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.

Block Rockin’ Summer Slam, Part 1

Monday 8 August 2022

When you listen to a lot of new stuff at once you start lumping pieces together, which is great for developing an authorial conceit, not so good for the music, and very bad for ever finishing writing about it. It’s best to remember that music never ends.

Last time, I was thinking too much about newness; now I’m thinking about purity. Since the late 20th Century a narrative has emerged, of schools of composers working under the thrall of lessons learned from minimalism by way of Morton Feldman, with an insidious spiritual imperative, either religious (Pärt) or secular (Wandelweiser). Material reigns supreme (sez Feldman), construction is kept at a minimum. The material is always ‘on camera.’ There’s a difference between purity and authenticity, but when that spiritual imperative meets digital audio the two can get confused. The lingering minimal influence becomes a way of transmitting authenticity with as little artifice as possible. Listening to the pieces discussed here reminds you that lack of artifice is not the same as lack of skill.

Well, really, Ian Power’s pieces ain’t all that pure. The collection Maintenance Hums begins with a duet for piano and percussion that clatters about with obtuse, single-note arpeggios dogged by a lone cowbell that eventually takes over with numbing hammering. There’s a sly humor in the three pieces here that, depending on your musical taste, either teeters on the edge of grating on your nerves or just shoves you over that edge immediately and keeps on plowing ahead. aspirapolvere, sega, spettro, tenere, possedere is a trio for accordion, saxophone and guitar that emphasises mechanical apparatus while trying to make each instrument sound like a cheap melodica combating blasts of distortion and feedback. Power himself plays the solo BUOY (after Laurence Crane) with what sounds like an organ coerced into life by a vacuum cleaner, except the organ here is in fact electric (und Kagel und Hoffnung sind auch dabei). For his Edition Wandelweiser release, Diligence, he smartens himself up to appear more reverent, but the two solo works presented here still have messy edges to their slow, widely-separated and often repeated sounds. The cello piece occasionally triggers obscuring smears of electronic schmutz, while the clarinet piece makes its material and development from periods of ragged note-bending, smudged attacks and self-conscious repetitions that come across much as rehearsals.

Some of Power’s music, with its aesthetics of deconstruction and warped pedagogy, reminded me a little of Tim Parkinson. Deconstruction really isn’t a fair term for Parkinson, despite external appearances of pieces like his opera Time With People. For his solo and chamber pieces, the musical language isn’t overtly self-referential, except through the tacit admission that musical language is itself arbitrary. As I listen to more of Parkinson’s music, the more it changes, as with the new collection of recordings by Apartment House, put out by Another Timbre under the revealing title an album. The previously discontinuous-sounding phrases and patterns have started to take on a sort of internal logic, inscrutable to observers. This is not a function of maturation: the phenomenon can be heard in both violin and piano piece 1998 and violin and piano 2017. The latter makes fuller use of chorale-like sounds while the former leans towards sparse, high notes – a critic could draw a line of development from one to the other in either direction, were they to confuse which was which. A lot of this may be down to Apartment House, here specifically violinist Mira Benjamin and pianist Siwan Rhys, whose attentive playing captures both the delicacy and the indifference, like a work of nature. That wayward and arbitrary phrasing that once sounded like Wolff now more resembles Wolpe. So this is really reconstructive music, although Parkinson is building something new out of the old, rather than something old in his own image.

Sylvia Lim is a younger composer who is developing her own idiosyncratic language, a mix of pure acoustic phenomena with peculiar methodology. In her album of five pieces, Sounds which grow richer as they decay, the opening track is unfortunately the dullest, with her Piece for three tuned cowbells never becoming more than an inert set of studies in timbre and rhythmic texture. In the shorter vignettes that follow, things get promisingly weird. The piano piece flicker, played in Texas by Alvin Leung, takes a quirky approach to muted strings, ornate yet artless. Cellists Christopher Brown and Natasha Zielazinski played the duet Reordering the Unconsumed in London, producing strange sounds that fall away into electronic-like reverb. The title work is most striking, using a beaten harp and two trombones to extend noise into held tones, producing a grotesque of Scelsi at his most hieratic. The unlikely acoustic combinations are less bizarre in the longer Colour Catalogue: Whites, where flute, bass clarinet and cello produce overtones of each other, alternating in pairings in a succession of fading panels. This last piece suggests we can look forward to imaginative ways of forming more complex works in the future.

I’ve been catching up on some large releases on Elsewhere this year. Most recent is a double-decker by composer/clarinetist Germaine Sijstermans. Betula is a collection of ensemble pieces that emerged from her recent performance practice with a close group of fellow musicians. This kind of practice can lead to development into elaboration or refinement into purity; Sijstermans has taken the latter path. The ensemble, recorded here over a few days in September 2019, is an all-star band of performer/composers who take a like-minded approach: besides Sijstermans’ clarinet there is Antoine Beuger on flute, Rishin Singh on trombone, Johnny Chang on viola, Fredrik Rasten on guitar and Leo Svirsky on accordion. On the seven pieces ranging from seven to thirty-one minutes in length, “the six musicians’ sounds overlap with each other while slowly moving forward in parallel.” On the first listen, everything seemed so refined and pure that each piece sounded the bloody same. On the second hearing, it all opened up and each piece took on a distinct character, with a marked difference in timbre and coloration, even when the instruments stayed the same. What’s most surprising about this change was not that it happened but that it took place so quickly. I want to go into more detail about Betula but this will have to wait until next time.

What’s New? Remixes, Fluxus, Drones, Industry, Potatoes.

Saturday 30 July 2022

What do we mean when we talk about ‘new music’? The term carries multiple meaninings: for starters, there’s what strikes us as outside our previous experience, or there’s what signifies to us as looking towards the future. I’m listening to Flash Crash + Remixes, credited to Jascha Narveson & Ashley Bathgate + Guests. The cover art and the cello-plus-remixes concept symbolises newness and the futuristic, but is the music truly new? The modern understanding of the term ‘remix’ has been around for over forty years now, so the music presented here should be a fairly comfortable accommodation of folk art turned commercial practice. There’s no obligation for the music to beat us over the head with novelty, and Narveson himself says the project is inspired by his “love of community, collaboration, and techno”, all nice comfy ideas. But still, we register the package as consciously modern.

Flash Crash itself is a 2016 work composed by Narveson for cellist Ashley Bathgate with computer-controlled electronics, apparently derived from stock market data. Everything co-exists pretty harmoniously, actually, so it all works out in the end. The remixes, and the original appeals to techno, risk becoming excessively derivative of a more vital culture, the relative vitality being a matter of one imitating the other. Some, like the Lorna Dune mix, start promisingly before turning to pastiche. Matthew D. Gantt’s version substitutes MIDI instrumental patches to create a work reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s Synclavier compositions as a nod to retro-futurism. Things get more interesting later, with Lainie Fefferman’s Repairbot Q sent to Engine Room 3, working through the loneliness and Angélica Negrón’s Choque Súbito transforming the original beyond all recognition into disturbing, atmospheric works. Vladislav Delay’s remix finally delivers on the expectation of a disruptive, desconstructed (sorry) transformation of the original, pulling its elements apart to create something new.

The Wire has been celebrating its 40th anniversary with various events, including the gig Apartment House Play And Music at Cafe Oto. This was a loose grab-bag of old pieces, made new by the fact that but nobody has ever heard them. A Tony Conrad quartet (two violins, two cellos) was revived, agreeably sawing and grinding through off-kilter rhythms; a Clark Coolidge text piece rendered in voice and instruments; a fragmented ensemble piece, composed by Derek Bailey. The most familiar face in this lineup was Anthony Braxton, represented by a lively rendition of one of his Ghost Trance pieces, mixing bass clarinet, strings and prepared piano. All these old works remain new not just by being unheard, but by pointing towards future practices in music, typically in ways that suggest other approaches that remain unexplored today.

Michael von Biel, a composer usually known only by name, if at all, was represented by his Quartett mit Begleitung, where the string quartet’s Darmstadt-worthy precision is adulterated by graphic abstraction and the presence of an extra cellist left to improvise with objects. Yoko Ono, the world’s most famous unknown artist, wrote Overtone Piece in 1964; Apartment House’s realisation made it into a surprisingly deep piece of rigid, early drone. I said the setlist was loose because the promised pieces by Terry Jennings and Ben Patterson were forgotten as the evening progressed. Things got looser still when the gig finished with Henning Christiansen’s Kartoffelopera​, a 1969 composition receiving its UK premiere. The premise is simple: potatoes are scattered across five straight lines on the floor, forming a score for the musicians to play. The audience is invited to bring their own potato or move the potatoes, from time to time. Things, perhaps inevitably, get unruly. As the opera’s dramaturgy is determined by the audience, this was a distinctly British staging, with irritating playfulness that never escalated to physical injuries.

While almost all of our musical experience is now electronically mediated, we still think of it as a primarily acoustic, organic event: the presence of electronics in music still extends to us the expectation that something will be done to make things new. Where electronics predominate, it implies something outside of the human experience – possibly transcendental (new age), ecstatic (techno), cathartic (noise) or a kind of negative dialectic of entertainment (industrial). As a genre, industrial music has typically become more post-industrial, revelling in entropy and decay in a sort of romantic or nihilistic (same diff) reverie. Deison’s Magnetic Debris vol. 1 & 2 isn’t industrial, but it does make that common use of decayed tech, a romance of ruins. The fourteen tracks are composed mostly from old media and found sounds: aged cassettes, broken records and elettromagnetic interference. At first, the resulting pieces seemed inert, smoothing away the interesting details that may be found in the material. On repeated listening, however, each piece revealed a compositional depth and character that showed Magnetic Debris was not an exercise in documentation, but a restrictive means to an end in producing music that rewards subjective consideration.

One of the things with New Stuff is you don’t know at first if it’s really worth your time. Thetford, a release from the duo UNIONBLOCK, is described by the musicians “epic subterranean dirge” and so it comes with heavy associations of drone and industrial noise that already suggests a love-it-or-hate it affair. The sounds are prolonged by an abrasive buzzing, which turns out to be down to both the material and the means. Recorded in an 18th century church in Vermont, Jack Langdon plays a tracker organ (i.e. mechanical linkages) and Weston Olencki ekes drones from electromagnetic devices placed on banjos. As a grotesque reimagining of 19th century American vernacular it has its strengths, particularly in playing up the instruments’ mechanical noises and stop/start of technology. The grim conformity of the drone is broken by an interlude of more playful (in both senses of the word) improvisation before resuming. It reminded me of Pancrace’s The Fluid Hammer, but with Pancrace the music was more varied and the historical and social context was expressed with greater clarity and detail. After half an hour of Thetford‘s drones, the remaining twenty minutes becomes more muted and in this diminished state seems to have run out of things to say.

It also reminded me of Ian Power’s piece BUOY (after Laurence Crane) from his album Maintenance Hums, but this post is already too long and I’ll get around to that later.

Silence, Directness and Naïvety: Lang, Lely, Stiebler & Kanitz

Sunday 17 July 2022

I’ve been re-reading some of James Pritchett’s writing about John Cage and was reminded of how much there is still to understand about his music. This time, it was about the role of silence; not just as a presence but as the fundamental upon which all of his music is based, as an essential element for sound to exist at all. As with much of Cage, it’s a simple observation with profound implications that are easily overlooked. As it happens, the idea became suddenly relevant to me when listening to the new collection of pieces on Another Timbre by Klaus Lang, a composer who has specialised in silences, often prolonged, sometimes unresolved. The pieces on Tehran Dust confound his reputation by having sound always present, yet treating sounds as the consequence of silence gives rise to strange effects. The means used here – a simple trio – are clear enough, but the methods are not. The first piece, origami. from 2011, creates a ghostly presence of shadowy tones whose origins are obscure, even as you read the sleeve notes for the personnel involved, gradually establishing a more recognisable material form. Trio Amos (Sylvie Lacroix, flute; Krassimir Sterev, accordion; Michael Moser, cello) make the most of the ability of each instrument to range from thin and reedy to sonorous and full. While the cello-accordion duet tehran dust. makes for a more conventional chorale, the longest piece darkness and freedom. from 2017 builds something more substantial from the preceding ideas, transforming sound and structure in a more sophisticated and less obtrusive way. Lang joins the trio on organ for two brief arrangements of Ockeghem and Pierre de la Rue, just to orient you on where he’s coming from.

After the bleak austerities of his earlier music, does this mean that Lang is softening, or have our ears hardened? Probably both: he has to listen, too. (Another overlooked facet of Cage is his recognition that silence changes with the times.) Is John Lely softening too? His music has been, and continues to be, a matter of process, naked and unadorned. His The Harmonics of Real Strings play out like one of James Tenney’s Postcard Pieces and his piano release from last year, Orrery, displays a similar single-mindedness. Meander Selection, one of a set of five new Apartment House albums, presents a set of seven pieces that seem almost lyrical by comparison. Focusing on string quartets and solo piano, the first four works could almost function as a suite, despite being conceived in different circumstances over eight years. The held, homogeneous chords of Doubles from 2012 alter with the staccato repetitions of 2020’s Karnaugh Quartet, a contrast produced by track sequencing which highlights Lely’s predominant interest in contemplating each compositional element in isolation. The looped, whispered electrical static of Pale Signal makes a brief, enigmatic interlude before the title work, arranged here for string quartet as a steely counterpart to Doubles. If there are processes at work here, they are less obvious. The two piano works use similar patterning of single notes heard in Orrery, but their manner is less readable, even as the affective value is more tractable. The brief Nocturne slows things down to induce introspection, while for Philip allows notes to decay over each other, with variations in patterning, alternations and repetitions that suggest two voices, solo and accompaniment. Stopping at the Sheer Edge Will Never Abolish Space (2020) is also arranged for string quartet, but with two violas instead of the extra violin. The moving and the motionless are brought into collision here, with plaintive cadences rolling out against an unvarying, repeated note. Colouring changes, but slightly, as each instrument takes its turn to provide the pulse. The preponderance of violas add to the melancholy, while faint percussive disturbances add to the unease.

Is it even right to call this opening out of a straitened musical world a softening? I’ve already used the word ‘sophisticated’ once in this post, but that doesn’t necesarily means the methods at work are less direct. Ernstalbrecht Stiebler‘s earlier music is as direct as it could be, while refuting our complacent association of directness with frankness (vide Robert Hughes summing up Those Bricks at the Tate: “Anyone except a child can make such things.”) In the same way, we like to think we can understand the Naïve in art, mistaking it for the Primitive, which we assume to be guileless. The adamant stasis of Stiebler’s music from the 1980s and 1990s has lately loosened to permit messier shapes and textures, but the expressive substance is more closely related than it first seems. The connection with the Naïve is overwhelmingly demonstrated in Stiebler’s recent collaborations with cellist Tilman Kanitz: recorded at Kanitz’s studio over the past year with Stiebler on a slightly shaggy piano, the two unite in improvisations that verge on the sentimental yet somehow retain their decorum. The Pankow-Park Sessions Vol. 1 selects a half-dozen of these recordings, apparently 85-year-old Stiebler’s first concerted attempts at improvisation. It’s all very different, in its freshness and its seeming normality, capturing the two performers in spontaneous dialogue, informal and at ease in each other’s company. I don’t think they ever lapse into quotation, or even put their earnest romanticism into quotation marks, but they inhabit this genteel language so comfortably that I don’t dare think it could be disingenuous.

GBSR plays Barbara Monk Feldman live

Friday 15 July 2022

Last year I gave a brief rave for the all-too-rare Barbara Monk Feldman album released by Another Timbre. Since then its quiet presence has steadily grown in stature, amongst listeners in general it seems, for the the fineness of its composition and execution. Last week the same musicians regrouped at St. Anne and St. Agnes Church in the City to perform pretty much the entire album live.

The GBSR Duo (George Barton, percussion; Siwan Rhys, piano) and violinist Mira Benjamin play these pieces with an intensity of focus that gives weight to the slightest gestures, with each new moment compounding what has preceded it. In my review of the studio recordings, I said that “that delicacy never lapses into preciousness, as Monk Feldman keeps the balance of sound and silence in constant tension, always holding energy in reserve and only occasionally letting short, lyrical flourishes burst forth.” Observing as well as listening, it becomes clear just how much detail goes into these pieces, simply by watching the way Barton used different techniques on the vibraphone to produce subtle variations in attack and decay. Rhys, meanwhile, evoked similar shadings from an instrument which is comparably more clear-cut and remote. In solo, duet or trio form, each piece makes the most artful use of simple language, as rightly demonstrated in the articulate sureness of Benjamin’s phrasing, echoed by each musician. Most tellingly, the pieces varied in length from five minutes to half an hour, yet each one established an equal prominence, creating its own sense of scale. In the intimate space of the church, with a small audience of faithful and new converts, Monk Feldman’s music continued its slow journey to assert its importance.

Minimalistic: John Tilbury plays Terry Riley, plus: Kaori Suzuki

Sunday 10 July 2022

I got two discs of minimalist music here. To quote T.S. Eliot: “Well here again that don’t apply. But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.” Last night I went to a glorious concert of Barbara Monk Feldman’s music (more about that soon); the promoters described her as a “Canadian minimalist composer”. She isn’t, of course, but what really amazes me is that we’re still batting this term around after half a century, long past the point where it lost any useful meaning. (P. Glass interviewed on his dislike of labels, in 1986: “Remember back when people described some composers as impressionist? They used to call Debussy an impressionist.”) We’re hoarding the tools for our understanding against future generations.

Besides repetition, what gets called minimal often involves a reduction of one typical aspect of music to create a basis for better emphasising excess in another. Kaori Suzuki’s Music For Modified Melodica is an album given a title to conjure up a mental image of exotic timbres and mutes. The preparations, however, involve retuning the melodica’s reeds and fitting it with foot-pedalled bellows, effectively fitting the frail instrument with an overpowered exosuit. The album’s single track, Air Born Of Light, consists of a single, overblown block chord held for twenty-six minutes, pushing the wheezy little melodica to its physical limits. It makes for an enormous slab of reinforced concrete that demands you appreciate each finely-graded variation in its surface details as it grinds its entire length against your ears. It sucks, it blows, it exhausts. You cannot try this at home. If you try to play it at the appropriate volume your neighbours would call the police, except that before then you would have already chickened out and turned it down. As a recording, its failing is that it allows you the control to diminish its power.

“Recorded in Hamburg, some time between 1975 and 1995 – details forgotten.” It was a simpler time, when one could forget. The idea of John Tilbury playing Terry Riley may seem alien now but shouldn’t be surprising, given the adventurous character that laid the foundations for his exalted status. The three pieces recorded here are key solo works from 1965 that served to define Riley’s career as a performer and a composer – that close connection between the two roles sets him apart from his erstwhile critical confederates and goes some way to explaining why his musical practice, however softened by time, has retained a vitality that has abandoned Reich and Glass. Tilbury’s performances here respond to this quality, his piano rendering of Keyboard Study No. 1 swings as much as it flows. The piano sound is mellow and warm; the quality of these archival recordings, brought to public light at last by Another Timbre, is just fine. For Dorian Reeds, Tilbury switches to an electric organ with an evocative mid-70s quality, producing something smoother than Riley’s own sax interpretation. Tape delay – sorry, time-lag accumulator – is employed here to layer contrasting figures, introduce counterpoint and provide segues from one section to the next.

Tilbury’s free elaborations of the material are masterfully self-contained, maintaining an overall consistency while opening out each piece with variety, expressivity and direction that makes you forget the critics told you this music is minimal. For Keyboard Study No. 2 he overdubs piano, electric organ, harpsichord and celeste, fading each in and out over each other in a delirious rotation of colours and patterns. It’s the longest piece here, easily sustaining the trippy mood for half an hour. Besides repetition, what gets called minimal often involves a reduction of one typical aspect of music to create a basis for better emphasising excess in another.

Number Pieces live (part two), plus John White and Mark Ellestad

Thursday 30 June 2022

(Part one here.)

It was wonderful to hear Cage’s Eight played live, in the round no less, at the Music We’d Like To Hear concert in St Mary at Hill. I said I’d found the version in the Apartment House box set from last year a relative disappointment, owing to the potential for dynamic contrasts in the piece that were passed up. Sitting in a small church, however, with the winds and brasses encircling you, the small differences in timbre and force of breath became alive. With greater spatialisation, Apartment House’s emphasis on sustained tones at the expense of short sounds set the flexible structure of Cage’s composition in clearer relief: having created anarchic harmony, he made anarchic antiphony possible as well.

The sounds in the church seemed particularly warm that night. Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze played Mark Ellestad’s violin and cello duet In the Mirror of this Night, having recently recorded it for Another Timbre. In this setting, at close range, it all sounded particularly sumptious. As a communal listening experience, the piece’s wandering is less unknowable, becoming more of an exemplar of what Cage had called purposeful purposelessness.

The previous evening, members of the Plus Minus ensemble played works by Sarah Hennies, Alexey Shmurak and John White. White is a composer who should be appreciated now to avoid the rush. The pieces selected – involving piano, clarinet, double bass, percussion – were characteristically short, such as the two examples of his piano sonatas, Nos. 105 and 143. Less Scarlatti and more a late bagatelle by a Beethoven who interests have turned from tonality to oblique commentary, the piano sonatas exemplify the dual traits of White’s music appearing both benign and threatening. Each miniature, neatly assembled and considerate of your attention, conceals a nagging interrogation of the assumptions upon which it rests: a forced extension, a moment of stiffness, an unresolved lapse. In another time and place, his brief, pleasant pieces would have had him gaoled as a subversive. In this time and place, he instead suffers the small mercy of being regarded in much the same way as an outsider artist, despite his significance and achievements. He’s what, eighty-five now? The compositions heard were composed between 1989 and 2004, with the exception of his old party piece, Drinking And Hooting Machine, where Plus Minus were joined by volunteers from the audience to alternately drink from and blow across bottles, running down to empty.

John Cage’s Number Pieces live (part one)

Wednesday 29 June 2022

I still take John Cage for granted, forgetting how long it’s been since heard any played live. After the much-discussed box set of Number Pieces played by Apartment House on Another Timbre last year, it was good to hear the ensemble interpret several of them in person. At three gigs in one day at Wigmore Hall (missed the third) they played Four6 and Seven2, while at Music We’d Like To Hear the following Saturday they played Eight. Four6 doesn’t specify the sounds to be played by the four performers, just that they select twelve repeatable sounds, to be played when cued by the score’s elastic time-brackets. For this version, Heather Roche on bass clarinet, Anton Lukoszevieze on cello and percussionists Simon Limbrick and Chris Brannick fulfilled Cage’s wish that the sounds emerge as though without source, brushed into being. The sounds remained calm, without the sort of punctuation that Cage’s score permits, serene and transluscent even when at their most complex. Apartment House’s realisations of the Number Pieces strongly favour sustained sounds, while remaining sensitve to Cage’s way of thinking to avoid a ‘top-down’ approach that can destroy the delicacy of this music. It also seemed a very “full” version of the piece, with faint but pervasive sounds; in some interpretations Four6 can sound like articulated silence (Lukoszevieze’s programme notes drew a direct comparison of this piece with 4’33”).

Perversely, I was more aware than usual of the silences that open up during Seven2. This long piece (52 minutes, Four6 is 30 and Eight one hour) may the ultimate example for a case to be made for Cage as an ‘ambient’ composer, enfolding the listener in a bath of sustained low-voiced sounds. Cello, bass clarinet, bass flute, bass trombone and double bass are joined again by the two percussionists. The percussion is again unspecified, and Limbrick and Brannick’s knack for unusual but subtle sounds seeped into all of the instruments’ colouration, making this performance particularly warm.

The two Wigmore Hall matinees were supplemented by two more pieces. Ryoanji, Cage’s mid-1980s piece for soloists playing organically sliding tones over a hieratic rhythm, played in this case by two percussionists instead of the usual one, taking advantage of exploring Cage’s interest in “staggered unison”. The rarely-heard Speech 1955 is a long work for five radios accompanying a person (in this case, Miles Lukoszevieze) who occasionally reads from newpaper articles. It’s an arid piece, which is perhaps a sign of how a good piece of art can change to reflect the times in which it finds itself. Nearly seventy years on, it’s hard to imagine how the piece may have first sounded to an audience yet to be immersed in pop art. Cage’s ideas about globalism and multiple attentiveness were still developing, but however this piece may have once heralded the dawn of an information economy, it now effectively demonstrates its current dismal state. In this respect, it’s unnerving how Speech 1955 refuses to entertain in the function of a quaint anachronism.