The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2017 Totally-Not-Political Edition

Wednesday 10 May 2017

It seems to come earlier every year. Just noticed the first semi-final happened already, but then I have never watched the semi-finals and recommend that you should just stick to the final. Eurovision is best played stud, with every entrant in the final coming as a complete surprise.

Remember, Eurovision is a celebration of song and culture and absolutely nothing to do with politics so there will be no rules about presenters or contestants commenting on Brexit, the Crimea, the EU or Russia, nor will anyone in the audience be waving this flag about. Because that sort of thing just doesn’t happen.

Everything below, however, has happened.

CURTAIN UP

At the first appearance of the presenters, drink to the health of Masha and Pasha.

PHASE I: THE SONGS

A. Every instance within a song:

I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).

I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.

B. Once per song only:

I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.

I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.

I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.

I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.

I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.

I.B.6 The GreeksRussiansGreeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)

I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…

I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.

I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.

PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.

I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.

I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…

PHASE II: THE VOTES

II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.

II.2 The Gimme. When Greece maxes out its points to Cyprus.

II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.

II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, the United Kingdom gets its first point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.

II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.

II.6 The Wogan. Any blatant display of favouritism between particular countries in the jury, or a hasty correction by a flustered announcer when reading out results. Keep an eye on Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and anomalies in German votes for Slavic and Balkan countries.

PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so a liberal interpretation is allowed.

II.7 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.

II.8 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.

II.9 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.

II.10 The Master of Suspense. This hasn’t happened for a few years but people might get confused by the new rules: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.

PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

II.11 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all vote for each other, or a former Soviet republic votes for Russia. Do not attempt without medical supervision.

THE WILDCARDS

W0: Australia! Any person may lead a toast amongst all drinkers by shouting “Australia!”, “Aussie!”, “Oi!” or any suitably positive Australian word or noise. This can happen any time during the night as many times as wished for no reason whatsoever because OBVIOUSLY NOBODY AT EUROVISION GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES.

W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b why the United Kingdom is in it;
W1.c why ItalyTurkey isn’t in it;
W1.d why Russia isn’t in it this year;
W1.e where the hell is Moldova?; or
W1.f Australia?

W2 Drink to any display of national resentment or self-pity related to current events. Pay close attention to Armenia/Azerbaijan, Ukraine/Russia, Greece/Germany, anybody/United Kingdom, Australia.

W3 Pretend to drink when someone makes a disparaging comment about the United Kingdom. Finish your drink if someone makes a disparaging comment about Russia.

W4 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W5 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre: Sabat, Ceccarelli and live

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Three nights last week at Cafe Oto to hear concerts dedicated to The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre. As always, you get new perspectives on hearing and seeing music performed live, compared to what’s on the record. In their performance of Linda Catlin Smith’s Dirt Road, Mira Benjamin and Simon Limbrick revealed just how sparing, yet quietly decisive each gesture must be. The music’s language is pared back to the bones, yet never consciously feels empty or repetitive.

It was strange how different Chiyoko Szlavnics’ During a Lifetime sounded on the night. I’ve already noted how Szlavnics’ use of sine tones mixed with live instruments differs from their usual exploitation of psychoacoustic phenomena. This distinction became clearer in concert: the electronic tones act as an instrumental voice in their own right. At times, the musicians stop playing altogether, revealing harmonies – even chords – in pure tones before the instruments come in again to compound the sound. The music took on a poignant, melancholy aspect. The Konus Quartett reproduced their clear, pure tones beautifully.

The series ended with a world premiere, Lutra for solo cello, by Martin Arnold. I’ve drawn comparisons with Morton Feldman’s music before so I’ll add another here: the elevation of instrumental timbre as a compositional element, coupled with the determined restriction of that instrument’s sound. As with much of Feldman’s solo cello writing, Lutra remains constricted to harmonics and the highest registers throughout, without any of the instrument’s famous sonorous qualities. A long aria for countertenor, unaccompanied save by the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze humming (intentionally) for several passages. Taking sound at its most frail and revealing how it can endure.

The series began with a set of what were apparently largely improvised duets by Isaiah Ceccarelli and Katelyn Clark. Clark played organetto while Ceccarelli played percussion, a small keyboard or, unexpectedly, sang. Two such duets open and close his album Bow, while the rest of the disc contains compositions for string quartet and trio and two more semi-improvised duets, for violin and percussion. All of them share a strangely rustic aspect, with gently rocking, slightly ragged harmonies that, on occasion, give way to brief lyrical exclamations of utmost restraint. The subdued and homespun atmosphere kept reminding me of the British avant-garde in the early 1970s and, in a similar way, these deceptively simple pieces are staring to grow on me.

As a fan of James Tenney and Ben Johnston I was eager to hear more of Marc Sabat’s music. The two string quartets on Sabat’s CD, simply titled Harmony, share a soundworld closer to Tenney’s music for string ensembles, while combining both composers’ interest in making music for tuning systems outside of conventional Western equal temperament. The JACK Quartet gives nicely studied readings of 2012’s Jean-Philippe Rameau, in which Sabat uses just intonation to add a subtle torsion to an unbroken chain of chords, and the earlier, austere duet for violin and cello Claudius Ptolemy. In the latter work, sustained, isolated sounds brush up against each other like a piece by Webern in slow motion.

The other quartet, Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, is a longer and more varied work with occasional passages of more hurried activity. The tuning is based upon applying Euler‘s concept of the Tonnetz to pure harmonic intervals, without the need to restrict them to a palette of 12 fixed tones. The phrasing and some of the harmonies used are often reminiscent of Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, with added piquancy from the microtonal shifts in intonation. At Oto, members of Apartment House played a 2015 work, Gioseffo Zarlino, where Philip Thomas joined in on piano to make an oddly charming combination of tempered and untempered sounds. The night before, Thomas’ solo set included two more of Sabat’s works. Without having to wonder about tuning theory, Nocturne and Ich fahre nach Köln allowed me to admire the way Sabat could get lopsided figures to loop and intertwine without sounding congested, like an irreverent Scelsi, relieved of a spiritual burden.

The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre: Smith, Arnold, Szlavincs

Monday 1 May 2017

In its own quiet way, this is one of the major events I’ve been looking forward to in 2017. Over the past year or so I haven’t been alone in noticing how much of the freshest, most intriguing and affecting music has been coming from Canadian composers. This week, there are three nights of music this week focusing on new music by these composers and more at Cafe Oto. The gigs are to launch the first five releases in a ten-disc Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre. I’ve had all five on heavy rotation at home the last few days and will need to write more about them during/after hearing the live shows.

The double CD of works by Linda Catlin Smith, Drifter, opens with a duet for viola and vibraphone. Cantilena‘s instrumentation recalls the magnificent 70-minute violin and percussion Dirt Road Another Timbre put out last year and is a brighter, briefer work with fewer complications to mull over. Any suspicion that the album would offer diminishing returns are evaporated by the 2014 Piano Quintet and Drifter itself, another odd pairing of instruments, guitar and piano.

The Quintet presents a hothouse atmosphere of lyrical flourishes in the strings, framed by restive, unresolved harmonies in the piano. It’s like a passage from romantic European chamber music at its ripest, held in suspense, their details enhanced while their function is diminished. When the strings finally break into sustained drones against the piano, it serves only to maintain the cool tension already achieved. In Drifter, the two instruments play in turn, the guitar as an echo of the piano, the same chords but transformed by the change in timbre and decay, surprising the unsuspecting listener with the way the harmonic material appears to be subtly transformed. Eventually, each takes turns in leading on the other, or playing in unison, an unhurried interplay of two partners sounding out each others’ qualities.

Over ten pieces, Apartment House and Quatuor Bozzini present Smith as a composer capable of finding great diversity of expression within a single, coherent compositional voice that focuses on depth more than breadth. Suggestions and traces of other music styles are recalled, but never in pastiche. Those string arpeggios in the Piano Quintet relate equally to folk playing as to a salon. The clearly delineated phrases of the Ricercar for solo cello are modelled on Baroque music but do not imitate. Unexpected shifts in mood come in the strange processional Moi Qui Tremblais and in the final string quartet, Folkestone, a cycle of introspective fragments in fragile diminuendo.

A small book of interviews has been published together with the CDs. From what I’ve skimmed so far, some common themes emerge between composers: the isolation, allowing them to work in blissful ignorance of more common theoretical hang-ups occupying colleagues’ minds in the US or Europe, is spoken of approvingly more than once. There’s also a repeated referral to the legacy of John Cage, particularly via Morton Feldman. Previous generations who might have claimed such an influence would frequently be stridently avant-garde, often more in style than in substance. While never sounding derivative, distinct traits can be observed that show a firm understanding of Feldman’s music. Ambivalence of mood, the embrace of traditional harmony while simultaneously rejecting its traditional structural function. The allowance of stasis, a musical ‘surface’ of sustained dynamics, typically tending towards the quiet. A careful consideration of instruments’ attributes, enabling otherwise unusual combinations of instruments to be heard in new ways, in contrast or in complement.

Another echo of Feldman can be heard in Martin Arnold’s album, The Spit Veleta. The three works on this disc comprise a sort of extended suite. In each of them, the music continues in a slow and seemingly aimless way, yet always with a faint suggestion of a waltz. There’s always the sense of something a little faded, diffuse, of what might have once been a more rigid order. If the music that is left is more elusive, then it is at once more free yet more sophisticated. In Points & Walzes for solo piano and then in Slip Minuet for solo violin, each with titles referring to dances in triple rhythm, the musician (Philip Thomas and Mira Benjamin, respectively) circles elegantly, if a little erratically. The two combine on the final, title work.

In each piece, a change occurs halfway through. The delicate counterpoint of Points & Walzes gives way to a relentless tessitura of chords in the piano’s lower register. Slip Minuet suddenly turns to pizzicato, articulating a downbeat to a dance otherwise inaudible. There is more silence than sound, yet the underlying shape of the music is still clearly perceptible. It sounds like the violinist is accompanying a tune heard only in her head. In The Spit Veleta, the duo build a slow, complex rhythm of intertwining dances, before freezing, erasing almost all memory of the music with a succession of soft chords and dyads, played simultaneously. The piano sound decays, revealing the violin’s sustained tone underneath, a faint colouration of the silence suspended between one isolated chord and the next.

There’s a beautiful poignancy and melancholy in these pieces, found in the way that Arnold allows the matter of his music to be reduced to the most spare and etiolated state without ever suggesting that the music is withholding anything from the listener. For what could easily be considered as studies in decay, there is a welcome lack of postmodern didacticism. In fact, it reminded me more of modernist thinking. I’ve referred before to Guy Davenport’s quote that completing an image “involves a stupidity of perception“. Hugh Kenner observed that in the twentieth century, Westerners learned to interpret fragments outside of their original settings, gathering meaning from non-consecutive arrays. As Ezra Pound wrote, “Points define a periphery.” Perhaps in the respect these Canadians’ sensibility is like my own Australian one: as colonial cultures, we can accept ruins as what they are, not just what they once were.

This post is already too long and I want to write about Marc Sabat and Isaiah Ceccarelli after I’ve heard them live at Oto. Right now I need to mention Chiyoko Szlavnics’ remarkable During a Lifetime. Szlavnics pits live acoustic musicians against pure sine tones; a combination well-known for its use by Alvin Lucier, Warren Burt and others. While those latter composers typically exploit the small differences in intonation between acoustic pitches and pure tones, Szlavnics works with the same deceptively simple combinations to very different ends. During a Lifetime is for saxophone quartet and electronic tones, but for much of the piece sounds like neither. A large, complex multiphonic sound swells, pulses, grows rough and then smooth again as variances in tone between the instruments modulate each other as much as the sine waves do. The electronics merge and disappear, then emerge again as one of the voices in the ensemble. This played by the Konus Ensemble, who do an exceptional job of balancing clear tones against some subtle, raspier edges. I heard these guys’ superb performance of Jürg Frey’s Memoire, Horizon at Huddersfield a couple of years ago, and they’re playing both pieces at Oto on Thursday.

Format Trouble: Line Gate v Claudio Parodi

Thursday 27 April 2017

Spent the last month making music, listening to it, making notes but not wanting to expand on them until now.

All the music in my collection is ripped to digital audio files and saved on an external hard drive and tagged with meta-data. A freeware media player sorts these files into automatic playlists according to filters I’ve set for the meta-data. Everything I have can be instantly found in the one place.

Meanwhile, mappa have released another cassette in a wooden box. End of last year they put out the very severe Orienting Response by Sarah Hennies. This new release is a bit gentler toward the listener, but it still comes with an edge. The album is a single, 40-minute track titled Den by Line Gate – a Slovakian group, here manifested as a duo of violin and hurdy-gurdy with additional touches here and there.

At first, for a long time, it feels as if we’ll be in for a Manfred Werder type of experience, until things finally, literally, cough into life. What follows is a slow but sure improvisation of drones that evolve and grow, expanding the sound by focusing on what they are and what they could become. After the frangible start, the music steadily acquires momentum and presence without ever becoming overbearing. Incidents along the way are well-judged, throwing the listener into a pleasant doubt without worrying about getting blue-balled by gimmickry.

Den is a worthy extension of the “deep listening” tradition and in fact is very reminiscent of some of Pauline Oliveros’ music. Presumably the beginning is part of that meditative aspect behind the playing, allowing the sound to naturally emerge from the performers’ silence. The notes talk about variations in “the listener’s awareness and the wakefulness of the performer himself” but listeners attuned to La Monte Young (or Oliveros) will probably stay attentive throughout. The main caveat is if you’ve had enough of that type of sonic meditation, then this probably won’t say anything new to you.

The latest release by Claudio Parodi comes in a CD, again, literally. Right Error is distributed as a USB stick embedded in a CD with a circuit board printed onto it. There’s no case on the stick so I was a bit worried about grabbing on to insert and remove the device from my computer. The stick holds printouts and three different mixes of the music (stereo, binaural, quadrophonic). I have to make do with regular stereo.

It’s a very elaborate package for very austere music. An unexpected burst of line noise is stretched out over 40 minutes, with incisions of silence and shifts in spatial location. The work is divided into five parts and for the first part it holds interest as a dedicated listening experience. It seems at first as though the bursts of noise have been processed further, the harmonic spectrum expanding and contracting, but it appears that is not the case. The spatial shifts add a dimension of variability to the noise dynamics, a sort of counterpoint. Forty minutes, however, feels much too long, especially as the sound evens out to undifferentiated static, often dipping below usual audibility. The piece was originally made for 8-channel surround sound and might work well as an installation. At home, it’s a piece overly reliant on its concept and the last half-hour never recovers the initial interest it has lost. If anyone has quad sound it may work better, but I doubt a binaural hearing would be any fun.

Seeing, Hearing (2)

Tuesday 28 March 2017

To a shipboard acquaintance who thought the White Cliffs of Dover scarcely real, Eliot once replied, “Oh, they’re real enough,” a statement to which four meanings may be attached according as each of the four words in turn is stressed.

— Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era

rausch_white01a

There was a white painting in the Rauschenberg show at the Tate. I’d forgotten they were modular, made of multiple canvases. Stupid of me: the connections to Cage’s 4’33” became more obvious, both as music and as the second version of Cage’s score for the piece. Seeing, for the first time, those canvases placed side by side it struck me how much they had a presence as objects, not just surfaces. They looked pristine, untouched by time. Were they new? The card on the wall said just “Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. On short term loan.”

Among the most radical aspects of the series is that these works were conceived as remakeable: Rauschenberg viewed them primarily as a concept and allowed for the physical artworks to be repainted and even refabricated from scratch without his direct involvement. Many of Rauschenberg’s friends and studio assistants… either repainted or fully refabricated various White Paintings at different points in the series’ history. Although such efforts were often undertaken to maintain the pristine surfaces considered essential to these works, refabrication was sometimes necessary because Rauschenberg had reused the original canvases as supports for new paintings and Combines.

Like a Duchamp readymade, we can look at a replica and not care about authenticity. Is it possible to remake a piece of music? (Two rooms over in the Tate, Factum I and Factum II hung side by side.) What makes music a form of art, if it is art at all? What does it share with other art-forms, that move them beyond considerations of craft?

Seeing, Hearing (1)

Monday 27 March 2017

Lovely weather on the weekend so I went down to the Thames and finally went to see the Rauschenberg exhibition at Tate Modern. In that first room, the early Fifties, John Cage is pervasive. The next rooms, the combines, the silkscreens, I wonder what I’m looking at. You look at them and you get the overall image but it’s the objects that dominate your vision and your memory, whether in three or two dimensions. The goat, the tyre, JFK, an astronaut, a suitcase on a rope. And around it is painting, the painted gestures. Do we see the painting, or are they holding the objects in place?

Like in representational painting, there’s a hierarchy of perception, but here it’s not clear what is figure and what is ground. Are the objects acting on the viewer in the way that T. S. Eliot wanted the meaning of his poems to act on the reader, keeping the mind diverted and quiet while the art does its real work? Or is it just me, like when I’m waiting for that bit in the middle of Stockhausen’s Kontakte or the Beckett quotes in Berio’s Sinfonia? There are times when I’ve composed music and the material, all the harmony and voice-leading and inner structure and whatever, all become a vast supporting framework for a particular surface effect in the instrumental timbre or registration upon which the whole piece lives or dies.

I’m thinking again about Feldman’s use of what he called “patterns” in his late work, motifs he used and re-used as transparent vehicles for the instruments to project their sound without undue interference. The objects and their containing images merge. Then I’m back in that first Rauschenberg room at the Tate, where object and image are indivisible: the black painting, the white painting, the erased De Kooning, the tyre print. That integrity appeals to me the most, but I suspect grappling with messier realities is more necessary.

Last Week at Silver Road

Thursday 2 March 2017

Sadly, Silver Road is no more. Last Thursday’s gig was one of the last. At least it went out with a bang. I got a few photos inside the performance space while setting up for the show.

I played another live set of pieces from Chain of Ponds. Recordings couldn’t do justice to the reverberant sound inside the tank, but you can hear some of the music on Bandcamp, or just here:

One of those wonderful moments where nobody knows what’s going on

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Went to the latest Kammer Klang gig a couple of weeks ago. It was recorded by the BBC and is on their website for the next month. Which is good, because I need to hear it again.

For me, the big event of the night was two world premieres by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller. I’ve heard only a few pieces by her – including a dizzying performance of her choral piece Guide by Exaudi last year – and liked it all a lot. There are times when you discover an artist and you need to hear more; more of that good thing that won you in the first place. Then there are artists whose work you find yourself exploring like an unknown island, kept in suspense over what you might encounter next.

In Tracery: Hardanger, singer Juliet Fraser sang against a recording of herself, doubling and approximating microtonal drones, one breath at a time. If there was a process, it seemed to be part of a meditative rite. This was followed by 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.

New Gig, New Album (+ free offer)

Monday 20 February 2017

It’s a busy week. Just got notice of a gig I’m playing this Thursday, at Silver Road in Lewisham. This is a great new venue inside a disused water tank; unfortunately it’s about to close as the developers have moved in earlier than expected.

I’ll be playing live versions of pieces from Chain of Ponds, so this is a chance for London people to hear what I was doing at the Inland concerts in Australia last year. Thursday 23 February, 1 Silver Road Lewisham SE13 7BQ. With Adam Christensen and Animal Choir. Doors 7.30pm, £5 on the door.

I’ve also uploaded another album to Bandcamp; it’s called Haunted Comma. It’s an older piece but I still like it. I tuned four sine waves to a major seventh chord and then let them slowly slide into increasingly rarefied mutations of Pythagorean intonation. It’s currently available as a free download for early birds or until I remember to update the Bandcamp page.

Belated footnote re Giuliano d’Angiolini

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Something I forgot to mention when discussing the recent CDs of music by Dante Boon and Giuliano d’Angiolini. In his interview on the Another Timbre site, d’Angiolini says “I do have a great admiration for the work of Feldman, and in particular David Tudor, a great composer who is unjustly forgotten today.” He later adds that “I’m not as wise as Tudor, who disappeared without leaving a trace, like a light breeze on a summer afternoon.” There’s a text in which he writes “I like consonance and also dissonance if it does not derive from an excess of organization, of will. Thus that of David Tudor, which is free.”

I love that he’d found this connection from Tudor’s work as a composer – purely electronic, loud, frequently described as harsh – to his own gentle music for flute, piano and string quartet. So often music wears its influences in ways that are too obvious, imitative or derivative, when compared to visual arts. I’m thinking of that Feldman anecdote: “I once went to the Metropolitan with Mark Rothko, and we’d look at a Rembrandt painting and the way Rembrandt bleeds to the edges. Take a look at Rothko, the way he bleeds to the edges.” When I make music, I wonder about how much I’m really working with what I’ve been given, as a heritage. I had to look up that anecdote so now I’m reading Feldman again speculating on whether music really is an art form. It seems to be connected to this point, of how influence may manifest itself. He’s talking about composers, “what Cage was involved with was what everybody in the mainstream was involved with: variation, finding ways of variation.” “The tragedy of music,” he also says, quoting himself, “is that it begins in perfection.”

New music that stays new

Monday 23 January 2017

I need to talk about some recent releases on Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre label because I’ve got a small stack of them here and still more are due to come out in February already. There are over a hundred of these things now, all sharing a distinct aesthetic and sensibility while still exploring fresh terrain – last year’s albums of Jürg Frey’s guitar music and Linda Catlin Smith’s Dirt Road are good examples of this fresh growth. The music ranges from composed to improvised, and sometimes from somewhere in between, with composers and musicians from Britain and abroad, both familiar and new.

The hundredth CD has a little bit of everything. Seaside was recorded over two days at the pianist John Tilbury’s house, with the Palestinian oud player Dirar Kalash and composer John Lely on electronics. Group improvisations alternate with solo works by Lely and Christian Wolff. Instead of piano, Tilbury plays the clavichord; a very quiet instrument which is played unamplified throughout these recordings. Besides its delicacy, the sound is strange and exotic, aided by Tilbury making use of pitch bends and unusual intonations. The solo adaptations of two cyclical pieces Wolff wrote for Tilbury back in 1969-70 have a crystalline beauty. Kalash’s oud blends well with the clavichord, while Lely’s electronics are so discreet as to merge with the ambient sounds in and around the house. The group pieces effectively capture a moment, a place, but are less satisfying as coherent musical works. To my ears, at least; I have a problem with improvisation in general. My patience is tested.

I’m more comfortable talking about the two discs dedicated to composers, Dante Boon and Giuliano d’Angiolini. It’s fascinating to compare the two albums, particularly as each composer talks about their use of indeterminate means of organising their music. Both cite the influence of the “New York School” of composers who introduced indeterminacy to their music in the 1950s, with both of them placing particular emphasis on John Cage’s last compositions in the 1980s and early 1990s. The disruptive anarchy of the Fifties and Sixties avant-garde didn’t die away; a tradition emerged and evolved from it. It was largely unnoticed in the world of Serious Music, preoccupied as it was with certainties, whether proffered by Pierre Boulez or Philip Glass.

Cage found a peace between his philosophy and overtly “beautiful” music. Some twenty years later, Boon has assimilated Cage’s ideas well enough to be confident of using them for what he describes as “classical, romantic European art”. His album Clarinet (& Piano) features Jürg Frey as the soloist on all three works (Boon accompanies on piano on two). I’ve mentioned before how, as a composer, Frey has transcended the philosophical purity of his earlier Wandelweiser pieces to make music that more directly affects senses and sentiment without pandering to the listener. This trait becomes clear in his playing of music by others, too (and Boon discusses in more detail on the CD’s website). Boon’s music floats in that ambiguous realm of mood inhabited by Morton Feldman’s late music and similar works at the more introspective end of minimal music. The indeterminate composition makes both musicians work together, outside of externally imposed measures of time. Like late Cage, it’s simultaneously looser (as in more open to potential disruption, less claustrophobic) yet more impersonal (as in the way that nature is impersonal). It shows those works from the late 1980s were not an endpoint.

Giuliano d’Angiolini also speaks of his admiration for Cage and Feldman, and laments that indeterminacy “has been to some extent pushed to the margins, ignored or misunderstood. Too often art is artificial, and too often the artist tries to surprise us or force an emotion upon us. Indeterminacy or chance put a brake on our will.” His CD Cantilena presents works for piano, string quartet, mixed ensemble and multi-tracked flutes. d’Angiolini describes the pieces as “simple compositional machines” but the simplicity of the materials (gamuts of notes, scales) and transparency of the few rules used to perform them yield a restrained lyricism that flows through the entire disc. The slow-motion single notes of the piano piece Finale contrast with the succession of frail chords in the highest register in Allegretto 94.6. The string quartet (suoni della neve e del gelo) employs Cage’s flexible time-brackets to create a distinctive piece of short phrases and isolated sounds.

With both of these composers there’s an emphasis on producing subtle music from the simplest material, organised by simple methods to produce combinations that are complex – in affect if not in surface texture. Great reliance is placed on the performers to interpret the notation, but not in ways that requires subjective inspiration. In all this they show a lot in common with the musical thinking of Christian Wolff – another former footnote to critics of Serious Music who has recently re-emerged as a guiding spirit in the present time.

Brief footnote re Julius Eastman

Thursday 22 December 2016

Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post titled The mystery of Julius Eastman’s Creation:

When a forgotten talent is rediscovered, it’s sobering to realise how little time it takes for the biographical details of an artist to become as elusive and conjectural as those of a Jacobean playwright.

The fate of the composer Julius Eastman, not yet twenty years dead, is an extreme but illustrative example. Mary Jane Leach has been on a quest for ten years to gather up whatever scattered fragments of his work have survived. Devoid of context, the stray odds and ends can be frustratingly hard to fit into place.

The post went on to discuss how I’d found online a 1973 recording of a piece attributed to Eastman, titled Creation. The piece was dated 1954; if this was correct, Eastman would have been 14 when he wrote it. I could find no other reference on the web to this piece’s existence, other than a 1974 radio guide mentioning the same recording. Leach’s site dedicated to Eastman didn’t list it amongst his known works. Was the piece I’d heard really by Eastman? Had it been mistitled? Was it really from 1954?

Leach’s site has been frequently updated since then and Creation is listed, with a description matching the recording and appropriately dated 1973. A mere seven years ago I would have to have sought out and gained access to every dusty archive in London, searching for evidence of an old Belgian radio broadcast, and even then I probably wouldn’t have been able to verify that this piece even existed.

(In that 2009 post, see the comment left by Daniel Wolf. The process of piecing together the fragments goes on.)

The Presence of Julius Eastman

Tuesday 20 December 2016

For four years now, the London Contemporary Music Festival have put together the most exciting new music events in town. After last year’s eclectic extravaganza, LCMF 2016 was tightly focused and all the more revelatory for it. Three nights in another new venue (with a surprisingly good sound) dedicated to the work of Julius Eastman.

Eastman died in 1990, in almost total obscurity. Since the turn of the century, Mary Jane Leach has led a quest to rediscover, salvage and revive what remains of his music. Most Eastman fans probably first heard of him through the 3-CD set that resulted from this hunt for recordings, released ten years ago. The recovery process still goes on today: this year Frozen Reeds issued a tape of the large-scale work Femenine that had laid dormant for 40 years. These recordings reclaimed a lost strand of minimal music that was never fully pursued; a unique, vital voice in a style of composition that had seemed exhausted.

Over the last weekend, it became abundantly clear that these records were just scratching the surface, both in what listeners know about Eastman’s music and in how much more there is still to be revealed in his “classics”. Six pieces by Eastman were played, one of them a world premiere. That 1984 piece, Hail Mary for voice and piano, is still not mentioned on Leach’s list of known works. For a bit of perspective, Leach’s essay from 2004 mentions that she has obtained copies of scores for only two and a half works.

The rediscovered recordings have obtained something of an aura, of essential documents from a lost moment in time. The LCMF gigs refuted that idea and firmly established Eastman as a composer in a living history of music-making. Performed live by understanding, talented musicians, the pieces took on a life of their own, with greater emotional depth and pure sensory delight than can be found in the old tapes. This was most clear in the ensemble works. Apartment House’s Femenine benefited from greater accuracy and confidence, which allowed its increasingly outrageous digressions to hit the audience with an almost overwhelming force. Stay On It finally, actually sounded like a kindred work to the jazz and R&B Eastman spoke of. Other versions I’ve heard sound like a classic minimal composition derailed by an awkwardly sectional structure. At LCMF it really did start to heave and glide from one idea to another, subverting its lock-groove origins and risking anarchy, knowing it’s more fun to hang with Sun Ra than Steve Reich.

As the pianist Philip Thomas mentioned afterwards, “Julius Eastman’s music is music to be performed, heard, experienced and understood via the particular energies of live performance…. Nothing much to hold on to but everything to play with. So much revealed in the playing.” Special mention needs to go to vocalist Elaine Mitchener, whose free-form improvisation over Stay On It set the tone and led the work into new territory.

Mitchener’s voice also added a raw, disquieting edge to the otherwise hushed and restrained later works, Hail Mary and Buddha. The two pieces are almost unknown and I’d like to hear them again to appreciate their subtleties. The works for multiple pianos (here played as two pianos eight hands), Evil Nigger and Gay Guerilla, were played with a brilliant clarity. The seemingly straightforward process behind each one took on twists and turns, at once angry, elegiac, triumphant and defiant. The unexpected ways that Evil Nigger subsides into stillness and Gay Guerilla seems to endlessly rise are both glorious and disturbing.

Other composers featured at these gigs were Arthur Russell and Frederic Rzewski. Russell and Eastman were collaborators and kindred spirits of sorts, both outsiders to “serious” (i.e. unengaged) music. Russell’s almost inaccessible Tower of Meaning received an all-too-rare airing, in a special chamber arrangement. Its otherworldly blankness points equally to medieval music, Satie’s Socrate and Cage’s Cheap Imitation of it, as well as much “naive” music of the late 20th Century.

The entire programme opened with Rzewski’s Coming Together; a key work in understanding Eastman’s musical approach – of minimal rhythms, harmonies and repetitions as a framework for looser improvisation – and his engagement with politics, revolution and their conflicts with his sexuality. These themes were pursued further on the second night when Rzewski himself performed his own De Profundis, a setting of Oscar Wilde’s text for reciting pianist. This was the other highlight of the Festival. Rzewski, now 78, may have faltered on occasion but his voice, playing and percussive gestures (including rapping on the piano lid, scratching himself, beating his skull with his fist) all spoke with an unmatched directness and clarity. It was a gripping performance, letting the words drive the music and the music serve the words.

More from the guitar: Sarah Hennies, d’incise, Cristián Alvear, Clara de Asís

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Earlier in the year I raved about Cristián Alvear’s album of Jürg Frey’s music for guitar. I’ve now been sent two new recordings by Alvear, again both for solo guitar. On the Frey album, I noticed Alvear’s intense concentration and colouration he brings to the sound of unamplified, classical guitar. These two new releases intensify that effect even further.

Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) is a 40-minute work for guitar by the Swiss composer d’incise. Like the Frey album, this has also been released on Another Timbre. It’s a curious piece, simultaneously very loose and tightly constrained. In his interview on the Another Timbre site d’incise mentions his unfamiliarity with the instrument. The score calls for the instrument’s sound to be modified in some way, yet also puts the onus on the performer to become familiar with recordings of other music: Machaut, various folk musics, Neil Young. Any resemblance to this music in the composition is detectable only from a highly distilled understanding of technique. The guitarist works through a series of small, closely-observed effects. The material is carefully limited and how it is used is left open to some interpretation. It’s casually thorough in its exploration of intonation, tone colour and external affects, in the way that Morton Feldman’s music is in exploring the space between semitones.

There’s a second recording of this piece, available as a free download through Insub. Clara de Asís plays Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) on an electric guitar. Both versions are clearly the same piece, with similar overall shape and disposition of material. When examined more closely, comparison of the two reveals striking differences, followed by unexpected similarities. Asís plays with sensitivity and imagination equal to Alvear, each finding ways to evoke sounds from their respective instruments that are obviously different in origin yet still clearly alike in their understanding of the music. As an example, Asís’ version ends with the quietest gestures set in a thin halo of feedback hum. Alvear ends in an equally muted way, allowing the acoustic instrument’s natural resonance to come to the foreground. If you like the Asís version, you’ll want to hear how Alvear interprets it, too.

The Mappa label “from a God‑forsaken place on south of Slovakia” has released another Cristián Alvear recording, of Sarah Hennies’ Orienting Response. This is another 40-minute solo workout, written for Alvear. It’s available as a download or, for some reason, a cassette in a wooden box. I don’t get the thing with cassettes these days, it seems so conspicuously materialistic. I’m sure being Slovakian isn’t an excuse.

The cassette format does mean, however, that you get two 42-minute performances of the one piece. It took me a while to work this out. It also took me a couple of listens to figure out that the piece was for solo acoustic guitar (I’d somehow got into my head it was a duo with harp) and the guitar was unmodified (I was getting confused with the d’incise). It was obviously thus my own fault for not being too impressed after the first listen: an unconnected sequence of dry, repetitious exercises. After correcting my mistakes and realising that I’d been hearing things that weren’t actually in the recording, I knew it needed to be listened to more closely.

In her notes, Hennies mentions attempting “the same kind of focus and intensity I have created with percussion instruments using an instrument (the nylon stringed guitar) that is naturally not well-equipped to produce the type of timbres or high dynamic levels that I have worked with up to this point.” Each of the six sections specifies a rigorous playing technique: “Play as accurately and consistently as possible but with the assumption that “mistakes” are inevitable.” Alvear’s eminently well-suited for this challenge; it makes the Frey and d’incise seem fanciful.

Strange paradox at work here: you’d expect that the better you are at playing it, the less interesting it would get. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The substance of the piece is sufficiently stark that otherwise negligible differences become the subject of the music, much in the way that some of Alvin Lucier’s pieces work. The two performances here, seemingly identical at first, are in fact very close but quite distinct in detail and structural proportions. The score notes that “all timings and tempi are approximate and flexible”; I’m wondering how Alvear achieved this in performance.

Chain Of Ponds, Live. (+ new mp3)

Monday 12 December 2016

I want to thank Alexander Garsden and everyone involved in the Inland concert series in Australia. I had a great time, all the other musicians were cooler than me and they showed me you can still have late night fun in Melbourne if not in Sydney.

I’ve only just listened to the recordings from both shows now and my sets went about as well as I remembered. Performing live music from a laptop, without using the monitor screen, was a success and the pieces took on a life of their own when played in a way that allowed unexpected aspects of the sound to creep in.

I played three pieces from Chain Of Ponds, adapted for live performance. An album of studio performances is available on Bandcamp, but for these Australian gigs I decided to include new versions of some pieces that haven’t previously gone public.

I’ve uploaded a piece from the Melbourne gig – you should be able to stream or download it.

Chain Of Ponds: Thirteenth Pond (18 April 2015, take 1)