Maryanne Amacher’s GLIA at Kammer Klang

Thursday 6 June 2019

The last ever Kammer Klang was a celebration in their typical brilliant and daring style. Two nights of talks and films about Maryanne Amacher at the ICA, culimating with a live performance of GLIA for seven musicians and tape.

Although Amacher died only ten years ago, this gig was an act of rediscovery – she only rarely composed for live musicians and these few works are seldom performed. Before the concert, a talk by Bill Dietz and Amy Cimini gave the long backstory to GLIA in which the challenges in performing Amacher’s music became all too evident. Beside the trademark loud, harsh electronic sounds of her fixed media and installation works, her notation for the musicians was often vague, allusive rather than instructive, in need of rehearsal with the composer (at one session, she shouted “Coltrane!” at the musicians, by way of explanation). Fortunately, several of the musicians on the night had played the premiere of the piece back in 2005 and Dietz, who controlled the sound diffusion, had collaborated with Amacher.

GLIA is a massive (70? 75 minutes?) block of sound that nevertheless falls into several distinct segments. The musicians sat at one end of the room, installed on a wedge of low platforms that rose in the centre to make a kind of pyramid. (Why? It was Amacher’s idea.) The audience were invited to mill around four loudspeakers marking out a large square in the centre of the room. Earplugs were handed out. After a surprisingly harmonious opening of synth tones and wavelike surges in the instruments, the visceral punch came.

The electronic sounds weren’t loud, as such, but seemed to replicate the effects of hearing overly loud sounds: high pitched and closely spaced, designed to set off the middle ear with the crunching, pulsating distortion that typically signals your hearing is in imminent danger. It creates an unnervingly physical dimension to the act of listening, an awareness that the music will not let you ignore. The small ensemble of strings, flutes and reeds acted as a supplement to the electronic sound, sometimes adding background coloration and shade, other times becoming a kind of harmonic filter. At a couple of points in the piece, two musicians left their platform and circulated with the punters, playing accordion and piccolo, to more directly enhance the physical effects being experienced.

Despite being at the end of years of research, development and interim compositions, GLIA was clearly not a culmination of Amacher’s work but just the latest stage of a work in progress. It’s hard to imagine that the piece would not have undergone further revisions and refinements had she continued with it. The musicians, from Ensemble Contrechamps and Zwischentöne, played heroically but their instruments could have really used some amplification, if only out of consideration for their physical wellbeing. At times they needed to make every effort just to affect the overall sound, even if being heard wasn’t the prime consideration. Spatial effects are a large part of the piece, but encouraging the audience to move around detracted a bit from the sound’s impact, and so many bodies in the room would have had a deadening effect on some of the more subtle acoustic effects (another reason why amplification may have helped).

The ending, however, was just about perfect, in its simplicity and effect. A long, long, long fadeout from near-deafening to silence, the only change being in volume as the ear picked up a gradual spectrum of timbres and overtones and then lost them again, fainter until each one seemed like it would be the last.

Donnerstag aus Licht on Southbank

Tuesday 28 May 2019

A head full of pseudoephedrine and gin was never going to be an obstacle to enjoying a second performance of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht. If needed, there were plenty of empty seats around Royal Festival Hall to loll around in but once again I found myself sitting attentively through the whole thing, even when it should have been soporific, by all rights.

This production, by French company Le Balcon, is the first of what is intended to be a production of the complete Licht cycle in Paris. The performances were just fine, while the staging was minimal, if not rudimentary. It was at least a massive improvement over the staging in Basel a few years back, which was less concerned with illuminating the drama than sheepishly rationalising it away. It’s no bad thing to have a stripped production of a Stockhausen opera – it suits the mystery-play nature of his theatre – but a bit of audacious spectacle would make for a better match with the music.

Experienced on stage without the Basel dramaturgy running interference, so much more of the drama inherent in the music was revealed; not just that overall theme of transcendence, which Basel tried valiantly tried to extinguish, but in recurring motifs that changed from one appearance to the next, allowing the audience to at least intuit some development in Stockhausen’s often tortuous parables. Using a bare orchestra stage, lighting and a few props, the music was trusted to carry the burden of the drama. It’s remarkable how different a place the stage seemed in Act Three compared to that in Act One.

Things I’d forgotten: Stockhausen’s use of musical space. Act One seems the most conventional, yet for most of its hour duration features just three voices in counterpoint against a soft, almost droning tape. Solo interjections from trumpet, basset horn and trombone are rare and brief. Like an x-ray of a traditional opera. Later, the held chords, sustained for ages with no dramatic foreground, aural or visual. Perhaps the real subject of the opera is simply the triumph of holding one’s nerve. I’d still like to see a production which can afford to be more ambitious without getting in the way.

Similarities and differences: Cyril Bondi & d’incise, Magnus Granberg

Monday 20 May 2019

Listening to the latest release by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, it’s easy to hear similarities with their previous releases with the Insub Meta Orchestra. The sound pulses and flows without any overt movement or direction, each moment self-contained. Here are three shorter works, Mem, Aleph, Lassis, each around ten minutes. The twist is that each is played twice, first by quartet The Pitch (clarinet, vibraphone, pump organ and double bass), then by Bondi and d’incise on various small organs with Mike Majkowski on double bass. The differences are subtle, with the latter trio sounding softer, more homogeneous without the percussion to add articulation. An echo, diminuendo. The shorter durations and consequent reduction in scale gives each piece a more definite, almost subjective shape. It’s pleasant listening, but that pleasure is sequestered within a comfort zone. It sounds more modest, but that may be because I’m coming to if after hearing their other recent album of deconstructed dub under the guise of Diatribes.

When I wrote about Magnus Granberg’s last release, Nattens skogar, I compared his music to late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. This new CD, recorded with his regular group Skogen, again contains a single ensemble work. Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn is nearly an hour long and features nine musicians but retains the starker sound-world of the quartet in Nattens skogar. It begins with a scraping sound punctuated by two chords on prepared piano. The consistently low volume levels throughout belie the sharp relief of the sounds being played. This low but distinct relief continues throughout; a slow, irregular rhythm of percussive sounds, some electronically amplified, against a faint background of string drones, electronic buzzing, field recordings, or silence. At one point, a high keening can be heard from either a violin, a recorded bird, a bowed vibraphone or feedback, or possibly a combination of the above. Where earlier works by Granberg presented a continuity of sound, here the interplay of sound and silence builds a more complex image, making each new sound’s introduction or withdrawal all the more striking, whether it’s bursts of line noise or recordings of wildlife. I’d described Nattens skogar as “the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed” and Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn continues that development, where the overall image grows more mysterious even as each element comes into clearer focus.

Oren Ambarchi at 50

Thursday 16 May 2019

A three-day weekend at Cafe Oto: less a showcase of Ambarchi’s talents, more a swag of really cool birthday presents. Here’s a quick trip round the bits that stuck in my head.

It’s been long time since I’ve seen a gig made up of sets by a bunch of different artists where everything was equally satisfying, then there were two on successive nights. Everything was distinct, but the two evenings had a cohesiveness that made things seem to flow naturally from one set to the next. Then there was the selection of musicians – innovative thinkers, all capable of playing with a mixture of sound technique and inspiration.

Two nights only, because I’m a dickhead who didn’t get to the first night with David Rosenboom. Luckily, I have friends who were there and have been rubbing in what a great show I missed.

The solo electronic sets (Joe Talia playing his work Tint, Eiko Ishibashi, Kassel Jaeger, Massimo Toniutti) could be appreciated individually. The technology is now sufficiently widespread and trouble-free that these sorts of shows can often get samey and tedious – kind of drone, kind of field recording, montage, crossfade, introduce a narrative element, mix to taste and repeat – but each artist had a contrasting approach in the way they juxtaposed sounds and managed their sonic palette, producing a distinctive experience.

It’s also been a long time since I had to queue to get in. I booked ahead for the Monday night gig, which was just as well because that show sold out.

James Rushford on portative organ with Will Guthrie on percussion: it’s hard to believe that they haven’t been working as a duo for years. Their set was a superb demonstration of their sureness of touch, with the odd combination of instruments sounding as one immensely variable voice. Each gesture was decisive even at its most fleeting, often suspended in the grey area between extended techniques and flat-out playing. There was an audible connection between this set and the electronic pieces.

Acoustic gigs always have an edge over electronic. It can’t be helped; there’s the theatrical aspect, the appreciation of physical skill and the sense that, accustomed to thinking of electronic sounds as a medium instead of an instrument, you’re hearing something more that could be heard in any recording. Arnold Dreyblatt’s duo with Konrad Sprenger combined the two just delightfully, but at the core of it all was the thrill of Dreyblatt’s double-bass harmonics live in person.

It must be twenty goddamn years since I’ve heard a set like the Alvin Curran and Oren Ambarchi duet. Oh sure, I’ve heard lots of attempts to do what they did on Sunday night – a manic electroacoustic free-for-all wowing the punters with a relentless barrage of wacky sounds and killer musical chops – but these two somehow managed to defy history and pull it off. In theory, such a gig should be fun, but in practice this has seldom been the case. Once upon a time, this sort of gig would almost inevitably devolve into insufferable wankery, stale jokes and undifferentiated sludge, but more recently they have settled into being mannered and sedate. Watching Curran, furiously working his sampler and keyboard, facing off against Ambarchi hunkered down with his guitar behind a bank of electronics was like witnessing the rediscovery of a lost technology as they showed it is in fact possible to be fast, loud, stoopid and about as thematically stable as a channel-surfing cokehead without ever getting boring. Part of the giddiness it induced was because I don’t know how they did it.

The whole thing ended with a 20-muso blowout appropriately named HUBRIS. Built on a steady pulse and monomaniacal riff carried by half-a-dozen guitars, it acquired a two-note bass line and just kept getting louder. It had the same driven rock impulse of Ambarchi’s Sagittarian Domain, but stripped of content in exchange for overwhelmingly excessive force. It’s a ballsy move to raise your audience (and bandmates) up into birthday bonhomie by battering them into submission, but he somehow got away with it. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been to a gig where my ears started to hurt, so thanks for the dash of nostalgia.

Klaus Lang & Golden Fur: Beissel

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Usually, when someone says that a piece grows on you, they mean that they didn’t like it at first but then came to find at least certain aspects to admire. I’ve started to write this review without any clear idea of what I’m going to say about Beissel, because it is a work so protean in nature that it is much harder to define than its form at first suggests. The piece keeps growing with each hearing, accruing new qualities that both enhance and confound what had been heard before. Another half-dozen hearings and my review would be different again to what I had originally planned to write after listening the first time around.

To start with some facts: Beissel is a collaboration between composer/performers Klaus Lang and the trio Golden Fur (Samuel Dunscombe, clarinets; Judith Hamann, cello; James Rushford, viola and harmonium). The work is a group composition, performed in the abbey at St Lambrecht near Styria in Austria, in 2016. Lang is best known for his compositions made from faint traces of sound, at times hardly there at all (listeners may or may not notice that his early string quartet The Sea of Despair ends with 20 minutes of silence.) As an ensemble, I’ve only previously heard Golden Fur as interpreters of other composers’ works.

To continue my simplistic caricature of Lang’s music, Golden Fur have drawn him out of his shell for this session. The most significant moment in Beissel comes early on, when the harmonium rises up out of the church organ’s tones in a different intonation, at once wonky and radiant like a force of nature. It’s quite glorious and is emblematic of the music to follow. For forty-five minutes the music flows from rest to restiveness, at once disturbing and oddly reassuring. Each performer blends in yet can also act as a goad from time to time, pushing the sound out of any complacent consensus.

The other instruments combine in ways which can make them difficult to distinguish, giving them the aural trick of taking on qualities from whatever I’ve just listened to before. On certain hearings, the music has resembled electric guitar drones, string ensembles, large solo organ, pure electronics, a phantom flute. Like I said, the music is protean. The title refers to Johann Conrad Beissel, the 18th century religious leader who travelled to America to found a utopian religious community. He devised a compositional method of algorithmic permutations, designed to reinterpret the text of the bible as music. Beissel is apparently one of these hymns, slowed down to glacial stillness.

It would be nice to praise the playing as focused, but there’s a tremendous sense of freedom in what’s happening, of sounds discovered in a shared moment. The source material allows a rich field of possible combinations, where strange tunes and harmonies are liable to burst out at any moment. Beissel is a fine example of the artist as a critic, opening up new avenues of exploration in existing work. The playing of the four musicians captures an act of rediscovery, unveiling an alternative musical world.

Annea Lockwood at Kammer Klang

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Annea Lockwood is one of those composers who I like even when I don’t like their stuff: there’s always a point of view, an insight into how the world is experienced – a purpose, even if that purpose is sonic play. It has the deeper substance that distinguishes art from craft. Her work, like others consigned to the Too-Hard-Basket of the Sixties, is not nearly as well known as it should be, particularly in the UK. It took me by surprise again when, thanking the audience at Cafe Oto on Sunday night, she mentioned that she had once lived for some time in London.

There have been some great efforts to compensate lately, from last December’s LCMF to last weekend’s Kammer Klang mini-festival. Jennifer Lucy Allan was guest curator for this event, putting together a smart and neatly-contained programme over two nights. During the days, her four-channel installation of A Sound Map of the Hudson River played in the Project Space, with a Q&A session on Sunday afternoon.

Each concert followed the usual Kammer Klang format of opening with short, distinct works followed by a main course after interval. Those twin themes of sonic exploration and purposeful play in Lockwood’s work were announced in pieces realised by students from CRiSAP. EVOL’s 2011 piece Three hundred grams of latex and steel in one day shows what you can do with nuts (metal) trapped inside inflated party balloons. Sunday night began with a more technically conventional fanfare, Yoshi Wada’s putative composition Lament for the Rise and Fall of Handy-Horn, scored for an ensemble of air horns. (This may have been a revival of a one-off piece from the 1990s, or the world premiere of a piece Wada doesn’t know exists.)

Lockwood was represented by recent works: Buoyant and Dusk are two evocative electronic works that fill a mental space usually occupied by memory. Buoyant, a montage of field recordings that are vivid in suggesting a discrete place without ever defining it, was followed almost imperceptibly by the collage of modified scientific recordings and percussion in Dusk. Without knowing the source, the listener would most likely mistake it for another remembered landscape. “Exploration” is a term that’s been worn out lately when describing artistic projects, but the process of searching out transcendent qualities in sound became a theme that ran through the weekend.

Sunday presented new pieces, receiving their European premieres. Becoming Air is a solo piece made in collaboration with trumpeter Nate Wooley. At times, the piece threatened to become a simple catalogue of techniques and effects, a deliberately episodic procession of sustained timbres, but as the work unfolded it gained a kind of shape through a careful balance of contrasting timbres and dynamics, with focused playing that was striking without ever becoming attention-seeking. Each section was preceded by Wooley striking a tam-tam and towards the end, after a prolonged passage of overblowing drones that created a racket to rival a noise guitarist, the relatively gentle percussion noise altered the entire piece’s perspective. Water and Memory, an open work for voices with found objects and the dreaded audience participation got my hippie-bullshit meter twitching anxiously but admirably retained its dignity, and the faint microtonal halo of voices at the end sounded so lovely.

The big revelation, for me at least, were two conventional works for piano, played by Xenia Pestova Bennett. I hadn’t heard this aspect of Lockwood’s music before. By ‘conventional’, I mean treating the piano as an instrument, not as a fetishised object. Red Mesa (1993) and RSCS (2001) combine generous amounts of extended techniques inside the piano with keyboard sounds; the latter piece even draws its material from a tone row, from Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Quartet. Pitch and noise were blended gracefully, with a clarity of textures and figures that never lapsed into pure sonority.

Besides Lockwood, the programme also featured recorder player Laura Cannell giving her interpretation of Peter Hannan’s RSRCH 4/83, transposed to suit her vocal range as the piece requires voice and instrument to merge. Any chance to hear more music by Chiyoko Szlavnics is also welcomed, so Evie Hilyer and Amalia Young playing two brief violin duets was a bonus.

I’ve enthused about Kammer Klang repeatedly on this blog, describing it as “about the most innovative and interesting new music programme going around right now.” Sadly, after eleven years, the series is coming to an end, with one last show to be held at the ICA on 31 May, dedicated to Maryanne Amacher. I’m glad they kept it up for so long and I saw as much of it as I could.

Julius Eastman: Femenine

Tuesday 2 April 2019

From time to time, the legend of Julius Eastman – tragic decline, obscurity, posthumous elevation to musical martyrdom – threatens to overshadow his achievements. He hasn’t quite attained the bedroom poster status of Che or Jim Morrison, emptied of meaning to become a vessel for the idolator’s own fantasies, but it’s important to get back to the music and refocus. Learning to hear it over again reminds you why his story has gained such renewed attention, and that his significance as a musician is still in flux.

Appreciating Julius Eastman’s music has been an act of recovery. Most Eastman fans probably first heard of him through the 3-CD set Unjust Malaise from 2005, the result of Mary Jane Leach’s quest to track down surviving remnants of his work. Another major step in this process was in 2016 when Frozen Reeds issued a tape of the large-scale ensemble work Femenine that had lain dormant for 40 years. For most of us, as listeners, the foundations of our knowledge of Eastman’s work has been through salvaged recordings that are part music and part historical artifacts.

What we heard was a lost strand of minimal music that was never fully pursued; a unique, vital voice in a style of composition that had seemed exhausted. Since then, new performances and recordings have started to appear, both premiering previously unknown works and reviving the inadvertent ‘classics’. At their best, these new interpretations reveal that those old tapes are merely scratching the surface of what can be found in even his most familiar pieces. The London Contemporary Music Festival in 2016 was dedicated to Eastman. At those concerts I heard that “When performed live by musicians who are not just skilled but are more sympathetic and knowledgeable than could be hoped for from a previous generation, the pieces took on a new life, with greater emotional depth and pure sensory delight than can be found in the old tapes.”

In that first LCMF concert, Apartment House gave the UK premiere of Femenine. That performance was recorded and is now commercially available on a new CD from Another Timbre. Their version benefits from greater accuracy and confidence compared to the 1974 tape of the SEM Ensemble, which allows the piece’s increasingly outrageous digressions to hit the listener with an tremendous force.

I’ve discussed the gig before and gone into more detail about Femenine in a review in Tempo. At first, the piece bears a superficial resemblance to Terry Riley’s In C, but Femenine evolves in a less predictable and more dramatic way. The musicians in Apartment House move from one figure to the next, sometimes together as a pack, at other times striking out individually or unexpectedly falling back. The relatively modest-sized ensemble take Femenine on a journey, making it expand, then soar, then self-sabotage with mock heroics, turn in upon itself and then recover and plough on ahead, stronger than before.

Eastman was an artist who refused to let himself be confined by the listener’s expectations, or by the logic implied the foundations for each of his pieces. His music repeatedly shows a desire to rebel against its own structures and is at its most powerful when the contrasting impulses to either transcend those constraints or destroy them combine to create the sense of a dramatic narrative, the meaning of which can never be fully resolved. Apartment House exploit these qualities to great effect, sounding both passionate and emotionally cool, depending on where you focus your attention. Recordings of mixed ensemble pieces that survive from Eastman’s lifetime seem relatively dry by comparison. Femenine is an essential work and, as significant as the 1974 version is, this new release has become the reference recording.

Debasing the Coinage of Popular Usage: Alan Courtis, Diatribes

Monday 1 April 2019

After hearing so many stripped-back works for solo guitar, it makes a fun change to get sent a guitar album that is cranked and processed halfway to heaven. Alan Courtis’ (bloke from Reynols) solo album Buchla Gtr mashes together one of those 80s-retro Steinberger headless electric guitars with a 60s-retro Buchla modular synthesiser into a seamless whole. The recordings were made over a week at EMS in Stockholm back in 2014 and then reworked over the next few years. As a double LP, each side presents a contrasting tableau of drones and buzzes that morph from ecstatic to sinister and from chilly to decadent. It’s a salutary lesson that the grey area between amplified guitar sounds and electronic oscillation is to be embraced rather than feared. If you were a spotty teenager who got off on Metal Machine Music, (No Pussyfooting) and Sonic Youth’s EPs then this album is a useful affirmation that your youthful tastes didn’t always suck.

Still speaking of guitars: I was at a Julia Reidy solo gig a while back and started thinking about how popular music gets used as material these days. Once, tropes from rock or jazz would be incorporated into other musical styles to act as a signifier of that genre; now, the substance is reworked into new forms. Reidy strummed a 12-string acoustic with live processing and drones provided by the laptop at her side. Chords were prolonged, removed from conventional structural function, sense or context. The point of focus became the tension between the sound in the moment enjoyed for its own sake and the potential for where it might turn next.

I don’t want to use the term ‘deconstructed’ to describe this style as it’s too often used as the smokescreen for ill-conceived pretentious food and even more pretentious music. I’ve just checked again and thankfully the blurb for Diatribes’ new release Echoes & Sirens doesn’t use it either. Here, the subject is dub, filleted and collaged into something that is decidedly not dub, however much one may be struck by a passing resemblance from time to time. No guitars here, except for the bass. A real horn section, with organ, drums and electronics that largely behave in the expected manner. The four tracks, each ten minutes long, imply that some other game is being played here, as does the fact that Diatribes is the duo of Cyril Bondi and d’incise, whom I have reviewed in various guises before.

There is a concept at work, according to the sleeve notes. Each track takes a classic of early 80s dub as a starting point and reworks elements of each by adopting techniques used on sound systems by MCs at the time. I have no authority to judge how successfully the album may be “considered as four imaginary moments of a sound system night” but that’s not the point as far as I’m concerned. While the material and technical concepts may be borrowed from popular music, the method by which they are adapted and applied to a new situations sounds entirely original and the whole thing sounds fresher when heard free of expectations to be true to an imagined model. Or, perhaps this is less an act of collage or d-d-deconstruction and more a cubist representation, incorporating time and subjective experience to move beyond simple mimicry. Each track focuses on a different approach, building up a chorus of echoing brass in ‘Dub fire will be burning’, stringing everything along a line of hi-hats on ‘Tell me, what do you see’, or chopped fragments in stuttering loops on ‘Continually’. A lot of these manipulations sound like they were captured in performance with a lesser degree of electronic manipulation later on, which is pleasing.

Solos: Félicie Bazelaire, Ferran Fages

Tuesday 26 March 2019

I’ve been listening to some new releases by d’incises, working in collaboration with various composers and musicians. (This is the guy who’s part of the Insub Meta Orchestra.) L’épaisseur innombrable is described as a “double bass solo by Félicie Bazelaire, based on a composition by d’incise”, which suggests a more esoteric process of transformation than a simple transcription or arrangement. (The packaging tells us nothing more than the above quote.) A thirty-six minute double-bass solo, L’épaisseur innombrable maintains a consistent level of activity throughout, inviting comparisons to Stefano Scodanibbio’s solo pieces or Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a. Unlike these two examples, Bazelaire does not give us constant, motoric activity. Much of the piece maintains a steady alternation of long and short, like a heartbeat. On one level, it’s soothing; paying closer attention unmasks darker undercurrents, the alternating harmonies by turns wistful and portentous. Later, the pace broadens out further into sustained tones, a glacial rallentando. Bazelaire’s realisation of this piece creates the skeletal outline from some long-lost slow movement from the late romantic era.

I got some exciting new releases from Another Timbre but I first have to give some time to Ferran Fages’ CD from the end of last year, Un lloc entre dos records. Fages plays his own composition for solo acoustic guitar and sine tones. It took me a while to come around to this one. I’ve heard a few great recordings in recent years by Cristián Alvear and Clara de Asís, playing severe, restrictive compositions for the guitar. Perhaps keeping those in mind a little too much made this piece seem to not quite gel for a while. Unlike, say, a piece by Alvin Lucier, guitar and sine tones are kept separate – no psychoacoustic trickery to enjoy here. After an opening section of widely spaced dissonances (semitones displaced across octaves à la late Feldman) a long passage of sustained sine tones reduces the harmonic and timbral palette to almost nothing. The guitar resumes, with strummed, dense, unresolved chords. The mind struggles to reconcile the parts into a whole. This piece is part of a trilogy exploring different guitar tunings, and Fages refers to Feldman in his other pieces in the series. Feldman worked in a subjective way that resisted an overall logic, but his audience has now become accustomed to his way of listening. Un lloc entre dos records suggests a new type of listening at play and, despite the Feldman references, Fages’ piece suddenly became more sympathetic when recognising the connections to the type of wandering aesthetic heard in some of Jürg Frey’s solo pieces such as guitarist, alone. Fages approach comes from the inside, as a guitarist, with a more forthright harmonic language made from the retuning of open strings.

Alvin Lucier at the Round Chapel

Saturday 23 March 2019

Almost ten years ago, I saw Alvin Lucier in one of the most memorable gigs I’ve been to, performing Bird and Person Dyning at Wilton’s Hall. It’s a magnificent piece in the way it leads the listener to consider the act of listening as an aesthetic act, the underlying phenomena and the consequences of this newfound awareness, all in one simple, seemingly effortless gesture. It’s this sort of thing that makes me consider Lucier one of the most important living composers.

He was supposed to be back in London at the Round Chapel in Clapton last week, but had to cancel at late notice due to a health problem that prevented travel. The concert otherwise proceded as planned: a three-hour tour de force that affirmed Lucier’s presence as a composer of superb music.

A couple of his classic/notorious works were presented in the second half, but the focus was on his newest music and was so much the better for it. The evening began with a recent work that signalled intent, Ricochet Lady from 2016: Trevor Saint on a glockenspiel off in a dark corner of the hall, hammering out rapid arpeggios in the highest register. The repeating figures created the psychoacoustic effect of sustained tones – the type that people who have heard early Philip Glass will immediately recognise – emphasised to the extent that the aural effects became the musical material instead of the notes played. A combination of the hall’s reverberation, the instrument’s bright timbre and the overtones of close-spaced high frequencies created a series of metallic buzzing and humming sounds beyond the physical scope of the instrument.

Vespers and I Am Sitting In A Room were each performed live in the Round Chapel. Two of Lucier’s best-known works, each now fifty years old; both pieces still fascinate in the way they reveal fundamental qualities of aural perception taken for granted and complacently disregarded by musical theory. Hearing Vespers performed live reveals the spatial qualities of the sound, as the four blindfolded players traversed the hall by means of echo-location, while the electronic clicks they emitted were subtly transformed by their movements. This is minimal music, in a manner similar to that of a sculpture by Serra or Judd, exposing liminal phenomena of space, mass, sound or light through supposedly undifferentiated material.

The larger part of the concert was given over to four works for acoustic ensemble paired with electronics, all from the 2010s and all with one evident premise. Lucier has long exploited the effects gained from combining pure sine tones with acoustic instruments, allowing interplay of beating frequencies and differences through small differences in intonation and the harmonic spectrum of the instruments. The Ever Present Orchestra was founded for the purpose of playing these pieces and their performances showed just how effectively musical Lucier’s music can be, in the conventional sense, when interpreted with inisght and sensitivity. (Guest performers on the night included figures as diverse as John Tilbury, Jennifer Walshe and Thurston Moore.)

As with Cage, there’s often a didactic quality behind Lucier’s earlier music, those most famous (or notorious) pieces. A phenomenon is demonstrated. As with Cage, a superficial exposure to Lucier’s work suggests that he is more about ideas than music. The late works played at Round Chapel should go a long way to refuting this misapprehension. First and foremost, Lucier composes music – a point that his work has continued to make clearer and clearer over the years. While Vespers and I Am Sitting In A Room are “about” sound, Ricochet Lady is “about” music, treated and filtered without electronics. The ensemble pieces are all ostensibly “about” the same idea, but now this is obviously not the point. Like Cage’s music, the ideas serve merely as a means to an end.

The ensemble is violins, cellos and saxophones, augmented on occasion by piano, vibraphone and e-bowed guitar. As played by the Ever Present Orchestra, when the winds and strings begin, the sounds combined with the sine tones are almost indistinguishable, producing a complex blend of tone that is hard to define. In Two Circles, Semicircle and Tilted Arc (a reference to a Serra’s destroyed public sculpture), the fundamental shapes suggested by the titles are perceptible in the trajectory of the music but subsumed within a broader, compositional form. Musical sense takes precedence over logical intelligibility. In Two Circles, a reduced ensemble of violin, cello, two saxophones and piano slowly interweave, their harmonies growing more distant, opening up into wider registers before resolving to a dense, multiphonic unison. Seimicircle mounts in a glorious ascent, brassier sounds to the fore, only to fall away again in a slow motion landslide.

The grouping of instruments and electronics blend into a complex harmony and tonal colouration far removed from the usual stark palette expected from Lucier. This was felt most strongly in the world premiere of EPO-5, probably the high point of the evening. Using a large ensemble, the usual variations in harmonic intervals moved in ways that couldn’t be anticipated. For me at least, acoustic and electronic voices all seemed to move in different directions and any attempt to reduce the piece to a single concept was futile. It was simply music, lush and dramatic, intricate without becoming opaque, with strangely lingering effects that unfolded at a deliciously languorous pace. Listeners were carried along without feeling pushed. I can’t imagine hearing these pieces played better.

The BBC were recording the event, so hopefully I get to hear it all again soon.

Works on Paper: Gil Sansón and Lance Austin Olsen

Monday 18 March 2019

Feels like I’ve been away forever. I got a bunch of new albums I want to talk about and a superb Alvin Lucier concert I went to last week, but right now I have to say something about this new release by Gil Sansón and Lance Austin Olsen. I got all excited about Olsen’s music last year, with his visual approach to making music. A real artist, y’know? He makes paintings, some of which function as musical scores, and takes a very collage-type approach to his recordings.

On his Another Timbre CD last year, Olsen produced a multitracked realisation of a graphic score by the Venezuelan artist Gil Sansón. I’d described A Meditation on the History of Painting as “like painting, a synthesis of gesture and editing, with traces of the two processes preserved in the medium”. On this new album, Works on Paper, Olsen and Sansón give an extended presentation of their technique of creative exchange. Disc 1 features two realisations of Olsen’s painting/score Pra Mim, recorded by Sansón in Caracas. On the second disc the roles are reversed, with Olsen in Victoria, Canada recording two realisations of Sansón’s graphic score Meditations. For two hours, the air teems with tantalising connections, potentialities.

As with painting, the fabric of the music hovers between fragments of narrative and unspecified affect. It’s an elusive music, part radio drama, part collage, part pure sound. The sense of meaning is always present, both in content and form, but is left to the listener to find for themselves. Sampled music, taken straight or manipulated, combine with field recordings, musical instruments, isolated phrases spoken or sung and mysterious electronic clicks and buzzes. Similarities between the two artists abound, inviting further connections and comparisons to be made between the two minds at work, one in British Columbia and the other in Venezuela. The sounds are captured beautifully. Within each realisation, certain elements repeat, or seem to. Everything becomes suspended in a dream-like state, fully aware but inexplicable.

The pieces have been sequenced so that words, spoken or sung, appear less and less as time goes on. Pieces end on extended hiatus, with aural figuration giving way to empty spaces, alive with background sound. The final Meditation is wordless, with Olsen interpreting Sansón’s score with layers of sparse, amplified sounds and guitar. The album’s an ideal follow-up to last year’s Dark Heart release.

Things Seen, Heard (3)

Thursday 28 February 2019

Two gigs in churches in my neighbourhood this month. Áine O’Dwyer and Eva-Maria Houben at the Old Church in Stoke Newington. Primary reason for going was that I’d enjoyed hearing Houben play her piano pieces on a couple of occasions and wanted to finally hear her play the organ. O’Dwyer’s good value too: I still remember her gig at Silver Road a couple of years ago where for part of her set she climbed onto the roof and dropped mostly small objects onto the punters below. The two of them had obviously worked closely together on the joint performance and got along well. Perhaps a little too well: I was hoping for a tension between the restrained aesthetic of Houben’s compositions and O’Dwyer’s more demonstrative performance practice, but everything proceeded pleasantly. Faint sounds and singing heard from a distance as the audience assembled gave way to some tentative vocal duets from various parts of the church and culminated in a colourful, expressive organ duet. In the middle, O’Dwyer showed how to make the most of a harp that had been left unattended in a church in winter for a few hours.

More Houben last week, played by the Eos Ensemble for the 840 concert series. The evening was lighter and the weather milder in St James’, Islington. As well as Houben’s trio avalon orchard, the programme of music for violin, clarinet and piano included poignant arrangements of three songs by Komitas, a trio by Tim Parkinson and a particularly strong interpretation of Makiko Nishikaze’s Duo for bass clarinet and piano. There were also several premieres – always nice to see pieces dated from the current year in February. James Luff’s standing cycles and Alex Nikiporenko’s Two Waltzes both began as almost skeletal reductions of familiar genres. The simplicity seemed banal and irritating at first but each proceeded to torque their exposed structure into shapes that were both neat and intriguing.

Luc Ferrari, Tautologos, Situationism, Entropy (beginning, not to be concluded)

Thursday 21 February 2019

A map of the 16th Arrondissement drawn by Debord’s friend Paul-Henri Chombart de Lauwe, traces the routes taken by a student over the period of a year as she circulates between the School of Political Sciences, her residence, and the residence of her piano teacher.

Only got to one of the events as part of the Stereo Spasms festival, a week-long celebration of the life and work of Luc Ferrari. It was a good one: Tautologos III is one of my favourite pieces, heard before only from David Grubbs’ reissue of the 1971 LP version. Grubbs was on hand at Cafe Oto to join in with Apartment House and introduce the piece, first in ‘version 4’ as played on the record and then in the 2001 ‘Chicago version’. (Brunhild Ferrari joined in on piano for the latter.)

Grubbs reminded us of Ferrari’s particular definition of tautology, a repeated cycle of activity, as practiced in daily life, which was here transferred into artistic activity. While acting alone, yet necessarily as part of a group, individuals going about their business may interact with each other, on a regular or irregular basis. In doing so, their cycles are altered, which in turn may then intersect with and alter other cycles.

The music teeters on a precipice separating order and anarchy, and you’re never quite sure which side is solid ground and the other void. It’s a duality that seems representative of life in Ferrari’s native Paris, that particular understanding of liberté, an absolute freedom circumscribed by an innate sense of social order. A person is free to move anywhere, yet soon settles into a recognisable pattern. In Tautologos III, each performer is autonomous yet bound by obligations to others and thus the music begins to develop a logic of its own. As when reading a Perec novel, one becomes aware of persistent but elusive rules working beneath the surface, shaping a structure that at first seemed natural.

(Also played on the programme, the charming trio Bonjour, comment ça va? Bass clarinettist, cellist and pianist play interlocking repeating patterns, disrupted from time to time when each musician in turn is compelled to perform the social nicety of doffing their hat. Whether these breaks in each musician’s flow makes for an interruption or an ornamentation is a question left to the listener.)

For further consideration: in each version of Tautologos III it becomes clear that each cycle is contingent, subject to alteration. This mutability is a given condition of each performer’s loop. It’s a critical difference from other ‘minimalist’ works built on repetitions. There is no pre-existing, initial state for the material to be subjected to variation. The context of each performer’s interactions with each other becomes the defining force of the material. Everything is provisional.

In version 4, played first that night, the music started out varied and elaborate, and steadily reduced in melodic range and texture into a near unison of voices see-sawing between a handful of notes. As information*, any ‘message’ being conveyed was distilled to an essence, with increasing redundancy and lower entropy. As things became more and more familiar to the listener, was the music winding down, or becoming more forceful? Whichever may be true, would it be a good thing or bad?

* As with life: “Whether this information is valuable or worthless does not concern us. The idea of ‘value’ refers to the possible use by a living observer.” Leon Brillouin, Science and Information Theory.

Deeper listening: Mark R Taylor, Morgan Evans-Weiler, Michael Pisaro

Wednesday 6 February 2019

As I was saying, I’ve spent a few weeks getting to know a few CDs more closely. Two in particular have required closer attention, for differing reasons. I’ve been listening to Aftermaths, Teodora Stepančić’s collection of solo piano works by Mark R Taylor, a British composer I’m entirely unfamiliar with. I don’t get it and I dont like it because I think there’s something I’m supposed to get and I suspect that’s not how Taylor wants me to listen so I wonder if I’m hearing it all wrong. It would be easier to dismiss if I didn’t think there was some missing piece in the background that would change my attitude to the music. The pieces are relatively brief, each with the same undifferentiated surface (think Morandi in painting, Howard Skempton in music). Each piece is basically a chorale and they all sound the same to me. My first response is to never bother with this CD again, but I can’t help but think something must be going on. Most of the pieces are recent but others date back twenty, thirty, forty years. An admirable single-mindedness. One older piece uses the same method but progresses at a slow pace. One piece staggers the chords a little. Two tracks are listed in the wrong order, an entirely understandable mistake.

Taylor gets praise from musicians I respect. Maybe he’s not limited, just really focused, seeking out delight in the slightest differences. On the second listen I noticed differences in how each piece proceeds. I started to compile a list of the distinguishing feature to each piece (alternates between short and long durations, see-saws up and down, repeats in groups of four) but it quickly felt like I was trivialising the composer’s efforts. Also, I was starting to resent putting conscious effort into trying to appreciate the music.

After listening another three or four times I’ve noticed other small differences and begun to recognise a gradually emerging identity for each piece. I can appreciate it but I think I’m past the point where I need to put in any more work on the music in the hope of finding something in it. Perhaps it will hit me later; if so, it will presumably be when I unwittingly hear another piece by Taylor.

You become familiar with a style, get immersed in it and then become blasé. Here’s another Another Timbre CD of slow, quiet music. More of the same? Yes and no. It’s a specious argument, of course; every composer cannot help but be ascribed to one style or another, almost nothing is truly sui generis. I’m listening to this new Morgan Evans-Weiler and Michael Pisaro CD and wondering what it is I’m hearing, what makes it different from other works in a comparable style? There are so many pieces which are perfectly pleasant as background ambience, so why have I tagged the two pieces on this disc as preferred listening, worthy of repeat attention?

In my previous review, I mentioned that Johnny Chang’s Citaric Melodies III may suffer in comparison with the surrounding works on the album. Thinking over what I meant by that, I’m guessing it’s about what rewards closer attention. Between pieces of music in a broadly similar style, a common surface may be enjoyed, but some works can compel a deeper fascination.

Violinist and composer Morgan Evans-Weiler is the featured player on this disc, playing on Michael Pisaro’s Helligkeit, die Tiefe hatte, nicht keine Fläche (Grey Series No. 6) and his own lines and tracings. The Pisaro needs seven musicians, the Evans-Weiler five. It sounds the other way around. Compared to his austere Unfinished Variations (for Jed Speare), lines and tracings is sparingly sumptuous. A harpsichord is dotted throughout the fabric of the ensemble, violin moves from figure to ground and back again. A large part of the interest in this piece comes from the way instruments are carefully balanced throughout, with some disappearing for long stretches, creating contrasts and a sense of shape. It’s like a type of subliminal orchestration, marshalling a classical sense of form out of the slightest resources. In the Pisaro, Evans-Weiler’s violin stands out against a unfocused backdrop of finely nuanced shades of grey, played by the group Ordinary Affects. Bass clarinet, cellos (one with prepared strings) and hoarse electronics combine into a single instrument, complex and nebulous; at times sounding like percussion, at times like drone, at others like field recording. From time to time, the clarinet emerges with a spot of defined pitch as colouration, matched with a vibraphone. Nothing moves, but nothing ever feels at rest.

Catherine Lamb and Johnny Chang with or without Viola Torros

Monday 4 February 2019

When I got back to town, people told me I’d missed a great gig, with Johnny Chang and Catherine Lamb playing at St Mary at Hill. At the end of the year, I received a new batch of CDs from Another Timbre, including a double album of works by Chang and Lamb. I’ve been spending a lot of time with these discs over the past month.

The gig and the album centred on the music of Viola Torros. Interviews with Chang and Lamb and other promotional material offer up all sorts of details about Torros as an historical figure, all of which may be safely disregarded without any impediment to appreciating the fine music to be heard here*. The background reading doesn’t prepare the listener or shed any additional light on the music as such, which is all the better for being heard on its own merits outside of a putative back story. Viola Torros, mediated through these ‘augmentations’ is at most a strong example of the Third Mind at work, producing music that owes something to both and neither creator simultaneously. On the first CD, we hear the second and third of these interpretations, effectively creating a diptych that invites comparisons and contrasts.

The focus is on the two violas of Chang and Lamb playing in tandem. Their playing is expressive, employing a range of gestures, but highly restrained in pitch range, to the point where only microtonal adjustments in intonation are audible. The music recalls Cage’s description of the sound he wanted in his last, microtonal works, “melisma, florid song”. The listener’s attention focuses on the grain of the violas’ sound, the rasp of bow on string made sonorous by emphasising the lower registers of the instrument. It takes longer to tune in on the resonances used to enhance the violas, electronics that add subtle but indelible colours. Then the voices come in and the small, new world the violas have created is transformed again.

As with V.T. Augmentations II, so is V.T. Augmentations III. The approach is the same but the methods employed take on a different attitude. The viola playing is starker, with a range that is greater but lower, often singling out one player at a time. The exposed playing, without its resonant halo, creates a more sombre mood. When electronics do appear, the aded reverberation is more prominent, like a shadow. The voices, when they appear, are now exclusively female, giving the shape of the piece its own distinct turn.

The second disc presents two more pieces, each a solo work by one of the collaborators. Chang’s Citaric Melodies III forgoes electronics for a larger ensemble. With greater instrumental colouration, winds and electric guitar to supplement violin and viola to construct a varied but translucent web of overlapping sounds. The piece is brighter and more varied than the preceding works. As a stand-alone, it can feel more superficial in comparison with the other pieces, but in context it provides a pleasing contrast.

Finally, Lamb’s Prisma Interius VI (for v.t.) continues the series of works she has made from mixing live musicians with synthesized processing of external ambient sound. The initial theme of the album is resumed, with only the two violas and a cello playing within an ambient space of harmonised environmental sounds. It’s an urban environment, which can sometimes intrude harshly. The grey, unstable drone of city sounds and reduced instrumental colours create a piece that feels like the Viola Torros pieces with further layers stripped away. It’s never quite ‘nearly nothing’; the musicianship throughout is almost folkloric at times, but it’s folklore removed to a distant, half-remembered time and place. I’d have loved to have heard it live, but the CDs will do nicely.

* Fictional artists are a bugbear of mine, along with imaginary movie soundtracks. Both make me reflexively anticipate a conceptual smokescreen to mask an artistic deficiency.