Tom Johnson: Combinations

Saturday 26 February 2022

As Wittgenstein would often remind you, the simplest statements, when exposed to close examination, conceal a wealth of contradictions and absurdities. Several years ago I heard a chamber ensemble play Tom Johnson’s Predictables and stumble over the opening phrases as the obvious series of notes ran afoul of the conventions of performance. Johnson’s perfectly logical sequences of exahustive combinations and permutations contain profound conundrums, throwing us into the mental chasm of aesthetics where the rational becomes counter-intuitive. In making decisions that appear to defy creativity, refusal to deviate from the proposed model is a means for taking the least expected path. Even when the organising principle is clear (and it is typically reducible to a single principle), Johnson’s disciplined adherence to the rule can make the progress of his pieces appear inscrutable to the listener.

The contradictions involved in the experiences of reading, playing and listening to Johnson’s music underpin the humour that often surfaces. This is most apparent in the works for voice, where word games come to the fore, but the necessary incongruities in Johnson’s approach can’t help but become the stuff of comedy, or at least require wit to handle them effectively. The Quatuor Bozzini’s collection of Johnson’s string quartets, Combinations, exemplify this playfulness without distracting from the musical substance. The Four-Note Chords in Four Voices from 2009 are just that, collated by type to provide phrasing, homogeneous and minimal even as nothing ever repeats. There’s a tension between similarity and diversity, despite the composition’s premise that such concerns are rendered moot. Johnson has recognised that there is nothing mathematical to be learned from his work with combinations and so these pieces cannot be considered mere demonstrations, but raise new aesthetic questions from existing conditions. Much as with Alvin Lucier, Johnson displays a fertile imagination based on observation over invention.

My review copy came without sleeve notes, so it would take closer analysis to determine exactly the systematic combinations used in 2003’s Combinations for String Quartet or the mathemmatical formulas used in 1994’s Formulas for String Quartet. I’m not bothering to do so because it doesn’t matter. As Johnson himself has written elsewhere, “composers, interpreters, and listeners do not need to know all this, just as we do not need to master counterpoint in order to appreciate a Bach fugue. As always, one of the wonderful things about music is that it allows us to perceive directly things that we would never understand intellectually.” In both the above works, the most striking aspect is the diversity of modes of expression in such a presumably limited palette. Formulas opens with a lively jig-like movement, followed by sweet antiphonal counterpoint and floating harmonies. Combinations contrasts motoric passages with translucent chords and dramatic interventions. Other movements, and in Tilework for String Quartet, build mosaic-like patterns out of sinuous lines that rise and fall while slipping in and out of sequence, becoming all the more intriguing for discovering variety in a single process of juxtapositions.

The music embodies a balance between rigor and play that can also be found in a well-crafted fugue. Quatuor Bozzini play this all with the sophistication and lightness of touch that it deserves, to bring out the fullness of its self-discipline and its charm. Steadfast and non-vibrato throughout, they nonetheless keep everything sounding warm and alive. The square, even rhythms are played true, but with a suppleness that allows the Bozzinis to float for one passage before landing with a surefooted tread in the next. With careful attention to intonation and articulation, they still find expressive room in the notation bring out wider connotations of emotion. For fans of Johnson’s music, part of the fun here is how often it sounds like someone other than Tom Johnson; the deadpan drollery commonly given to his work is shaded with hints of agitation or pathos, with fleeting classical or even romantic impressions flickering by. The dual appeal to the senses and the intellect is also a hallmark of wit.

Laura Cocks: field anatomies

Monday 21 February 2022

Scariest album of flute music ever. Laura Cocks’ solo recital disc field anatomies is a gruelling, intimidating experience when heard in one sitting. Don’t let the pressed flowers on the cover fool you; get the message that these (genuine) preserved petals crushed flat between heavy black cards are sending. All five works, composed over the past ten years, are intensely physical and demanding pieces for performer and listener. I don’t mean in the Unity Capsule sense, either, although there is a similar complexity and difficulty which Cocks successfully wrestles with throughout. All five composers represented here push intricacy of pitch and rhythm into the background, pushing their emphasis partly on sonority, but particularly on emodying the flute as an extension of breath – or an obstacle to it.

Cocks presents a masterclass on the phsyicality of wind playing. We can acknowledge that past prejudices against the flute as a petty instrument are entirely unfounded, yet during the opening half of the the first work, David Bird’s Atolls for solo piccolo “and 29 spatialized piccolos” I kept steeling myself against the prospect of a barrage of relentlessly finicky virtuosity. This never happens, even as Cocks negotiates tortuous passages of overblown multiphonics with a smearin’ and sneerin’ attitude before the work suddenly explodes into dense, dark spectralism. Electronics and other devices are used in all the works here, except for Jessie Cox’s Spiritus, but even that relatively straightforward work requires Cocks to provide a low, vocalised drone to thicken out the sound of her instrument. The focus on the sound of breath and mouth in all the works becomes most extreme in Bethany Younge’s Oxygen and Reality, where musician and piccolo are hemmed in by electronic processing, affixed balloons to ration the use of air and, most ominously, “hardware”. The constricted, suffocating atmosphere is marred a little by being a little too demonstrative of its premise, as when Cocks is required to speak on the subject through the piccolo, but by this stage of the album her voice comes as a surprise as up until now she has sounded larger than life.

The most listerner-friendly piece here may be DM R’s You’ll see me return to the city of fury, but even this electroacoustic work is dark and menacing while also being the least convulsive in its progress from start to finish. The final piece, Joan Arnau Pàmies’s Produktionsmittel I is part of a 2-hour trilogy. For this segment, Cocks unloads a marathon barrage of groans, growls, grunts and howls that search out the medians and extremes between pitch and noise. I’d call it an indomitable display of power, yet the piece itself suggests human exhaustion as the flautist is buffeted by electronic bleeps until she is swept away by a tide of white noise. There are times when it starts to feel like the flute has become an adjunct to the music, a prop for a greater compositional conceit. Based on the performances given here, a composer could get some exciting results from writing piece for Cocks which required her to do without an instrument altogether.

Post-Confusion, 2: Tim Parkinson, Eventless Plot, Luciano Maggiore

Sunday 20 February 2022

Speaking of forgotten trends in experimental music from past generations, I recently listened to a two-hour free-form slab of late night US public radio from 1975. Amongst all its eccentricities, the oddest thing about it was how it reminded me of Tim Parkinson’s septet (2004), which I had played just before. Two performances of the work are given by different ensembles in this album release; it’s a piece for live chamber ensemble with use of pre-recorded audio. “Simultaneous parts begin together and thereafter continue independently. Parts for melody instruments may be played in any order. Percussion parts and audio track are fixed.” As a study in immersive simultaneity, the ideas and means are not new, but the music is still strikingly otherworldly. Part of this may be down to the awareness of history going on behind it, focusing on the sound over the technique. The live sounds vary incongruously without ever trying to be pointedly different or disruptive, while the recorded sounds remain impassive; moreover, everything appears in a dreamlike, distant haze. The musicians are expected to be placed around the room, which presumably happened in both these instances, so that the recording captures the room as much as the sounds that inhabit it.

I’ve talked about Eventless Plot a few times before, with their group compositional approach being both an extension and an antithesis of free improvisation. With several minds at work, the focus is on finding order, guiding divergent impulses into a single, emergent intelligence that is as clear as it it complex. Released last month, Apatris is a collection of four concise pieces for tapes, piano, percussion and electronics. The trio (Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas, Yiannis Tsirikoglou) play without guest members this time, producing atmospheric but transparent works that subtly develop and distinguish themselves from each other. With piano as the main melodic component here, its utterances are kept brief, setting the layers of unpitched sound into relief while giving them further colouration by contrast. It works effectively as a companion piece to No options, their earlier collaboration with bass clarinetist Chris Cundy, both in musical approach and in scale.

The unifying conceit I’ve got in the back of my head from listening to these pieces is “post-confusion”, as an evolving but contemporary approach to accommodating the state of information today, a multiplicity of ever-present, contradictory messages in constant competition. How does music adapt to, repurpose, combat or shut out this situation? The term might be used in a similar way as “post-irony” gets thrown about, which was how it kept passing through my head while listening to Luciano Maggiore’s Drenched Thatched Roof again even after I swore not to. This is the guy who did that collaboration with Louie Rice Synthesised voices and low frequencies to eat crisps with a while back. There’s even less information to work with here; if you’re one of the 150 people who got the limited edition CD then there’s a 6-page booklet to go with it but I’m going to guess that all the pages are black. Short loops of grey-sounding tapes repeat a handful of times, then stop. Pause, repeat for 68 minutes (Maggiore does tell you up front that the track divisions are meaningless). Every element is laid out one at a time, neatly separated, but it’s still incomprehensible. You’re so sure that some of these sounds are being repeated that the idea they might all be different is unbearable. I have no idea what is going on, even though it keeps telling me.

Post-Confusion, 1: Clinton Green, Tarab, Tony Buck & Rik Rue

Monday 14 February 2022

I’ve been listening to a range of pieces by artists working with degrees of freedom in their approach to composition, from fixed but open structures to pure improvisation. The eclectic sonic materials used render questions of harmonic or other pitch-based organsiation obsolete. Perhaps it’s the ultimate expression of Ezra Pound’s theory of harmony, that any two sounds can follow one anonther in consonance as long as you get the timing right: the disposition of heterogeneous sounds to create a balanced, unified musical experience is a genre that has slowly defined itself over the last half-century or so. As with the materials, the unifying forces can be left very loose, defying our expectations of associating anarchy with chaos.

The densest, noisiest works all happen to be Australian, produced across a gap of twenty-five years. Maybe there’s a pattern that singles out these three albums, or perhaps these piece are just crowding out my mind right now. There appears to be a tradition, as represented by the reissue of Tony Buck & Rik Rue’s Come Let Us Build Ourselves A City collaboration from 1996. A double improvisation of Buck on drums and electronic percussion devices, embellished and corrupted by Rue’s electronics and samples played through minidisc recorders set to shuffle, the collection of pieces push the density of signals to the brink of noise. Technology allows each musician to be their own Sixties happening in terms of immersion in omni-attentiveness. With such abundance, pacing or restraint in exposition are irrelevant: the energy is unstinting and phrasing can be confrontingly abrupt.

The same qualities can be heard in Tarab’s 2018 recording, HOUSEKEEPING, derived from an 8-channel installation. Recordings of found objects, spaces, rehearsals are all swept up in this vast accumulation of otherwise inconsequential odds and ends. The collection may appear indiscriminate but the presentation is far from flat, using the perspectives of time and space over which the piece was shaped to present sounds in sharp relief. If there’s a shared tradition here, it’s in the use of domestically-oriented material to produce something otherworldly, transcending its innate quotidian attributes to become something more than itself, rather than seeking to relocate artistic experience within the mundane.

That transcended domesticity carries over into the most recent work here, Clinton Green’s Here​?​/​Secret, a pair of related lockdown compositions created out of frustration at being unable to access his studio and equipment. The two collages were created from, and on, cassettes, using older material left at home and processed on an old 4-track cassette mixer. The gear at work here is similar to that used by Rik Rue in the 1980s. Green mentions a compositional procedure for choice of tape, tape speed and direction and panning, which yields a combination of sounds disturbingly mismatched to eerie perfection, much in the way of a prolonged chance collision. Once again, the ordinary is repurposed into a hallucinatory melange of sounds beyond conventional comprehension. It taps into a powerful strand of late 20th Century experimental music, going back to Cage’s collages from the 1950s, that’s occasionally forgotten only to be taken up again a generation later…

End of quiescence, 3: A quick comment on Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet

Sunday 30 January 2022

It took a long time to listen to this recording, but not long to find something to say about it. Morton Feldman’s music, despite immediate apperances, is not quiescent; it constantly questions the bounds that are rigorously placed upon it. (Is this what Cage meant he when first encountered Feldman’s music, finding it “heroic”?) Like many, I suspect, I imprinted on that first recording of Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet many years ago, with its dedicatees Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet pulling off something that sounded flawless, somehow making the piece the most self-contained and approachable of Feldman’s late works, even as it tests the musicians and audience alike.

Nobody needs a reason to play or record a piece again, but for the new recording of Piano and String Quartet by Apartment House on Another Timbre, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze provides an excellent summary of the piece’s compelling qualities on the label website. In their rendition, Apartment House thins out the sound, as Feldman often wished of his instruments. While neither faster nor slower, the approach taken by pianist Mark Knoop is more enervated, as though suddenly shaken out of complacency of what we have come to expect late Feldman to be. (I’m comparing this version to both that Takahashi/Kronos CD and memories of a live performance by John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet.) The strings respond in kind, as though pressed for time, making other performances seem unhelpfully languid in retrospect. After being gradually accommodated through stages of acceptance as ‘minimalist’ or ‘ambient’, it’s good to hear this piece turned away from luxuriance and towards a sound more fitting to Feldman’s less comfortable ways of thinking about music.

End of quiescence, 2: Johan Lindvall, Judith Hamann, Adrián Demoč

Tuesday 25 January 2022

What does quiescence in music mean? John Cage, seeking his way out of a musical and psychological abyss, turned to Eastern religion and embraced quiescence as a goal to be achieved, a more receptive kind of stoicism. Surrendering oneself to chance is itself a decisive act, not to be confused with the passivity of being a hostage to Fortune. The inactivity so valued in this type of art is that of heightened awareness, as with the figure in Dürer’s Melencolia I. Johan Lindvall’s Two trios (Lindvall, Rasten, Shirley) were composed for the performance heard on this Insub recording, with Lindvall on piano joined by Fredrik Rasten on acoustic guitar and Derek Shirley, cello. An almost naïve construction, without development, but played with a studied elegance to negate any base rough-hewn appeal, the first, long piece is pointillistic throughout and then the second, short piece plays in choral unison as though the first piece was folded upon itself. You swear you’ve heard this all before, but it’s so pleasant to hear now. As with the French Symbolists, each piece is held together by the recalled affinities of these familiar sounds, “too subtle for the intellect”.

Judith Hamann made A Coffin Spray last year as a memorial for a friend who passed too soon. Any quiescence here is through a reflective act of grief; the steadiness of its interwoven cello chords becoming part mourning, part remembrance, part acceptance. The low, beating overtones that recur at the beginning of the piece at first come across as funereal, but when the bass strings drop away you become keenly aware of the loss and wish the comforting certainty would return. It does, but transformed, as the harmonic space gently starts to open up through the repetitions. The mesmerising quality of the playing and cross-fading between low and high induces contemplation rather than sleep. Hamann’s income from this Superpang release goes towards funding a proper memorial.

The latest (I think) release on Discreet Editions is another set of compositions by Adrián Demoč. Sen differs from his previous collections discussed here in that the three pieces are all played on early music instruments: lutes, viola da gambas, cornettos and such. All three, very recent, are particularly reductive in their means, even by Demoč’s standards, but are no less captivating for that. Unanimity is the motive here, with the two outer tracks of block movements of chords, a line harmonised. A Luca Marenzio has been heard before on the 2019 album Žiadba; in the newly antiquified version, Jedediah Allen, Anna-Kaisa Meklin and Lukas Frank wield instruments that play against each other less sweetly and the so the piece moves along at a brisker pace, its cadences still poignant despite itself. The wilder colourations and intonations heard here become the point of Zátišie a súzvuk, a sextet Demoč composed specially for these instruments. The long title work in between is a monophonic melody for three plucked instruments in staggered unison. The trio heard here (Julia Marty, gittern; Rui Stähelin, plectrum lute; Carolin Margraf, gothic harp) are just close enough in sound to resemble echoes of each other, a kind of shifting hall of mirrors that complicates the hesitant progress of the slowly winding melody. The use of pitch and harmony in these pieces is such that, whether in stasis or in motion, its presence is of secondary concern to the listener, other than as a means of achieving a change in state of the listener’s affective awareness without revealing a structure.

End of quiescence, 1: Ilia Belorukov and Gaudenz Badrutt

Monday 24 January 2022

Time to do some catching up on winter listening. I quickly started zoning out to Ilia Belorukov’s solo release Someone Has Always Come on Sublime Retreat but then started paying closer attention and reappraising it while still playing it for the first time, which is always an encouraging sign. The four tracks here, assembled over 2017 to 2020, seem a bit samey at first in that grey dark-ambient kind of way, but the redeeming features are in the attention to detail and finish, as suggested by the lengthy gestation period and confirmed by the depths that are revealed in closer listening. Behind the rather staid impression received at a distance, each piece deploys a wealth of dark-hued tones enlivened by faint motifs that sometimes recur, imparting structure and direction for the listener and adding a nice, open-ended uncertainty quite different from the usual claustrophobic atmosphere of this genre.

I’ve discussed Belorukov before, in his collaboration with Gaudenz Badrutt, Rotonda. It got described as “slow, deliberately-paced music [that] unfolds over nearly 50 minutes, each performer knowing that the resonance of the space will fill and colour their inactivity.” The two are reunited as a duo on Sauerkraut, released on Intonema a couple of months ago. These recordings date from 2019, based on live performances with electronics, sampling, feedback and analogue synthesis. Both musicians’ use of noise, placement of sound and phrasing have developed here into a high-contrast study of extremes. Where Rotonda flirted with cautiousness, Sauerkraut tempts recklessness. Two brief tracks set up expectations for the main course, a long piece of sporadic outbursts of intricate noise, peppered with unsteady near-silences that unfold with a kind of unreadable, autonomous machine-logic. The sleeve notes suggest that the complex processor chains used in the music create plenty of opportunuities for feedback loops, which goes a long way to explaining why the David Tudor-like organised chaos heard here sounds so unforced, and why the passages of bludgeoning noise are so enjoyable.