An Update

Monday 11 December 2017

Just got back from a trip and caught the last night only of this year’s London Contemporary Music Festival – which was great, except for all the people telling me about all the cool stuff I missed on the other nights. I’ve been listening to the latest batch of releases from Another Timbre, including the reissue of Lost Daylight. My review of this, and new recordings of John Cage’s Winter Music and Jürg Frey’s La présence, les silences, should appear soon in the new issue of Tempo.

I’ve got several new posts jostling for attention here: reviews of some more Another Timbre releases, a live staging of Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2 in Braunschweig last week, some unfocused guff about music and art. In the meantime, I’m giving out free download codes for one of my older albums on Bandcamp, Chain of Ponds. Codes are below and can be redeemed on the Bandcamp page for the record.

8lx9-7gkl · 2cez-5uzj · vk6u-cxk5 · 7zzd-hpgf · v3tp-v2rm · fvzg-gdh6 · mfty-3hpy · 9anz-hj3r · y7az-vydl · 35fk-63xe · w852-64m3 · pz7a-km8s

Sophisticated — God, I’m almost sophisticated

Monday 20 November 2017

I’ve been running with the same crowd too long. Like-minded people. It’s all very agreeable, as you slowly encourage each other to become more and more jaded with your circle. Haven’t been to too many gigs lately; I’ve been busy with making my own music, but it’s also easy to claim high standards as a reason not to go. They’re playing Stockhausen at the Barbican tomorrow night: Stimmung and Cosmic Pulses. I’ve already been to three live performances of both – same with Trans at Southbank next month. Before I arrived in London I’d have considered myself lucky to ever hear even one of them live, once.

Saw someone on Twitter last week complaining that no-one blogs about music anymore. I silently agreed, but can’t really remember those who did, or did not. Some of people you used to see around started families, but it’s a surprisingly small number. The public attention shifts.

I went to the Apartment House gig at Cafe Oto last Tuesday, even though I’ve seen them too many times already and been to Oto too often. They were playing composers I hadn’t heard live, or at all. I know they’ll be played well. Oto is easy for me to get to from home. The place was full, or at least the seats were. I drank, which I swore I wasn’t going to do. The new pieces were a string quartet by Georgia Rodgers and a piece for cello and electronics by Antoine Chessex. The main impression the Chessex left on me was that it was definitely, unquestionably a work for cello and electronics. The sounds and the techniques were all front and centre but I get hazy in recalling what purpose they served. I want to hear more of Chessex’s music to get a better handle on it. Rodgers’ Three Pieces for String Quartet presented panels of sound made from overlapping swells of pitched and unpitched string bowing. You could hear elements of various trends in late 20th Century music distilled into a secure but distinct musical language. I want to hear more of Rodgers’ music because I liked this piece. There’ll be some at next month’s 840 gig, which I must attend lest I slip further into complacency.

The second half was dedicated to Old Masters. Kagel, Mosolov and Zimmermann (Bernd Alois), however, don’t get much of an airing these days, at least not in Britain. I’ve heard lazier critics wave away this sort of neglect by saying the artists are “out of fashion”, in a way that would accuse either composer of being a tragic style-chaser and not an indictment of the fickleness of supposedly artistic values. (Just don’t mention Leonard Bernstein.) The musicians’ work here was in equal parts affirmation and refutation. The concluding, computer-enhanced version of Kagel’s Prima Vista was particularly fine, offering up depths, colours and textures beyond at least half of the recent Proms commissions, despite these qualities being supposedly in vogue right now. Tamriko Kordzaia’s rendition of Kagel’s An Tasten acquired new layers of ironic commentary in the somewhat noisy Oto environment, aided by the commercial elevation of neoclassical banality in the forty years since Kagel wrote the work. Generations exposed to Philip Glass will hear this piece as entirely relevant, in a way Kagel or his audience could have not envisaged at the time.

Maybe five years ago I was chatting outside Oto with some musicians wistfully considering getting a performance of Zimmermann’s Intercomunicazione together. In these pessimistic times, you’d think the world would be ready for his increasingly bleak outlook. Sadly, 2017’s fashionable nihilism is still too rooted in certainties, vague spirituality and simplistic answers. Zimmermann is not holy enough, sees that the world is too messy to be true to one’s own principles, and takes grim satisfaction in reminding his listeners that they have become part of the problem. One this night, Intercomunicazione came across dark and brooding, disconnected moments of torpor from which piano and cello would sullenly lash out. I’m sure this was the first time I’ve heard anything by Zimmermann played live.

Magnus Granberg: ‘Nattens skogar’

Monday 30 October 2017

I’m starting to think of Magnus Granberg’s music the way I think of late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. The restrained but taut atmosphere of extreme focus prevails, over an extended span of time. Other than that, I don’t want to make comparisons. That shared attention to the small details living inside sound comes from a different place. Granberg’s scores, described as “rather open”, seem designed to allow more liberty to the performers than Feldman would permit. This approach needs the tradition of free improvisation that has developed over the last half-century, and skilled, sympathetic performers.

His regular ensemble of players, Skogen, has released several discs on Another Timbre, ranging from a ten-piece electroacoustic ensemble to a quintet. On this new release from Insub, his 2015 ensemble piece Nattens skogar is presented in a version reduced to just four musicians. Again, everything’s the same yet it’s all different. As with other recent works, Nattens skogar (it’s the Swedish translation of Nightwood) draws inspiration and material from pre-existing music; in this case, Erik Satie’s nocturnes and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood”. As before, any resemblance to the source would not be detected by the uninformed listener. The nocturnal theme suits Granberg’s, and his musicians’, palettes of sounds both dark and frail.

In this setting, every sound is set in stark relief. Part of this may be due to the recording, which sounds very close. Background noises, seemingly inadvertent, colour the music, unless it is Cyril Bondi’s percussion. Granberg plays his prepared piano in slow motion, Anna Lindal’s violin merges with harmonicas played by Bondi and d’incise. d’incise adds electronics and ‘tuned objects’ – the buzz and hum of line noise and distortion adds an unnerving edge to the music. Anything that may be construed as a slow, unhurried flow through the fifty minutes or so is upset by subtle but indelible shifts in mood; this may be down to the shadowy presence of Satie. At the beginning, events are punctuated by an ominous knocking; in the latter half of the piece, intrusions such as electric organ or bass drum cast the other instruments in a new light. It strikes me as the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed and might be the best place to start for newcomers. Ensemble Grizzana is premiering a new work by him next month in Huddersfield, which I would like to witness.

One quibble: Insub have released this on vinyl, as so many small, adventurous labels must to make ends meet these days, and as a download. It’s a shame the download version preserves the fadeout and break into two tracks from the vinyl instead of offering an uninterrupted experience. In the pause, you can hear how the ‘silence’ is charged with electrical hum, ambient noise, hiss.

Pianos (II): Epstein Abrahams Pateras

Thursday 19 October 2017

Nobody has made it…. Nobody is accessible*.”

At the last Music We’d Like To Hear concert this summer I heard the first live performance in the UK of John McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos (completed in 1980). The work could be considered ‘minimal’: a continuous span of some 50 minutes, dynamically and texturally static, with a single, clear principle underlying the cycling of the material through harmonic and rhythmic changes. As a tour de force of compositional engineering, it first sounds like an evolution of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase: a unifying process developed to a point of elaboration where the inner workings of the method remain elusive to the listener, yet the presence of an intelligible principle of operation is intuitively apparent. (Works such as this are sometimes described by critics as ‘postminimalist’, inasmuch as it displays a greater development of Reich’s ideas than Reich himself achieved.)

I started thinking about this when listening again to R. Andrew Lee’s album of piano pieces by Paul A. Epstein. The relatively brief pieces here, all written in the 2010’s, achieve a similar type of complexity as in McGuire’s epic, aimed towards a different end. Epstein writes of “reducing surface repetition while retaining the ‘limited means’ that remains for me a crucial aspect of minimalism and postminimalism.” It’s probably not a coincidence that he has also written a perceptive analysis of Piano Phase. Pieces with intellectually provocative titles such as Drawing No. 4 (triangles, broken horizontal and vertical lines, rectangles, and parallelograms) hint at objective processes at work underneath the shifting mosaic of notes and chords. Rhythms are not steady but appear to conform to an underlying grid; pitches and harmonies are transformed according to rules that remain unknown to a casual listener but clearly follow a coherent order. For something that immediately sounds so straightforward, this music hovers in an ambiguous place. Typically, any music moving away from strict minimalism to greater complexity is perceived as a turn toward subjectivity, but Epstein trips our sensitivity for affective sounds through entirely rational means.

The difference in hearing this type of complexity is a little like distinguishing a knot from a tangle. Complexity, and the designing intellect behind it, can come in many forms. Music In Eight Octaves is a vast, churning ocean, cryptically credited on the front cover to “176”. This reveals itself to be the piano duo of Chris Abrahams (him off The Necks) and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard years ago that these two had recorded an album with them each improvising for an hour at a time on each octave of the keyboard in turn, then superimposing the results. From time to time I wondered what became of it. The sessions, recorded in 2005, have finally been released.

Has there been much editing of the raw material? Am I remembering this correctly? The sleeve notes don’t give anything away, instead dedicating themselves to Pateras interviewing Abrahams about the musical environment in which he developed, ranging from jazz to the avant-garde to pedagogical studies to the Australian alternative rock scene of the 1980s. (Nothing is said of Pateras other than as a reflection, a succeeding generation inheriting Abraham’s legacy.) The music is as overwhelming and ultimately pounding as you might expect, but much of the exhaustion comes from the sheer wealth of differentiated material, more than overbearing volume. The “all-over” nature of the music at first recalls Pollock’s drip canvases, but it progressively becomes clearer that a closer analogy would be to Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings. Besides the overlaying of material, the aleatory montage of different images, alternately hidden, distorted and revealed, there’s the way the music is treated as a source of further development. In the way that Richter photographs, cuts up and re-photographs some of his abstract canvases, the two pianos here seem to have been cut up, cut away, sculpted into its present form. Certain registers drop away from time to time and I’m still getting to grips with the piece to determine if there is silence or admirable restraint by the two players.

I just replaced ‘improvisers’ with ‘players’ in that last sentence. Even without editing, the act of playing in these circumstances was a compositional strategy, with the awareness that the material would be layered and combined. As a monolithic block of sound, it reveals itself to have a complex, multifaceted shape of many-coloured faces.

Tom Phillips’ ‘Irma’, for real

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Tom Phillips’ opera Irma is nearly fifty years old and at the pre-performance talk on Sunday evening the host, the director and others were still a little squeamish about directly calling it an opera. (It’s anti-opera, it’s a work with operatic elements, the word after all is from the Latin for…) Even after Phillips expanded the work in 2014, adding more overtly musical notation, its allusive fragments remain tantalisingly elusive as an experience. On record, one could hear realisations by Gavin Bryars and AMM, each transforming the work into a pastiche of their own recognisable style and neither fully comfortable with the score’s hedge of limitations against possibilities. Comparing the two recalls the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Over the weekend South London Gallery presented two performances of a new version of the opera, with staging by Netia Jones and music direction by Anton Lukoszevieze, whose ensemble Apartment House played as a string trio with keyboards and percussion. Apartment House have form in making music out of scores better known for their looks than their sounds. In this realisation, with two singers, an actor and chorus, staged with choreography and video projections, the collaged nature of the work, like much of Phillips’ art, came to the fore. In its expanded form, there’s greater liberty to include and omit, but many elements familiar to listeners to either recorded version persist and remain indelible to the work.

Irma has an indulgent quality to it, and this quality is what truly makes it an opera. The romanticism in Phillips’ poetic fragments is overt and spreads from the libretto to musical and stage directions. The Victorian-era source material is redolent with the same atmosphere. This production gratefully accepted the score’s implied invitations to operatic conventions of tragic heroes, idolised heroines, thwarted love, melancholy, intrigue, the ballet. As Grenville, Benjamin O’Mahony was suitably gentlemanly in his anguish, while singers Josephine Stephenson and Elaine Mitchener evoked characters from their contrasting parts as Irma and The Nurse respectively, in roles that might otherwise become ciphers for the expected values of the audience. All coped well with the added demands placed on how they moved in the space during the second half.

The music itself adopted a new guise with each scene, in turn overtly dramatic then austere, ranging across the approaches taken by his contemporaries in the British avant-garde: Scratch Orchestra-like free-form, quietly minimal, affectionately atavistic. Rather like Cage’s operas, the Babel of collage created a type of Ur-Opera more than anti-opera. Elements from outside the score were permitted, with allusions to more pieces by Phillips and other operas. Precisely halfway through, a gunshot rang out and everything so far seen and heard by the audience was repeated, in reverse – a neat reference to another opera’s use of formal constraints to reign in romantic excess.

Casting the opera as a palindrome raises questions about the ephemeral nature of theatrical experience, not to mention the difficulty of getting music like this performed in public. At least the audience will have heard it more than once. It also highlighted the fact that we were only hearing yet one more possible interpretation of Irma and that only a certain amount of material was used. Irma remains elusive, its score suggesting a lost Platonic ideal that cannot be recreated, but at South London Gallery it gained a distinct identity for itself.

This Is The New Music: Unstained Melodies

Monday 11 September 2017

I’m sorry, everyone.

It started out with the urge to test music to destruction, removing structure, context, all momentum and teleology from existing pieces of music to see what musical qualities may still survive in the desiccated remains. (This test was to prove that musical ‘meaning’ is an irreducible quality induced through any phenomenon being perceived as music.) I had previously composed a piano piece titled Benches, made entirely from the final bar taken from a large number of compositions. Each quotation was taken from a point at which all supposed momentum had been exhausted, yet when pieced together they could not help but form a new continuity.

Unstained Melodies is a set of piano miniatures designed to test internal continuity in harmonically-structured composition. The source material was a found object: a very old and damaged edition of pedagogical organ pieces demonstrating “Stainer’s Organ Method.” (I do not recall if the book was by John Stainer himself.) Taking only what was presumably the least valuable material, I systematically extracted only the last beat of each bar from each piece. To disorient the material, the extracted up-beats were reassembled in reverse order. In fact, I started with the last intact page and steadily worked backwards through the book, assuming that the pieces would tend to become shorter and simpler until the process ceased to be viable; a study in regression. This recording is a crude realisation of the written music, using computer-controlled piano samples, playing from algorithmically edited MIDI files. No physical keyboard playing was involved.

Ryoko Akama: places and pages

Tuesday 29 August 2017

This is a vast work, in duration and scope, made from the briefest notations. It shows that there is so much more to be explored in and understood by the term ‘minimal’ in music. Akama states simply that “places and pages is a collection of fifty texts to be performed at random places”. The texts are as gnomic as any score by George Brecht, La Monte Young or Yoko Ono in the high times of Fluxus. There seems to have been a resurgence in text scores lately, or perhaps a rise in people who know how to play them. Akama’s texts are exceptionally brief, in a way that simultaneously risks an interpretive free-for-all yet also seems forbidding in its plain lack of information. They do, however, place an emphasis on procedures, either in performance (one simply states “forty-four: walks”) or structure (“fifty overlaps”). She has published an essay describing the pieces and thinking behind them in more detail.

Another Timbre has released the recordings Akama made in various locations around Switzerland over one week last summer as part of a group with Cristián Alvear, Cyril Bondi, d’incise, Christian Müller and Stefan Thut. Over two and a half hours, forty-five of the fifty are presented. The realisations range from solos to sextets, using musical instruments, found objects, field recordings; the locations range from the recording studio to the streets. From such insubstantial slips of writing comes a sonic landscape big enough to get lost in. The musicians’ ingenious interpretations can sound in turn like a flight of inspiration or a solution to a puzzle. In the mosaic-like arrangement of pieces, this album takes on the semblance of an aural movie in which a band of explorers make a quixotic survey of their surrounds, with only a roughly-sketched map for guidance.

Some patterns seem clear on casual listening while others remain unknowable. Brief vignettes intrude, certain themes and settings reappear, new elements are introduced and these simple little pieces accumulate a history and a complexity not previously considered. There are aspects reminiscent of Cage’s Song Books, Ferrari’s audio travelogues, Fluxus happenings, yet it sounds like none of these. As the joint project of six artists, it allows for a variety of distinct approaches while maintaining an overall coherence. The more overtly musical segments put the less obvious ones in a new light, admitting a broader range of sounds as music. In turn, when the ‘music’ returns it is heard as one of a range of possible activities permitted by the score. Taken as a whole, places and pages shifts back and forth between categories: composition, performance, documentary, collage, field recording. It is a true composite.

The Most Influential Rock Album Of The Last Twenty Years

Monday 21 August 2017

I live in a country where Oasis is still treated as more than a punchline so I can’t help but notice that their album Be Here Now was released twenty years ago on this day. Whatever the relative artistic merits of them or it, Be Here Now still casts a long shadow over all subsequent rock’n’roll to this day. The album, as everyone knows, is an epic of empty bombast and false bravado that tries to simultaneously distract and intimidate the listener from observing the meaningless void it barely covers. There’s nothing wrong in itself with braggadocio in rock; the genre was created as a vehicle for blagging. But Oasis weren’t blagging to get in anymore – they’d made it. Looking down on the world from a small mountain of blow, it was their moment for untouchable self-indulgence. Instead, they flinched and looked over their shoulder. The bombast was purely defensive, the arrogance a deflection from a bad case of impostor syndrome. They were blagging just to stay put.

It was a turning point in rock music. For the first time, a band on the upswing made an album whose primary motivation was not the hunger to conquer the world, but the fear of failure. Fear of losing what you already have has become the dominant mode of rock. Into the new century, hundreds of bands have copied Be Here Now‘s example: cajoling anthems, singalongs fishing for assent from the crowd, hoping the mob doesn’t turn on them. Once, people in the audience wanted to be in the band; now, the band pleads to belong with the audience. Each new act, each new record reeks of focus groups and flop-sweat. This is Be Here Now‘s legacy, held tight like a comfort blanket.

The Presence of Julius Eastman, in full

Monday 14 August 2017

While I was away a new issue of Tempo came out, which includes my review of last December’s London Contemporary Music Festival. This is a much expanded and improved version of the post I made here at the time, discussing the remarkable music of Julius Eastman, Arthur Russell and Frederic Rzewski. More context is given and Gay Guerrilla is misspelled – entirely my oversight. If you have access to journal articles you can read the whole thing on the Tempo website.

Airplane Shuffle Summer Mix 2017

Friday 4 August 2017

Back from a quick holiday, will still be writing over summer about some cool music I’ve heard lately. In the meantime, I’m amusing myself by uploading a half-hour mix of the tracks that played when I hit Shuffle on my phone during the flight home.

Boring Like A Drill Airplane Shuffle Summer Mix 2017
(30 minutes, mp3, 53MB)

Pianos (I): Parkinson Dalibert Pateras

Tuesday 25 July 2017

For reasons economical as much as ideological the piano has become the one-man* laboratory for the composer as autonomous author or auteur using the instrument as a vehicle for musical manifestos. Music and ideas about music have become inseparable to the extent that to try such a separation is a theoretical statement in itself. That could be heard as a less direct demonstration of an aesthetic argument. In a similar way each piece of music may be heard as exemplifying a certain theoretical principle to a greater or lesser degree. When Feldman protested that he abjured systems he created a new means of approach for other composers to follow.

You make music out of sounds and not ideas but composition as a demonstration of a theoretical principle can be very direct and unadorned yet still be aesthetically pleasing or at least interesting even if nobody really wants to play the first part of Boulez’s Structures and skips straight to Book 2. Tom Johnson has created an oeuvre of compositions that rigorously follow even the simplest and most predictable processes yet can charm and delight through a counterintuitive adherence to an obvious pattern. The reason things get unexpectedly complicated is because there is a difference between letting a theory play out in your imagination and experiencing it as a physical acoustic phenomenon. If the idea is evident then it has to operate on musical terms.

I’ve been listening to Philip Thomas play two of Tim Parkinson’s eponymous piano pieces released by Wandelweiser a while back. The two pieces from 2006 and 2007 are discontinuous and ostensibly anonymous. Unconnected gestures and patterns separated by pauses accumulate in an arbitrary sequence. Parkinson describes the earlier piece as a constant state of beginning that is beginning with nothing. An echo of Cage’s dictum of chance starting over from zero at every instance comes to mind but here it is not chance but performance. Patterns of piano playing come to mind and are reflected on when starting over again. The latter piece is described in terms of work. Writing and playing in a given space of time and finding things new whether by playing something new or playing something heard before but hearing it new. In each case a give-and-take between the composer and the instrument reveals something unexpected.

I don’t know much about Melaine Dalibert’s music or his new album Ressac on Another Timbre. His plays two of his own compositions for solo piano. Like on the Parkison album the pieces are written in successive years. The 2014 piece is short and the second from the following year is long. Other than length it is difficult to tell the two apart. Each one is made entirely of single notes spaced widely apart with each note left to fade away. It gets monotonous but as each pitch is different from the next it is never monotonous enough to become interesting. Apparently there is some algorithm behind the sequence of pitches but this conceptual process is not demonstrated in an interesting way. The two pieces demonstrate nothing more than an idea that need not be heard. Letting each note decay so completely unfortunately recalls a previously fashionable style of ‘holy minimalism’ that assigned a superstitious reverence to each note played.

Two more piano pieces again played by the composer on Anthony Pateras’s Immediata release Blood Stretched Out. I’ve just looked and yes again the pieces are from successive years albeit in reverse order. Chronochromatics from 2013 plays like the latter Tim Parkinson piece albeit filtered through Pateras’ more manic sensibility. His programme notes list a set of ideas ideals idle thoughts obsessions and reference points which may well constitute the score for the piece. There may be autobiography in here encoded into the patchwork of allusions exercises and outbursts. As with the Parkinson anything familiar is rendered strange through context. As an idea the piece Blood Stretched Out seems simpler upon hearing it although the act of playing it seems much more arduous. An extended trill that thunders away for nearly 45 minutes would sound on the surface as a single exercise in timbre. The sleeve notes to this work are in the form of a diary compiled over two years collating thoughts on culture and music equally with reflections on society and philosophy. The opening of the piece establishes a parallel with Wagner and then starts to transform itself in a defiant attempt to break through the constraints of multiple traditions to which the most progressive musician may paradoxically find themselves bound. To distance oneself from classical tradition now puts one in debt to the past century of the avant-garde and to renounce both leads into an equally burdened history of improvisation. Pateras has carefully considered the odds and the options before deciding to launch a full-frontal attack in which competing ideas are subsumed entirely by acoustic phenomena.

Christoph Schiller & Morgan Evans-Weiler: spinet and violin

Thursday 20 July 2017

It describes itself as “an extended improvisation” but I don’t believe it. A few years back Another Timbre put out a solo album by Christoph Schiller titled Variations – a strange hybrid of improvisation and composition. Schiller worked inside an amplified spinet and piano with various objects to compose a canon out of improvisations of predetermined length. His working methods were inspired, producing evocative sounds that only occasionally betrayed their origins.

Someone could carelessly say that improvisation is about spontaneity, but that only goes some way towards a satisfying musical experience. When away from the club, the theatre, the sense of community, the bravado, the booze and only the sound remains. As Schiller said, “A recorded improvisation is as fixed (or even more fixed) as a written piece.” Improvisation is about heightened senses of judgement, knowing when and how to act, even if only on a subconscious level.

This new duet by Schiller and violinist Morgan Evans-Weiler, titled simply spinet and violin, exercises such a fine judgement over such a long time that it’s difficult to believe that, as Evans-Weiler confirms in the accompanying interview that the music was completely improvised, or that they haven’t been playing together for years:

It was clear from the second that we started playing what direction it was going to go. I think we have both become increasingly interested in pitch and so the focus was very much on permutations of pitch sets and working through these sets over time.

The focus on pitch yields a fascinating study in timbre and texture. Carefully choosing when to deploy each new note creates a beautifully paced slow arc of sound that builds up ominously before dying away to almost complete silence halfway through. Strangely, this stillness and subsequent stirring into activity again feels like a natural progression than a break or a structural argument. The shifts in dynamics throughout the piece are all the more striking and effective for being confined to a relatively narrow range.

Both musicians hover in a state halfway between definite pitch of ‘proper’ playing and the indeterminate sound of ‘extended’ techniques. The piece begins with Schiller plucking muted spinet strings against Evans-Weiler’s frail violin drones. Any tendency to pursue a particular gesture or sound gets reined in by an emphasis on pitch, yet the pitch itself remains a nebulous ideal which may be approached but never possessed. This ambiguous haze persists throughout, like a familiar image that preys on memory but never quite resolves into recognisable focus. Sustained double-stops float microtonally, the strings from both instruments rasp and buzz, a rare plucked note dropped like a pebble into a pond. The spinet rattles and echoes – at times it seems like there are electronics involved, with lower pitched sounds welling up in the background. It’s all hard to tell. I haven’t heard many pieces this year composed as well as this improvisation.

Late Feldman live and on record

Monday 17 July 2017

Last September Mark Knoop, Aisha Orazbayeva, Bridget Carey and Anton Lukoszevieze played Morton Feldman’s last piece, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello at Cafe Oto. I’ve written before about the playing conditions at Cafe Oto in hot weather, particularly when playing Feldman. Watching the musicians wilt in the airless heat, a sense of solidarity builds between the players and the punters, the understanding of dedication to a common interest.

In these circumstances, rough edges inevitably appear, attention can wander, but the sense of occasion gives an insightful edge. The exposed seams in how a piece is made, how it is played, helps the listener to understand more about what goes into the music. After the September gig, one of the players described it as “a nice run-through” of the Feldman. Another Timbre has now released a recording made by the same musicians in the more sedate climate of Henry Wood Hall in January. The differences are striking.

Yes, it’s more polished. Of course it is. The performance here is different in other ways. The four musicians, superb under pressure, now bring a new coherence and focus to the sound. The polish isn’t a layer of gloss, but a new surface, as simultaneously opaque and transparent as a late Rothko canvas. Compared to my memories of the Oto night, this new version is more sombre but also more settled. Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello seemed to mark an advance from Feldman’s other last pieces, in that it seemed more organic, even relaxed in its unhurried traversal of 74 minutes. In this recording, that more discursive aspect has diminished – presumably the musicians were able to pay more attention to each other. It’s replaced by a unified sound, closer in feeling to the more commercially celebrated Piano and String Quartet.

In playing together more closely, the strings produce a more otherworldly sound. The piano balances this tone beautifully, as though outlining a pattern visible within the surface of the strings. Heard in this way, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello now incorporates and resolves the monadic mysteriousness of preceding works like Coptic Light and For Samuel Beckett, allowing both the stillness of contemplation and an invitation to breathe again.

John Cage’s ‘Concert For Piano and Orchestra’

Monday 10 July 2017

The programme notes for the St John At Hackney gig last Thursday admitted that Cage’s Concert For Piano and Orchestra is a work more often seen than heard. Its spectre haunts all music that aspires to the condition of art as surely and as silently as his more notorious 4’33”. The score for the piano part acts as a signal, here be dragons. It’s a visual manifesto for Cage’s aesthetics of chance and indeterminacy, as forbidding as it is liberating. Critics worry, often without having heard it, that the music is random, meaningless. The meaning of, say, Haydn is a question that has never troubled them.

Live, the first performances I heard of the Concert were sparse and bracing, with that quality of openness that so often distinguished Cage’s music from other atonal composers of the Fifties. Years later, I heard a much more raucous, impetuous performance, with a larger orchestra. The comic qualities of the Concert have come under greater focus in recent years. The score itself conveys its own mischievous humour for the performer, the notation allows scope for an uncommon exuberance, the conductor has their own, independent part which may be safely ignored. For a “random, meaningless” work, it carries a lot of signs that it is a Concert of Misrule.

There’s too much precise working out of details to consider the work as a Dadaist stunt. Critics could, of course, complain that Cage’s anarchism isn’t anarchic enough. Despite all attempts to dismiss it – as a joke, as conceptual art, as a philosophical statement – the Concert persists as a discomfiting presence in music. Describing the music as ‘abstract’ or non-referential is not enough to diminish its power – this should be obvious to anyone who can hear. How, as a piece of music, does the Concert continue to exert such force on the imagination, nearly sixty years after its premiere?

At St John At Hackney last Thursday night, pianist Philip Thomas joined conductor Jack Sheen and ten musicians from Apartment House for a performance of the Concert. The piece has always sounded protean, a mass of competing forces that never find equilibrium, always on the verge of becoming identifiable but never resolving into a fixed state at any time. Cage often talked about observing and imitating nature’s methods of operation and, in this piece, nature seems always on the verge of exceeding its bounds.

Thomas had scrupulously devised a new realisation of the piano part. In this incarnation the solo, often pointillistic in other interpretations, frequently assumed a studied fury, with extended loud phrases in restricted registers, elaborate figures and, every now and then, sudden interruptions of added colouration through extended techniques and objects. The orchestra members, scattered to various points around the church, called out to no-one, expecting no reply. As the sun set and the church darkened, quieter moments felt more like fatigue than rest; silences, always unnervingly unpredictable, opened up in the music like chasms.

Cage expressed the belief that any meaning to found in music comes from within the listener. This is not a renunciation of meaning in art, but a more complex understanding of how meaning may be found. After Cage’s death, a clear trend emerged in performing his work in a heightened state of quiescence, embracing the accidental harmonies found in his late work. This attitude carried over into new realisations of pieces from the Fifties and Sixties, which typically received more abrupt, abrasive performances at the time. The Apartment House performance of Concert opened up a new way of hearing this music. As the discordant voices rose, coalesced, fell apart and were silenced, the piece became an ominous, unreadable symbol for the times, refusing to explain itself but portending dark times ahead. I’ve never heard a more powerful performance of the piece, live or on record.

It’s fitting that the companion work on the night was a new piece by Christian Wolff, titled Resistance. Written for the same forces, it was premiered by Apartment House in Leeds the weekend before. Wolff’s resistance is not obstructionist; the piece synthesises several different approaches he has used to composition over the years. At times fully notated, at others partially or completely open, the conductor gives direction as needed, marks time when required, or stands aside. In contrast to much of Wolff’s recent music, the sense of a shaping force was present, allowing greater contrast and affective shading to emerge while still not compromising the ‘consensual’ working of the musicians. It worked backwards through allusions to Cage’s Music For ______ series, Cardew’s ensemble music of the early Sixties, and Wolff’s own, earliest rule-based works, drawing upon them as principles to be maintained into the next century.

A Post-Cage World: Antoine Beuger’s Ockeghem Octets

Wednesday 28 June 2017

In my mind I’ve worked up Antoine Beuger as my personal nemesis. Never met him, but his music has always aroused a vehement antipathy, sufficient for me to have resolved to avoid further encounters wherever possible. (The only other composer I’ve singled out for this treatment, more or less arbitrarily, is Wolfgang Rihm.) Whatever I’ve heard has always struck me as being imprisoned in theoretical purity, beholden to presenting an idea at the expense of any musical considerations; a dry, academic routine left to run its course. I found it devoid of aesthetic interest, but never in a way that challenged or provoked, and so felt no need to pursue it further.

So, when Another Timbre sent me their new recording of Beuger’s Ockeghem Octets last week, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my impartiality by getting really stuck in. I’m happy to report that those hopes have been dashed. This is quietly intriguing music. Maybe I needed to hear more Beuger after all, but what seems to set this piece apart from previous works I’ve heard is that the idea here focuses on musical considerations.

Each page of the score contains two lines of four tones. The tones are all to be played long and softly. Four of the musicians play one line of tones, each in their own time, and the four others play the second line. This recording realises twenty-five of the fifty pages of the score.

There’s a simple scheme in play here, not unlike some of my preferred music by Eva-Maria Houben. From this simplicity, a pleasing subtlety is allowed to emerge. As the title suggests, the piece is an homage to Ockeghem and Beuger observes that each page of the score “constitutes a kind of double canon”. The structure of the piece – musicians independently playing shared material within loosely-defined time-frames – bears a clear similarity to Cage’s late ‘number’ pieces. Indeed, the sound-world of soft, overlapping pitches strongly resemble many of those works.

There are distinct differences, however; borne out of differences in musical thinking. Firstly, Cage wasn’t one to think in terms of canons. Each page is circumscribed as a miniature, self-contained piece. Where Cage allows some interpretive freedom, Beuger stipulates long and soft notes throughout – those ‘lines’ of four tones take, in this recording, 2-3 minutes each. With potential for harmonic and textural complexity thus reduced still further, other qualities come to the fore. The instruments (flute, alto flute, melodica, concertina, harmonium, accordion, cello, e-bow zither) divide differently between the two lines on each page, producing strangely sophisticated tone-colours. The mix of instruments used here, combining “high” and “low” cultures, brings out unexpected beating frequencies and other acoustic phenomena. It’s a work that lovingly exemplifies the beauty of instrumental sounds, all through simple play that removes any faint traces of didacticism that linger even in Cage’s most beguiling works.

It figures that I must have been missing something all this time. Still wary of diving into Beuger’s back catalogue, but now because I’m worried I’ll spoil the mood.