One-track minds: Michael Winter and Catherine Lamb

Monday 26 April 2021

single track is a really arresting piece that appealed to me immediately,” begins the Another Timbre proprietor’s blurb. Same, dude; same. “A seven-part canon which starts fast and gradually slows down over its 45-minute duration:” that’s exactly what it is, no more, no less. Having recently praised the creative use of algorithms in composition, I need to salute Michael Winter’s work here. The linked interview is an instructive example of the challenges in working with such an approach, which would otherwise seem to be nothing more than following a predetermined path. The idea is simple, strong and immediately grasped both when read and when heard, yet the means of make the idea aurally manifest seemed to test the bounds of possibility. It’s an unheard element that often fuels the tension and interest in music like this, where the clarity of conception is at odds with the difficulty of its execution.

Winter sets the ensemble of seven musicians – all biased towards the lower registers – an exhaustive series of permutations of six notes, sequenced in canon. The perky repetitions of harmonically consistent material recall the high summer of minimal compositions and process music, but the freshness of the piece gives it something new to contribute instead of sounding retro. This would seem to originate in the use of mathematical procedures to introduce quirks that would otherwise have been at the mercy of subjective caprice. First listening, I had forgotten that as each new instrument enters the others slow down and wondered if some electronic sustain effect was in use, introducing a halo of prolonged tones over the regular chatter, until that halo steadily engulfed the ensemble as the musicians are transformed from activity to stillness. The musicians are from a Mexican ensemble named Liminar and I understand why Winter speaks so highly of them. Each plays this unbroken span of constantly counter-intuitive moves in coordination with each other in a way that never obscures the conceptual clarity for the listener, yet do so with a solidity that never makes the simple material seem facile.

My previous exposure to Winter’s music is limited to a piece on the West Coast Soundings album with other students of James Tenney, including Catherine Lamb. I’ve discussed Lamb’s music more often, here and elsewhere, but maybe not as much as it deserves. For the past few years, much of the work I’ve heard has made use of spectral synthesis, harmonically enhancing ambient sound in accord with the instruments. Her latest release on Another Timbre, Muto Infinitas, is a long work for two musicians without electronic alterations. It’s strange to hear Lamb’s music again without that resonant aura, here made all the more stark by the severely constricted range of pitches for most of the piece’s length. For a long time, the duet of Rebecca Lane on bass flute and Jon Heilbron on double bass scarcely moves beyond the least noticeable differences in pitch. Both play in just intonation tuning, requiring the use of microtones (Lane uses a Kingma flute capable of quartertones beyond the usual alternative forms of fingering). The most noticeable changes come in overtones and beating frequencies that emerge from the playing, as the microtones and timbral profiles of each instrument interact – sounding like an Alvin Lucier piece.

In the latter stages the pitch range opens up a little and, by the end, a little melody breaks out. Apparently Lamb has been interested in the “long introduction” as a music form for a while, but the piece’s structure also strongly recalls Tenney’s Critical Band. Muto Infinitas has been in one form of development or another for about five years, honed in its composition and its performance practice. It was written for Lane and Heilbron, both experienced practitioners of this musical style, performing and composing. It’s a piece they’ve made their own as much as Lamb’s and this recording may capture just one phase of a continuing evolution. For the listener, this version runs the risk of being too focused on the performers’ experience at the expense of our own. For some people it may fascinate, but I found the prolonged delay in introducing tangible activity, followed by increasingly (relatively) hurried movement made the ending perfunctory and sounding like a destination, displacing the presumed emphasis on the journey. In other words, I wish it were shorter, or paced in some way that didn’t make me feel like it was delaying gratification.

Takuroku Springtime Speedrun

Thursday 22 April 2021

One year into global pandemic conditions and we’re all getting a bit jaded as lives settle into a routine of reduced dimensions. Cafe Oto’s Takuroku series has become a musical documentation of this prolonged, wearisome event and themes have become apparent. In particular, there is the presence of lockdown conditions as an obstacle to be either confounded (collaborations, typically conducted remotely or by stealth) or accepted (ruminative solos). Sorting through the recent batches on my playlist, I can find in the former category:

Duncan Chapman, Supriya Nagarajan & Rhodri Davies – Slowly Drifting. Carnatic singing with drones will usually end up either taut and compelling, or in a box next to the checkout at the organic shop. There’s plenty of slack between the vocal phrases here, rescued in the mix by Davies’ bowed harp, which hooks into all that free space and gives it a breath and a sense of direction.

Rebecca Wilcox & Hannah Ellul – sweeping, at least. Collaborative free improv as mumblecore. The meaning is obfuscated and any overtly musical content is all but incidental, although they do dress it up a little for our benefit. It gets said that collaboration is a form of conversation, so here we get the act of exchange as the subject itself. As in true conversation, the content doesn’t matter, or is at least none of our business.

Maria Chavez & Jordi Wheeler – The Kitchen Sessions: 1-5, 2020. Prepared instruments and electronic whatnot jostle with each other in a set of miniatures with a restlessness that makes even the longer tracks feel small. Feels like loosening up for something more, preferably outisde a venue that needs an artist credit.

Blanca Regina & Wade Matthews – Shortcuts. I used to get these duos confused with the Chavez & Wheeler set, but these four pieces stay still enough to give you some expectations to subvert, plus a hidden purpose: coming back to them, moments of preciousness in the sound come across like mock field recordings, a documentarian’s precision in capturing a phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

And in the latter:

Bridget Hayden – Transmissions. Descended electric guitar curls up in slow, sulking coils of fuzz, all but smothering the wisps of atmospheric effects that provoke and sustain the stasis. Bleak but alive.

Tina Jander – Ice Cubes. An hour of cello with field recordings that swiftly lures and traps you into something prolonged, nasal and sour, refusing to let you go. Bleak but bracing, striking in an unpleasant way that will compel you either to return to it or to remember to stay away.

Xisco Rojo – Axial Tilt. 12-string guitar played with physical and electrical bows that buzzes as much as the Hayden and sneers as much as the Jander but less bleak, even as the only backdrop for the instrument is clear silence. The sharp contrasts between the friction and the pure tones merge and then separate out as a structural device.

I’m trying to be pithy with these thumbnail impressions but it keeps sounding snarky in my head, so forgive me for continuing to note down some more at the risk of coming across as glib.

Goodiepal – The Pole Imposter & The Databar. The second of his Takuroku audio memoirs documenting the arcana of fin de siècle underground Euroculture, nostalgia qualified by questions of authenticity. As far as I can tell, the fakery here is genuine and honestly presented, except I think he just made me unwittingly listen to a… podcast?

United Bible Studies – The Night Fell Off Its Axis. The goup gets described as a “magickal conglomerate” but thankfully not as a collective. This one, big-ass track further condemns and redeems by opening itself to accusations of being art through sheer refusal to stop, pushing for further consequences to their musical actions that may not be forseen. It’s rare to find magick that questions its certitude.

Josephine Foster – Spellbinder / Experiment. The second track is revisionist weird for the sake of it, rather like that early 80s new wave form of po-faced hedonism. The hedonism throws the first track into context, a tapestry of woozy instruments making something eclectically and eccentrically sumptuous that rebuffs the usual British need for justification, shamanism, ley lines etc.

Pete Um – A British Passport. Speaking of new wave, these songs (don’t be shy) have that same fuzzy, sheltered sound which is dry and dull unless you’re on that same wavelength and then it connects hard. I don’t hear it myself, but on this album I can hear how it might work better than I can when listening to more celebrated post-punk cult figures. This is due to the artist’s insight, as are the synth patches which manage to sound both fresh and comfortable all at once.

Josten Myburgh: Sculthorpe Studies

Saturday 17 April 2021

One of the most exquisite items of late 20th Century kitsch is Bird Symphony, an album by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation featuring various Australian orchestras playing popular classics by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel with overdubbed recordings of native birdsong. Heavily advertised on Australian TV in the 1990s, it appealed to a more mature audience, of which many of the older members would recall a childhood in which they were taught that their country possessed no notable indigeneous birdlife at all, save the laughing jackass. The pairing of local nature with foreign culture was once considered a small victory in that it acknowledged the local having any aesthetic value at all, but by the age of the CD the more sophisticated Australian recognised it as a beacon of the Cultural Cringe for which we supposed ourselves famous.

It would take a crassness of Boulezian proportions to say that Peter Sculthorpe represented this form of kitsch raised to its most refined pinnacle; particularly as it isn’t even true. Nevertheless, the temptation persists: Sculthorpe’s employment of regional, non-Western sounds and culture in a European impressionist idiom earned him, for his sins, the sobriquet of “Father of Australian Music” and a standing invitation for each successive generation of composers to knock him down. (I note that the ABC has recently reissued their Sculthorpe recordings, with the original ‘modernist’ cover art replaced by postcard photos of landscapes.) For the cultural Insiders, the persistence of Sculthorpe is a complex debate that runs beneath the surface of a lot of Australian musical activity. Josten Myburgh’s Sculthorpe Studies is an unusual work in that it confronts the argument head-on and the fact that listening to it makes me want to discuss Sculthorpe more than the Myburgh is a testament both to the piece’s strength and weakness.

An ensemble (flute, saxophone, electric guitar, bass, piano, percussion) plays mid-20th Century harmonies extracted from Sculthorpe’s compositions over field recordings featuring birds from various parts of southern Australia. The instruments play ‘Sculthorpe’ as isolated, sustained tones, evoking an extended, non-directional flatness that might almost parody the impressionist cliché of Australianness. Myburgh, however, has studied with key Wandelweiser figures Antoine Beuger and Michael Pisaro, so that kind of sparse, undeveloped sound can also be taken in earnest, with international approval. Myburgh intends this piece as critique – some of his statements show symptoms of the competitive false humility typically used as cultural capital in Australia – but smartly avoids didacticism by allowing paradoxical complexities such as these to proliferate.

Sculthorpe Studies succeeds in being neither affectionate nor rebellious; as an act of “playful provocation” it achieves an ambivalence that perfectly suits the national character. As commentary, we can listen to it as a caricature, a kind of reductio ad absurdum, and remember that sarcastic mimicry is a cornerstone of Australian satire. If it is, then it gets murky when identifying who the target is. The piece itself becomes an example of the music it critiques. Or we can try to listen without thinking too hard. The birds sing prettily, the musicians add what turns out to be a surprising amount of colour and phrasing, but nothing much seems to be going on. I’ve always found Wandelweiser style at its worst when it’s noncommittal about whether it’s worth listening to it or not. Are the birds there to fill in silence between the notes? Are the notes there to justify the presence of the birds? Myburgh simply sits the two side by side, knowing that neither is truly representative nor truly natural. If nothing truly belongs anywhere anymore, then what was the problem again?

P.S. False Self plays music for six pianos

Sunday 11 April 2021

Speaking of disorienting piano, got wrong-footed by this recent Takuroku release by Rudi Arapahoe. Never heard of this guy before but he’s my kind of composer, drawing on algorithmic art and the Scratch Orchestra to create music that pulls away from being subjective expression. In False Self plays music for six pianos said computer-controlled keyboards cycle through cells of ‘jazzy’ riffs and silence: a simple process, but used here in a way that resists comprehension even as it tempts analysis. At first you wonder where the six pianos are, until there are too many coincidences to convince you there’s more going on than a single person playing. Long, limpid passages suddenly burst into cascading flourishes as though Harold Budd (RIP) just walked in. The four pieces here have the same torpid spontaneity of Morton Feldman’s Five Pianos, as mystifying and inscrutable as the flakes of white slowly swirling around a tropical scene set inside a snowglobe.

Personal notes: James Rushford’s Música Callada and See the Welter

Tuesday 6 April 2021

I want to thank James Rushford for putting me on to Mompou in the first place, during a conversation some years back. He said he’d been playing Música Callada a lot and wanted to do it justice, in response to the qualities he kept discovering beneath its unassuming surface. Since that evening I’ve been seeking out recordings of Mompou and learning to appreciate his distinctive qualities even in the most conventional, traditionally folkloristic compositions that usually fall outside my narrow sphere of attention. I’d figured I probably had enough by now but late last year Unseen Worlds released a fine double album of two interpretations by Rushford of Música Callada, as a pianist and as a composer.

The four books of twenty-eight short pieces are late Mompou at his most distilled, but not abstract. The comparison to Satie gets thrown around a lot and besides the obvious impressions of modest dimensions and transparent textures there is also a shared dedication to revealing character and discounting personality, in the same way that a mediaeval altarpiece or folk tune is both personal and anonymous. Rushford’s interpretation, recorded at the fittingly named Akademie Schloss Solitude, captures the rarefied and the rustic. Early on, during the Placide in Book I, the repeated descending line has a hollowness that evokes memories of a school piano or some other slightly wobbly upright. When described, it sounds like a flaw, but hearing it earths the piece in experience and unsolicited nostalgia, showing there is more at work here than simple melancholy charm. The ear becomes alert to the way Rushford builds up a finely graded palette of colours throughout the work’s narrow and muted spectrum. (Almost everything is marked in some nuance of the word ‘slow’; even the solitary Allegretto frequently stands still.) I recall other interpretations which tried to inject moments of dynamic bravura for the sake of contrast, or allowed everything to to drift by as though tastefully veiled.

Rushford’s own composition See the Welter was composed while learning Mompou’s intricacies and is presented here as a counterpart. He describes it as a shadow of Música Callada, not in substance but in remembered experience, that of playing Mompou, an extended essay on touch, balance and timing. The two compositions are comparable in total duration but Rushford’s piece effaces Mompou’s boundaries and matches it with a single, undifferentiated span of single notes spread over seven very slow pages. The broad pace and pauses are filled through pedalling, allowing chords to arise from the severely reduced material. For the pianist, it becomes a prolonged meditation on concentration and the subtlest adjustments in judgement. For the listener, it becomes a gently dizzying exercise in counterpoint that draws you into a labyrinth where melody and direction are always hinted at but never resolve into a single identifiable image. Without ever emulating Mompou, Rushford retrospectively adds the abstract and esoteric element through implication, while also inviting contemplation of Música Callada as a labyrinth itself.

Sense and Nonsense: Grimm Grimm v Great Rack

Wednesday 24 March 2021

We’ve been through all this before: music isn’t supposed to make sense. Koichi Yamanoha aka Grimm Grimm has produced a sweet little EP of six tracks recorded at home in London last year titled Recalling. Each is an evocative little sketch of a place in memory and none of it has to match up in anyone’s head besides Yamanoha, but for the listener it’s all delightfully incongruous. Tastefully moody synth pads suddenly escalate with great drama for no reason, then a ditzy, grimy organ waltz is titled “Making My Eyes Bleed”, then syrupy preset synths play oddly beguiling lobby music. The remaining vignettes are equally vivid while affectively ambiguous. Thinking back, I wonder how much it refers to movie soundtracks (if so, it would be one particularly crazy cult favourite) or to video game music (no, it’s all too earnest and sounds too scuzzy), but then listening to it again I realise it resists all attempts to conform to even the most electic definitions.

Great Rack’s sample pack is presented on Bandcamp as a name-your-price album but it comes with a creative comments licence and a readme file that invites you to “feel free to use the samples in however way you feel”. Sure enough, there are 100 tracks that fly by in about 13 minutes, all made with Great Rack’s alter ego Emily Bennett’s voice, a bunch of her friends and a lot of rackmount reverb. Tracks range from the wry to the inane, with a Duchampian ear for the eloquently inconsequential. Absurdities pile up. Tracks are either too short to be tracks (0.145 seconds) or samples are too long to be samples (3 minutes plus of ominous grooves). Many are contrived to defy any standard ADSR envelope (one is a brief, arbitrary list of suburbs in Melbourne) and become koans for listener and musician alike. The tracklist starts with titles, sort of, then resort to standard sample names: “056 E.Bass 2” is hilariously inappropriate, “065 String 1” is hilariously appropriate. A collection so intractable that it makes trying to listen to it fun, and makes trying to create (more) music from it an irresistable challenge.

More field recordings and music

Wednesday 17 March 2021

I wish the contradictions inherent in field recordings were great enough to make them interesting as a paradox. As material, they contain so much in themselves that to use them in composition feels obtuse, or forced, or redundant. As for authenticity, they’re either complacent or factitious. Over the past year, musicians have found themselves compelled to confront the medium as pandemic lockdowns confine them to solitude in their immediate surroundings. Now, suddenly, someone’s mundane environment has become tantalisingly exotic and remote for everyone else: each of us truly is different even as we are all the same.

But how can this situation be conveyed, beyond unaffected documentation? Mixing field recording and music is deceptively difficult. Anna Murray’s City Shadows presents three tracks of collaged recordings taken outdoors around Tokyo and blends them with samples, her own playing and a lot of effects processing. It evokes a city in twilight, a threshhold time when it is not quite itself, waiting to change identity. A strong single image, but the details lose focus between the unobtrusive music and the constant haze of traffic blurred through a tastefully arranged harmonizer.

Duncan Harrison’s compacted audio daybook Two Channels of Unedited Voice Memos is as artless as its title. Mono phone recordings, one in each ear as promised, served up with a disclaimer of any editing or synchronisation. Collage as omnium-gatherum, avoiding the problem common to field recordings and collage alike where the structure cannot support the content or the parts overwhelm the whole. Guitar doodles, ambient noise, muttering, junk, all are switched back and forth in a jumbled and supposedly candid portrait of the artist’s mind. Like last year’s Pressure Carcass release on Takuroku it protests its crudity a little too strongly, mistaking authenticity for substance. Needs more channels.

Week Nine is a collaborative audio collage with an overriding “precise” structure and work process. Teresa Cos, Julia E Dyck and Caroline Profanter exchanged sound files back and forth, adding, subtracting and manipulating segments in a systematic manner that I don’t quite follow but is clearly evident even as it remains inexplicable. Found sounds, electronic noise and snatches of popular tunes I happen to particularly dislike appear, disappear, reappear in a kind of aural kaleidoscope. The three tracks are sixty-one minutes each, which makes hitting ‘play’ a daunting prospect but to get the piece requires living with it more than dedicated commitment. It’s not so much music as wallpaper than it is music as landscape, a thing for contemplation, from time to time.

Lucy Railton’s work with cello and electronics keeps trying out new approaches to combining the two. The blurb for 5 S​-​Bahn presents the album as Railton playing her cello at her apartment in Berlin with the light rail tracks passing outside. Any preconception of one being foreground for the other quickly fades away. The sounds of Berlin predominate, with the musician’s cello and voice acting as augmentation as much as accompaniment. Together, they work as kind of an orchestra and the five parts of the album resemble a symphony, with each part emphasising a different palette of neighbourhood sounds or a different density of outside activity. Recorded last spring during lockdown, the reduced human presence casts the whole work as an ironic pastoral, even as the trains regularly pass in distant aspect or close-up. I had to double-check that multiple locations weren’t listed as the sounds are so varied. The music doesn’t pretend there’s no editing or mixing involved. Purely as a technical curiosity it would be interesting to know how much was put together and how much happened as-is but as this is art it really does not matter.

Genuine improvised duets

Sunday 14 March 2021

At a time when just getting two people into a room to play together is a dimly-remembered luxury, it’s nice to hear again the strange interactions that happen during an improvised duet. The three recordings here all took place before 2020’s pandemic and the attendant lockdowns and general curtailment of simple pleasures. It’s also nice to remember that austere doesn’t have to be synonymous with meagre. The Interstices Of These Epidemics is the result of 18 months’ preparation by Clinton Green and Barnaby Oliver, in which the two of them worked with “a restricted palette of gestures and sound sources” until they created this mesmerising pair of improvisations. Green plays bowed metal bowls, producing distinctively complex, friable drones that teem with ambiguous harmonics. It’s a sound that can easily be overused but Green plays with steadfast restraint, letting inadvertent variations come of their own accord. In the first track, he’s joined by Oliver on violin, the two of them merging into what sounds like a prepared string quartet playing a blurred, nebulous chorale. For the second, Oliver switches to piano and Green’s drones become a backdrop for a plaintive series of ostinatos. The wistful sentimentality of the chords and halting rhythm is tempered by Oliver’s refusal to be led into anything beyond the most minute expressive gestures. This is released on Green’s Shame File Music, a long-running Melbourne label that mixes up new music with reissues of historic recordings of the Australian avant-garde.

This came out a while back and I didn’t pay close attention because it seemed like more lowkey improvisation which is all just swell but after a while you’ve heard too much of it. Turns out it’s way better than that. The two tracks on Iteration were improvisations at a live gig by Lucio Capece and Werner Dafeldecker, the former on reeds and battery-powered feedback, the latter on double bass. As with Green and Oliver, the two musicians do not play as one instrument but nevertheless play with a single mind in a shared, multicoloured voice. In the first track, Capece’s bass clarinet forms the focus, with Dafeldecker’s bass adding colouration and echoes, each instrument seeking out a common register. For the second, the string instrument’s more complex textures become figuration against higher, more pure tones traded between slide saxophone and feedback until the bass harmonics threaten to engulf them. Both works are unhurried, with a clean conception of form and pacing that slows down time while still feeling like a worked-out composition.

David Grubbs and Ryley Walker first played together as a duet on “a broiling night at a neighborhood bar” in New York in summer 2019. The gig is now released as Fight or Flight Simulator on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku download label. The two electric guitars intertwine around some gently paced but steady chords and picking patterns, then gradually lead each other into more fraught terrain. Even as there is some Sturm und Drang during the 25-minute piece, a regular pulse is heard or implied throughout, which both Grubbs and Walker use to pull back and foreground the subtle complexity found in the interplay of their instruments, rather than try to dazzle the punters with histrionics. It’s hard to be objective listening to this because I can’t but feel sad about it. It makes me wish I was in another place, or another time; somewhere it isn’t still winter, where there are bars and gigs, somewhere that isn’t London, or even Europe, somewhere that electric guitars still matter, a place where I’m not so old.

Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973)

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Some archival releases are historically important, restoring a significant musical movement to present-day consciousness. Others can throw accepted history into a different light, making the past a deeper, richer source for new inspiration. As a modern musical experience, listening to historic recordings of the avant-garde is often an excercise in intellectual curiosity, or a dark form of amusement: the interpretations and performances are often unpolished or uninformed, at worst incompetent and, even at their best, often drily literal (and sometimes no worse for that). It’s a rare and exciting event when the archaeological trip works equally well as a compelling new release.

Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973) is a superlative example of all that is best in archival box sets. Paradigm Discs has form for presenting ‘lost’ music at its most potent; this set has been years in the making and all the work has paid off in spades. In late twentieth century avant-garde music, the British group Gentle Fire is often mentioned but seldom heard. Active in the late 60s and early 70s, they remain best remembered for a small vinyl legacy: their recording of Stockhausen’s Sternklang and a German LP of pieces by the New York School. CD reissues are piecemeal and/or capriciously expensive. Explorations is three CDs of Gentle Fire recordings which, as far as I can tell, have never been publically available in complete form. Even if you are familiar with the 70s LPs, everything’s an ear-opener.

Disc one tackles familiar territory: previously unreleased performances of Cage, Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and Toshi Ichiyanagi, all from 1970 or 1971. The typically rough-hewn electroacoustic sounds of the period are all present and correct, yet it all sounds less stark or abrasive than other contemporary avant-gardisms, even compared to their own LP. The only repeat here is Brown’s Four Systems, given an ingeniously austere realisation with Hugh Davies applying band-pass filters to a droning string ensemble (other group members Graham Hearn, Richard Orton, Richard Bernas, Michael Robinson and Stuart Jones filling in on whatever instrument is needed). There’s more detail in the Electrola LP, but the recording here is more focused on a coherent musical statement than on numbering off each of the score’s elements. It’s this emphasis on using open scores to produce a fully realised piece of music instead of “exploring possibilities” that sets Gentle Fire apart from other experimental music groups of the time. The disc starts off with a small surprise, with Christian Wolff’s For Jill instructing the performers to concentrate on combinations of selected notes into chords – an unusually traditional material compared to his better-known group realisations. An ensemble of home-made instruments by Davies et al nudges Wolff’s score back into the uncanny.

Two selections from Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen (Aufwärts and Treffpunkt) show the strength of the ensemble’s musical vision. They’re not afraid to “lead the tone wherever your thoughts lead you” as enjoined by the score, even as Stockhausen heavily directs those thoughts towards convergence. Their idea of “always return to the same place” is a lot more conceptually open and makes the piece soar in unexpected ways. Similarly with Aufwärts, where unlike with at least one other ensemble, they would not agree with, let alone solicit, Stockhausen’s guidance on what “the rhythm of the universe” might be. (Incidentally, there’s a great article in The Wire going over Gentle Fire’s history with the surviving members, including the whole “working with Stockhausen” experience.) Ichiyanagi’s Appearance threatens to get aggressively harsh but never lets up the suspense, with judicious use of ring modulators and sinewave generators creating a bleak, ominous landscape out of trumpet, cello and electric organ. Cage’s Cartridge Music does get appropriately rowdy, amping up small sounds into a cavernous roar. It’s a live recording and the audience is plainly amused by the antics required to produce some of these noises, thus fulfilling Cage’s wish that electronic music be at least as theatrically satisfying as live acoustic performance.

The second two discs are the real revelation, featuring compositions by individual group members and two large “group compositions”, each one shocking in how they interect with both their own time and ours. The pieces bring a healthy dose of the Cagean, Fluxusy extremes of the US avant-garde into the distinctly more genteel British millieu. It was a fertile period, sort of post-Cage but pre-Nyman, and Explorations expands this field hugely, beyond the usual assumed constraints of process music and the assumed freedoms of AMM. That skill for mixing acoustic and electronic comes into its own here. Stuart Jones’ Ruthie’s Piece sounds almost contemporary, using isolated piano sounds with heavy ring modulation against soft cello harmonics to create what could pass for 21st-century ambient. Richard Bernas’ Almanac For September is a more restless work but it also sets muted piano against cello harmonics, using purely acoustic means to alter tone and resonance in ways that resemble electronic processing. In Michael Robinson’s 2 Pianos Piece the composer is joined by Richard Bernas in a lop-sided process of repetition and augmentation that would fit alongside works by John White or Christopher Hobbs. Graham Hearn’s Centrepiece takes a rudimentary idea of “soloist with tape loops” and interprets it as a haunting, evocative soundtrack of muffled organ lost amongst the remnants of run-out grooves on old records. It’s a long, long way from the academic exposition of novel compositional structures.

The two group compositions push into new territories, with performance verging on installation. Group Composition VI (unfixed parities) from 1973 has the ensemble electronically transmitting and modifying speaking voices, filtering and disrupting speech with modified telephone equipment to create a dense, barely intelligible verbal soundscape. Its sonic novelty is ripe with the implications of technology, reproduction and intervention, information overload, alienation and spatial dislocation. As a dispassionately prophetic work, it’s a thrilling and disturbing space for meditation. In fleeting moments it recalls various Alvin Lucier compositions. Group Composition IV originated on the Pyramid Stage at the first Glastonbury festial in 1971 and is here recorded at the Roundhouse in London the following year. It features the gHong, a large assembly of suspended metal rods which can be played collective and coaxed into a wide array of complex sounds, augmented by various additional instruments, including Davies’ own homebrew springboards and a VCS3 synthesizer. This recording takes up the entire third disc, sounding and resounding for over an hour of deeply textured sounds that are simultaneously monumental and delicate. It’s a glorious thing.

Sound quality ranges from good (the concert recordings) to great; the cleanup work is seamless and transparent. The CD version comes in a slick box and a hefty, well-edited booklet with plenty of pictures, full documentation of who did what where and when, and a complete reprint of Hugh Davies’ essential essay Gentle Fire: An Early Approach to Live Electronic Music. Exemplary. I think a second pressing is on the way.

Antoine Beuger’s jankélévitch sextets

Tuesday 2 March 2021

In my mind I’ve worked up Antoine Beuger as my personal nemesis. Never met him, but his music has always aroused a vehement antipathy, sufficient for me to have resolved to avoid further encounters wherever possible. (The only other composer I’ve singled out for this treatment, more or less arbitrarily, is Wolfgang Rihm.) Whatever I’ve heard has always struck me as being imprisoned in theoretical purity, beholden to presenting an idea at the expense of any musical considerations; a dry, academic routine left to run its course. I found it devoid of aesthetic interest, but never in a way that challenged or provoked, and so felt no need to pursue it further.

So, when Another Timbre sent me their new recording of Beuger’s jankélévitch sextets, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my impartiality by getting really stuck in. I’m happy to report that those hopes have been dashed. This is quietly intriguing music. Maybe I needed to hear more Beuger after all, but what seems to set this piece apart from previous works I’ve heard is that the idea here focuses on musical considerations.

Then basically, the players, they do the same thing. They play long, very quiet tones. There’s nothing to practice, because individually everybody is engaging in the same activity. And they’re going to find themselves in different kinds of constellations, if you like. And there’s a whole set of pages in the score which you play separately, so you have a whole number of instances of this situation, and you move from one to the other, and it’s basically very amorphous. But it takes on some kind of form each time, and the form comes very logically and genetically from the setup, from the deep structure, if you like.

There seems to be a simple scheme in play here, not unlike some of my preferred music by Eva-Maria Houben. From this simplicity, a pleasing subtlety is allowed to emerge. As the title suggests, the piece is an homage to the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, who said that music has no itinerary, it’s not going from here to there to there, and who explored the philosophical concept of the event, the grey area where the appearance of a new state is dependent on perceiving the disappearance of an older state. The structure of the piece – musicians independently playing shared material within loosely-defined time-frames – bears a clear similarity to Cage’s late ‘number’ pieces. Indeed, the sound-world of soft, overlapping pitches strongly resemble many of those works.

There are distinct differences, however; borne out of differences in musical thinking. Where Cage allows some interpretive freedom, Beuger stipulates long and modestly soft notes throughout. With potential for harmonic and textural complexity thus reduced still further, other qualities come to the fore. The instruments (double bass, accordion, bass clarinet, violin, bassoon, viola) pair off and produce strangely sophisticated tone-colours. The mix of instruments used here by members of the ensemble Apartment House includes an accordion, which brings out unexpected beating frequencies and other acoustic phenomena. It’s a work that lovingly exemplifies the beauty of instrumental sounds, all through simple play that removes any faint traces of didacticism that linger even in Cage’s most beguiling works. Apartment House play with a steadfast simplicity that seems to suit Beuger’s style, although after a while it starts to sound a little too tender, which perhaps helps to sweeten the sound for the ear.

It figures that I must have been missing something all this time. Still wary of diving into Beuger’s back catalogue, but now because I’m worried I’ll spoil the mood.

Drones Club: Allotropes, John Chantler

Thursday 25 February 2021

Been immersing myself in a succession of glorious sonic baths lately, all luxurious warmth and invigorating refreshment. Allotropes is the duet of Jim Hoult and Stephan Barrett, collaborating remotely on this piece between Sweden and London. However this was achieved, Night Signal flows as organically as any live performance by two musicians in the same room, even as it is made out of the digital and electronic manipulation of fixed media. The source material apparently originates from tiny samples of clarinet multiphonics and bells, taking the rich harmonic and timbral characteristics of each sound and continuously finding new material to be worked out of each subliminally short snippet. Each sample is extended into long, streaking clouds of sound which continue to reveal fresh details without needing any heavy reworking, while retaining a consistently deep, velvety character throughout. It’s a profound type of sensory pleasure, and the forty-minute duration feels just right.

John Chantler’s No Such Array works in a similar way, an immersive experience that opens up consciousness rather than crowd it out. He’s been building his own, small synthesisers, battery-powered with portable speakers. No Such Array is a montage of performances with these devices in hall in Gothenburg last October, with Chantler making use of the space and the handy size of his instruments to suspend and swing the speakers to add to the resonant complexities. Higher pitched, a little rougher-textured and more acerbic than Night Signal, Chantler’s drones skate over and across each other to produce sounds that are more bracing but no less pleasing. With its shorter duration, one complements the other as a shot and chaser, to be alternated at will.

(no title)

Wednesday 10 February 2021

I’ve been listening to a lot of new stuff over winter, making some notes, as well as working on my own projects, but right at the moment I’m at a bit of an impasse over what I should finish up and make public next. To complicate matters, I’ve been listening through Paradigm Discs’ superb box set retrospective of Gentle Fire and fell down a wormhole listening to and reading up on Hugh Davies’ work with electroacoustic instruments.

While I get myself together, I’ve fixed up the reviews section of the site a little so you can click through to the artists grouped by name as well as follow up artists tagged the chronological summary. There are probably older albums and gigs I’ve written up that aren’t listed yet but the further back you go the more the writing turns to social media chit-chat.

I’ve been making some recordings around the house while in lockdown, as is the custom. The most recent piece was completed at the end of last year and you can hear it on Bandcamp. The download is free, as are most things on the site. If there’s something with a price tag still on it drop me a line and I’ll probably have a download code for it. Stay good, people.

Newton Armstrong, Judith Hamann: go out, collapse

Monday 1 February 2021

Until recently I’d mostly known Newton Armstrong’s work only through his technological contributions to other people’s music, but thankfully that’s been changing lately. The way to go out is a solo release through Another Timbre, with three of his compositions for live musicians and electronics. I’d heard the premiere of A line alongside itself at Music We’d Like to Hear a couple of years ago but didn’t say much about it at the time. A work for cellist Séverine Ballon, echoing her instrument around gentle electronics, it felt a little tentative inside the church at the gig, dwelling in the space without filling it. This recording, made shortly before the public peformance, can seem too restrained in one listening and then much more revealing and emergent on another hearing, so a lot seems to depend on my mood. The musical material is a lot more stripped back than in the two earlier pieces on the disc, suggesting that Armstrong is looking at ways of further refining his language and his compositional techniques to work with his electronics. He’s explained that “all of these pieces are made from deformed, non-strict canons” and it’s not a process that is obvious to the listener, although you do detect the recursiveness and tail-chasing in the earlier ensemble pieces. (The Hunters and Collectors reference is further obscured.) Mark Knoop conducts the Plus Minus Ensemble for the two chamber works that bookend A line alongside itself, each with melismatic lines that become intricate without ever feeling precise. Armstrong’s electronics are not immediately noticeable, other than through blurring and refracting the ensemble’s playing; less a dazzling hall of mirrors, more an intriguing shimmer of heat haze. Someone on social media described all three as “lush”, which seemed odd at first but made sense as I thought it over, even for the long line of the cello piece.

Speaking of people getting long-deserved exposure for their own compositions, I make this to be the fifth release by Judith Hamann over the past year, adding to her previous total of, well, none. Created during her attenuated residency/lockdown on Suomenlinna in Finland last year, Days Collapse builds on her recent work combining her cello with field recordings and electronics. The five tracks form a suite of nearly fifty minutes, but it’s easy to take in at a single sitting. Each track’s pacing and changes in timbre, distinct without being jarring, seems to allow things to happen in their own time while always drawing the listener further into its world. Besides its length, it’s a more complex work than her previously-heard montages and brings the darker shades of her music to the fore. The field recordings are less identifiable, unable to be reconciled to a specific time or place outside the imagination; sustained sounds start as bowing and mutate into voice, wind and electrical hum, an abstracted keening. By the time you’re halfway through you’re wondering when you last heard the cello, as music-making falls away to silences and less structured sounds. If the instrument is present in these moments, then the sounds are deeply internalised, scraping and rumbling inside the body, hollow resonance. Its sombre, distressed inarticulacy makes it one of the most eloquent musical statements to date on the past year’s pandemic and personal loss, reflecting on how to continue when each facet of life has been diminished, each opportunity more indeliby circumscribed.

Martin Arnold’s Stain Ballads

Tuesday 26 January 2021

I had my first encounter with Martin Arnold’s music back in 2016, at the end of a concert by Apartment House at Wigmore Hall. It knocked me out. “The way people were talking about him before the gig suggested that I’d been missing out. They were right. His new piece Stain Ballad is incredible; striking in its mysterious ambiguity, fragile but indelible. The music shared an aesthetic that Morton Feldman aspired to, of “having mood” without being “in a mood”. As I typed this, Philip Thomas, the pianist that night just tweeted he was listening back to the piece and is “in tears… fresh, complex, meandering, intricate, lovely.” Looking back, I’ll still remember this piece as one of the highlights of the year.”

I did remember it, too. Since then, I’ve sought out Arnold’s music, both live and on CD, but the craving to get a recording of Stain Ballad is finally fulfilled. It’s one of four compositions on the new Another Timbre collection, Stain Ballads, played again by Apartment House. One of the things about the title work that particularly appeals to me is that it’s for the largest forces I’ve yet heard in an Arnold composition: string quartet with piano, reed organ and percussion. The thicker, more densely coloured instrumentation adds more to the suggestiveness of the music’s phrasing while contributing further to the elusiveness of its shape and meaning. Arnold’s sounds and melodies are always muted and their obliqueness gains poignancy and strength from that impression of heightened but suppressed emotion.

It’s a trait often shared with folk music – of the momentous or the monstrous conveyed through an impassive facade – and it seems that Arnold’s pieces get compared to folk music quite a lot, judging by the interview that comes with this release. It can also be attributed to the lack of vibrato needed to play it right and a musical language that, despite my earlier comparison to Feldman above, is direct in its content while still producing effects open to interpretation. In the lengthy duet Trousers (that title encapsulating the direct and the ambiguous) violinist Mira Benjamin and cellist Anton Lukoszevieze share interweaving phrases that pause and restart, or take up a previously heard refrain, never quite the same, as though they are inventing open-ended tropes on a remembered tune. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze’s playing is feathery and frail, almost whispered, taking Arnold’s injunction to “shut down projection, fullness of tone, resonance, the consistency, stability and predictability” and focussing on each instrument’s texture about as far as they can without detracting from the melodic foreground and lapsing into technical affectation.

Lutra for solo cello is also captured here, another piece I had the good luck to hear live at its premiere by Lukoszevieze. “A long aria for countertenor, unaccompanied save by the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze humming (intentionally) for several passages. Taking sound at its most frail and revealing how it can endure.” That thinning out of sound appears here in the cello playing in the violin’s range, all harmonics and the highest registers. The humming also pushes the piece away from the rarefied immutability affected by “the classical”. The three works discussed are from 2016-17, but the disc ends with an earlier work, Slip from 1999. Violin, cello and bass clarinet start in unison before piano quietly intrudes, marking phrases at first but gradually becoming a framework around which the trio breaks into fragments, occasional soliloquies that briefly take flight before descending into brief commentaries. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze are joined here by Heather Roche on clarinet and Mark Knoop on piano, playing with a melancholy calmness, of the kind that makes you unhurried but resolved.

Inexhaustible x3: Nick Ashwood, Ferran Fages, TRUSS

Thursday 21 January 2021

Thanks to my habit of neglecting to read the sleeve notes, I only just realised that all three albums here are from Inexhaustible Editions. Also thanks to this habit, I was completely unprepared for Nick Ashwood’s solo release Unfolding​/​Overlay. I glanced over it, saw ‘acoustic guitars’ and figured we’d get to hear a solo approach as heard on his group improvised efforts, so my first listening was spent mostly getting over the shock of how it sounded. A steely tambura drone opens the album-length piece, which I figured was going to be the groundwork for some trancey guitar noodling until it gradually dawned on me that this was the trancey guitar stuff. Ashwood’s made this piece from two long, unedited takes of bowing on an acoustic guitar and then superimposing them. As performance, it’s a meditative experience, at once introspective yet open-minded, with the slow but purposeful drifting that comes from bringing the mind to an alert passivity through concentrated action. As a composition, the listener hears the constant weaving of bowed chords as a single, braided strand, with illusory harmonies and timbres and breathing pulses that can become either strong or frail, simple or complex, always evolving into something new of its own accord.

Just a small spoiler: the first fifteen seconds of Ferran Fages’ From Grey To Blue are silent. You might want to keep that in mind before cranking the volume. Not that the piece is loud, but it is clearly present: a forty-minute work for a full and closely-miked piano, played by Lluïsa Espigolé. Thinking back to Fages’ Un lloc entre dos records, a work for solo guitar and sine tones, and remembered that it was difficult to get a grip on: “The mind struggles to reconcile the parts into a whole”. Fages pushes the unresolved shapes of his music even further here, perhaps past breaking point. The piece falls into three parts, but in each the phrases are brief and widely separated by silences. Fages and Espigolé have collaborated over a couple of years and her playing, although described in the notes as “without emotion”, captures something tentative, even reluctant to proceed. At least there’s no sentimentality, even though the gently paced combinations of single tones and minor chords (rarely more than dyads) could lend themselves to drama. In the central section, the sounds themselves seem to thin out; when more chords return in part three everything happens more slowly. It’s described as a study in resonances and the spaces between sounds, but I’m usually pretty skeptical of pieces which make a virtue of reticence. With each successive listening, however, the sounds start to feel more tied together and playing it loud reveals the piano mechanism at work and the voids start to fill in as though they’re making some sort of connection; but as to what those connections might be, I’m not sure.

Fages is also part of the group TRUSS, playing acoustic guitar and feedback with Alejandro Rojas-Marcos on clavichord and Bárbara Sela on recorders. Todos los animales se reúnen en un gran gemido is a set of seven tracks recorded on one day in late 2019. They are apparently group improvisations but I keep hearing Fages’ methods at work. There are sustained high, keening passages as heard in his earlier piece Radi d’Or and, as the album progresses, the sounds start to break up into irresolute fragments. It’s stupid to attribute this to one musician when there are three at work. It sounds like Rojas-Marcos is using various extended techniques on his instrument, complicating the picture of who plays what when paired with Fage’s guitar. Sela’s recorder can either lead or shadow the high-pitched bowing and feedback, or otherwise derail and obstruct the continuity, forcing new approaches. The way the tracks are sequenced, the early sections are distinct and sometimes busy in that conventional group improv way, but around halfway through things become more fraught, with the music never quite succumbing to silence but always on the verge of breaking up, all the same. It’s not a comfortable experience, but it asks more questions of the listener than I originally bargained for.