing still sounds full and expressive. The tape may play a part, but it does not seem prominent. The seven live musicians are to the forefront throughout – the Blutwurst ensemble, based in Florence, are the orchestra here. Their prowess at interpreting a spare piece to the fullest can also be heard in Emmanuel Holterbach’s Ricercar nell’ombra, a 2018 collaboration which was released on Another Timbre. Holterbach was effusive when describing Blutwurst then, and this recording is further confirmation why.

Not Dead Yet

Saturday 12 March 2022

My little world has started to open up again after a couple of years away. Went out to drink in public and hear the latest in Apartment House’s string quartet revivals: Hermann Nitsch’s String Quartet No. 2. Having heard some of Nitsch’s organ music a year ago, I figured a string quartet couldn’t hurt too much. It’s the humour that got me. Over 70 minutes, the opening movements dwelled upon fat slabs of sound as expected, but then things started to get a little more playful with creaking romantic gestures like petrified Schubert and a lop-sided, foot-stomping ländler tune like a ham-fisted Walter Zimmermann. “Hermann Nitsch lives in a castle.” Ultimately it all seemed very meaningful, which, having lived neither in a castle nor in Germany, is not the same thing as having meaning.

For virtual concerts, I’ve heard the LP of Two Duos from cellist Okkyung Lee’s gigs at Oto in 2019. On side one she’s paired with Jérôme Noetinger making real time tape manipulations, side two she’s with Nadia Ratsimandresy on ondes Martenot. Both bits of retro technology add a slightly spaced-out dimension to the cello: Noetinger adds fizz and buzz to the graininess of Lee’s playing before expanding into more overtly electronic obstacles for the cello to dodge around. Conversely, Ratsimandresy’s ondes Martenot starts out in its vox humana register, sounding uncanny against Lee’s enlarged bowing sounds. Again, the second duet takes an initial concept as a base from which to wander in ever more fanciful detours. The pleasure comes from the matching of sounds and the playing being free-spirited without self indulgence. Knowing how and when to stop also helps a lot.

More talk about the overlapping fields of composition and improvisation come up in the notes for Jonas Kocher’s Perspectives and Echoes, “an architectural struc-ture defines the temporal and spatial course of largely indeterminate events”. The electroacoustic ensemble play thick sounds distributed thin and I can’t hear it as much more than a listless group improv. More distressingly, the piece is accompanied by a performance of Luc Ferrari’s Tautologos III tackled with the same languor, so that the consequences of interactions fail to accumulate and events fail to gather significance or momentum. Perhaps the numbing isolation in this rendition is the suburban riposte to Ferrari’s city analogy.

I’ve been soaking in a small pile of intriguing recent releases on the Insub label which I need to address soon. I was going to set aside Louis Laurain’s Pulses, Pipes, Patterns but I keep trying to listen to it in different ways. It sounds like heavily sampled and processed thwacking of PVC pipes, sliced and diced in various ways to eke out an album’s worth of material. Apparently it isn’t, but instead is made from trumpets mostly, plus lots of digital processing and also “birds, white noise, vibrating metal stuff, saws, toads, sine waves…” Heard in one way it still comes across as sound sculpture, although in a highly creative and roundabout way of doing it; the reductiveness becomes admirable. If you turn it up loud and stand further away it sounds like ambient electronica from the Nineties as the conformity and instability battle it out, like another eccentric Pole Imposter.

Missed another Apartment House gig at Wigmore Hall on Thursday because I’d already booked a ticket to see a revival of Lucinda Childs’ Dance at Sadler’s Wells. For me, this was a personal indulgence in nostalgia and revisiting youth, having had a formative experience watching Childs perform in the 1990s staging of Einstein on the Beach in Melbourne. As a new experience, fresh contact with Philip Glass’s Seventies music, Childs’ choreography and Sol LeWitt’s film treatment was sweetly rejuvenating. Good artists learn from the recent past at least as much as from history lessons, taking up the loose threads as yet unfollowed. This was the future once, and it can still offer the promise of a better tomorrow.