Apartment House play Morton Feldman’s Violin And String Quartet

Sunday 17 September 2023

Apartment House and Another Timbre have supplied another missing link in the late canon of Morton Feldman: Violin And String Quartet is a two-hour work from 1985 that, as far as I can tell, has only been commercially recorded twice before, with neither version currently available. As such, it has sat in semi-obscurity between the widely-admired 90-minute pieces and the notorious four-hour plus compositions, although as a listening experience it belongs with the former group. It’s another of Feldman’s masterclasses in achieving a place of inner stillness, taking a small cluster of pitches and doing just enough with them to never let things settle into place; patterns slowly rock back and forth without ever quite repeating exactly, in phrases that float somewhere between the iambic rhythms of breathing, heartbeats and a slow waltz. The Another Timbre page states simply that it’s so beautiful that nothing more needs to be said. I won’t quite agree: the preponderance of violins give the work a consistency that moves the music away from the textural variety of the preceding works and points towards the monolithic impression of what were to be his last works. Apartment House – represented here by Mira Benjamin, Chihiro Ono and Amalia Young on violins, Bridget Carey on viola and director Anton Lukoszevieze on cello – interpret the work by lightly pressing upon its ambiguities and contradictions, reflecting Feldman’s approach to composition. From the start, the bowing is light enough to let pitch sound clearly while still letting the scrape of bow against be heard, creating a tension in the constant sounds – an atypical aspect of this work. I haven’t heard the Peter Rundel with Pellegrini Quartet version on Hat Art, but the OgreOgress recording with Christina Fong and the Rangzen Quartet presents a continuous skein of thin harmonies. Apartment House seem to let the higher instruments take the focus, along with reedy harmonics, so that when lower pitches appear the timbre sounds exotic and strange. When heard at low volumes, as one tends to do, it adds a suitably disorienting aspect to the music. As the piece approaches its end, the pauses become more pronounced, adding a quiet poignancy to the reticent bowing.

Strings (1), mostly plucked

Saturday 16 September 2023

Last month I got to hear Julia Reidy play live for the first time in a while (for me, not her). Her way of playing solo guitar with electronics has developed into something more integrated and organic, even as she moves away from basing her sound on the acoustic instrument. Her interest in microtonality has led to her playing with an electric guitar fitted with a just intonation fretboard, with the electronics providing treatments to the guitar more than adding atmosphere. It’s a far cry from the Branca/Chatham axis of retuned guitars, with a refreshingly dirty approach to microtonality: any expectations for strictly controlled structures or micromanagement of harmonies got wrecked early on when she arbitrarily twisted the dial on her pitch-shift effects box. Later on, there were tweaks made on the fly to the tuning pegs. Reidy used the guitar as a vehicle for harmonic complexity and resonance, with loops, heavy reverb and delays to build up sustained passages of sonority with tonal ambiguity, watching for where the harmonic pull of the resultant masse of sound would lead her, negotiating a balance between the strange and familiar.

It was a useful reminder that there is still a lot you can do with guitars. The guitar-with-digital electronics setup is also used by Eldritch Priest on his album Omphaloskepsis released last year, but to a completely different end. A suite in eight slightly differentiated movements that lasts damn near an hour, Priest’s musical concept is that of an angular, endless line that never quite resolves to a melody or a conclusion. It’s like he took inspiration from those guitar duets that pop up on Captain Beefheart albums and tried to turn it into Mahler. The electric guitar is doubled throughout by various fuzzbox treatments, synth patches and various MIDI instruments moving in imitation, which change in number and colour as unpredictably as the guitar’s mode or metre. The unwieldy length contributes to the piece’s baffling power, ratcheting up the tension as it continues to burn through new material without ever exhausting itself. Too self-aware to be grandiose, too oblique to be bombastic, Omphaloskepsis carves an anti-pattern out of the warm corpse of prog.

There is still a lot you can do with guitars, but that gets a lot less obvious when you start dealing with real composers. The Finnish electric guitar quartet Sähkökitarakvartetti (Juhani Grönroos, Lauri Hyvärinen, Jukka Kääriäinen, Sigurdur Rögnvaldsson) has released a collection of five new-ish pieces by various composers on what I presume is their third album, Sähkökitarakvartetti III. It illustrates the cul-de-sac that composers often find themselves in when writing for the instrument, retreading the patter of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint or throwing in some polished rockisms using distortion or the wah pedal to illustrate it’s “potential” for sonic novelty. The more daring pieces will throw in a little of both. Sergio Castrillón’s 12 Miniatures breaks this up by focusing on the fringes of standard playing techniques, allowing odd timbres and textures to predominate – all assisted by the composer himself joining in with some gravelly cello playing. Pauli Lyytinen’s Särmiö opens the set, composed just last year but most firmly entrenched in the comfort zone of the previous generation’s Reich’n’Roll. Hafdís Bjarnadóttir’s Hyrnan IV begins promisingly with gnarled bursts of noise on damped strings only to unfold into an increasingly relaxed tour through the guitar’s tropes in popular music. There is at least a contemplative context to be understood from this progression (regression?), unlike the stale rock riffs that intrude halfway through Kalle Kalima’s Ajan Haju and never quite go away. It’s interesting that, along with Castrillón, the other composer with the most fully realised work here is quartet member Juhani Grönroos: Orb (2020) makes heavy use of effects throughout but keeps the focus on contrasts in texture, never fully resorting to noise but keeping clarity of pitch and tone at a distance, creating something distinct in shape but ambiguous in its contents.

It’s easy to overthink all this, both when playing and listening. It may after all be better just to play, except that you need to remain aware – not necessarily of what you’re doing, but at least what you are capable of. Braintrust of Fiends and Werewolves is an album of duets by guitarists Alan Courtis and David Grubbs, which on paper seems like two mismatched talents thrown together randomly by a gig promoter – this set was all recorded on one date last November. I haven’t bothered to look up their past history together because it doesn’t matter: these are poised, solidly conceived duets which reveal more and more of their inherent depth and beauty with each listen. It’s hard to believe each of the six pieces here were put together on the spot, as they vary so greatly in approach, method and atmosphere. The long opening track is an examplar of how to do the slow build without being monolithic or monotonous, with an ear for compositional nuance that lifts it above the expression of a simple idea. The following shorter pieces surpass this for their subtlety and delicacy, with the title work casually dropping repeated gestures to keep its pastoral ramble in check, followed by “Room Tone of One’s Own”, a rustic study in folk guitar melancholy. “Song of a Fence Grown through a Tree” reverts to electric distortion and smeared drones, before the gentle “Varsovia y Esparta” tenderly picks its way through a sparely detailed adagio with restrained elegance. The second long work that bookends the album is more elaborate in its development through various changes in its character, making use of more than just its size to create a piece that can’t be “got” in a single hearing but rewards each return visit.

Summer Shorts (2)

Saturday 26 August 2023

Anouck Genthon & Mathias Forge: Notice (Insub). Since my last post, I’ve been wondering about the use of external factors as a source of inspiration for music; even more so since hearing a new album which cites the musician’s collaboration with biological researchers and study of bacterial mycelia, all to produce an aspartame-laced package of anodyne, arpeggiated burbling. This is not that album. Notice purports to be a 30-minute duet by violinist Anouck Genthon and trombonist Mathias Forge drawn “from different walking experiences” and it starts out prosaically enough: the usual droney joint improvs start to veer into strange territory bordering the obsessive and the irreverent, then something crashes to the floor. Odd pauses, delays, disruptions and percussive interjections intrude on the two musicians as they doggedly persist, even as a sine tone gets stuck in the system and buzzes away while they keep playing. Genthon and Forge have hit on a self-critical aspect so often missing from works with a conceptually pure basis, letting their initial motivations curdle like the protagonists in a Godard dérive.

Ryoko Akama & d’incise: No register No declare (Insub). Shorter and slighter than Notice, this duet between Akama and d’incise “made in Huddersfield + Bruxelles” presents no specific idea, collaging together a selection of unobtrusive clicks and hums from analog synthesiser and feedback set amongst “domestic recordings”. It’s hard to present this material coherently in a way that rises above triviality, but they almost manage it with their use of a close recording of an electric kettle. It’s a sound at once immediately recognisable and familiar, yet also sounds complex and alien in a way that both confounds and reinforces the feeling of being alone in a kitchen or hotel room. It’s the standout element (no pun intended) so when I relisten to this I just end up waiting for the bits with the kettle.

Lise Morrison: No grief without joy (Sawyer Editions). Speaking of ideas, Lise Morrison’s five compositions here offer themselves up more as suggestions for possible pieces of music, only to withdraw before really making their case. Their self-effacing modesty, with the requisite soft dynamics, suggest a wish to focus on craft over attention-seeking (cf. her Study for marimba and thunder sheets), but most of the pieces stuggle to assert their presence and seem insubstantial, feeling smaller than they really are. The exception is Five Times Recycled, with Sara Constant re-recording her bass flute on cassettes until they break up into a grotty fug of kazoos.

Clinton Green/Ian Andrews: False Currency (tsss tapes), Ross Manning: Some Technical Drawings (Shame File Music), Tarab: Rooms (Ferns Recordings). I imagine the Australian sound sculpture scene is pretty close-knit, as other enthusiasts in minority activities often find themselves out of necessity. Clinton Green (Shame File Music founder) has made a collection of “automatic/aleatory systems” collaborations with Ian Andrews on False Currency, which for the most part sounds like much kinetic sculpture sonic art. There’s one track where the sounds are digitally stretched and smeared to produce a shimmering ambient haze, but otherwise it’s the usual small percussion sounds stumbling over each other that have come to characterize the genre. It combines a fascination with small sounds and processes that act as an end in themselves, which precludes any interest beyond the momentary and the trivial. Ross Manning’s Some Technical Drawings adds a welcome advance to the kinetic constructions by incorporating electronics, or at least audible electricity. It nips in the bud the Gilligan’s Island connotations to the contraptions and adds more intrigue to the sounds produced beyond the usual clunk and thunk. Only trouble is about half of the album is given over to the vagaries of an electronic buzz that squarely sets you back in the obsession with processes and small differences. Tarab’s Rooms is more different still, and all the better for it. The objects used are located in definite spaces, recorded either close up or situated in a wider ambience, then processed through the distorting filters of natural acoustics and technological reproduction. Object and space are edited together in ways which evoke documentary, narrative and mise-en-scène and the messy way they interact when ostensibly presenting a straight representation of what happened, far from the complacent belief that capturing the process on tape (or digital file or whatever) is the most honest policy.

Summer Shorts (1)

Sunday 20 August 2023

John Eagle: erosion and growth (Sawyer Editions). A long, sombre work for piano and percussion that falls into unmarked sections, each containing a specific texture. At first it’s just Eagle scraping stones and tiles, later succeeded by pianist Jack Yarbrough playing high, staccato chords. From there on the piano plays tentatively through a succession of slow, reflective near-patterns, with some interludes of grey noise percussion. Somehow it all relates to recordings Eagle made of a waterfall and then electronically processed, filtered and analysed to render up pitch data. We’re told “the resultant composition contains only acoustic sounds” but soon after piano and percussion are finally united an electric-sounding drone fills the background for the remainder of the piece. The means and the ends seem incongruous to each other, which leads you into the extra-musical game of reconciling what you’re told about the emotional context of the initial recording with the comparatively unemotional music. The results as yet are inconclusive.

Andrey Guryanov: Anthems (Abstand). Guryanov digitally torments the opening chords of multiple archival recordings of the various national anthems that have served the Soviet Union and Russia since 1917, claiming to build each track out of a microscopic analysis of the opening’s incidental details and technological flaws. He claims personal and international history as the grounding for his research, yet the music resembles Eagle’s composition insofar as it seeks to make a factual element into an external jusitfication for the music’s existence in its final state. Eagle takes this old idea onto a new tangent, while Guryanov uses it to produce gloomy dark ambient electronica complete with what sounds like occasional drum pads amongst the glitchy greyness, weighed down with a need for political relevance. Inevitably, the last track draws upon Ukraine.

Hunter Brown: Stoppages Vol. 1 [∞] (Party Perfect!!! PP-03). While some computer-assisted composition uses code as a form of inspiration (sup.), Hunter Brown’s Stoppages series means to interrogate the electronic guts of the computer process itself. Brown picks up David Tudor’s ideas on the generation and transmission of electronic sound and runs with them into new digital territory, pushing the idea of synthesis and glitching further than most. The set of pieces here were created by a digital feedback circuit designed to overload the computer’s CPU, maxing out its physical limits in attempting to reproduce sound. The results are alarming, particularly when the system flatlines and your hi-fi’s level meters are pegged by silence. Apparently unedited, each piece is defined by the amount of time it took before the programme crashed, creating inexplicably arbitrary structures of sound and silence. When the frequency spectrum looks like this, you know it’s uncompromising:

Scott Solter & Rohner Segnitz: The Murals (Bathysphere). Don’t let the J-card fool you; this is slick. Solter and Segnitz work up a mélange of techniques from ambient and glitchcore without ever lapsing into a particular genre. When I replay it in my head I remember it as the professionalism in execution and tastefulness in arrangement as somehow cancelling out their respective shortcomings, creating the world’s wildest library music. As to why this would be a bad thing, it’s probably because people with this much skill could create something more ambitious to challenge the listener (this is not the same as confrontation). Then I play it again and decide I’m thinking too much: it’s saved by the sureness of approach, building each piece from an initial sound and developing it in creative ways, without recourse to any big ideas.

Sarah Saviet, solo violin: Spun and Every Strand of Thread and Rope

Friday 4 August 2023

I was treated to a live performance by violinist Sarah Saviet at the All That Dust launch, playing Soosan Lolavar’s solo suite Every Strand of Thread and Rope. It’s a rough and hairy piece, even in its most delicate sections. The four movements were added over the last few years, as part of an exchange between Lolavar and Saviet, with Lolavar applying her experience of Iranian santūr music and tuning to new ideas, and Saviet responding by retuning her violin down a minor sixth, slackening the strings and altering the timbre and intonation. Saviet uses Lolavar’s score to dive into the textural potential of the looser strings, the softer tone of the lowered pitch modulated by guttural buzzing, thickened timbre and faint rattles. The presence of unpitched sounds get cranked to 11 in the final movement (‘Chainmail’), made out of repeated, hacking patterns of double-stops, to the point it dominated my memory of the piece until I heard the recording and rediscovered how lightly the effects are used in the gentle (but still hairy) ‘Fibres’ that precedes it. The All That Dust release is a binaural recording, a stand-alone download.

Every Strand of Thread and Rope turns out to be a suitable entree for Saviet’s full album of solo works, Spun, just released on Coviello Classics. Exotic timbres abound throughout, beginning with Liza Lim’s 2018 piece The Su Song Star Map. It’s also a piece written for retuned violin and exploits the possibilities of colouration, albeit in a less obsessive way. Saviet moves easily between the light and bright melodic passages and the thornier timbral shadings Lim calls for, sometimes only for fleeting moments or in transition from one tone to another. It’s a lovely sample of Lim’s more recent style, embracing directly florid melody but grounding it in denser and darker patches of complex sounds to cast the solo in a more sophisticated perspective; Saviet fuses both of these tendencies in her interpretation, with one highlight being the blaze of contrapunctual harmonics near the work’s centre.

The sleeve notes make repeated references to ‘throaty’ and ‘digging in’, reinforcing Saviet’s relish for the lower strings. Even Lisa Streich’s Falter, made out of feathery apreggios, is occasionally anchored by a barking low note. The most aggravated case is Evan Johnson’s Wolke über Bäumen, a piece from 2016 which shows this composer’s use of extremes to particularly stark effect. The piece demands gut strings, played with a baroque bow, but the idiom is blasted and barren, using techniques that eke out the strange and sour in the organic inconsistencies of the physical materials. To hear the intricacies in each of the faint wisps of sound, you must also accept being battered by the sudden outbursts of violent noise; as a pastoral, it depicts nature in its harshest light. Arne Gieshoff’s spun is also discontinuous, but in a more capricious way, flitting from pizzicato glissandi to double-stops, trills to smeared and heavy bowing. The final work, Lawrence Dunn’s Habitual from 2017, works here as a kind of bookend to Lim’s piece. A deceptively simple patchwork of brief melodies, Habitual creates a formalised unselfconsciousness. Dunn stipulates just intonation be used, making the tunes sound both natural and personal, as though played without an audience. Patterns never quite settle into a regular grid, or even settle at all, and the structure you anticipated hearing at the outset unspools into an unhurried soliloquy of thoughts not yet fully formed. Saviet maintains a warm but contemplative mood throughout, even when the music turns unexpectedly sprightly.

Nomi Epstein: cubes

Monday 31 July 2023

What little I’ve heard of Nomi Epstein’s music has been made from apparently simple structures that define certain parameters of the sounds to be used at any given time, but otherwise leaving the means of realising those sounds and placing them in a larger structure up to the performers. It requires trust in the musicians to be open and creative when interpreting the sometimes paradoxical requirements of a score that is both specifically restrictive and unspecifically permissive. The common effect I’ve heard in her compositions to date is the way they direct the musicians towards producing complex, composite sounds in ways that are utterly unfamiliar and leave you uncertain as to how they were produced. You could say that extended techniques are being employed, but in this case it’s a bit beyond that and beside the point: the instruments and how they are being used are not the issue, as the nature of the sound is suffciently strange to remove the question of its production from speculation. Paradoxically, this method makes the instrument an invisible means to a audible end, just as in ‘conventional’ music.

The new Epstein album on Sawyer Editions features just one work, an hour-long duet for violin and percussion titled cubes. Composed in 2020 for violinist Erik Carlson and percussionist Greg Stuart, it expands upon those compositional concerns into extremes; of commitment, timbral uncertainty, audibility and durations. The opening sound, a partly-voiced drone that sounds half-organic and half-mechanical, takes up the first five minutes of the piece. Epstein describes the score as twenty-four “building blocks of sound” and that primary focus on timbre together with the elemental structure of the piece are nakedly evident throughout the sixty minutes. The juxtaposition of one slab of faint but dense sound after another appear to be the result of collage, with the sounds seemingly made from very small activities blown up by close amplification – this isn’t exactly stated but is alluded to in the brief sleeve notes. Carlson and Stuart’s sonic discoveries in this piece are extraordinary, having sought out and pursued the most quiet, unobtrusive sounds to bring out an inner life and character to each one. In general, the two of them work to create complex unpitched sounds redolent of woodgrain and small interior spaces. Listened to once, it seems dry and austere. Playing it again in the background, it keeps catching you out with some striking detail you hadn’t noticed before. Repeated listenings sound different each time as some other small thing suddenly grabs your attention. Whether you consider it to be a tape collage or a violin-percussion duet is a moot point. “I wouldn’t have made this piece for anyone else,” Epstein writes, and I can’t imagine anyone else would have realised the score in this way.

Low Strings: Jack Sheen, Bryan Eubanks

Sunday 30 July 2023

The sleeve notes for Jack Sheen’s Solo for Cello recommend you to listen with the speakers “placed as far away as possible”, as if the music itself wasn’t alienated enough. For thirty-five minutes, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze (he of Apartment House) grinds a dogged path through an uncanny valley of cello music, all fluttered harmonics and slow rasps, smothered by a heavy, metallic mute. The same sonic intrigue created by the effects of the ‘whispering cadenza’ from Ligeti’s Cello Concerto are regimented here into erratically cycled patterns and dynamically compressed to allow only occasional random stray outbursts to leak from the seams. It’s also not exactly a solo: an electronic component is present from time to time, but only to add to the uncanny effect that you’re not quite hearing a cello, or otherwise to coat the pristine background with a layer of schmutz. At certain interludes Lukoszevieze’s industrious labouring on his instrument drops away to a prolonged, sullen drone before the sawing resumes, producing a texture both thin in range and thick in detail. An even more stark and nervy companion piece to Sheen’s Sub released last year, Lukoszevieze makes Sheen’s solo a tour de force of suppressed ferocity. It’s been released as a CD by cassette label Trilogy Tapes but it may not be in quite as anomalous company as it first appears.

Almost missed the Insub release of Bryan Eubanks’ for four double basses a year ago; which was pretty stupid of me as it’s a weirdly beguiling piece quite unlike his other electronicky stuff I’ve heard. It’s all harmonics again, real soft when backed by the incipient sonority of the large wooden instruments, playing in a staggered canon of repeating patterns. All you need to know is printed right there on the front cover. It should be looping but there’s just enough fuzziness in the setup to create a dreamlike gauzy sound that seems almost too insubstantial to persist in your consciousness, yet only seems to move when you let it slip from your attention. Jonathan Heilbron, Mike Majkowski, Andrew Lafkas and Koen Nutters man the contrabass viols with a feathery touch.

Music We’d Like to Hear, 2023 (part 3 (there’s no part 2))

Thursday 20 July 2023

Stupidly, I missed the Friday night concert of Music We’d Like to Hear dedicated to pieces by Tim Parkinson, but I did get to the Saturday’s Amber Priestley gig. Pretty sure this is the first time I’ve experienced her work performed live; everything else so far had been heard over the radio. It’s not exactly like you’re missing out when you don’t see it, but the visual, or theatrical element to her compositions are intrinsic to what makes them work in their own way as music. Yes, it’s playful, and the theatrical elements are reminiscent of the jokey aspect present in work by other contemporary British composers, only without as much of the defensiveness or the regulated fun. More importantly, Priestley takes these stage antics beyond their usual sideshow role and deploys them as compositional techniques. The performance of her string quartet Ev’ry evening, ev’ry day demonstrated this most fully on the night. It was the most conspicuously active piece played – individual musicians sent in turn foraging around the room for additional score materials, crawling away to play in isolation on the floor, engaging audience members in square dance calls or just peacing out with a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer – and so nominally the most distracting for the aural component, but this was part of the point. The inspiration for the piece was the disruptions encountered in everyday life, where simple tasks are thwarted by complications introduced by someone else. The ensemble never had a moment of coherence for long before someone got up, turned a fellow musician’s score to a different page and affixed an overlay or instructions that sent her on a digression. It resembled some of Luc Ferrari’s chamber pieces, in that musical progress is replaced by obligatory deviations: the clash of disparate textures and idioms suddenly changing or disappearing produced a kind of clotted antiphony through inadvertent accumulation of consequences. Moreover, these interruptions and obligations made you question whether any of this was in fact ‘fun’. At least you felt the audience were enjoying it more than the performers, which is as things should be.

The quartet themselves were game and able, both in running, walking, dancing and crouching with Priestley’s ideas, and in bringing out notable characteristics in material that might easily have been obscured. That substance was more evident in the other string quartet played that evening, And Yet Something Shines, Something Sings in that Silence: two pages of quasi-canonic passages which the musicians are required to interpret in a different tempo and loudness in each new iteration. At the end of each pass they pause, rotate the page 180 degrees and start over; repeat. This piece offered a loosely similar interplay of voices, but with greater consistency. The musicians were a mix of experienced players on the new music scene (Mira Benjamin on violin, Chihiro Ono on viola) and performance postgrads at Goldsmiths (Amalia Young on other violin; Kirke Gross on cello). After the interval they were joined by clarinettist Pete Furniss, Clare Spollen on piano (plus accordion) and James Creed on electric guitar to play Repeat yourself until friends are embarrassed…, a 41-minute work where the material is pre-pulverised. Goldsmiths’ students left musical doodles and sketches on large sheets of paper in the University corridors; these were then collaged by Priestley and the collages filmed and transformed to produce a video containing the resulting collages and other structures divided into quadrants on screen. The video may also function as a distraction, although the lack of spectacle to it diminishes that possibility. Musicians were scattered around the room, making music that on this occasion felt pretty low-key and sedate, at times more resembling an AMM-type group improvisation. The lack of a focal point may have been the issue, with all of the alienating factors of Priestley’s process fixed on tape in advance, with musical activity dissipated by the deliberately thinned-out density of musicians playing at any given time. Priestley herself was making occasional contributions here and there on various novelty handbells, having earlier been ushered into a brief impromptu violin part in Ev’ry evening, ev’ry day.

The Spectre of Taste: Lebel, Lind, Demoč

Saturday 15 July 2023

You don’t have to be original to be good, but the experimental allows a certain leeway while anything that tends to the conventional in substance runs the risk of setting down its foundations on the shifting sands of taste. I’ve been listening to field studies, a collection of pieces by composer Emilie Cecilia LeBel, and while much of the writing is admirably spare (in evaporation, blue the pianist adds notes on a harmonica in lieu of detail to fill out the bare structure of the piece) or impressively sonorous (even if nothing but shapes and light reflected in the glass conjures up a moody horn section from solo alto flute and baritone sax, aided by tranducers attached to drums), I kept hearing moments where the music tripped over itself. It sounds like LeBel wants her music to be expressive, but then feels obliged to justify that impulse with dramatic flourishes to rationalise the seriousness of her intentions. These flourishes follow popular taste and so resemble moments of movie music, probably meant to be stirring but serving more as distracting lapses in the work’s solidity.

Or I’m just not a very sophisticated listener and I need novelty as a hook on which to hang my perceptions. At the All That Dust launch concert a few weeks back I heard Mark Knoop performing a realisation of Rósa Lind’s piano cycle Trente, completed (or at least last added to) early this year. Trente is itself part of a larger cycle of four compositions (so far?) collectively titled Kandinsky Kunstwerke, three of which are recorded on Lind’s new All That Dust CD. I’d listened to Knoop’s recording of Trente once before the concert and several times since, and I’m only just starting to hear what’s in it. Made from thirty short movements taking up a little under forty minutes, their number, brevity and variability of ordering imply a kaleidoscopic array of highly changeable moments without a focal point; yet there’s a fixity in the overall composition, attributable jointly to Lind’s conceptual framework and Knoop’s holistic comprehension of the forces in play. I read the sleeve notes and came away bamboozled by the invocation of Kandinsky and the immediate association with Galilean astronomy throughout each piece. My understanding was of little more than the music having been produced through extensive labours on a conspiracy board of themes, with what we hear being a manifestation of a highly concentrated tangle of allusions oversaturated with meaning to the point that comprehension becomes extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible. Lind manages to subsume the ontological stress of her subject with a musical language that appears relatively untroubled, even as it is highly charged: not as jarringly discrete as Messiaen’s piano cycles, nor as outlandish as Georges Lentz’s cosmological divinations; which is another way of saying, surprisingly tasteful.

The other two pieces from the Kandinsky Kunstwerke cycle presented here were recorded in Australia about ten years ago. They are also solos, but with additional electronics. Cellist Geoffrey Gartner gives a lean but ominous tone to Extrema: A Galilean Sarabande and Laura Chislett gives what resembles a character piece in the tightly virtuosic flute solo Courbe dominante. I’ve focused more on Trente here as it provides a key to interpreting the other works, but the two shorter works are more immediately accessible, conveying urgency through a compressed lyricism. The electronic and other elements are inaudible for the most part, with both pieces experiencing a sudden, anomalous disruption. Each piece makes a self-evident case for requiring repeated listening; having earned my respect I’ve started to become intrigued and may even be warming to them.

Over the last few years Adrián Demoč has been building up an impressive body of work on record. It’s entirely deserved, with each newly-heard work revealing more facets and shades of an individual, consistently beautiful compositional voice. There’s that appeal to taste again; Demoč appears to follow a muse of highly cultivated simplicity, in the manner of Howard Skempton or Morton Feldman but mimicking neither. Neha is his third CD on Another Timbre and presents two works for orchestra, allowing us to hear how he handles larger forces. As may be expected, it’s with a light touch. In both works the sound is soft and translucent, reducing the number of instruments wherever possible and still sounding intimate in the moments when playing tutti. The title of the 2018 work Neha in fact means ‘tenderness’. It holds a single moment and lingers over it for us to appreciate, seemingly in repose yet sustained by as little movement as necessitated by breathing. The unisons between instruments as they play simple chords gain a faint complexity by Demoč employing the differing timbres and means of producing notes to makes the edges of the pitches fuzz and leach out as the differing overtones mingle; a kind of micro-microtonality. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Marián Lejava conducting) respect the composer’s urge for delicacy and calm in this live recording. The later work is Popínavá hudba, composed for the Ostrava New Music Days 2022 and heard here in a live recording with Petr Kotík conducting the Ostrava New Orchestra. It begins with a short, rising melodic fragment, particularly reminiscent of late Feldman, but follows its own path by quietly asserting its presence in a more organic than structured fashion, using subtle changes in colouration to motivate the nascent melody through almost imperceptible transformations. The orchestra maintains the same presence as a chamber ensemble would, but with much greater complexity below the surface. Towards the end there is a turn, and although it’s unexpected it still feels like it’s part of the larger design at work.

Funny pianos and droney organs: Jason Doell and Mia Windsor

Monday 10 July 2023

The problem with droney organ music is that it’s both easy to do and difficult to do well. The organ can be a rich and vital source of timbral variety, but all that timbre needs to be controlled in some way to convery a musical experience to the listener. The three compositions on Mia Windsor’s album this is place where i can sit with clarity are droney organ pieces, except that they’re not always exactly organ, or organ at all, also they’re not too droney when you think about it. Windsor doesn’t make drone pieces; she makes pieces out of drones. It’s an important distinction, using Robert Ashley’s idea of the drone as ‘non-timeline music’. Where other musicians may produce finely honed harmonic content and timbral intricacy through an excess of care in the details, Windsor prefers to work smarter. Ensembletje! pairs organ and electronics as expected, but the church organ performance by Catherine Harris is accentuated by home recordings on violin and cello, cross-cutting between keening whistle-like harmonics, bowed overtones and close-miked scrambling against the instrument’s belly (there’s also a cameo by the West Yorkshire Police). The material remains thin while the substance of the music compounds. Harris plays solo on the title work, which alternates between short phrases in elongated strophes, making a kind of questioning call-and-response conducted in monologue before putting itself at rest. Guitar and Cowbell is apparently just that, although you would think it was more electronically processed organ with the cowbell offered up as a ruse. The piece is a composite image of watery organ pipes, Leslie speakers and whistling until the layers fall away to expose a rumbling of strings below, only for this to break up into soft distortion and then start over again. This piece was also recorded by Windsor in her home in Leeds. The album’s part of a batch put out by Sawyer Editions which I’m working through now.

I do like a funny sounding piano. The peculiar American label Whited Sepulchre recently put out a trilogy of pieces by Jason Doell in which the humble instrument is transformed by various (electronic) digital means into a mutant, neither hyper-piano nor meta-piano, just strange. becoming in shadows ~ of being touched started with Doell improvising on a piano as more of a “limbering up” excercise than a conscious performance: it is not his preferred axe. The original loose, almost naïve musings set the tone for the album, even as the computerised interventions are pervasive. Much of the playing was done on a dilapidated piano left buried in the snow until the strings and hammers started to work loose, so the jangling, ramshackle sounds persist even as the structure threatens to become more sophisticated. (Mauro Zannoli is credited with the ‘frozen piano’ parts.) Doell has written computer scripts to select, sample and alter material from the source tapes to create a free-form ramble where competing parts of the piano’s anatomy crowd each other out in the first part, then get into heavier processing in the second. The second piece works as an atmospheric interlude, effective in mood even though the computerised smearing of sounds into a blur is a more familiar technique than what is heard on the other tracks. The long final piece ‘of being touched’ is the most effective as it moves beyond obvious methods of sampling and collaging to produce blunted, decaying iterations of itself. The flow gets interrupted by loops of degrading fidelity, shedding the illusion of continuity and wiping a layer of grime over the pristine digital ruins to produce an effect of computer-generated autonomic indifference more genuine then most, emphasising the messiness of acoustic objects even as the genuine and intact pianos are never quite real.

Music We’d Like to Hear, 2023 (part 1)

Sunday 9 July 2023

Fresh from hearing Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop together on record in Laurence Crane’s Natural World, on Friday I heard them again, live this time, at the first Music We’d Like to Hear concert for the year. They performed the soprano and piano reduction of Satie’s Socrate, a piece which, despite the decades of belated praise and reassessment, must still be described as unfairly overlooked. Certainly, opportunities to hear it in any form are all too rare, even though by now Satie’s magnum opus must surely hold more sway over contemporary music practice than, say, Pierrot Lunaire. Fraser and Knoop gave the first part a disarmingly clean, alert character before making ‘Les bords de l’Ilissus’ soft and lingering, only in the final part reaching towards the “whiteness” of expression Satie desired even as word and music might be expected to reach an emotional peak, letting subject and manner taper off into stillness.

The concert had already begun with the lulling effect of Bea Redweik’s Songs as Process, a “pre-concert event” in which Redweik strummed and plucked an acoustic guitar while half singing, half murmuring to herself while accompanied by video of herself doing the same thing at home. The two echoed and circled around each other, blurring into the effect of having heard a song without registering or retaining its details, partway between performance and installation. There were parallels to be found with Walter Zimmermann’s Abgeschiedenheit, which began Knoop’s solo recital after the interval. If the deconstructed folklorism associated with Zimmermann’s music is present in this piece, then it is in a highly abstracted form: a labyrinth of long, straight corridors and empty rooms where refrains appear haphazardly. Knoop played through it with suitable directness, eschewing mystery to present a disorientating experience as a disturbing presence that refuses to reveal any secrets. The concert concluded with Galina Ustvolskaya’s fourth and sixth sonatas. (This might be the first time two pianists have tackled the sixth in different venues in the same town on consecutive nights, Siwan Rhys having thrown herself into it at Southbank on Thursday.) Knoop made the most of distinguishing fine grades of dynamics in these notoriously forceful, single-minded compositions and threw himself straight into the sixth without without waiting for applause after the fourth. The massed clusters and stamped out single notes are a punishing experience, even as their tangled sonorities both reveal and allude to larger orchestral details within their stark outlines. Even so, Knoop held something in reserve to make the forearm clusters towards the end hammer home with even greater force. It was a Haessler piano and it held up very well.

Explore and EXAUDI premiere Lamb and Lang

Sunday 2 July 2023

The Spitalfields Music Festival doubles as a way of visiting some of the historic churches of London, and so last I evening I sat in a pew beside the reposing effigy of Tubby Clayton in All Hallows-by-the-Tower, a church with remaining parts dated back to Anglo-Saxon times, to hear the Explore Ensemble give two premieres by Catherine Lamb and Klaus Lang. (A few streets away is St Mary At Hill, home of next weekend’s Music We’d Like To Hear concerts.) The concert began with a 2021 composition by Lara Agar, titled Ham after the chimpanzee fired into space. It’s a curious piece, with cello, piano, synth and electric guitar dispersed around the nave and side-aisles, musicians bedecked in fairy lights and/or tinfoil hats. With its opinion-column subject matter, abstracted narrative and harmless eccentricities in musical language and presentation, it reminded me of that generation of ‘modern’ Australian composers who felt defensive enough to answer to their audience by using their work primarliy to justify their existence, while also sugaring the pill.

For Catherine Lamb’s color residua, the string players of Explore were joined by three voices from EXAUDI, soprano, mezzo and baritone. It’s a concise work, in comparison to recent pieces I’ve heard by her, but I would have been happy for it to continue beyond its ten minutes. The voices, wordless, non-vibrato, soft even when in registers above or below what you would usually expect, interact with the strings in ways that produce unexpected tones recalling other instruments and pitches, using these effects as a third group of instruments that blends in amongst those present in the hall. It’s a warmer, more tender piece than Lamb’s usual work; she has developed her use of just intonation and harmonic tuning to a point where the psychoacoustic phenomena decisively colours the music without drawing attention to itself, allowing the sounds to flow without an apparent need to direct them to any specific end.

Composer Klaus Lang’s long work march (william morris) was composed for the Explore Ensemble, whose musicians have a talent for taking the most distant and cold material on the page and imbuing it with colour and breath, however faint it may be – a kind of interpreter’s empathy for their subject, no matter how forbidding. Lang himself was there to play the church’s organ for the premiere, with Explore forming a group of piano, flute and clarinet with string trio. I don’t think I’ve been to a live performance of Lang’s music before, but this was not the experience of hearing him in an ancient church that I had imagined. With so much of his music predicated on the inaudible (whether implied or actual), march (william morris) is a multi-movement work filled with sound and activity. Seven parts arranged symmetrically, the piece begins with a steady flurry of high piano arpeggios blurred and reverberated by sustained notes on strings and organ, aided by sporadic flourishes on piccolo and E-flat clarinet. Three slow chorales for ensemble make up the inner movements, interleaved by two interludes for solo piano. The ensemble plays staggered chords that rock and lilt, but never lull the listener into relaxation; the organ renders the instruments amorphous and strange while the piano interjects with pedal points. In each iteration, the tone is lower and darker, with the winds playing bass flute and bass clarinet by the penultimate movement, but the pace is not as ‘glacial’ as the programme notes suggest. The piano interludes, however, are extremely sparse and reticent, pastorales slowed to the point of gaps opening up in the music, pricking the anxiety that some further detail needs to be filled in.

Has Lang gone Hollywood? That would be an overstatement, but in his programme notes he writes about William Morris being the impetus for this new piece, using the stanzas of his poem “March” to guide each of the inner ensemble movements. Lang relates Morris to his own thoughts in his essay “The Return of Craft”, finding parallels between the Victorian era and our own, making art a refutation of the increasing use of cheaply automated manufacturing and digitalisation and the concomitant effect of diminishing our abilities in concentration, patience and skill. While Lang’s own compositional skills are more overtly evident than before in his new piece, it’s strange how his previous music has embodied this refutation of short-term materialism, while march (william morris) is less an exemplar and more an expression of anxiety of his own situation, shifting from object to subject.

All Hallows-by-the-Tower sits just above the old Circle and District tube lines and so their periodic rumble provided an accompaniment throughout the concert, functioning as an extra bourdon stop to the organ in a way that never really seemed out of place with the music.

Pauline Oliveros and Chamber Music

Tuesday 27 June 2023

Pauline Oliveros is one of those artists whose genius is sufficiently radical for her vast legacy to be generally acknowledged but rarely examined. A cursory review of her career highlights her pioneering work in electronics, free improvisation and psychosomatic music, but until now her work as a composer for ensembles has been overshadowed by the focus on the meditative and collaborative aspects of her practice. The imbalance is being addressed by two new albums, the first from Another Timbre featuring members of Apartment House. Sound Pieces collects six pieces, composed between 1975 and 1998, and marks a critical introduction to performance of Oliveros’ music without her direct involvement. The earliest piece here may also be the best known: Horse sings from cloud has appeared in a couple of versions on Oliveros’ albums and on this occasion uses clarinet, violin, viola, cello and percussion to produce long tones held over sustained chords. With one exception, the realisations here are all compact pieces, sub-10 minutes each. These works, David Tudor from 1980, Quintessential and From unknown silences from 1996, and 1998’s Sound Piece present distinct works that juxtapose sounds in novel ways. Quintessential, for example, places isolated sounds into a freely-arranged structure, while David Tudor finds new ways of creating continuities through joint activity. It’s curious that the pieces don’t seem to belong to a particular point in time, with no sign of reflecting trends or fashions whether in the Seventies or the Nineties. These are text pieces, giving brief instructions to the performers, so it’s easier to associate them with the late 1960s, particularly Christian Wolff’s open compositions which find a form through the musicians’ consensus. This field of interpretation is grist for the mill for Apartment House, a collective who can make even the least promising material come alive. Apparently, practically no rehearsal went into most of these recordings, placing musicians who have worked together frequently with some newer faces to create music very much focused in the moment. Despite the strong spiritual associations with much of Oliveros’ later work, the emphasis in these pieces is on the immediate experience of sound, without reliance on a grander philosophical (or theosophical) aspiration to give the music meaning: compare with Stockhausen’s ‘intuitive music’ to hear the contrast.

The long work on the album is the forty-minute Tree/Peace from 1984, for string trio with piano. It is structured in seven sections and provides specific pitches for the musicians to work with, but leaves the deployment of that material open to their interpretation of associations to be found in the programmatic text. The album’s presentation shies away from the drama school connotations of the interpretative text, possibly for the best, as Apartment House produce a slender but substantial chamber work of small but significant contrasts in atmosphere and texture, with points of structural reference and moments that almost resemble traditional compositional development. In their hands, at least, the work has an unassuming but assertive presence with greater and lesser characteristics that become more apparent with each listen; a far cry from the usual homophonous haze associated with meditative music.

Meanwhile in Canada, Art Metropole has released a provocative testament to Oliveros with their book and album Resonance Gathering. The audio component begins with a spoken word piece by IONE, poet and Oliveros’ widow. Recorded in their home in 2021, The Sound Of Awakening alternates speech and silence, with phrases that start on the self and move outwards in situation and history. It describes a struggle between individual and collective, of progress and setbacks. Old battles return with new significance, throwing the past into a different light. It’s a fitting introduction to the recording of Oliveros’ large composition To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation, which takes up the remainder of the album. Composed in 1970 for anything from six people to a large orchestra, it presents her group methods on a larger scale, at a turning point between her earlier and later approaches to music. Using coloured lighting for the space, changes in colour cue the musicians on how to use the five pitches they have selected in advance, singly or in groups, with greater or lesser freedom. Notes are played long and allow for wide ranges of modulation. The performance heard here comes from the end of a series of concerts and rehearsals in Toronto by the collective Public Recordings and artist/composer Christopher Willes. There’s about twenty people, musicians and non-musicians, producing an immense, vibrant wall of sound reminiscent of some of the Scratch Orchestra’s concerts-cum-public rallies or a particularly wild Fluxus gig. The apparent simplistic directness of the score, which strikes us now as a marker of that time, carries with it at least some self-awareness often lacking in politically-charged art, with a consciousness of the contradictory implications to imposing self-discipline. That, along with the single-mindedness of a diverse group, affords the piece some enduring power. As listeners, we cannot say if the concert experience was agitating as well as agitated, but it’s good to hear a spirited approach to a piece that gets namedropped but otherwise never heard. Well, here it’s heard in part: three fifteen-minutes excerpts from each large section, with fades in between, from a piece written to be 135 minutes. It would be preferable to have access to the whole thing as a download, in addition to the versions prepped for a limited edition double-LP plus book. As an aural appendix, the book comes with a flexidisc of long tones recorded by the individual orchestra members which you are invited to manipulate to create lock grooves. Perversely, the download provides a demonstration but not the stems for your own non-destructive creative session.

The Unexpected: Robert Piotrowicz, Jérôme Noetinger and Anthony Pateras

Thursday 22 June 2023

Had not one but two very pleasant surprises from Penultimate Press; well, more than two really. I’m sure I’ve never heard of Robert Piotrowicz before: he’s a Polish composer and sound artist (don’t panic) and I wish I knew more about him because the three pieces on Afterlife are the kind of serious fun I can really get behind. These are fully electronic pieces, although what is sampled and what is synthesised remains elusive. They work as extended studies in hyperreality, made all the more hallucinatory by using that grey area between physical and virtual as the starting premise instead of the ultimate goal. Piotrowicz has created what sounds like an enormous pipe organ, tuned in 1/3-tones instead of conventional instrumentation and capable of summoning and dispelling entire ranks of additional stops at the wave of a hand. The first two pieces, Rozpylenie (Overdusting) and Noumen seethe and scintillate, making sudden turns in mood and harmonies in ways that seem capricious yet also calculated to retain tension and concentration as he shapes each piece in ways that verge on sheets of electronic noise without ever quite shedding an uncanny resemblence to the acoustic phenomena of organ pipes (which in turn can be pretty uncanny in themselves). The title work is as long as the first two put together and forgoes the tighter focus to produce a dirge-like chorale that swings back and forth between denatured chords to build up auditory hallucinations and then strip them away, only to find new apparitions lurking underneath.

I said more than two surprises because although it was nice to see a new release by Jérôme Noetinger and Anthony Pateras I somehow expected a kind of follow-up to their contemplative A Sunset For Walter from a few years back. Nuh-uh. 15 Coruscations is an entirely different beast: a suite of electroacoustic vignettes that build up into a deceptively devastating montage of analogue and digital electronics with manipulated found sounds that traverse the highest and lowest ends of the genre. The piano is gone, but the tape-munching and synth module graffiti remain, along with more subtle and devious collaging methods, created both in real time and the editing suite. The sounds are fresh and things move fast, mixing and matching ephemera with a quick-witted decisiveness reminiscient of the most subsersive pop art. (There’s that idea of serious fun again.) Too wise to identify a specific target for their subversion, Noetinger and Pateras nevertheless hone in on their theme; as the sequence progresses, the pacing of events broadens out and leads the listener into more reflective spaces. As the novelty and restlessness dissipates, the greater focus on sound and atmosphere holds the listener in the expectation that darker forces could erupt at any moment. It’s a neatly freighted expression of hope. Both of these albums look like they could be released on vinyl but apparently aren’t because screw inferior-sounding consumer object fetishism.

Juliet Fraser Sings Lucier, Armstrong, Crane

Monday 19 June 2023

All That Dust has released its fifth batch of recordings, three of them as downloads in binaural audio. I went to the launch concert on Wednesday to hear live performances of some of the solo pieces by Rósa Lind and Soosan Lolavar, as well as a spatialised electronic piece by Aaron Einbond. I’ll get round to them later, but for now I want to mention the two binaural releases featuring soprano and label co-founder Juliet Fraser. The first is a performance of Alvin Lucier’s Wave Songs, a piece I don’t think has been commercially available before now. There are eleven short, wordless songs accompanied by two sine wave oscillators close enough in frequency to create beating tones that can be counted. The singer is required to sing tones precisely specified above or below either electronic frequency. Exact pitch is hard to discern when the interference of close frequencies create pulses, and with each successive piece the difference between the two sine waves narrows, from 48 hertz in the first piece down to 0.5 hertz in the last. To stay as accurate as the score requires is an excercise in futility, yet the pursuit of an ideal is as much of what makes us human as our failure to achieve it. As with much of Lucier’s work, the musical interest comes from the discrepancies between scientific perfection and human intervention, with no need to exaggerate the degree of their deviation. Fraser sings in a way which mixes precision with a softer edge (compare and contrast her rendition of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices with the version by Joan La Barbara, who first performed Wave Songs) that makes each song pulsate and shimmer. I lied when I said it’s wordless; the penultimate song sets words by Lee Lozano, the artist whose paintings inspired the piece, on the human limitations on transforming science into art. Despite all this, the music doesn’t rely on a romantic notion of imperfection: if someone were to sing it perfectly, it would be as stupendous as Giotto drawing a circle freehand.

Newton Armstrong’s The Book of the Sediments is one of a set of pieces Fraser has commissioned that draw on the writings of Rachel Carson for inspiration. Armstrong’s use of electronic shadowing of introspective melody is reduced here to essences, focusing on fragments of text reiterated in slowly rising patterns while overlapped by microtonally-tuned electronic sounds. The comparison with Wave Songs is instructive, with some 25 years of history intervening between the two works. At first the impression is that of a more developed Lucier piece, as solid tones beat against each other and Fraser’s calm recital of charged words, but the sounds from the speakers steadily grow more complex, sounding more and more like acoustic instruments before crackling, scattered rain-like sounds cover everything. The theme of the piece is accretion, as one layer replaces another, and the ending does not suggest a final state has been reached, just that observation of the process has concluded.

Another of the Rachel Carson works recently released, this time on Another Timbre, is Laurence Crane’s Natural World, an odd and affecting work of some duration. Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop wend their way through song and field recordings with a pacing that’s too slow to be considered relaxed and too deliberate to be dreamlike. After a lengthy introduction of descending piano phrases and unresolved cadences, Fraser enters with nature observations sung in repeated, gradually rising lines. The pairing with genteel chordal accompaniment makes it all seem rather stately, in a quaint and English countryside way. The qualities of Fraser’s voice come to the fore here, imbuing the words with a mixture of simple dignity and melancholy. The tone is reminiscent of Crane’s earlier European Towns, also premiered by Fraser, both in its cycling of lists and its wistful atmosphere. At times, human music gives way to recordings of nature, before resuming on a slightly different tack from before. Natural World falls into two long sections, ‘Field Guide’ and ‘Seascape’, with a briefer chorus as an interlude, making a piece nearly an hour long. The Chorus is a vocalise of descending glissadi, accompanied by birdsong and somewhat bluesy piano chords. Before ‘Seascape’ begins, the piano has given way to a small, portable electronic keyboard which plays high, reedy drones. The voice alternates between recitation and folksong-like refrains as the subject transitions from land to water. It’s a difficult piece to pull off, with its strange construction, loose seams and surface naivety, requiring confidence in the resilience of the slight materials to hold the listener in suspense as it wanders from one passage to another. Fraser and Knoop laregly succeed by maintaining seriousness without demonstrative earnestness, investing faith in the tangible phenomena depicted in words and on tape while refraining from introspection as a poor substitute. In this approach as much as the slightly awkward, almost apologetic candour that prevails throughout, it comes across as a distinctly English work.