Back from mental vacation: Reeder, Gunnarsson

Saturday 29 June 2024

I’ve got some catching up to do after my break. Composer Kory Reeder has just issued another five albums on his Sawyer Editions imprint – I’ll get to these shortly – but this time all feature other composers. Two of his own works appear on Everywhere The Truth Rushes In, released this month on Kuyin. The title work is a string quartet, composed in 2021, which exemplifies Reeder’s preoccupation with composing low contrast music, placing full trust in the quality of his material while preferring not to impress that quality upon the listener through changes in texture or dynamics. The piece can live or die upon your attentiveness, to be either experienced closely from moment to moment or else retreating into an overall impression without recollection of details. The quartet itself plays a long sequence of chords, softly, in unison, throughout – one after another in a manner which would seem both too simple to bother with and too tricky to make it work right. Reeder’s technique is deceptively uniform, appearing to be constant while slipping in an occasional prolonged chord, a small gap, a cadence in an unexpected context. The companion work is The Way I Saw Them Turning, a 2022 piece for voice, flute, viola and piano. Nicole Barbeau is the singer (the musicians here are all local to Reeder’s base in Texas), but you’ll have to crank up the volume knob to hear her. While the string quartet is soft, this piece is mastered at a level barely above a whisper. Listen close and you find both more and less than background music. Barbeau sings a text by Reeder; it’s terse. The terseness is matched by the accompanying instruments, creating a tension with the soft dynamics, but then again everything is spaced out with enough slowness to create a piece that’s skeletal in structure and appearance, at odds with the apparent languor of its progress. You will have to pump it to notice this, though.

Maybe I’m getting the hang of it. Maybe he’s developed his curious, protean animated notation to the point where it directs the listener’s ears as effectively as it does the musicians’ gestures. Maybe it’s the editing and studio enhancements. Maybe it’s down to the use of conventional instruments. Probably all three but I’m leaning towards that last one being the main reason I can get into Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s Stífluhringurinn more than the earlier pieces I’ve heard. Gunnarsson’s compositions require ensembles to interpret a digitally animated score that can change on the fly, meaning that the texture and overall shape of the piece can be elusive, with nothing settled until the performance is done. Other works I’ve heard have been scored for homemade instruments, toys and assorted objects which further inhibit comprehension that relates to any existing model. The found objects and harmonicas are still present in Stífluhringurinn, but appear as seasoning for the French horn, clarinet, cello etc. The more refined instruments are more versatile, while an orchestra of bottles and bird-calls offers a narrower palette of sounds and shifts the genre away from composition and towards sound sculpture. Stífluhringurinn was composed in 2019 for the Caput Ensemble, who play it here as a group of thirteen musicians. The two movements, or instances, of the piece contrast between short, percussive sounds and extended tones, with the emphasis moving from one to the other in the two versions heard here. It’s a living, mercurial work in which the independent forces compete or coexist to create a gestalt form that exists in the listener’s mind, ephemeral but indelible. Caput handle their instruments well, both the familiar and the strange, using extended techniques at times to blur the distinction between the two. It may be a paradox that the success of this recording exists through the artifice behind it, as Covid restrictions required the piece to be recorded in small batches, with an additional layer of interpretation given when the smaller groups were overlaid and edited together. The chance to enhance details through this method suggests that I may have found the earlier recorded pieces to be easier to perceive when heard in a live performance. In any case, if you were me, you’d start with this record and work backwards to best appreciate what Gunnarsson is doing. The album is a digital download but also available in a vinyl edition, including a small series of unique detourned album covers which, wonderfully, don’t bother with new vinyl and just include a download code with the LP that originally came in the sleeve, a move I heartily endorse.

Music reviews return this weekend.

Friday 28 June 2024

Back from mental vacation, lots of catching up to do.

Lisa Illean: arcing, stilling, bending, gathering

Wednesday 5 June 2024

It’s been eight years since I first heard Lisa Illean’s chamber orchestra piece Land’s End, in a concert with Brett Dean conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. At the time I wondered which way her music would develop; whether her use of microtonality and some of the more reaching aspects of spectralism would be the basis for further exploration, or fade away as a youthful affectation to distinguish her emerging voice from other composers working in a similar atmospheric vein. She has been steadily building up a body of work, largely in the UK, including a Proms chamber premiere. NMC Recordings has now produced a portrait album dedicated to her work, arcing, stilling, bending, gathering, which provides an opportunity to take stock.

Land’s End is here, performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson. It seems crisper than the slightly woozy rendition at the BBC, making the orchestra sound smaller in force but with greater clarity of detail as it picks out the changes in contrasting instrumental colours as much as the arpeggios in just intonation. The other three works are more recent, all from the 2020s and deal with smaller groupings of musicians. Juliet Fraser returns to sing A through-grown earth, previously heard on record as a work for soprano and pre-recorded electronics. The piece has since been revised to add a chamber ensemble of five players, in this instance the Explore Ensemble. Fraser sings lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins set with unusual slowness, as though time has been suspended. Illean holds the opening moment for as long as possible, letting it rise and fall out of almost nothing before settling onto a single pitch. The otherworldly atmosphere of its earlier incarnation is compounded here by the contrast with the acoustic instruments disturbing the serenity of the sampled instruments, augmenting the work with more complex timbral and harmonic colour. Both Explore and Fraser provide a resolute calm that contains these tensions without erasing them, and Fraser’s singing is more direct with less overt ornamentation. The newer version lingers and pauses in more places, adding breathing space.

Hearing this in its first incarnation I suggested that Illean’s music sounded delicate and “occasionally threatened to retreat into preciousness”. As the changes to A through-grown earth indicate, that risk has been deftly avoided. Microtonality and electronics (live or pre-recorded) are used skilfully in the two other pieces heard here, woven unobtrusively into the fabric. Tiding II (silentium) is a trio for the percussion-piano duo of George Barton and Siwan Rhys, with David Zucchi on clarinet*, a piece which brings Illean’s talent for mixing instruments to the forefront. A pensive soliloquy for piano provides the focal point as a recognisable sound, while various washes of harmonics and overtones ebb and flow against it. The other sounds are a complex of electronic sustain, held clarinet* pitches and gongs with other small percussive sounds rolled or struck, including the piano strings, with all three musicians balancing each other to form an organic whole. The matter of the music is wonderfully expressive, with the technical ingenuity feeling like a natural means for conveying its content. The piece is matched by the title work: arcing, stilling, bending, gathering is a 2022 composition for piano, string ensemble and pre-recorded sounds played again by the Explore Ensemble. It’s a supremely beautiful quasi-concerto, with a more active piano part prone to outbursts of animated lyricism, countered by brooding moments of stillness and bowed chords on high strings that push and pull against the piece’s progress. At times the strings play on harmonics over the piano’s notes, while alien elements of just intonation and extended overtones in the electronic part quietly underpaint the scene with ghostly after-images. Explore make the most of this uncanny, nameless exoticism that lurks beneath the surface beauty. It’s a bold, accomplished composition that delivers on the promise first offered by Land’s End.

* It sez here. The tone suggests soprano sax, but that might be the electronic processing.

Music We’d Like To Hear: Systems

Sunday 26 May 2024

The latest Music We’d Like To Hear this weekend was a de facto launch for Scott McLaughlin’s album we are environments for each other, with the second half of the programme being a live performance of we are environments for each other [trio] by violinist Mira Benjamin and pianist Zubin Kanga. I’ve discussed the piece before, but experiencing it live reminds you that music heard purely as sound is a separate phenomenon from witnessing it being played. Benjamin, with a five-string electric violin, picks out tones to bow softly which either enhance or interfere with the pitch of the piano strings picked out by Kanga with a magnetic resonator. Kanga shifts the electromagnetic pickup to another string in response, leaving Benjamin to choose whether or not to stay on her pitch or move to another note. Heard live, the delicate exchange between the two musicians becomes clearer – in particular, their good humour as they trade pitches and plot their next counter-move against each other. It also shows how the piece depends on each musician knowing their instrument inside-out: literally, in Kanga’s case, as the keyboard is never touched, all activity focused on the selection of strings. With amplified violin, Benjamin’s own physical input is also minimal. Conversely, the audience’s attention becomes so captivated by the performers that it becomes harder to notice the subtle changes in pitch and timbre that make the musical substance of the piece (I may be speaking for myself here as I happened to be seated close to the action). The performance was considerably longer than the recorded version, partly as the live setting supports the slower unfolding of events, but it also helped in allowing me to settle in and start properly hearing what was being played.

The first half was a new composition by Rie Nakajima titled indecisive and perhaps, although she qualified this by saying it was “not really a composition, rather a situation”. Nakajima was working with a group of musicians with highly developed skills in improvisation – Billy Steiger, Marie Roux, Pierre Berthet and Angharad Davies – and allowed them to do pretty much as they pleased on the tacit understanding that they each shared a fine sense of responsibility and wouldn’t step all over each other. In a way, the piece was a social system like McLaughlin’s, only without set coordinates but with collective anonymisation. Nakajima is also a sculptor, with the concert coinciding with a solo exhibition of her work. Violins were present, but heard only occasionally and faintly: most sounds came from small objects or lightweight kinetic devices made by Nakajima, whose electric motors caused erratic soft noise. There was a lot of high-level craft on display in the use of sounds by the musicians as they moved around the space for the performance. It’s not because the sounds were all gentle, or the machines were clever in an almost whimsical way (an open umbrella with motorised wires irregularly tapping on the canopy), but this isn’t the first time I’ve come away from a Nakajima wishing for something more besides pleasant sounds. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting agnosticism over whether or not a piece should have a point and mistaking it for complacency.

Taylor Deupree: Sti.ll (unplugged)

Wednesday 22 May 2024

The second release under Greyfade’s new Folio book/music imprint continues in the same vein as last month’s treatment of Kenneth Kirschner’s July 8, 2017. Joseph Branciforte has made an acoustic transcription of another electronic work, this time an arrangement of Taylor Deupree’s 2003 album Sti.ll. I have not heard the original, but the four pieces here display incredible craft and ingenuity in embodying the uncanny sheen of electronic sounds while also adding the depth and microcosmic details that distinguish acoustic music. Taking Branciforte’s transmutation as the stand-alone work without wider reference, it’s a fascinating set of four compositions that both mesmerise and stimulate, working with intriguing sounds outside the usual expectations of chamber music.

Branciforte and Deupree themselves play percussion, with cellist Christopher Gross returning from the Kirschner album. For the opening piece, Snow/Sand, Madison Greenstone overdubs clarinets (B-flat, bass and contrabass) on top of cello, vibraphone, bells, snare drums and paper. The compositions dwell on small gestures, finding a particular sonority and feeling their way deeper inside, drifting as needed but moving as little as possible besides where the initial sound leads them. The smooth, rich sound of the combined clarinets are filled out with background tones from the tuned percussion and cello, with small flickering disturbances and articulations provided by faint snaps and clicks, plosive reed notes and struck cello strings mimicking the crackles and glitches used to embellish the surface of modern electronica. Recur changes to a busier texture, more overt in its evocation of skipping, glitching samples, filled with small percussion sounds over stuttering phrases on Gross’s cello, Laura Cocks playing flute and Sam Minaie double bass, with Ben Monder’s acoustic guitar adding an equal mix of pitched sounds and chattering strings. Amazingly, the last two pieces use even simpler instrumentation. Temper features Greenstone alone, overdubbing clarinets into overlapping irregular loops that never quite resolve, upset by recurring guttural tutting and underlined by faint, gritty static from a shaker. There are multiple tensions to propel this music beyond simple ambience: between the smooth sounds and the ruffled surface, the placid stasis and the restless reiterations and, in this version, between organically acoustic sounds and those which duplicate electronic circuitry, such as the steady ECG bleeps heard faintly in the background. In the final piece, Stil., Branciforte performs trills and rolls on vibraphone and bass drum to produce deep but transparent layers of sound that seem greater than the sum of their parts. As I can’t make comparisons I’ll spare you a disquisition on the implications of originals and simulacra, just to reiterate that it lulls and disturbs at once. The accompanying book promises to give analysis of the composition process and re-composition for acoustic purposes, much in the manner of the previous Kirschner book. The details should be interesting, given that this appears to be a more complex job of arrangement, blending acoustic instruments to mirror electronics sounds apart from the typical MIDI samples from the previous release. It’s evidently the outcome of years of collaboration.

Marco Baldini: Vesperi & Maniera

Monday 20 May 2024


It took me ages to hear these two albums. I mean, I’d listened to them, repeatedly, but I’d never latched on to a true idea about what was going on. It all seemed too simple: each piece seemed alike, an homogeneous chorale for strings, each presented as a monadic block of sound with fairly uncluttered tonality. What’s the big deal? I couldn’t get past this initial impression. Marco Baldini’s background is in improvisation; he’s recently turned to composition. Everything here was written between 2021 and 2023. Inspiration was found in 16th Century Italian music, which tracks with the approach to polyphony, although Baldini slows it all down and smooths it out as though taking a small excerpt and time-stretching it for close examination. He has thus produced a series of tableaux, or panels, each self-contained yet interchangeable, which may be presented singly or in groups to varying effect. It’s not a fair or accurate comparison, but hearing them is a little like seeing Morandi’s still lifes at first: the apparent undifferentiated simplicity of surfaces invites an initially dismissive response, yet each piece begins to compel closer attention merely by its presence. As with other small things blown up large, they may be perceived as little more than background and largely ignored, or draw one into a labyrinth of subtle details. Heard in different situations, these same pieces have sounded emotive at one time and cold another, at times obvious, at others inscrutable. The two albums here each feature seven pieces and from this basis it seems Baldini prefers darker-hued sounds. Vesperi, recorded in Florence, combines cellos and double basses, sometimes with added low marimba for an added bass hum. The ensemble (Niccolò Curradi, Michele Lanzini, Maurizio Constantini, Amedeo Verniani, Francesco Toninelli, conducted by Luisa Santacesaria) produce tidal sounds, surging with calm but implacable movement. Maniera, recorded in England with members of Apartment House, is lighter, shifting register to violins and viola with cello, but even here a few pieces also feature bass. Apartment House’s approach is a little different, making the sustained chords a little more friable, presumably as the higher pitches would come across as too strident. It’s all starting to fascinate me, even though I still can’t identify one piece from another. Just checking, Corteccia – a quartet for cellos and basses – does indeed break into short phrases over its brief duration. Malkosh is an outlier, with pizzicato double bass over low cello and marimba tremolo. Others reveal their characters over time, hinting at stoicism, turbulence, muted confessional.

Fragility and Strength

Saturday 18 May 2024

There’s a paradoxical tension at work in the best of slow, quiet music. While appearing faint and fragile, it maintains resilience through the integrity of its structure, each element supporting the others without reliance on a mass of sonorous substance. The progress made through such a piece from beginning to end may be surefooted even if it appears to be intuitive, or it may be more precarious. The three pieces collected on Nomi Epstein’s album shades suggest a turn in her compositional ideas from the use of pre-mapped patterns which are less heard than felt to plans which are less certain and subject to change. The oldest piece here is Sextet from 2011, which bears the marks of its making most clearly. Epstein’s collaboration with the musicians from whom she wrote the piece resulted in a series of drawings, each made of short lines hastily drawn on top of each other; these were transcribed into sound, producing a seemingly endless succession of short phrases, each consisting of a single sound produced by multiple instruments. Base pitch, harmonisation and instrumentation may vary from one to the next, with the acts of writing, performing and listening each becoming a resource for contemplation. The musicians of the Apartment House ensemble take up the role of interpreters for this recording, bringing an equally fine level of sensitivity to each sound, in part and whole. The 2019 piece sounds (for Berlin) takes a more flexible approach to organising materials and greatly expands the timbral and textural range, even as the number of musicians heard here is reduced to four. The recording, made in Berlin with Christian Kesten (voice), Michiko Ogawa (clarinet), Miako Klein (violin) and Joseph Houston (piano), was the result of a lengthy period of Epstein working and rehearsing with the musicians. The generous time in development can be heard in the exquisitely colourful playing, balanced by exceptional responsiveness and judicious timing between each player. At times, it seems almost as though field recordings are being used, when scrabbling over the violin body, rattling on muted piano keys, whistling and rasping breath sounds are introduced, each appearing suddenly, sounding like natural phenomena far removed from those of the instruments. Kesten sings wordlessly, providing timbral colour at first before unexpectedly emerging into the foreground for some brief moments. The new piece here is shades, a string quartet written for Apartment House last year for this recording. Epstein has used a more open structure here, with the musicians engaged in mutual listening in a way that determines timing as much as timbral balance. It makes the piece more volatile than her earlier works, with less certainty for the listener about where it may ultimately lead. Glissandi are used frequently in some places, eschewed in others, with movement from one to the other never regularly defined. It makes the overall form of the piece more differentiated and changeable than the earlier work, producing greater complexity in the shape and opening up variety in expressiveness which would normally be achieved through resorting to romanticism or other allusions to literature or the theatre.

There is indeed a piece called Distant Music on the new Paul Paccione album Distant Musics, but the title carries an alternate meaning. The five pieces here have much in common with those by other composers working with the slow and quiet these days. What sets them apart on initial hearing is that Paccione is aware of how tenuous the presence of the slow and quiet can be. The opening piece, Exit Music, is a string trio in which single notes are layered over each other in plaintive harmonies until everything recedes to just one pitch whose prolonged persistence implies the piece is ready to peter out before finally regaining some momentum. The trio here (Mira Benjamin, Bridget Carey, Anton Lukoszevieze) play without vibrato in a way that manages to suggest the purest of tones in places while still imparting subtle coloration from moment to moment. While listening to other small ensemble pieces like Gridwork and the aforesaid Distant Music I started to wonder if it would be lazy of me to say it resembled Morton Feldman’s music from the mid 1960s, but then I remembered just when Paccione wrote this stuff. The earliest piece here is from 1980, the latest from 1990: truly music from another world. In fact Paccione has cited Feldman pieces from the mid-60s as an important influence, but this is a rare example of music that is now being heard as new today where making a Feldman reference is directly pertinent. While the style is familiar to us now, Paccione’s compositions were made at a time where he was required to create a context largely on his own. Influences can be observed: Paccione studied with Harley Gaber (apparently his only student) and listening to Benjamin, Chihiro Ono, Amalia Young and Angharad Davies play Violin it’s hard not to hear Gaber in the striated keening of bowed strings with metal mutes. Subsequent work with Kenneth Gaburo and William Hibbard are cited as formational experiences behind the compositions heard here. Lest you get the impression he’s some West Coast Feldman, minimalism via denatured Zen, I’ll remind you there’s more overt rigor in Paccione’s work: Gridwork has similar brooding, introverted harmonies but precision in timing and clear-cut phrasing, while Distant Music employs a broader palette and cleaner counterpoint. Finally, Nancy Ruffer and Emma Williams play the 1983 flute duet Still Life, hovering between playful and pedantic as they dip in and out of an underlying regular pulse to ring the changes on a gamut of notes, until you suspect they aren’t permutations at all, then suspect it’s a permutation too complex for you to grasp. Or it’s an endless compound melody.

Disturbing news from the South

Thursday 9 May 2024

Do not try to think too much about what you’re hearing when listening to El Jardín de las Matemáticas (The Garden of Mathematics); you’ll end up tying yourself into intellectual knots while trying to rationalise why you’re digging it, which is part of the point. The album is a collaboration between Alvaro Daguer, Pablo Picco, Tomás Salvatierra and Mark Harwood, making a loose alliance between Chile, Argentina, Australia and Germany with no stated motivation or justification, leaving the implication that they just wanted to make music together, of some kind. It starts off sounding crude, like amateurish outsider art, but the types of sounds being used in the thudding processional are incongruously sophisticated. The instrumentation is a wilfully eclectic mix of South American, Oriental and Western with electronics added to the folklore, ensuring that from whichever viewpoint the music may be considered as Exotica. The sound of unfamiliar instruments triggers the reflexive thought that we should approach this at least partially as anthropology, which sits uneasily with the perception that the cultural references here are being made up on the fly (it could be heard as psychedelia, but not as Tropicália). It doesn’t take long for it to stop sounding crude, but it reserves the right to regress whenever the mood takes. Some of the tracks are downright lyrical, with added prettiness of nature recordings, while others verge on the ritualistic (a good covering term when you don’t understand the purpose). In all this effortless confusion, the music carries on the work left off by Kagel, an Argentinian composer all too aware of the slipperiness between centre and periphery, wrestling with unknown instruments and asking difficult questions about authenticity and cultural transmission, realising the two are fundamentally incompatible. Reading the fine print, the album appears to have been created in stages, being recorded in one country then forwarded to the next for reworking, further complicating any lurking agenda. As I suggested, it’s only difficult if you start thinking about it, otherwise you can just enjoy the cruise.

Jardín de las Matemáticas has been released by Penultimate Press, who have also put out C​.​D., the new album by Ralf Wehowsky under his RLW alias. It’s a pair of large works (40 and 50 minutes) dealing with the subject of Colonia Dignidad, a German evangelical cult settled in Chile in the 1960s. In their remote compound, cut off from the wider world, the inevitable squalid crimes and atrocities took place, with the added twist of the knife coming from their collaboration with the Pinochet regime and the German diplomatic officials reluctant to probe beyond the idyllic German facade the cult leaders portrayed. RLW’s collages are never dense in texture but he heavily works the materials and approach for his subject, making each sprawling soundscape an indirect picking over of the colony’s legacy (victims still seeking justice, the compound itself now a tourist resort). When speech is audible, it’s heavily processed to push it past intelligibility, regardless of your language comprehension. Much of the material appears in the form of overlaid improvised melodies realised on MIDI instrument patches, adding another distancing layer. The first piece (Reue?) draws inspiration from the contradictory testimonies of those involved in the colony, the second (Knochenstückchen) focuses on the repressive and paranoid atmosphere of the place. Both are indistinct in their treatment of the matter, shifting focus away from the sensational and exploitative to brood upon the collapse of values and what this may mean in terms of music. While much collage is geared towards the didactic, C​.​D. stays unresolved, turning over fragments of bad memories that many would rather had been forgotten.

Electronic Noise Shootout, Spring 2024

Monday 6 May 2024

It’s great that art doesn’t have to come from or go to any specific place, much as we’d sometimes like to forget that when we try to put our enthusiasm for it into words. Two months ago I saw John Wall and Michael Speers playing a live electronic duet at Cafe Oto, using a mixture of pre-recorded and real-time generated sounds in a way where you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Under the old rules, it would be classed as “absolute” music, a purity of self-reliance on form, structure and material that all relate to each other, even as all three attributes were constructed on the fly. If it referenced any tradition, it was to the relentless pursuit of the new. There was a similar, searching purity in the opening set by Lee Fraser, with a hyperfocus on dynamic and timbre. In contrast, Eye Measure’s curious work with “live coding and algorithmic composition” (partly in visible evidence during the set) referenced genres of popular music, taking loops associated with the clubs and then sublimating them into abstraction. The cross-cultural context implies the presence of a wider meaning to be drawn from the work, at least as a commentary on craft or at most as the basis of a disquisition of socioeconomic demographics. Of course we have the capability to do this for any medium but need to remain mindful that any pattern we determine will likely have been shaped by whatever analytical tool fell most readily to hand.

Seán Clancy: Four Sections of Music Unequally Divided (Birmingham Record Company). I dunno what any of the above has to do with Seán Clancy’s piece, except that its system of organisation draws inspiration from the past, utilising an open form of the type made famous by In C and adopting other American characteristics of the period. Bright pianos and warm synthesisers with added gamelan-type instruments start with what promises to be a rhythmic free-for-all before transitioning to the larger sections that form the substance of the work, with extended passages of dense alternating tremolos reminiscent of Charlemagne Palestine. Clancy’s liner notes reference Sol Le Witt and James Tenney. The latter may be inferred from his (checks note) “sheer joy of the plasticity of sound” but also, more pertinently, through his thinking on musical form and cognitive analysis of structure which is applied here to make a piece more complex than a simple tribute to minimalism.

Devid Ciampalini: Eterna (Dissipatio). Speaking of retro, Ciampalini is harking back to the past more self-consciously retro here, evoking earlier models of electronic music both in their surface and their style. Affectionate parody is the prevailing mood, beginning with a lo-fi imitation of the THX Deep Note before presenting ten ‘chapters’ which swing on a spectrum between electronic library music from the 1970s and crunchier DIY synthesis; at times achieving both at once. Ciampalini’s nostalgia is omnivorous: one track sounds like it was made in Coagula, so it’s not all analogue-adjacent, even while attempting to capture the look and feel.

Tewksbury: Floes: Volumes I​-​IV (self-released). Douglas Tewksbury’s four volumes of electronic drones consists of sixteen pieces of roughly equal length for a total of about three hours of music. I hate making such a glib and unoriginal comment but this really does sound like it could be edited down. Up until the latter half of Volume II everything is safely diatonic and simple, making for little more than inoffensive ambience. Things get a more interesting when some, but not all, of the pieces introduce more complex and ambiguous harmonic progressions, but then this makes the remaining pieces superfluous and you wonder if a selection would sound more compelling than the whole.

Technical Reserve: Cheap Heat (Party Perfect!!!). I guess this is retro because it immediately reminded me in a good way of those old Jon Rose LPs where he pits his 19-string cello against whatever was the latest in digital sampling and processing technology. TJ Borden’s cello is supposedly normal, but the improvisations with Hunter Brown and Dominic Coles and their computers as just as explosively anarchic. There’s a lot here: 19 tracks seventy-something minutes but it stays fresh because nobody ever seems to really know what they’re doing. This is harder than it sounds in free improv, supposedly reliant on technique yet really in need of desperation as the spur to invention. Technical Reserve takes us back to a simpler time when the gear doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, albeit now captured with pornographic clarity. It’s rude and it’s noisy but, to pursue the wrestling analogies that crop up in the sleeve notes, for this audience that’s a cheap pop.

Hunter Brown + Eric Wong: Si Distributions (Party Perfect!!!). Brown again, gigging in Wong’s bedroom. You wouldn’t know it was a bedroom recording even as the room shapes what you hear (this is also how you don’t realise how much science has improved your life). The two of them cook up a pair of severe, spatialised noise studies that keep turning aggressive, but the harshness is tamed and sculpted by responding to the acoustic dynamics of the apartment, using the placement of their bluetooth monitors as EQ to exert stern but fair authority over brittle electronic sounds. Side one takes static and white noise, introducing some low sounds later for contrast. Side two is all about rumbling low frequencies to set the speakers juddering about the room until the distortion creates its own white noise, taking us part of the way back to where we started but still ending up somewhere else.

Two from Elsewhere: Reinhard, Demoč

Friday 3 May 2024

Elsewhere has released two albums of very spare, refined music. Samuel Reinhard’s For Piano and Shō presents a pigeon pair of like-titled works which find inspiration in John Cage’s late works without imitating his style. Reinhard first heard the gagaku mouth organ in a recording of Cage’s Two4 for violin and shō and the very slow, open structure of that piece, making use of the shō’s capacity for tones of extended duration is reflected in Reinhard’s two pieces. They also seem to draw upon Cage’s earlier Two for flute and piano, in which the typical sonata-duet form is subverted by Cage restricting the flute to single, isolated notes played softly, tinting the backdrop of silence. Likewise, in For Piano and Shō pianist Paul Jacob Fossum creates figures in the foreground, while Haruna Higashida plays shō with incredible delicacy, using fine tones with the same elusive prominence as a watermark. For Piano and Shō I in fact overlays three recordings of each instrument: single piano notes with sustain pedal held down drop onto the surface and resonate in irregular patterns, threaded through with harmonising from the shō. The use of sustain keeps everything as slow as possible, to let each moment speak. It seems busy in comparison to For Piano and Shō II, now reduced to single performers, Fossum alternating between two chords, one arpeggiated and the other unbroken, while Higashida plays even more faintly than before, on single notes bridging one piano element to the next. Each musician makes full use of the freeness of tempo, allowing reflective moments of silence to emerge and, with the reiterated piano elements, seem to make time almost stop.

The three solo pieces that make up Adrián Demoč’s album Piano are also restrained – a little too much so for my taste when I first heard it. Miroslav Beinhauer plays these piano interpretations of Demoč’s chamber compositions with solemn dignity, avoiding trying to do too much to fill out the sound while not erring the other direction into enervated preciousness. The pieces Ma fin est mon commencement (from 2019) and Gebrechlichkeit (2023) were composed with small ensembles in mind, but Demoč also imagined hearing them as piano works, stripped of additional colouring. The earliest piece, 2018’s A Luca Marenzio II, is a spin-off of the original, given that it was originally composed for a scale of natural harmonics. Heard here as the first track, in equal temperament and in monochrome, it struck me on first listen as a fairly bland chorale, a little disappointing after his more exciting recent works. The second hearing changed my mind as the homogeneity in timbre and pulse was offset by the firmness of composer’s and pianist’s grasp on the material, making a piece that changes perspective from one chord to the next from sounding predominantly as harmony or as first species counterpoint, capturing a moment’s hesitation between movement and stillness. Each successive work feels more assured in this method. Ma fin est mon commencement restricts pitch range but adds introspective variations in phrasing, calm but never quite settled. The longer Gebrechlichkeit obsesses over soft, small clusters in the middle register that are each repeated a few times over on each appearance. Beinhauer’s solo interpretation makes this a study in touch, with the clearer chords of the preceding pieces replaced by smudged, muted attacks where some tones linger while others are swiftly damped, building up a bleak but compelling landscape in dabs of grey.

Shorts: Mostly Black Covers

Sunday 28 April 2024

Rodney Sharman: Known and Unknown (Redshift). My exposure to Sharman’s music is small and spotty: when describing his works for voice and guitar performed by the Paramorph Collective I lumped them in with that album’s predominant vein of “gentle quirks”. Known and Unknown brings together a selection of his piano pieces, performed by Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa. It helps to expand general awareness of the composer’s wide-ranging output, if only to a certain extent. The scattering of miniatures and compact pieces suggests, not entirely accurately, a preference for the small-scale. The short works range from affectionate pastiches, each with their own personal insight or mischievous twist, to bracing abstractions. The three sets of Opera Transcriptions are revealing, as the ‘transcriptions’ range in attitude from dreamy to acerbic; the third set ends with the pianist narrating a disturbing reminiscence of Claude Vivier. Gay identity is a recurring theme in Sharman’s music: the Vivier episode is echoed later in the larger piece The Garden, an overt and explicit “pocket opera” for vocalising pianist. Beside the inventions upon opera and Sondheim, it’s fitting there’s also a brief celebration of Michael Finnissy’s 50th. Iwaasa’s own queerness informs her collaborations with Sharman, with her interpretations matching his wit and also, in the case of The Garden, compounding it by effectively playing it in drag. The other substantial work is the title piece, commissioned by Iwaasa as a memorial to her mother; built out of descending chords, the forthright harmonies in sombre arrangements leave Sharman as a still slightly enigmatic character.

Sasha Elina: Different Songs. Vol 1 (self-released). Elina sings songs at home in her room, with faint outside noises sometimes intruding. The songs are small, sung in a small way. Eva-Maria Houben’s My Sweet Love and Seamus Cater’s Early Riser are without accompaniment, Elina’s voice up close and high-pitched, without vibrato or steady control of pitch, in the manner used by indie pop singers to convey earnestness. I’m predisposed to dislike people singing as though they are smaller and weaker than they really are and at some points it feels too affected, recalling the songs used in TV advertising by phone companies in the 2000s to convince you they were harmless. The accompaniments for the other songs were recorded remotely, merged in the recording: Tim Parkinson plays piano on the two Tomás Cabado songs, each very brief and reduced to the most essential elements without becoming simplistic. These work because there’s no room for Elina’s singing to be misinterpreted as cute, making the sweetness both strong and strange. Cabado in turn provides spare electric guitar for Johan Lindvall’s Five songs for voice and guitar, with each note and word placed with consideration and caution to create a cycle in microcosm that’s affecting without ever resolving its mood. Moment by moment, these pieces can reward microscopic attention and I expect that’s the intention behind the album, but with nine songs in just over twenty minutes, it comes across as being so slight that it’s trying to disappear completely.

Alfredo Costa Monteiro: Suspension pour une perte (Dissipatio). I’ve previously heard Monteiro in duet with Ferran Fages, performing with “resonant objects” and electronics. His solo work Suspension pour une perte employs this technique with a vengeance, taking a recording of a “broken piano” and treating it with gobs of reverb enhanced with electric organ seasonings. It’s a stark, solemn work that starts with deep, sonorous blows on the piano frame and carries on in a single-minded essay of abrupt, dark blocks of sound. The struck sounds give way to ominous rumbling in the low strings, fading into clusters of organ drones. Silence also plays a critical role, both between sounds and in letting each stroke of black ink reveal its inner colours, making a composition that never retreats into goth ambience while supporting itself as a musical structure for nearly forty minutes.

Ben Zucker: ( )hole complex (per/formance/eration) (Sawyer Editions). This one really pissed me off at first, not just because of the title. A soprano sax/clarinet duo named Garden Unit (Cameron Roberts and Julia Ansolabahere respectively) play this Zucker composition that wibbles on for damn near an hour, with no particular goal and no particular rush to get there. The two smallish voices trade timbres and hesitantly noodle for short periods of time before getting distracted and trying something else. Nothing seems to stick; they stop, and try again. Sometimes they boldly launch into a cringey jazz riff then immediately check themselves, attempts at minimalist quiescence quickly run out of puff. Their attitude is unreadable, as to whether they’re freezing up in panic, noble in their stoic forbearance, or just plain oblivious. A month later I came back to it to explain exactly why it sucks, only to immediately become intrigued. The piece is a bravura study in entropy and decline, exhausting all momentum yet somehow sustaining itself without resources through perpetual stalling, an endless dwindling away that never seems to hit bottom. It fearlessly shits down the blithe charade that music comes naturally and makes everything about the artform seem all but impossible: it can’t go on, it goes on.

Post-Electronic: Scott McLaughlin, Kenneth Kirschner

Thursday 25 April 2024

This ain’t drone. It’s slow and monophonic, with no obvious change in pitch over the time it takes you to normally breathe in and out, but it plays out like an orchestrated melody. It’s claimed that the three pieces on Scott McLaughlin’s we are environments for each other (Huddersfield Contemporary Records) came about over the course of ten years’ worth of collaboration with violinist Mira Benjamin and pianist Zubin Kanga, and listening to it again I can believe this. Each piece required meticulous attention to detail to present it without noticeable blemish; here, the content is all contained within the music’s surface, with precision-engineered technique to make the finest distinctions between texture and colour. The album opens with the most recent and fully-developed piece, a sublime thirty-five minute stretch of music titled we are environments for each other [trio]. The trio in question here is Benjamin on electric violin, Kanga on piano with electromagnetic resonators; the resonators acting as an emergent third force. Without ever becoming dense, the musicians follow a thin line that keeps changing its substance, e-bowed piano strings and amplified violin strings each giving a tone that is slightly diffuse about the edges. The resonances of the strings set off a surrounding radiation of additional tones that don’t sound like the usual harmonic overtones, but instead create new types of sound that resemble electronically synthesised waveforms. Paradoxically, the musical shaping of each event stills sounds very natural, making something that should be familiar enough feel fresh and new without making the technology conspicuous. The two earlier pieces, each sub-twenty minutes, are relatively less refined but almost as striking. Benjamin’s acoustic violin playing on the endless mobility of listening is augmented by McLaughlin’s live electronic processing to elongate the effects of her bowing as much as add harmonic resonance. The aim of transforming timbre by exploiting the instrument’s acoustic properties is present in a less developed form, latching onto sine-tone upper harmonics or letting the grind of strings turn beating frequencies into a pulse. The fact that drones are not part of the equation becomes clearer here, where the performer’s gestures are more overt. At the start of in the unknown there is already a script for transcendence, Kanga plays haunting phrases on a prepared piano swimming in reverb, but the struck notes soon peter out into sourceless tones from the magnetic resonators, lapsing into long passages of sounds sublimated into almost pure electronics, only occasionally propelled by piano keys.

The Greyfade label is starting up a Folio edition: hardcover books with an accompanying music download (music also available separately). The first release is Three Cellos, an acoustic realisation of Kenneth Kirschner’s electronic composition July 8, 2017 for the aforesaid instruments. Joseph Branciforte arranged the piece for live cellos, multitracked by Christopher Gross. The book is a seemingly exhaustive account by Kirschner about the compositional process behind the original work, from its conceptual origins, tracing through the emerging implications and complications in producing a finalised work, followed by an equally thorough discussion by Branciforte of Kirschner’s work and how to render it as an acoustic performance. Gross also gets in a couple of pages about playing the thing. Kirschner is a prolific composer of electronic music, producing large and boldly conceived works that refuse to be complacent about their foundational premises. July 8, 2017 was made with the use of algorithmic processes; it’s a pitch-based work made out of transformations of a reduced set of six pitch-classes from the usual twelve-tone scale. The predominant theme is one of tension and release, opening with a minor ninth that resolves to the octave which becomes the recurring theme throughout the work, transposed to other near-octaves on various pitches, all played in counterpoint like an illusory canon between two or three cellos at a time. The forty-minute work is divided into multiple cells in a seemingly modular form: Gross accurately likens the work immediately to a kaleidoscope. Each section feels like passing through a room full of mirrors, only to find that each successive room is also equally mirrored. For this acoustic version, with the reliance on the most angsty of dissonances as the basis of the work, your own headspace at the time of listening will play a part in whether you find its prolonged, reiterative excesses exhilarating, wearying or ludicrous. Kirschner’s essay maintains some consciousness of these aspects of composition and how much of the substantive features of the work can be out of your hands even as you create it; regarding this arrangement, he subtitles his chapter “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Vibrato”. The use of cellos rebounding off each other adds to the overall sturm und drang impression, but then Gross’s demonstrative use of vibrato throughout makes another comment on the electronic original: Kirschner was using sampled cello and wondering about the tensions and limitations of working with sampled instruments versus the real. Gross’s vibrato is prominent but alive and variable, responsive to the moment, while sample patches of acoustic instruments are naggingly uniform, pushing timbre to become a mere vehicle for pitch. Branciforte’s arrangement, with its emphasis on elastic phrasing, and Gross’s generous interpretation interrogate Kirschner’s composition even as they may appear to elevate it.

John White 88 at Round Chapel

Sunday 21 April 2024

Last Sunday an afternoon of concerts was held at the Round Chapel in Clapton to commemorate what would have been the 88th birthday of composer John White. White, who died in January, is one of those figures of the British avant-garde whose work was, for certain generations, often more inferred from others than heard directly. That was certainly my experience when growing up in Australia and I suspect it wasn’t too different elsewhere in the Anglosphere, where a few glimpses could be deduced from reading about some tracks on out-of-print LPs issued on the Obscure label, or possibly even hearing them. Living in the UK helped to expand on this narrow view from half a century ago but even so, when hearing a selection of his music at Music We’d Like To Hear in 2022 I noted that his short, often oblique compositions condemned him to “being regarded in much the same way as an outsider artist”. The Round Chapel audience skewed old, peppered with original longhairs and a handful of soft-spoken Maoists up from Surrey for the day.

Hearing this much of White’s music in a day helped to understand how weak my understanding is of his art. Selections from his hundred-odd Piano Sonatas appeared throughout the day, mostly played by Dave Smith. These ranged from the benignly self-undermining miniatures I’d associated with his overall style, to some more generous take-offs on various genres (these were played by Mary Dullea) and one stark, early Sonata of brusquely contrasting intervals played by Tim Parkinson. The creative impulse was pulled one way then another throughout the day, alternating between more conventionally emotive music for plays or cosier chamber works, and more abstract works like the Concert Duos from the early 1970s, originally written for the John White / Christopher Hobbs tuba and piano duo. Then again, even those supposedly colder pieces were built upon dance steps or concert-hall favourites, so that White was always tweaking his sentimental influences in some idiosyncratic way, with the distinguishing factor being the degree to which the work’s origins could be detected on the surface.

Then there’s the comedy. Parkinson and Catherine Kontz performed White’s 2014 piece Wine Connoisseur’s Shoot Out, a cheerfully inconsequential piece for percussive objects (including wine bottle), ditzy stylophone breaks and readings of descriptions from a wine catalogue. It was very British in the way its harmless eccentricity raised questions about satire, arte povera and Dada without the slightest interest in spelling anything out beyond the audience’s immediate enjoyment. It makes Satie – one of White’s chief influences – seem pointed. It also shows why White remained a marginal figure, as he never really mellowed into a sufficiently safe figure with an institutionally acceptable idea of fun (as the Poor Fart Harmony tape from 1988 demonstrated when played later in the day). Instead of composing soundtracks for lottery-funded movies, he was performing live sets with homebrew electronics in the backrooms of pubs. John Lely, frequent collaborator with White in electronic gigs, played a concentrated work with an off-kilter array of lo-fi objects as a tribute, as did Greta Kalteisen, Andrea Rocca and Richard Sanderson with a revival of White and Hobbs’ battery-operated electronic ensemble Live Batts!! Of course, there were also the Machines – Newspaper Reading Machine, Drinking and Hooting Machine, with Autumn Countdown Machine to end the event – which were highlights as usual, perhaps through their simple ingenuity, or perhaps because everyone’s appreciation of White is oriented upon those old LPs after all.

A Big Day Out with Apartment House (Part Two)

Wednesday 17 April 2024

[Part 1: daytime concerts]

In the evening at Wigmore Hall, Apartment House presented two more premières but opened the concert with a late work by Elisabeth Lutyens, Go, Said the Bird, scored for string quartet and electric guitar. It’s a haunting piece, with the guitar (played by Sam Cave) contributing a unique sound, owing nothing to the usual popular styles associated with the instrument. Despite this, Lutyens shows a deep appreciation for the guitar’s capacity for timbral variation, with Cave first playing mysterious ascending glissandi in the bass range as coloration beneath the acoustic strings, using the clear and natural tones as both lead and background while occasionally throwing in moments of nasal treble or passages using a strange, watery modulation effect.

Elaine Mitchener was the soloist for the first premiere, as the vocal lead for an ensemble of seven musicians in Rolf Hind’s Blue to the Throat. The eight movements play through without a break and Hind makes innovative use of the voice, first more as instrument before emerging into song. The piece makes great use of Mitchener’s talents as a singer and for holistic interpretations of the music presented to her, with extremes of register expertly handled, quick-changes in attitude and extraneous techniques extending to percussive effects (torn paper, whipped violin bow) and Mark E. Smith loudhailer employment. Despite this, I still have trouble getting my head around Hind’s compositions; the combination of expressionism with ayurvedic equanimity doesn’t sit well with me and never seems to settle into a style that’s comfortable with itself. It made me notice that the details get a bit messy and many of the effects, such as those mentioned above, get lost in the aural clutter.

Blue to the Throat was conducted by Jack Sheen, who returned as composer in the second half for the première of his piano quintet Press. It carries on from where his Solo for Cello from last year left off, with strings again suppressed by heavy, metallic mutes to produce sibilant, desiccated whispering. Even longer than the Solo, Press plays for about fifty minutes and is broken into three movements. The remoteness implied in last year’s recording was strongly felt here, as Apartment House played constant, scurrying passages that twined around each other, but so faintly that at times you had to strain to listen. The hall was simultaneously filled with sound, but empty; a self-contained microclimate where forces swelled and ebbed but never broke into full voice. As for the piano, it was largely absent, adding an occasional low tone. The second movement continued much the same as the first and for a while it seemed to have turned into an exercise in duration, before small but deliberate changes made you suddenly notice that something was up. The third movement brought more changes but never relieved the tension, serving only to create further apprehension until the piano burst forth into a stupendous, disturbing cadenza that resolved nothing. Press is the eerie, negative image of an epic.

A Big Day Out with Apartment House (Part One)

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Only Music Can Save Us Now was the title for the three concerts presented by Apartment House at Wigmore Hall last Saturday, led as ever by Anton Lukoszevieze, where morning afternoon and evening they love-bombed us with new and unfamiliar compositions. As usual, there was no evident compulsion to justify the audience’s attention by way of a curatorial (read moral) theme, only music that it was believed would reward our fresh attention. The morning concert began with Kerry Yong giving the UK premiere of Marek Piaček’s Canzonetta, a piano piece written some thirty years ago. It’s almost as light and lively as the title implies, but offset by a contemporary interest in aggressively repeated patterns and worked with snippets of movie themes and ad jingles (“sound smog” as Piaček calls it) which might be considered po-mo except for the typically East European quizzical attitude to pop culture that realises parody is a two-edged sword. A second work by Piaček was played later in the day, his 5 Studies for piano quintet completed in 2022, where a similarly breezy approach added glossy varnish over sour humour. Šarūnas Nakas’s Cenotaph for piano trio, from 1995, may have been the most conventional work heard on the day. Composed in memory of anti-Soviet resistance fighters in Lithuania, it managed to alternate between dark and light, the tender and the brutal, with each seemingly contradictory impulse contributing to a single statement of emotional complexity. The two world premières of the morning were Christopher Fox’s Heaven as a scroll and Adrián Demoč’s Zamat (Velvet). The Fox piece is a characteristically strange piece; his music floats in the grey zone between the conventional and the experimental, so that hearing his stuff can be an elusive experience. A string quartet is accompanied by a set of bells, which had been hanging at one end of the stage all shiny and alluring all morning. The strings play with tunings to match those of the bells, with the natural harmonics and resonances guiding the musical substance beyond its usual intonation. Zamat is a spare and elegant piece, with clarinet and bass clarinet, viola and cello playing short melodic cells in unison. The strings are pizzicato throughout, slightly out of step and adding percussive colour to the two clarinets, whose timbres combine to add subtle disturbances to the pitch.

I have now also heard a slightly less weird and more approachable piece by Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson. His Sitt hvoru megin við þilið uses his computer animated scores and friable material, but in this case the instrumentation is for string quartet instead of homemade instruments and the piece is contained within a single movement. The frayed scraps of sound fall into fleeting patterns that never sit still. It’s an intriguing experience as the ear can never settle on any moment; my failure to hear what’s in front of me becomes a problem when confronted by my expectation that I should tell each movement apart. The first concert ended as it began with Yong solo giving the first British performance of David Mahler’s Only Music Can Save Me Now from the late 1970s, a piece firmly located in the minimalist ethos of the time: an ostinato cycles throughout, forming the basis for a type of open-form chaconne as right hand harmonises upon the left, playing tropes that make small but significant changes to the rhythm and phrasing. It’s a reminder of the fecundity of minimalism in its later blossoming, before the style was subsumed into its present monoculture of soundtracking pageantry.

Besides the additional Piaček, the afternoon concert included a string quartet by Dubravko Detoni, a composer who presence amongst Western music geeks seemed to fade away with the dawn of the CD era. Forgotten Music presents 27 slips of music, each relating to a different style or genre but distorted almost beyond recognition by subjecting each to intense but brief scrutiny. Multiple contradictory meanings proliferate as each moment passes, both overzealous and dismissive in interrogating the music’s contents, with possibilities for misinterpretation rife. It takes on extra significance when you remember Detoni was a Yugoslavian writing the piece in 1981. In some ways, a more acute statement of the predicament described in the two Piaček works. My personal highlight was Michaël Lévinas’s string quintet (extra viola) Les lettres enlacées IV, an enthralling work of grainy micropolyphony and spiraling scales, made out of modal figures transposed upon each other and transformed by a method derived from computer modelling of Doppler shifts in spatialised sound. A sterling example of how access to all the toys at IRCAM can pay off handsomely when used with probing, analytical thought. The afternoon’s premiere was Kerry Yong’s arrangement of Jem Finer’s album Hrdy-Grdy for reed organ and string quartet. The art of transcription here is complicated by Finer’s original being made on hurdy-gurdy with electronic processing, layering the curious instrument with delay loops and other forms of self-accompaniment. Yong and Apartment House handled these masterfully, with sampled organ blended into a multicoloured acoustic chorale with the strings. This was a different musical language to that heard the rest of the day, with direct melodic playing as the base, even as it was compounded by technical elaboration. In a curious way, the method used in presenting Finer’s collection of pieces as a live ensemble work was analogous to that of Lévinas composing his quintet.