This album came in the nick of time. I’d been listening to a bunch of “new music” lately that left me disillusioned about what so many composers are up to today. They want to get away from all that stuffy, arty concert hall music, but they don’t seem to know how. This would be more palatable if they addressed their predicament honestly but instead they plough on with fixed smiles and serious sincerity, serving up boring, boring music while telling us the scene’s never been in better shape. They repeat the mistakes of the post-minimalist set from the 1980s and sound old before their time. Bland harmonies, four-square rhythms, aspiring to the lofty heights of pop music but ending up like library music, an internationalised corporate-speak that speaks to, and is spoken by, no-one.
It was such a relief to join the crowd in that hot, stuffy, noisy room at Cafe Oto to hear Apartment House play at the launch of their double-CD of Laurence Crane’s music. The uncomfortable conditions were made simultaneously worse, then better, by the sheer number of well-wishers crammed into the place and the celebratory mood they brought with them. The bigger relief came from prolonged exposure to Crane’s solo and chamber pieces.
Mostly short (5 to 10 minutes), seemingly simple and unambitious, each piece has sort-of clear harmonies, almost-regular rhythms, kind of like the habits of those post-minimalists – only completely different. The spareness of the music suggests an ambiguity of things omitted, its transparency allows nuances to emerge in a way that implies greater depths concealed beneath the surface and hints at how they may be revealed. The material may be conventionally seductive, but its presentation is disaffectedly formal. You suspect there’s a formula behind it, but also suspect that learning the formula would neither help nor hinder your enjoyment. Like Satie’s music, it is obstinately beguiling. Like Satie’s music, you could mistake it for aural wallpaper only to discover it is in fact furniture and unexpectedly bark your shins on it.
Listening right now, there seems to be a timeless quality to Crane’s music, inasmuch as its qualities seem to serve no manifesto nor oppose a prevailing fashion. You could play the CD to your non “new music” friends and not think less of it after it turned out they liked it. Like the best pop music, its bright surface can also suggest darker or more sinister moods.
At the launch I bought the CD so I could enjoy it at greater length. It’s put out by Another Timbre, whose discs I have written about before. Apartment House’s playing is appropriately clean, clear and possibly even deadpan. I’m playing it whenever I can to remind myself that there’s more than one way of doing things, that it’s always possible to make things new.
What went right: actually worked, wasn’t boring, people probably didn’t leave (? dark), applause, free whisky.
What went wrong: analogue component needs development, now that I have the two feedback systems interacting in a meaningful way. Too much shrill, high-pitched stuff kept appearing too often. I can now trust the system to work without any necessary intervention; now I need the means to break the system at will, again. Didn’t take enough photos. Need to do more gigs.
I may post an excerpt from the concert recording when I’m less self-critical about it.
I’m preparing for the gig I’m playing at Cafe Oto next Wednesday.
The basic idea is to create two feedback systems, one digital and one analogue, which can feed into each other.
The digital part is a patch created in AudioMulch.
The analogue part is made from circuits of effects boxes. It’ll look neater once I’ve finalised the design.
This is a composition: a patterned integrity through which information is shaped into music. As I mentioned before, if the composition is both elegant and robust then the music will come from its design and any performing gestures I make will be in response to the system, without my having to impose my aesthetic will upon it.
At The Forge, LRAO will feature duets by cellist Lucy Railton and violinist Aisha Orazbayeva, followed by James Hullick’s post-apocalyptic chamber opera Bruchlandung. Performers on the night include acclaimed German baritone Guillermo Anzorena, Australia’s eclectic pianist Michael Kieran Harvey and supernatural cellist Judith Hamann.
At Cafe Oto Jolt is presenting The Nis, combining sound artist collective Amplified Elephants, the BOLT Ensemble and, of course, robots. On the same night will be live electronic sets by the legendary John Wall and myself.
I’ll be giving the first live performance of the new, augmented version of this feedback piece I’ve been working on. Hope you can all come along!
On Saturday I got to see and hear the Scratch Orchestra play selections from Nature Study Notes. I saw these guys performing Cage’s Song Books a couple of years ago, and again there was a blurring between art and life. Performers would come and go, participate when they felt most at home with the material, occasionally opting out to sit in the stalls with the audience or stand on the stairs outside. The door to the fire escape stayed open, letting in sounds from the surrounding streets and houses.
Much of the material in the Notes is open to interpretation and speculation. Reading over them after the event, it’s fun to spot how many you can recognise.
I learned later that there had been some general discussion of ideas beforehand, but no group rehearsal. The nature of the Scratch Orchestra music, as alluded to in the notes themselves, had little of the focused intensity of activity found in Cage’s music. An atmosphere of informality and naturalism was sustained throughout – this was achieved largely through the sensitivity and dedication of the performers to the spirit in which the Notes were made. As when observing a street scene, everything that happened in front of the audience fell together into its own sense of order.
There are photos and a complete recording of the performance online.
Hope you like the holiday snap. Back at last, with a quick update to say that the complete series of Real Characters and False Analogues videos is now online. Big announcements next week.
I’ve been thinking about generative systems a lot lately. Like, how can I make a series of videos to accompany these microtonal piano pieces I wrote years ago? I want combinations of intersecting colours relating to the harmonic relationships in each piece…
Or I want to make a series of short pieces for organ, written in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet…
Each organ piece is 12 measures long (each measure a different tempo), using 12 organ stops, each stop playing 12 notes. 144 notes in each piece. Each measure begins with a note on different organ stop, all other notes can appear at any time in the piece. Moving from one pitch to the next is done by a crude approximation of flocking behaviour. Within these parameters, all outcomes are determined by chance.
What you need is a system. To keep you going, to avoid artist’s block, to keep the pipeline filled.
I’ve never thought about artist’s block. That’s not an ego thing, it’s just that I hate inspiration. If I have to insert an aesthetic element into a piece then I consider it a failure. I’m thinking of that idea in mathematics of the elegant proof: that great richness of detail can be drawn from a relatively simple interaction of underlying principles. If the system’s good, there should be no need to fudge or tweak to keep things interesting.
Like that paragraph above describing the organ pieces. A brief set of instructions: the sentences are easily understood, the results produced are not easily imaginable. It would seem appropriate to write 144 of them, but I could break off the series at any time.
Last Monday, on the way back from the Tectonics festival in Glasgow, Christian Wolff gave a talk in London about his music. After his talk, members of Apartment House played a selection of his recent music (recent as in from the last 25 years, out of a 60+ year career).
I’ve discussed performances of Wolff’s music a couple of times before, one with Wolff’s participation and one without. A few of my thoughts about Wolff have persisted over the past five years. There is still a lot of lip service paid to the knowledge that Wolff is an important composer, much as there was to John Cage in his lifetime (and still, to a lesser extent, today). Even on the rare occasions that Wolff’s music is played, it seems to be presented so often as an historical or theoretical specimen. The Wandelweiser performance I saw repeated the received idea of Wolff as a conceptualist working in Cage’s shadow. After the talk, a punter asked Wolff about the effectiveness of different interpretations of his music. Wolff replied that he hadn’t heard enough repeat performances to find out.
When previously describing Wolff’s music I wrote that “the material is so “poor” and undistinguished it directs attention away from itself”, and noted how well it embodied Cage’s wish for sounds to be heard just as themselves, for themselves. Listening again now, this redirection toward the intrinsic qualities of unadorned sounds is also reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s music. Wolff’s music seems to achieve the aesthetic ideals his New York School colleagues aspired to but could never quite meet.
The music appears deceptively easy to play but requires both concentration and attentiveness to the other musicians, which must nevertheless be worn lightly, to play successfully. The Apartment House musicians made the discontinuities sound playful, even beguiling, rather than haphazard – particularly in the trio Emma, with its occasional echoes of popular tunes.
Wolff spoke mostly in a general, autobiographical way about his work. Of particular interest was his recollection of studying music with Cage, an education which consisted mostly of analysing Webern’s Symphony, writing pieces with as few notes as possible, and studying lots of counterpoint. The main point was to learn discipline and when Cage decided that Wolff had it, the lessons ended.
Last night I got to see Philip Thomas play Bryn Harrison’s Vessels live, at Cafe Oto. As implied last time, I hadn’t re-listened to the piece on CD prior to the gig. I now need to make some additional comments.
The first surprise, before the piece started, was that the piece is more thoroughly notated than I thought: a dense hedge of changing meters, irregular rhythms and tuplets, all on a single treble stave throughout. No wonder the pianist finds it disorientating. As in Feldman’s later scores, Vessels uses precise notation to produce ambiguous results, so that events seems to drift by without any sense of a rhythmic pulse underneath. The comparisons to Feldman’s music keep coming up, so here are some more important differences. Feldman used irregular rhythms to set his sounds in surrounding silence; his music is episodic, switching arbitrarily between contrasting sets of sounds. Harrison’s piece allows for no breathing space and never deviates from its initial palette of sounds and texture, which seems even more exhausting than a Feldman work of comparable scale. (The very late works for orchestra are a significant exception.) The entire work barely covers more than three octaves of the piano’s range.
The scale of the piece has an insidious effect on the listener. After a while you get used to it, become immersed in it, like an aural bath, but through sheer persistence it unnerves and captures your attention again, as you try to figure out if it has changed.
It’s remarkable how short many of the repeated passages are. The piece frequently loops on itself for a while, but the harmonic ambiguity and unfocused rhythms make it very difficult to detect where each loop begins and ends, if in fact it is repeating at all. With further analysis the ingenious construction would become more intelligible, but by that time the indelible impression of its first hearing has already been made.
Witnessing Thomas perform the piece in person, as beautifully and seemingly effortless as on record, impressed on me further what an achievement it is. Strangely, it seemed to be over too soon.
I’ve been working my way through that bundle of CDs from Another Timbre and so far the highlight has been the recording of Vessels for solo piano by Bryn Harrison. It began as a 20-odd minute piece in 2012 and was expanded into a 75-minute piece last year.
Ultimately, what amazes me the most about this piece is how I feel like I’m hearing something completely new, even though it all seems so familiar. Everyone compares it to Morton Feldman’s late music, understandably, and Harrison himself cites Howard Skempton’s music as an inspiration. The subtle contrast between these two composers is revealing. Both composers work with relatively unvarying dynamics and (near) repetitions, the stock in trade of “holy minimalists” like Pärt, Górecki et. al, but to very different effect. Feldman and Skempton’s music avoids conscious expressiveness, but is all the more richly evocative of complex moods through a focus on the presentation of the musical material itself. On the surface, Skempton’s music seems more conventional than Feldman’s, being often more familiar in terms of melody, harmony and scale, but its greater self-effacement achieves a type of “anonymous beauty” which Feldman admired. I once made a crude analogy that if Feldman is like Rothko, then Skempton is like Morandi.
Where does Vessels fit in this? It’s a long, seemingly undifferentiated span of chords that unfurl at a roughly constant pace. Philip Thomas, who plays this piece superbly, “said that when he plays Feldman, he always feels that the music is moving somewhere; through all the repetitions and varying patterns you end up achieving some kind of resolution. But with your piece Philip says that he is almost disturbingly disoriented because the music doesn’t seem to move anywhere at all. Playing it he feels that – for all the notes – he’s still circulating around the same place where he started after 5, 15 or even 50 minutes. Philip was arguing that in that sense Vessels is more radical formally than Feldman.” I heard echoes of Ustvolskaya’s chorales, and the cyclical directionlessness of Hauer’s music.
Harrison himself describes the piece as “disorientating to play” and it is also disorientating to listen to, for several reasons. Vessels messes with your sense of familiarity, the repetitions and recurring chord progressions pass by with the same reassuring presence that trees have in reminding you that you’re still lost in the forest. Have we been here before? Is the music moving somewhere else now, or is my mind playing tricks on me? I’m writing this from memory after hearing it again last night, and I’m starting to wonder whether I actually heard some of the things I want to describe now. If I play it again now I’ll be up all night.
It’s also disorientating if you’re used to Feldman or repetitive minimalist music. The uncertain sense of the music cycling around you has a vertiginous effect. Instead of the sensation of looping, drawing you into the music, the effect is more of a spiralling, equally drawing you in and pushing away. There is no sense of progression or return, only of inexorable drift. This is like one of Hauer’s musical labyrinths blown up to a massive scale. It’s a worthy addition alongside piano works like Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano or Dennis Johnson’s November.
Philip Thomas shows tremendous stamina, playing through this maze for 76 minutes as though it all just came to him naturally. I’m really looking forward to hearing him play it live next Monday.
We are now living in a post-Arditti age of composition. Future generations of musicologists will refer to a school of composers which emerged around the turn of the century with aesthetic and technical values attuned to the Arditti Quartet’s strengths.
I spent Saturday in that new theatre at the Barbican, taking in three concerts given by the quartet to commemorate their 40th anniversary. The fifteen pieces played ranged from the first piece written for them (Jonathan Harvey’s first string quartet) to three world premieres, with an emphasis on music from the past 20 years. Each concert ended with one of the signature pieces from their repertoire: Helmut Lachenmann’s Grido, Ligeti’s Second Quartet and Xenakis’ Tetras.
It’s almost facetious to say that these last pieces stood out way above much of the rest of the programme, but that’s what pretty much everyone felt, myself included. I’m more interested in why we felt that way.
The Arditti Quartet has brought exceptional virtuosity to chamber music and commissioned hundreds of works. They’ve opened up seemingly limitless possibilities, giving composers the impression that anything is possible. The effect has been similar in many respects to the recent explosion in the capability and accessibility of computerised sound processing. The end result is kind of the same, too: a large, glittering body of work somewhat lacking in substance, and strangely homogeneous in the way each new composer is eager to try out as many of the same set of cool new tricks as possible. The assimilation of spectralism into intonation, microtones as colouration, rapid passages of leaps and glissandi, scratch tones, were all combined into a general ethos of respectable expressionism and assigned various weightings in the pieces by Hector Parra, Georg Friedrich Haas, Hilda Paredes, Pascal Dusapin and Toshio Hosokawa. Similar manifestations of this style could be heard at Huddersfield last year in quartets by composers ranging from Alberto Posadas to John Zorn.
The aspects that stood out in the old-ish classics on the programme were not simply quality, but contrast. The new work by Hilda Paredes would have sounded more striking had it not been bookended by Parra and Haas. The Harrison Birtwistle premiere was an occasional piece but distinctive in its refusal to add gestural ornament to its substance. The remaining premiere, James Clarke’s Third Quartet, was only five minutes long but a tour de force of concision, putting technique at the service of a sculptural intensity lacking in so many of the other works. The mixing of contrast and flow echoed the presence of the Ligeti movements heard in the same concert. The exploitation of dynamics as musical material was one of the more obvious examples of techniques used for the sake of music, not just musicianship.
I was going to end this post by quoting an anecdote involving Arditti and Alvin Lucier, but I just googled for it and holy poo get a load of this:
The string quartet was the university computer-music-studio of the 1940s and 1950s… It is a characteristic of the string quartet to emphasize moving the bow back and forth. The more the better.
Insert: Mr. Arditti, of string quartet fame, complained to Alvin Lucier, in the presence of a large number of people, that he didn’t like to play Alvin’s String Quartet, because there was very little bow movement, which lack of bow movement made his arm tired. To which Alvin replied, “Why don’t you play it with the other arm?”
This is from a lecture by the late Robert Ashley, who of course had this all sussed out long ago. Go read that whole blog post.
In my last post a month ago(!) I was navel-gazing over the musical conversation going on in London. It’s occurred to me that I’ve been taking for granted how many interesting composers are working in the UK these days. Just recently I read Daniel Wolf’s post about the two streams in British composition now and it’s nice to know my opinion isn’t pure parochialism.
Wolf’s mostly discussing the “complexity” school in his post, but it’s interesting to see that the “experimental tradition” is still thriving, too. I got this bee in my bonnet about how what is usually considered “experimental” in music is the stuff that approaches music as art, more than as craft, so I’ve been pleased to find more than just a scattering of a few, lone voices in the British scene.
That sense of “scene” is helped through supportive musicians and other organisations, like the record label Another Timbre. A couple of weeks ago I saw Ensemble Plus-Minus perform a concert of pieces by James Saunders. The music draws from a variety of influencing sources: group behaviour and home-made materials à la the Scratch Orchestra, a focus on process and structure that emerged with conceptual art, minimalism, controlled improvisation, the austerity of materials used in the Wandelweiser group. Group behaviour was the organising principle for several works: titles like everyone doing what everyone else is doing and everybody do this pretty much sum up how the musicians interact in the respective pieces. The music is composed through the arrangement of these interactions, leaving the sounds themselves to the discretion of the performers, using both instruments and found objects.
At times the music teetered on the edge of being little more than a technical exercise, albeit an entertaining one. Much conventional music also takes this risk, with much less interesting results. You start to wonder if a recording of the music would be less appealing because of the lack of the theatrical element, or more appealing because the structural means are a distraction from the musical ends.
Luckily for me, just after the concert I got sent a nice swag of CDs by Another Timbre for reviewing or whatever. One of them is Saunders’ disc divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole. The musical material here is much more spare, with much fewer musicians involved than in the Plus-Minus gig. Two duets, three solos, a trio, and a work “for 10 players with coffee cups on various surfaces”. Without visuals, the music is separated from concerns about technical exercises and deals with subtle distinctions in sound. Much of the disc is very quiet, and the sounds often have an ambiguous character to them, fragile and unstable. When just listening, you realise that the substance is obscured as equally as the technique: a harp is prepared with objects and bowed, radio static merges with the soft rasping of a bowed wood block.
These finely nuanced results are very different from the deceptively straightforward compositional strategies that produce them. As with a good piece of the New Complexity school, the music is both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on a new piece for digitally-emulated feedback. It’s basically an attempt to use a laptop computer to autonomously generate a wide range of interesting sounds, live, within a relatively simple software setup. I hadn’t worked seriously with this method since 2008, when I played a few gigs using this method. Although the system produced a nice palette of sounds, there turned out to be no real way to change the basic nature of it from one moment to the next, which made the performance feel rather undifferentiated. This new piece is working on that last point.
In an attempt to use the same principles I’d worked with when making pieces out of analogue feedback oscillation, I tried making a similar type of music with more portable and robust equipment i.e. a laptop computer. I made some pieces in AudioMulch by patching together various sound processing contraptions into circuits. The circuits created feedback loops which generated a signal that was modulated by the interaction of the circuit’s constituent parts. Because they were intended for live performance, I put some of the critical control points in the system under my own control, while the computer handled other controls independently.
For this new piece I have relinquished all direct control (so far). It’s still being built in AudioMulch, using only the contraptions that come with the programme. (A dizzying array of freeware plugins can be found on the web.) It’s a new layout of feedback circuits but instead of monitoring control points within the circuits, I’m getting the computer to constantly micro-manage every possible parameter within each contraption in the circuit. To do this I’ve written a simple script which generates chance-determined MIDI control signals for nearly 500 parameters within the system.
It’s going to take a lot more refining, both in the circuit design and in the controlling script, but it’s all sounding extremely promising. I’ve temporarily uploaded some sample recordings on SoundCloud, where you can hear how the early versions of the piece developed from crude to less crude to the not-bad state in which it exists today. The latest version is embedded below.
These recordings are purely a demonstration of the software doing its thing. I haven’t intervened at any stage, tweaked any of the sounds or edited anything out. As a comparison, I’ve uploaded a recording of what the circuit sounds like after the control script has been turned off. I’ll worry about how to present this piece as a live performance later.
Because no-one wants to be just adequate.
A couple of weeks ago I saw the JACK Quartet play at Wigmore Hall. The stand-out pieces began and ended the concert: I finally got to hear Ruth Crawford Seeger’s superb String Quartet played live. I’d never heard Horațiu Rădulescu’s music played live, either, and his 5th Quartet “before the universe was born” – consisting pretty much entirely of harmonics played on retuned strings – was also an exceptional experience.
You can read that review for more about the concert; but at half-time I pondered over my overpriced-but-actually-rather-drinkable shiraz about a discussion earlier that day, about “experimental” music, which I wrote about last week.
Then, I had another thought. Just before the break the quartet had played Julian Anderson’s Light Music, a piece he had written in his teens. Only recently performed for the first time, it’s the earliest work the composer keeps in his oeuvre. Strongly influenced by the spectralist composers (Rădulescu and French composers of the time), the piece is technically fine, sonically interesting, pleasant overall but a little shapeless, and it starts to drag. Each section seemed to carry on a little too long, exploring and assessing each new effect.
By contrast, Crawford’s quartet always feels as though it is over too soon. I always wish there was more of it, that each section could just keep going. In some ways it seems as though this feeling is part of the music’s subject: the final movement is structured so as to preclude the possibility of continuation right from the start.
Which is the more experimental work, in the conventionally understood sense of the word? Anderson’s piece embraces the newest musical thinking of its time; Crawford’s predicts future musical thought. But which piece presents us with more experimentation? The Anderson quartet is struggling to accommodate new material; Crawford’s material is held in absolute control.
Too much, too long: it seems to me that this is the true defining condition of experimental music. Each new discovery is presented with some degree of excessive emphasis, partly out a didactic need for exposition and partly out of uncertainty of its own success.
It’s a problem I’m aware of in my own music: the nagging sense that this thing is of less interest to the listener than it is to me, that they’ve picked up on it quicker than I thought. Remembering that thumbnail description of Cage’s music of always having either too much or not enough happening in it, I err the other way and present excess with a kind of Beckettian obstinacy (“I’m doing it on purpose.“)
I would not be displeased with a concert that programmed two performances of Crawford’s quartet.
Had a discussion with some people last week about “experimental” music. I think everyone knows what this means, kind-of, sort-of, but lots of people don’t like it. Because I’m impressionable, whenever the term comes up I think of John Cage’s statement on the subject, from 1957: unfortunately I only ever remember the first part where he says he used to object to the term and forget that he immediately goes on to say he no longer does. He then goes on to talk about music being nothing but sounds and tells the story about the anechoic chamber again and I kind of blank on the rest of the talk. After that, all I’m left with is Cage’s initial objection, “that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the finished works, just as sketches are made before paintings and rehearsals precede performances.”
Surely every success is the consequence of a series of failures, and any “experimental” art presented to us is in fact the result of a successful experiment, to some extent. Really, I don’t have a problem with the term because everyone knows what it means, kind-of, sort-of, and we gotta use words when we talk to each other. My problem is this: I keep hearing people saying that a Good Thing about experimental art is that the failures can be as interesting as the successes. I really don’t think this is true.
Firstly, there is the objection already mentioned, that the failed experiment is not presented as the finished work – the finished work is a successful experiment made as a consequence of the failed experiment. But when people cite failures as being potentially productive as successes… does this ever actually happen? There are fortuitous accidents, but that’s a different matter. The “useful failure” seems to be a case of the arts borrowing a concept from science that doesn’t really fit. The most glaring difference is that scientists want their experiments to be replicated by others; artists do not. Artists don’t present a new work with the proviso that it’s actually no good and provide detailed instructions on how it was made, in the hope that someone else will use this method to make a better piece.
Given that artists keep it to themselves, do they ever make an experiment that fails in a way that turns out to be interesting? Again, I’m not talking about fortuitous accidents, I mean failure. An artist makes an experiment that fails, but that failure itself leads them to some sort of creative breakthrough (“not doing it that way” doesn’t count). Can anyone think of examples where this has happened?