Thoughts on Apartment House playing John Cage: Number Pieces

Thursday 2 September 2021

It’s slowly but steadily sinking in how vast a legacy John Cage left us. Another Timbre’s new box set of Cage’s late number pieces, performed by Apartment House, was immediately received with widespread wonder and gratitude. Critics have suggested that this is a landmark release that will redefine Cage’s reputation, but this has happened before, more than once. Cage’s gradual acceptance into the musical pantheon has been a process of repeated adjustments into how the audience perceives him, a view of ever-widening horizons as more aspects of his art are brought to light. For the next stage, many critics will realise that, as with all great artists, no interpretation of Cage will ever be definitive.

In his generous sleeve notes, producer Simon Reynell observes that many of the pieces presented here have not had a new recording in close to a generation. This was a shock, as it made me realise that (a) I’m that old, (b) Cage’s oeuvre is that big, and (c) my much-loved recordings of these pieces need a fresh perspective. [The Number Pieces are a collective name given to a series of forty-odd works Cage wrote over the last five years of his life. They share the same basic principle: flexible time brackets without coordination between parts, more or less filled with more or less specification. Each is titled for the number of performers needed to play it. Cage could write them quickly, typically to fulfil commissions – he referred to them as his “watercolors” – but he was genuinely fascinated by the almost effortless variation and beauty that could be produced by his skillful employment of this simple premise.] Of course they come out differently each time, but as the ensemble Apartment House show in this collection, there can be great variation in larger-scale matters of interpretation, not just in detail. Several of the musicians here have recorded other late Cage works, particularly for Another Timbre, always finding new perspectives to what may have once been considered stable essays in random patterns. (The other great lie about Cage is that his aesthetic breakthrough was adopting chance, when the true breakthrough was his reason for adopting chance: his aesthetic judgements were now framed as questions instead of answers.) The five-plus hours of music in John Cage: Number Pieces both underlines and extends their work in expanding our appreciation of Cage. This set collects all the works written for larger ensembles: five to fourteen musicians.

One of my formative new music listening experiences was with a CD of Cage’s last completed composition, Thirteen, played twice by the ensemble who commissioned it. Both were dull as ditchwater. I’d read about how Cage had had to change his conception of what the piece should be while composing it, but still believed that the poor music was due to the ensemble taking liberties with interpretation, a top-down approach at odds with Cage’s musical instincts. Years later, I was releived to hear a far superior recording made by The Barton Workshop. Apartment House also take liberties, some quite pronounced. Almost all music requires some deviation from the score, however minor it may be; it’s a question of whether that deviation brings the musician closer to or further away from the spirit implied in the letter. Five4, composed for two saxophones and three percussionists, appears here with Heather Roche playing clarinets and only the duo of Simon Limbrick and George Barton on percussion. Limbrick and Barton also overdub themselves three times to produce the brief Six for unspecified percussion, making an oblique collage of timbres that unexpectedly appear and disappear. Five4‘s clarinet tones recall the light, clear sound of soprano sax.

The most questionable choice here is to almost completely avoid Cage’s allowance in most pieces for the possiblity of short sounds and the concomitant permission that they may be played loud or soft. Almost everything here is soft and sustained. It seems like a needless restriction to the variety these compositions allow and also threatens to limit Cage’s expressive range as a composer. Listening to hours of it should become numbing. Strangely, it just about works, to the credit of composer and interpreters alike. The opening three pieces, each five minutes long for five musicians, suggest we’re in for an extended survey of subtle differences. This changes with the longer Fourteen for bowed piano and ensemble, as the expanded colouration with piano strings and brass highlight the way Cage manipulated the parameters for his chance-determined time brackets to produce distinct changes in texture, phrasing and pace. There’s some wicked low-end sounds throughout this whole set which reward the indulgence of playing it loud, in contrast to the post-Feldman ambient haze sometimes assumed for these pieces. It’s about knowing what liberties to take.

Fourteen minimises the timbral novelty of the bowed piano strings, setting it back amongst the ensemble instead of being a de facto soloist. Conversely, the group’s approach to Seven presents a more concertante approach to the piano in the ensemble, using its more active part as a striking contrast to much of the other playing throughout the set. In other performances I’ve heard, this piece’s emphasis on wonky intonation has turned it into a buzzing microtonal cloud. Apartment House’s approach to Cage’s use of microtonality is subdued and undemonstrative. In the lengthy Five3 trombone and string quartet don’t so much clash as colour each other in fine skeins of sound that separate out, a piece that slowly breathes. In the ambitious Ten Cage envisioned an ensemble engaged in microtonal melisma until they lost sense of exact pitch. Apartment House play it without momentum, effacing pauses and changes in pace to produce one frozen moment in which tonal certainty is never a given, even with occasional interjections from a piano.

So far, my one disappointment has been Eight, an hour-long work for winds and brass. Cage gave greater leeway in expression and dynamics for this piece, which the ensemble here employ but once. Having never heard this piece before, it feels like the score’s expectation for a distinctive contrasting quality in this work was passed by to make something that, by comparison, too similar to the other works. On the other hand, the next longest piece, the fifty-two minute Seven2 for low instruments, makes a virtue of eschewing abrupt notes by emphasising the layering of soft, low tones into complex sounds that are transparent and indelible, with each instrument’s enforced absence made all the more notable. Coming back to Thirteen: The Barton Workshop’s version made full use of the ebb and flow permissible in the varied amounts of activity assigned to each instrument, all within a pitch range of a major sixth, creating a strange beauty out of inert materials. Apartment House remove the unsynchronised ebb and flow, but in doing so manage to transform the work into a lush and sonorous work of understated grandeur as they steadily unroll each new change to the gamut. It makes for a remarkably dignified commemoration to Cage’s passing.

The download comes with bonus alternative takes of several pieces and Reynell’s notes are also posted on his website: it’s recommended reading to learn more about these works. One final thought: the Number Pieces are frequently compared to Morton Feldman’s late music, particularly with the observation that Cage started them after Feldman’s death. I wonder if there’s another connection, besides that of slow, soft sounds. The scores (parts really, without overall scores) give freedom to the musician within greater bounds allowed by chance, but it places a burden on the musician as to how that freedom is to be used. Does a conscientious performer take a Cageian approach of impartiality when deciding entrances and exits, or should they play intuitively, with regard only for the strictures of the time brackets? Should the ensemble play as a group, accounting for each other’s choices, or as individuals. The Number Pieces could accommodate either approach but the pros and cons of both are unresolved. The possible indulgence of taste is a marked change in Cage’s scores, and it brings with it an anxiety that is seen throughout Feldman’s scores, where each of his manuscripts was a constant probing of the musicians’ psychology. Was this another patch of Feldman’s ‘turf’ that Cage felt he could now explore?

[Will Guthrie] (+ | ×) [Jean-Luc Guionnet] = ????

Monday 30 August 2021

There hasn’t been enough discussion of Will Guthrie here. I’ve briefly talked about his holistic approach to percussion here but not discussed his wider application of these methods. That far-sighted, wide-ranging approach has been heard in its most digested form in People Pleaser, his “Guthrie Goes Pop” release on Black Truffle in 2017. It was such a success that he’s now delivered People Pleaser Pt​. ​II, a second concise serving of short bursts of head-funk that thunder through your ears in a fever-dream collage where you’re never sure if, or what, he’s drumming. It’s a mad collage of dizzy eclecticism and musicological shitbaggery which reaches an early peak when Guthrie seems to be playing something from a bit of half a dozen FM radio staples all at once, before trapping you in more prolonged labyrinths of loops and found sounds. What makes this all work is understanding the difference between randomness and spontaneity; there’s an absurdist anti-logic and unselfconscious irreverence that makes the record a delight, even as it grows more menacing and sombre, like a cheesy horror movie that’s a little too good. The way the sequel differs from the original is explained by the cover art, where Warhol-bright variations have been replaced by a disorienting blur. Even the tracking becomes increasingly arbitrary. It doesn’t clamour for your attention, as it expects it will fascinate, amuse and deceive you in the same way it did its creator.

On the flipside of rewarding/punishing attention, a little while back Takuroku released Jean-Luc Guionnet’s Totality, an album that defies you to listen to it. The thing’s damn near four hours but without any of the usual pacing or development that might get the listener acclimatised. It moves both too fast and too slow, too much and not enough. When elements make a point in outstaying their welcome it seems of a piece with the work’s stated excess. There are lacunae. Voices sporadically appear throughout, in a continuing non-sequitur. Everything is distorted, transmitted imperfectly. It starts to make sense in a meta way, listening to it like you’re randomly tuning a shortwave radio back and forth, searching out meaning but happy to find a place where you can stay awhile, just to see if anything develops. It’s download only, so after initial hearings the best way for listeners to further engage with the work is likely through taking matters into their own hands and flicking the cursor to one place or another at random until the scope of the contents sinks in.

Now, what happens when you put these two together? Guionnet and Guthrie have collaborated for many years, usually on what gets lumped together as free jazz and noise. At least they describe it as “aggressive and antisocial” jazz, so I can dig it. Electric Rag plays out as People Pleaser Pt​. ​II‘s evil twin: the pop-music fever dream returns as once again it can be hard to tell what sound is coming from Guthrie’s percussion and what from Guionnet’s keyboards and sax. Everything’s close-miked, compressed and distorted into bursts of deep-fried noise. The two albums are structured in a similar way, but here the pop references, cutaways and found objects are stripped out for straight-out duets that become increasingly abrasive as the album progresses. Guthrie’s drumming zones in and out of electronic pulses while Guionnet’s instruments verge on feedback and musique concrète. Their playing has an aggression to it that at first seems to become more hostile the deeper you get into the album, until you realise it’s all building up to something more ominous. For all its convulsions, the sounds they unleash share the disruptive and cathartic qualities that always leave me with impression of having just listened to rock.

Time Travel with Secluded Bronte and The Bohman Brothers

Monday 9 August 2021

I know it’s a little early but I’m putting this down as the best prog album of the decade. It’s based on a live gig from 2019 but I don’t care, Queen’s by Secluded Bronte, the free improv power trio of Adam Bohman, Jonathan Bohman and Richard Thomas, has all the mutable energy, serious wit, free-ranging allusions, voracious diversity and wide-open imagination that even first-rank prog claims more often than it delivers. More to the point, the three of them readily play fast and loose with both erudition and stoopidity; they must know which is which, deep down, but they will get you confused. While their Takuroku release The Horns of Andromeda was a audio crazy quilt, Queen’s is an edit made last year out of a gig at Queen’s University, Belfast and so comes with direction and momentum. An extended prologue of incoherent confessional escalates into psychodrama, with the track sequence forming an exquisite corpse of distorted movie cues, musically arresting in their own right while obliquely signalling their scorn for the moods they evoke, rather like The Fall at their most disoriented. The second half brings back spoken vignettes accompanied by field recordings, mood music, call-and-response, détourned folk music and, well, rock’n’roll. It all starts to make sense even as you understand that none of it adds up.

The Merz-like collage method at work in the Bohman brothers’ music can be heard compressed into a concise sound-object in their most recent release, In Their 70s. It’s a dense nugget of lo-fi grey noise, acerbic asides, pawky puppet-show music and strangulated distortion, all apparently recorded on the run with hand-held devices and patched together with a rough but sure sense of what feels right, even if it sounds wrong. It’s arbitrarily snipped in halves, presumably for a very short cassette. Like beauty, the humour is there to be discovered by the audience, more engaging for having been harder won. The supposed casualness of its means and motive seemed like a great encapsulation of their art in full maturity, but in yet another case of not-reading-the-notes I just realised that the material is lifted from the Bohmans’ earliest home recordings, from around the mid 1970s. It’s all in the edit, I tell myself. “The brothers’ aesthetic appears alarmingly fully-formed,” says the promotional blurb. Don’t you hate it when the hype is correct?

Anthony Pateras: Pseudacusis

Tuesday 3 August 2021

One of the most special gifts I received in lockdown last year was an early mix of Anthony Pateras’ Pseudacusis, and I resolved to say something about it here as soon as it was ready for release but then missed it. I only briefly touched on his humongous box set Collected Works Vol. II in passing last year, observing how his style has developed. While his early music, both composed and improvised, displayed a distinctive flavour of hyperactivity and relentless and unforced energy, his more recent work has consolidated this extroversion into music that is more focused and cogent, but thankfully not tamed. Even in some pieces that tended towards the minimal, he now makes bold gestures which retain their forcefulness without resorting to bravado or pyrotechnics. The increasingly assured style still leaves room for pieces which can digress, or dazzle, or throw the listener off-balance in ways that carry a stronger motivation than a simple need to fill space. This has resulted in some stunning large-scale works such as Decay of Logic from the last box.

Pseudacusis is another large work, an electroacoustic piece about fifty minutes long for seven live musicians and another seven on tape, with further electronic manipulations. It’s an ambitious work that becomes imposing through its hearing, absent of any stated extramusical pretensions. The pacing seems understandably generous at first, with repeated single piano notes and sustained tones over what sounds like a recording of a dawn chorus of birds, but it doesn’t take long for things to spiral beyond comforable stasis. A percussionist taps restlessly in the background, those birds sound more electronic than real, or perhaps they’re the string instruments, a tape deck jerks into life and soon the atmosphere has moved from twittering to ominous rumbling. The mood swings come regularly, sometimes sudden and sometimes insidious. They work with a cumulative effect, each adding a new twist to the affective character of the work and casting the previous mood into a more troubled context. I originally hadn’t realised that the piece is formally divided into seven sections and I think the piece’s dream logic works more effectively when heard in ignorance of the section breaks. Each part works as an extended block of sound, perceived at a microscopic level of continual movement and change, impressive in form and detail.

The playing heard here, between live acoustic musicians, taped musicians and electronics, is seamless. It’s remarkable here how the ensemble sounds as a protean electroacoustic whole, given that this is a live recording from the 2019 Sacrum Profanum Festival in Kraków, with musicians who were mostly new to the piece. By the latter half of the work, you’re wondering how much of the frenzied, stuttering percussion solos are happening in front of the audience and whether you hallucinated Pateras playing some cocktail lounge jazz rhapsody in amongst it all. Yeah it’s out now. Has been for some time.

Takuroku update: Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and Taku Sugimoto

Wednesday 28 July 2021

I had to throw out my original review of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto’s ano kane wo narasu. In that one I enthused over his superb handling of electronics, marvelling at how he let simple drones build and expand through judicious use of reverb and gain to open up new expanses of tonality and colour throughout the half-hour composition without ever losing a tight focus on the piece’s conceptual foundations. Tonal layers evolve into timbral changes and recede, allowing new sections to emerge with a subtle addition of noise to give the piece an internal motivation. There’s a special skill here, not just in technical management but in musical judgement, in how to let more happen through leaving things alone. Then I read the release notes and, uh, looked at the cover art and well shit-a-brick turns out it’s an album of solo percussion playing, with Yamamoto using bowed cymbals and gongs throughout. So as it happens, there is a whole load of technical skill going on here with Yamamoto maintaining timbral consistency and harmonic momentum, as well as a greater musical discretion in maintaining variety while resisting a larger, distracting range of possible sounds which would otherwise have been technologically proscribed. Recorded as a single performance, some delay system is evidently at work, used to great effect near the end to build up a fascinating, troubling drone of aggregated and compounded tones. However it’s made, it’s a special piece of work.

I’ve told the Taku Sugimoto gig anecdote before, so I’ll refer you to my previous review. That time, as well as his own work, Sugimoto had recorded Bruno Duplant’s lEttEr to tAku in a Park, combining sparse guitar notes with al fresco field recording. He has now recorded his own compositional approach to this soundworld for Takuroku, analytically titled G major (2, 3, 5, 7 / III, IV, V) / VII / G major (2, 3, 5, 7 / III, IV, V). Recorded in two sessions in Tokyo this year, Sugimoto plays electric guitar and, much less actively, acoustic. The amplification is modest, enough to make audible the resonance of the muted harmonics that make up most of Sugimoto’s playing here, in irregularly scattered moments. The city is distant, a faint roar that rises and falls like the surf. There are a few birds in the area, perhaps more if they come and go. The slow pulse of background sound gives a regularity that might have made Sugimoto more (relatively) extroverted here. His guitar playing, while gentle, is more free here than usual, making more of a mark against the lulling backdrop. Where his guitar has previously been present largely through its absence, here the pauses become more of a matter of phrasing. At one time the field recording drops away: still, we can hear something strangely pastoral in the unhurried pacing of the sounds, at odds with the forbidding urban setting and technical contrivances. For now, we can enjoy this for what it is and worry about Sugimoto’s potential slide into stylistic decadence later.

Ferran Fages: Electronics

Thursday 22 July 2021

I think it’s safe to call Ferran Fages eclectic. These two reissues from 2010 are works for electronics, different from the sparse works for guitar and piano previously reviewed here. There’s a form of economy at work in these pieces too, but where the later works use sound sparingly, each of these two pieces crowd out all available space with unbroken blocks of sound. In Llavi vell Fages determinedly bows an electric guitar, exploiting the harmonic nodes on the fretboard to create simultaneous layers of sound, ringing harmonics over the rapid brushing of amplified metal-wound strings. Towards the end a contact microphone is used to produce feedback hum as additional drone. It’s a vast monad of sound, at once impenetrable and insubstantial, combining the chatter of a hundred randomly-tuned radios with tambura and sferics, a fixed piece made of constant molecular movement. This is a revised version from the original release and also a little shorter, although an extended playing time would not hurt.

On the other hand, further exposure to Llum moll probably would hurt. Each time I’ve heard it, even at low volume, I’ve had a persistent ringing in my ears hours later. It goes away eventually. This piece actually does use AM radios, combined with digital electronic interference to create narrow bands of noise at various frequency ranges. The piece begins with bracing bursts of coldly abrasive sounds but then about five minutes in it quits playing nice and locks into a persistent high-pitched squeal that threatens to brick your cochlea. The remainder of the piece zeroes in on one static frequency after another, usually at an extreme of hearing range. A cleverly constructed piece that may harbour malevolent intent to the listener, it might be a one-and-done listening experience as you rely on your memories of the piece to discuss it rather than sit all the way through it again. As a worst-case scenario, it makes its case on conceptual grounds ahead of aural.

Eventless Plot: Anisixia

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Collective composer Eventless Plot is made up of Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas and Yiannis Tsirikoglou, using objects and instruments combined with live electronics. They jointly produce performance scores for themselves and chamber ensembles, as in this new Edition Wandelweiser release of a 2019 composition titled Anisixia. The additional musicians here – Nefeli Sani, piano; Chris Cundy, bass clarinet; Eva Matsigou, flute – take the foreground, to the extent that a casual hearing suggests the piece is entirely acoustic. The core trio’s contributions on digital processing, analog synthesiser and psaltery played with e-bow act to subtly transform the acoustic instruments, extending decays and sustaining overtones. This group shows admirable commitment to effacing both their individual identities in composition and their presence in performance.

It’s an Edition Wandelweiser release so no detailed notes on the composition. “Variations of the initial score were incorporated within the choreographic performance “guest project” presented at the Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki, October 2019.” More than other works I’ve heard by them, Anisixia displays signs of subjectivity in the way it unfolds. With no obvious overriding force guiding the piece, it takes the form of a stately but gentle processional, with the piano taking the lead as the others provide a harmonic shadowing. At just under 37 minutes, it establishes the same quiet presence as some of Feldman’s longer works, making its own time. I’m not sure if the recording was made as part of the museum performances or not: my only complaint about this piece is that I wish it was captured with greater depth and clarity.

Old regulars: Lance Austin Olsen and friends

Tuesday 13 July 2021

Canadian-based artist-musician-composer Lance Austin Olsen appears to be getting even more prolific, with at least four releases this year, so far. I’ve reviewed a bunch of them in the past (see the index) and every time I started writing one up another came in. Presumably, becoming familiar with an artist’s style makes one more critical, with the risk of finding fault where things differ as much as where things remain the same. I’m going to run through all four here with some quick impressions, testing how I currently sit with each one.

Olson often collaborates, working back and forth with a fairly free approach but guided by interpretations of his visual works as a score. His collaboration with guitarist Barry Chabala, A field of wildflowers for our lost souls, is in three sections: Olson, duo, Chabala. Olson’s typically textural sound work forms a prolonged introduction to the duet, where the more distinct tone and pitch of guitar coalesces into a defined but shadowy musical passage. Chabala’s solo electric guitar coda is longer than the preceding movement, starting out as a sculpture made of single notes before washes of reversed chorus effects fade in. This strikes me now as a more complete work than their previous Patterns for a future human, even as (or possibly because) the two musicians’ work is less clearly differentiated.

The most satisfying of these four has been Olson’s piece with Terje Paulsen, Nattinsekter. A single movement nearly forty minutes long, it feels like the most technically assured work using this particular methodology to date. Olson’s collaging of amplified objects, stray instrumental sounds and crusty sounding electronics combines here with Paulsen’s mix of field recordings and organ. They’re very sympatico in approach, each complementing the other with an ecological language fusing nature and memory that presents subjectivity as a matter for contemplation. Each sound blends with another to take on a life of its own as the piece constantly evolves.

That development of language can be heard in the two solo releases here. The Telling is a remaster of a 2015 work, a very subdued montage of sustained, overlapping sounds which require closer attention and an inner stillness to appreciate. The contrast with this year’s Polishing The Mirrors Of Psychosis is striking: an equally subdued, low-level work which broods and even lapses into silences at times, but with sounds that are much more detailed and eclectic yet never become disruptive. Events merge and flow in an ever more naturalistic way. The disruption here comes from human intrusion, a strange poem recited, pondering imponderables. As an appendix comes a fragmentary travelogue, a Ferrari-like sketch of lingering impressions of place and conversation.

Another Timbre: Spring to Summer

Tuesday 29 June 2021

The Another Timbre label has adapted a solid practice of releasing albums by new or under-represented artists and then following through with further recordings to establish their presence. The latest batch includes their first release of compositions by Barbara Monk Feldman, in what appears to be only the third disc to date that is dedicated entirely to her music. Verses is a collection of works for one, two and three musicians, sharing an intimacy of scale and a delicacy of touch. In the opening Duo for Piano and Percussion, the former is shadowed almost imperceptibly by the latter, with chimes and mallet instruments acting as a treatment of the piano, altering the colouration and adding faint echoes to disturb the background. 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. In the solo Verses for vibraphone, the instrument’s signature decay is measured out or drastically cut short, allowing sounds to sustain only to beat against subsequent notes. The GBSR Duo (George Barton, percussion; Siwan Rhys, piano) are joined by violinist Mira Benjamin on the longer The Northern Shore and it’s here that they truly excel in guiding the ear from one instrument to the next as the music passes through the scenery with unhurried but determined pace.

Ballad is the fifth Another Timbre disc to feature Linda Catlin Smith. Just two pieces for cello and piano here, from 1994 and 2005. The latter work Ballad is an extraordinary, incongruous 45 minutes. I said of an earlier collection of Smith’s music that it was high praise to call it more of the same; this is not the same. Besides the length and the dream-logic in the way it changes from one section to the next, the duet repeatedly conjures up new combinations of tone that could not be expected. At times playing in unison, at others letting high piano melody stagger above lugubrious pizzicato, or fragmentary folk tune over steadily repeated chords, the two instruments are united in that neither seems to be quite certain that it is itself, if not the other. Cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and pianist Kerry Yong play with a distanced solemnity somewhere between rapt and dazed, reinforcing the otherworldly experience.

If there are shared values to be observed between the four albums here, then Oliver Leith’s Me Hollywood is perhaps the outlier. The five pieces here expand upon the impression made by last year’s recording of the long good day good day bad day bad day, pursuing some of the tendencies heard there to more extreme ends. The characteristic melancholy is there, expressed through greater or lesser degrees of reticence in pacing and a deliberate, fuzzy vagueness in the ensemble pieces’ harmony and phrasing. Members of the Explore Ensemble infuse the sound with an appropriate remoteness even as Leith tempts potential, less au courant musicians into sentimentality. His gentle musical language is tempered by deploying it as an armature for ironic wit (whether this is self-awareness of defensiveness remains to be seen). Electronics are used in some works either to recontextualise the music or divert the meaning altogether. The title work is presented as a putative soundtrack to banal domestic activities, like a more knowing version of Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast and the conflicted response that may induce in the listener. 664 love songs guaranteed to cure heartache pushes a bass flute into unsteady lyricism while a keyboard sampler expands the ensemble’s palette yet also deflates with bogus pomp. The ludicrous Ten Commandments choir and strings gradually fade, leaving more earnest emotions that are not entirely soothing.

On the other hand, it may be James Weeks who is the outlier here. His previous release on Another Timbre was windfell, a solitary long, frail work for violinist. The five compositions on this new disc, Summer, show a preference for reducing where other composers would normally expand, with a tendency to leave pieces as their simplest, sparest elements. The brief piano piece Durham rests on two slowly alternating notes, which are then harmonised before falling silent. As a kind of counterpart, Düsseldorf is a gauzy depiction of quiet urban scenery, distant sounds heard in succession, disrupted by pealing chimes. Siwan Rhys returns here, on piano and Celtic harp, along with Barton and the Explore Ensemble. At times, things can seem a little too simple: the duets Violet and Violute are played simultaneously, as though interchangeable. The larger works are stronger, with the musicians finding ways to make the music breathe and take on subtle textures even when Weeks deals out the content so stringently. In Summer the piano takes the foreground, its chords draped by alternating colours and a slightly uncanny electronic sheen. Siro’s Garden is a thirty-minute setting of Virgil, but with reciting voices in the background, part of the warp and weft of a slowly expanding texture of interweaving instruments that ripens into contemplative lyricism.

Deep Ambience: Maya Dunietz and Andie Brown

Monday 21 June 2021

If you’ve read enough of my stuff here you’ll already have figured out that I like funny pianos. Yes, they can get over-fetishised and sentimentalised over but it’s always wonderful to hear someone come up with yet another new way of making music with them. Maya Dunietz’s work with performing music, composition and art installations converges on “a family of five retired pianos,” the titular Five Chilling Mammoths, taking a quaint enough premise into alien territory. Dunietz treats the instruments as large resonating objects and subjects them to forces that expose their unique, complex sonic qualities in a form that is abstract in its purity. The instruments are activated by transducers attached to them – basically, large speaker drivers. The principle is similar to that used in David Tudor’s Rainforest IV, but Dunietz uses digital signals instead of amplified sounds. Dunietz and sound artist Daniel Meir collaborated on creating an algorithmic system based on Pythagorean ratios to generate the signals, allowing a wide variety of signals governed by a common logic.

The sounds themselves? An evocation of untamed nature, in that the natural acoustic phenomena are heard without any reassuring framing device to relate to on a human scale. As with nature at its most powerful, the listener’s experience of it is marked by the awareness of nature’s indifference as the sounds switch without warning from the soothing to the harsh or intimitdating, creating music that is both fascinating and disturbing at once. The deep, booming tones that predominate, and the continual resonances of the pianos floating throughout the recording, create a kind of immersive, undersea sound, amorphous and, again, simultaneously natural and alien.

Andie Brown’s Alucita is a similar type of deep ambience, where the sound is pervasive not through colouring the background of everything heard but by soaking through all available space merging foreground and background into one. Brown has been exploring the acoustic and harmonic properties of wine glasses for years and, rather like Dunietz, has embraced the ability of larger objects to bring out more complex sonic phenomena. Seriously, some of these glasses are huge; they take a lot of care and nerve to work with them. In Alucita, Brown takes a particularly bold approach, coupling a single glass, four glasses, eight glasses with electronics to create three seamless panels of sourceless harmonics that stain the air with a dark drone that projects higher frequencies in the way that a rainbow’s spectrum is reflected on an oil slick. The three works heard here were created as installations, but each works well as a minimal, single-minded composition. Brown has tailored each piece so the length is inversely proportional to the amount of readily perceptible activity: the severity of form maximising the amount of subtle detail to be discovered in closer listening.

Reduced circumstances: Bondi & d’incise

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Cyril Bondi and d’incise’s collaborative work with various enembles, including the large Insub Meta Orchestra, has been documented here in recent years. How has lockdown treated them? Well, it’s been ups and downs, it seems, as you might expect. Diminished opportunities to work as a group has forced them into making music on a smaller scale. La lavintse (de Asís​-​Schiller​-​Tantanozi​-​Tataroglou​-​Winter) continues in what appears to be a similar vein from last year’s Levitas: an ensemble playing strangely curtailed compositions that build their character in the small differences of limited means. It’s all acoustic this time, with Clara de Asís returning on guitar, joined by Christoph Schiller on spinet; Marina Tantanozi on flutes with Mara Winter on medieval flutes, and Tassos Tataroglou on trumpet. The four tracks are distinguished by a delicate interplay of small sounds, less mysterious than Levitas but with an elegant transparency. Guitar and spinet intertwine for the first piece, later acting as a very subtle percussion while the distinction between the winds becomes more and more blurred. Tataroglou’s trumpet becomes more noticeably present as the ears adjust. By the last track, a discernible shape to the composition has vanished completely, with the musicians feeling their way through the sounds, one at a time.

While Bondi and d’incise describe La lavintse as “a brief moment of sunshine” in 2020, their September recordings with the Insub Meta Orchestra are remembered as “not fully satisfying”. “Being an orchestra means much more than music to us,” and the necessities of the pandemic broke the 30-odd piece ensemble into smaller chunks to be assembled later in the studio to make the three pieces heard in Ten / Sync. As before, the processes at work are often discernible while being no less intriguing for revealing so much of their inner working to the listener. The logic of Tutti-Soli alternates a large goup chord with a single note sustained by one member once the others have stopped. Presumably, each musician chooses their note, creating a dense haze contrasted with an arbitrary note by a random instrument, sounding like a new wrinkle on the methods used in some of Cage’s late compositions. Sparge would appear to be a slow, circulating chord sequence in which parts of the sequence are skipped in turn, creating a refrain that almost repeats itself without ever being quite the same, a lulling sense of security which is never anchored in true certainty. The longer À la Denzler is less yielding to interpretation, with a sinister ticking underpinning the whole work, softened but never appeased by sustained notes from individual members of the orchestra, in single file or in groups. Lockdown may have pressed them into greater ingenuity here, but hopefully they can reform in full force soon.

Where are we going? And what are we doing?

Thursday 10 June 2021

I heard Erkki Veltheim give a talk a couple of years ago which made me reconsider how I heard his music. I knew of his clear-eyed cynicism about the music business and admired how he took a reductive, positivist approach to playing and composing that produced music both questioning and liberating. It took a while to get my head around his talk about shamanism and the use of ritual and esoteric applications of form. In fact, I still don’t fully get on board with it, but hearing how his foregrounding of the intangibles informs and amplifies his use of impersonal structures added a new, complicating dimension to listening to his work.

Ganzfeld Experiment came out soon after: a solo work for electric violin with electronic processing and a video component. The title sums up the parapsychological zone the piece inhabits, where science blurs with mysticism. White noise pulses and phases throughout, at a rate matching the light and dark in the video – I don’t know if the pulsing aims to match or simply reference the alpha/theta wave frequencies used in old biofeedback meditation systems. It definitely recalls Brion Gysin’s Dream Machines and, more particularly, Tony Conrad’s movie The Flicker. Conrad’s violin playing is also recalled, but Veltheim’s approach is more insidious. Starting as faint electronic artefacts trailing from the white noise, it gradually emerges from the pulse with the bleached-out tone of amplified strings, stuttering without apparent concern for aesthetics. At its peak, before receding again, Veltheim’s playing is too florid to be considered minimal, too stern to be psychedelia. It’s a rigour of process in which expressiveness is earned and, presumably, unbidden by the player’s desires. The notes recommend playing with the video in the dark; I’d imagine it’s more effective the louder it’s played, too. How much of it is an experiment on the performer and how much on the listener is a question left to play on your mind.

Ganzfeld Experiment came out before the year of lockdowns, so its self-isolating qualities have become prophetic. It came to mind when listening to Julia Eckhardt’s Time Suspension (Back and Forth) on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku download label. An extended work for solo viola player created during a month of lockdown last year, its frail sounds are built on a foundation of self-reliance, time, memory and place. Improvising each day for a month, trying to repeat from memory what was played the day before with another minute added on the end, the half-hour recording moves backwards and forwards through time, each section opening up to both the recollection of past experience and expectation of the future. There’s a narrative thread, for us to find for ourselves. The room is present, anchoring time to one place as a stationary dérive in which one achieves greater awareness through mentally recapturing a place already visited. As it happens, there is also a video, photos of the sky overhead taken each day. The music’s ending is strangely hopeful, even transcendent.

Sound as Environment: Ernie Althoff, Clinton Green

Sunday 6 June 2021

Ernie Althoff has been a mainstay of the Australian experimental music scene for decades: a situation that often ends up with one’s presence being taken for granted. It’s been good to hear what he’s gotten up to lately, particularly as the new work is so strong. Althoff builds kinetic music machines; partly or entirely self-playing instruments and other homemade devices from simple found materials. This post(?) Covid release consists of “two overly lengthy tracks” using a couple of these automated devices and Althoff playing and egg-slicer and elastic bands attached a cardboard box. HRWT extends over 50 minutes, Half As is, well, half as long. Despite the daunting dimensions, these two works are the most successful recordings of Althoff’s music I’ve heard. In shorter pieces, they can often sound like little more than demonstrations of a novel instrument, or documentation of a sound scultpure – a common drawback to this type of music-making. In long form, the small variations in sound from the machine instruments take on a life of their own, with incidents becoming part of a more organic process. This is enhanced by Althoff using digital manipulation of tempo and pitch, with manual instruments adding enhancements and subtle variety. The sleeve notes cannily draw a connection to his earlier work in field recordings: the complex but undemonstrative sounds in Althoff’s instruments emulate the interplay of small sounds in nature. As with field recordings, it’s easy to immerse yourself in this composition, responding to it as it evolves in its own way. Easier, in fact, as the surface indifference of sound is focused and guided by the musician’s responses to the material. Half As takes a different approach to form, with Althoff playing a slow ostinato on elastic bands throughout the piece, its simplistic melody and persistence paradoxically emphasising the work’s duration while exerting a mesemerising effect.

Kinetic instruments are also at work in Clinton Green’s Relativity​/​Only. A few months ago I reviewed his collaboration with Barnaby Oliver, The Interstices Of These Epidemics. The four pieces here focus solely on machine-driven percussion and again draw comparisons with field recordings with their haphzardly interacting objects. In this case, I found them less compelling than Interstices or Althoff’s long works and my old complaint about the limitations of recorded kinetic instruments came back to haunt me. The four pieces are arranged so that each is less densely textured than the last, which left me speculating on how the music could have been arranged more effectively to bring out the practice of hearing more in less. This is probably my problem, overthinking and backseat driving rather than hearing what is there to be heard.

A live concert

Monday 31 May 2021

The crowd was small and well-spaced, by necessity. After fifteen months without socialising, it looked like I wasn’t the only one who was both a bit excited and a bit anxious at once, which made for a subdued audience: in good spirits but gentle, like a recuperating patient. I was back at Cafe Oto hearing Apartment House play live again, like old times.

Having just said that the ensemble had amassed a formidable repertoire of new and rediscovered music, the evening’s programme emphasised the point with its unusual shape and even bolder than usual choice of pieces. First half was a premiere by a guy I’ve never heard of. Dead Creek Organum by Henry Birdsey (the “Vermontian rust-drone man” it says here) is half an hour of densely-packed microtonal chords, roughly hewn into long, close-fitting spans. Tonight’s full ensemble played, string quartet (Gordon MacKay and Mira Benjamin, violins; Bridget Carey, viola; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello) modulated by pedal tones from an electric organ (Kerry Yong on various keyboards). For the audience, it was acclimatisation through immersion, retuning to heightened musical sensibilities.

The second half commenced with Yong playing Adelaide composer/pianist Stephen Whittington’s compressed but capricious take on Strawberry Fields as an incongruous introduction to several graphic scores, focusing on the overlooked and unexpected. Apartment House have performed selections from Louise Bourgeois’ Insomnia Drawings on other occasions, having noticed that these artworks drawn on music paper are “eminently performable”. With strings and string piano combining thin, raspy sounds, they take on an appropriately disturbing but hazy sonic form. Two Impulses by the Slovak Milan Adamčiak was more densely woven, with a score that intersected Adamčiak’s interests in art, music and visual poetry.

Personally, the most fascinating piece was Roland Kayn’s Inerziali. Kayn’s best known for his electronic, cybernetic works (or should be known – a Bandcamp page is dedicated to mastering and releasing a large backlog of mostly unheard pieces) but this early piece revealed his compositional roots in serialism, aleatory methods and stochastic composition. Inerziali is an open score of unspecified but finely organised events and combinations. Apartment House produced a taut, rapid interplay of prepared instrument sounds, using exacting means to produce complex sounds far beyond the usual consideration of pitch relationships. It’s an intriguing insight when hearing his later works, which build grand, forceful impressions from the curation of intricate details.

To finish, Milan Knižak’s Broken Music presented itself as a kind of musical antimatter. Like his negotiably playable collaged records, the score is fragments of defaced and collaged scores, which Apartment House played amongst recordings of the records. The matter here is as much in the gaps and the breaks, audible faultlines where the content has been lost, literally skipping from one anonymised fragment to the next. Crucially, unlike most collage, anything coherently recognisable is shredded, rendering typical considerations of content and taxonomy useless. You’re left with undifferentiated musical protoplasm, new to our ears because it’s unrecognisable. The ensemble boldly dedicated itself to alternating scratches and atomised half-gestures to produce something which forces effort from the audience to even hear it, in a way that registers. It’s a good way to start over.

Matthew Shlomowitz’s Explorations in polytonality and other musical wonders, Volume 1

Thursday 27 May 2021

I don’t enjoy writing bad reviews. If I can’t find anything interesting in a work then I prefer to leave it alone instead of use it as a pretext to tell more bad jokes. There has to be something in it to engage attention. When I last heard a significant chunk of Matthew Shlomowitz’s music, I was disappointed that the type of humour I’d heard before in a couple of his brief pieces was almost entirely absent, with its gentle provocation of what may be considered music supplanted by misplaced certainties that shut out further possibilities.

Mark Knoop’s recording of Shlomowitz’s Explorations in polytonality and other musical wonders, Volume 1, a set of seven piano pieces composed last year, has come as an immense relief. The opening piece “Parlour Nancarrow” takes it’s model’s piquant harmonies and staggered polyrhythms and turns them into an evocative prelude, redolent of Nancarrow’s impossible player piano studies but with the pastiche domesticated into impressionism. The precise, tricky rhythms at first sound like the piano is computer-controlled, or mechanised, but I’ve personally witnessed Knoop playing Peter Ablinger so I know he is capable of just this sort of feat. Shlomowitz’s casual wit persists throughout the set, with occasional callbacks of those Nancarrow chord progressions flitting by amidst convolutions of ear-stretching bitonality, like Nicolas Slonimsky’s keyboard exercises with more pointed artistic development.

Each successive piece finds new ways to delight and/or repulse the ear, bringing back those open-ended questions that had gone missing. It’s never played for laughs, which makes it all the funnier when you catch small phrases occasionally looping a little beyond their cue, or when a particularly frilly dance-step stumbles over irregular block chords. They reference kitsch without stooping to become kitsch itself. The po-faced “Classic chord progression with Neapolitan, doubled at the minor 2nd” could be heard as Ives or as a parody of Ives (itself an Ivesian concept). As the cycle progresses, the musical pretentions grow in ambition as the rhythms get more slippery and chromatic romanticism elides into deadpan deflation. In the concluding “Variations in octaves” Knoop gives a masterclass in sounding out of sync with himself, but he plays the entire score with the relish of an actor making the most out of some particularly juicy dialogue, finding the right level of archness or elegance to add a subtext to each passage.

If I had to complain then I’d prefer a cleaner recording, but this is more than enough for now. Am I happy with this music’s challenges just because they are cast in the more conservative form of a piano recital? I don’t think so; these pieces show the listener what may be heard instead of telling them what to hear. I hope there’s a Volume 2.