Frank Denyer’s ‘The Fish that became the Sun’

Sunday 1 December 2019

Frank Denyer: The Fish that became the SunFrank Denyer’s hour-long work for chorus and large ensemble The Fish that became the Sun received its premiere at a sold-out performance in Huddersfield last week, some twenty-three years after the work was completed. The work was recorded for Another Timbre last year and has just been released to coincide with the concert. I’ve written about Denyer’s music before, but these were all briefer compositions for much smaller forces. The predominant tone in those pieces was of a very close, personal intimacy. What happens when he composes on a broader scale?

Subtitled ‘Songs of the Dispossessed’, The Fish that became the Sun matches voices with diverse groups of musicians; between them, forty musicians play a total of eighty-seven instruments. The family of sounds drawn together is highly eclectic and restricted to small groups and combinations heard at any one time. The most immediately striking thing about the piece is Denyer’s extensive use of found objects and specially-constructed instruments made of broken and discarded items – junk. This alien orchestra is joined by instruments including sitar, crumhorns, dulcimers and modern Western instruments. Different tunings abound. The use of space for the music is an essential component, enhancing the theatrical dimension of the work. Despite the obvious parallels that can be drawn, the theatre is less like that of Harry Partch and more like the music of George Crumb: a set of tableaux that shift from one scene to the next in highly discrete emotional states, each one a contrast – sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring – yet steadily building up a single, complex image. The strangeness comes from less from the surface and more from the substance, and its significance.

The panoply of unusual sounds (I doubt that many of them have been heard by listeners before) are so unfamiliar as to resemble sounds from nature, less refined and thus less knowable. The chorus sings wordlessly; the musicians dispersed through the space also sing and hum. Moments of simple unison playing clash with microtones and non-uniform timbres. The raw, unpolished order of nature culminates when a pair of children sing the only words heard in the piece. Their song has the gnomic simplicity of a nursery rhyme, along with the fraught ambiguity and underlying cruelty.

The word ‘ritual’ seems to get used too freely when describing pieces by modern composers. The Fish that became the Sun is packed with too much music to be considered, at least in recording, a document of a performance: it succeeds as an extended, purely musical statement, immediately rewarding at each moment. It does, however, operate on the level of a myth. From the title to the rhymes and distant fanfare at the end, we are placed in ther realm of transformative myth, the type of transformation that drives an origin story, to explain where we are now and how we got there. Denyer wrote the piece through the early 90s; Michael Turnbull’s sleeve notes describe the work as a response to the times. History supposedly having ended, we entered uncharted territory. The signs are ominous, and seem even more so now, but Denyer’s transformations are equally hopeful, as with the orchestra made from detritus. How much of culture is a constructed paradise and how much of it is a defence against the darkness? The Fish that became the Sun may signal a path to redemption or a fate to which we are condemned, but we don’t know which.

The recording features many of the musicians at the Huddersfield premiere, the Octandre Ensemble conducted by Jon Hargreaves, the New London Chamber Choir and Consortium5, with Benjamin Marquise Gilmore as the solo violinist. The performance and recording is satisfying to the extent that I can’t imagine the work being carried off with greater clarity or force. In conception, execution and presentation, The Fish that became the Sun is an immense achievement.

Jennifer Walshe: ALL THE MANY PEOPLS

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Jennifer Walshe makes computer music. Her voice remains at the centre of things, free of electronic modification but shaped and conditioned by present-day information technology. The most essentially human and direct of instruments is transformed into something our ancestors may not have recognised but our contemporaries know all too well: something about being human has changed. ALL THE MANY PEOPLS is an intensely focused study on attention deficit.

A century ago, Joyce (and Flaubert before him) made it their duty to inform us that the Enlightenment had been a failure, creating people who know a little about everything and understand nothing. People’s minds have been full of eclectic information ever since; the extent of knowledge defined itself by its incompleteness. Attempts made to synthesise this eclecticism into a coherent whole invariably fail. Since the invention of the printing press, things have only gotten worse. Any rando could publish a book of tall tales, presented with as much authority as the Bible itself. Tabloids, pamphlets, penny dreadfuls, advertising, a cacophony of information and misinformation.

As for now: “You really think someone would do that? Just go on the internet and tell lies?” The proliferation of useless data has become a neverending explosion. With all information reduced to a common undifferentiated state, nothing matters. Jokes are taken seriously (4Chan); seriousness is taken as a joke (Francis E. Dec). It’s a hothouse for conspiracies, ignorance ennobled.

A scholar may describe ALL THE MANY PEOPLS as a collage, but it’s a moot point. Everything these days is a collage. Walshe violently yokes together field recordings, video games, steam engines and public-domain soundbites with her own one-person babel: memes, screeds, bad jokes, second-hand anecdotes and passable imitations of nature sounds. Nothing lasts for long and nothing is finished, although it may be repeated. Switches in voice, tone and subject matter are made at breakneck speed. It’s as carefully paced as a Hollywood blockbuster, to leave the impression of relentless action. The frenetic whirl of verbiage paints a portrait of despairing ignorance: questions not only unanswered but unasked, save by Google’s autocomplete function.

Half a century ago, it was prophecied that information would be the medium we swim through, immersed. The dire consequence of this has become that, in the welter of information we share on a daily basis with friends and strangers alike, the information shared has become irrelevant. It has become a medium for sharing attention.

In 1966, John Cage wrote that “Nowadays everything happens at once and our souls are conveniently electronic (omniattentive).” Some fifteen years earlier, his Black Mountain colleague Charles Olson wrote “when the attentions change / the jungle leaps in”; Olson is the first person known to describe his era as “post-modern”. As joint prophets of postmodernism, Olson became the pessimist counterweight to Cage’s optimism. For Olson, Fuller’s Global Village held no more people than before, they were simply atomised, scattered to the four corners of the Earth. Guy Davenport, in his 1976 essay on Olson, lamented that:

What has happened to American culture (Melville observed that we are more a world than a nation) is a new disintegration that comes hard upon our integration. A new daimon has got into the world, a daimon that cancels place (American cities all look like each other), depletes the world’s supply of fossil fuel (if anybody’s around to make the statement, our time can be put into a sentence: the Late Pleistocene ate the Eocene), transforms the mind into a vacuum (“Do they grow there?” a New Yorker asked of the offshore rocks at Gloucester) which must then be filled with evaporating distractions called entertainment. Olson… was of De Gaulle’s opinion that we are the first civilization to have bred our own barbarians…. a hunnish horde of young who have been taught nothing, can do nothing, and exhibit a lemming restlessness. Their elders are scarcely more settled or more purposeful to themselves or their neighbors.

Forty years on, for ‘America’ read ‘the world’. Walshe’s music, like Robert Ashley’s operas, taps into current states of thinking and relating to the world that have not yet been fully assimilated by art: it’s hard to consider them as ‘real music’. It can seem simultaneously amusing, disturbing and baffling.

The old ways of making your art work are no good anymore. Imagery? Image is everything, from selfies to flag-burning. The signifier itself has become significant. Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle updated Marxist analysis of economics, observing that images had replaced objects as items of exchange value. Whether sharing pictures of grandkids on Facebook, holidays on Instagram or protests on Twitter, the illusion of happiness, success or action are one and the same as the thing itself. Walshe plunders this world of images to reveal a new, disturbing successor to the Spectacle: the “attention economy”. If we are truly modern creatures who swim through social media, we no longer interpret it but exist as part of it. (As with television, it’s not for watching, it’s for being on.) As image detached from material success, attention is detaching itself from fame. Billions of people are clamouring for your attention, for proof that they exist. It has become a new definition of what it is to be human in this culture.

Walshe over-emotes, she puts on accents. They’re stoopid. They’re not meant to be good, or accurate. She wants to tell you something. There are funny lines, obnoxious noises, verbal pratfalls, false bravado. Who is speaking? The internet: everyone and no-one. Humanity, taken as a random sample of survey respondents. Like it or hate it, you can’t help but notice some of it. Like Instagram, this music is desperate for your approval but disdainful of your incomprehension. It doesn’t need you.

ALL THE MANY PEOPLS falls into two parts, each the right size to fill the side of an LP. It’s available as a download or “a limited edition gatefold colour-drop vinyl”. There’s still a place for commodities in the economy. Artists shouldn’t work just for exposure.

Frank Denyer: The Boundaries of Intimacy

Sunday 24 November 2019

This weekend, Frank Denyer’s hourlong work The Fish that became the Sun receives its premeire at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, some twenty-five years after it was composed. It goes a long way to addressing the lack of attention Denyer’s compositions have received, at home and abroad. Another Timbre has already recorded the work and released it to coincide with its live debut; having missed the gig, I intend to write about the disc shortly. The same label has also released a companion disc of shorter works, ranging from the mid-70s to last year, titled The Boundaries of Intimacy.

The title is appropriate, but not as much as the piece from which it is taken, a solo for flute with electronics named Beyond the Boundaries of Intimacy. Back in 2015, writing about Whispers, Another Timbre’s previous release of Denyer’s music, I was struck mostly by that intimate quality of his small-scale muisc. As with true intimacy, it can be confronting, painful, even frightening, especially when given freely as the music is offered here. The opening work Mother, Child and Violin gives us just that: small, private sounds uttered by a woman and a child with equally plain but elusive sounds from a violin. It feels almost voyeuristic; are mother and child making sounds to each other or each to themselves? That ambiguity gives a complexity to that intense relationship and how it may so often change. It’s a much more raw and human portrayal than the conventional, sentimental tableau implied by the title. The sounds are wordless.

All the compositions on this disc share an artlessness in the sounds and gestures; Denyer leaves any phrasing tenderly unformed, like a pre-verbal state of being. In each piece, the musicians seem to be exploring sound, but in a purely private sense as though for themselves – and perhaps immediate others. It is left to the listeners to presume whether they are part of the latter. That wordless state persists, intimacy in speaking through sound instead of through psychological confession. In this music, truth is found on the mythological level, even as it is retold, passed from composer to musician. Who speaks, the composer or the musician? Both and neither.

Talented and sympathetic musicians are needed to give this music its power. Juliet Fraser’s singing makes you think first of its directness and sincerity, with her technical skills evident only in closer analysis. Flautist and longtime Barton Workshop colleague Jos Zwaanenberg performs the title work, the only time Denyer has been persuaded to work with electronics. Zwaanenberg plays at the threshhold of audibility, given near-impossibly fine gradations in emphasis by the composer “between ppppppp and ppppp“. The electronics are almost imperceptible, serving to render the sounds as though without source. The sleeve notes (rare for an Another Timbre release) advise the listener to “imagine them performing intimately, without amplification, and often in an under-voice in order not to disturb the neighbours.”

Violist Elisabeth Smalt revives a solo work Denyer composed for a neglected string instrument he invented in 1980, and Nobutaka Yosjizawa plays both versions of a koto solo composed in 1975. In all of these pieces, the music becomes as dependent on sound as on the state of mind in which musician and listener find themselves. Unlike most compositions, this music cannot live inside one’s head, or on the page. It’s a kind of blessing to be able to hear them at last.

The most recent work, a String Quartet, receives a precarious performance by the Luna String Quartet. Frail sequences of notes rise and fall away, at times like one strange composite instrument very faint and far away, at others like lost, individual voices that never join together in force. Other sounds intrude, the musicians make unpolished vocalisations – wordless again. All four instruments are heavily mutes. This near-silence constrains a great, inner turmoil as the composition constantly strains the boundaries of expression and music. If music is art, how does this artform give voice to voiceless thought? Denyer’s quartet may well be the strangest in the genre, and the most disturbing.

.​.​.​for some reason that escapes us

Monday 18 November 2019

I got sent this a while back and it keeps popping up on my stereo and I to go look up what it is. It keeps reminding me of other things but is clearly not any one of them. Mostly sustained chords, slightly wheezy, like a faded memory of lost mediaeval music as played on a hurdy gurdy or reed organ. A more sedate version of the latest Pancrace release or a more sombre work by Viola Torros. Despite the more restricted palette, it gets weirder when I remember how it’s made. Vilhelm Bromander plays double bass while Fredrik Rasten plays guitar, both usually bowed in some fashion. Harmonics and overtones combine in strange ways to colour what would otherwise be thin harmonies, usually confined to the middle range. Both sing as well, just faintly, which adds a glassy hum of beating frequencies.

.​.​.​for some reason that escapes us presents two brief chorales, each followed by a longer work. It all seems carefully worked out, rather than a purely improvised experience. This comes off well, both in the restraint in their playing and the concision of each musical statement: the longest work is in three movements yet doesn’t crack twenty minutes. The scale and the pacing make you take on board each small detail as a compositional element, instead of simply immerse yourself in drone.

All That Dust live, and Georgia Rodgers’ A to B, Late lines

Wednesday 13 November 2019

I’ve been writing up the new batch of releases by All That Dust, who had their launch gig on the weekend. Sadly, Georgia Rodgers had to cancel at the last minute, but cellist Séverine Ballon remained to play a Bach suite for the punters. The two were originally to play Rodgers’ Late lines, an electroacoustic duet. The cellist’s bowing is manipulated through digital granular synthesis, but the layering and transformation is directed much like Scelsi’s manipulation of musical notes, always focusing ever inward, drawing closer to the source to open up new realms of perception. There are no Scelsi-like spiritual claims made for this music, leaving the listener free to explore a heightened awareness of the sensory aspects of sound. All That Dust has made binaural recordings of Late lines and a similar work, A to B for solo percussionist with electronics as a download release.

In A to B, Rodgers works with Serge Vuille on snare drums and cymbals, turning steady rhythms into pulses of complex sound verging on white noise, yet constantly taking on new colourations. The effect of both pieces suggests the aural equivalent of monochrome paintings with rigorously worked surfaces of multiple layers, revealing unexpected but elusive colours and shapes. The sleeve notes invoke Robert Irwin, whose work engages space more than surface, but close listening to these recordings on headphones opens up that dimension as well. (Late lines began as an installation.) At the same time, the subject of each piece is the physical aspect of musical performance: contact between surfaces, as though seen on a microscopic level, with even the simplest interaction made up of multiple events.

New things were learned at the launch gig. My memory has and has not been playing tricks on me when hearing Cassandra Miller’s vocal music. Juliet Fraser’s performance of Tracery: Lazy, Rocking was truly ephemeral, you strained to hear and understand and then it was gone. These pieces come out differently every time, with the performance of the Tracery pieces in particular clearly an act of listening, reflection and meditation on the moment with which the singer is presented.

The new Kontakte (an excerpt played in 4-speaker surround sound) sounds great even when played in a bar. The musicians’ discussion of their approach reminded me that, for all the emphasis I put on how distinct the instruments sound here, they still blend and emerge from the electronic sounds and are distinctly embedded in the sonic space. In many performances of the work it so often sounds like musicians and tape are simply playing in parallel.

We also heard Plus-Minus Ensemble give the second performance of Tim Parkinson’s String Quartet 2019 which premiered a few days earlier in Reading – home of the Samuel Beckett archive, of course. The transcendentalists had the Unanswered Question; 2019 has the “Nobody:”, “Literally No One:” meme. String Quartet 2019 is a simple statement, made quietly and sincerely, with no evident prompting for its existence and no apparent response expected. Each phrase is followed by another, a story that twists but never turns, never hinting how this might all end. In a way, it doesn’t, really. There is some call and response, but much of the time the quartet plays in rhythmic unison, with harmonies kept thin. The first violinist takes up the melody alone, and then nothing happens. “Make sense who may.”

Piano: Tim Parkinson played by Mark Knoop

Thursday 7 November 2019

The picture gets more complex. I previously described Tim Parkinson’s opera Time With People as “warm-blooded reductionism”, noting how his music had emptied out the form, transforming structure into content. I didn’t really do him justice, neither fairly nor in full. Hearing Philip Thomas’ recording of two piano pieces on Wandelweiser a couple of years ago, I announced that “I plan to discuss this in greater detail in the near future” but never did.

Luckily, the other CD release in this second batch of albums on All That Dust is Parkinson’s Piano music 2015-16. All of it, apparently. Lest I gave anyone the impression that he is the sort of composer who gets sneeringly described by most benighted critics as “an artist”, rest assured that there is craft in abundance on this disc. piano piece 2015 and we’ll meet again from the same year sandwich seven prosaically-titled 2016 works, presenting a cornucopia of musical ideas and techniques. A reductionist cornucopia, but all the same. Moods, effects, tricks and references proliferate; some present only fleetingly, while others are dwelt upon at length. More than a diary or sketches, each piece reflects a musical mind contemplating and reconsidering music, as played and heard upon the piano.

The reflective piano piece 2015 develops in its own way, with pianist Mark Knoop sustaining an atmosphere of tenderness through its pauses and more subdued dynamics. It’s hard not to hear the 2016 pieces as a suite, each work presenting a contrast in dynamics, consistency and phrasing. Knoop can make 2016 No. 1 sound monomaniacal, before suddenly changing to a new but equally obstainate approach to the reiterated chords. Subsequent pieces bring in more variety, creating continuity out of juxtapositions of disjointed passages. I was going to say ‘phrases’ but in these pieces they sound more like sentences: each one self-contained yet with each successive instance building on what has come before or suddenly diverting the expected course, thickening the plot. Chords merge into unbroken sonority, then break apart into a Cubist study in Stride. Modernist rigour is pricked by a single postmodern flourish. Knoop sets the right tone of serious playfulness, neither po-faced nor ingratiating, revealing a multitude of facets for listeners to discover for themselves.

“A musical mind contemplating music,” but not in a systematic way. That playfulness shows Parkinson’s piano pieces to be as much about the musician as the music, a subjective response to its pleasures and conundrums; the process itself is analysed in preference to pursuing a conclusion. we’ll meet again happily throws all these problems into creating a grotesque fantasia on the song of the same name. The old-fashioned sentimentality starts off-kilter and immediately veers into the ditch, advancing by fits and starts. Distorted fragments flit by from time to time, at times teasing that the tune may eventually get back on some recognisable track, at others leaving the listener wondering if they’re starting to imagine a resemblance that is no longer there. Milton Babbitt would be delighted.

Piano: Annea Lockwood and Luc Ferrari played by Xenia Pestova Bennett

Monday 4 November 2019

Circumstances and temperament conspired so that I hadn’t been to a gig in ages. Broke the drought last week with two piano recitals: Philip Thomas with the launch of his celebrated Morton Feldman box set at Music We’d Like To Hear (more about these later), preceded by a free recital at City University by Xenia Pestova Bennett.

It was a great programme, focusing on the lesser known piano pieces of Annea Lockwood and Luc Ferrari (no she didn’t set fire to the instrument.) She opened with a startling interpretation of John Cage’s Dream, careful to articulate clean stops and occasional abrupt changes in rhythm, making it more disturbing and harder to grasp than the usual fey wash of sweetness it is typically presented as these days. Lockwood’s RCSC and Red Mesa are more obdurate works, built out of sequences of discrete gestures and sounds using a variety of techniques. It takes a fine sense of timing and balancing of contrasts to make these pieces work as cohesive musical experiences, and Pestova Bennett managed this admirably, even as she was obliged by the composer to rapidly alternate between sitting at the keyboard and standing over the strings to pluck and scrape.

Ferrari’s Collection de petites pièces, ou 36 enfilades from the mid 80s remains a mystery. I’ve had a CD of this for years and treated much like some of his other work for musicians and tape, an episodic magazine of events and recurring themes; but it’s so hard to pin down and my memory of it always remained vague. Hearing it live both helped and hindered. Some pieces last only a few seconds, while others feature no piano at all. The opening piece reappears in several variations, but give only the illusion of continuity. The tape (cued directly by Pestova Bennett on a laptop) alternates between verité field recording and obnoxious pop – again a Ferrari custom, but the fragmented nature makes it all seem deliberately directionless. You get used to finding his grandiose musical non sequiturs evading a deliberate point while suggesting something bigger and more elusive, but this appears to be a rare occasion where any possible connections are deliberately cut. Pestova Bennett played with the deftness that a good Ferrari performance seems to require, making his trivial motifs seem just that, while hiding the difficulties of making such mercurial music seem facile.

Stockhausen: Kontakte (Barton/Rhys)

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Some physicists hope that evidence will be found that contradicts the Standard Model, opening up an entirely new understanding of how the universe works; in the meantime, the theory remains disappointingly consistent. At times, it can seem that a vast swathe of electroacoustic music over the past sixty years has simply been a matter of spinning off variations of elements from Stockhausen’s Kontakte. Alternative pathways are investigated, but Kontakte persists as its own standard model. Its brilliant use of sound and space, its theatricality, the innovation born of thorough application of an elaborate internal logic make it irresistably seductive to a composer; perhaps dangerously so, for with its appeal to the imagination comes the implication that its methods are irrefutably correct. The last time I heard it live in its piano/percussion incarnation was in a concert in Berlin last year, and when it came up while describing my holiday to a friend she sighed “Not that again.”

A new recording has now been released as download only by All That Dust. This follows up on their previous download releases of works by Babbitt and Nono, which suggests that this Kontakte shares a mission to re-examine and renew works from the past. The GBSR duo of percussionist George Barton and pianist Siwan Rhys play the instrumental parts, accompanied by the four-channel electronic tape. This is a binaural recording, so even in this stereo presentation the spatialisation of sound is notable. The sound quality is wonderfully clear and detailed, which suits Barton’s and Rhys’ playing style admirably.

When I’ve listened to recordings, it’s almost always been one from the 60s (Caskel with Tudor or Kontarsky) so my judgement might get clouded here. The technology of the time makes it almost inevitable that one of the ‘contacts’ referred to in the title is in the connections between the electronic and acoustic sounds – certainly to modern ears. GBSR have described their own approach in detail, describing it as “the key work in the piano and percussion duo repertoire.” It’s a telling remark, placing the focus firmly on the instruments over the tape part that gets so much attention. They proceded to ‘internalise’ the piece, playing from memory; an approach that Stockhausen himself came to demand with regularity over the following years. The result is strongly theatrical despite the absence of visuals, combined with an immensely detailed and colourful sound. Details I hadn’t focused on before, even in live performances, stand out here. Perhaps the playing approach allows for a slight but significant feeling of spontaneity to the instruments, even though the tape cannot really allow it. Wood or skin sounds come out distinctly organic in contrast to the electronics; piano and metal have their own unique characteristics, too.

It almost feels a little weird, finding these little flecks and splashes of new colours in the once familiar texture. (Even in the concert hall, the piece can tend towards homogeneity in parts, owing to the composer’s passion for constant activity at the service of a theory.) If Barton and Rhys are somehow taking liberties, then I’m for it. Stockhausen built a career out of finely-judged transgressions, so it’s nice to keep him weird.

Cassandra Miller: Songs about Singing

Tuesday 22 October 2019

I’ve been waiting a year for the next batch of releases from All That Dust. The first bit of great news is that one of the new CDs is dedicated to Cassandra Miller’s works for voice. Last year’s pair of Miller albums on Another Timbre took a great step in addressing the need for her music to be more commercially available and this addition gives us some important details of the bigger picture of her music, casting her work into a different light.

Songs about Singing focuses on the voice, particularly the soprano Juliet Fraser, one of the co-founders of All That Dust. Two of the four works on the disc were premiered by her, the results of a continuing close collaboration. I was lucky enough to hear the premieres of one, plus another of these pieces at Kammer Klang a couple of years ago, where they left an indelible impression. I may as well quote my impression of Traveller Song pretty much in full:

Traveller Song, in which the Plus-Minus Ensemble accompanied a tape of ragged, keening voices. Again, it seemed to be a documentation of some vocal ritual, with Western musical tropes laid on top. She’s from Canada, it must be something indigenous so I guess we better put up with those scratchy voices. But the ensemble – first just piano four hands, then clarinet, violin and cello, finally just an accordion – were playing some sort of game. At times deferentially minimal, then fulsomely mournful, astringently avant-garde and then, at inopportune moments, flamboyantly romantic. It just seemed to keep going, trying out different costumes and poses. By the end, I didn’t know if it was amazing or terrible.

Tonight I pulled up the programme for the concert for the first time and holy guacamole if the whole thing isn’t a headtrip that would do Kagel proud. The voices are Miller’s own, singing along to Sicilian folk-music without being able to hear herself, then attempting to accompany herself. She describes it as an attempt “to explore my own bodily impulses related to melody” and admits it sounds like “quasi-shamanistic keening” but the whole work is a tour de force in the creative potency of cultural transmission and reproduction. More than any simple cross-pollination from an “exotic” culture, the act of transmission itself is a necessarily distorting process; in which imitation becomes a transformative act that creates something strange and new.

The new recording, again with the Plus-Minus Ensemble, benefits from the cleaner acoustic conditions of a studio over a crowded bar in Dalston. The listener’s more sober surroundings and the performers’ greater familiarity make the piece seem more confident and accomplished in the adoption of its various guises. It may sound a little more disingenuous now and more of a pose (but then I’d forgotten that I invoked Kagel in my first write-up) but those themes and issues raised by the first hearing are now more focused; more importantly, the emotional content of the ensemble accompaniment is also clearer, more powerful and coherent, even as it plays upon the listener’s consciousness with its contradictions. The simple sentimentality, so pervasive in other found-voice-swathed-in-strings compositions, is affectionately and cruelly lampooned.

For the remaining pieces, the voice is presented live by Juliet Fraser. Tracery: Hardanger and Tracery: Lazy, Rocking are part of a continuing project between Fraser and Miller, where the singer is accompanied by tapes of herself. Hearing Tracery: Hardanger live, I commented that “if there was a process, it seemed to be part of a meditative rite.” It is, indeed, a type of ‘automatic singing’ in which Fraser “performs a body scan meditation whilst listening on headphones and (perhaps) responding vocally to a piece of source material.” The multiple takes add another layer of complexity to this feedback loop. In recording, more attention can be paid to the harmonising, drones, microtones and inadvertent canons that emerge from the weave of vocies. Fraser’s voice has the right mix of vulnerability and resilience to call up an equally complex array of potential meanings and interpretations from the listener.

The thing I hadn’t picked up before is that both Tracery works, like Traveller Song, are made out of other music. The reflexive title of the disc starts to make sense. Hardanger, unsurprisingly, uses Hardanger fiddle tunes as the ‘input’ for the vocalising feedback process, while Lazy, Rocking takes a movement from the late Ben Johnston’s Eighth String Quartet. This unusual form of musical quotation underpins a lot of Miller’s music, but wasn’t so evident on the Another Timbre discs except for the string quartet About Bach. The use of quotation and of cultural transmission through distortion of a pre-existing model comes here through direct experience, subjectively interpreted through the act of singing itself, whether by the performer in the Tracery project or the composer in Traveller Song.

The oldest work in this album, Bel Canto from 2010, takes a similar approach. Fraser is joined by the Plus-Minus Ensemble, playing as two distinct trios, each independently playing in response to the soprano as she adopts the vocal affectations of Maria Callas. She swoops and sighs, and each little group of instruments sighs and swoons in sympathy. The sliding tones are falling, seemingly always falling, in a presentation that is both mournful and noble – in ways that the singer may not have expected. (To hear the piece in this way is to acknowledge that Fraser is playing Callas as a character, or a type, adding another layer of meaning to the musical texture.) As a composition, it works simultaneously as a clear-eyed exercise in analysis and as a study in pathos, in the same way that Berio’s Rendering presents such a troubling double image; but again, the emphasis here is placed on the interpretation over the message. Understanding can reveal so much, without ever explaining.

Federico Pozzer: Breaths

Tuesday 8 October 2019

Been listening to this repeatedly over the past couple of months but not writing about it; just enjoying it*. Don’t know anything about composer Federico Pozzer, other than what comes with this CD. Breaths is a collection of three pieces for small groups of instruments that take composition into that nebulous world of improvisation, but in a different way from the usual connotations. Pozzer describes his early musical interests as starting with free improv before switching to Feldman, Bunita Marcus and Cage. This gives a superficial idea of what this disc sounds like, particularly the late works of Cage.

There was a short period in his last years when Cage became interested in the idea of a musician’s “internal clock” being a sufficient regulator and coordinating factor of musical time. This notion seemed to fade pretty quickly, briefly flirting with mutual supervision before giving over wholly to the impartiality of the stopwatch. I’m not aware of any “internally timed” performances of Cage’s orchestral piece 1O1 having taken place, but given his history of working with orchestras I suspect he would have been disappointed. Where Cage apparently failed, Pozzer clearly succeeds: the musical material is more or less defined, with the manner of playing determined by the musician’s breathing.

The disc opens with Breath II, a half-hour duet for guitar and piano played by Lucio Tasca and Pozzer, recorded in the composer’s living room in 2017. Each musician plays a single gesture with each inhalation, exhalation, and pause between. The piece is structured, with repeats and an emphasis on ninth intervals that makes the opening resemble the start of Schoenberg’s Opus 11. Each musician, however, plays independently and the sonic palette soon expands into percussive and frictional sounds. In the abstract, the ostensibly regular pulse of breathing would make a recipe for tedium, but the induced self-awareness and the interaction of sounds produces a strange effect on how the musicians breathe. Time slows down. The music ebbs and flows intriguingly, a variegated mosaic of sounds that seems larger than the two instruments.

For the two other pieces, Tasca and Pozzer are joined by Kathryn Williams on flute, Dejana Sekulic on violin and Brice Catherin cello. Noises and Meetings are also regulated by breath, in slightly more involved and interactive ways. Noises requires the musicians to play in an open space, responding to external sounds heard with a given set of possible reactions. In this recording, the ensemble plays in a delicate, serious way that never seems too self-conscious or too “free”, either of which would make the music arch and stiff. It works here, and shares the ambient field recording atmosphere of Breath II that gives these pieces their own subtle colouration.

Meetings also allows extraneous sound into the music, as the musicians are, at times, required to respond to each other’s breathing instead of their own. The simple scales played by the ensemble become blurred by the overlapping interplay of each performer’s bodily rhythms, concentration and intuitive communication. As an act of collective consciousness, it takes the concepts heard behind Christian Wolff’s ‘consensus’ pieces and elaborates them into something simultaneously more corporeal and more ephemeral.

* Last couple of months have been kind of hectic so not enough writing going on. Soon to change.

Parts: 180º, d’incise

Wednesday 18 September 2019

I’ve been listening to a lot of music released as parts lately. In some cases they are definitely extracted from a larger performance but at other times it’s less clear whether I’m hearing excerpts or separate ‘takes’; either way they depend on editing as much as performance for their musical structure. You wonder what may have been rejected or excised, from either the performance or the session. In this type of recording, there is always a subliminal awareness of a wider context in the background, in a way that doesn’t typically happen while watching a movie, for example.

This popped into my head while listening to a new record out on Splitrec called submental by a group called 180º. I’ve been all over this record just lately because 180º is a trio made up of Nick Ashwood, Jim Denley and Amanda Stewart. Ashwood is new to me but I’ve loved the work of Denley and Stewart for years, both solo and in various groups, particularly as part of legendary ensemble/collective/happening Machine for Making Sense. Here, the eight tracks were recorded over two days, track lengths ranging from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Presumably as usual, each piece was improvised with perhaps some loose coordination agreed beforehand, but not necessarily honoured in execution. The three are credited simply with acoustic guitar, bass flute and voice respectively, but there seems to be a hell of a lot going on besides. Bowing and scraping sounds, fluid drones, rattles and pops – is Stewart making that electronic creaking noise herself? I keep listening closer and I’m starting to believe they can actually make these sounds unaided: breath, flute and rubbed strings, struck instruments and oral clicks merge in mysterious ways that build up continually changing, complex aural textures. Stewart’s typically fragmented texts here disappear almost completely into pure sound; all three get deep into the grain of their respective axes, evoking profound expression without ever imposing it. They’re at the top of their game here.

There are parts to this new LP by d’incise, jointly released by Insub and Moving Furniture, but in a different way. Assemblée, relâche, réjouissance, parade collects two 2017 compositions for organs and bowed metallic objects, recorded and mixed by the composer. A L’Anglard de St-Donat is a suite of four “songs” with tune and tuning based on a mazurka by Alfred Mouret. I suspect that even listeners familiar with said mazurka may struggle to recognise it. The bowed metal and organ are partners in a set of slow dances, winding around each other to a sparse accompaniment of percussive sounds. The odd intonation, detourned folksong and reedy sounds are reminiscent of Pancrace’s The Fluid Hammer. I’d like to know more about the tuning system used here. There seems to be some method at work in how each piece begins, progresses and ends, a version based upon the original. This engaging little suite is followed by Le désir, a contrasting pair of longer pieces in which undulating loops of electric organ form an ostinato upon which a type of solo is performed on bowed metal sticks. They fit together suprisingly well, with the bowed objects seeming to rise up out of the lower organ sounds, a slow florid ornamentation that floats between flutes and reeds. The tension is retained throughout by the regular pulsation of the organ on tape forming a sinister backdrop that keeps threatening to crowd out the soloist’s lyricism, itself already carved out of the most marginal material.

Pancrace: The Fluid Hammer

Monday 9 September 2019

Lot of excitement over the first Pancrace album that came out in 2017. The follow-up by the French quintet is not so much a departure as starting over in a completely different way – I doubt anyone expected something like The Fluid Hammer. The instrumentation throughout consists of a freakish amalgam of MIDI-controlled pipe organ, toys and radios with mediaeval folk instruments like hurdy-gurdy, fiddle and Uilleann pipes. It’s modern-day tech, high and low, put to use on ancient noisemakers. The sound is rough and guttural, machine-bowed strings mixing with wheezing pipes pushed to extremis by computers. The combination of instruments works like a single, huge, ramshackle pneumatic organ wound up and let go.

It simultaneously recalls Ligeti’s mechanical pieces, folk music from some remote region of Europe, and a rediscovered archive of tapes by some obscure outsider artist – all while resembling nothing like anything you’ve ever heard before. The sound is delightfully baffling, like discovering an entirely new, alien culture. The paradoxical elements give the music a timeless quality, that could have come from this or any other century. The novelty of the sound doesn’t wear off, as the group introduce new textures and effects on each of the LP’s four sides. Each side adds a new dimension, as the bucolic early tracks change into chittering Ligeti spoof ‘Etude aléatoire’, or the percussive effects established on side 3 with ‘CSO’ and ‘Stridulations’. Side 4 starts out unexpectedly funky, sort of, with bassline and rhythm before dissolving into a swooning, soaring cloud of colours and shifting tonalties on ‘Nothing but the Place’.

On each side, one track gives way to recorded dialogue (in French), as pump shop proprietors Gaubert père et fils (est. 1872) discuss the business of pipework and pumps, motors, the album, tapes, cheap imports and the internet. Their store happened to be across the street from the hall where recording took place. Their discussion adds to the folkloric and archival atmosphere of the music as well as adding a kind of parallel commentary of the work going on behind the record. (Pancrace started out as a residence with the instrument inventor Léo Maurel; it’s easy to assume at first that the talk is Maurel discussing his own work.) The album rewards repeated listening, both for deciphering the complex patterns and musical details and for exploring a deeper meaning behind the music. When so many artists are tempted to tack on a ‘meaning’ to their work, The Fluid Hammer effortlessly raises questions about art relating to society, meshing the past with the future, and meta-commentary on the creative process and labour, all embodied in the medium of fun, intriguing music. A remarkable achievement.

Jérôme Noetinger and Anthony Pateras: A Sunset For Walter

Monday 2 September 2019

The hell is going on here? It’s, it’s… beautiful. A long, long way from his signature hyperactive style, Anthony Pateras contemplatively plays slow, arpeggiated octaves over a gentle ambient hum that takes on a life of its own at the start of A Sunset For Walter, the new Penultimate LP of duos by Pateras and Jérôme Noetinger. The two have collaborated numerous times before, but this is the first legit release of the two playing together alone. Pateras on untreated piano, Noetinger on Revox tape deck, adding ambience, disembodied counter-melodies and distorted piano reflections. Bass resonances linger ominously, chords pile up and echo; each musician adds an occasional flourish to cast the prevailing mood into relief, opening up the sounds to new possibilities.

The Walter in the title is Walter Marchetti and the album is an homage to his piano music, “particularly the slowed-down subaquatic expanse of Nel Mari Del Sud.” The LP presents four excerpts from a three-hour performance given by the two at an evening concert in Stuttgart last year. The ruminative pacing and sustained tones throughout create a marine calm, always slightly eerie more than lulling. A crepuscular atmosphere prevails throughout, giving everything a suitably elegaic tone, as though the sounds are imperceptibly fading away. Presumably the entire gig was like this – we get some clues of what we haven’t heard from Noetinger’s tape, playing back manipulated fragments of the two playing. Sounds from the small audience become more audible, some children in the room, a bird somehwere.

The selections, presented out of sequence, work as distinct compositions, each preserving a mood while allowing for musical development. Both players are excel at deepening the plot, slipping a new undertone into the colouring of their sound or introducing disruptions at just the right moment, never out of place but changing the listener’s perspective. The tracks are titled only by the time at which they were played; the last track is the latest. The sounds here are at their most sparse, the tape playing thin, high sounds, people’s feet shuffling on the hard floor – it sounds like the sun has set and this is indeed the end.

Charles Ross at Cafe Oto

Sunday 1 September 2019

You really need to see it as well as hear it; not just the visual element, but to appreciate the music as a theatrical experience. Until now, my exposure to Charles Ross’ music has been limited to two pieces heard on the radio, the orchestral work His Master’s Voice and the strange ensemble piece The Ventriloquist. The former piece was conducted by Ilan Volkov; the latter programmed by him as part of his Tectonics festival. Reviewers at the Glasgow performance of The Ventriloquist seem to have all expressed varying degrees of bafflement, particularly given that Ross performed his part in a small, waterlogged sandpit mounted on stage. Every biographical sketch mentions that he is British but has lived in a hut in a remote corner of Iceland for years. He studied music with Frank Denyer, which becomes obvious.

At Oto on Tuesday night, Ross was joined by Volkov, Yoni Silver, flautist Maayan Franco and Crystabel Riley on percussion. The second half was an improvisation by the quintet. Before that came two compositions by Ross, one a premiere and the other getting its first hearing in the UK. The trio in the nameless town had Ross with viola, Franco, and Silver on bass clarinet, not playing, but swaying silently. Their tread became audible, a steady rhythm that gained accompaniment from their instruments. The soft stamping recurred later, staggered into a slow folk dance. Ross choreographs sound and movement, each playing its part. As with folk music, the sounds can be rough and at times may even be roughly handled, but are always made with a clear-minded certainty, a sense of necessity. As with Denyer’s music, continuity follows what appears to be an emotional, dramatic logic in preference to conventional musical form. The immediate distinction between the two composers is Ross’ taste for blunt, restricted gestures, limited in range and variation. Here, sound is used as a means of inculcating a particular frame of mind, a subjective shading by which the music may be understood.

The premiere, titled newlyblind, was composed for Yoni Silver and required him to simultaneously play various combinations of piano, clarinet, prepared violin and guitar and percussion. As a virtuouso showcase, technical fireworks were not at the forefront. Even in the opening, played solo, Silver was required to repeat a dense, one-handed chord on the keyboard in an irregular stutter. Held clarinet tones and vocal cries added to the claustrophobic atmosphere. The prepared string instruments produced muted percussive sounds – quiet, complex, ambiguous. At one point Silver held a stone in his left hand, grinding it against another, while his right plucked and struck at the violin resting on the edge of the piano. The violin’s curved back rocked unsteadily, threatening to fall as the rocks scraped and hissed.

Playing: Catherine Lamb – Cristián Alvear, James Weeks – Mira Benjamin

Thursday 29 August 2019

I’m listening to people playing instruments, making music. Are they playing with, or on, their instruments? It’s a trickier question here, as the musicians are performing scores composed for them by other people. If the playing here is to be understood as exploration, then it comes from the composer’s curiosity and from the musician discovering what can be made from the composer’s vision. Making music like this becomes largely a question of possibilities, balanced against the need for some level of restraint.

Both are solos, but augmented. Catherine Lamb’s piece, Point/Wave, is for guitarist. Accompaniment comes from the ‘Secondary Rainbow Synthesizer’: amplified ambient sound filtered into resonant frequencies. This is apparently the first piece she wrote using the device, which has since formed the basis of her Prisma Interius series of works. The sounds in Point/Wave are more clearly defined and separated here than in the later works; this would be partly due to the sole performer and to the bright, clear attack and decay of the guitar. The piece is conceptually clear, but with harmonic sophistication. The guitarist Cristián Alvear plays a cycle of chords over, or against, the passing harmonic clouds of the ambient synthesizer. Whether the two relate or not is a moot point: the interaction is one of two processes at work, each producing sounds of alternating clarity and complexity. The synthesizer’s changes are governed by the outside world; for the guitar, Lamb has composed an “infinite cycle” of chords related to smaller and larger prime numbers. Acoustic phenomena are explored and demonstrated, but in a lyrical, non-dogmatic way, rather like Alvin Lucier’s later works combining instruments with pure tones. I like that Lamb expresses her frustrations with the guitar through the piece, with the awkward tuning and quick decay turned into a virtue that adds extra colour to the sound. The piece was written for Alvear, a guitarist who has a knack of finding the space for potential shading and texture in the most seemingly reductive scores. He gives the piece warmth and presence, using a classical guitar to speak clearly, in a way Lamb thought would only be possible with steel strings.

Any play in James Weeks’ windfell is of a more serious nature. This hour-long solo for violin is also augmented: the musician is expected to sing vocalise from time to time. The piece was written for Mira Benjamin, so presumably her high, clear vocal tones are a requirement for anyone else attempting the piece. The inner sleeve of the CD warns listeners that the first five minutes or so are almost inaudible. The sounds are the most rudimentary type, the kind of inadvertent noises made in preparation to play. The home listener, already slightly apprehensive of what might follow (“resist the impulse to turn up the volume”) is then led through an open labyrinth, in which the path is marked but the ultimate direction never clear. After several hearings, it’s still hard to remember exactly where this path led. The piece doesn’t exactly build up from its near-silences, but transforms itself in ways which never seem a sudden divergence yet always efface the memory of what passed immediately before. Damndest thing. Pauses mark changes of direction; each section carries a tension with it, but the gestures are never hurried. Sounds are frequently sustained and repeated, with a restraint that always refuses to indulge the listener. Changes are marked by difference in pitch and intonation, rather than gesture and registration – just enough to be heard as new. The voice joins in at times, or whistling to blend in with the harmonics. Sometimes the voice provides three-part harmony with the double-stops – by this point in the piece, the music has become strongly present, perhaps even loud. Later, you notice things have become quieter again. Weeks (married to a violinist) demonstrates a deep understanding of the instrument, doubtlessly aided by Benjamin’s performance, a mixture of calmness and absolute control, the kind of heroic qualities that come from balancing contradictory impulses, as heard in her previous performances.