One of those wonderful moments where nobody knows what’s going on

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Went to the latest Kammer Klang gig a couple of weeks ago. It was recorded by the BBC and is on their website for the next month. Which is good, because I need to hear it again.

For me, the big event of the night was two world premieres by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller. I’ve heard only a few pieces by her – including a dizzying performance of her choral piece Guide by Exaudi last year – and liked it all a lot. There are times when you discover an artist and you need to hear more; more of that good thing that won you in the first place. Then there are artists whose work you find yourself exploring like an unknown island, kept in suspense over what you might encounter next.

In Tracery: Hardanger, singer Juliet Fraser sang against a recording of herself, doubling and approximating microtonal drones, one breath at a time. If there was a process, it seemed to be part of a meditative rite. This was followed by Traveller Song, in which the Plus-Minus Ensemble accompanied a tape of ragged, keening voices. Again, it seemed to be a documentation of some vocal ritual, with Western musical tropes laid on top. She’s from Canada, it must be something indigenous so I guess we better put up with those scratchy voices. But the ensemble – first just piano four hands, then clarinet, violin and cello, finally just an accordion – were playing some sort of game. At times deferentially minimal, then fulsomely mournful, astringently avant-garde and then, at inopportune moments, flamboyantly romantic. It just seemed to keep going, trying out different costumes and poses. By the end, I didn’t know if it was amazing or terrible.

Tonight I pulled up the programme for the concert for the first time and holy guacamole if the whole thing isn’t a headtrip that would do Kagel proud. The voices are Miller’s own, singing along to Sicilian folk-music without being able to hear herself, then attempting to accompany herself. She describes it as an attempt “to explore my own bodily impulses related to melody” and admits it sounds like “quasi-shamanistic keening” but the whole work is a tour de force in the creative potency of cultural transmission and reproduction. More than any simple cross-pollination from an “exotic” culture, the act of transmission itself is a necessarily distorting process; in which imitation becomes a transformative act that creates something strange and new.

New music that stays new

Monday 23 January 2017

I need to talk about some recent releases on Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre label because I’ve got a small stack of them here and still more are due to come out in February already. There are over a hundred of these things now, all sharing a distinct aesthetic and sensibility while still exploring fresh terrain – last year’s albums of Jürg Frey’s guitar music and Linda Catlin Smith’s Dirt Road are good examples of this fresh growth. The music ranges from composed to improvised, and sometimes from somewhere in between, with composers and musicians from Britain and abroad, both familiar and new.

The hundredth CD has a little bit of everything. Seaside was recorded over two days at the pianist John Tilbury’s house, with the Palestinian oud player Dirar Kalash and composer John Lely on electronics. Group improvisations alternate with solo works by Lely and Christian Wolff. Instead of piano, Tilbury plays the clavichord; a very quiet instrument which is played unamplified throughout these recordings. Besides its delicacy, the sound is strange and exotic, aided by Tilbury making use of pitch bends and unusual intonations. The solo adaptations of two cyclical pieces Wolff wrote for Tilbury back in 1969-70 have a crystalline beauty. Kalash’s oud blends well with the clavichord, while Lely’s electronics are so discreet as to merge with the ambient sounds in and around the house. The group pieces effectively capture a moment, a place, but are less satisfying as coherent musical works. To my ears, at least; I have a problem with improvisation in general. My patience is tested.

I’m more comfortable talking about the two discs dedicated to composers, Dante Boon and Giuliano d’Angiolini. It’s fascinating to compare the two albums, particularly as each composer talks about their use of indeterminate means of organising their music. Both cite the influence of the “New York School” of composers who introduced indeterminacy to their music in the 1950s, with both of them placing particular emphasis on John Cage’s last compositions in the 1980s and early 1990s. The disruptive anarchy of the Fifties and Sixties avant-garde didn’t die away; a tradition emerged and evolved from it. It was largely unnoticed in the world of Serious Music, preoccupied as it was with certainties, whether proffered by Pierre Boulez or Philip Glass.

Cage found a peace between his philosophy and overtly “beautiful” music. Some twenty years later, Boon has assimilated Cage’s ideas well enough to be confident of using them for what he describes as “classical, romantic European art”. His album Clarinet (& Piano) features Jürg Frey as the soloist on all three works (Boon accompanies on piano on two). I’ve mentioned before how, as a composer, Frey has transcended the philosophical purity of his earlier Wandelweiser pieces to make music that more directly affects senses and sentiment without pandering to the listener. This trait becomes clear in his playing of music by others, too (and Boon discusses in more detail on the CD’s website). Boon’s music floats in that ambiguous realm of mood inhabited by Morton Feldman’s late music and similar works at the more introspective end of minimal music. The indeterminate composition makes both musicians work together, outside of externally imposed measures of time. Like late Cage, it’s simultaneously looser (as in more open to potential disruption, less claustrophobic) yet more impersonal (as in the way that nature is impersonal). It shows those works from the late 1980s were not an endpoint.

Giuliano d’Angiolini also speaks of his admiration for Cage and Feldman, and laments that indeterminacy “has been to some extent pushed to the margins, ignored or misunderstood. Too often art is artificial, and too often the artist tries to surprise us or force an emotion upon us. Indeterminacy or chance put a brake on our will.” His CD Cantilena presents works for piano, string quartet, mixed ensemble and multi-tracked flutes. d’Angiolini describes the pieces as “simple compositional machines” but the simplicity of the materials (gamuts of notes, scales) and transparency of the few rules used to perform them yield a restrained lyricism that flows through the entire disc. The slow-motion single notes of the piano piece Finale contrast with the succession of frail chords in the highest register in Allegretto 94.6. The string quartet (suoni della neve e del gelo) employs Cage’s flexible time-brackets to create a distinctive piece of short phrases and isolated sounds.

With both of these composers there’s an emphasis on producing subtle music from the simplest material, organised by simple methods to produce combinations that are complex – in affect if not in surface texture. Great reliance is placed on the performers to interpret the notation, but not in ways that requires subjective inspiration. In all this they show a lot in common with the musical thinking of Christian Wolff – another former footnote to critics of Serious Music who has recently re-emerged as a guiding spirit in the present time.

The Presence of Julius Eastman

Tuesday 20 December 2016

For four years now, the London Contemporary Music Festival have put together the most exciting new music events in town. After last year’s eclectic extravaganza, LCMF 2016 was tightly focused and all the more revelatory for it. Three nights in another new venue (with a surprisingly good sound) dedicated to the work of Julius Eastman.

Eastman died in 1990, in almost total obscurity. Since the turn of the century, Mary Jane Leach has led a quest to rediscover, salvage and revive what remains of his music. Most Eastman fans probably first heard of him through the 3-CD set that resulted from this hunt for recordings, released ten years ago. The recovery process still goes on today: this year Frozen Reeds issued a tape of the large-scale work Femenine that had laid dormant for 40 years. These recordings reclaimed a lost strand of minimal music that was never fully pursued; a unique, vital voice in a style of composition that had seemed exhausted.

Over the last weekend, it became abundantly clear that these records were just scratching the surface, both in what listeners know about Eastman’s music and in how much more there is still to be revealed in his “classics”. Six pieces by Eastman were played, one of them a world premiere. That 1984 piece, Hail Mary for voice and piano, is still not mentioned on Leach’s list of known works. For a bit of perspective, Leach’s essay from 2004 mentions that she has obtained copies of scores for only two and a half works.

The rediscovered recordings have obtained something of an aura, of essential documents from a lost moment in time. The LCMF gigs refuted that idea and firmly established Eastman as a composer in a living history of music-making. Performed live by understanding, talented musicians, the pieces took on a life of their own, with greater emotional depth and pure sensory delight than can be found in the old tapes. This was most clear in the ensemble works. Apartment House’s Femenine benefited from greater accuracy and confidence, which allowed its increasingly outrageous digressions to hit the audience with an almost overwhelming force. Stay On It finally, actually sounded like a kindred work to the jazz and R&B Eastman spoke of. Other versions I’ve heard sound like a classic minimal composition derailed by an awkwardly sectional structure. At LCMF it really did start to heave and glide from one idea to another, subverting its lock-groove origins and risking anarchy, knowing it’s more fun to hang with Sun Ra than Steve Reich.

As the pianist Philip Thomas mentioned afterwards, “Julius Eastman’s music is music to be performed, heard, experienced and understood via the particular energies of live performance…. Nothing much to hold on to but everything to play with. So much revealed in the playing.” Special mention needs to go to vocalist Elaine Mitchener, whose free-form improvisation over Stay On It set the tone and led the work into new territory.

Mitchener’s voice also added a raw, disquieting edge to the otherwise hushed and restrained later works, Hail Mary and Buddha. The two pieces are almost unknown and I’d like to hear them again to appreciate their subtleties. The works for multiple pianos (here played as two pianos eight hands), Evil Nigger and Gay Guerilla, were played with a brilliant clarity. The seemingly straightforward process behind each one took on twists and turns, at once angry, elegiac, triumphant and defiant. The unexpected ways that Evil Nigger subsides into stillness and Gay Guerilla seems to endlessly rise are both glorious and disturbing.

Other composers featured at these gigs were Arthur Russell and Frederic Rzewski. Russell and Eastman were collaborators and kindred spirits of sorts, both outsiders to “serious” (i.e. unengaged) music. Russell’s almost inaccessible Tower of Meaning received an all-too-rare airing, in a special chamber arrangement. Its otherworldly blankness points equally to medieval music, Satie’s Socrate and Cage’s Cheap Imitation of it, as well as much “naive” music of the late 20th Century.

The entire programme opened with Rzewski’s Coming Together; a key work in understanding Eastman’s musical approach – of minimal rhythms, harmonies and repetitions as a framework for looser improvisation – and his engagement with politics, revolution and their conflicts with his sexuality. These themes were pursued further on the second night when Rzewski himself performed his own De Profundis, a setting of Oscar Wilde’s text for reciting pianist. This was the other highlight of the Festival. Rzewski, now 78, may have faltered on occasion but his voice, playing and percussive gestures (including rapping on the piano lid, scratching himself, beating his skull with his fist) all spoke with an unmatched directness and clarity. It was a gripping performance, letting the words drive the music and the music serve the words.

More from the guitar: Sarah Hennies, d’incise, Cristián Alvear, Clara de Asís

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Earlier in the year I raved about Cristián Alvear’s album of Jürg Frey’s music for guitar. I’ve now been sent two new recordings by Alvear, again both for solo guitar. On the Frey album, I noticed Alvear’s intense concentration and colouration he brings to the sound of unamplified, classical guitar. These two new releases intensify that effect even further.

Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) is a 40-minute work for guitar by the Swiss composer d’incise. Like the Frey album, this has also been released on Another Timbre. It’s a curious piece, simultaneously very loose and tightly constrained. In his interview on the Another Timbre site d’incise mentions his unfamiliarity with the instrument. The score calls for the instrument’s sound to be modified in some way, yet also puts the onus on the performer to become familiar with recordings of other music: Machaut, various folk musics, Neil Young. Any resemblance to this music in the composition is detectable only from a highly distilled understanding of technique. The guitarist works through a series of small, closely-observed effects. The material is carefully limited and how it is used is left open to some interpretation. It’s casually thorough in its exploration of intonation, tone colour and external affects, in the way that Morton Feldman’s music is in exploring the space between semitones.

There’s a second recording of this piece, available as a free download through Insub. Clara de Asís plays Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) on an electric guitar. Both versions are clearly the same piece, with similar overall shape and disposition of material. When examined more closely, comparison of the two reveals striking differences, followed by unexpected similarities. Asís plays with sensitivity and imagination equal to Alvear, each finding ways to evoke sounds from their respective instruments that are obviously different in origin yet still clearly alike in their understanding of the music. As an example, Asís’ version ends with the quietest gestures set in a thin halo of feedback hum. Alvear ends in an equally muted way, allowing the acoustic instrument’s natural resonance to come to the foreground. If you like the Asís version, you’ll want to hear how Alvear interprets it, too.

The Mappa label “from a God‑forsaken place on south of Slovakia” has released another Cristián Alvear recording, of Sarah Hennies’ Orienting Response. This is another 40-minute solo workout, written for Alvear. It’s available as a download or, for some reason, a cassette in a wooden box. I don’t get the thing with cassettes these days, it seems so conspicuously materialistic. I’m sure being Slovakian isn’t an excuse.

The cassette format does mean, however, that you get two 42-minute performances of the one piece. It took me a while to work this out. It also took me a couple of listens to figure out that the piece was for solo acoustic guitar (I’d somehow got into my head it was a duo with harp) and the guitar was unmodified (I was getting confused with the d’incise). It was obviously thus my own fault for not being too impressed after the first listen: an unconnected sequence of dry, repetitious exercises. After correcting my mistakes and realising that I’d been hearing things that weren’t actually in the recording, I knew it needed to be listened to more closely.

In her notes, Hennies mentions attempting “the same kind of focus and intensity I have created with percussion instruments using an instrument (the nylon stringed guitar) that is naturally not well-equipped to produce the type of timbres or high dynamic levels that I have worked with up to this point.” Each of the six sections specifies a rigorous playing technique: “Play as accurately and consistently as possible but with the assumption that “mistakes” are inevitable.” Alvear’s eminently well-suited for this challenge; it makes the Frey and d’incise seem fanciful.

Strange paradox at work here: you’d expect that the better you are at playing it, the less interesting it would get. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The substance of the piece is sufficiently stark that otherwise negligible differences become the subject of the music, much in the way that some of Alvin Lucier’s pieces work. The two performances here, seemingly identical at first, are in fact very close but quite distinct in detail and structural proportions. The score notes that “all timings and tempi are approximate and flexible”; I’m wondering how Alvear achieved this in performance.

Morphogenesis – Immediata

Monday 31 October 2016

You sometimes get the feeling that musicians these days are frightened of complexity. It seems to go back to the 1990s, when Pärt and Górecki captured the imaginations of a wider audience. Live musicians started to describe themselves as “lowercase”. Poor dead Feldman got conscripted to a bunch of causes. It’s still a big thing today.

I’m not saying it’s wrong, but sometimes you get the feeling that this hushed reverence for sound is an act of worship more out of fear than love. It’s nice then to hear musicians who aren’t trying to impress you with how damn much they care.

A bit over a year ago I heard Morphogenesis play their first live show since 2010. There was a piano, violin, tables of amplified objects, old cassette recorders, electronics ranging from the ingenious to the trashed. There were disputes, debates and openly aired doubts about the whole enterprise. One member resolved to perform entirely from his car parked outside the venue. The audience loved it: the music was always alive, filled with ungraspable meanings and a self-destructive potential that never dissipated. After more protracted debate, a recording of the event has been released on Otoroku. It sounds as good as I remembered, probably because enough time has passed that I can no longer recollect details.

I talked a few weeks back about Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim’s Entertainment = Control album, released on Pateras’ Immediata label. It’s one of a series of six CDs in which Pateras collaborates with other musicians in a way that renders the distinction between improvisation and composition irrelevant. The selections have been made from performances going back over 15 years. Each album comes with a transcribed conversation between the musicians, which are almost worth the price alone.

Subjects of interest crop up again and again: politics, money, sex. These aren’t presented as public statements of ideology (what was once the preserve of Nono has now been delegated to Lily Allen) but as a discussion of the messy context in which this music has been made, the forces which have shaped it into its present form, streaming through your speakers.

In 2009 we all flew to Baden-Baden, most of which the Russian mafia has bought up for weekenders. The place itself radiates the deadness that accompanies concentrated wealth: everything is simultaneously pretty and rotten, and psychotherapy was booming.

When the sleeve notes of the ensemble Thymolphthalein’s album Mad Among The Mad begin like this, you know you’re back in a more tumultuous, plain spoken era, far removed from the bland comfort and complacency that these days is too often mistaken for professionalism. I’ve gone on about the sleeve notes so much because they reflect the music so well. The musicianship on all the discs is highly polished but the musical forms are new: as much a renunciation as an accommodation of the prevailing social, financial and cultural factors in which new music is made.

Thymolphthalein was an electroacoustic ensemble working from a form of “systematized improvisation” (“Improv heads hated it, composers found it crass”). The sounds as well as the genres bleed into each other, a welter of details held taut in sharply-defined shapes. It all feels closely argued, enough to please a London Sinfonietta subscriber, with a confounding mix of electronics and technological manipulation that concert-hall composers are only just starting to catch up with. Occasionally there’s an outburst of mayhem to frighten the neighbours.

There’s more. Astral Colonels is an alter ego of Pateras and Valerio Tricoli, in which Tricoli has deconstructed and remixed improvisations between Pateras on various keyboards and Tricoli on open-reel tape recorders. The disc captures the feel of their old live shows, yet adds both complexity and space to the soundworld. The Long Exhale pairs piano and electronics with Anthony Burr on clarinet, in a set of carefully considered improvisations that focus inward on the sound of their instruments, as finely paced as a fully composed work without ever becoming reduced to the purely minimal.

Kammer Klang 2016-17: A Curmudgeon Writes

Friday 7 October 2016

The new season of Kammer Klang kicked off this week at Cafe Oto. It’s about the most innovative and interesting new music programme going around right now. It works by tapping into a genuine enthusiasm for music that pushes boundaries, for an audience ready and willing to take risks. You can build a following without dressing things up with gratuitous video projections or signalling towards pop music in hope of luring the cool kids.

Each month promises something different. Tuesday night began with Martyna Poznańska, who works with field recordings and videos. I recently went off on one about field recordings, and this gig reminded me of another problem I have with the genre. Too often, it can focus on techniques of documentation that struggle to find material which meets the aspirations of the artistic intention. Punters were treated to the overly-familiar ambient hum and views out the window that have become a hallmark of the medium.

A set of what might usually be considered more conventional “contemporary classical” music followed, from the fine ensemble Distractfold. The term ‘conventional’ is a relative term here as the violins and cellos were augmented with a battery of electronic signal processors large enough to max out the channels on the house PA. Sam Salem’s piece Untitled Valley of Fear used this excess of tech to build up a sufficiently murky and mysterious aural mood. Mauricio Pauly’s string trio Charred Edifice Shining both amplified and altered the instruments into an array of disrupting and disorientating effects. Overall, the piece felt a little too long and loose, as the reliance on unusual sounds could be edited and focused to maximise the impact. You wonder if the processing could have all been done on a laptop, with a fourth performer operating to spare the musicians the distraction of knob-twiddling.

The last set of the evening was with the composer Miles Cooper Seaton, who had been workshopping in the Cafe Oto Project Space around the corner for the past few days. His piece, Transient Music #2, began with his ensemble standing in a loose huddle around him in the centre of the room, all dressed in white like they were about to perform Stockhausen’s Ylem. Someone mentioned that this was going to be a sort of “deep listening” type deal. It started promisingly with a lengthy vocal solo by Cooper Seaton himself, in a speech that thanked and praised in turn everyone who had assisted and supported him during his stay, no matter how incidental their contribution may have been. Just as his peroration reached its apparent conclusion, he took a short breath and continued. And again. And again, without strain or effort, the flow of fine words continued. It was quite captivating; he is the Charlie Parker of panegyrics.

Sadly, modesty forced him to cut his solo short. For the remainder of the evening, members of the ensemble gingerly navigated amongst the punters around the room, playing an extended, gentle cadence on a leading tone.

Serious Listening Weekend

Monday 3 October 2016

Are you playing an instrument or playing music? I’m old-fashioned enough to be leery of improvisation. Spent the weekend listening to new(ish) CDs of music that was not strictly composed; not in the authorial sense. For most of them I could make the argument that these are compositions, not improvisations.

There’s a growing, interesting genre of music that defines, develops and interprets compositional parameters as a joint process between musicians. These pieces aren’t an a priori realisation of a composer’s indeterminate score, nor are they spontaneously improvised. This seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of examples of these methods going back as far as “free improvisation” in the 1960s. There was “group composition” but that was just a term for improv musos who had to play art galleries instead of jazz clubs. It’s a sign that the genre is evolving, maturing.

I’ve been working through a rich vein of discs sent from the Another Timbre, Intonema and Immediata labels. Violinist Angharad Davies and pianist Tisha Mukarji recorded a set of improvisations over two days this February, released under the title ffansïon | fancies. In an interview on the website it mentions that the second day of recording was forced by “circumstances”, but this helped the album immensely. Material from the first day was evidently reworked, developed and refined for takes used on the final release. (“It struck me that this is a particularly fruitful way of using improvisation.”) The results show the benefit of additional time for reflection. Each piece reveals a focus on detail without losing sight of an overall direction or shape. Sounds are allowed to develop and change over time without rambling, giving each piece a character that can range from spiky pointillism to deconstructed folk music.

The St Petersburg-based Intonema label finds plenty of room to wander within what appears at first to be a pretty narrow range of music. The wandering is both musical and geographical. Tri presents a state-of-the-art improvisation in electroacoustic music with venerable electric guitarist Keith Rowe and Ilia Belorukov and Kurt Liedwart on various instruments, objects, computer processing and electronics. It documents a live performance and listening at home it’s hard to get too excited about all the technique on display. Sympathy to the guy in track one with the cough.

In contrast, Belorukov’s collaboration with Gaudenz Badrutt on electronics and “objects” and Jonas Kocher on accordion makes for fascinating listening. Rotonda is a live performance inside the Mayakovsky Library in St Petersburg. The musicians note that the space of the rotunda and its specific acoustics makes it “the fourth collaborator” in the piece. A compositional constraint is introduced: “acute attention to silences and extremely careful work with sound”. A slow, deliberately-paced music unfolds over nearly 50 minutes, each performer knowing that the resonance of the space will fill and colour their inactivity. A welcome relief from the horror vacui that affects so many musicians, without ever becoming a dry, didactic exercise in silence.

Tooth Car features Canadians Anne-F Jacques and Tim Olive playing live in the US: two fairly short extracts, which may be all that is needed for audio only. The limitations here are mechanical. Jacques constructs rotating surfaces that are played and amplified, while Olive amplifies other objects with magnetic pickups. The rotating devices provide regular ostinati throughout each piece and the various colours of metallic scraping suggest something close to sound sculpture.

For real group composition, Polis presents a combine, of intentional sounds and unexpected factors. Electroacoustic composers Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan and Louie Rice collaborated by preparing compositions and then mixed them, playing the mix through a car sound system that drove to various locations around the city of Porto. A complex but not impenetrable blending of sounds emerge, with different tracks overlapping each other, elaborated upon by different locations and live sampling of urban spaces. A neat convergence of pure sound, documentary, field recording and spatialisation.

Perhaps more conventional, Volume by the duo Illogical Harmonies on the Another Timbre label clearly identifies itself as a jointly composed piece. The violinist Johnny Chang and double bass player Mike Majkowski improvised together over several months, transcribing, performing and revising until they had sculpted this hour-long suite of five movements. This painstaking process has produced a beautifully restrained and focused performance, which at first sounds like a concentrated study on intonation and tuning but on closer listening reveals beautiful details of refined ornamentation and subtle relief.

Anthony Pateras has built a career out of being both a composer and an improviser, and his own Immediata label has recently produced a series of limited edition CDs of works that lurk in the grey area between the two domains. (Downloads are also available on Bandcamp.) I was going to discuss a couple of these now but I’ve just been listening again to his collaboration with Erkki Veltheim, Entertainment = Control. We’re back to straight violin and piano here and this bravura performance is part lost minimal epic, part social commentary, part virtuosic tour-de-force and part pisstake. I was going to say this disc is ideal if you think The Necks are too fussy or Charlemagne Palestine is too straightlaced, but then I started reading the extensive sleeve notes again. Pateras and Veltheim discuss fascism and sadomasochism, the Marx brothers, punk cabaret and the plague of El Sistema amongst other things and I can see I need to save all this for a separate post.

Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 14 September 2016

You wish Morton Feldman’s life hadn’t ended so soon; not least because his work was still revealing unknown territory. For all that his late works give the impression of having arrived upon a truly unique understanding of music, there’s always an element in them that suggests there’s still further to explore. Pieces from his last couple of years such as Coptic Light and For Samuel Beckett imply that he had distilled his musical language to an unbroken, monadic surface; but then his very last work, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello, treats what’s gone before as a starting point for something new.

It had been played in London only once, 1999. Last night at Cafe Oto Mark Knoop, Aisha Orazbayeva, Bridget Carey and Anton Lukoszevieze played it for a second time. It was the hottest September day anyone could remember. Oto is a small concrete box with a bar up the back and passersby in the street just outside. The gig was sold out. For seventy-five minutes, we all sat or stood in stillness. It was an actual example of “if you build it, they will come”.

We stayed focused in the airless heat and humidity partly to avoid any excessive movement, mostly to follow the music, and partly out of respect for the imperturbable stoicism displayed by the musicians. You could see the conditions were taking their toll but they never let their heads drop. They carefully balanced their pacing and tone to enable the piece to unfold in a state of suspension, outside of typical musical concerns of linear time.

Feldman’s last piece draws on the lessons learned from his preceding work and wears its wisdom lightly. Its material is allowed to appear and evolve in what seems to be a more natural, organic way. For all the well appreciated subtleties of his music, the lack of obvious sections and cycled repetitions in this piece makes his other late works seem almost crude in comparison. When an obvious change is introduced – a short sequence of piano arpeggios, an exchange of pizzicato notes between the strings – it doesn’t come as a shock, but as the deepening of a plot. Each motif that appears, whether familiar or new, feels like a piece of a puzzle falling into place, revealing more of an image realised only on completion. The music feels more open, to the listener and to the world, without ever sacrificing its profound ambiguity of mood. Like John Cage’s best music, seeking to imitate nature, nothing’s a surprise but nothing is expected.

Eva-Maria Houben at Cafe Oto

Thursday 1 September 2016

A warm Tuesday night in London and Eva-Maria Houben is playing piano at Cafe Oto. She’s chosen to play three short sets, so people can enjoy the outside air, a drink and a chat, and refresh their focus on the music. Her music is typically slow and quiet, with a virtuosic use of silence. Such pieces can be very long, but not tonight. Two of the works are being played in public for the first time; one of them, Dandelion, is a loose collection of pages. Houben explains that it could go on “for hours” but tonight she’s selected just three pages to play.

Alex Ross, in the latest issue of the New Yorker, gives a good description of challenges and pleasures the new listener finds when discovering the Wandelweiser collective.

Eva-Maria Houben, a mainstay of the group, has written, “Music may exist ‘between’: between appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something ‘nearly nothing.’”

He also observes the group’s “slightly cultish atmosphere” but this has started to fall away in recent years, as individual voices from within the group have become more recognisable. At Oto, Houben gives a short introduction to each piece, enthusiastically describing her inspirations. These sources are surprisingly diverse, as is her music.

She begins with another premiere, Tiefe – Depth for Piano. It’s a consummate study in decay and resonance. Isolated notes are struck and released immediately, held a short time and allowed to die away, sometimes being cut off, sometimes allowed to fade. Throughout the evening, there’s little use of the sustain pedal to colour, or cover, the frequent silences. Rather like Jürg Frey’s guitar music (another Wandelweiser composer), she sets the piano’s sounds within the surrounding silence and not against it.

Dandelion draws on prose inspiration rather than fixed notation, with the instrument’s strings mostly plucked by hand. For her Sonata for Piano No. 10 she explains how she was intrigued by Enescu’s talent for producing bell-like sonorities in his piano chords. The dedicatee for each movement is a very unWandelweiserish composer: Mussorgsky, Enescu, Schumann, Liszt, Messiaen. The semblance of each composer is evident in each movement’s set of tolling chords.

For all the emphasis on silence when describing this type of music, Houben gives particular attention to the piano’s capability for producing harmonic resonances and overtones (she refers to them as “partials”, suggesting a wish to complicate the instrument’s harmonic characteristics even further). In another work, the score is four pages of three lines each, single tones on a single stave in the treble. The piece ends with a long, steady drumming on a dense cluster of notes in the bass. The resonating strings produce a halo of high notes whistling over the top. No need for this low chord to be written down or on the music stand.

I still can’t get my head around this composer. The first pieces I heard seemed too bald – dependent on a theory, underdeveloped. Then I heard pieces which seemed much more warm-blooded to me. Others had a hint of veering into New Age meditation or whimsy, still others embrace tintinnabulation not unlike Arvo Pärt. Tonight, the music ranges from finely nuanced (Tiefe, Dandelion) to obsessively single-minded, as in the Sonata and another piece made entirely of single notes in groups of three, stacked end to end. Far removed from the sacerdotal austerity of Wandelweiser’s image, this is living, messy, human music.

Violin+1: Bryn Harrison and Linda Catlin Smith

Monday 29 August 2016

First, I have to say that I had Linda Catlin Smith all wrong.

A couple of months ago Another Timbre released four CDs under the general title ‘Violin+1’: four violinists, each in duet with a different type of musician. Two of the discs are of composed works, the other two are jointly composed between the musicians through improvisation. Violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and pianist Mark Knoop play a new work by Bryn Harrison, Receiving the Approaching Memory. I raved about Harrison’s monumental piano piece Vessels a couple of years ago, hearing it live and on CD. At the time I made the inevitable comparison to Morton Feldman’s late works, but noted significant differences. Unlike Feldman’s carpet-inspired patterns, Vessels was more like a vast labyrinth, beguiling in the way Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano or Josef Matthias Hauer can be.

Receiving the Approaching Memory takes these aspects of Vessels and somehow makes them more subtle. The scale of the piece is less intimidating – scarcely more than half the length of Vessels and broken into five movements instead of a single, relentless span. The surface resemblance to Feldman is closer, like his last orchestral works: Harrison takes up a musical element and, rather than develop it, gently turns it from side to side, like the facets of a crystal catching the light. Any listener lulled by this apparent familiarity may not even notice that they are slowly becoming disoriented. As each new movement begins, the mystery deepens. Have we heard this part before? Did the last movement change at all, really? Are we starting over from the same place, or will we end up where the last movement ended, only not to remember it when we arrive? Does each movement differ at all? Which movement are we up to? The musicians make the music float, as though without any physical reference for the listener to hold on to.

Linda Catlin Smith seemed to be a composer a little bit outside the usual sound-world of Another Timbre. What little I’d heard of her music up until now showed influences of folk music, particularly of traditions from North America. Based on that, I’d lazily pigeonholed her with the current generation of American composers who have found commercial success through exploiting a ‘vernacular’ of a steady pulse and conventional harmony. This was unfair of me. Dirt Road, a lengthy set of 15 movements for violin and percussion, was written 10 years ago but is making a wider impression only now.

The title itself suggested an appeal to folksy authenticity that has been fashionable lately, in music as much as anywhere, and has already started to grate as much as the lumberjack shirt on an artisanal barista. Listening to the disc with that mindset becomes an astonishing revelation. The first movement is minimal, a violin drone supplemented with bass drum and occasional flourishes of vibraphone. The second suggests a folk influence, modal patterns to slow and brief to be considered full melodies. The pairing of instruments is peculiar, violin with percussionist, often on mallet instruments with occasional drum or cymbal. The first time I listened, the music went from pleasant, to strange, to captivating – it’s beautiful in a way that the listener can never settle into and take for granted.

Each new movement opens up a new perspective on the whole, returning to ideas heard before and presenting them in a new way, introducing a twist, opening up a new set of sounds that casts different light on what was heard before. Some movements can be quietly lyrical, others severely minimal, yet the work holds together as a unified experience, more than the sum of its parts. There’s a complexity of musical thinking going on here, belied by the simplicity of technique.

Violinist Mira Benjamin and percussionist Simon Limbrick play with a richly detailed grain to their sound, with edges just rough enough to give predominance to the physical sounds of the instruments that are so important to making the music work. Each moves effortlessly between foreground and background when needed. This CD has deservedly been getting a lot of attention. As Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes, “Smith’s time has, finally, come.”

Music versus material (3): Arturas Bumšteinas

Monday 15 August 2016

When is a field recording a composition? I suspect many musicians would like to keep this line as vague as possible, without considering how some more abstracted thought might clarify their own music-making. Arturas Bumšteinas’ new CD Organ Safari Lituanica seems to aim for the centre of a Venn diagram, at the intersection where improvisation, composition and field recording all overlap but instead of hitting this presumed bullseye the disc falls splat between three stools and you can’t help but imagine that this is, in fact, the inelegant consummation Bumšteinas had hoped for all along. The reviews on the record label’s promotional page start with “a mess of tooting dissonance and billowing air” and end with “I must admit I was quite lost after a while and gave up.”

Organ Safari is a project Bumšteinas has been working on since 2008. The title already invokes the realm of field recordings and pretensions to artless documentation, and the project is built out of a growing archive of recordings of church organs around Europe. In this instalment, Bumšteinas has restricted his source material to Lithuanian churches only, and edited the improvisations by Gailė Griciūtė into three compositions. (This is apparently part of a larger project titled Organ Archipelago, with a similar anthropological conceit. It was, naturally, made for Australian radio.)

The organ in modern music has long featured as a fetishised object as much as an instrument, a vehicle for cultural contemplation as much as for sound. This goes back at least as far as Kagel and Ligeti and continues today. Organ Safari Lituanica use of collaged improvisation recalls works such as Henning Christiansen’s Fluxorum Organum and, more closely, Wolfgang Mitterer’s Stop Playing. Mitterer focuses on the mechanical workings of the organ, while Bumšteinas takes a more holistic approach. The rattle of keys and hissing of air through pipes are present throughout, but so is actual playing of notes. Mitterer’s collages have a technical polish in their processed sounds, whereas on Safari the sounds are more simply cut and overlaid. Certain obvious motives repeat in all pieces, like the disingenuous chromatic runs, up and down.

Besides the reviews quoted above, I’ve also had friends reporting losing patience with this disc. Part of the problem is the approach to collage: as I mentioned at the start of this series, “the raw material can be so seductively rich and the means of composing with them so facile, that resulting work can be less than the sum of its parts”. The first piece, at a little over 30 minutes, tends to deafen the listener to the subtleties in the next two tracks. The middle piece, softer and clearer in its sounds while still resisting continuity, is quite lovely when heard in isolation. The final piece exposes the complexities and contradictions in this project. The details that can be appreciated start to get overwhelmed by muddled pools of organ sounds, thoughtless vamping on tuneless keyboards, fumbles, rehearsed bloopers.

The music ends up chasing its tail, an endless cycle of deflection, claiming and disowning one form of cultural expression after another. It’s music, it’s performance, it’s ritual, it’s documentation, it’s field recording, it’s anthropology, it’s pastiche, it’s satire. As said near the start, this would seem to be Bumšteinas’ goal, to produce that most infuriating of works: a piece that aspires to fail, and succeeds at it.

Music versus material (2): Lucio Capece

Tuesday 9 August 2016

When is a field recording no longer a field recording? I originally started to phrase this question “where is the line between field recording and…” but stopped when I couldn’t think of anything to put for the counter-example except “music”. As previously mentioned, field recordings in music tend to walk a fine line between being sufficiently dull to qualify as “sound art” or sufficiently rich to leave one “wallowing in timbre” (cf. Feldman, contrasting sound with music).

Do some of Alvin Lucier’s pieces count as field recordings? Considered as phenomena observed in a specific acoustic location, the line of distinction with field recordings gets blurred. I was thinking about this again when listening to Lucio Capece’s CD Awareness about. Similar considerations appear, of spatial location of sound as an acoustic characteristic, of the resonance of spaces. The last piece on the disc is a long recording made at the Halle des Expositions, Évreux, France, or rather of the Halle des Expositions. It’s part of a series titled Space Tuning – Conditional Music:

Performances involve the playback of recordings made in the space by placing a microphone inside cardboard tubes of differing dimensions. These recordings are analysed for their spectral characteristics and then edited into an assembled soundfile. The soundfile is played back live within the space via a PA, and is combined with three other sound sources: selected sine tones based on the harmonic spectrum and formants of the recordings, electronically produced white noise (both of which are amplified through mobile wireless speakers hanging from helium balloons), and some live sounds which I play on soprano saxophone.

Listeners familiar with Lucier would recognise features from some of his better-known works here. The resonance of the space (I Am Sitting In A Room), the cardboard tubes (Vessels), the movement of the sound image (Bird And Person Dyning). I’m not saying that the music is derivative, but that it consolidates and builds upon a legacy. Like many other pioneers in music, Lucier has often been described as a “one-off” – a term used more in hope than in admiration by musicians uncomfortable with the prospect of having to question their assumptions. It’s heartening to hear music so informed by a new tradition.

The soundworld of Space Tuning – Eiffel’s Halle des Expositions is satisfyingly cavernous without being overly ornamented. In two smaller pieces, Capece plays solo in his practice room then plays recordings of the sounds back into the room while binaural microphones attached to a helium balloon float around in circles. The resulting music stays clear but with a complexity of subtle details that never becomes dense.

The other long work, Groupings, is an entirely acoustic quartet but doesn’t sound like it. The slowly unfolding webs of sound are built out of auditory illusions, using white noise (air through an accordion, rasp on bow against string) as a filter for other sounds, playing off small differences in intonation of tones to emphasise or subtract from certain parts of the harmonic spectrum.

It’s a fascinating collection of pieces that focus on the most elemental but often neglected aspects of sound. Without being didactic, the musical beauty of the pieces allows the listener to explore for themselves how these sounds came about and consider how these phenomena appear in daily life.

Music versus material (1): Claudio Parodi

Monday 8 August 2016

I don’t trust field recordings. I’ve probably said this before, but I mean a certain type of field recordings: the ones with a pretence to authenticity. It’s a double whammy against their credibility as art. On the first count, there’s a failure to account for or even consider the role of mediation, be it technical (e.g. microphones) or subjective (e.g. editing, selection). On the other, they claim aesthetic failure as a virtue (“It’s boring, but that’s how it really happened!”). This approach inevitably leads to deceit, as bad novelists sell their crude fictions as searing autobiography and bad stage magicians parade their crude tricks as revelations of psychic powers.

You will note that I did not dismiss all types of field recording. They can be beautiful, important, but they can stubbornly resist becoming art. As with collage in the visual arts, the raw material can be so seductively rich and the means of composing with them so facile, that resulting work can be less than the sum of its parts: a vampire aesthetic.

Every warning is a challenge, so it’s interesting to find the different ways in which the problem can be tackled. (Plug: I’ve tried this myself, using various ways of foregrounding technical intervention in a sonic landscape.) As mentioned in my last post, I’ve been listening to a recent CD by Claudio Parodi which is composed from field recordings.

Prima del terzo comes across at first as soft, ambient noise. Faint details emerge and it becomes clear that you are listening to a space, or rather a place. The location is not immediately obvious to the casual listener; it may well be a montage of recordings superimposed. Then come some sudden shifts in perspective – not of the listener, but of the landscape as it suddenly moves its focus from left to right in the stereo spectrum.

Something is going on beyond simple documentation but the exact nature isn’t clear. “Nothing against pure field recording. But,” Parodi writes, “I felt to go deeper.” The recordings were made to capture the wind, heard while walking around the harbour in Parodi’s home town of Chiavari. The movements of the sound trace out the strokes of lettering in Hebrew words. The actions are redolent of some sort of ritual, both in walking out the paths for the recording and in their manipulation in the studio. The purpose of the ritual, however, remains obscure to the listener.

There’s a weird balance here between the deeply subjective process which led to this set of pieces being made, and the objective impenetrability of the process to the listener. For some reason it reminded of some of Alvin Lucier’s music, where an arbitrary object can become an irreducible fact in determining sounds. (He’s also written a piece called Letters.) There’s also a similar element of quiet subversion. Five pieces of wind, never rising to a storm but liable to suddenly change.

Who is neither in nor out

Thursday 14 July 2016

If there’s a Renaissance this century it will come from rediscovering what happened last century. So far it feels like a lot of modern musical activity is a matter of catching up on what’s already happened. I went to the musikFabrik production of Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury in Paris last month. It seems the piece went unplayed from 1969 to 2007. Partch’s unique instruments have now been lovingly replicated and were skilfully played by an ensemble from Cologne. Hearing a large-scale work by Partch live instead of from not-particularly-hi-fi recordings from half a century ago seemed miraculous.

In October this year the quasi-popular music duo Matmos are performing scenes from Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives at the Barbican. It’s been slipped in as part of a programmed series titled “Reich, Glass, Adams: The Sounds that Changed America”. (Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning is not on the programme; it gets its UK premiere in January.)

Recovering vital pieces of the past is one thing, but they need to be consolidated into present activity. I’ve been getting my head around a set of discs sent to me by the Italian composer Claudio Parodi. Right now I’m listening to A tree, at night, a sort of hörspiel* for intoning voices, shakers and thumb piano. One voice narrates, mostly in Italian, another chants phrases over and around the speaker. There are nine chapters, mostly similar in style.

There’s a story going on here but my Italian’s not good enough to follow it. (The CD booklet gives a link to an English translation.) The voices’ rhythms are lulling, as are the shakers that play almost throughout. The simple instruments are derived from storytelling traditions “in Africa” but I keep thinking of Robert Ashley’s operas – for all the words, you get lost in their music. (Ashley was also not averse to translating his libretti into foreign languages.)

The story is something about moving house, exploring a neighbourhood; and this gets me thinking about some of Alvin Curran’s old sound collages, mixing music, narrative and street recordings around Rome into a personal, oblique narrative. There are no field recordings in A tree, at night but, by some strange means in the music, I keep misremembering this simple fact.

As for the listening experience: how much of it is down to Parodi, how much to me, and how much of it to what’s in the music, waiting for either of us to find it?

There’s another CD here by Parodi which does use field recordings, and a couple of others by different composers and I need to talk about them in my next post.

* I just checked the website and it literally uses the exact wording as I did. Must have a good ear.

Donnerstag aus Licht in Basel

Tuesday 28 June 2016

As with Cage, so with Stockhausen: composers who upset the musical establishment are told their music will not survive them. On Sunday I was at the new production of Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht in Basel. This version featured many performers from a new generation who brought out the depth and feeling within Stockhausen’s score and made the many technical demands seem natural to them. Stockhausen’s legacy continues to propagate without his physical presence.

As the first opera written in the Licht cycle Donnerstag is the most conventional, although already straining at the limitations of the opera hall. It foreshadows how later parts open out into the world while also immersing the audience deeper into a less compromising insistence on his idiosyncratic cosmology. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that the opera is a work of transformation. In unison with Michael’s emergence from the appearance of a relatable, if not typical, childhood into a spiritual presence in the universe, the matter of the opera steadily leads us from drama to religious contemplation. The music moves from drama to symbolic explication and meditation. Stockhausen’s later music has a remarkable ability to convey elements commonly associated with minimal music – timelessness, communion – while still generous and abundant with activity and detail. The soloists, chorus and orchestra in Basel all carried this duality beautifully.

Tragically, the staging of this production was incapable of escaping its earthbound origins, in conception and in execution. At critical points it betrayed a failure of nerve, with fatal consequences. The Greeting in the foyer and the first act started with intrigue and promise, establishing the material foundations of Michael’s first appearance (even though the Greeting’s 70s lounge suits didn’t connect with the Act I’s tracht and dirndl). Things go horribly wrong during Michael’s examinations at the end of the first act, which here were perversely interpreted as medical examinations as Michael succumbs to madness, same as his mother. The second act, Michael’s Journey Around the World, is thus set in a mental hospital; or rather, a 1970s caricature of a mental hospital. The ensuing antics are hackneyed and the use of mental illness to explain away Michael’s journeys and encounters is the middlebrow version of the tired old fallback of “it was all just a dream”. The whole second act becomes something of a bummer, which I’m pretty sure should never be the desired affect in a Stockhausen opera.

Throughout the opera, the scene returns to a dumbshow repetition of Michael’s childhood. Even in the third act Michael cannot move on from this display, and so the transformative essence of the opera is lost. This failure of Michael’s becomes a failure of this production. The director has taken a 1970s religious opera and regressed it to a 1930s expressionist psychodrama.

To honestly address Stockhausen’s operatic vision, one must fully commit to it – however bizarre it may be – if it is to work at all. Time after time this staging pulled its punches, retreating to a comfort zone of irony and psychology instead of grappling with the thornier issue of how to present a 21st century mystery play and the difficult implications of taking the text seriously. In Act II and the first half of the third act the action often becomes muddled, fussy and fidgety, as though to distract from the music. Michael’s homecoming in Act III is undermined by prolonged stage business which resorts to simply disregarding what is being sung.

Things on stage improve greatly when genuine conflict is introduced on stage through Stockhausen’s own libretto, as Michael confronts various manifestations of Luzifer. Finally, the action on stage returns to illuminating the music. The concluding scene is also handled very well, at last allowing the audience to focus in stillness on what has gone before. By this time the production has almost redeemed itself. Even here, though, the various personifications of Michael appear as in youth, from the first act. The director just cannot move on.

You can set the New Testament in a bowling alley in space for all I care, but if you present the Gospel as the story of one man’s journey to overcome obstacles in search of self-fulfilment then it will seem worse than strange, it will seem shallow and ignorant. No new light is shed.

So often in the Licht cycle Stockhausen takes banal and simplistic scenarios and somehow manages to elevate them through his music and his sense of experience shared through an audience. Too often this staging in Basel took elements of the mystical and fantastic and beat them down into the banal.