Returning again: Eventless Plot, Magnus Granberg

Tuesday 31 January 2023

I hear lots of nice stuff and I appreciate it. I thought you were supposed to get less tolerant as time went by, but attempting to listen critically just makes me find things to appreciate about craft even if I doubt there’s any point to what I’m hearing. There isn’t a particular point to art, anyway. I don’t expect, or really want, to be shocked by art, but at times I start to wonder if I’ve reached a state where I hear everything in the same way. Luckily the recent albums by Eventless Plot and Magnus Granberg have gently nudged me out of that complacency again. The Greek group composition ensemble Eventless Plot have recorded two contrasting pieces both titled Memory Loss. In the first, the trio is joined by sometime collaborator Chris Cundy on bass clarinet, who holds sustained pitches against analog synth tones over a backdrop of occasional psaltery and other analog electronics, with some digital processing. What’s most striking about this piece is not just the clear, unadulterated use of pitch, but that it’s keyed to delicate but purposeful activity, in a way which makes you realise how much recent hushed, low-level unnotated music has been getting fussy and mannered in its obsession with small details. The second piece is for the trio alone (Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas and Yiannis Tsirikoglou) and the main instrument is piano, replacing the sustained pitches with a fragile continuity that eventually breaks up rather than resolve or fade away.

Always a good thing when new music gets a second recording so soon after the first; or in this case, the other way around. Last year Another Timbre released a 2021 recording of Magnus Granberg’s How Lonely Sits the City? and now the Japanese Meenna label has issued a performance from 2020. The earlier version is for quartet only (Eva Lindal on violin, Leo Svensson Sander, cello and Stina Hellberg Agback on harp around Granberg’s usual prepared piano), without the electronics or percussion of the Another Timbre seven-piece version. Of the latter, I wrote that it had “the sparsest texture I’ve yet heard in Granberg’s compositions, even more so than in his quartet Nattens skogar…. while Granberg added parts for a larger ensemble, the prevailing mood remained small and sparse, with each musician adding to the overall work as sparingly as possible, making each individual sound count.” Hearing it now in its original form, it’s curious how the texture is even more open, while sounding less wintry or alienating. The combination of instruments is a little warmer, even as the group’s playing is just as faint and attenuated (save the cellist, all returned for the later recording). What’s most intriguing here is the way the work falls open, like a loosened knot, revealing details in its construction, showing how Granberg’s techniques change over the course of a piece to produce different interplays of sound. At times, the music falls into near silence as violin and piano tentatively exchange single notes, like a Cage piece in times when he was at his most reticent.

Reinier Van Houdt: drift nowhere past / the adventure of sleep

Saturday 28 January 2023

It took a long time to come around to this one. Have we all had enough of Lockdown Art yet? I think I wanted to move on, and this thing from Reinier Van Houdt just seemed too much. Two hours long, ten pieces, needs editing, too indulgent, too slick, too simple. As time went by these complaints started to contradict each other in my head and those nagging contradictions started to do the work that the apparently facile quality of the soundscapes concealed. drift nowhere past was recorded in instalments over six months, turning in an aural report on the 22nd of each month during the uncertain languors at the start of the pandemic. The indulgence is tempered by the obligation, the loose structure of each episode an effect of the enforced improvisatory approach. Van Houdt lingers over each of the redolent fragments he has collected, letting each collage play itself out where he could have edited more tightly. Heard in retrospect, it captures those early months of Covid admirably, contemplating what has been lost and what may never return, with no certainty of where the course of events is leading. It presents a series of soundscapes in which events pass by with little recollection of details beyong the overall impression, blurring into a dreamlike passage of time.

The last three years seem to have passed for most people as a void and for me, personally, the past month has gone by as a half-remembered dream. Before this collection was released the elsewhere label asked Van Houdt to make a companion piece, for Covid’s second wave. the adventure of sleep collects four pieces made of more brittle materials, but worked into layers where events are effaced even further than before. Distant sounds and echoes linger as the predominant theme here, steady rhythms instill a suitable torpor that seems to stretch out beyond the work’s thirty-five minutes, evoking the same sort of crowded emptiness that closes in on the mind as it slowly forgets consciousness.

Routines: Rasten & Dupleix, Bondi & d’incise, Astasie-abasie

Thursday 12 January 2023

There are some pieces that act like a microcosm of dealing with new music – composing it, playing it, listening to it – in the whole: observed from a distance, these activities boil down to a matter of repetition, reiteration, routine. In this situation, the importance of the act of concentration is heightened, becoming almost an aesthetic goal in itself. When listening to such music, the question is whether composer, performer and audience can all find a comparable level of concentration.

Routine differs from repetition, in that a repeated set of actions can lead to changes in those actions, as they adapt to new possibilities observed from the results. Fredrik Rasten and Léo Dupleix’s Delve II takes a composition by Rasten made from reiterated elements, expanded over thirty-eight minutes as a duet for 12-string acoustic guitar and spinet. Short gestures are repeated in near-unison, producing a composite instrument in which the features and contents are in a slow but unceasing flux. The arepggiated chords are not so much elaborated – or even extended, in the manner of an old-school minimal composer – as they are pursued into new articulations, as though allowing some natural process of musician’s curiosity to take its course. Chords are slowly pulled apart and reassembled, with new aspects casually introduced or removed, all at a seemingly steady, breath-like pace. The effect is entrancing.

Ian Andrews has made two albums now under the name Astasie-abasie. The first one, Molecular Gamelan, didn’t interest me too much as it was all too much like sound sculpture and wasn’t working as foreground. The new one, Elliptical Gamelan, is much better. As before, the pieces are all made from amplified metal objects motivated by electrical devices, so loops and cycling sounds are the base material here. Where Elliptical Gamelan succeeds is in the details, with the sounds more intrisically complex so that they are less recognisable with each repetition, overlaying each other in patterns that may be inferred but cannot be identified rhythmically. Each of the ten short pieces here evolve as they progress, giving each one a distinct sound and form, making them work as music instead of just exercises in instrument-building. One of us was paying closer attention this time.

The excessive focus on instruments has a detrimental effect on Cyril Bondi and d’incise’s latest collaboration, Le secret. Bondi made an extensive investigation into Swiss Alpenglocken before the two musicians were let loose on a large collection of bells. The focus here is on the differences in tone and timbre of bells, as they’re played in slow, antiphonal permutations, to the exclusion of almost all other considerations. Unless you want to invest it with your own significance, the arrangements here seem overly reverential and dry. Perversely, d’incise’s solo album καῦμα (kaûma) is all electronic but feels more lively and capricious, even as it tries to maintain a steady state of repeated actions. Synthesiser is mixed with analogue filters and reverb as well as digital processing, creating a fuzzy, saturated set of small riffs that perpetually drift off course. The material is simple and unassuming, but in d’incise’s renderings they become tantalisingly indistinct. It recalls the fin de siècle interest in glitchcore and lowercase, returning to follow up on where those two subgenres had left off before fully delivering on their promises.

Electric guitars etc.: Gavin Bryars with Sergio Sorrentino, Pauline Oliveros with Reynols (also Monique Buzzarté)

Saturday 31 December 2022

The listening pile grew big while working on my own stuff, so I almost overlooked these three little nuggets of Gavin Bryars’ work for electric guitar. It’s not a complete overview of his work for the instrument, but it makes for a piquant EP. The guitarist is Sergio Sorrentino, whom Bryars has worked with before but not in a solo capacity. The opening and closing tracks were recorded live at the AngelicA festival and sound remarkably close and clear. Catalogue is a duet for piano and electric guitar Bryars wrote for Derek Bailey way back in 1965. The indeterminate musical language is of its time, but Bryars and Sorrentino work together to make the piece speak clearly, with fresh colours and a sense of balance that keeps the pointillistic texture intriguing. The two join forces again for a take on The Squirrel and the Ricketty-Racketty Bridge, the 1971 piece for guitarists ‘walking’ their fingers up and down the fretboards of two instruments at once and which the nerds who read this blog probably remember from one of the indifferently-pressed LPs Brian Eno put out in the Seventies. This version is cleaner, letting more of the anticipated inadvertent details to be heard and so giving it interest beyond its initial quirkiness. It’s also much shorter, which will either help you focus on the music or prevent you from immersing in the ambience. I haven’t kept up with Bryars’ recent compositions, so it’s good to hear Burroughs II, a work from 2014. This is a studio recording Sorrentino made shortly before the Angelica gig, multitracking himself on six electric guitars and two electric basses. The melodic work is typical of later Bryars – stymied late romantic decadence, out of whack, never quite at peace with itself – but not as cosy as I expected, set against strummed chords at a gallop. It’s striking but at four minutes it feels like a fragment, a sketch for something more resolved.

A couple of years back I got into a recording of the telematic duet from 2009 between Pauline Oliveros in New York and Alan Courtis in Buenos Aires. Their adeptness at using the long-distance jam session for mutual inspiration and provocation is less of a surprise when you learn that this was not their first rodeo. Half a Dove in New York, Half a Dove in Buenos Aires is a mixdown of another online intercontinental gig, held ten years earlier. (The mind boggles at the effort needed to get an “improvisation NetCast” running effectively in the days of 56k modems.) On this occasion, Oliveros with her just intonation accordion is joined by trombonist extraordinnaire Monique Buzzarté, while in the southern hemisphere Courtis is playing with his band Reynols. Oliveros and Reynols had a shared feeling for sound and while this earlier outing is less convulsive, none of the assembled musos are afraid to lead (or push) the others to greater extremes when the moment seems right. Oliveros and Buzzarté lay down drones rich with overtones, which Reynols thicken out with guitars and electronics until somewhere around the middle of Side 1 a jet fighter takes off. By Side 2 you start thinking this a Reynols gig with added instrumental colour, only to hear the brass and reeds come surging back for the rest of the disc, wailing and keening in a strange tonality which the electronics match with distorted harmony. Shamefully, Buzzarté doesn’t get a namecheck on the front cover.

Keyboards without Ego: Golub, Svensson, Tolimieri

Saturday 17 December 2022

“Who cares if you listen?” becomes something of a Zen koan when listening to these three collections of keyboard pieces: all at once they are personal in their conception and execution yet impersonal in their aims and affect on the listener. Phillip Golub’s Filters is a set of four piano pieces released on Greyfade, a label dedicated to process-based composition. Golub composes loops, simple repeating patterns which he then layers and alternates into subtly varying patterns. He has used these to create installations of indeterminate length, but for this LP he reduces his material to a couple of interlockling loops played on piano to create four modest but substantial pieces of roughly equal dimensions. Roughly equal characters, too: Golub has selected his materials (and his takes – the track titles indicate that one piece was discarded) to sound similar internally and externally. As each piece resembles the others, so does each moment of a piece resemble its others, allowing the listener either to ignore any difference or to listen closely in an attempt to distinguish each loop’s start and end. The overall pattern resembles a loosened knot, where each part may be examined but not pulled free from its structure. Golub’s language resembles Satie, in its recursiveness and use of familiar harmonies detourned through being stripped of direction and functional purpose. The pieces were recorded on “a beautifully maintained Steinway D” and its soft, buttery tone is well captured here.

A more spindly sound is offered for the two compositions by Kristofer Svensson on Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz’s stilla sv​ä​va. You may remember Svensson from Maya Bennardo playing his Duk med broderi och bordets kant for solo violin on a previous Kuyin release. You may remember Persson and Scholz from their various recordings of Cage and Feldman etc. (their double CD of Christian Wolff’s piano duets is an excellent introduction to that recondite composer). The keyboards heard here are older instruments: Persson plays a clavichord on the half-hour suite I Sommarluft before being joined by Scholz for a four-hands duet on a 19th century square piano in Kori Kamandungan. Both works require the instruments to be returned into a just-intonation system of Svensson’s devising. It all makes for a bracing combination, with the slowness characteristic of much just-intonation music at odds with the sharp attach and quick decay of the instruments. Composer and musicians work together here to make music of finely engraved lines and points in a slow, thin counterpoint. The material draws on themes from various cultures and periods of history, ranging from Sundanese tradition to Mamoru Fujieda’s study of floral electrostatics. Some notes on the square piano sound prepared, unless Svensson has really exploited the harmonic potential of the instrument’s stringing. Otherwise, the retuning does not draw attention to itself other than to give clarity to the fragile shapes and a faint resonance to highlight the delicate craftmanship deployed here. Both works are recorded in their first full hearing, with the mics hot enough to capture the room and extraneous sounds as well as all of the strings’ qualities.

The above pieces can be heard as being created out of a sense of compulsion and obligation to their art more than a goal of moving a listener in a given way; this goes double for Quentin Tolimieri’s three-hour set of piano solos Monochromes. A cycle of fifteen compositions, it begins gently enough with the slowly circling Monochrome 1, before really leaning into the title’s premise. Number 2 obsessively rags on arpeggiated clusters in the top register, then number 3 obsessively hammers a muted string until a emits a veil of harmonics. It’s a catalogue of forms shaped by techniques, in unison with material created as by-product of those techniques, overtones and beating frequencies, damped and muted strings. Some pieces are little more than gestural exercises, such as the exhausting 35-minute marathon of tremoloes that makes up the entirety of the central number 8. Number 12’s similarly taxing roll of alternating high clusters also suggests that both pianist and listener need to be prepared and in the right state of mind before launching into some of these pieces, so that the fruits of your respective labours can be best appreciated. The wacky thing is that the overall cycle’s structure is not nearly as rigorous as it intially appears, as a run of several highly reductive pieces is suddenly interrupted by a soft, beguiling work as number 13, one of several works where melody and changes are free to unfold. As a reflection of Tolimieri’s own musical practice as composer and performer, it makes you question how deeply you listen into any piece, regardless of its surface detail.

Out of time: Ad Hoc, Passepartout Duo

Wednesday 14 December 2022

All these little cracks and gaps in the record, with people here and there steadily working to fill them in one at a time. Ad Hoc were a small group of improvisers in Melbourne in the late 1970s. In this recovered and restored tape they were a trio: James Clayden, Chris Knowles, David Wadelton. By the time I became acquainted with the Melbourne music scene in the mid 1990s, they were already a dim recollection from the past, at a time when the previous generation of any movement was as distant and obscure as an origin myth. All I really knew about them was that they had morphed into another group called Signals, who had the reputation of playing the loudest and most abrasive gigs imaginable.

Distance is not like that. It’s not like much of anything else going on in improvisation at the time, in fact. The closest resemblance that comes to mind is The Makers Of The Dead Travel Fast, but while TMOTDTF and similar groups started with skewed pop tropes (ahem, ‘deconstructed’) and repurposed them into ambient soundscapes, Ad Hoc began with ambient stasis and built from there. Distance was their one legit release, a small-run cassette issued in 1980, now cleaned up and reissued by Shame File Music, archivists par excellence of the Australian scene. With a fuzzy, but not grungy tape sound, reminiscent of the pastoral side of 1970s British prog, the trio create gently pulsing and shimmering textures that find a low-key groove and lock into it. Their savvy use of an AKS suitcase synth and their self-restraint in refusing to elaborate on their melodic material makes it all sound strangely contemporary, especially on the track “The Bridge”, which sounds like someone remixed a futurist library music record for the chillout room.

While listening to Daylighting by Passepartout Duo I had to check whether this was also a reissued Eighties tape, this time from Itlay (the musicians are Nicoletta Favari and Christopher Salvito) instead of Australia. The Duo makes music from instruments they build or modify themselves, making pieces out of interlocking repeated patterns. As such, it captures that same simple directness and muzzy sound that distinguishes the avant-garde side of punk-era DIY cassettes. The sleeve notes discuss it all like a mathematical proposal, but the results are eclectic and beguiling. Some tracks ponder over burbling synth textures, while others like “Indentations” pair off homebrew percussion with buzzing FM synths playing old computer game tunes. The title track is a chorale for moth-eaten electric organs that could be a rejected demo from Music For Films, or indeed another lost Australian tinkerer from forty years ago recording in their bedroom.

Freitag aus Licht in Paris

Monday 12 December 2022

Stockhausen’s grand Licht cycle of cosmic mediaeval mystery plays get hardest to follow when he’s trying to explain what it all means. At their best, the theosophical tableaux he presents do their work on an immediate, sensory level, but when he wants to show how all the elements relate to each other you can get bogged down. I’d been looking forward to Le Balcon’s staging of Freitag aus Licht, because it’s a Stockhausen opera and Le Balcon have done a great job on a modest budget with previous parts of the cycle, but also to see how it handles one of the less likeable instalments. Freitag is the one in the cycle which gets stick for its evidently hokey “natural pairings” of objects as a conceptual framework for its theatrical and philosophical premise (cat and dog, foot and ball, needle and arm etc.) which persist throughout the performance, but for me the problem had always been that, on record, the opera sounds unusually flat.

In this staging, the issue was in some ways a little better but in others a little worse. Part of Stockhausen’s grand conception of Freitag was that three layers of drama were to be presented simultaneously throughout the opera, rather than in succession. The side effect is that it all sounds somewhat undifferentiated, particularly with the droney electronic score of synth merged with sampled voices that forms the entrance music in the lobby, plays through all the scenes and then again in the lobby as you leave. When you return to your seat after the interval for part two and the low, buzzy synths start up again you can’t help but feel a small sinking sensation in your stomach. Things pick up a little, and the final chorus is gorgeous, but the whole affair struggles to attain the feeling of transformation and transcendence that arises through the other four Licht operas I’ve experienced. Worst of all, the “sound scenes” focused on the electronic score are the first time I’ve felt like Stockhausen was spinning things out as he rang the changes on all the permutations his system implied.

It didn’t help that the staging was not immersive, presented on a conventional concert stage where the audience looked on, as back with his first opera composed in the cycle. The greeting and farewell are also impersonal. Compared to other parts of the cycle, it couldn’t help but feel distant, a demonstration more than an embodiment of Stockhausen’s skewed vision. That said, his musical writing was beautiful and clear as ever, sticking to his strengths of voices and winds (apart from an appearance by a children’s orchestra of flutes, clarinets, violin and cello, the only other acoustic instruments are a solo flute and bassett horn). Le Balcon’s singers and musicians (listed here) nailed the right blend of hieratic stillness with personal warmth. The role of Synthibird was split into two Keytar-slinging messengers dressed like they were moonlighting from a Jodorowsky film, which was also pretty boss. It’s tempting to say the children stole the show, but that would be unfair to both them and the others: they were integral to making it all work to the extent it did. As orchestra, chorus (Stockhausen really doesn’t dumb down his musical language for them), chorus-turned-dancers, with additional children pressed into service as mimes for the duration in this interpretation, they all excelled. Thanks to them (and their parents in the hall) it got a rousing ovation at the end, which was the most uplifting part of the night.

Lost in music: Greenwald, Behzadi

Monday 7 November 2022

How much of a piece of music do we hear as itself, compared to what we hear in it as a reflection of our selves? Perhaps its greatness may lie in what it personally reveals in the listener, previously unsuspected. Having said that, the number of times I’ve heard a piece which seemed normal enough, only to find the critical consensus is that it is weird or disturbing in some way, is often enough to make me wonder if I listen with a childish naivete or with a somnolent inattentiveness. Some of this is probably because I don’t buy into expressiveness much: if any art starts to get too emotional with me I suspect it of chugging.

The upshot is that with so much music around, us listeners, no matter how enlightened, are in the position to dictate terms. Perhaps that’s why there seems to be a new generation of composers emerging from North America who all appear to be Polite Young Men. (This may be a trait amongst the women composers too, under-exposed as always, but the only one I’m aware of Caroline Shaw.) A lot of perfectly nice pieces by pleasant people who are quite sure they don’t want to make too much of a fuss. It’s hard to care too much about this music, and I haven’t even found a critic yet who says that it’s quietly subsersive about something or other. Perhaps there is and I haven’t paid the right attention, a thought that occurred to me only after the sixth time I played Apartment House’s recording of Kory Reeder’s seventy-minute chamber piece Codex Vivere on Another Timbre. It’s not just the length, but the odd shape it contains and the elongation of passages that are obviously more than note-spinning that suggest something deliberately off-kilter at work below the surface.

On the other hand, there’s Andrew Greenwald’s cycle of chamber works A Thing Made Whole, seven pieces totalling seventy minutes, collected on a new release on Kairos. Here, surface and substance merge in a queasy uncanny valley of sound. The music is all activity, but at a dreamlike pace and with appropriately elusive results. Extended techniques are used to make pitch quiver and rattle, while the ensemble playing never unifies into a coherent image. Although self-contained (with different recording ensembles, venues and dates), each piece follows on from the last as an effective suite, much like Feldman’s Durations or Vertical Thoughts; the opening piece being an extended solo for violin comes across as an homage to Grisey’s viola Prelude. Four longer pieces are followed by three shorter ones, as an extended coda. The music wears its mysteriousness on its sleeve: in A Thing Made Whole II the piano part sounds like a battered upright in an empty hall, although no electronics are indicated in the sleeve notes. The pseudo-electronics are carried on by the trombonist using his mouth piece to layer white noise over the strings, while vibraphone rolls in the background simulate pure overtones. While the details are busy, the atmosphere is hushed throughout, with the biggest disruption occuring in piece number five, where a clear-voiced piano unexpectdedly plays a gentle pastorale above a strained string quartet. The opening piece is played by violinist Austin Wulliman, with Wild Up and Ensemble Pamplemouse performing the next two works; the rest are from the Contemporary Insights Ensemble. I can’t imagine how their interpretations could be technically improved, given the consistency in their calm approach to the finicky scores (examples reproduced in the booklet) while injecting the right amount incongruous eclecticism when needed, which all adds to the precisely blurred dream quality.

Like I said, expressiveness doesn’t necessarily do it for me, and I don’t want to have to do background reading to find out what the big deal is. Take that admission of crassness as a caveat that I might be missing something even more important when I say that the TAK Ensemble’s recording of Ashkan Behzadi’s Love, Crystal and Stone is a damn fine piece of craftwork. Behzadi studied architecture in Tehran, and his cycle of seven songs draws inspiration from tapes he heard at that time of Iranian revolutionary poet Ahmad Shamlou reading his Farsi translations of Lorca. The TAK Ensemble (soprano Charlotte Mundy with Pierrot minus cello) stage a tour de force in presenting Behzadi’s finely detailed settings of Lorca. Any Spanish or Persian exotica is strictly sublimated, or present only through association. It can make for compelling listening when you focus on each moment, but I haven’t made all forty minutes hang together in my head to make something more than the moments. That might be helped if you splurge on the whole package, which comes with an art book and parallel translations.

Lost in music: Gunnarsson, Frey redux

Thursday 20 October 2022

I’ve wrestled with Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s music before, trying to pin down exactly where it’s coming from (hint: Iceland). This may be the wrong approach, as his music, even as it seems obvious when it hits the ear, becomes elusive when the significance of that sound sinks into your brain. Even the score slips about, as he composes with animated notation, using computer screens to create structures and intonation that never settles into definite place. Landvættirnar fjórar is a cycle of four related works, each in three movements, drawing inspiration from Iceland’s four divine guardian spirits. While the notation is hi-tech, the instrumentation is resolutely homespun and dinky: recorders, ocarinas, whistles, rabbit calls, bottles (blown and struck), melodicas, toy pianos, a guitarlele. I don’t want to say I’m getting used to it, but after the shock of the incongruities of his earlier Sinfónía, the sound-world can be accepted as a given, opening up other questions for contemplation. How do we hear this? As when confronted with an alien culture, we can’t be sure that we perceive an artefact in the same way as it’s creator. (To take the example of the cover art, one can mistake art brut for irreverence.) Gunnarsson explains his method further, about reduction, placing sounds into four categories: “short quick notes, long sustained notes, short percussive sound, unstable glissando sounds — I couldn’t reduce them any further.” With the smaller scale of these pieces, the shaping of events is easier to discern as changes in the textures of instrumental groups, speed and density wax and wane with an organic certainty – diffuse and irregular, but with a definite pattern working somewhere underneath. The ensemble playing here is Steinalda, a group of six Icelandic musicians who each move between three to four groups of instruments to perform the scores.

Recordings of new music are scarce; multiple recordings of it are scarcer still. Jürg Frey has ascended to this rarefied plane, with several highly talented and sympathetic pianists having committed interpretations of his solo music to disc and/or download. Reinier van Houdt has returned to piano playing after several releases of his own, atmospheric compositions, with a three-hour selection of Frey’s piano pieces. Lieues d’ombres is a kind of companion piece to his similarly-sized set of Michael Pisaro’s music, the earth and the sky. The seven Frey pieces date from between 2007 and 2018, with the exception of the very early Sam Lazaro Bros, from 1984. It’s an instructive inclusion; a beguiling piece of simple textures in which melody keeps reverting into chorale. Over the next twenty years he refined his language to the point that risked becoming notorious for immobility and silence, before allowing that feeling for melody to re-emerge under greater self-discipline. van Houdt imbues the piece with quietness and clarity, which becomes a signature of his interpretations throughout. From the remaining pieces, I’ve managed to hear other recordings of La présence, les silences (Dante Boon on Another Timbre), Lieues d’ombres and Extended Circular Music 9 (Philip Thomas, also on Another Timbre), Les tréfonds inexplorés des signes (24-35) (R. Andrew Lee on Irritable Hedgehog) and Pianist, alone (2) (both Thomas and Lee). This means I get to play at being critic and make comparisons. Well, they’re all very fine and the differences are in nuance, with each being part of varying collections of Frey’s works. I’ve previously likened La présence, les silences to a late romantic work, taking musical traits from tradition – continuity, harmony, teleology – and transforming them into something familiar but not yet known. In van Houdt’s performance, it begins almost inaudibly, risking sounding ethereal by eschewing any hint of rhetoric as the piece slowly rises and falls over its 40-minute span. Lee foregrounds the starkness of Frey’s materials, drawing out the inertia of the compositions when they lapse into repetitions or stasis. Thomas adds a hint of deliberation at each step, grounding the longer passages in a sense of inevitability. With slightly more distant and reverberant sound, van Houdt seems to float over these details to present a wider overall picture, giving a bird’s-eye view of recurring phrases and motives that shape each piece, with less direct experience of the terrain at ground level. If you’re not familiar with Frey’s piano work, this set’s a good orientation point.

Lost in music: duets

Sunday 16 October 2022

I’ve been listening to a lot of music without having time to write about it, so now I’ve got them all muddled together in my head and I’m trying to sort out what’s what. Some of it’s not doing much for me, so here’s some of the things that got my attention, even if it’s through beating me over the head with extravagant noise like Kyle Motl & Carlos Dominguez’s Field of Fried Umbrellas. Motl plays a double bass through distortion pedals while Dominguez plays a ‘feedback mixer’ which sounds like it has a few extra distortion and modulator pedals plugged into themselves. The album’s blurb throws out some nice theorising behind the music, talking about “acoustic and electroacoustic phenomena” and “interaction between certain modes of bass playing and feedback structures”, which might be why this high-falutin’ excuse for noisy fun hangs together so well for so long without becoming a chore to listen to. For five tracks on an LP-length tape, recorded over one day/night in the hipster mecca of Boca Raton, Florida, Motl and Dominguez keep moving from one idea to another before you can start to analyse them too much. These are crude tactics but they’re used effectively here to keep immediate sonic impressions foremost in your mind.

While sorting through these I’ve just realised that most of them are from Tripticks Tapes and these are all duets. Duets can be the bane of an experimental musician’s livelihood, where bookers keep setting you up on blind dates with random musos and the results are often just as productive. Camila Nebbia (tenor sax) and Tomomi Kubo (ondes Martenot) “first met the day they started recording at Tomomi’s studio in Barcelona” – it doesn’t say who put them up to this, but it all worked out astonishingly well. As wacky a pairing as Motl and Dominguez’s bass/feedback, Nebbia and Kubo’s Polycephaly goes in hard with the psychedelia on the opening tracks, with Kubo’s exuberant streams of sci-fi exotica given a pop-art sheen by Nebbia’s sax licks. Both use loop pedals and reverb, which do a lot of work later on to smooth out the initial roccoco playing into strange and highly evocative textures, moving beyond the initial novelty of the pairing (and, y’know, the ondes Martenot). By the last couple of tracks things have settled down a little, allowing Nebbia some solos while Kubo provides an otherworldly accompaniment in the background.


Besides Motl’s double bass, I’ve got two sets of bass duets here. Both are live performances. Amanda Irarrázabal and Nat Baldwin’s Grips is another first-time meeting in which the Chilean and the American engage in a grouchy but good-natured argument for the better part of half and hour, each one jumping over the other to rebut the other while elaborating their own part. It’s a packed conversation. By contrast, the duet between Bára Gísladóttir and Skúli Sverrisson, recorded at the Louth Contemporary Music Festival this June, pairs two short sets of Gísladóttir’s acoustic bass with Sverrisson’s electric instrument. In Live from the Spirit Store Gísladóttir, whose work I know only from her enigmatic and slightly threatening compositions, lays tropes and embellishments over Sverrisson’s heavy washes of ambient fuzz. The electric part dominates, chorused to provide a kind of slow cantus firmus, while the acoustic adds more poignant overtones and dips into the electric texture for additional shifts in tone and direction. The second set is half as long and offers less of a contrast than a repeat of the first, but cast with a more urgent and confronting perspective.

Apartment House get obscure, live and on record

Monday 26 September 2022

There’s too much stuff about Apartment House here already but they keep playing gigs near my house and making records of stuff I really want to hear. Beginning of this month they played three nights at Cafe Oto, first of which I missed but was heavy on stuff from their recent batch of Another Timbre albums. The next two nights got a little more esoteric, with an evening of mostly short, newer pieces by the likes of Adrian Demoč, Ryoko Akama and a Jordan Dykstra premiere. In amongst these were longer renditions of two of Stockhausen’s pieces from his often overlooked Für kommende Zeiten cycle of text compositions. Apartment House played a selection of these on Southbank back in 2019, but here Bird of Passage and Japan were played with different musicians sans percussion, making each an elongated study in transformation, from the discrete to the homogeneous in one, back and forth between noise and melody for the other.

Although dating from 1972, the Stockhausen was a taste of what was to come on ‘Sixties Night’, where things got really obscure. The theme was the American avant-garde from that decade, with the best-known works being a concluding piano rendition by Kerry Yong of Terry Riley’s Keyboard Study No. 1 and Simon Limbrick giving a delicate but authoritative version of Morton Feldman’s The King of Denmark – standing up the back I really did have to make an effort to hear it, as is correct. One the whole, the programme felt very West Coast, with composers exploring ways of making music flat and empty while still holding attention. The other striking thing were the anomalies: Philip Corner’s Attempting Whitenesses was in fact unexpectedly colourful and almost lyrical, compared to his usual unremittingly dry aesthetic. Conversely, Pauline Oliveros’ Sound Piece was barely there at all, a brief work of silence activated by the faintest wisps of sound. Joseph Byrd’s Loops and Sequences was coloured by a layering of buzzing prepared piano, as was a trundling, proto-minimalist piece titled White on White by Albert M. Fine. (“Anyone heard of him?” asked bandleader Anton Lukoszevieze. We hadn’t.)

On record, they’ve just added a new Cage release, following on from last year’s box set of Number Pieces. Kathryn Williams and Mark Knoop perform the flute and piano duet Two with the requisite self-effacement and subtlety. The first of Cage’s so-called Number Pieces, it’s a miniature masterclass in his skill at coming up with great ideas and then hiding them so the idea can’t be heard, only the sounds that result from it. Each musician plays within overlapping time-brackets of flexible duration, yet the piano plays discontinuous sounds while the flute is constrained to but a handful of pitches, all to be played softly and thus become a kind of shading. Cage just kept coming up with ways of frustrating expectations we didn’t even know we had, opening us up to consider sound in new ways. This is felt most strongly in Score (40 Drawings by Thoreau) and 23 Parts, a piece from the mid 1970s which I don’t think has had a proper recording until now. Cage took casual nature sketches from Thoreau’s Journal and split them across grids for the musicians to interpret as pitch. In Apartment House’s hands, each glyph becomes an organic aural knot, as strange as observed biomorphology, with each specimen separated by profound silence. The rejection of expressionism makes these gnarled, undulating pitches surprisingly natural and fascinating, the uncanny effect enhanced by Cage’s instruction that the playing is followed by a recording made at dawn near his then-current house at Stony Point, New York: art and life in counterpoint. (The recording here was made at the time by David Behrman, warts-and-all with traffic in the distance.) The album concludes with Hymnkus, where any number of musicians reiterate small gamuts of pitches in irregular time. A mesmerising piece, with rougher edges to the sound than an earlier performance I heard by the same ensemble: the violin, cello, flute, clarinets and piano come with an extra huffing and shuffling throughout.

Finally, I need to mention Somatic Refrain by Allison Cameron, another composer I’d never heard of. I think she’s Canadian. Apartment House perform two ensemble works here, Pliny from 2005 and Retablo from 1998. The former seems to work as a kind of woozy, off-kilter canon with loose ends and tangents, while the latter is made of three movements spread across twenty-five minutes that seem to elaborate on this same process in different ways*, at times falling into unison, at others lapsing into free-form or allowing dinky percussion sounds to intrude. There’s an unhurried, deliberate pace in all of these works, even in the opening title piece, a slo-mo virtuosic solo for bass clarinet casually littered with complex multiphonics which are played so cleanly here by Heather Roche that she makes it even sound nonchalant. The strangest and most effective work here is H, a piece from 2008 heard in a performance by Cameron’s own bad of guitar, electric guitar, banjo and bass harmonica. Still unhurried but determined, it walks as though fighting the urge to run, all while maintaing an unreadable attitude to rarefied language and low instrumentation.

* Chronologically, it is, of course, the other way around.

Organ x 2: Pateras, Arkbro

Saturday 24 September 2022

Krakow’s Sacrum Profanum festival ended this year with two performances on the organ at the Philharmonic Hall; new compositions by Anthony Pateras and Ellen Arkbro, each with the composer at the manuals. Pateras’ Organ Work for Jim Knox was the world premiere, while Arkbro’s Untitled for organ has been played previously this year. Two large-scale works for organ almost inevitably means the evening is going to get kind of lugubrious, no matter how bright the music may be: the instrument is culturally saturated, overfilled with potential and connotations to the point of implosion. As it happened, both works focused on timbre and intonation, subjecting each to close inspection. That’s not to say the music was entirely static – at least the Pateras piece moved, constantly and inexorably, but with deceptive slowness. In keeping with his other recent work, the restless activity heard in his music has been sublimated from melody and gesture into texture and tone. A miniature in filigree, blown up under a microscope, the shape of the piece emerged for the listener in the meshing of overlapped pitches heard through multiple stops, each one introducing a change in colour. The Philharmonic organ doesn’t allow for half-open stops or other subterfuge, so shifts in intonation were made through the discrepancies in each stop’s tuning, a change in register altering each chord in both timbre and temperament.

Arkbro’s piece was more dronelike, making use of sudden switches back and forth between contrasting voices, inside a larger scheme of more gradual changes. Despite this, the colouring was restrained and development was made without resorting to overt drama, although the piece did build to a more forceful section before falling away again at the end. Arkbro’s usual interest in intonation was present, but in a more austere fashion, the small differences in pitch being expressed in a linear progression while harmony was thinned out. The piece suffered in this setting for being the second of two works programmed with a superficially similar nature, with nothing to clear and refresh the mind in between. That said, the muted ending didn’t seem to come off as intended here, with the unexpected change in force sounding like the music’s energy had dissipated rather than transformed.

Maya Bennardo: four strings

Monday 19 September 2022

Violinist Maya Bennardo has just released an album of two pieces for solo instrument, titled four strings. This is all new to me, except that I have heard other works by Eva-Maria Houben. The first piece, Duk med broderi och bordets kant, is by Kristofer Svensson and centres on a bright but wistful theme which is teased apart by Bennardo in various ways. The complete melody can only be inferred as the pattern is repeatedly broken up with gaps, or pauses, or through time being prolonged or momentarily suspended. It’s a playful act of analytical scrutiny, taking something that hints at a whole and deconstructing it into redolent fragments, each of which may be taken as sufficient in itself.

Bennardo’s playing is alert to the possibilities contained within such brief moments, a point which becomes even more important in the titular work by Eva-Maria Houben. Houben’s music reflects a kind of obsessive care over each sound, even when the sound may be particularly unprepossessing. This can sometimes be offputting to the casual listener, or even not so casual, as you wonder what she may have heard in them in the first place. Bennardo presents Houben’s four strings in a generous interpretation, balancing its stringent emphasis on high pitches and its allowances for free sounds and improvisation. Within the score’s constraints, she presents each note in a unique way, taking the slenderest of material to build a substantial piece of light and shade, from silence and sound.

Greg Davis: New Primes

Sunday 18 September 2022

There’s something pleasing and aspirational in the idea of making music out of nothing but pure sine waves; even moreso when employing principles of the mathematics of tuning as purely as possible. (Disclaimer/shamless self-promotion: I myself have made just such a piece.) Joseph Branciforte’s greyfade label was set up just for such pieces of conceptual purity, whether in tuning (see Christopher Otto’s rag′sma) or other systems-based procedures. The new greyfade release is New Primes, an LP of six pieces by composer Greg Davis using nothing but sine tones tuned to prime-numbered harmonics of the harmonic series. Okay, he cheats a little bit by transposing down the intervals which inevitably bunch up in the higher octaves, creating a kind of filtered just-intonation scale favouring exotic intervals.

Before going further, there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed when critiquing microtonal compositions. Too often, the purity of the mathematics and the elegance of the underlying system take precedence at the expense of the music, displaying a primary need to function as a proof of concept over consideration of showing the listener why the intellectual effort was warranted in the first place. In New Primes, Davis admirably takes up the messier consequences of his apparently simple methods and follows them in new directions, but doesn’t seem to fully get a handle on the difficulties of form. The purity of the concept gets muddier when encountered by human ears: as you prolong the range of intervals in the series, the harmonies become strange as they move outside the usual 12-tone scales we’re used to, but then move into something that’s close to familiar but not quite right. With each successive interval getting smaller, even once only prime factors are considered, the ear habitually interprets them as approximations of what is expected. Davis uses this to his advantage, making small differences emerge and fade to temper and colour otherwise static harmonies with a subtlety that softens the stark sine waves. More importantly, each piece works by becoming a study in timbre, even moreso than in harmonies. Aside from the usual beatings and psychoacoustic phenonmena, Davis lets different pitches overlap in complex ways that produce smoothly-shaped textures with a depth that makes you forget the building blocks from which they were created.

That said, there’s not much to distinguish one piece from another. This is hardly a problem, but it reveals that while Davis had a clear method to his process when selecting and combining his materials, form was less of a consideration. “The pieces you hear on the finished record are snapshots of an endless generative music that could last for hours, days, or even longer,” he writes, confirming what can be guessed from listening to each piece fade in and out. It’s a technical point, but one which highlights the problems in making pieces from open-ended processes, raising the question of what differentiates a work of music from a passing moment of interest in an acoustic phemonenon.

Block Rockin’ Summer Slam, Part 2

Monday 15 August 2022

Getting back to Germaine Sijstermans’ Betula: each of the compositions is written for a small minimum of pitched instruments, mostly without getting too fussy about type or number. Only one seems to specify that the instruments should sustain. All the instruments used here, can (Rasten plays guitar with an ebow). The musicans here produce a tour de force of ensemble playing, making each of Sijstermans’ intensely focused studies on small variations reveal a unique character while never deviating from a central principle. They embody stillness at its most alert, alive to incipient motion, when so much of this style of playing heard elsewhere can seem merely inert.


By comparison, two other discs I’d heard earlier, Hope Lies Fallow by Johnny Chang & Keir GoGwilt and Landmarks by Katelyn Clark & Isaiah Ceccarelli, now seem almost extroverted. Having previously been one half of Illogical Harmonies and Viola Torros, Chang teams up with GoGwilt to create violin duos that seem modern and ancient at once. Each piece is a solo composition, three each for the two string players. Their references are Hildegard von Bingen and Orlando di Lasso. In making something new they excavate something old, adding to it by creative subtraction, as though details have been effaced by time. Their slow, attenuated counterpoint is bowed raw but soft. Performed in a church in Auckland (Aotearoa), Chang even has his pieces recorded from further away, making them more frail and remote. For the last three pieces they are joined by Celeste Oram’s voice, haunting the music wordlessly as another layer of echo. Ceccarelli and Clark have previously presented some duos with organetto, but Landmarks gives an entire album to their work with various organs and percussion, this time credited as joint compositions. The church atmosphere prevails, with deep cowbells and bell plates complementing the keyboards, but the duet here brings out the more ancient, ritualistic aspects of European religion. The set begins dramatically with rich chords, gongs and rumbling deep bass drum, but each of the longer works becomes slower, turning into almost drone-like processionals. There’s an improvisation on ‘Kyrie Eleison’ that is more about sublimation than augmentation. It all ends with two brief, gnomic episodes respectively on organ and percussion alone, with no synthetic resolution.

I ventured outdoors again last week to see the rather odd improv trio of John Wall, Mark Sanders and John Edwards at Cafe Oto. Edwards on bass, Sanders on percussion, Wall on laptop working digital synthesis and processing of live sounds (tech permitting). I’m calling them odd because they don’t run the usual gamut of extended licks and technical obligations that dominate the genre. With your eyes shut it can be hard to tell who’s doing what at times, as they each turn their instruments into means of exploring boundaries between attack and decay, pitch and noise. As a group, they seem most interested in ways of ferreting in between the others’ sounds, settling down into them before breaking them apart. There was a focus on computer music and electronics on the night, with the other acts being Tom Mudd demonstrating a semi-chaotic synthesiser using feedback resonators to elide from detuned chorales to coloured bursts of static, and a too-rare chance to hear some of James Clarke’s compositions for manipulated orchestral samples. In some ways, these pieces resemble drawings of his works for live musicians, stretching and extending gestures and sonorities as a way of opening up microcosmic structures.

I’ve worked my way back from purity to newness, so I need to briefly mention a new release on Tripticks Tapes by guitarist/composer Matteo Liberatore. Lacquer strongly draws on noise rock, to the point that I’m not sure if there isn’t an electric guitar involved somewhere at some stage of this album described as “analog synthesis”. The riffs and the aggression are there, as are the attacks in the sudden injection and withdrawal of heterogeneous layers of noise. Some of the off-kilter patterns strongly resemble stomp boxes left to their own devices in a closed circuit, which gives the racket a youthful exuberance. The noise may be cheap but it’s the sophistication with which Liberatore cuts and pastes it all together that prevents anything outstaying its welcome or, more importantly, gives each piece the substance to be taken seriously and not as just a throwaway goof.