Gabriel Vicéns: Mural

Friday 12 April 2024

Gabriel Vicéns is a new name to me, despite not being the first record he has out. A quick look through his back catalogue explains why: originating from Puerto Rico, now based in New York, his reputation is that of guitarist and composer of Latin-influenced jazz. I may as well be deaf when it comes to jazz, but I didn’t detect any disturbing traces of it when listening to Mural, his new release of chamber compositions on the Italian Stradivarius label. I only made the discovery after playing Mural several times over, blissfully unaware of his dark secret. Even now, the idea of it is like being told that Jo Kondo used to play prog.

In the seven pieces heard here Vicéns takes an abstract approach, laying his materials out according to some superimposed logic whose effects can be heard while the motivation remains obscure. Those materials are rarefied but playful, falling into grids of loping, off-beat rhythms or suddenly breaking away to chase their own tails. (The Kondo analogy was not arbitrary.) Trad genres like piano trio, wind quintet and Pierrot ensemble get pressed into service of counterintuitive structures. The trio Sueños Ligados is all staccato phrasing, each instrument rudely cut off no sooner than they have begun, before shifting scene to a cycling chorale of undulating chords disturbed by dissonant interjections. Vicéns often holds off his instruments for as long as possible, as on the opening title work, where piano spends several minutes toying with a reiterated pedal tone before clarinet and violin add commentary and timbral colour to the slightly prickly harmonization. The sleeve notes mention 12-tone composition at work here, but Vicéns takes chromatic dissonances and will repeat them rather than resolve them, implying the stability of repetitive music without any of the comfort that it typically affords, while cloaking less palatable melodies with the sly insinuation of a deferred payoff. It’s a mischievous pleasure.

The crack team of NYC players assembled here give studious attention to the comedic implications of the pedantic tread underpinning many of the works, while never making heavy weather of it or smoothing off the sharp edges to make something quirky. They present Vicéns with a cool facade as he alternately charms or worries the listener. The Pierrot work El Matorral begins with an ominous piano ostinato that soon falters and then loses momentum entirely, leaving the ensemble to make awkward attempts at initiating dialogue to fill up the void. Silence plays a part in all the pieces here, most notably the violin/piano duet Carnal, where small snatches of sonata-like playing escape in fleeting bursts. Everything here is clearly the work of the same composer, though that distinctive quality is hard to succinctly define. The discontinuities hint at a highly refined cartoon-music technique at work, which may be where the jazz seeps in, but the most rewarding thing about this collection is the way Vicéns never stoops to trying something popular, even as he surrounds himself with tempting opportunities.

Christian Mason: Time – Space – Sound – Light

Thursday 11 April 2024

I’ve occasionally mentioned the Octandre Ensemble – particularly their advocacy of Frank Denyer, like last month – but not the music composed by their co-director, Christian Mason. Time – Space – Sound – Light is a new disc/download from Winter & Winter dedicated to Mason’s works for chamber groups with members of Octandre. Recorded in a Bavarian villa last summer, the set of works presented here recreates a potted version of a concert given in the same venue several years earlier. The sequencing of works is ideal, unfolding and then contracting as an extended suite. The attributes listed in the album title informs the understanding of Mason’s music, with its clean presentation of direct and associative qualities working in a close relationship. The set begins curiously but vividly with A kingfisher dives into the sun…, a strongly evocative pastoral recording of birds and insects on a summer’s day without any perceptible artifice. The following piano piece … just as the sun is always… sustains the feeling of open space with long, resonant pauses between its chiming chords. You can pick out resemblances and possible influences, particularly of European composers with interests in Asian music and thought – Messiaen’s bell-like harmonies, Scelsi’s unhurried pacing, Vivier’s sense for ritual – while still finding Mason has his own perspective on these traits which makes his voice identifiably unique. The use of piccolo and percussion in the ensemble work I wandered for a while… is the closest he gets here to anything resembling high-brow exotica, offset by the return of the bird sounds and electronic processing to extend the acoustic space. Cello, flute, piano and bells are the predominant instruments throughout the album. Mason’s talent for making sparing use of sound to maximum effect is heard in wandered and the succeeding Remembered Radiance, where cello, bells, piano and harmonica (without electronics) slowly build intense heat with increasingly stark timbres. Cellist Corentin Chassard gives a forceful soliloquy in the solo work Incandescence, emerging from silence with increasingly esoteric harmonics enriching the tonality and coloration as he drives towards the conclusion. Two shorter works conclude the set: Heaven’s Chimes are Slow is a relatively compressed and agitated duet for flute and piano (on all works the flautist is Audrey Milhères, with Joseph Houston on piano), before Chassard returns with a retuned cello for Bird learning to fly, transforming the instrument with a ghostly accompaniment of buzzing and distempered multiphonics before coming to a sudden stop.

Ostrava Days 2023 Live

Sunday 7 April 2024

The Ostrava Days Festival began the new year with a compilation of highlights from their 2023 season, available in a few permutations (the CD version captures only a quarter of the downloadable material and you miss a lot of the best stuff). The download collection focuses on orchestral and larger ensemble works, most of them premieres. It’s tragic but appropriate that the first album begins with the first performance of the late Phill Niblock’s High Noon, given last September by ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra under Petr Kotík’s direction. Hearing one of Niblock’s dense sonic monads executed by a mass of acoustic instruments instead of his usual electronic drones is a powerful experience, with ONO retaining the expected level of intensity to achieve the complex but single-minded nature of Niblock’s music. I hope to hear this live one day. Also present is Christian Wolff, with the premiere of his For 38 Players by Kotík leading Ostravská banda this time. Wolff exploits the instrumentation to produce a particularly lively and colourful work, with the playful inquisitiveness of his discontinuous aesthetic at the forefront. Kotík’s own Outline / Fragment II retains a discernible foundation of his radical steady-state compositions from the Seventies beneath a more elaborate, if not exactly ornate, surface which raises the question of whether he has matured into a more eloquent mode of expression or just mellowed out and regressed towards conventional concert-hall gestures. We’re closer to a Boulez situation here than Glass or Reich so it’s fair to say the former.

Besides Kotík and Wolff, a couple of other names from recent festivals. Bruno Ferrandis conducts Ostravská banda’s premiere of Petr Bakla’s Diptych, an austere work for twelve string players. Bakla reduces everything here as much as he can, sustaining a monotonal line with a slow pulse, the faintest harmonization and gradations in colouring and dynamics to produce the illusion of motion. There is again a Xenakis piece, which seem to take on the role of a yardstick here amongst all the premieres. This time it’s the tour de force for string orchestra Shaar from 1983, which is always welcome, especially as ONO (conducted by Pavel Šnajdr this time) maintains momentum through the steady rhythm passages without trundling. Amongst the newer voices found here, several others lean into the same “less is more” approach heard in the Bakla piece. Michal Wróblewski’s Rhythms no. 3, Glissando appears to feature neither, except in a very subtle way to produce a precarious weave of light, thin material as played by Ostravská banda. James Falzone’s Neither/Nor II inhabits similar territory, even as Ostravská banda require a conductor (Ferrandis) for this piece, with studious attention to each pitch while sounding scarcely any thicker in texture than the original version scored for a trio of violin, piano and vibes.

There’s not enough of Zygmunt Krauze’s music readily available, so fortunately both download and CD include the premiere of his Rivière souterraine 3, with the composer as soloist on piano and Ostravská banda augmented by electronic sounds. It’s a craftily constructed montage of tableaux in which texture and colour take precedence over small-scale shape, where the details are articulated by what I suspect are sublimated examples of Krauze’s predilection for quotation, or ersatz quotation. In my ignorance I’m imagining that the title is a reference to the scherzo from Berio’s Sinfonia, but I’m not looking it up and the album booklet doesn’t say. The provided booklet doesn’t tell us anything about the music really, except that we dodged a bullet when the theatre piece about American politics documented in several photos was omitted from the album. There’s enough theatrics in František Chaloupka’s Allegory of the Cave II., which sounds like it should also be a piano concerto and almost is, making grotesques out of movie soundtrack tropes while occasionally channeling the earlier works of John Adams; it’s a natural fit but as with all grotesques the proportions of wonderment and disgust in your reaction will be a personal matter. Less forgivable is Ian Davis’s Pale Blue World which has a wan presence in this company, with that apologetic air that wafts through too much modern composition these days. As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert on this subject: for example, I keep mixing up Anne Cleare with Anna Clyne. This conundrum has hopefully been resolved once and for all by Canticum Ostrava’s performance of Cleare’s Earth Waves, a nakedly and defiantly weird piece from 2018 that combines the vocal ensemble with trombone (played here by William Lang) and electronic processing. Cleare relocates the contemplation of natural phenomena away from the limited realm of human experience, where the vast majority of it takes place, affirming its strangeness in relation to us while using the human voice as a means for doing so. The trombone and electronics act as transformative elements, both in altering the voices and in guiding them into extended means of expression. That exploratory, expressionist bent recalls the avant-garde of fifty years ago but tackles the medium with more assurance, aware that the technical and technological crudeness of the time is no longer necessary.

Charles Curtis in residence

Sunday 31 March 2024

At Christ Church Spitalfields in 2011 I witnessed one of the most astounding performances in my life when Charles Curtis played Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak with uncanny flawlessness. So glad I got to hear his cello playing again at Cafe Oto last week, as part of his residency for four nights. There wasn’t the shock of that first time for me, but the marvel of the rarefied music he brings to us remains. For the first gig he played two pieces, Alvin Lucier’s Slices and Tashi Wada’s Landslide – all the pieces I heard were for solo cello with fixed media playback. (Sadly I missed the two middle concerts due to stupid shit). In Slices, the backing is a recording of what sounded like a mix of sampled and synthesised orchestra. It’s a relatively dense and elaborate piece by Lucier’s standards, with cello playing against or responded to by single instruments on the same pitch, accumulating into chords for which the cello then acts like a filter or interference pattern, in the manner which sine tones are used in many of his other pieces. Overtones and ephemeral complex phenomena come and go, but I’ve always liked this piece a little less for its lack of clarity even as it seems to imply a more perceptible premise. There was a shorter version for cello with live orchestra at Tectonics in Glasgow about ten years back where the acoustic intricacies worked more effectively. Landslide uses field recording in duet with cello, sounding like parkland with distant city, a kind of urban bucolic. It seemed familiar because there is, through demographic necessity, a small musical sub-genre of pieces which make use of this soundscape, exploring the idea of public solitude in a populated place. Wada’s depiction of space is blurred and streaked by overtones instigated by Curtis’ light cello drones on a single pitch that steadily rises, creating reverberations as it crosses particular frequencies in the grey noise background. Why does the pitch rise? Because it needs to cover the full range between high and low but doesn’t need to go anywhere in particular.

The final night was taken up by one long work, Terry Jennings’ 1960 composition Piece for Cello and Saxophone. Composed for Jennings to perform with drones played by a cellist (or bassist) for a concert in Yoko Ono’s loft that didn’t eventuate, the piece persisted as a faint, shadowy presence, one of many works that haunted the turning-points of the American avant-garde, lost along with the short, tumultuous lives of their creators. It has since manifested itself as a version for cello with pre-recorded cellos, arranged by La Monte Young and superbly realised by Curtis. As Young was involved, there was a handout for us to read at the gig which shed additional light on the piece’s conception, context and history. Stretching out for nearly ninety minutes, the piece is built out of improvised solos over chord changes, using “raga-like” modes to move from one harmonic region to another. Sustained tones dominate, and Young has rewritten the piece to specify just intonation for all pitches. The work’s origins can be traced to a shared interest in blues and Indian music, although any imitative resemblance is limited to the use of pitch bends reminiscent of sarangi playing. As the live presence, Curtis alternates between melody and drone in a series of exchanges from him to the tape and back again, causing an elaborate interplay between figure and ground, both endless melody and endless chorale. The music was alive throughout, at once in motion and at rest, moving sublimely from one mood to another with calm, self-contained power. A promotional blurb for the gig described the piece as “visionary”, which seems extravagant but also fair: even as almost every aspect of the piece had been transformed between its composition and its performance, the integrity of Jennings’ singular musical thinking still speaks to us today.

Stuck in a loop: Mattin, Valerio Tricoli

Wednesday 27 March 2024

I got sent a digital download of a limited-release cassette of not-bad bedroom collages turning 20th Century composers into Yuppie-friendly repetitive loops that would have knocked my socks off in the mid-80s and still today is, as I said, not-bad despite or perhaps even because it takes a lot less craft to make such a thing these days. Then I lost interest in writing more about it because the artist was a self-described cyber-shaman named Vadge Wanko who said his tape was striking a blow against Thatcher – something like that, anyway; my eyes kept glazing over. The awkward thing is now I’ve got Mattin’s Seize The Means Of Complexity [Xing] on the stereo and I get it, but maybe not in the way he’d like. Just so you know up front, this is a Mattin record you can listen to rather than just think about. It is, of course, still a provocation: side A opens with bursts of appropriated music before quickly lapsing into near-nothingness, much later resuming with a trashpile of pirated pop clips haphazardly stacked up against each other. The flip side starts out as before but is soon infiltrated with flickering, burning noise that steadily consumes everything in its path. The tropes and attitude of pop art at its most scabrous are present and correct, but Mattin’s handling of the material and control of the form keeps its critiques fresh by reifying the old, oft-repeated premise and treating the present-day details with indifference. The paradox at the heart of Seize The Means Of Complexity is that it achieves its power through a philosophical construct that has endured since the dawn of the industrial age, that of the present being a unique moment of existential crisis. His sleeve notes dream of “forging a new form of catholicism fit for the 21st century” allude to the reliance on tradition in this work. Actually, I meant to type “communism” in that quote but I’m not going back to change it because whatever ideology you slot in there reveals the incipient nostalgia at work here.

Dunno why I haven’t written about Valerio Tricoli before so I better start now. His virtuosic handling of open-reel tape recorders as instruments is compelling in a live setting and scarcely less so on record. The nature of the beast insists on repetition within linear time structures, but Tricoli’s mastery overcomes the obvious limitations of the device while harnessing its inherent capacity to imbue even the most discursive gestures with a steady momentum. A Circle of Grey [Xing again] demonstrates this potency through being so undemonstrative, making an extended pieces that simmers with energy even while, sonically, scarcely breaking the surface. Content is sublimated into the medium, keeping each slip, echo and crackle to a strategic minimum, transforming technique into material. He’s going over the same ground as before, but each new expedition reveals a deeper understanding and greater appreciation for the underlying fundamental nature of the exercise. By now, it’s a slow journey with time to discover and admire the smallest details, transcending the origins of the found sounds to produce an analogue electronic landscape, at once lush and austere.

More Traces, Harmonies: Schrey & Olencki, Martin Arnold

Saturday 23 March 2024

It’s composition, but who composed it? William Walker’s The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion is an anthology of American shape note hymns, published in 1835. In 2022, Cleek Schrey and Weston Olencki performed “readings” of selections from this volume on a pair of old wooden pump organs. At first, their interpretation of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion [Pagans] seems straightforward enough. The variegated tones of the organs and extraneous mechanical sounds serve to illuminate the austere exoticism to be found in a colonial vernacular form of serious expression. John Cage became fascinated by the subtleties of this simple, supposedly crude formalism in his study of late 18th Century American music and composed a series of works based on similar hymns. It’s impossible to hear Schrey and Olencki here without recalling Cage’s own organ suite Some of “The Harmony of Maine” (Supply Belcher); but while Cage creates something new through erasure and extension, Schrey and Olencki are apparently retaining all the right notes in the right order. The natural variation in the organs’ sounds are exploited to highlight the overtones produced by the material, as first in inconspicuous ways, before taking a sudden turn in the two renditions at the heart of this collection. Each of these much longer pieces is a lingering meditation on the hymn’s substance, elongating each tone to provoke beating frequencies and ghostly timbres. Schrey and Olencki augment these two versions with sine tones, reed organ and bowed and scraped banjo strings, using the additional sounds as reference points for how much the organ sound has transformed into something strange and uncanny.

A new recording of Martin Arnold’s music is always welcome, even when given in somewhat bittersweet circumstances. Flax [Another Timbre] is a solo piano work for Philip Thomas, drawing inspiration from Thomas’ superb interpretations of Arnold’s music and from his insightful survey of Morton Feldman’s complete works for solo piano. Sadly, ill health has prevented Thomas from performing the piece. The task has since fallen to Kerry Yong, a pianist with an overlapping repertoire and a shared inquisitive approach to new music. Yong’s approach finds the double image that often hovers in the background of Arnold’s music: his compositions are made of the slenderest elements, arranged into a light but self-supporting structure which suggests a more fully-fleshed work that will remain a spectral presence in the listener’s imagination. The music is persistently calm and alert – a connection to the jazz pianists Arnold name-checks when discussing his piece. Yong captures this mood by maintaining a relaxed almost-a-groove, taking his time without losing the pulse, yet always gently interrogating whether this attitude is justified by or at odds with the material. As for the material, Arnold has described Flax as an exploration of the higher registers of the piano, and the piece does pursue the fine line between the delicate and the brittle. When the high notes are absent, the work takes a new turn in demeanour and form. Melodies play out in small fragments like slow riffs, with almost accidental chords and occasional brief chromatic runs, the overall shape remaining unclear yet becoming more distinct as the piece progresses. In this recording, Flax clocks in at seventy-nine minutes, so Yong’s pacing becomes critical. As always, Arnold avoids stasis, preciousness, doesn’t ramble; each small part is essential. Like an experienced story-teller, Yong lets each detail fall into place with confidence that you can piece it together.

Ma, What Are They Givin’ Me? Matthew Shlomowitz, Weston Olencki, Laura Cocks

Sunday 17 March 2024

I swear I’m not warming to Matthew Shlomowitz’s music; it’s just that he jerks me around, which is doubtless part of his intention, and that I’ve been fortunate enough to swing in the right direction more often than not. Having been wowed after a few bad trips by his Explorations in Polytonality and Other Musical Wonders, Volume 1, he’s back with some of the threatened sequels to mess with my expectations again. Pleasingly, it both is and is not more of the same. Explorations in Polytonality and Other Musical Wonders, Volumes 2 and 4 presents two suites for small ensembles which extend the hyperkinetic chromaticism-by-association of the original piano set while adding cultural complications that make listening more precarious. These have been a feature in much of Shlomowitz’s music before now, and haven’t always sat well with the material. In these examples, everything is much better integrated. Volume 2 is scored for the forbidding combination of three recorders, ably played here by the Apsara trio who bolt out of the gate like an overclocked calliope in a dazzling contrapunctal frenzy. The dexterity of Shlomowitz’s writing, matched by Apsara’s precision, is placed at odds with the thickened timbre and rough attack of the instruments. The intonation is thus smudged throughout, calling into question the wisdom in attempting this polytonal exercise in the first place. Six formal studies are tooted at you, topped off by a coda labelled “Afternoon Jazz” that is more po-faced than the preceding movements – one of a number of little jokes that all land successfully this time around, highlighting the wit overall. You’re left in a conflicted position akin to viewing a finely detailed finger-painting, admiring the skill while agonising over the validity of the chosen medium.

Volume 4 features Quartet Laboratoire on a combo of synthesisers and percussion. An exacting but erratic drumkit backs xylophone and vibes with keyboards loaded with the daggiest General MIDI patches – more familiar territory for Shlomowitz but put to better use here, mixing funny and grating in its material and its means. The writing is less stiff than I remember from his earlier electroacoustic works, and the incongruities emerge through more subtle means than simple juxtaposition. The Laboratoire musicians nail down the rapid interplay of tuned percussion with the alacrity of Serious Europeans playing Zappa in a concert-hall, undermined by the electronic squeezebox synth parts that evoke, not so much retro computer gaming, as the received idea that old timey video-game music is crude and thin. While some music builds on the tension between low culture and high, Shlomowitz tweaks his sophisticated musical language by playing off the low against the low that aspires to be high. When you work through all the confusion you finally end up with a bundle of fresh, new confusion. Like I said, he jerks you around, but in a good way. The final movement’s title, “LoFi not to study to”, means what it says.

The title of this album is disingenuous. I mean, yes it’s true that Music for Two Flutes by Weston Olencki and Laura Cocks does indeed contain two flutes and nothing but, played by Olencki and Cocks themselves, but it does not prepare you for what is to come. Remember vuvuzelas? Now that you’ve recovered, I’ll clarify that the buzzing drones of Olencki’s ceòl meadhonach in fact draw on Highland bagpipe music for inspiration. The title is accurately but unhelpfully explained as being a type of music that’s neither classical nor popular – not quite an accurate summary but enough to give you the idea. Using what sounds like a trumpet embouchure for the flute is here employed to produce harmonies in a Gaelic mode, slowed to glacial pace. Halfway through the tone suddenly changes to a muted burble before recapitulating. This radical approach to traditional idioms is carried over in another set of pieces Olencki has made with Cleek Schrey, titled The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, which intend to discuss later this week. Laura Cocks presented the fearless and fearsome recital disc field anatomies a couple of years back, offering some of the most brutal flute music on record. Her composition SLUB pushes her interest in physical limits and the pursuit of extreme and even ugly sounds with elemental directness. The two use their instruments as resonators and filters for an array of partially-voiced mouth noises, alternately squealing, honking, braying, rasping and squelching in a bravura effort to redefine the instrument. Cocks warns that this “reconfiguration” comes with “instabilities”, which is emphatically true. It harks back to a bolder age of experimentation, recalling Kagel’s determination to find a music deprived of cultural and institutional support. Both pieces are monumental slabs of sound and it can all get a bit frightening.

Christian Wolff: Sveglia / Philip Corner: A Joyfull Noise

Sunday 10 March 2024

Christian Wolff has now entered his tenth decade, and I Dischi di Angelica have celebrated by releaseing a concert of premieres and some of his older pieces, presented in Bologna in 2022. Wolff himself plays piano, with the addition of voice, whistle and “objects” on some pieces. He is joined by the expert Wolff interpreter, percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, with additional percussion from Joey Baron and a local orchestra of seven electric guitars. The title work Sveglia is one of the premieres, using just the guitars. Wolff’s writing for the instrument consistently focuses on its ability to produce chiming notes with enhanced reverb and decay, retaining the delicacy of the plucked strings as much as possible. (Just a warning in case you’re jonesing for more Glenn Branca.) Sveglia does in fact have some abrupt unison moments, which serve as one of several means Wolff employs to break the continuity in what might otherwise become endless melody. Wolff’s feeling for continuity in music has always been expressed through the attitude of the performers towards the material and each other, requiring the musician to be consistently alert and receptive, alive to the changing nature of circumstances in performance. None of the ensemble pieces here use a conductor. The music, meanwhile, is in a constant state of starting over from zero, each sound new and independent. In Wolff’s mature music, this manifests itself in short, discrete melodic fragments that carry no particular momentum or direction, even before they are quickly re-set and start again from scratch. Paradoxically, it strikes the unprepared listener as suffering from an attention deficit, but the unhurried equilibrium that each piece desires is at odds with any tendency to hyperactivity. One learns to listen in the present, ready to be gratified at each moment without expecting a greater deferred payoff.

The other premiere, Roulette, brings all the musicians together, with Wolff and Schulkowsky sometimes playing amongst the guitars, while at others appearing solo or in smaller groups. This distinguishes the piece with a type of concertante form, creating a structure for itself as it progresses. The album begins with Exercise 10 from the early 1970s, arranged for piano and electric gutars. A quintessential Wolff composition, the ensemble strives to play a melodic line in unison, without overt directions on tempo or rhythm. The compositional ramifications are achieved through a process at once complex yet intuitive, attempting to find consensus on the fly. The album also ends with this piece, played in rehearsal with differences in approach and Wolff’s commentary to the musicians. The rather gentle sounds in these works are contrasted by Wolff, Schulkowsky and Baron taking a harsher approach to his classic open score from 1964, For 1, 2 or 3 People. Schulkowsky and Baron present a duo version of 2002’s Percussionist 5, which I found less compelling owing to its rapid succession of assorted timbres, making it sound much like much other concert percussion works. Schulkowsky’s performance of the solo Exercise 32 from 2011, on the other hand, is exemplary in the way it demonstrates Wolff’s musical thinking without the group activity, finding balance between the arbitrary and the intuitive, making sense of the intangibles to be found within the indifferent. Wolff also plays a few of his piano miniatures, including a valentine that could almost be a waltz.

As previously observed, Philip Corner is also ninety, so it couldn’t hurt to listen to a little more. Angelica has trotted out a selection from concerts of his choral music given in 2018. Chorus at The Corner: A Joyfull Noise features the combined forces of Coro Arcanto, Coro Per Futili Motivi, San Giorgio In Coro and Piccolo Coro Angelico conducted by Giovanna Giovannini with assistance from Silvia Tarozzi. Corner is also present. It is indeed a joyous occasion, with everything short and simple and a lot of the pieces running into each other. The singers hoe into these pieces with gusto, embracing the directness of it all. Corner’s compositions are interleaved with some takes on Italian folk songs “In Old American Style” and contrasted with 18th Century American Barnabas McKyes’ hymn Crucifixion. Giovannini’s own composition Scultura sonora is premeried here, along with several pieces written by Corner for the occasion. In fact, a lot of the tracks are tagged “world premiere”, including some pieces by Corner written as far back as 1970. I’ve still got my old qualms about the pedagogical aspect to Corner’s writing, and some of the singalongs here are a bit happy-clappy for my taste, but the significant thing about this album is the event it documents, showing a less-known facet of Corner’s music and, more importantly, singers and audience having an absolute whale of a time with Philip Corner. That Piccolo Coro Angelico is a children’s choir who sing in several pieces, including new stuff Corner wrote for them, and of course the kids are awesome. It’s telling that the longest track here is with the audience at the end, repeatedly applauding and cheering as the singers reprise pieces from the concert, under the title “An infinite encore”.

Maya Verlaak: Trace / Frank Denyer: Screens

Sunday 3 March 2024

Maya Verlaak’s metamorphosis into an English eccentric continues apace. Her new album Trace from Birmingham Record Company comes without text on the cover and without explanations for any of the pieces it contains, save that they’re to do with “personal approaches in the compositional process.” Her previous collection of works, on Another Timbre’s All English Music Is Greensleeves, showed an interest in reviving the values of the British avant-garde from the late 1960s and early 70s, before it was exhausted by Maoism and Minimalism, using the personal and the homespun as the means for experimental practice instead of confirming certitudes. The more recent works and recordings on Trace show Verlaak advancing this line of thinking into new territory; specifically, that territory being the musician’s homes. Each piece was written for the performers heard here, and the act of Verlaak travelling all over between Berlin and Penrith to record them playing her music at home alludes to a wider project in which the goal is not to make a point, but to find out what may be learned. Any thoughts of cosy domesticity are quickly upended by the puzzling tasks the composer sets her musicians: not rebellious but obstinate, in an English manner. For starters, the opening piece Anticipation is the only one requiring a second musician, and thus a cross-Channel overdub of Paul Zaba singing upon Luca Pignata’s accordion, with lulling melodies that gradually tend towards drones, aided by a shruti box that comes and goes. That dreamlike grey zone between melody and stasis recurs in All English music is – with Howard, featuring none other than Howard Skempton on accordion essaying increasingly distracted derivations from the well-known tune, each successive phrase leading further away from the listener’s expectations and towards some unrecognisable form of organisation. An adaptation of this pieces is also played on harmonium by Kate Halsall: All English music is – with Kate begins with the material’s fragmentation and abstraction further advanced, producing a monologue of gruff exhortations.

In the two longer compostions, Whispers finds Kate Ledger at home in York with her piano, but before you hear the keyboard Verlaak’s score first instructs her to gasp a high note and blow into the microphone. It’s the beginning of a meticulous series of exercises requiring Ledger to execute precise moments of extreme pianistic brevity, with mandated singing and breathing on cue, while pitted against electronic bleeps that imply both tuning-fork stringency and smartphone intrusions. Ledger manages it all very cleanly, threading some semblance of melody out of substances that are much drier and more discrete than they first appear. Meanwhile in Antwerp, trombonist Thomas Moore peforms Mutations, a wonderfully baffling work where the notes he plays rise and fall according to some unexplained process that may or may not involve the analog synth bloops that regularly surface throughout the piece and/or the litany of spoken pairs of near-homonyms, alternate pronunciations and false cognates that are rattled off in the background. It’s both simple and dense, the most satisfying yet of her linguistic puzzles to blur word, speech and music. Each piece here, really, functions in the same way as an unsolveable riddle, with a type of intellect that prefers the senses over philosophy. Incidentally, the title track is a brief portrait of Joseph Kudirka at home in Berlin, humming while turning out clotted chords on a music box. It all leaves me looking forward to the next instalment of Verlaak’s music, so long as the Proms commissioners are kept frightened away.

Frank Denyer is English but you couldn’t tell this from listening to his music. He’s created a sound-world so utterly his own that it could plausibly come from any one place or time as another – something frequently said with less accuracy about Xenakis – given how little it seems to rely on any observable cultural tradition. Another Timbre has built up an invaluable edition of Denyer’s music over the years, most recently documenting two major works, the complete Melodies cycle and the immense The Fish that became the Sun. Their new release Screens compiles five more pieces, composed across a span of nearly fifty years. They’re performed by the Octandre Ensemble, who have championed Denyer’s music over the years, including a memorable concert in 2018 which included some of the works presented here. Denyer’s music is intimate and confronting; if it shocks, then it does so through a naked emotional frankness stripped of all rhetorical devices, whether symbolbic or signifying. Another Timbre’s recording emphasises this with a wide dynamic range that still never gets loud except in relation to the extreme tenderness with which Octandre plays. A vast panoply of instruments and objects are used here to create sounds that seem at once natural yet unimaginable. That timbral ingenuity is at the forefront of the two Unison pieces from the early 1970s heard here, with additional voices from Joshua Ballance and Juliet Fraser. Fraser also sings on Screens and 2021’s Five Views of the Path, with a yielding humanity that adds greater poignancy to parts which could easily treated as just another instrument in the ensemble. Fraser and Octandre premiered Screens at that 2018 concert, with Denyer here repeating his spoken interlude. In Five Views of the Path and in 1990s Broken Music, percussive sounds predominate amongst the ensemble, yet Denyer and the Ensemble make the eclectic timbres cohere melodic and harmonious, even when pitch is absent.

Solos and others: India Gailey, Leslie Ting

Friday 1 March 2024

Think I’m the wrong type of person to be listening to these records, so assume the following comes from a grumpy old man who has fallen out of touch with the times. It’s these two new releases from People Places Records, each the work of a solo string player. Problematica is cellist India Gailey’s follow up to 2022’s to you through, this time exclusively made of works commissioned for her. Gailey also sings on a number of pieces, in a close-miked untrained voice with a slight catch that imparts wistful disingenuousness. The use of electronics, such as reverb, multitracking, more reverb, sampling, or just an extra touch of reverb, appear on each track. The songs (as that’s pretty much what they are) veer towards watered-down pop music, matched with the fashionable school of poetry that places a selection of overloaded words with as little supporting syntax as possible to deflect from the poet’s precarity of thought. Welcome relief from all the slipperiness comes in Joseph Glaser’s Joinery, an undulating mesh of quietly brittle cello sounds, where the electronics expand upon the acoustical rather than glaze them and Gailey’s sweet singing adds an unsettling touch, preventing the listener from settling into a fixed perspective for once. Another bright spot is Fjóla Evans’s Universal Veil, which uses multitracking to create more textural interest than simply thickening things out and gives Gailey foreground melodies with something to say beyond providing a vehicle for technological effects.

Violinist and composer Leslie Ting has put together a curious collection of pieces under the title What Brings You In. It’s all part of some larger project apparently to do with therapy, but throughout the accompanying booklet the role therapy plays in this record is couched in vague enough terms to ironically suggest it’s avoiding self-interrogation on the subject. There is a somewhat loose, free-ranging feel for exploration in some pieces, particularly Ting’s improvisation with percussionist Germaine Liu and Rose Bolton’s composition for violin and electronics Beholding. The latter piece starts modern-electroacoustically enough and tries on a few conventional tropes but by the end of it, as Ting pirouettes about on some lively little descending sequences, you realise you’ve been kept guessing the whole time. Why the album opens with Ting and Liu playing a small excerpt from Linda Catlin Smith’s sprawling Dirt Road is a mystery, even as the composer herself is brought into the conversation in the booklet about the record’s conceptual foundation. All I can get from it is that music is therapeutic, which… well, yeah. We’re also informed that the sound of sand is “intimate” – a more contentious proposition. Liu’s improvisation with a heavily amplified sandbox really does sound cool, and about as confessional as Xenakis. It’s a fondly accepted thought that art can make the personal relatable, yet here it paradoxically conforms to people greatest suspicion about therapy, that it makes common experience the exclusive property of the individual.

Jakob Heinemann: Resonant Ocean and Opacity

Saturday 24 February 2024

It’s taken me a while to get a handle on Jakob Heinemann’s compositions; not that I found it difficult to like, but it’s hard to get a bead on what exactly he’s doing on these two albums. It’s better not to think about that in too much depth, as the sense of each piece seems to come down to Heinemann’s personal taste. There’s at least a vague allusion to autobiography in some of the pieces, but nothing overt enough to read the music as a narrative, making his idiosyncratic approach to mixing instruments with field recordings hard to pin down. Resonant Ocean came out in 2022, collecting four relatively short works. The common theme is place and location, either in the real world as heard through field recordings, or in the abstracted space of the harmonic series. Heinemann proceeds to mix them up, interleaving two solo tape collages with works for small chamber groups. The music acts in response to pitch content from the tapes, only for the recording location to change and answer in counterpoint. This happens both within pieces and between them, across the album. In the collages, Heinemann plays autoharp and double bass alternately against sine tones and field recordings that cut in and out with no obvious motivation. A mournful string trio in harmonic intonation acts as an interlude. The concluding, title work uses bowed double bass, possibly with low sine tones again, to create uncanny electroacoustic sounds from flute and trumpet. The reflectiveness of the structure to these activities, and the undemonstrative nature of Heinemann’s ensemble writing, can’t help but seem melancholy, albeit without becoming emotive. In this way they function, faintly but indelibly, in a manner reminscent of landscapes.

Having warned against analysis, I nevertheless began to think there were some more complex ideas struggling beneath the surface in those four pieces on Resonant Ocean. A year later, Heinemann released Opacity, a large-scale suite for flute, clarinet and cello, with the composer on bass with sundry objects and field recordings. This work was the product of a year of Heinemann playing with the musicians on the recording (Molly Jones, Jeff Kimmel and Ishmael Ali). The close collaboration with the performers, and the creation of a more complex work in multiple sections, consolidates the impressions of the previous album. The latent intellectual restlessness comes forward with greater clarity, even as the harmonic and textural language remains subdued. When ideas about music are jostling around without resolution, it’s better that Opacity makes its complications part of the subject for the listener to grapple with. Hearing it isn’t difficult; understanding it is another matter. Within the various sections of this work, ambient sounds flit in and out of the sound mix behind the musicians, then brief interpolations focus on improvisational percussive sounds. When the ensemble resumes, they’re never quite the same as before, with pitched sounds falling away to tapping and rustling that mimics the field recordings. It took a while to notice that the recordings themselves are as constructed as the musical material, adding another dimension to the quiet conundrum of what we really hear when we think “real” or “artificial”.

xenopraxis: In A Sedimental Mood

Monday 19 February 2024

Like a bad dream, you wake from it and it fades, only to resume as soon as you relax. You can’t remember the details, it’s all a vague wash of disturbing impressions, far in the back of your consciousness. I assume xenopraxis will take this summary of his In A Sedimental Mood in the complimentary way it’s intended. He cites Satie’s furniture music as an inspiration (said music functioning as much obstacle as background), but it also recalls the pointed directionlessness and discontinuities of Christian Wolff’s later work, with a strong dose of Brian Eno’s Unwelcome Jazz from the Nineties. There’s also tangential connection to Edlritch Priest, which tracks.

In A Sedimental Mood somehow contrives to spin out some seventy-odd minutes of music that is not quite ignorable but also not quite interesting. The lazy cocktail-bar atmosphere of piano and hi-hat is denatured by rambling, self-centred keyboards, including an out-of-tune Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ perpetually at odds with each other, and a crummy MIDI guitar. It soon fades out, but then starts over just as before, only different. Everything tastes bad and the servings are too small. Each little section seems to fade out quicker than the last, but there are so many of them and the timing is just so that it’s impossible to keep track. There is structure, but without form, leaving any attempts at deeper listening confounded by trying to find any greater distinction between one congealed lump of seemingly arbitrary noodling and another, with the growing suspicion that the details are irrelevant even as they sustain the work’s duration. Any theorising about a continual present is both reinforced and thwarted by the repeated fade-out and resets; it exploits deficiency of attention to create a work of near intolerable duration. As a work of perversity, and of questioning values of significance and perception, it is high art.

(Coming back to it, I realise it also reminds me of the music made by Australian artist Phil Edwards. Often working as part of a group of improvising artists with variable musical experience, the spontaneity and lack of goals, as heard in free improvisation, is tamed by a language of conventional instruments and techniques and an approach that tries to be popular, yet remains alien and unknowable exactly because of its refusal to be perceived as something entirely new.)

Electronic Noise Shootout, Winter 2024

Friday 9 February 2024

I feel like I’m rating different grades of sandpaper when writing listening notes on these. They’re all deliberately awkward music made from digital electronic synthesis and/or processing. Andreja Andric’s two Pocket Electronic Symphonies (Are-Verlag) use filtered and reprocessed noise as their sonic basis, with each piece performed by the composer using a combined variable sound generator and score coded into a javascript app loaded onto a smartphone. Conceptually, it’s irresistable: a lightweight and accessible source and interface without needing to rely on additional material stuff. Andric’s method resolves issues of live performance and those of determining form and structure through the use of the generated score, nudging the audio software beyond being little more than a noisy toy of a type often encountered in this genre. If the smartphone’s audio output is attenuated, Andric makes up for it with some dense and complex sounds. This complexity means it tends to the harsh side, but each piece carries its own compositional concerns well enough and makes a decent job of differentiating between passages with contrasting tones and textures. The two performances here were made some three years apart, inviting comparisons in approach while suggesting the basic setup could be expanded in different ways.

Release numbers four and six from Party Perfect!!! continue in the same vein of the label’s other releases with a maximum of noise and minimum of compromise (I’m guessing as I haven’t heard two or five). Ryu Hankil’s Envelope Demon is a lengthy, scratchy suite for digital synthesis, rolling back and forth over small bursts of sound that are subjected to various intensities of strangulation. It’s a piece worked on over several years but, even as it has reached a heightened state of refinement, some of the initial excitement may have been lost. With many unique electronic setups, their ingenuity is offset by inherent limitations in their premise, and so they end up with realisations where it seems as though every possible option has been worked out until the premise is exhausted; the question is thus rasied as to whether what we’ve heard is in fact a musical composition. I don’t know if that’s the case with Envelope Demon but after forty minutes it feels like it, something Andric’s Symphonies manage to avoid. Michael Speers’ four short pieces For David Stockard, on the other hand, suggest boundless invention concentrated into a very precise form. Very different from his earlier Green Spot Nectar of the Gods, the pieces exploit his canny observation of the similarities between percussion and electronics. It’s an area which still seems to be insufficiently explored, how these sound sources share common attributes of timbral and harmonic complexity as well as indeterminacy. Speers focuses on the roles of contact, friction and touch and how they influence each other in different media. Part Perfect No. 6 consists only of Stefan Maier’s piece Nervous Systems, which is unsual compared to his previous release and the PP label in general in making some concessions to the listener, with sounds given more gentle attacks and everything wrapped in a soothing cloak of reverb. Without the edginess it can’t help but be slightly disappointing, as the basic materials come across as much the same. Perhaps I’m disappointed this particular release doesn’t come with a zine or recipes.

What’s the dividing line between ‘art’ and ‘pop’ with this stuff? Why am I pigeonholing the next two as the latter as opposed to the former? Not because it’s all short stuff; definitely not because it could be considered remotely popular. Perhaps because there are discernible remnants of ‘deconstructed’ popular idioms, but then these pieces have reached such an advanced stage of disassembly that it’s a moot point. It’s probably the attitude behind it, as the motivation shifts from technical considerations to affective consequences. A glimmer of demotic, late romantic transcendentalism still peeps through, faint but as recognisable as in a love ballad or movie soundtrack. GAŁGAŁ describes his Ich schw​ö​re ich hab Angst (Abstand) in terms of ideas – freedom, individualism and vision. The eleven short tracks are constructed from edits of live improvisations with samplers and synthesis, and they start out feeling suitably scrappy and spontaneous but after a while settle into something more consistent and serious. I kept waiting for a change in direction to recapture that open-ended impression from the start, but once a certain type of anti-groove locks in GAŁGAŁ stays put. Reincanto / Real Bwoy (Artetetra) on the other hand keeps hopping back and forth between ideas as a way of preserving momentum. It’s a split release (it’s also available on cassette so I guess the concept stil makes sense) between Kinked and Señor Service respectively, apparently dealing with storytelling and ritual-type stuff. I’m hearing a nice little set of hyperactive sonic globs pulled from various corners of the electronic repetoire and repurposed into bite-sized morsels. The lack of consistency and continuity becomes their strength, appealing in the manner of kinetic junk scupltures with commensurate irreverence and insolence. Their purposeful refusal to groove just makes them seem even more arty. To tell them apart, Kinked works mostly with noise while Señor Service throws in mass media and kiddie sounds.

Extradition and friends play Philip Corner, for fourteen hours

Sunday 4 February 2024

Someone expected me to listen to fourteen hours of music by a composer I didn’t like. It’s not that I disliked Philip Corner’s music as such; just that I found it easy to admire it philosophically while never wanting to listen to it. What I’d happened to hear, together with all the praise I’d read, imbued it with a medicinal quality, a stern but necessary purgative for conventional aesthetics, and about as palatable. It wasn’t helped by a number of enthusiasts who dodged the nuances in his thinking to seize upon the bleedin’ obvious (“Yeah dude but have you ever like really listened to a saucepan?”) It all seemed to pursue asceticism as its own reward. This is all wrong of course but listening to the music had never seemed to help; I always felt like I needed to read something before I could get it.

Philip Corner turned ninety last year and the Oregon ensemble Extradition had spent the preceding year or so working up a fitting tribute by performing and recording as much of his music as they could, including a series of concerts in early 2023. They also collected performances of his pieces by friends and associates wherever they could, with all of it gathered together on Extradition Plays Philip Corner. There’s fourteen hours of it. Really, given Corner’s stature and what with still being active at ninety, anything less would be an insult but still, fourteen hours. There are sixty-one performances collected here, of compositions ranging from the late 1950s to the present. The idea of an endurance test fit perfectly with my preconceived caricature of the composer, so I resolved to plough through the whole thing and try to find some points of differentiation, at least.

The ordering is not chronological, but it does begin with the oldest piece here. 2-Part Monologues No. 1 presents two instruments cast as melody and drone, played here by Lee Elderton on clarinet and Collin Oldham on cello respectively. The stasis in the cello holds the unfolding melody in permanent suspense, creating a parallax movement of its own. It sounds very clean and contemporary, while having been composed in 1957. The piece situates Corner at the earliest flowerings of what were to become dominant shaping ideas for new music in the latter half of the century: minimalism, indeterminacy, improvisation, rethinking of tonality and simplicity. The fourteen hours of music demonstrates that Corner has been across all of these ideas for many years, combined with an awareness of the interaction between sound, performer and environment. What’s most striking about the pieces where nature and the environment are at the forefront, is the way Corner balances a respectful approach to the subject while still subjecting it to compositional rigor. No mindless nature worship or ecological superstition here: Loren Chasse’s superb interpretation of the 1999 piece Ear Here with Musician plays with the sounds made by stones and paper alongside a shallow creek, where the actions of human and nature are often indistinguishable. Conversely, works like Presence from 1995 are performed entirely by ensemble, with Extradition using small objects and Corner’s score of durations and continuities to create a complex of sounds reminiscent of a bog at dusk. Acoustic, electronic, manufactured and natural keep blurring into each other throughout this set, for fourteen hours.

Everything Extradition presents sounds much deeper and richer to me than the thin sonic gruel I have been dosed with in previous Corner recordings. The five concerts at the start are a bit rough around the edges in audio quality but serve beautifully as a live document. The remaining thirty-nine pieces by Extradition and others are at least as good, but what matters as much as capturing the sound is the quality of sounds that Corner has inspired in these musicians. Denis Sorokin’s guitar rendition of Lingering Random Chords (after William Faulkner) digs into his instrument’s peculiarities of attack and decay, while Skin Champions takes a Serge modular synthesizer through an abrupt realisation of the text score Continue. When I said there are fourteen hours of this, I should specify that it totals fourteen hours, eleven minutes and twelve seconds. Corner’s wry approach to more conventional music theory appears throughout, from the ruthlessly severe The Art of No-Art series to the strict but free (or free but strict) Just Another 12-Tone Piece. In the latter, Extradition make a complex ensemble composition out of Corner’s instruction that each performer play a 12-tone row, of a type and in a manner of their own choosing. By contrast The Art of No-Art is a vast cycle of compositions made of a single pitch and its octaves. There are hundreds of these things, twelve of which appear throughout the fourteen hours, and they sound both rigorously minimal and expressively pointillistic at once, maintaining momementum despite the lack of harmonic or melodic movement through the tension of the opposing tendencies in their musical language. Extradition et al. play some of these simultaneously, creating new textures and potential counterpoints.

By now you’re probably figured out that I’ve been won over. Just to keep my newfound enthusiasm in check, I’ll note that getting somewhere around the halfway point a few of those dry presentations of acoustic phenomena without context do appear. They are admittedly very nicely presented. One of these is 1982’s Boiling Water – water here boiled by Ricardo Arias – so now I know that Ahti & Ahti, Akama & d’incise were all about forty years late but at least they did something with it. Some pieces, such as An Agreed-Upon Mood Mode “for ensemble with discussion” conflate the thing and the idea about the thing in the same detrimental manner. Before these moments come along, your overall impression will presumably be how everything has been surprisingly good to listen to. There is, after all, fourteen damn hours of this stuff so everyone’s experience will vary. I’ve barely scratched the surface here but hopefully it tells you enough about the variety to be found here, all of which goes towards giving you a much more detailed and complete portrait of Corner as a composer.

With all the diversity in approach, it’s striking how Corner’s various methods are used to achieve consistent ends. Themes weave their way through the collection, of collage (with or without recordings), awareness of multiplicity and uniqueness (through permutation and improvisation), examination of what makes us individuals (compared to another, an object, natural forces). Each new side to his work remembers the others. Where some of Corner’s scores can seem vague or insubstantial at first, the performances by Extradition and their associates show how even his broadest statements are always made with consciousness of specific outcomes, even as those outcomes are undetermined. The score for 2006’s Ultimate Improvisation, performed here by Matt Hannafin, consists of the line “Like nothing else, like never before.” There’s a substantial booklet that provides further details and context for each of the works presented. It’s rare for a celebration of an artist’s work to be also a forceful work of advocacy; Extradition have achieved both in spades. Fourteen fucking hours. I am in awe.

New Music Premieres 2024: An Introduction

Saturday 27 January 2024

Ah yeah I’ve heard some new music this year. It was Apartment House again at Cafe Oto again, this time premiering four new works. Apparently it was part of some larger project with an interdisciplinary curatorial agenda but I forget what it was. There was a new string quartet by Eldritch Priest. I had his weird-ass guitar piece Omphaloskepsis sitting in my listening pile for over a year and a collection of earlier chamber pieces even longer, but the new work Dust Breeding took things in a different direction from those pieces and their lop-sided, angular melodic lines. Heavy emphasis on harmonics throughout, with their high, sweet intimations of just intonation adding a further tantalising element to the expectation that sooner or later the loose, almost-looping patterns between the instruments may mesh into something unified and coherent. The piece functions like a complex knot, slackened to the point where you can’t tell if grabbing one end will pull it tight or unravel it completely. I believe Apartment House is recording some Eldritch Priest this year.

Of the other pieces, like oil it glistens multicolours by Finlay Clark, whose work I knew nothing about, mixed together disparate elements on strings and keyboard with field recordings and electronics in that bold, eclectic way without any evident over-arching principle, reminiscent of experimental video editing. Later in the piece some distressed electronic beats accompany the musicians but these are wisely used as another weapon in the music’s resistance to easy comprehension, just as I was starting to worry the piece would end in a bathetic attempt at being popular, or worse, cool. Denis Sorokin’s Arbor is a pleasantly bittersweet movement of quiet contemplation, shedding light on his work as a guitarist who has performed works by the likes of Michael Pisaro-Liu. His ensemble writing is finely judged, although I found the work a little too pleasant and was waiting for something to disturb its untroubled surface. The final work was by violinist/violist Chihiro Ono, sometime Apartment House participant herself. If I remember right, Rabbit Hole – alive. emove. 108. is her first proper composition, with the small ensemble playing alongside recordings of nature in various states of domestication. It’s a fairly open score and with the field recordings the performance had an amiably bucolic affect to its rambling form, as minor incidents came and went. Aided by the group’s playing and their talent for finding substance in the ephemeral, the work’s contents had an elusive, ungraspable quality that anchored the work with a fundamental seriousness and made it hard to assign any obvious influence or comparison to Ono’s compositional style.