Eva Zöllner: voces, señales

Sunday 26 November 2023

To use a British euphemism, making an album of solo accordion music by Colombian composers is “a bold decision”. It’s a shared fate of colonial nations that their culture will persistently be regarded as partly borrowed and derivative; as for the accordion, it’s an instrument that has had the case made for it by many talented musicians over several decades without ever fully shedding the popular impression that its full depths are yet to be proved. Eva Zöllner has previously shown that she is a virtuoso accordionist in ability and in the audacity of her repertoire, so her album voces, señales on Genuin succeeds in the aim of pushing back the boundaries of music a little further. The collection here reflects Zöllner’s close connections to the composers and affection for the country she first visited in 2015, with all the presented compositions produced with her consultation.

There seem to be no “Old Masters” present here, with all musicians involved apparently in their mid-40s. An overarching theme emerges of a culture in transition, still wrestling with questions of how to see (and hear) itself; as such, strengths and weaknesses abound. The use of accordion as a traditional instrument in Colombian music is tested, with none of the works resting on appeals to folklore or nature. When these aspects do appear, they are contextualised in pop-art style quotation and collage, most overtly in Carlos Andrés Rico’s Nacido en el Valle, el Río y la Montaña, an attention deficit mashup of accordion tunes and samples that feels a little too self-conscious. It’s one of the drawbacks of working in a place and time where your art needs to make a statement. The use of pre-recorded sounds appear in three of the six pieces, with the album opening with the brash audio diary of Ana María Romano G.’s posdomingo 02.10.2016. The disparate elements, threaded together by Zöllner’s accordion, scored to produce evocative timbres as much as musical accompaniment, present a compelling narrative, but the specifics are lost in translation. The subject matter is the failed peace agreement with the guerrilla movement FARC, an event of great importance to Colombia, but the significance does not transmit to those of us ignorant of Columbian history. It’s necessary for a country’s artists to speak to its own people, yet in the most urgent cases this art will always remain to some degree opaque to an outside audience. A similar fate befalls Jorge Gregorio García Moncada’s Un amor, puro e incondicional, another work of remembrance for an historic event which I can only begin to contemplate after reading the sleeve notes. This last piece also uses electronics and pre-recorded voices, merging with Zöllner to create a heavy atmosphere, unlike the other two collages.

It’s notable that the three pieces with electronics are the ones most dependent on explication, as though they must rely on support from additional media to contain all that they are trying to say. Throughout the album, with and without the samples, Zöllner demonstrates her strength in the volatile and changing character of her playing, making abrupt and startling switches in temperament between the sweet and the harsh, giving the lie to the perceived uniformity of the accordion’s sound. None of the pieces settle to be a mere showcase for her versatility, but they do display her virtuosity, most demonstrably in Carolina Noguera Palau’s Canto del ave negra, a dark piece that escalates into frenzied explorations of pitch and tone without breaking its overall moodiness. Daniel Leguizamón’s signo a cambio is a more substantial work that hews to dark ambience throughout, staying low and slow but keeping enough tension in its materials to prevent things getting dreary. Brother, by Natalia Valencia Zuluaga, presents a contrast with folk materials refracted through her own experience and memory into something uniquely personal, its surface simplicity partly rarefied and partly unkempt, making it strangely relatable.

Frey; Frey; Frey?

Sunday 19 November 2023

I’m back from vacation and so can’t justify travelling to Huddersfield this year, where a day is being given over to celebrate Jürg Frey’s 70th birthday. Having heard plenty of his music, I still wish I could be there for the day’s worth of concerts as I’m sure it would add further complications to my understanding of an artist whose body of work conceals ever greater complexities beneath its quiet surface. His music has evolved, but in a way that branches out into exploring the many aspects and implications of his overall style, rather than being lead by a single overriding tendency. As he once described in an interview, his interest lies in mixing together competing impulses and resisting any ideal of asethetic purity. From the austerity of his earlier and somewhat notorious works, he has developed his method to combine elements of the lyrical and the severe in a way that avoids muddled ambiguity, evoking both at once to different degrees. The String Trio recently issued by Another Timbre is an exemplar of his recent work: a single movement some 45 minutes in length, composed in 2017 and revised last year, it blends stasis and narrative in its slow but steady progress. The slowness and quietness reminds the listener of similar composers, yet it never, for example, retreats into the claustrophobia of Morton Feldman’s diminished harmonic language or resort to the directness of Howard Skempton’s melodic clarity. Traces of other voices may also come to mind, but the work is unmistakeably unique to Frey. The trio here is from Apartment House (Mira Benjamin, violin; Bridget Carey, viola; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello) who bring the journey-like structure to life, making full use of changes in dynamics (another Frey trait, even when restricted to the soft end of the spectrum) and giving character to each scene, particularly when the ensemble changes to focus on solos or duets.

Those references to other composers and names were made intentionally to draw attention to the way that Frey’s recent work has increasingly revealed him to be something of a chameleon. His 2021 suite for fortepiano Les signes passagers has just been recorded by Keiko Shichijo for elsewhere and its seven movements covertly blend the severe and the quirky in a most congenial manner, with near-subliminal hints of other composers flitting past faintly in the background. Frey was drawn to the instability of the fortepiano’s finely delineated timbre across registers and dynamics to make pieces that bring out those subtle variations in colour; the work was composed for Shichijo, who performs it lovingly. Composer and performer work in tandem to produce a suite of keyboard pieces where clarity of materials is tempered by that slight fuzziness around the edges of the instrument’s sound. The interpretive markings for each movement are evocative: “Avec sonorité, mais très doux,” “Lumineux et calme”, delighting in the small contrasts between block chords and pedal tones, or in the individual character of each note in slow, unaccompanied melodies. Again, the atmosphere hovers between the early British school of minimalism and the Rosicrucian Satie, only with neither the naivety nor the piety. In the last two sections, Frey shows how he has learned to give warmth to his earlier austere style, in the lengthy “Tendre et monotone” and the near inaudible “Discrète et loin”.

The uncooperatively-titled Circular Music (Ext​.​n​°​1/-​n​°​2/-​Ext​.​n​°​2) released by Insub is credited to Frey, which is at least a generous acknowledgement of his influence on the musicians involved here. Insub mainstay d’incise is joined by an ensemble of seven musicians to play “adaptations” of three of his compositions: Circular Music No. 2 and Extended Circular Musics Nos. 1 and 2. No sleeve notes here so we’re in the dark as to whether these three tracks are a tribute or a reimagining, but the expansion of Frey’s three pretty brief compositions for solo piano or small ensemble into works involving voices, accordion and theremin, amongst other instruments, makes for an exasperating listening experience. Whatever the conceptual merits may have been, the homogeneity of tone and approach across all three pieces ends up making each one sound kind of the same; more critically, they don’t sound like Frey. If you’re familiar with this stuff, a blind listening would have you guessing half a dozen other composers, all of whom would most likely already have something released on Insub. If you’re not familiar with this stuff, you’d come away thinking Frey’s music was a bit undistinctive and really lugubrious, particularly after the thirty-plus minutes of Circular Music No. 2, a piece which doesn’t normally need half that time. Following that with a fifteen-minute ensemble take on the piano miniature Extended Circular Music No. 2 just makes the entire exercise feel bloated and obnoxious, with listening through the entire album becoming a tedious chore.

Some Old Favourites: Pateras, Olsen, Granberg, Eventless Plot

Wednesday 18 October 2023

There are a few composers and musicians I’ve always enjoyed and reviewed a number of times here before, so I tried to pause for a bit before writing about them yet again. Two of the recent-ish releases by Eventless Plot show how their group compositions have developed into a widely varied set of works. Birds’ singing reminds of freedom dates back to the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and takes a different tack from their usual complex but delicate textures of acoustic and electronic sounds, commemorating the event with collages of the sounds of flocks of birds that dominate much of the work. Too pervasive to be a backdrop, birdsong marks how the times of a few years ago were marked by human withdrawal from the urban world and hopes for a quick return to liberty. The trio (Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas, Yiannis Tsirikoglou) play mostly with small ringing percussion, augmented by the warm electronics of modular synth and tape manipulations. Towards the end, the birds start to recede, suggesting both a passing and a loss, notable by their absence left largely unfilled. Distance Between Us was composed over 2021-22 and reunites the group with clarinettist Chris Cundy on bass instrument, adding Margarita Kapagiannidou on a second clarinet. As a contrast to their usual work, this piece makes more use of silence throughout, with a sparser texture anchored by the two clarinets using their rich textures to spare but indelible effect. It’s a slower, contemplative piece that opens up space for reflection more than a surface to dwell upon.

Magnus Granberg has continued to refine his method of composing for ensemble, working with sympathetic groups of musicians to create music that is gentle but not necessarily soothing. His writing gives room for flexibility in the finer details while directing and shaping the overall course of the piece, building thoughtful expanses of complex but subtle counterpoint. Evening Star, Vesper Bell is a near-hourlong piece recorded late last year with Apartment House, Granberg’s signature prepared piano supported by clarinet, string trio and percussion (no electronics this time). This may be his most restrained, even subdued, work that I’ve heard, with slower and more isolated contributions between the six musicians leaving the textures more open than usual, eschewing anything too discordant or spiky. It’s a ruminative piece but it doesn’t ramble, with Granberg exercising his typical command over how the group’s forces channel the leeway given to them, while Apartment House embody his desired balance between spontaneity and self-control.

Lance Austin Olsen, who I believe recently turned eighty, has been steadily turning out his evocative musical collages. These occupy a conceptual space somewhere between improvised bricolage and open-form composition, with the way in which they permit found materials imparting alternative interpretations to their structural logic. The sonic space they occupy is somewhere in the back of your mind, with seemingly unrelated events merging into a hazy, dreamlike continuity. Lakeside Blues – Nachtmusik is another of his collaborations with Gil Sansón, a long-distance of exchange of ideas that overlap and jostle each other to create an aural image akin to the seamier aspects of pop art. 2021’s Sure Is A Good Hamburger is a little different, with Oslen confining himself to playing on (or in) a guitar and amplified objects against a backdrop of casual conversations that drift in and out of focus.

The analogues with Olsen’s paintings (used on some of the cover art) are discernible without being explicit. Most of these pieces are relatively large, with ruminative pacing, dynamic contrasts are never stark except on the occasions when a work fades into silence, effectively dividing a work into multiple panels. From the same year, Fukushima Rising displays the essence of his recent music, the graphic artwork acting as a score for musical interpretation, made here with a typically evocative mixture of found sounds and objects, musical improvisations on simple instruments, amplified sounds with unspecified origins. The eerie atmosphere does not make any directly observable reference to the events which inspired the piece, and is all the stronger for building up complex responses without trying to offer any explanation, either rational or emotional. The Pit, released earlier this year, presents two pieces with each pursuing the implications of Fukushima Rising in different ways. The title work reduces the sonic palette to sparse, more isolated sounds, with silence permeating the whole work like a black background that seeps through. It’s followed by a short work titled Quasimodo’s Dream, a denser piece a little over ten minutes long that presents an examplar of Olsen’s montage techniques and materials in a concise form.

I’m really glad that Anthony PaterasA Dread Of Voids has finally made it out to the public, having been fortunate enough to hear a private recording a couple of years ago. It’s a ravishing piece, grave and wistful all at once, mixing low instruments with soprano and an exquisite use of silence and stillness that lets you dwell on its small details, even as the writing itself is shorn of all excessive ornamentation. I was getting over “lockdown” pieces but this one reminded me of the sub-genre at its finest, drawing inspiration from its circumstances without seeking to use them as a justification. In the accompanying interview, Pateras mentions his interest in Morton Feldman’s use of rhythm and repetition, but feels “I’m much more receptive to my own instincts now.” That individual voice can be heard here, echoing Feldman inasmuch as it tries not to push the sounds around too much and let the music breathe, but in his own distinctive way, more open and forthright while still being pensive. The crack ensemble of performers/composers includes Rebecca Lane (bass flute), Sam Dunscombe (bass clarinet) and Jon Heilbron (double bass) with soprano Jess Aszodi, creating a sound both full and soft from such redued instrumentation. The accompanying work Patterned Language blends violins, double bass and guitar with Pateras on piano, celeste and some faint sine tones. It’s a complimentary composition from a year later, making greater use of unisons and overtones to colour the air and slow down time.

Léo Dupleix, Les Certitudes; Piotr Kurek, Smartwoods

Friday 13 October 2023

Just before, I was talking about distinctions between the process and the piece when musicians get together. “The ensemble Les Certitudes was created in 2021 as a means for developing acoustic music focusing on justly tuned tones and harmonies, taking as a starting point the physicality of the instruments –resonating wood and metal– in a long musical form.” They’re a trio: on this occasion, consisting of Léo Dupleix on harpsichord, Juliette Adam on clarinet and Félicie Bazelaire on cello. The long musical form is a composition by Dupleix, titled Construire sur les ruines d’un passé encore fumant, made up from five movements together lasting nearly an hour. The emphasis on just intonation is almost too demonstrative, proceeding in a slow, deliberate way to let the beautifully constructed harmonies linger. The beginning and ending sections are dronelike without actually being motionless, the opening letting real and implied overtones rise over immobile cello, the closing determinedly cycling through a small set of chords on keyboard while clarinet and cello tentatively seek out more esoteric harmonics. The central movement omits keyboard, giving space for the more directly human instruments to find an intonation that flexes and breathes a little as they slowly circle around each other. The trio’s playing throughout is controlled; unhurried but insistent (it should be noted here that it was recorded in sections over a couple of venues and dates). The trio refuse to succumb to an easy, soft ambience and let their instruments speak full and clear; it’s an admirable commitment to keep the music in focus but I did begin to find it wearying by the end. That might be down to the musicians getting caught up in the process.

Piotr Kurek’s album Smartwoods is definitely a finished object, the end product of process and assembly, incorporating performance. A set of seven instrumental tracks which seem pleasant enough if you don’t listen too close, but then it’s hard not to listen close because the quiet strangeness that permeates each little piece draws you in. Everything’s a little bit off, never quite right. That queasy uncanny valley effect hits you straight off as you think you’re hearing a slightly old-fashioned potted MIDI orchestra plinking and tooting away, but then it’s too organic for that, nothing seems to be running by clockwork. It’s not a reasuring thought as it raises the possibility that things could run off track and turn ugly at any moment. It never does, even while it keeps implying all is not well – at least not on our terms. The small ensemble on harp, winds and bass play very neatly throughout, with the finesse of deadpan comedians pretending to be automata, never quite bumping into each other. Kurek plays keyboards, guitar and (oh jeez) MIDI wind controller, both to insert digital impostors and transform the live instruments into hi-sheen simulacra of themselves. It doesn’t stay around long enough to impose its oddness on you, which makes the oddness the subject as you wonder afterwards what it all means, with each piece a small, unsolveable puzzle.

Michiko Ogawa & Lucy Railton: fragments of reincarnation

Sunday 8 October 2023

There’s a difference between the process and the piece. Even when the two are conflated in practice, a conceptual distinction is made by the artist to allow both to coexist on their relative merits. Sometimes, however, the former is mistakenly assumed to be the same as the latter: this happens too often when musicians improvise together and err on the side of leniency when judging whether the outcomes should be published, to say that “good enough” is the same as “good”. This solipsism is a cultural marker of the anxiety over music’s status vis-à-vis art. The collaboration between Michiko Ogawa and Lucy Railton on their album fragments of reincarnation exemplifies the two composer/performers’ advanced understanding of these ideas and aversion to self-indulgence. It’s a single piece, 45 minutes long, based on a first-take improvisation with Ogawa on shō and Railton on cello. There’s a solid structure underlying their performance, taking the shō’s tuning as the foundation to build a piece out of pitches from a chord cycle used in traditional Gagaku. All perfectly pleasant so far, but what lifts it into something much stronger is that Ogawa then went and dubbed in a part for Hammond organ. The organ blends with the two other instruments in an insidious way, its mellow tone complementing the thin reeds of the shō and the variability of the cello, yet weaving in and out of the duet as never quite foreground, nor background. (Being old and a bit wonky, the organ has a fallibility in tone to match the human element in the acoustic instruments.) Each voice reinforces the others while always maintaining its own distinct character, with the relationship between them made more complex by the small incompatabilities in pitch, the shō’s Pythagorean tuning at odds with the organ’s modern equal temperament. The cello, of course, has greater flexibility even as it leans towards the shō’s intonation, but even there Ogawa and Railton observed moments of overlap and incongruence and worked it into the cyclic structure of the piece; the organ’s role thus phases between thickening and resolving these differences. It all lands on the ear simply enough, but as it does so it opens up new spaces for listening into moments that cannot be easily explained. That’s the difference between working on your craft and working up a piece to show for it.

Just There: Aaron Einbond, Luis Fernando Amaya

Sunday 1 October 2023

Presque rien could be the watchword for Aaron Einbond’s compositional method. Each of the four pieces on his All That Dust album Cosmologies lurk in the background almost imperceptibly, to the point you just about forget they’re there, catching you unaware when they remind you of their presence. Never exactly silent, each piece maintains constant activity that may or may not produce sound. Beginning the album with Xylography, cellist Séverine Ballon is kept occupied with various techniques that appear to take place around her instrument as much as upon it, with stray, accidental sounds slowly coalescing into a frail, fragmented substance. The role of electronics in this piece is kept obscure, using close amplification to make each miniscule movement just about audible. Ballon’s intense concentration is matched by her accompanying ensemble in Graphology, where solo cello is joined by bass flute and clarinet, violin and percussion to produce a piece with no immediate difference in texture from the solo work. Aaron Holloway-Nahum leads the Riot Ensemble in an essay of supreme restraint, producing the smallest possible swatches of attenuated sounds in their most muted colours to build up a piece that exists without ever quite substantiating into a definable form. In retrospect, the most curious part is the way the musicians hold everything in poise without discenible momentum, yet never lapsing into torpor. The techniques here resemble Lachenmann in extremis, but the usual strained effect heard in music of this type is largely absent. That point becomes clearer in the following two pieces, Cosmologies and Cosmologies III. The latter piece is a Ferrari-like soundscape of collaged field recordings, occasionally punctuated without warning by string piano; the former takes the same recorded material and overlays live amplified piano by Alvise Sinivia. Again, the instrument is used less as a trope for foreground material layered over the tape, but mostly as a way of complicating the timbres, recasting naturally observable sounds into something indefinable. It all offers a disturbing perspective on the last of listening. Incidentally, the CD version of the album merges each of the paired works into compound compositions.

Luis Fernando Amaya has some related musical concerns to Einbond, inasmuch as he is seeking out new ways of creating new sonic materials for his art. The emphasis here is more on that process of finding those sounds and the contexts in which to apply them, placing the material more conspicuously on display. His album Cortahojas (released on Protomaterial) contains six compositions which apply a variety of means – extended techniques, additional devices, electronic processing – to ends that test the limits of what is considered acceptable in polite chamber music discourse. The title work, a duet for prepared violin and bassoon, is perhaps the most conventional work here, which should tip you off to how unusual some of the other pieces get. William Overcash makes his muted strings pair with Ben Roidl-Ward’s multiphonics to fit together a piece made out of fractured harmonics in lieu of pitch material. Pianist Jonathan Hannau uses e-bows to add ominous harmonic auras to the delicately spiky Pregunta no.2: Cóndor. Rubén Bañuelos and Mikołaj Rytowski perform the percussion duet guerrilla de dientes entre los árboles, in which Amaya accretes splayed clusters of pitched and half-pitched sounds into a tense standoff between the two musicians. Enjoyable percussion pieces for multiple performers are more rare than you’d think, so this is a wise choice to lead off a long album. Into the stranger terrain, comentarios inaudibles for solo cello features Isidora Nojkovic, augmented by electronics that add a blurred shadow to her playing, at once following and commenting while also threatening to merge into a composite whole. At the most extreme, Bestiario: cuatro takes a solo violinist (Theo Espy) and attaches speakers to him to confuse the localisation of sound, then agressively filters and gates the playing to produce distempered noise that reduces the playing of the violin to pure gesture, with pitch and decay crushed to the minimum. The shadowy aspects of Amaya’s reappear in the suite que del mar saliste for guitar and electronics. For this piece, Amaya feeds Ruben Mattia Santorsa’s acoustic guitar through transducers to produce a remote, watery sound. Santorsa’s gentle, reflective playing is alternately drowned in sustained overtones, worn smooth by rolling off the attacks, or has its frequency range smothered to create different perspectives of a still, submmerged world.

Strings (2), mostly bowed

Sunday 24 September 2023

As well as the two Sarah Saviet albums, I’ve been listening to several more albums of solo violin music. Well, not exactly violin: Sarah-Jane Summers’ Echo Stane is performed entirely on Hardanger fiddle. It’s an unusually folksy release for Another Timbre, abounding with modal melodics. Summers’ techniques never stray towards the outer limits of improvisation, yet she finely distinguishes each of the nine pieces here with attention to the characteristic attributes of her instrument. The fiddle’s sympethetic strings are used to give a steely sheen to some pieces, while in others the focus is on softly bowed melody with added resonance and reverberation. Double-stop fiddling is frequent but never lapses into full-on hoedown, with Summers using the buzz of the strings as colouration to some refined harmonic work, most notably in the opening track when playing melismas over a drone. The short, central piece is made up mostly of harmonics, pushing the fiddle’s sympathetic overtones to the forefront. The only letdown here is my ignorance of folk music and thus how well it adheres to or violates the bounds of the genre has me describing it all like an alien visiting Earth.

The title and cover art of Inger Hannisdal’s solo album Free Folk suggests this will be the same only more so. Nope, it’s a bait and switch. The first of the eight short tracks presents some rustic fiddle riffs, suddenly getting all handsy and half-plucked for a little bit in the middle but otherwise nothing suspicious. From there on, however, the odd rough edges heard on the first track predominate, with Hannisdal getting into the guts of the instrument, so to speak, using preparations on the violin strings to produce wheezy harmonics, gong-like pedal tones, detuning and distortion. However remote it may be, the vocabulary of folk music is always present in some faint form, keeping the strange sounds and disjunctive noises in service of succinct musical compositions, instead of just playing with acoustic effects. The ‘double-tone’ effect of prepared strings is particularly effective here, with each thin, high sound shadowed by a softer but more resonant subharmonic.

Violinist Christopher Whitley has compiled six pieces by various composers in an LP-length collection titled Describe Yourself. It’s the title of Leslie Ting’s piece on the album, not so much a reflection of the album forming a composite portrait of the artist. If the latter sense was intended, then the album is unsuccessful, for unfortunately as a collection it doesn’t add up to much. Whitley has an adventurous taste in finding new music, with most of the works here composed last year and each taking a very different approach to the solo instrument, but the resulting package is a compendium of ideas in want of a statement. Nicole Lizée’s Don’t Throw Your Head in Your Hands pits Whitley against a collage of karaoke tapes, but like much of her work it makes all the right and modern cultural and technological connections while producing something neutered and inconsequential. Ting’s titular Describe Yourself is the now-dreaded “lockdown” piece with Zoom videoconferencing, with Whitley and Ting exchanging commonplace anxieties of today’s culturally invested, music as afterthought. Kara-Lis Coverdale’s three Patterns in High Places is yet another sad case of a confident electronic artist suddenly at pains to make their acoustic music as undemanding as possible. The “old” piece is Jeffrey Ryan’s Bellatrix from 2001, which starts off the whole set simply because Whitley gets a kick out of playing it and why not: it’s flashy but compact and it’s hard not to like a piece in which the composer demands the soloist begin with a Miss Piggy “Hii-YAH!” Of the stronger new pieces, Fjóla Evans’ In Bruniquel Cave uses multi-tracked violin to spin out a translucent veil of frail pitches, while Evan J. Cartwright uses digital manipulations in his Six Tableaux for Violin to create electroacoustic objects out of Whitley’s playing, each morsel clear-edged and multi-faceted while the susbtance remains a mystery.

Apartment House play Morton Feldman’s Violin And String Quartet

Sunday 17 September 2023

Apartment House and Another Timbre have supplied another missing link in the late canon of Morton Feldman: Violin And String Quartet is a two-hour work from 1985 that, as far as I can tell, has only been commercially recorded twice before, with neither version currently available. As such, it has sat in semi-obscurity between the widely-admired 90-minute pieces and the notorious four-hour plus compositions, although as a listening experience it belongs with the former group. It’s another of Feldman’s masterclasses in achieving a place of inner stillness, taking a small cluster of pitches and doing just enough with them to never let things settle into place; patterns slowly rock back and forth without ever quite repeating exactly, in phrases that float somewhere between the iambic rhythms of breathing, heartbeats and a slow waltz. The Another Timbre page states simply that it’s so beautiful that nothing more needs to be said. I won’t quite agree: the preponderance of violins give the work a consistency that moves the music away from the textural variety of the preceding works and points towards the monolithic impression of what were to be his last works. Apartment House – represented here by Mira Benjamin, Chihiro Ono and Amalia Young on violins, Bridget Carey on viola and director Anton Lukoszevieze on cello – interpret the work by lightly pressing upon its ambiguities and contradictions, reflecting Feldman’s approach to composition. From the start, the bowing is light enough to let pitch sound clearly while still letting the scrape of bow against be heard, creating a tension in the constant sounds – an atypical aspect of this work. I haven’t heard the Peter Rundel with Pellegrini Quartet version on Hat Art, but the OgreOgress recording with Christina Fong and the Rangzen Quartet presents a continuous skein of thin harmonies. Apartment House seem to let the higher instruments take the focus, along with reedy harmonics, so that when lower pitches appear the timbre sounds exotic and strange. When heard at low volumes, as one tends to do, it adds a suitably disorienting aspect to the music. As the piece approaches its end, the pauses become more pronounced, adding a quiet poignancy to the reticent bowing.

Strings (1), mostly plucked

Saturday 16 September 2023

Last month I got to hear Julia Reidy play live for the first time in a while (for me, not her). Her way of playing solo guitar with electronics has developed into something more integrated and organic, even as she moves away from basing her sound on the acoustic instrument. Her interest in microtonality has led to her playing with an electric guitar fitted with a just intonation fretboard, with the electronics providing treatments to the guitar more than adding atmosphere. It’s a far cry from the Branca/Chatham axis of retuned guitars, with a refreshingly dirty approach to microtonality: any expectations for strictly controlled structures or micromanagement of harmonies got wrecked early on when she arbitrarily twisted the dial on her pitch-shift effects box. Later on, there were tweaks made on the fly to the tuning pegs. Reidy used the guitar as a vehicle for harmonic complexity and resonance, with loops, heavy reverb and delays to build up sustained passages of sonority with tonal ambiguity, watching for where the harmonic pull of the resultant masse of sound would lead her, negotiating a balance between the strange and familiar.

It was a useful reminder that there is still a lot you can do with guitars. The guitar-with-digital electronics setup is also used by Eldritch Priest on his album Omphaloskepsis released last year, but to a completely different end. A suite in eight slightly differentiated movements that lasts damn near an hour, Priest’s musical concept is that of an angular, endless line that never quite resolves to a melody or a conclusion. It’s like he took inspiration from those guitar duets that pop up on Captain Beefheart albums and tried to turn it into Mahler. The electric guitar is doubled throughout by various fuzzbox treatments, synth patches and various MIDI instruments moving in imitation, which change in number and colour as unpredictably as the guitar’s mode or metre. The unwieldy length contributes to the piece’s baffling power, ratcheting up the tension as it continues to burn through new material without ever exhausting itself. Too self-aware to be grandiose, too oblique to be bombastic, Omphaloskepsis carves an anti-pattern out of the warm corpse of prog.

There is still a lot you can do with guitars, but that gets a lot less obvious when you start dealing with real composers. The Finnish electric guitar quartet Sähkökitarakvartetti (Juhani Grönroos, Lauri Hyvärinen, Jukka Kääriäinen, Sigurdur Rögnvaldsson) has released a collection of five new-ish pieces by various composers on what I presume is their third album, Sähkökitarakvartetti III. It illustrates the cul-de-sac that composers often find themselves in when writing for the instrument, retreading the patter of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint or throwing in some polished rockisms using distortion or the wah pedal to illustrate it’s “potential” for sonic novelty. The more daring pieces will throw in a little of both. Sergio Castrillón’s 12 Miniatures breaks this up by focusing on the fringes of standard playing techniques, allowing odd timbres and textures to predominate – all assisted by the composer himself joining in with some gravelly cello playing. Pauli Lyytinen’s Särmiö opens the set, composed just last year but most firmly entrenched in the comfort zone of the previous generation’s Reich’n’Roll. Hafdís Bjarnadóttir’s Hyrnan IV begins promisingly with gnarled bursts of noise on damped strings only to unfold into an increasingly relaxed tour through the guitar’s tropes in popular music. There is at least a contemplative context to be understood from this progression (regression?), unlike the stale rock riffs that intrude halfway through Kalle Kalima’s Ajan Haju and never quite go away. It’s interesting that, along with Castrillón, the other composer with the most fully realised work here is quartet member Juhani Grönroos: Orb (2020) makes heavy use of effects throughout but keeps the focus on contrasts in texture, never fully resorting to noise but keeping clarity of pitch and tone at a distance, creating something distinct in shape but ambiguous in its contents.

It’s easy to overthink all this, both when playing and listening. It may after all be better just to play, except that you need to remain aware – not necessarily of what you’re doing, but at least what you are capable of. Braintrust of Fiends and Werewolves is an album of duets by guitarists Alan Courtis and David Grubbs, which on paper seems like two mismatched talents thrown together randomly by a gig promoter – this set was all recorded on one date last November. I haven’t bothered to look up their past history together because it doesn’t matter: these are poised, solidly conceived duets which reveal more and more of their inherent depth and beauty with each listen. It’s hard to believe each of the six pieces here were put together on the spot, as they vary so greatly in approach, method and atmosphere. The long opening track is an examplar of how to do the slow build without being monolithic or monotonous, with an ear for compositional nuance that lifts it above the expression of a simple idea. The following shorter pieces surpass this for their subtlety and delicacy, with the title work casually dropping repeated gestures to keep its pastoral ramble in check, followed by “Room Tone of One’s Own”, a rustic study in folk guitar melancholy. “Song of a Fence Grown through a Tree” reverts to electric distortion and smeared drones, before the gentle “Varsovia y Esparta” tenderly picks its way through a sparely detailed adagio with restrained elegance. The second long work that bookends the album is more elaborate in its development through various changes in its character, making use of more than just its size to create a piece that can’t be “got” in a single hearing but rewards each return visit.

Summer Shorts (2)

Saturday 26 August 2023

Anouck Genthon & Mathias Forge: Notice (Insub). Since my last post, I’ve been wondering about the use of external factors as a source of inspiration for music; even more so since hearing a new album which cites the musician’s collaboration with biological researchers and study of bacterial mycelia, all to produce an aspartame-laced package of anodyne, arpeggiated burbling. This is not that album. Notice purports to be a 30-minute duet by violinist Anouck Genthon and trombonist Mathias Forge drawn “from different walking experiences” and it starts out prosaically enough: the usual droney joint improvs start to veer into strange territory bordering the obsessive and the irreverent, then something crashes to the floor. Odd pauses, delays, disruptions and percussive interjections intrude on the two musicians as they doggedly persist, even as a sine tone gets stuck in the system and buzzes away while they keep playing. Genthon and Forge have hit on a self-critical aspect so often missing from works with a conceptually pure basis, letting their initial motivations curdle like the protagonists in a Godard dérive.

Ryoko Akama & d’incise: No register No declare (Insub). Shorter and slighter than Notice, this duet between Akama and d’incise “made in Huddersfield + Bruxelles” presents no specific idea, collaging together a selection of unobtrusive clicks and hums from analog synthesiser and feedback set amongst “domestic recordings”. It’s hard to present this material coherently in a way that rises above triviality, but they almost manage it with their use of a close recording of an electric kettle. It’s a sound at once immediately recognisable and familiar, yet also sounds complex and alien in a way that both confounds and reinforces the feeling of being alone in a kitchen or hotel room. It’s the standout element (no pun intended) so when I relisten to this I just end up waiting for the bits with the kettle.

Lise Morrison: No grief without joy (Sawyer Editions). Speaking of ideas, Lise Morrison’s five compositions here offer themselves up more as suggestions for possible pieces of music, only to withdraw before really making their case. Their self-effacing modesty, with the requisite soft dynamics, suggest a wish to focus on craft over attention-seeking (cf. her Study for marimba and thunder sheets), but most of the pieces stuggle to assert their presence and seem insubstantial, feeling smaller than they really are. The exception is Five Times Recycled, with Sara Constant re-recording her bass flute on cassettes until they break up into a grotty fug of kazoos.

Clinton Green/Ian Andrews: False Currency (tsss tapes), Ross Manning: Some Technical Drawings (Shame File Music), Tarab: Rooms (Ferns Recordings). I imagine the Australian sound sculpture scene is pretty close-knit, as other enthusiasts in minority activities often find themselves out of necessity. Clinton Green (Shame File Music founder) has made a collection of “automatic/aleatory systems” collaborations with Ian Andrews on False Currency, which for the most part sounds like much kinetic sculpture sonic art. There’s one track where the sounds are digitally stretched and smeared to produce a shimmering ambient haze, but otherwise it’s the usual small percussion sounds stumbling over each other that have come to characterize the genre. It combines a fascination with small sounds and processes that act as an end in themselves, which precludes any interest beyond the momentary and the trivial. Ross Manning’s Some Technical Drawings adds a welcome advance to the kinetic constructions by incorporating electronics, or at least audible electricity. It nips in the bud the Gilligan’s Island connotations to the contraptions and adds more intrigue to the sounds produced beyond the usual clunk and thunk. Only trouble is about half of the album is given over to the vagaries of an electronic buzz that squarely sets you back in the obsession with processes and small differences. Tarab’s Rooms is more different still, and all the better for it. The objects used are located in definite spaces, recorded either close up or situated in a wider ambience, then processed through the distorting filters of natural acoustics and technological reproduction. Object and space are edited together in ways which evoke documentary, narrative and mise-en-scène and the messy way they interact when ostensibly presenting a straight representation of what happened, far from the complacent belief that capturing the process on tape (or digital file or whatever) is the most honest policy.

Summer Shorts (1)

Sunday 20 August 2023

John Eagle: erosion and growth (Sawyer Editions). A long, sombre work for piano and percussion that falls into unmarked sections, each containing a specific texture. At first it’s just Eagle scraping stones and tiles, later succeeded by pianist Jack Yarbrough playing high, staccato chords. From there on the piano plays tentatively through a succession of slow, reflective near-patterns, with some interludes of grey noise percussion. Somehow it all relates to recordings Eagle made of a waterfall and then electronically processed, filtered and analysed to render up pitch data. We’re told “the resultant composition contains only acoustic sounds” but soon after piano and percussion are finally united an electric-sounding drone fills the background for the remainder of the piece. The means and the ends seem incongruous to each other, which leads you into the extra-musical game of reconciling what you’re told about the emotional context of the initial recording with the comparatively unemotional music. The results as yet are inconclusive.

Andrey Guryanov: Anthems (Abstand). Guryanov digitally torments the opening chords of multiple archival recordings of the various national anthems that have served the Soviet Union and Russia since 1917, claiming to build each track out of a microscopic analysis of the opening’s incidental details and technological flaws. He claims personal and international history as the grounding for his research, yet the music resembles Eagle’s composition insofar as it seeks to make a factual element into an external jusitfication for the music’s existence in its final state. Eagle takes this old idea onto a new tangent, while Guryanov uses it to produce gloomy dark ambient electronica complete with what sounds like occasional drum pads amongst the glitchy greyness, weighed down with a need for political relevance. Inevitably, the last track draws upon Ukraine.

Hunter Brown: Stoppages Vol. 1 [∞] (Party Perfect!!! PP-03). While some computer-assisted composition uses code as a form of inspiration (sup.), Hunter Brown’s Stoppages series means to interrogate the electronic guts of the computer process itself. Brown picks up David Tudor’s ideas on the generation and transmission of electronic sound and runs with them into new digital territory, pushing the idea of synthesis and glitching further than most. The set of pieces here were created by a digital feedback circuit designed to overload the computer’s CPU, maxing out its physical limits in attempting to reproduce sound. The results are alarming, particularly when the system flatlines and your hi-fi’s level meters are pegged by silence. Apparently unedited, each piece is defined by the amount of time it took before the programme crashed, creating inexplicably arbitrary structures of sound and silence. When the frequency spectrum looks like this, you know it’s uncompromising:

Scott Solter & Rohner Segnitz: The Murals (Bathysphere). Don’t let the J-card fool you; this is slick. Solter and Segnitz work up a mélange of techniques from ambient and glitchcore without ever lapsing into a particular genre. When I replay it in my head I remember it as the professionalism in execution and tastefulness in arrangement as somehow cancelling out their respective shortcomings, creating the world’s wildest library music. As to why this would be a bad thing, it’s probably because people with this much skill could create something more ambitious to challenge the listener (this is not the same as confrontation). Then I play it again and decide I’m thinking too much: it’s saved by the sureness of approach, building each piece from an initial sound and developing it in creative ways, without recourse to any big ideas.

Sarah Saviet, solo violin: Spun and Every Strand of Thread and Rope

Friday 4 August 2023

I was treated to a live performance by violinist Sarah Saviet at the All That Dust launch, playing Soosan Lolavar’s solo suite Every Strand of Thread and Rope. It’s a rough and hairy piece, even in its most delicate sections. The four movements were added over the last few years, as part of an exchange between Lolavar and Saviet, with Lolavar applying her experience of Iranian santūr music and tuning to new ideas, and Saviet responding by retuning her violin down a minor sixth, slackening the strings and altering the timbre and intonation. Saviet uses Lolavar’s score to dive into the textural potential of the looser strings, the softer tone of the lowered pitch modulated by guttural buzzing, thickened timbre and faint rattles. The presence of unpitched sounds get cranked to 11 in the final movement (‘Chainmail’), made out of repeated, hacking patterns of double-stops, to the point it dominated my memory of the piece until I heard the recording and rediscovered how lightly the effects are used in the gentle (but still hairy) ‘Fibres’ that precedes it. The All That Dust release is a binaural recording, a stand-alone download.

Every Strand of Thread and Rope turns out to be a suitable entree for Saviet’s full album of solo works, Spun, just released on Coviello Classics. Exotic timbres abound throughout, beginning with Liza Lim’s 2018 piece The Su Song Star Map. It’s also a piece written for retuned violin and exploits the possibilities of colouration, albeit in a less obsessive way. Saviet moves easily between the light and bright melodic passages and the thornier timbral shadings Lim calls for, sometimes only for fleeting moments or in transition from one tone to another. It’s a lovely sample of Lim’s more recent style, embracing directly florid melody but grounding it in denser and darker patches of complex sounds to cast the solo in a more sophisticated perspective; Saviet fuses both of these tendencies in her interpretation, with one highlight being the blaze of contrapunctual harmonics near the work’s centre.

The sleeve notes make repeated references to ‘throaty’ and ‘digging in’, reinforcing Saviet’s relish for the lower strings. Even Lisa Streich’s Falter, made out of feathery apreggios, is occasionally anchored by a barking low note. The most aggravated case is Evan Johnson’s Wolke über Bäumen, a piece from 2016 which shows this composer’s use of extremes to particularly stark effect. The piece demands gut strings, played with a baroque bow, but the idiom is blasted and barren, using techniques that eke out the strange and sour in the organic inconsistencies of the physical materials. To hear the intricacies in each of the faint wisps of sound, you must also accept being battered by the sudden outbursts of violent noise; as a pastoral, it depicts nature in its harshest light. Arne Gieshoff’s spun is also discontinuous, but in a more capricious way, flitting from pizzicato glissandi to double-stops, trills to smeared and heavy bowing. The final work, Lawrence Dunn’s Habitual from 2017, works here as a kind of bookend to Lim’s piece. A deceptively simple patchwork of brief melodies, Habitual creates a formalised unselfconsciousness. Dunn stipulates just intonation be used, making the tunes sound both natural and personal, as though played without an audience. Patterns never quite settle into a regular grid, or even settle at all, and the structure you anticipated hearing at the outset unspools into an unhurried soliloquy of thoughts not yet fully formed. Saviet maintains a warm but contemplative mood throughout, even when the music turns unexpectedly sprightly.

Nomi Epstein: cubes

Monday 31 July 2023

What little I’ve heard of Nomi Epstein’s music has been made from apparently simple structures that define certain parameters of the sounds to be used at any given time, but otherwise leaving the means of realising those sounds and placing them in a larger structure up to the performers. It requires trust in the musicians to be open and creative when interpreting the sometimes paradoxical requirements of a score that is both specifically restrictive and unspecifically permissive. The common effect I’ve heard in her compositions to date is the way they direct the musicians towards producing complex, composite sounds in ways that are utterly unfamiliar and leave you uncertain as to how they were produced. You could say that extended techniques are being employed, but in this case it’s a bit beyond that and beside the point: the instruments and how they are being used are not the issue, as the nature of the sound is suffciently strange to remove the question of its production from speculation. Paradoxically, this method makes the instrument an invisible means to a audible end, just as in ‘conventional’ music.

The new Epstein album on Sawyer Editions features just one work, an hour-long duet for violin and percussion titled cubes. Composed in 2020 for violinist Erik Carlson and percussionist Greg Stuart, it expands upon those compositional concerns into extremes; of commitment, timbral uncertainty, audibility and durations. The opening sound, a partly-voiced drone that sounds half-organic and half-mechanical, takes up the first five minutes of the piece. Epstein describes the score as twenty-four “building blocks of sound” and that primary focus on timbre together with the elemental structure of the piece are nakedly evident throughout the sixty minutes. The juxtaposition of one slab of faint but dense sound after another appear to be the result of collage, with the sounds seemingly made from very small activities blown up by close amplification – this isn’t exactly stated but is alluded to in the brief sleeve notes. Carlson and Stuart’s sonic discoveries in this piece are extraordinary, having sought out and pursued the most quiet, unobtrusive sounds to bring out an inner life and character to each one. In general, the two of them work to create complex unpitched sounds redolent of woodgrain and small interior spaces. Listened to once, it seems dry and austere. Playing it again in the background, it keeps catching you out with some striking detail you hadn’t noticed before. Repeated listenings sound different each time as some other small thing suddenly grabs your attention. Whether you consider it to be a tape collage or a violin-percussion duet is a moot point. “I wouldn’t have made this piece for anyone else,” Epstein writes, and I can’t imagine anyone else would have realised the score in this way.

Low Strings: Jack Sheen, Bryan Eubanks

Sunday 30 July 2023

The sleeve notes for Jack Sheen’s Solo for Cello recommend you to listen with the speakers “placed as far away as possible”, as if the music itself wasn’t alienated enough. For thirty-five minutes, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze (he of Apartment House) grinds a dogged path through an uncanny valley of cello music, all fluttered harmonics and slow rasps, smothered by a heavy, metallic mute. The same sonic intrigue created by the effects of the ‘whispering cadenza’ from Ligeti’s Cello Concerto are regimented here into erratically cycled patterns and dynamically compressed to allow only occasional random stray outbursts to leak from the seams. It’s also not exactly a solo: an electronic component is present from time to time, but only to add to the uncanny effect that you’re not quite hearing a cello, or otherwise to coat the pristine background with a layer of schmutz. At certain interludes Lukoszevieze’s industrious labouring on his instrument drops away to a prolonged, sullen drone before the sawing resumes, producing a texture both thin in range and thick in detail. An even more stark and nervy companion piece to Sheen’s Sub released last year, Lukoszevieze makes Sheen’s solo a tour de force of suppressed ferocity. It’s been released as a CD by cassette label Trilogy Tapes but it may not be in quite as anomalous company as it first appears.

Almost missed the Insub release of Bryan Eubanks’ for four double basses a year ago; which was pretty stupid of me as it’s a weirdly beguiling piece quite unlike his other electronicky stuff I’ve heard. It’s all harmonics again, real soft when backed by the incipient sonority of the large wooden instruments, playing in a staggered canon of repeating patterns. All you need to know is printed right there on the front cover. It should be looping but there’s just enough fuzziness in the setup to create a dreamlike gauzy sound that seems almost too insubstantial to persist in your consciousness, yet only seems to move when you let it slip from your attention. Jonathan Heilbron, Mike Majkowski, Andrew Lafkas and Koen Nutters man the contrabass viols with a feathery touch.

Music We’d Like to Hear, 2023 (part 3 (there’s no part 2))

Thursday 20 July 2023

Stupidly, I missed the Friday night concert of Music We’d Like to Hear dedicated to pieces by Tim Parkinson, but I did get to the Saturday’s Amber Priestley gig. Pretty sure this is the first time I’ve experienced her work performed live; everything else so far had been heard over the radio. It’s not exactly like you’re missing out when you don’t see it, but the visual, or theatrical element to her compositions are intrinsic to what makes them work in their own way as music. Yes, it’s playful, and the theatrical elements are reminiscent of the jokey aspect present in work by other contemporary British composers, only without as much of the defensiveness or the regulated fun. More importantly, Priestley takes these stage antics beyond their usual sideshow role and deploys them as compositional techniques. The performance of her string quartet Ev’ry evening, ev’ry day demonstrated this most fully on the night. It was the most conspicuously active piece played – individual musicians sent in turn foraging around the room for additional score materials, crawling away to play in isolation on the floor, engaging audience members in square dance calls or just peacing out with a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer – and so nominally the most distracting for the aural component, but this was part of the point. The inspiration for the piece was the disruptions encountered in everyday life, where simple tasks are thwarted by complications introduced by someone else. The ensemble never had a moment of coherence for long before someone got up, turned a fellow musician’s score to a different page and affixed an overlay or instructions that sent her on a digression. It resembled some of Luc Ferrari’s chamber pieces, in that musical progress is replaced by obligatory deviations: the clash of disparate textures and idioms suddenly changing or disappearing produced a kind of clotted antiphony through inadvertent accumulation of consequences. Moreover, these interruptions and obligations made you question whether any of this was in fact ‘fun’. At least you felt the audience were enjoying it more than the performers, which is as things should be.

The quartet themselves were game and able, both in running, walking, dancing and crouching with Priestley’s ideas, and in bringing out notable characteristics in material that might easily have been obscured. That substance was more evident in the other string quartet played that evening, And Yet Something Shines, Something Sings in that Silence: two pages of quasi-canonic passages which the musicians are required to interpret in a different tempo and loudness in each new iteration. At the end of each pass they pause, rotate the page 180 degrees and start over; repeat. This piece offered a loosely similar interplay of voices, but with greater consistency. The musicians were a mix of experienced players on the new music scene (Mira Benjamin on violin, Chihiro Ono on viola) and performance postgrads at Goldsmiths (Amalia Young on other violin; Kirke Gross on cello). After the interval they were joined by clarinettist Pete Furniss, Clare Spollen on piano (plus accordion) and James Creed on electric guitar to play Repeat yourself until friends are embarrassed…, a 41-minute work where the material is pre-pulverised. Goldsmiths’ students left musical doodles and sketches on large sheets of paper in the University corridors; these were then collaged by Priestley and the collages filmed and transformed to produce a video containing the resulting collages and other structures divided into quadrants on screen. The video may also function as a distraction, although the lack of spectacle to it diminishes that possibility. Musicians were scattered around the room, making music that on this occasion felt pretty low-key and sedate, at times more resembling an AMM-type group improvisation. The lack of a focal point may have been the issue, with all of the alienating factors of Priestley’s process fixed on tape in advance, with musical activity dissipated by the deliberately thinned-out density of musicians playing at any given time. Priestley herself was making occasional contributions here and there on various novelty handbells, having earlier been ushered into a brief impromptu violin part in Ev’ry evening, ev’ry day.