Learning Alphabets with Dominic Coles

Sunday 11 June 2023

Dominic Coles has been working on music that skirts along the edges of speech for some time, but on Alphabets he also skirts along the edges of music. As with his earlier Wandelweiser release everyone thinks their dreams are interesting, dreams are once again the material but not the subject. While that set of pieces transformed speech into short bursts of electronic noise, Alphabets presents itself as a lesson in translation. Most of the album is taken up by the fifty-odd minute alphabet 1: p-u-s-h, which takes snippets of speech from a recollection of a dream and juxtaposes the phonemes with a parallel context of associated electronic sounds. The sounds are thin and astringent, functioning as symbols instead of sensory allusions. The words are repeated, clipped short or cut long. “Repeat any word over and over and listen as it gradually loses its meaning in the mouth.” The electronic sounds may substitute words by repeated association, while simultaneously occluding any semantic connection between word, sound or reference. Silences are frequent, often seeming longer than the sounds.

Is it music? Yeah. With its pedagogical structure, somewhere between rote-learning and indoctrination, meagre sound resources and emphasis on language, Coles teases that he’s testing the boundaries of what might be considered musical while retaining the essential form and content. What really confounds the listener’s appreciation of this music is that it is impossible to ignore. It’s too alienating and intrusive to leave as a background, but almost too exhausting to listen to it closely. To take the piece’s apparent expectation seriously at face value, is to buy into a deeper conundrum that Coles is implicitly raising in his music, skewering the bien-pensant notions of music and language sharing some ineffable bond. As with any diligent pursuit of the idea, the more doggedly one pursues the supposed connection the further it recedes – this thwarting of assumptions may be the most challenging part. The album ends with two shorter pieces, each presented as applied learning from the first work: two more dream fragments with more verbal context yet also with greater periods of sound alone, perversely rendering both more disorientating that what has gone before.

Two Types of Jürg Frey

Friday 26 May 2023

Jürg Frey just turned seventy, which might mark a time to take stock of his work so far. It seems to describe a process of steady development, gradually transforming without any sudden turns. Two new releases focusing on recent ensemble works confirm this view: Borderland Melodies on Another Timbre collects works from 2019, 2021 and a 2020 revision of a work from 2014 which display definite but subtle changes in compositional approach. The Apartment House ensemble turn out for Frey again, featuring Heather Roche on clarinet and Raymond Brien on bass clarinet. The opening title work augments them with violin and cello, each sadly tiptoeing back and forth from one pairing to another until halfway through when a piano interlude appears, then withdraws, without ceremony. From there, the second half seems to proceed slower than the first, as any sense of development or momentum no longer matters. It’s a solemn adagio that that firmly engenders a pensive mood out of its two-note patterns, even as Frey doesn’t seem to be pushing the sounds around too much.

The clarinets are joined by string trio for L’état de simplicité, a work parcelled into four movements. The titles here are all descriptive of the music: À la Limite de sens plays with extremes of range, starting low then staying high, most breath provided by the rasp of strings; Toucher l’air is as faint as possible without dissolving into the imperceptible. La discrète plénitude allows the grouped sonorities of the instruments to play chords that sound quiet but full, then concludes with bare melody of plucked strings with punctuating chords in Les zones neutres. The ideas are the essence of simplicity, even poverty, but in his maturity Frey seeks to flesh out the basic concepts into music that pleases the senses at least as much as the mind. The concluding piece Movement, Ground, Fragility is a half-hour work which unites all the above instruments with unpitched percussion that fills Frey’s silences with a crosshatched background for seemingly selfcontained pitched sonorities. Once again, things change halfway through when the previously inert, unmatched shapes start to fit together in a way that accumulates momentum almost despite itself. Having reached a certain point of development, it quickly fades out instead of seeking a summation.

If you’re familiar with Frey then it all starts to sound a little too familiar, until you start to think about the instruments and realise you’re hearing them as a composite, neither in a functionally expressive role nor as pure “sound in and of itself”. Frey has reached a point where he employs techniques from previous generations of forward-thinking composers in ways that still sound fresh without reducing the instrument’s role to that of a vehicle for transmitting either pitch at one theoretical extreme, or timbre at the other. Elsewhere’s latest disc of Frey’s music is the 51-minute chamber ensemble work Continuit​é​, fragilit​é​, r​é​sonance. Completed in 2021, the piece reunites tow of his repeat collaborators, Quatuor Bozzini on strings and Konus Quartett on (don’t panic) saxophones. Frey has composed quartets for each before, and now he has meshed the two together in this expansive work, with no compunction about letting the full ensemble flow, nor with restrictions on the instruments’ inherent sonorities. In Frey’s own intimate way, it maintains the heft and sweep of a chamber symphony, laying on phrase after phrase of ensemble playing and steadily building things up to an inverted climax where the music suddenly stops. An extended, slightly muted coda follows, which simply ends without a resolution. Does it sound too full? It’s not correct to say that Frey is getting indulgent, for he has been so before, only in his earlier work it was with silences and repetitions. These pieces aren’t breakthoughs or revelations like I Listened to the Wind Again is, but they serve as a consolidation of his art.

More noise, but distant: Andrea Borghi, Evan Lindorff-Ellery

Tuesday 23 May 2023

People keep finding sounds to play with. Andrea Borghi has made the eight pieces on his Palsecam EP by working with VHS tape recorders and their tapes. It reads like a gimmick or an ideas-piece relying less on sound and more on the concept of meta-commentary on dead media and obsolete technology, but it doesn’t play that way. Borghi eschews directness, preferring to use his given means as a technical limitation to guide his process at least as much as his own taste. He ekes out small, faded sounds with a dull electronic patina, keeping the scale of each piece small to concentrate the reduced palette of effects into something detailed but thin. The sounds are fleeting and elusive, refusing to let much stay around or assert its presence enough for your mind to get it in focus. It’s intriguing when you notice what’s going on, letting each moment pass by, although not intriguing enough to attract your attention in the first place, unless you’re tipped off to the gimmick.

The two pieces on Evan Lindorff-Ellery’s Swollen Air are titled Electric Guitar Feedback Field Recording iPhone Objects Contact Mic and Amp Hum Electromagnetic Feedback Field Recordings Contact Objects Mic Handling minimal edit, which gives some insight into the prosaic approach taken here. The two sides of this tape are all about documenting process, using intervening technology like phone recording to dirty up the sound as he coaxes something approaching music from obstinate and limited means. The listener shares in the artist’s process: side 1 ends with Lindorff-Ellery sitting in his hot, stuffy room blowing his nose after feeding bursts of static through his amps; side 2 finds him struggling to maintain momentum as his chosen method proves ultimately unrewarding. I salute his patience but would have appreciated him handling the situation with less equanimity. Perhaps in a live situation it would work better, as he’d have to juggle with the complicating factor of simultaneously holding audience expectations at bay.

Semi-tonal: Petr Bakla, Bekah Simms

Sunday 21 May 2023

The curiously named Late Night Show collects three piano-oriented pieces by Czech composer Petr Bakla. I’ve heard one piece by him before, the orchestral There is an island above the city which I described as “pursuing the more sinister implications of settling down in one place”. The principle applies here too, with each piece taking an idée fixe and drawing elaborating details from it through increasingly close examination rather than through extension; deduction instead of induction, as it were. The pianist Miroslav Beinhauer is the soloist in all three works and his supple playing gives each piece an insidious warmth that draws the listener in to music that could sound obsessive and alienating in harder hands. Bakla’s writing and arrangements help immensely to create this sound, of course; the pair’s skills are demonstrated most overtly in the closing piece, No. 4 for solo piano, which in the second half unexpectedly opens out into florid runs of notes layered with expressive chords, producing a rewarding complexity that feels like a discovery for composer, pianist and listener alike.

This relaxation of musical strictures may be down to the piece being Bakla’s oldest composition on the album, from 2013. The most recent is his very unconventional Piano Concerto No. 2, written in 2021. Miroslav Beinhauer is accompanied by eight members of Brno Contemporary Orchestra, with Pavel Šnajdr conducting. Beinhauer reiterates an ambiguous, rising scale (shades of Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet) set against hocketing low winds, brass and strings that come and go, transforming the stillness into a pulsating, shimmering surface of dark facets which occasionally catch a flash of light. Major Thirds from 2016 is in fact for piano and string quartet and may be the most striking work here, with Beinhauer and the Brno soloists dwelling on an arpeggio that rises and falls without any significant release until any consideration of pitch is irrelevant other than as a vehicle for other musical attributes to establish themselves as the subject. At times the strings slide in pitch, combining with the piano to create complex tones and multiples, at others they provide staggered layers of accompaniment, divided into pairs with one duo playing so softly as to sound like an electronic reverberation of the other.

The blurb to Bakla’s album describes him as working with sounds more than notes, and this could also apply to the Newfoundland composer Bekah Simms, whose style is a type of splintered, or blasted, expressionism using technique to dramatic effect (cf. Lim Barrett Saunders Romitelli). Bestiaries is a brief survey of three ensemble pieces from 2019-20. The performers here – Cryptid Ensemble and Ensemble contemporain de Montréal – keep the energy levels high throughout while still holding the structure tight so the driving force of Simms’ writing never stagnates into pure indulgences of timbre. Foreverdark has amplified cellist Amahl Arulanandam suitably grinding and groaning against an electronically-enhanced ensemble, while Bestiary I & II puts soprano Charlotte Mundy behind the mic with a similar setup. While keeping to the same atmosphere, the vocal work takes a slightly gentler approach and avoids the temptation of strained histrionics, a surprising achievement in itsef. A work for smaller chamber ensemble, from Void maintains the haunted gothicky sound and disturbing noises without the aid of electronics.

Noise versus Noise

Sunday 14 May 2023

I thought something had gone wrong. I’ve been taking a little noise holiday, away from the likes of Jürg Frey for a bit, and figured it was time to get around to the first compilation issued by Party Perfect!!!, another one of these composer collectives who take their irreverence seriously (see website for details). PP-01 begins with an untitled work by Michelle Lou: I know her stuff, right? Finely observed electroacoustic phenomena, that sort of thing. Instead my ears got blitzed with a barrage of harsh electronic noise that made me initially think I had a corrupt file or put on the wrong track. Turns out that Lou’s untitled is a four-part digital electronic suite of ruthlessly clipped and distorted audio that gleefully assaults the senses for forty-seven minutes. Parts of it sound like when you try loading a non-audio file into a media player to see what happens, and I’d like to think some sections are precisely that. When you get past the initial shock, you start to notice the details carved into this brutalist sound scuplture which, together with performative flourishes of bravado, sustain the piece beyond the deadening effect of relentless sonic bludgeoning (cited as an inspiration in the accompanying booklet). After Lou’s piece, there’s another two hours worth of electronic compositions by Stefan Maier, Michael Flora and Other Plastics, each just as abrasive and confrontational. The booklet includes recipes, too; they’re vegetarian, but one is for a barbecue sauce so…

Trombonist Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø has produced a pair of works on Dystopian Dancing that attempt to push solo performance techniques beyond the defined constraints of the instrument. The first was recorded in 2019 and exploits the close amplification of his trombone with air and microphone artifacts to produce unstable constructions that haphazardly flip between pitch and noise. Oversaturation and use of plastic mouthpieces and mutes add to the quasi-electronic atmosphere but in the second half it reverts to an improviser’s comfort zone of exploring extended low-end snorks to play for time. The second piece was made about a year later and projects material from the first into an electroacoustic collage that stays lively for longer, particularly when normal brass sounds re-emerge towards the end, commenting on the chaos with a queasy mock fanfare.

Noise of a completely different kind comes from Jacques Puech’s cabrette. A cabrette is a small French bagpipes, for when regular bagpipes aren’t irritating enough. Gravir / Canon pairs compositions for the instrument by Guilhem Lacroux and Yann Gourdon respectively. In the former Puech overdubs himself with constantly ascending scales at different rates over a steady, clacking rhythm that resembles a kind of folkloric take on James Tenney’s For Ann (Rising), but with the cool psychoacoustic effects replaced by a manic exhilaration that’s both uproarious and a little scary, especially as it just keeps on going. In Gourdon’s Canon Puech is joined by four other cabreteers to play overlapping patterns in a staggered formation as suggested by the title. The gestures are more relaxed here but even so it shares with Gravir the same dogged, obsessive pursuit of a compositional idea until the excessiveness becomes the point. That, with the massed nasal timbre of the pipes creates a bracing, febrile work that you can get a high out of if you’re in the right mood while simultaneously driving your housemates up the wall.

Catherine Lamb: divisio spiralis

Sunday 23 April 2023

After blowing off going to gigs all year I actually made it all the way to Wigmore Hall to hear the JACK Quartet play Catherine Lamb’s divisio spiralis, composed for them in 2019. It’s a long work, just about ninety minutes, punctuated by pauses. The string quartet play with amplification but no other types of electronic processing that Lamb has often used to augment the harmonic space of her music. The quartet plays in just intonation, gradually opening out from a narrow band of frequencies in the higher range, introducing more readily discernible melodic fragments before slowly sinking to the lower depths of their instruments. The melodies and chord changes are plaintive and cadential, particularly as they only briefly rise before gradually tending downwards. The JACK Quartet played this with stoic bravura, using thinned-out, vibratoless tones that nevertheless filled out the sounds with the harmonic spectrum Lamb would have hoped for, with clear ringing pitches, beatings and other (psycho)acoustic phenomena quietly present throughout. Besides its length, it’s a difficult and conflicted work, in which system and sentiment share an uneasy cohabitation. In the moments it evokes rarefied folk music, it renders the surrounding sections indistinct, and never quite balances its apparent wish to be both demonstrative and impassive. This creates a curious state in the listener where you’re never quite certain what you’re hearing at any given moment; you have to keep your ears open and note the strengths and vulnerabilities as you find them. That’s an admirable achievement in itself, but her more recent string duet I heard at Cafe Oto last year resolved these elements into a stronger and more coherent work.

Quick takes, mostly warm

Monday 17 April 2023

Seán Clancy: Ireland England. It’s been ages since I’ve listened to any 70s German synth-rock, so listening to this reminded me of hearing analogue synth space-grooves for the first time. A free-flying piece that maintains focus even as pulsating arpeggios and airy drones fade in and out for longer than most Krautrockers could manage, anchored by a seriousness of intent. This is a single take recorded drecitly to a handheld device, also on video with text projections for the piece’s insipration.

Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo: ELP. Listened to this blind and thought it was some wide-ranging noise improv by a bunch of precocious adolescents with a lot of energy, complete with a quaint sample to kickstart the whole shebang. Turns out Palumbo has a long and distinguished CV and this is a solo affair made as part of a project relating choreographed movement to sound. I’m glad that sophistication doesn’t come through, lest it dull down the flawed but lively tangle heard here, but disappointed the title isn’t a reference to Tarkus.

Henning Christiansen: Op. 1984 (160C) Goodday Mr. Orwell, Green-Ear-Year. Having been overwhelmed by the five-hour montage of Op. 176 Penthesilea I did not expect this. Christiansen and his local guitar hero son play a gig together and holy shit invent the Boredoms a year early, right there on stage. The punters are not pleased; neither is the tortured ghost of B.A. Zimmermann when they summon his presence.

Ed Williams: Decomposition Study. Two organists (Christoph Schiller and Anna-Kaisa Meklin) play counterpoint on an organ of 16th Century design, tuned in sixth-tones. Microtonality nerds hoping to geek out to nuances of intonation will find themselves frustrated as Williams adds another compositional premise, with himself and three other assistants – well, obstructionists, really – systematically messing with the wind supply; basically like a John Cage organ piece only somebody hired Stan Freberg, Mark E. Smith and Eric Morecambe to man the pipes. Timbre, tone and dynamics break up in non-intuitive ways that seemed understated on first listen, overstated on the second.

3 by 3, 1 by 3, 1 by 2.

Thursday 13 April 2023

There are some new Jürg Frey albums about on Elsewhere and Another Timbre but I’ll get to them later. Circles, Reeds, and Memories (Elsewhere) documents a concert in Limburg late last year by the trio of Germaine Sijstermans, Koen Nutters and Reinier van Houdt, playing one of their compositions each. I’ve discussed other pieces by all three individually, so here we get to compare their styles more directly. Even while there are strong resemblences, you can detect Sijstermans’ disciplined approach, Nutters’ slow accumulation from the smallest array of pure sounds, van Houdt’s tendency to narrative and slowly developing drama. The trio play clarinets, harmonium, small organ, all blending in ways which I’m sure we’re used to now, although Nutters seems to give Sijstermans more prominent work to do on the clarinet than in her own pieces. The new wrinkle here is the presence of ‘objects’ and tape recordings which rumble underneath the otherwise smooth surface to produce interesting blemishes; or it may be the presence of an audience in the chapel. Neat twenty-minute chunks to sample each composer’s work.

Is he rambling? Giovanni Di Domenico, I mean. The album’s credited to the trio of Domenico, Silvia Tarozzi and Emmanuel Holterbach, but Domenico gets composition credit and, more crucially, “later completed” the work with editing and more of his piano in post-production work. L’​Occhio Del Vedere (Elsewhere) is a one-hour piece for microtonal piano, frame drum and piano with the scale, dynamic and interplay of instruments that all resemble late Feldman, but the impetus here favours performance over composition. The harmonic language is similar too, with the piece beginning with an ascending piano scale echoing Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet and Tarozzi’s piquantly tuned violin recalling his propensity for pointedly enharmonic notation. Those resemblences end as the piece tends to drift from one idea to another, a more relatable wandering than Feldman’s formal decisiveness. There are moments when that relatability becomes a weakness, with passages that seem to go nowhere but are too forgiving to command your attention. The real kicker is Holterbach’s large frame drum, which softly hums and throbs behind the violin and piano duet, producing strangely oscillating subharmonics that push everything back into the uncanny again.

Biliana Voutchkova and Sarah Davachi are definitely not rambling in their Slow Poem for Stiebler (Another Timbre), a tribute to the composer Ernstalbrecht Stiebler. Back in 2020 Another Timbre released an album of Voutchkova performing Stiebler, including his violin solo Für Biliana. This duet by Voutchkova and Davachi combines violin, voice and reed organ to stretch short moments from Stiebler’s composition into long, long held sonorities that let harmonies and overtones float around inside each extended phrase. It’s a fittingly odd way to address Stiebler, as his late work such as Für Biliana has seen him moving away from the intensely examined harmonic stasis of his best known pieces, even venturing into florid but creaky improvisation. Voutchkova and Davachi capture both the improvisation and the stasis – even as their piece is notated it expects great flexibility from the performers – with music that is equal parts meditative and analytical.

Lizzy Welsh: The Target Has Disappeared

Sunday 9 April 2023

The latest release on Discreet Editions comes from Australia. Don’t be fooled by the cover: The Target Has Disappeared features contemporary composers at the more provocative end of the spectrum, each with a work for solo baroque violin performed by Lizzy Welsh. Why baroque? “Gut strings are perfectly imperfect. They contain so much complexity that has been ironed out of sound through the modern use of steel.” The grain of the instrument’s voice, the violinists touch and intonation, are at the forefront of the three works here. Alexander Garsden’s Chaconne (for I) concentrates on fleeting arpeggios, breathy and skittish, gathered into phrases that fade in and out again like slow breathing. The simple structure of contrasting pulses draws out the tension in the material as it hovers between pitch and string noise. Samuel Smith’s archive is a longer piece which elaborates on these ideas, adding to the complexity of pitch by retuning the top string to an overtone (7th partial) of the bottom one. Harmonics abound, with the gut strings compounding the nominal purity of timbre. Welsh makes the most of the wide variety of attack and dynamics at play in this piece, creating a visceral sense of layering between counterposed voices, strongly differentiated by character and spatial presence.

All three works were composed for and premiered by Welsh, recorded here after several years of working with the composers and their music. The final work presented here adds sounds besides the violin. Natasha Anderson’s The Target has Disappeared is a reflection on personal loss that premiered with visual projections in 2018. In its present form, a short, simple melody is underpinned by electronic sounds which serve both as commentary and quiet obstruction to the soloist. By this means, the first half of the piece resembles a concerto, with the two forces often alternating instead of working together, keeping Welsh’s solo reticent and fragmentary. Instead of building, the piece reduces its means; in the second half the electronics have slipped away and Welsh holds long, single notes on the violin while softly singing. Voice and instrument are each gentle but raw, filling the supposedly inert material by being alive to its own vulnerability. Anderson’s electroacoustic compositions have been a bit scarce in commerically available recordings and I’m not aware of many pieces by Smith or Garsden floating around out there so this new release is most welcome.

Three threes always

Sunday 2 April 2023

I don’t want to be nasty. Almost all the music I discuss here raises ideas that interest me and I want to engage with, even if I dislike it. I’ll usually delete the dismissive comments made in draft because I’m approaching these as an artist as much as a critic; nobody’s getting rich in this genre so there are no real mercenary or cynical efforts to dismiss as unworthy. Having said that, appreciating the craft of a piece of music is a different thing entirely from trying to give it the respect of considering it as a work of art. Keep this in mind if I carp that Bruno Duplant and Seth Nehil’s collaboration the memory of things doesn’t beat you over the head with attempts to be stunningly original in form or medium – most things don’t need to be. Not familiar with Nehil at all but Duplant’s work with him here has produced a trilogy of very slick aural collages, each about the same length, which allude to sounds rather than present them directly, much in the fashion pioneered by Brian Eno’s On Land. Anything too specific is overlaid with a patina of clicks and crackles, which will strike you as either too calculating to induce nostalgia or as a means to direct you away from ambient vagueness. It’s another marker of Duplant’s eclecticism in his musical practice, which values intellectual curiosity over a firm identity.

Les Capelles documents the very first time Garazi Navas, Miguel Angel Garcia, Àlex Reviriego and Vasco Trilla played together as a quartet.” I’m always dubious of these things where improvisers get together and expect some magic to happen right off the bat. It puffs the spurious ideals of spontaneity and authenticity that hamper improvisation as a medium. No matter how good it sounds, you always wonder how much it better it could have been after some more work together. The above quartet play accordion, electronics, double bass and percussion respectively, all in that evocative style where everything sounds electronic even though it isn’t until the accordion shatters the illusion. As with the Duplant/Nehil album, there are three pieces here of equal length and I would take it as a compliment to the depth of the acoustic performance that it took me a while to get stright in my head which album was which. They do not bore, and it’s all played in a chapel in Barcelona so it sounds lovely.

I’m listening to a set of three pieces all about the same length (again?) by Erik Blennow Calälv, with pianist/composer Lisa Ullén, Finn Loxbo on guitar with Ryan Packard on percussion and electronics to accompany Calälv’s bass clarinet. They’re all experienced and judicious improvisers, so I presume there’s an openness to the scores to allow the slow but free interplay that flows through each piece. Each piece – Bi, In yo & Iwato – is apparently based on a traditional Japanese scales, but what with the overall texture and Ullén’s prepared piano goddamn it sounds just like Magnus Granberg to me. I mean, that’s great and all, but still. The smaller scale adds to a more accessible intimacy, so if you’re pressed for time then this album’s a good way to get a surrogate Granberg fix in more manageable chunks.

Christopher Butterfield: Souvenir

Sunday 26 March 2023

Christopher Butterfield catches you off-guard and continues to do so for the duration of this album. Souvenir (Redshift Music) collects four of his ensemble pieces, adroitly played by the Aventa Ensemble. His melodic material appears at first to be innocuous, or casually beguiling, but as his instrumental lines merge into each other they refuse to coalesce into a unified statement and as they continue to politely bicker amongst themselves the listener is kept constantly on edge, hoping for a resolution that may or may not arrive.

Souvenir (1995) begins with a steady shuffle and quirky counterpoint that immediately suggests the chirpy ‘post-minimalism’ (ugh) of a generation ago, but everything is too precarious and off-kilter to fall into the bluff certainties of that genre. In any case, as soon as you’re starting to get your head around it, it stops and then restarts in a different direction. Each new episode plays off divergent, hopping melodic lines against a pulse in the percussion that is never quite at tempo. To unsettle things further, a very faint field recording of tree frogs chirps away steadily in the background, at odds and indifferent to all around it. The piece peaks when most of the instruments fall away to spotlight a duet between horn and violin that is no duet at all, with each soliloquising oblivious of the other.

My prior knowledge of Butterfield’s work was limited to the disc of his music for string ensembles by the Quatuor Bozzini a while back. For this set, the presence of percussion adds a more tangible bite to his friable rhythms and meters. parc (2013) expands upon this in the form of a percussion solo, with Rick Sacks on vibraphone and Aventa running interference on each other. At one point, Sacks resorts to a small set of woodblocks instead of the vibes; the crude, limited gamut of pitches hints that any sophistication observed here is a veneer to more direct and basic impulses. Butterfield’s sleeve notes reveal his use of chance, serial procedures and malfunctioning electronics (the melodies in Souvenir) to shape his music. His confident handling of unreliable systems gives the capricious twists and turns in his compositions a sense of openness reminiscent of Cage, even while sounding nothing alike.

Cage is acknowledged explicitly in Frame (2012), a piece built on the premise of staggered unisons. Even as asynchronicity is a recurring feature in these pieces, Butterfield cites Cage’s Ryoanji as Frame‘s impetus (“he called it “Korean Unison,” although I’ve never come across the term anywhere else”). The piece begins with appropriate Cagean decorum but inexorably unravels until it spawns an obstinately erratic drum-kit solo that steps all over the meticulously uncontrolled counterpoint. Finally, Port Bou (2001) is probably the most elaborate piece in the set, using a mixture of techniques to collage together a richly coloured but poignant memorial to Walter Benjamin. In its seemingly arbitrary juxtapositions, Butterfield finds a pathos amongst the absurdities, giving and added depth to dispel any remaining suspicion that his musical language can be summarised simply as playfulness.

I’ve been sleeping a lot this month and I’m relieved this album arrived to wake me up.

More Timbres: Frank Denyer, Evan Johnson, Bryn Harrison

Monday 6 March 2023

Another Timbre continues to advance the noble cause of Frank Denyer: the latest is a double, making his complete Melodies cycle from the mid 1970s available to the public for the first time. Composed over several years, it’s a series of twenty-six short compositions for a multicoloured array of small ensembles and soloists. Listening to the cycle as a whole gives a fascinating insight into Denyer’s conception of sound and composition; he makes the most startling leaps in imagination appear to occur to the musicians naturally and spontaneously. Melodies begins as a series of ‘one-note’ melodies, opening out in range until it reaches an epilogue made up of fifteen pitches. It’s a steady spiral of growth, sound more organic than mathematical. The peculiarity of Denyer’s music is always very human and direct: the ‘one-note’ pieces use flexible intonation and rhythm to create something alive from the most marginal substance. Solo horn is accompanied by clicking stones, added as though the percussion is an incidental, semi-conscious articulation. From there the cycle doesn’t exactly build upon itself, but expands upon its initial driving urge, using instruments that are muted and modified, baroque and exotic, or simple voices including, at one point, the composer’s own. The performances here were compiled over several months, with the Scordatura Ensemble, Luna String Quartet and vocal ensemble Mad Song making each piece feel like inspired improvisation (with some thrilling unison work from the Lunas near the end). In its means and materials, Melodies draws upon and then confounds what was then our emerging understanding of art that had been traditionally labelled ‘primitive’, raising its cumulative effect into a powerful statement.

A new set of solos, duos and trios by Evan Johnson titled L’art de toucher follows on from the set of piano pieces lists, little stars put out on All That Dust in 2021. The title is highly appropriate for Johnson’s music, even as it references the three pieces here titled L’art de toucher le clavecin, none of which include a keyboard. The focal instrument in this triptych is the piccolo, that most friable of instruments, heard solo, with violin, and with both violin and percussion, although not necessarily in that chronological order. The brittle and the ethereal are the two extremes Johnson tries to embrace at once in his highly detailed compositions, eking out a hard-won yet fragile physicality in sound. The music is all about touch, or its absence, where it begins and ends, hovering on that threshhold where physical contact is manifested as sound, leaving you wondering at times if you’ve heard anything at all. The mechanical intervention of the piano in lists, little stars prohbits such subtleties being employed to their full effect, so the pieces here come across as more readily intelligble and less precious in their reticence. Richard Craig and Susanne Peters interpret their piccolo parts with a blessed absence of affectation, accompanied by violinist Sarah Saviet and Rie Watanabe on percussion. The larger piece Plan and section of the same reservoir is performed by the acclaimed Trio Accanto with the rarefied brilliance you would expect. Most haunting is thaes oferode, thisses swa maeg, in which Juliet Fraser and Séverine Ballon play a duet for soprano and cello that blends their sounds in ways that suggest they are being shadowed by a ghostly clarinet.

Sarah Saviet returns for a bravura performance of Bryn Harrison’s violin solo A Coiled Form. Before hearing it, immediate comparisons can be drawn with his earlier piano piece Vessels: both began as short pieces that were then extended to over three times their original length. Both require a tightrope act of calmness and concentration to sustain and preserve a moment to immense duration; in effect, both are small pieces, just very long. The unexpected difference comes in the flow of the music. Whereas Vessels and other pieces by Harrison unroll in a steady, unbroken cascade, A Coiled Form is disrupted by crosscurrents and eddies. Bowed sowftly sul pont throughout, Saviet’s violin flits and skitters like a Sciarrino caprice, negotiating a pathway through a maze of twisting little passages, all different. At times, the music doubles back upon itself, or gets caught in a cul-de-sac and loops for a while before taking up a previously-discarded thread. The quietly obsessive persistence of the piece can be enervating, but Saviet doesn’t let it show. Even heard as background, its sudden conclusion after some fifty minutes leaves a profound absence in its wake.

Short Cuts: Rawlinson, Friedl, Steiger

Thursday 23 February 2023

Pulsar Retcon by Jules Rawlinson (Superpang): nine quick takes of electronic noise that cram a lot into sub-twenty minutes. It all bustles about constantly, alternately scratching, squelching and beeping in a nice mad-scientist way. When it starts to sound like it’s just rolling back and forth to keep busy, it’s because that’s exactly what’s happening: “Improvised buffer scratching, corpus scrubbing and waveform scuffing of material sourced from New Pulsar Generator.” I wanted something truly surprising to happen but instead it gets comfortable with itself, which is kind of forgiven by the means of its construction. Rawlinson’s trying out licks on a reluctant instrument and looks for a groove before trying to bust it up, which justifies the human noodling gestures heard through the emotionless static and also keeps things lively to the end.

Old Neo by Reinhold Friedl (also Superpang): Friedl has a lot more gear at his disposal than Rawlinson, taking all the sounds for his thirty-ish minute opus from a Neo-Bechstein. (If you don’t want to right-click that name, it’s a brand of 1930s electric piano of which two functioning instruments survive.) Presumably the Austrian museum curators won’t let you go hog wild on the thing so Old Neo is an extended slab of sombre mood music, all ominous drones and keening feedback harmonics. I’m left teetering between admiring the way Friedl doesn’t want the piece to become a gimmick and instead puts the instrument into service to produce a piece of music, and wishing he could find something more distinctive in this strange device than electronic ambience that only becomes remarkable when you find out how the piece is made, thus inadvertently sealing its fate as a gimmick.

Loud Object by Billy Steiger (Otoroku): kind of electronic, disguised as violin yoga. It’s one of those deals where the fiddler obsessively hammers away at a short riff and sees where it leads them, one per LP side or digital simulacrum. It feels like I’ve heard half a dozen of these but the twist here is that Steiger thriftily recycles his rejected takes by feeding them into a sampler to loop in bogus psychoacoustica, adding a complexity both to the sound and the concept. You can never be exactly sure that what you’re hearing is the work of a skilled musician making the notes from his acoustic instrument bounce around the walls organically, or a skilled musician layering in digitial hallucinations. Either way, you end up doubting what you think you’re really hearing, which is a nice way of shaking you out of any complacent trust in authenticity and to make you probe a little deeper. The sleeve notes are worded in a way that allow the possibility that at times Steiger may let go and leave his digital past selves to do the talking for him.

Strange sounds: Martin Iddon, Eden Lonsdale

Sunday 19 February 2023

A couple of albums here that excel at being distant and eerie, but with substance far deeper than just setting a mood. Another Timbre has released a couple of albums of Martin Iddon’s work before, but Naiads adds a new dimension to understanding his music. A cycle of five chamber compositions composed between 2012 and 2017, Naiads foregrounds aspects of Iddon’s style implied in his previously released recordings, combining the gnarled phrasing with subtleties of perception, the complex with the minimal. The five works have a vegetal quality, organic but in a way that slips between the natural and the constructed, as though diligently cultivated then left to run wild. In the sextet crinaeae and the trio limnades, regular pulses appear, rising up at odds through the flowing sounds before subsiding again. In between, the string trio pegaeae dwells on whispered sounds that rise and fall on sliding pitches. The use of soft attacks, harmonics and multiphonics make these cycles and pulsations sound more primal than mechanical, even when layered into a more complex interplay on potameides. The final piece as heard in this album’s sequence, eleionomae reduces the material to unpitched sounds, faint rasps and ominous tapping. The musicians of the Apartment House ensemble play through all of this world of extended techniques as though such rarefied language comes naturally to them. There appear to be more layers at work in these pieces than on the previous Iddon albums, which is strange as all the compositions date from around the same period. It points to a consistent but varied body of work that needs to be considered on a wider scale.

Eden Lonsdale is a new composer to me and presumably to most people: the oldest piece on his album Clear and Hazy Moons was written when he was still a student, in 2021. His music can be described as spectral, as long as you consider the word in both its meanings. He fits in with a group of other modern composers who have assimilated an understanding of electronic processing of sound and applied it to acoustic instruments, using them in combinations that produce alterations to their usual timbre and acoustic phenomena, rather than use them primarily to differentiate between voices. In the “old” piece Oasis, a muted piano plays a reiterated note that is given resonance and colouring by clarinet, violin, cello, electric guitar and percussion, drawing out unusual overtones for as long as possible before opening out into clouded chords. In Billowing, a slowly descending line repeats, accentuated by small flourishes on solo strings while muted trumpet mixes with flute, saxophone and clarinet to produce high notes that shimmer and beat against the slow phrasing. The same instruments combine in Anatomy of Joy, written last September and only played in the studio so far, which immerses a chorale in a simulated reverberation chamber that recalls glass armonica and reed organ. A notable characteristic in these compositions is the way each one seems about to fade away at any moment, as though ready to conclude, pausing and then continuing, always softer in its hamonic language or diminished in force. Each of these is again played by Apartment House, who instigated the first and last pieces here. The exception is the title work, composed for the new ensemble Rothko Collective. The reverb heard in Clear and Hazy Moons owes something more to its surroundings, as it was recorded by the composer on a handheld device during its dress rehearsal in a church. This may explain why it has an uncanny electronic sound to it, even while the instruments remain unadulterated. Lonsdale’s close chords and small clusters here sound not so much muddied as acoustically synthesised as they bounce off the walls, leaving the microphone to mix winds, strings and percussion.

Movement and stillness: Radigue, Pateras

Monday 6 February 2023

Nearly twelve years ago I was in the audience for Rhodri Davies giving the first performance of Éliane Radigue’s Occam I for prepared harp, little suspecting the proliferation of acoustic pieces that would follow in the series. I’ve blown hot and cold on them ever since that equivocal premiere, having heard various Occam iterations for solo, duo and larger groups which I found either intriguing, technically interesting or just rote. Occam Delta XV, composed for the Quatuor Bozzini in 2018, is the first Radigue piece that’s got me really enthused since hearing her Naldjorlak trilogy at that same gig so many years ago. While Naldjorlak creates awe through its sublime, immaculate surface, Occam Delta XV is far more turbulent. The drones that make up Radigue’s compositions have always been in constant motion, but this string quartet draws on an inherent complexity in the material seldom heard since she abandoned the use of analog synthesiser. A lot of that can be attributed to Quatuor Bozzini, too. Radigue taught them the piece orally and their peculiar quality of playing – making music sound both very new and very old all at once – comes to the fore here. Two performances are presented here, recorded live on consecutive nights in late 2021. It’s a piece that depends on communication and mutual feedback between the four musicians to guide its progress, and so the two versions vary greatly, with each sounding more like a studio creation than a live gig. In the first, variations in the bowing produce a handwoven, folk-like aspect to the music, stretched and suspended into watery, wavering overtones like a Canterbury hippie’s pastoral reverie. Pitch material varies over the course of the piece, thickening into a dense passage of multiphonics while transforming further and further away from its tonal origins. From the second night, things are calmer but darker, thinning out into wisps of harmonics before ultimately resolving in more conventional fashion. I wonder if other quartets could produce astonishing results from this piece, but I suspect they would be very different from the Bozzini.

Speaking of constant movement in one place, I’ve also just listened to Anthony Pateras’ Two Solos. We’ve established now that Pateras is in the second phase of his compositional career, having progressed from florid and convulsive activity to more focused and studious work. The two solos here are in fact each for soloist accompanied by themselves on tape. On Palimpsest Geometry Callum G’Froerer plays double-bell trumpet, a thicket of staccato repeated notes that vary in texture, timbre and (microtonally) in pitch through rapid shifting between mutes, changes in articulation and the compunding effect of the layered trumpets on tape. The combination of multicoloured brass and bustling motion with a steadfast refusal to take any particular direction makes it sound like an unusually disciplined work by Lucia Dlugoszewski. At first hearing, it was great while it lasted but still felt like a less substantial work than some of his other pieces. Following it with the flipside, There Is A Danger Only Our Mistakes Are New for voice and tape, put the album into a new perspective. Clara La Licata gently sings small phrases that rock back and forth between two pitches, overlapping each other into a babble that both lulls and disturbs. The vulnerability of the voice contrasts against the preceding brass and opens up more profound implications in both works, with communication made clearer even as the voice is wordless.