Trip Report: An Assembly play Charlie Usher and Rowland Hill

Tuesday 16 October 2018

I’ve got some new recordings I need to talk about (Þráinn Hjálmarsson, All That Dust) but first I should follow up on that An Assembly gig previewed a couple of weeks back. The programme of new works commissioned by the ensemble has completed a small tour of the country.

Rowland Hill’s Tha-at’s right matches, or mismatches, 16mm film footage of three dancers in a studio with a live chamber ensemble. Both are drawn from Edwin Denby’s review of Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, taking Denby’s eccentric interpretations as a score to be, in turn, interpreted into a ballet. I was looking forward to this piece, commenting that “I’m a sucker for this sort of approach, acknowledging and exploiting transmission of information as a form of cultural distortion.” It didn’t disappoint. There’s a sly humour throughout the piece, made all the more subversive by never letting the audience relax into certainty over what, or who, is being made fun of from one moment to the next. Everything obeys an external logic of which the audience is aware of but not privy to. The film is disjointed, the setting informal like a rehearsal, but the dancer’s repeated movements and the abrupt changes of camera angles emphasise a structural rigour, following a logic that is never made clear. (Think audience alienation, more Godard than Brecht, but emptied of emotional or political manipulation, leaving the punters wary and bemused and ready to laugh or rein it in at a moment’s notice. The notice never comes.) The dancers bring a discipline and dignity to the ridiculousness. Like in a Robert Ashley piece, only with movement instead of words, the music does its work while the audience is distracted, a deadpan “No comment” while slipping a diffuse, brittle collage of chamber music past our ears.

Charlie Usher’s An assembly was, as promised, 122 pieces played in 45 minutes, each piece 13 seconds long except for an extended coda. The ten musicians, conducted by Jack Sheen, were augmented by modest electronics and occasional field recordings. One thing I didn’t expect from this work was the effect of writing, playing and listening on such a reduced scale for such an extended time. The description of the work’s form conjures up mental images of a kaleidoscope, or miscellany, but this possibility is never offered to the listener. Most of the pieces have titles and were dutifully listed in the programme (“they’re there to shade the content”): they read as notes for Usher’s own benefit, significant but insubstantial. There’s little in them for the audience to latch onto as an idea and besides, who can keep track from one piece to the next? 072 The green – believe it exists. 073 Strength with all sisters. 074 Music as a trace on your day. An artist’s notebook, instigating and susbtantiated by the music.

But what is the music? 13 seconds is almost nothing. Many of the pieces have scarcely any substance at all: sound is present, and that suffices. With no time to establish much beyond that, each piece is formed with due care but without any foolish attempt to assert its distinctiveness. The pieces were ordered in such a way as to “create a sort of flatness, an avoidance of shape and drama and to put everything on the same plane”. Usher described one meaning of the title as “45 minutes with sound”, the music forming a type of public space. Even when aware of the time structure, the listener loses interest in trying to distinguish one piece from the next. A new type of listening comes about, detached from both the immediacy of the continuous present and from the awareness of details. Those two descendants of Cagean thinking do not come into play here; the faint but indelible didacticism in Cage’s aesthetics is finally effaced. An assembly allows music and listener simply to coexist, without calling either to account.

Of course it’s not that simple. That last piece, 11 minutes and 10 seconds according to the programme, is a low sun that casts the preceding music into relief. A suspended, sustained harmonic shimmer that by this point seems to extend forever. It means nothing, but it opens up a vast space for reflection. As with painting, contemplation of abstraction on that scale can get emotional.

Séverine Ballon: inconnaissance

Monday 8 October 2018

I went to four unrelated cello gigs in about a week, each demonstrating some a aspect of playing and composing for the instrument. 840’s most recent gig at St James’, Islington focused on cellist (and composer) Anton Lukoszevieze, aided by pianist (and composer) Alex Nikiporenko. Some of these pieces are becoming old standards now, such as Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar and Laurence Crane’s Raimondas Rumsas; amongst the new work, the premiere of Christian Wolff’s six Small Pieces for Cellist was the highlight. Any new work by Wolff in the fruitful late phase of his career deserves our thanks, and the dedicatee Lukoszevieze brought out much more than you could imagine from a composer whose music so often looks unprepossessing on paper. The pieces alternated between full and open notation, with Lukoszevieze seizing the opportunity to add variations in attack and touch to Wolff’s discontinuous phrases, creating a kind of Klangfarbenmelodie.

The cello is a big and tactile instrument, which makes it ideal for observing technique, both in performance and in composition. The following weekend I was at the Old Dentist in Clapton, taking in the venue’s traditional BYO over the fire in the backyard before crouching in the cramped front room of the stripped terrace house to hear Judith Hamann playing solo again. This was a more focused set than the one I remember from Cafe Oto a while back: a pulse that slowly contracted and expanded, in feeling if not in tempo, as Hamann concentrated on drawing harmonic overtones from her instrument, from the endpin working up to the strings. There was no obvious systematic process at work here, nor anything reductionist or extreme to coax the listener’s attention to a different state: while setting up, she decided to go without any amplification. The cello became a sounding vessel, speaking in its own language of resonant vibrations.

Last Tuesday was the start of 10th season of Kammer Klang at Oto, with co-founder Lucy Railton performing Phill Niblock’s Harm on his 84th birthday. It was a kind of inversion of Hamann’s performance – “It’s loud,” Railton warned the punters, “and dense.” Here the overtones played the instrument, a wall of complex, pulsating colours that shimmered and darkened in ways beyond the solo performer’s full comprehension. In the midst of all this, Railton’s bowing alternately merged and fought with the backing layers of cello (previously recorded by Arne Deforce), a thin streak of oil over churning waters. After repeated tangential brushes with Niblock’s music played live, and hearing the man himself with laptop last month, I think I finally got the true live Niblock experience.

In amongst all this I got invited to the launch of All That Dust, a new record label started by London-based new music performers and producers Newton Armstrong, Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop. We were treated to live performances of excerpts from two of the new releases – cellist Séverine Ballon, and percussionist Håkon Stene playing part of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Popular Contexts 8 – as well as Knoop playing a piano piece by Tim Parkinson, part of a collection sheduled for next year.

I want to get around to all the current releases (three on CD, two download-only) in time. Séverine Ballon’s live set, and her CD inconnaisance, exclusively deals with her own compositions for solo cello. Having long been a skilled interpreter of other people’s music, she has spent the last couple of years developing a set of her own pieces. Witnessed live, you could appreciate the thoughtful placement of sounds paired with the care taken in touch and intonation. There are extended techniques appearing throughout, but used in unobstrusive ways that keep the focus on the sound: pedal tones, bowing behind the bridge, some of the more esoteric harmonics. Colouration from different bowing techniques are foregrounded. As might be expected, the music’s composition is clearly rooted in performance but is much more than a working through of a cellist’s favoured processes, as can so often be the case. The set of tracks on the CD can be heard individually yet clearly work as a suite, with each section presenting a distinct style and soundworld rather than an excerise in a given technique. On disc, the sound is beautifully captured, evoking the same experience of hearing it live at close range.

There’s confidence behind Ballon’s musical thinking, both in execution and in conception. At times, she lets the sound slip away to almost nothing without ever losing its presence, letting details recede and emerge, with contrasts in dynamics and activity that always feel natural. It all makes for a solid musical experience when heard alone, or even in ignorance of the skill required to make it.

Organs, Inner and Outer: Thomas Ankersmit, Rohan Drape

Thursday 6 September 2018

I’m a sucker for feedback synthesis* and therefore I’m very happy with Thomas Ankersmit’s new CD Homage to Dick Raaijmakers. There are two things that stand out after the first listening. Most obviously, there is the utilisation of inner-ear phenomena (the notes advise against using headphones for this piece) that predominate at certain times, creating those satisfying shifts in texture and tone when you move your head around while an otherwise static sound is playing. Almost as striking is the compositional sense at work behind the sounds. This type of music making can so often result in an overwhelming torrent of sounds that never let up, a cataloguing of technical effects or an unvarying slice of sound sculpture. Homage to Dick Raaijmakers flows with an almost romantic feeling for the material as it rises and then ebbs away, the mood passing between tension and relaxation. Repeated listening reveals new details, reflecting the blend of different media put to use here: analogue feedback units and oscillators are combined with contact microphones and tape manipulation. Multiple strands of electronic sounds are often at work, creating subtleties not noticed at first. The psychoacoustic effects arrive in two plateaux during the course of the piece, and even there the pulsing and pitches change from time to time while the listener is head-bopping.

The whole high-pitched beating frequencies thing made me remember that I wanted to mention a recent CD by Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras. Ellesmere is apparently the first commercial release by Drape – an event I’ve waited a long time for. I’ve heard him play live, in groups and solo, on several occasions and always been wowed by his technical knowledge, particularly his understanding of software as a means for making music, beyond using it as a tool to achieve a desired outcome. This virtuosity shines through from within the music, not as a flashy surface, so perhaps it should be expected that Ellesmere ignores high-end technology and consists simply of two duets for old electric organs. In the shorter work, Harleian, the two keyboards focus on high pitches, with the differences of intonation and overtones between the two instruments creating plenty of activity to keep the cochlea buzzing. The long piece, St Johns Wood, is in a more sombre register, a slow chorale for organ played as a strange double image, the matched keyboards creating microtonal chords and ghostly harmonics. The otherwise simple organ sound becomes disembodied, without background or perspective the instrument becomes unreal.

*To the point of using it myself, with both analogue and digital electronics.

Canadian Composers Concluded: Smith, Jang, Olsen

Wednesday 29 August 2018

I mean this as highest praise to say the new Linda Catlin Smith CD on Another Timbre is more of the same. The two previous releases of her music, Dirt Road and Drifter, are superb and this disc of ensemble pieces played by Apartment House continues with the same fusion of clarity and sophistication in conception and execution. Wanderer is less diverse in its sound palette than the two-CD set Drifter, but gains in coherence, with the selection of works coming across as an extended suite. The piano acts as a thread running through the music, with Morning Glory beginning as a solo before opening out into different instrumental colours. Smith has a striking way of using her instruments selectively, choosing for each one a time to speak and a time to be silent. The piano runs like a spine through the next few pieces, changing to harpsichord in a very melancholy Sarabande before finding sensuous depths in the restricted colour range of the piano duet Velvet. By the end of the disc, the piano is subsumed into the ensemble for Wanderer, contributing small fragments in contrast to the other instruments, before finally disappearing for the final piece, a pensive duet for cello and vibraphone.

As mentioned before, when hearing Apartment House play Stare at the River live at Cafe Oto, Smith is still capable of surprising the listener. That work appears here, along with other facets of Smith’s work not heard on the previous two albums. Knotted Silk’s abrupt, staccato piano chords and percussion held against sustained winds and strings are suitably evocative, while the brief piano solo Music for John Cage is unexpectedly winsome, both embracing his professed openness in aesthetics while teasing him for his asceticism.

I’ve suggested that the composers heard so far in this Canadian Composer Series share common interests in the usage of traditional forms and harmony, “repurposed into something new and – not so much strange, as uncanny.” There is also a similar usage of volume, constant and subdued, and a general absence of frenetic activity – the usual busywork of virtuosic presenteeism. The two other titles in Another Timbre’s Canadian series deviate from this formula, to lesser and greater degrees. I described Alex Jang’s piece distributed tourism as a more elusive presence, “with more diffuse sounds and an obscure structure that put the listeners on much less certain ground” when played live. His new CD, momentary encounters, opens with a softly whispered statement. For momentary encounters (5), clarinettist Heather Roche plays sustained, isolated tones outdoors; in this instance, out on Tooting Bec Common. The musician’s overt activity is minimal, the instrument acting as a framing device for the ambient sounds. Like an artist’s intervention on a found object, perspective is subtly but indelibly shifted, composing the surrounding sounds as much as the musician’s instrument.

The remaining works are conventional recordings of acoustic instruments in studio but that first piece is instructive. In any three players, members of Apartment House play a slowly drifting melody on melodica, vibraphone and cello, the three voices intertwining, merging and diverging. Their manner of playing produces sounds that may be characterised as faint or fragile, but are closer to Cage’s definition of ’empty sounds’, receptive to other adjacent sounds, variable in nature and open to interpretation, not crowding themselves out with absolute certainty of pitch or timbre. Cristián Alvear provides his skill for immobile inner calm when playing the solo guitar piece a gray, bent interior horizon, a work more silence than sound, each plucked note a muted harmonic, both ringing and stifled. When the disc ends with Apartment House playing the aforementioned distributed tourism, it feels almost normal.

The big new discovery in this set of discs would be Dark Heart by Lance Austin Olsen, if it were fair to call an artist in his seventies discovered only today. This CD is the outlier in the entire series, in background, method and sound. Olsen is a painter, musician and composer – his artwork appears on a number of the titles in this series. Visual arts are the instigations for several pieces recorded here and all the works are collaborations, each in a different way. Theseus’ Breath is both painting and graphic score and is presented in two realisations, one by members of Apartment House – who have form for this type of thing – and an ensemble including Ryoko Akama, Isaiah Ceccarelli and Katelyn Clark. When comparing the two versions, the most striking thing is how similar they are, despite the difference in instrumentation and musicians. There is clearly more going on than a visually ‘inspired’ improvisation. The presence of electronics in the sound mix is also a notable divergence from the other composers in the series. The electronics are lo-fi and homespun but not quaint; of the messy sort, not the domesticated.

Unlike at the Oto gig, conventional instruments disappear altogether for the two large pieces that fill the disc, pushing further into that nebulous region where sound becomes both the material and the subject. Both Dark Heart and A Meditation on the History of Painting are collages; like painting, a synthesis of gesture and editing, with traces of the two processes preserved in the medium. Dark Heart began as tapes guitarist Terje Paulsen sent to Olsen, which he then worked with, set aside for years, and then reworked. A low relief of electric guitar sounds, field recordings, snippets of television drama and other “found objects” string together narrative elements that never resolve into a clear message but remain obscured, like a journey recalled from a dream. The half-hour presented here itself an edit; the full version supposedly exists on the Another Timbre website, somewhere.

For A Meditation on the History of Painting the collaborators’ roles are reversed. The graphic score was made by the Venezuelan artist and composer Gil Sansón; Olsen produced the realisation. Outdoor sounds give way to distant voices, then a haunting mix of organ reeds signalling to each other like foghorns. It’s a tremendously eerie effect, pardoxially becoming more atmospheric as the silence intrudes more and more. The spacing and positioning of the sounds produce a paradoxially cinematic experience through listening, made all the more potent by the avoidance of explanation.

Cassandra Miller: ‘O Zomer!’ and ‘Just So’

Monday 27 August 2018

Everyone else has been raving about these two new Cassandra Miller CDs and I need to get in on it too. Like many others, I’ve been waiting for the second half of Another Timbre’s Canadian Composer Series to drop since the accompanying booklet came out with the first batch of discs in May last year. The booklet’s promised titles have now been delivered in full, including several fresh recordings from the first half of 2018. I’ve spent the long weekend playing these five CDs over and over, purely for enjoyment.

I added that last bit because I could have written up the lot after just one listening; each one of them leaves an extraordinarily vivid impression in the mind. I’ll get around to discussing all of them in the next few days but right now I need to mention the two I had been most looking forward to, dedicated to music by Cassandra Miller. I’ve been alternately baffled and knocked out but always charmed by her music, so here’s the chance to get some on record. O Zomer! includes the title piece and violin solo For Mira, both of which were played at the Cafe Oto gig a couple of weeks ago. The same musicians play here on the CD and so the performances are equally excellent – better, I should say, as the playing conditions would have been preferable. As with Mira Benjamin on For Mira, dedicatee Philip Thomas plays the piano piece Philip the Wanderer with expected authority. Any wandering in the piece is typically incongruous and beguiling: a slow rising up from the depths, followed by a declamatory pealing of bells and ending on a single, repeating scale ascending in the higher registers. At one point, the page turner starts to whistle in descant (here, the whistler is violinst Clemens Merkel from the Quatuor Bozzini). I could wonder why all this happens but it’s simply delightful as-is.

The disc includes the BBC’s recording of the monumental Duet for Cello and Orchestra, from its world premiere in 2015 at the Tectonics Festival in Glasgow. This was my introduction to Miller’s music and hearing it again in retrospect has only magnified its achievement. Cellist Charles Curtis with Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra are superbly matched for this piece, an aural frieze that juxtaposes an almost immobile cello with rolling fanfares from the orchestra, like an inverted antiphony. As time passes, the orchestra is subdued by the cello and in turn subsumes it; only at the end does the soloist emerge for a brief, enigmatic statement, half whispered. The transcendentalism of Ives and Ruggles looms beneath the surface, that of a mystery that cannot be contained in words.

The second disc, Just So, consists of string quartets played by the Quatuor Bozzini. The major work here, About Bach, is a fitting companion to the Duet for Cello and Orchestra: viola and cello play in the manner of baroque viols, a chorale that crosses over itself again and again until it finally exhausted. Against this, the violins play endlessly rising harmonics in the stratosphere, ethereal and remote. The effect is sublime at first and then strangely affecting as the elegaic implications of the music embed themselves in the consciousness, the harmonics continuing unperturbed by the cadences below. Miller talks about this piece being shaped by Bach transcriptions, Jewish music and computer glitches, bringing order out of the messy circumstances of life. Quatuor Bozzini make the fiendish technical requirements of playing this piece with finesse all but invisible.

The other pieces contain elements of the folkloric, to varying degrees. Warblework names its four movements after species of birds, mixing up the mimetic, programmatic and impressionistic in an idiosyncratic way that deftly avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of Messiaen and John Luther Adams. The disc is topped and tailed by two brief works, the smart and sweet almost-a-solo Just So which sounds like a folksong transcription, and the more serene and sonorous Leaving which is, in fact, a transcription. It’s been worth the wait.

Ingrid Plum: Taut

Wednesday 22 August 2018

I got sent a digital version of the latest release from Graham Dunning’s Fractal Meat label: a book and CD of vocal compositions commissioned by Ingrid Plum. (Not sure if the download of the album also comes with an e-book.) Taut is a collection of brief works by fourteen composers that make use of Plum’s background in extended vocal techniques, improvisation, field recordings and electronics. The few times I’ve heard Plum’s music have all been solo improvisations, so it’s presumably something of a challenge for her to realise and interpret other artists’ compositions here.

Taut works effectively as a collective artistic statement. The album is said to be “inspired by studying with Meredith Monk” and so obviously focuses on the voice, and on Plum interpreting composers’ scores to reflect on this study. As you would guess, the scores are therefore very open to interpretation. The performances recorded here were all made live, at the first complete rendition of the collection at Iklectik in London earlier this year. (The sound quality is good; audience applause doesn’t intrude until halfway through the set.) The gig becomes an overview of Plum’s musical vision, a compendium of current experimental composers, and a masterclass in composing and interpreting graphic scores.

As might be expected in the circumstances, there is a focus on technique, sometimes to excess. Kev Nickells’ Tort/ taut/ &c. and Bobby Barry’s Contract and Remain Taut (after Lyotard) run through some familiar exercises, with the latter getting very close to Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody in places. Most of the pieces do not, in fact, rely on solo voice but incorporate recordings or other electronic accompaniment. Iris Garrelfs’ The Modular Vocalist and Stephan Barrett’s Taut: to be carried on the sea air make use of overtones and beating frequencies; other works overdub Plum’s voice in ways that are either conventional (Timothy Thornton’s canonic folk tune Where Queer Creatures Hide) or more surprising (the cut-ups behind Plum’s live singing in Lia Mazzari’s Speak Up).

A good half-dozen or so employ voice with field recordings, as ambience, as accompaniment or as disruptions. Graham Dunning’s Enoy Rtnbua deconstructs itself with sounds of rewinding tape, as befits its score. Pieces by Helen Frosi and Tania Chen interpolate solo voice with intrusions from the natural or urban world. Two of the most affecting pieces in the set are Lisa Busby’s Song Of Resentment (for Brighton Beach), in which overlaid voices and sounds of pebbles steadily accumulate with the dispassionate ruefulness of a medieval ballad, and Jez Riley French’s Score For Listening #87, which opens the venue’s windows to the amplified ambient sounds of central London, merging with small sounds made by the performer, often no more than a tap on the microphone.

I kept forgetting this was a single performance and didn’t appreciate at first how Plum could change her tone and mindset from one piece to the next, never feeling strained or artificial. The book includes the scores, interviews with the composers and Plum discussing her experiences working with each of them.

Real Live Canadians at Cafe Oto

Monday 20 August 2018

They were promised, and they delivered. It takes one hell of a strong programme to get me to bear an August evening inside Cafe Oto so of course I went to the Canadian Composers Series Concert last Monday. The first series produced some of the best gig moments from last year, launching the first half of Another Timbre’s series of ten CDs. Those first five releases were particularly strong and presented Canada as something of a hot spot for an intriguing group of contemporary composers. The long-awaited second half of the series has now finally dropped.

Two of the new discs are dedicated to Cassandra Miller, now resident in London. I’ve been hanging for these CDs to come out because Miller has a particular knack for messing with parts of my head that most other composers don’t reach. The Oto set was topped and tailed with her O Zomer!, a piece which perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about. A single, harmonic note is passed back and forth between cello and contrabass, over a muted vibraphone. It’s beautifully balanced, superbly judged, and then it all swerves into an unhinged whaling on piano, crotales and blaring trumpet. It stops, eventually. Crazy. For Mira is a brief but substantial work for solo violin which morphs back and forth between Bach partita and Handanger fiddle tune; it was played by its dedicatee, the Canadian Mira Benjamin. The musicians had the impertinence to start on time and so I missed the other solo turn, when Canadian clarinettist Heather Roche played Alex Jang’s momentary encounters (5) outside the venue.

Together with musicians from Apartment House and conductor Jack Sheen, they played four chamber works by Linda Catlin Smith, including Blackwing, a world premiere not listed in the advance publicity. I’ve praised Smith’s music on several previous occasions but I need to point out her ability to keep surprising me with pieces such as Stare at the River, where piano, trumpet, double bass and percussion evoke cool jazz before solidifying into a stately procession.

Another great part of the night was getting to hear two more composers with whom I’m not at all familiar. I’ve heard one short piece by Alex Jang, which suggested a similarity with other composers in this series: a use of traditional forms and harmony, repurposed into something new and – not so much strange, as uncanny. His longer piece played at Oto, distributed tourism, was quite different from this, with more diffuse sounds and an obscure structure that put the listeners on much less certain ground. The ambiguousness of its sound was more pronounced by being the longest piece played on the night.

There was also a sense of certainties breaking up into suggestive but nebulous sounds in the other premiere of the night, the appropriately named Shadow Worlds by Lance Austin Olsen. I’m completely unfamiliar with Olsen’s work other than as a painter, including the covers of several CDs in this series. The combination of trumpet, cello, double bass and percussion approached sound in a different way, skirting between sound as material (for harmony, for timbre) and sound as subject unlike any of the other composers in the series. I’m looking forward to listening through the new CDs and reporting back after further investigation.

Composed, Uncomposed, Discomposed

Monday 30 July 2018

I’m allergic to jazz; don’t know why. Probably from being raised on rock, but I always hated rock music that held on to the past as a crutch, as a sign of validation, instead of using it as a springboard for something new. I’m incapable of hearing that innovation in jazz; I keep hearing these callbacks to the past as a sop to the audience and critics, lest the musos fall from favour for getting too far out of line. Everyone’s playing something really wild and free when somebody just has to throw in a ii-V progression to reassure everyone that they’re still listening to jazz. Self-conscious rock is no fun either.

I’m listening to Guède by a French quartet of Frédéric Blondy, David Chiesa, Rodolphe Loubatière, Pierce Warnecke: piano, double bass, drums, electronics. Two pieces, each bang on 30 minutes. Everything flows and avoids resolution, seemingly without effort. Just as things start to get too cosy, pitched sounds fade away and the group plays on with noises. The pulse remains and nothing breaks the surface of restrained dynamics, a continuum is maintained while the material remains in flux. It’s improvised, so I get fussy and start wondering if it all moves a little too smoothly without a guiding compositional logic.

In some ways, the sound is similar to some of Magnus Granberg’s recent music. Granberg’s pieces are open in form, but still composed. His most recent release, Es schwindelt mir, es brennt mein Eingeweide, is a long work recorded late last year. The sextet’s playing here is more sparse than usual, with the spine of the work formed by isolated notes traded back and forth between Granberg’s prepared piano and Christoph Schiller’s spinet. Other instruments elide between violin and viola da gamba, some percussion and very subtle electronics. At times, the rest of the ensemble retreats to an almost inaudible background haze; there’s a small surprise when the violin finally plays a sustained note. The musicians give shape and structure to an hour of the slightest material, with turns in sound and instrumentation that throws each preceding section into relief.

I’ve talked before about several releases on Anthony Pateras’ Immediata label, but did not discuss North Of North’s 2015 album The Moment In And Of Itself. The nature of the trio – Pateras on piano, Erkki Veltheim on violin and Scott Tinkler on trumpet – set off my anti-jazz snobbery. The combination of instruments threatens a certain level of fussiness but this risk is immediately exploded on the group’s new self-titled album, released on their own label. There are three pieces, each titled ‘Church of All Nations’ after the recording venue. The out-of-sequence numbering of the tracks suggests that they picked out the best bits from their session, as does the strength of the playing and the coherence of the music. It’s improvised and it’s relentless, each musician serving up dense blocks of sound that alternately mesh and clash. The playing focuses on texture and timbre, with their highly developed technique and harmonic sense directed towards a greater artistic statement.

Memory, Forgetting

Tuesday 26 June 2018

When I wrote about that new recording of John Cage’s Two², I tried to link to my recent review of some of Cage’s other piano music on Another Timbre. And then remembered that it wasn’t here on the blog. It got published in the previous issue of Tempo, with reviews of Lost Daylight, the collection of Terry Jennings’ piano music, and a large work for solo piano by Jürg Frey. You can read a large chunk of the review on the preview page, which pretty much gets to what I was saying about Cage’s new approaches to piano writing in the 1950s and how it reset understanding of later piano music, both by him and by others.

I ended up describing Frey’s La présence, les silences as Hammerklavier, or, more appropriately, his Concord Sonata. His use of silence, long considered by listeners to be the signature foreground material of Frey and other Wandelweiser composers, has receded but still remains a vital force behind the sounds. Here, it takes musical traits from tradition – continuity, harmony, teleology – and transforms them into something familiar but not yet known. It’s part of his album Collection Gustave Roud, dedicated to the poet who “wandered through the landscape as a flâneur, observer…. For me his work constitutes a kind of “field recording”, not with a microphone and sounds, but with his soul and body, recording his environment in the broadest sense”.

I didn’t have space to discuss the other large work in this collection, Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind for soprano, trumpet, cello, percussion and tape. The unusual combination of instruments at first evokes a kind of procession, with a slowly building drone made of high, bowed sounds. Towards the end, a slow drum-beat underpins the voice. The sense of wandering, of landscape, pervades the music; but this is not idle wandering, although there is no destination. It is travel for the sake of travel, a dérive to render the participant susceptible to enlightenment – in the sense of Cage’s “purposeful purposelessness” more than the Situationists’ political awareness. Once again, the listener finds music predicated on the transcendental in art. Voice and trumpet harmonise in unison, or each wanders alone but connected. It’s still one of the most satisfying recordings I’ve heard in the past year.

A Portrait of Frank Denyer

Thursday 21 June 2018

An all-too-rare chance last weekend to hear live music by Frank Denyer, an English composer treated like a guilty secret in his home country. Not that a gala evening at The Proms would show him to best advantage – the dim, confined theatre of The Print Room at The Coronet in Notting Hill was well suited to his intimate music. It’s heard best when experienced close: that intimacy can be confronting at times, almost painful, in a way that leaves the audience privately exhilarated.

I’m not going back to read what I wrote when first encountering Denyer’s music on a CD released by Another Timbre but I remember it as a raw and challenging experience. In most cases, such descriptions would refer to a music of extremes – whether of volume, pitch or emotions – but not here. If listeners find an emotional power in Denyer’s music, it comes from within themselves in response to the strangeness of the sounds he finds, a strangeness that is yet entirely natural. There is nothing outlandish, after all, in a yearning violin solo played against a rattle of bones and the faint echo of a viola, or in the blowing of ocarinas against the thud of sticks beating canvas. It still leaves an uncanny impression in the memory.

The concert was staged by the Octandre Ensemble, who played Denyer’s After the Rain so baeutifully at Principal Sound a couple of years ago. So good to hear them expand this into a dedicated evening. As composition, Denyer’s music lives by instinct. We heard how secure his instincts are in the early works from the 1970s played at the start of the concert. The focus is on melody, a single line set against silence. Heard offstage in darkness, Unsion I left the audience to wonder how flute, violin, viola and voice were blended into one iridescent colour. In Quick, quick, the Tamberan is coming, the melody is played across four bass flutes, each with elision and elaborations so that the four voices intertwine. The Hanged Fiddler set the soloist against viola and percussion, as described above.

In the late works, melody is dissolved into frail, isolated sounds shared between instruments and voices. In Two Voices with Axe, male and female voices (Juliet Fraser and Denyer himself) vocalise in the same register against flute and string instruments. Percussion consists of small, carefully chosen sounds, and a player splitting wood with an axe. A sound pallette comparable to Morton Feldman in the Sixties is torqued into a fraught tension by the axe’s harsh, uncontrolled sounds (after each blow, the flying fragments of wood ricochet and roll across the floor). The concert ended with the premiere of a new work, Screens. Again, there was theatre in the presence of the musicians, who stepped back and forth behind folding dressing screens as they played. The screens act as subtle mutes, enhancing the sense of remoteness for which the objects were designed. Denyer walked onstage to comment on the music, as written into the score. The words reflect on the music, the stage, his presence and his own commentary; “Some sounds are words”. The piece has an elemental simplicity, which makes its oblique self-reflexiveness all the more enigmatic as an artistic statement. “Occasionally, perhaps, some sounds are gates…. Oddly intermittent.”

John Cage: Two²

Friday 15 June 2018

Great art takes time and, as Cage observed in his Lecture on Something, art should not be something that comes from within, but that goes within. Being fond of the piece, I’ve been looking forward to hearing this new recording of Cage’s late piano duet Two² for several reasons and yet it still managed to take me by surprise. First reason: I really like Philip Thomas’ and Mark Knoop’s interpretations of Cage, both jointly as part of projects like Another Timbre’s recording of Winter Music, and their solo interpretations on works ranging from the solo from Concert for Piano and Orchestra and Etudes Boreales, respectively.

Second reason: I’d always had a soft spot for Two²; partly as a rare anomaly amongst Cage’s “number pieces”, moreso for its use of subjective time, placing shared responsibility for the movement of one passage to the next entirely on the performers. (It’s an idea I’ve adapted for some of my own music.) The scope for variation in the density of events from moment to moment added a pleasing amount of upheaval to the usual, even continuum. Third reason: Philip Thomas hated it.

The inner sleeve of the CD, unusually for Another Timbre releases, quotes a substantial chunk of the interview with Thomas posted on their website, explaining his antipathy (“too many notes”) and his conversion. Other recordings I’ve heard of this piece range from about 45 to 75 minutes. Until I opened the package I hadn’t realised this new version took up two discs and extended a little past two hours. Was this a cop-out, grinding the pace down to something tastefully undisturbed; slow, soft and inoffensive?

These days, it’s almost too easy to reduce your sound palette to quiescence, for that superficial impression of beauty and profundity. When things become easy, it gets much harder to do those things with distinction. In Two², each pianist plays in their own time but cannot move to the next measure until the other player has also completed the current measure. Thomas compares Cage’s score to those of Antoine Beuger, for its elegant simplicity, but the technique of interdependent interpretation recalls Christian Wolff’s music. There’s a similar balance here that gently sways between disjointedness and continuity, in a way I haven’t heard in other recordings of this piece. It also feels like perhaps the only Cage composition predicated on the idea of the musician’s “inner clock” that really works as intended, without requiring almost impossibly ideal conditions.

Thomas and Knoop agreed on their instincts that Cage’s score for Two² needed a more generous pacing, and with this extra time comes the greater revelation of details, both in Cage’s composition and the musicians’ playing. As Thomas says, with their slower pacing “the sounds seem to have a poise and stillness about them.” The dramatic contrasts in register can often come with perceptible changes in dynamics, although here the pianists honour Cage’s instruction for an evenness of tone, “quietly but equally”. Thomas and Knoop bring out a beautiful quality where each sound has a distinct character, with its own brilliance or softness, a subtle difference in attack that sets each note or chord in low relief. It’s something I haven’t heard in other recordings.

Another unsual aspect of Two² is the way Cage allowed sounds to reappear. Cage skillfully used chance in a way that enabled chords to be repeated from time to time, creating a hazy sense of memory, variation and even harmony, as the listener hears remembered chords in new contexts. This mysterious sense of patterns is most evident in Thomas and Knoop’s interpretation. In his interview, Thomas attributes this to the slowness allowing each chord more time to resonate in the memory. It also allows each chord to be heard in isolation, so that it may be better recognised should it be played again.

Despite liking other versions of Two², this new interpretation reveals so much more about what makes this piece beautiful. By removing the complexity from the surface, Thomas and Knoop have found a more accomplished complexity within the music.

Difficult Music

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Last Saturday night I was out at Iklectic, listening to a live set by Marie-Cécile Reber and Christoph Schiller. Missed the rest of the gig as I sat outside with friends drinking beer and listening to the constant thunder of the electrical storm passing overhead. I’ve written before about Schiller’s duo CD with Morgan Evans-Weiler with the self-explanatory title spinet and violin. Couldn’t drag the spinet to London, so Schiller played zither and melodica while Reber amplified and processed small sounds into finely-grained textures. Schiller has a strangely obdurate way of playing. His plucking of the zither is always immediately muted, as with his spinet: small spikes of sound with only a tint of the string’s pitch remaining. These can act as highlights or as intrusions, coaxing the sustained sounds into different attitudes.

Another Timbre has released a new recording of Schiller’s spinet, this time playing as a trio with Cyril Bondi on harmonium and Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba. Still, it should not be a surprise to find that the disc, titled tse, does not sound like Early Music, except perhaps in a very distant way, as with Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg on Early to Late. The older instruments share that quality of sound now admired and exploited, of being ‘thinner’, less full and less absolute, with greater transparency and variability than, say, a cello or piano. Bondi and Pierre-Yves Martel play long notes that weave in and out around faint but sustained harmonies, using pitch pipes to add another thin layer of colour, slightly out of register. Schiller plays very sparingly, the percussive sound of the spinet acting both as commentary and disruption, fixing the sound into place with a defined shape, lest it all fade into a wash of ambience.

The music is improvised but defined by strict self-imposed limitations. Playing techniques are deliberately reduced and at times the pitches are restricted to just three or four, selected at random.
There are five tracks on tse – pieces, or movements, or parts, or panels – and they all sound pretty much the same. This is music which takes concentration, both to play and to listen to, with a focus on the details contained in the surface. The technical simplicity belies a complex effect on the attentive mind. It’s an extreme kind of twist on what Artur Schnabel said about Mozart’s piano sonatas, “too easy for children and too difficult for adults.”

While I was on holiday before Christmas, a disc arrived in the post from Morgan Evans-Weiler, the violinist on that duet album with Christoph Schiller. A thoughtful friend stashed it safely in a drawer I never open. Unfinished Variations (for Jed Speare) is a single piece for solo violin, released on Sarah Hennies’ label Weighter Recordings. The label blurb promises that “all releases are professionally manufactured CDs with austere letterpressed artwork” and this philosophy carries over into the music. Evans-Weiler’s playing forces the listener’s ear into a double perspective, simultaneously rigorous and fragile. It’s a kind of musical brutalism, foregrounding the rough material of the bowed violin strings, presented in a stark design. Evans-Weiler’s extended composition is made of microtonal double-stops, bowed in brief, discrete strokes. Passages range from near-inaudible to strident, always pushing the rasp of bow against string to the fore. An uneasy tension arises from repeated chords where the intonation slowly, but unsteadily, changes. The tension never resolves, but it may subside a little. Punters who get off on the solo work of Tony Conrad and Polly Bradfield would probably want to follow up on this.

Insub Meta Orchestra: Choices & Melodies

Friday 25 May 2018

Insub Meta Orchestra: Choices & MelodiesRight at the end of last year I wrote about a CD of two pieces by the Insub Meta Orchestra; a fine disc that showed what can be done when a simple but smart rule is applied to a large group of musicians to interpret simultaneously. The same group has now released an LP/download of two more pieces, recorded around the same time. Two choices: each player shall make either of two sounds and may change every five seconds. Autonomous melodies: each player may play a free melody, of just three or four notes.

These two open compositions, again by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, show what can be achieved when creativity is constrained in a way that may be considered extreme. Of the Another Timbre disc, I observed that it “reveals more of the musicians; not of their ‘personalities’ but of their understanding of how to give music life.” This LP continues the theme but explores it in ways not heard on the previous album. If the listener were to compare the two, they would notice striking differences appear straight away. Two choices works with unpitched sounds, forming a thread of complex sound that constantly changes timbre without a change in character. In fact, the exact nature of the sound remains elusive throughout. With some 32 musicians all making sound at the same time, with electronics, acoustic instruments and voice, no single timbre will ever come into focus. They are all presumably playing softly. Any change of an individual musician may only be perceptible as part of a group, but the exact combination of sounds that change cannot be known. The overall perception of the sound will be affected by how the individual sounds interact with each other.

On the flip side, Autonomous melodies takes a different direction; it’s loud and lurches through a repeating melody that can still never be quite pinned down. The sleeve notes even refer to it as “a kind of alien piece in the orchestra’s esthetic”. The pitch of each note becomes a complex chord that is never resolved. Obvious elements frequently reappear, but there are so many of them that they never settle into a context. It all ends up sounding like a single, protean voice that echoes and reverberates through a melody that remains simulataneously distinct yet undefinable.

It’s a powerful demonstration of indeterminacy applied to large groups. In both pieces, each musician’s interpretation, taken separately, would be noticeably different in content but obviously the same in structure. Taken simultaneously, a strange reversal happens: the content is unified but the structure becomes unknowable, other than through explanation.

Glenn Branca

Tuesday 15 May 2018

After a while, all that remains is the music. Heard last night that Glenn Branca died. After what I said a couple of weeks ago about there always being something stoopid about electric guitars, I can’t help but remember how listening to Branca with the wrong mindset could induce a fit of the giggles. Still, I’d always defend him because there’s too much about that music that I hold dear. Besides his commitment to music as art, which seems to have influenced so many, there was the way he first showed me what can be done with alternate tunings and microtonality – structurally, cognitively, expressively – other than simply sound different.

I’ve only heard his music played live once, in London (no, not that time). I wrote to myself about it at the time and looking at it again it still reflects what I feel now, so I’m linking to it here.

Music by Henning Christiansen: The Executioner and Den Røde Skov

Thursday 10 May 2018

Most musicians don’t trust artists. Too focused on content, on saying stuff. Not enough emphasis on technique, always the risk that someone on stage might make sounds the wrong way or, worse still, someone in the audience will hear them the wrong way. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. Let an artist into music and it starts to give the game away, that all the rules are arbitrary and nothing in itself makes sense. Far easier to banish it to the netherworld of ‘performance art’ where it won’t affect anyone.

People like to send me cool stuff and so I got advance rips of two new releases of Henning Christiansen’s film soundtracks from Penultimate Press. The label’s been specialising for a while in bringing out unreleased or long-lost work by unjustly neglected artists and has been championing Christiansen’s music for a while now. Neither of these soundtracks has been issued to the public before. Despite being a major figure of recent European art, and one who was particularly dedicated to music, his music has largely been marginalised in the UK and, it seems, pretty much everywhere else. (A notable exception is the ensemble Apartment House, who have presented performances and arrangements of his work whenever possible.)

The Executioner, from 1971, is the first film made by Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Henning C.’s partner and collaborator. Disclaimer: I know nothing about either movie and am going by the soundrack LPs alone. From the start of the record, the music is disarmingly backward-looking; a soprano with piano accompaniment sings a sentimental melody. It’s a nostalgic world of domestic 19th century culture – if there is any irony here, then it is possibly in juxtaposition with the images on screen. In Christiansen’s music, these simple gestures are genuinely felt, but their effect is more complex. The romantic salon melody takes on the characteristics of a folk tune, tapping into sentiment even older and harder to define. This recurs throughout the album, as soprano and piano are later blended with whistles and other folk instruments. The music segues into collages, field recordings of natural sounds, ritualistic droning on organ keyboards. If you’ve heard other works by Christiansen then you’ll be familiar with each of these elements, but probably haven’t heard them combined in such a way, or directed toward such an overt expression of mood and emotion. Some of this may come from the soundtrack editing, which combines sound and dialogue from the film into a montage that works as an audio drama and not as a collection of music cues.

Den Røde Skov is another film by Ursula Reuter Christiansen, from 1986. This is the most developed sound work I’ve heard by Christiansen, with much more studio work and use of overdubbing and electronics. Again, the tracks segue into a complete, coherent work. Some may be due to editing but there is a stronger presence of collaborators in the material itself, particularly the sound work by Ernst Kretzer. It’s all recognisably Christiansen’s work, but showing a side I’ve never realy heard before. The collages combine modified field recordings with electronically-generated sounds, with voices calling out and echoing over each other. Nature sounds and acoustic instruments are recorded and manipulated into surreal soundscapes. For all those ritualistic qualities present throughout the album, all sounds here remain in flux, morphing and crossfading from an ominous rumble to birdsong and insects underlaid with restless electronic doodles, and again to plaintive flutes and glass sound sculptures. The lengthy track Wolf song is particularly dense with a rush of aural images that range from natural to uncanny, but the entire album is packed with details that will be savoured over repeated listenings.

More than just bringing to light two previously unavailable works, each album works particularly well as a listening experience. It seems that either would make an unusually good entry-way to Christiansen’s music, presenting key aspects of his thinking in a variety of guises. (Based on personal experience, first contact with recordings of Christiansen can sound too single-minded, tied to a particular artwork, or documentation of a performance, where too much context is missing.) I’m judging from digital files but the sound quality seems particularly good, even as it deliberately shifts between studio recording, outside documentation and found sounds. It seems these two titles are only limited edition vinyl for now but hopefully digital alternatives become available later.