Joseph Kudirka: Beauty and Industry

Thursday 21 January 2016


Other than hearing a performance of his piece wyoming snow on the radio last year, I really knew nothing about Joseph Kudirka before receiving this new CD in the mail.

That performance of wyoming snow was for multitracked cello, played by Anton Lukoszevieze. The same piece appears twice again on the Beauty and Industry CD, but played by different ensembles. Lukoszevieze is the founder of the ensemble Apartment House, which has done so much lately to present new and neglected music. This disc dedicated to Kudirka’s music is probably the latest.

As previously implied, Kudirka writes pieces open to interpretation and several of them are played two or three times during the course of the disc. An informative interview on the Another Timbre site reveals that, although his scores are typically “open”, Kudirka is leery of the term “text score” and his musical education was grounded in playing and instrument before composition became a major concern. (“I’m great at playing music that I hate.”) He’s another one of the generation of composers taught by James Tenney and Michael Pisaro at CalArts, although he did not appear on the rather wonderful and surprising West Coast Soundings album I reviewed in 2014.

The scores for the pieces played here range from introspective variations on George Brecht’s terse Fluxus scores, to general instructions determining the form, structure and materials for the piece, to music notation that leaves unspoken questions of interpretation, instrumentation and intonation. They can also be seen on the Another Timbre web site, with audio excerpts.

The music reflects Kudirka’s background as a performer. The text scores allow a music structure and character to emerge through the musicians’ choices. In that respect they ingeniously operate in a manner similar to early Feldman or late Cage, but in a looser and more generalised way. It can’t be entirely a coincidence that this music shares a similarly slow and soft atmosphere.

When I think of other text scores (good ones) they seem to concentrate on setting into motion an overall process governed by a set of conditions, either internal like Aus den sieben Tagen or external, like Cardew’s Paragraph 7 or pieces by James Saunders. Kudirka’s seem unusual in that they focus on defining and arranging details. There’s an elegance to their simplicity, and the music emerges fully defined and subtle. The repeated takes on this disc shows that each piece has depth beyond an interest in compositional technique.

Repeated listenings reveal an unexpected variety. It’s a nicely-balanced selection of works: 14 tracks in a little over 50 minutes. Enough to be absorbed by without getting entirely lost. Some pieces are barely 30 seconds; the longest reaches beyond 8 minutes. The small scale allows attention to details and gestures. Pieces like Grey and an orchestral fantasy have a sombre formality compared to the sustained tones of Beauty and Industry or the more polychromatic wyoming snow.

A large part of this is down to Apartment House musicians, who play with great sensitivity and fidelity to the score. On each track they present interpretations which are distinctive without needing to resort to extremes, setting a consistent mood that still shifts in shading from one piece to the next.

Unfinished Business: Ezra Pound’s Music

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Been listening a lot to two new CDs on Another Timbre: a new album of Jürg Frey’s piano music played by Philip Thomas, and a collection of pieces by Joseph Kudirka played by Apartment House. I need to talk about these soon but I’ve got left over business from the London Contemporary Music Festival last month. It was an incredible programme that mixed old and new, familiar and obscure in a way that took risks simply by being such an eclectic jumble of different practices and backgrounds: a true portrait of the state of “contemporary music” at the start of a century that still hasn’t a defined identity.

A long blog post by Lawrence Dunn gives an excellent analysis of many events from the LCMF, as well as the La Monte Young and other gigs at Huddersfield. (Dunn also discusses Philip Thomas playing Frey’s piano music live.) The latter part of his post goes into detail about the LCMF night “To a new definition of opera”, which still strikes me as the stand-out event in the programme. The first half of Tim Parkinson’s Time With People, which I’ve talked about before, re-appeared and its stage detritus persisted amongst the audience throughout the whole programme.

The evening ended with Stockhausen’s Pietà finally getting played in this country – a prime example of his later music being quite mad and quite wonderful. It began by plunging the audience into the verbal and visual assault of Ryan Trecartin’s video Center Jenny. Dunn’s blog links to the video and makes the excellent observation that this work connects to the legacy of Robert Ashley’s operas, in a deep and disturbing way. I can’t really agree with Dunn’s feeling that it’s the work of “the worst sort of antifeminist”. It seemed more to me that the video is about misogyny than of it, or worse, that it dispassionately picks up one unsavoury aspect of current social anxieties which, salvaged as a remnant in a post-apocalyptic future, is arbitrarily selected as the model for a future society. It could have been racism, but that’s too heavy now. The gender and social roles depicted in US sorority life are still presented as cheerfully benign, and exist in a curious cultural vacuum: through movies and TV they are familiar to everyone around the world, but unlike McDonald’s or basketball they remain utterly alien to even the most pro-American Anglophone. The average age of the audience on this night was noticeably older, and they generally seemed to find Center Jenny amusing.

I presume the older people were an equal mix of Stockhausen fans and Pound fans. The night was my chance to hear Ezra Pound’s music played live, with a potted version of his opera Le Testament de Villon played for the first time in the UK in its “un-revised” phrasing. Pound’s music is seldom heard and even when scholars of Pound the poet bring it up there’s much lip service and little critical discussion. It tends to get pigeonholed as a passing phase, one of the less harmful of his many eccentricities. On paper, it has often been dismissed as crude and amateurish: irregular meters and phrasing, no pauses, introductions or conclusions, any polyphony usually an accompanying instrument moving in parallel with the voice. It’s clear he set Villon’s words line by line to melody, determined by the intonation of a speaking voice. Pound himself suggested that the opera was instigated by the impossibility of satisfactorily translating Villon into English.

One critic has sniffed that the opera is “less a foray into modernism and more a half-baked retreat into pre-operatic archaism” and so misses the point. It’s of a piece with much of Pound’s poetry to that time, of reclaiming and revitalising old cultural forms, “making it new”. “Early music” as it is appreciated now was barely known in 1920s and Pound had advocated for it before (going as far as to buy a clavichord from Arnold Dolmetsch in 1915, despite not knowing how to play it) and after (microfilming unpublished Vivaldi manuscripts in the 1930s).

Those strange, meandering vocal lines of irregular length are now familiar to audiences through the resemblance to plainchant, albeit with a minimal accompaniment (often just solo violin) and a strange, not-quite-modal intonation. The baritone Robert Gildon and mezzo Lore Lixenberg sang without the vibrato that would have been hard to expunge in Pound’s lifetime. The piece begins with an overture on solo cornet de dessus (think a valveless trumpet the size of an alphorn), the interludes are brief, spare taps on a kettle drum. When Virgil Thomson heard it he presciently noted that “it bore family resemblances unmistakable to the Socrate of Satie” – another overlooked masterwork by a composer yet to be appreciated. The pared-down simplicity of the opera recalls John Cage’s reduction of Socrate, but his Cheap Imitation was written over 40 years later. The haunting motet at the end of the opera carries the same blurring of familiar and strange, in the same manner of Cage’s arrangements of 18th Century American hymns – achieved, again, by erasing. Cage’s last operas also reduce the elements of opera to the barest essentials. I haven’t read anything that suggests Cage was knowledgeable about Pound as a composer.

The LCMF programme specifically links the Pound and the Stockhausen Pietà as “two neglected masterpieces of modernism”. When Stockhausen died I connected him to Pound in terms of how much their work remains misunderstood and will probably stay that way. The LCMF concert felt like a first step for treating Pound’s music as more than a curiosity.

LCMF 2015, first three days real quick

Monday 14 December 2015

I’ve spent the last three nights at the London Contemporary Music Festival and plan to spend the next four there, too. No time to put any of these thoughts into a coherent form, so this will have to do.

It’s an incredibly ambitious programme, with an eclectic array of big names and obscurities. The venue’s pretty cool and allows for acts to follow each other pretty much immediately without longueurs.

Friday night didn’t come off. Very short sets for live electronic musicians Tom Mudd and John Wall didn’t allow them enough time to get going. Other pieces tended to be awkward, self-conscious exercises in performance art, which was a bit of a downer. Sets by Shelley Parker and Visionist suffered from being dance music freeze-dried as art.

Saturday was great, focusing on composers who are from or passed through California. Pauline Oliveros and Morton Subotnick each got to noodle around and soak up the acclaim they deserve. Some old favourites (Cowell, Cage), a couple of twists (Terry Riley’s Keyboard Study No. 2, Otis O’Solomon reciting poetry). The highlight was the UK premiere of Catherine Lamb’s duo for bassoongrand bass recorder and (microtonally-intoned) cello, Frames.

It was good to hear Maggie Payne getting some exposure, alongside the Carl Stone piece. I’m still not sure exactly what the fuss is about John Luther Adams.

The space is huge, benches and standing room. There is a cash bar in the adjoining room. Not everything played (e.g. Lamb) is amplified. Everyone keeps quiet and pays attention. Ellen Fullman’s long string instrument was set up in advance, stretching diagonally across the floor. Staff and punters do a sterling job of keeping anyone from falling into it.

Wednesday started with Ellen Fullman premiering a new work, The Watch Reprise. Copies of the score are dotted along the floor for reference as she walks back and forth playing the strings. The tuning system gets progressively crazier; in this cavernous room the bass sub-harmonics come out particularly strong.

Bryn Harrison’s Repetitions in Extended Time is another disorientating labyrinth of interweaving patterns. For forty-five minutes the instruments act as if alone, yet always rubbing up against each other in a passive-aggressive state of forced co-existence. Imagine a late Feldman piece, or the opening of Haas’ in vain, boiled down into an absurdist drama.

Tim Etchells repeats pithy phrases, turning them over like Wittgenstein overhearing gossip on a bus, while Aisha Orazbayeva taps and scrapes away at her violin. This is dumb, I think. But it’s an improvisation, of sorts, I remind myself. A weird kind of improvisation, so I kind of like it. The violin sounds nice, even though it’s making the most meagre of gestures. Maybe the words mean more by the sounds than by what they say, too. I try to listen to it differently, put them together. I’ll need to hear it again.

Three Days in Huddersfield (Part Two of Two)

Friday 4 December 2015

Part One is here. If you want a better of what was actually happening at the HCMF this year, go over to 5:4 for detailed reviews of practically everything.

I arrived in Huddersfield just in time to hear the Quatuor Bozzini play Jürg Frey’s second and third string quartets. Both nearly half-an-hour long, the second quartet was composed over the turn of the century, the third a decade later. The second quartet sustains a constant mood and method – hushed, isolated chords are played in unison, with recurring harmonies partially obscured by the whispering of the bows against the strings. We’re back in the musical world of toying with extremes.

The third quartet reveals a clear and immediate contrast, with Frey’s recent style. It’s almost “classical music”, albeit on its own terms, within a very attenuated space. Isolated chords appear again, but speaking more fully. More prevalent are the passages of harmonic sequences. Some counterpoint emerges, through long-held notes sustained over an accompaniment of alternating chords. There is phrasing and variations in dynamics, from soft to very soft. Every now and then, a long-held chord acts like a cadence by means of its simple consistency, with tiny variations in timbre and balance becoming perceptible. All this variety suggests a teleology, a functional structure, but the start and the end sound arbitrary – as indeed does all of the middle. Like Morton Feldman, Frey has become a master of non-functional harmony.

Frey’s found a path of moderation away from some of the extremes of his earlier music. Moderation is too often seen as a bad thing in itself, a deviation from a pure ideal*. The night after hearing Jakob Ullmann’s solo IV, I was at the premiere of his 90-minute sort-of concerto la segunda canción del ángel desaparecido. Once again, I find myself wondering if I’m listening to this the right way. It’s always disturbing when an artist delivers you something other than what you expect. Hearing Ullman’s Son Imaginaire III at Huddersfield a couple of years ago was a concert-going experience that still looms large in my memory. la segunda canción was a surprising moderation of his usual aesthetic, albeit again within a narrow range. Two percussionists did a superb job of adding detail and texture without disrupting the typically fragile surface of Ullmann’s music. Even more surprising was the distinct layering of different dynamics, with a trio of winds (bassoon, basset horn, flute) sounding out above the string quintet. For Ullmann, it was almost strident. The strings would periodically burst into soft, agitated chatter.

I had problems listening to this. The difference in dynamics seemed to separate out the winds and strings too much, with little interplay between the two groups (which were also physically separated, horizontally and vertically). Too often the strings sounded like accompaniment, and when the winds were silent the material they had to play increasingly sounded repetitive and dull. It may have been just because I was hoping to hear something else, more of what I was used to. Again, I got worried I was listening the wrong way.

* What’s really disturbing is an apparent narrowing of aesthetic parameters, where approaching an extreme seems like the only way out of the current impasse. Moving away from an extreme comes across as a pulled punch, like the more famous minimalist composers who were unable to develop their signature style beyond diluting it. Listening to the more “conventional” compositions at the HCMF, there’s a general sense of being trapped where expansion beyond the new seems to be just like a return to the old. (Might expand on this later.**)

** This paragraph was jotted down after a few quick whiskies between gigs, as fortification against the weather.

Three Days in Huddersfield (Part One of Two)

Wednesday 2 December 2015

First night in Huddersfield for the HCMF I went to the first UK performance of La Monte Young’s The Melodic Version (1984) of The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China (1962), which seems a good place to start as a point of reference; not just for the music prominently featured throughout the festival, but also an overt attempt to create an idealised context for reception of such music. As well as the incense and the specially prepared lighting by Marian Zazeela, there were instructions for audience behaviour (no applause) and a sheaf of briefing notes with extensive descriptions of the music, related pieces of music and the thinking behind such music. There wasn’t time to read all the notes before the music started but luckily we weren’t set a test on it afterwards. You could possibly read the notes while the music played although I expect this would be frowned upon.

Those elements that Young introduced into modern music – stasis, non-linear time, a deep awareness of acoustic and psychoacoustic phenomena – reappeared throughout the festival this year. With it, the need for different ways of listening arise. Young addresses this explicitly, while other composers raise it in less direct, but not necessarily more subtle ways.

The Huddersfield punters encountered musical extremes. The premiere of Jakob Ullmann’s solo IV for double bass was almost inaudible, by design. Almost like an Onkyo performance, a thirty-minute silence with only the lightest of inflections, allowing a sublime subtlety to emerge, of the type that John Cage admired in Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings. All through the trip I wondered if my ears were working right, or if my brain was getting in the way. Can the people up the back hear anything at all? Bassist Dominic Lash ekes out each tiny sound with such care and tenderness, but does the whole thing come across as slightly precious? Of the half-dozen or so works of Ullmann’s music I’ve encountered, this seemed the one closest to relying on a conceptual basis over a musical one.

Later that same day I heard Zbigniew Karkowski’s Fluster for solo electric bass with electronic processing. Earplugs are offered to the punters, signs are posted warning it will be loud. It is. And piercing, or otherwise penetrating. Karkowski’s image seems so much like a caricature, pictured in the programme pointing a handgun, making loud, abrasive noise, railing against “bullshit”. Fluster forces the listener to confront three successive fronts of sound as brute force: a low bass that rattles the speakers, the listener, the building; a relentless blast of white noise; a shrill chatter and screech of high-pitched static. It all goes on for a while, but time has no function here other than to establish the sounds’ physical presence. Virtuoso bassist Kasper Toeplitz becomes increasingly agitated by the demands of executing such precise actions to produce seemingly indifferent noise. The crackle of distorting speaker cones and buzzing of roof beams must be part of the music but who knows for sure? There’s a welter of tiny details within the high-pitched noise, but how much of it is really there and how much of it just the ears struggling to keep up? Extreme loudness guarantees an immediate visceral shock which can soon fade, but Karkowski’s music is not so superficial. The real shock is that people haven’t yet worked out how they are meant to listen to it, or whether in fact they heard it at all, behind all the noise.

This post has already gone on longer than I expected about less than I wanted to say, so I’ll post the rest of it later.

Michael Vincent Waller: The South Shore

Tuesday 22 September 2015

I got a shock when I first put on this album. It was kindly sent to me by the composer. I opened the package to see an album from Phill Niblock‘s Experimental Intermedia label, cover art by Niblock, sleeve notes by “Blue” Gene Tyranny. Knowing nothing about Waller, all signs pointed to music that would be right up my alley: minimal (if not ascetic), with an underlying logic readily perceptible (if not rigorous). I hit play on track 1 and got mugged by something unambiguously… pretty.

Two CDs, 21 brief compositions of new chamber music, all with the same shamelessly “romantic textures”, to quote from the sleeve notes. It’s relentless, as if the double-length playing time is meant to reassure you that the sweet, modal harmonies and melodic fragments are truly guileless. The avowed simplicity and directness of intention and execution for each piece would like to be seen as disarming, but it put me on my guard. It’s like one of those cultural games that Nabokov played in his novels: the more you know about the subject, the worse you get entangled in his snares.

Those sleeve notes open by describing Waller’s music as “a welcome and rare alternative to the tempo and noise of modern life…. Waller’s music convinces us by its honest emotion, which avoids any artifice that would dramatically pull us toward some effect.” As I listened to each piece I kept waiting for the angle to emerge, the conceptual scare quotes. It didn’t happen. The initial impulse is to compare the music to Howard Skempton’s, but there’s a tangible difference. Skempton also writes tonal or modal miniatures, but his music is reduced to the barest essentials. Waller’s music is clearly informed by the past few decades of “minimalist composers” and the “new tonality” but even in this restricted scale of composition there’s always a suggestion of something grander, a romantic excessiveness of expression.

It’s a dangerous aesthetic no-man’s-land in which Waller has staked out his musical territory, where artistic merit lives or dies by the sureness of the artist’s grip on prevailing aesthetic tastes. At this time such an enterprise seems so foolhardy that I kept my ears pricked for the slightest lapse of sincerity, some cultural or ironic distancing. Tyranny’s notes for each piece seem to invite a disingenuous reading: “I do feel the almost neo-Baroque sensation taking me back to my own trips across Italy.” “There seems to be a mixed emotion in this piece that hints at a troubled memory arising in the morning.” The word “uplifting” is used to describe at least two pieces. We would appear to have entered a post-postmodern aesthetic, of new sincerity.

Other reviews have described this album as gentle, poetic, lyrically beautiful. I found myself listening to music that teetered on a knife edge, threatening to slip at any moment from sweet clarity to trite sentimentality. The starkest moments are usually the most effective: the concluding “Arbitrage” pieces for solo clarinet and bass clarinet with gongs, for example. The Variations for Quintet with its canons and repetitions are pleasingly reminiscent of some of John Cage’s beguilingly blank music from the mid to late 1940s.

Of course, Cage at that time was struggling with finding his true compositional voice. Much like e. e. cummings, whose poetry Cage occasionally set to music, his attempts at disarming directness could sometimes lapse into fey affectation. This happens in some pieces in this collection, such as the piano solo Pasticcio per meno è più, which sounds a little ingratiating. It will be interesting to hear how Waller’s music develops and whether increased confidence in his craft will make his music more self-effacing or more extroverted.

I keep listening for the angle, trying to trip it up, catch it out. Maybe I want a darker undercurrent to throw the lighter shades into relief. Maybe I’m too cynical, too sophisticated in the pejorative sense.

Apartment House at 20

Wednesday 19 August 2015

The question is not whether or not what Cage is doing is art. I’m convinced that it will be art without even hearing the piece, only because he does it. The question is, and it is because of John we must ask this question: Is music an art form to begin with? Was it always show biz? And by show biz I mean Monteverdi…. What I mean by show biz is fantastic show biz. That a new piece of Boulez, perhaps, presented in a classy hall in Paris is like Sarah Bernhardt doing a monolog. Without the histrionics, of course. That’s what I mean. By holding the moment. By capturing the moment in every sense of the word.

Morton Feldman, in conversation with Peter Gena.

I often say to people I’m not interested in music, I’m interested in art. And I still believe that; I can point to a composer and say, “That’s an artist,” and I can point to someone else and say, “Well, they’re just a composer.”

Anton Lukoszevieze, in conversation with Robert Worby.

It’s probably this commitment to music as art that makes me go to Apartment House gigs whenever I can. I was going to say that it’s their commitment to playing unjustly-neglected composers, but sadly the state of the arty end of the music business often means the two are the same thing. I got to go to their 20th anniversary gig at Cafe Oto last month but never got around to writing about it. Luckily, the whole thing (almost*) is now on the BBC web site for the next month.

What struck me most at the time was how well the programme flowed, presenting diverse types of music with a strong defining character for the whole evening. The playing order is different on the radio but the strength of the music remains. Listening again, you can hear how each piece alternates between two extremes of musical language – the minimal and the seemingly anarchic. There’s a shared way of thinking behind each of these two extremes: the predominant compositional thought given to the organisation of material, the innovative use of structure and the careful handling of sonic materials to present them in a new light. As art, each piece touches the listener through its own intrinsic qualities without relying on a narrative, a mood, a subject, or other high-falutin’ appeals to sentimentality.

There’s a mix of new composers (Luiz Henrique Yudo, Jennifer Walshe), old stuff (John Cage) and revelations: a new chamber ensemble arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s fluxorum organum (different from the one I heard in Huddersfield in 2013) and George Maciunas played at least as well as Mozart. Maciunas, he’s supposed to be essential, right? Every textbook mentions him, but nobody plays him. He might as well be Josquin. (I’m reading that Feldman interview again. “This whole business of accessibility is a lot of baloney.”)

The radio show also plays a couple of pieces from that Apartment House CD of Maciunas’ music I wrote about early this year, so you get to hear that, too. You also get to hear composer Laurence Crane messing around with various found objects and Lore Lixenberg singing John Cage’s Aria together with his Concert for Piano and Orchestra – a particularly fine rendition of each.

* To recreate the full concert experience at home, break for a couple of intervals and play The Fall** while having a few drinks.

** First Brix era mostly, I think.

Jürg Frey: Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014

Tuesday 4 August 2015

I won’t search for it but a few years ago I made the passing remark that if Morton Feldman’s music can be compared to Rothko (as it often is) then Howard Skempton’s can be compared to Morandi. The use of melody and conventional harmonic patterns creates a beguiling sensation of familiarity. That initial impression is deceptive, precisely in that it doesn’t try to deceive: representation in one and functional harmony in the other are left exposed, revealed as artifice – yet they still convey their effect (or affect).

Late last year I heard Jürg Frey and a small ensemble play a concert of his recent music. At the time I wrote that:

Some of Frey’s music that I’ve heard seems, to some extent, a provocation in its refusal to yield to an implied, wider palette of sounds. (This is particularly after hearing R. Andrew Lee play Frey’s piano music.) On this occasion, there were also some surprisingly rich sounds, with an almost playful (on Frey’s terms) exploration of harmonies and instrument combinations.

The album of Frey’s music that was recorded around the same time as that concert has now been released by Another Timbre as a double CD, titled Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014. After hearing the concert I said that, “It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.” It sounds even more tender and yielding than I expected. Is Frey mellowing with age, or am I just getting acclimatised?

I listened again to Lee’s excellent first CD of Frey’s piano music. There’s a striking contrast between those earlier works and the newer pieces on Grizzana. There’s that notorious passage in Klavierstück II where the same perfect fourth is repeated 468 times. When repetitions appear in the newer music they provide a sense of continuity, not of stasis or impasse. The music alters the listener’s perception of the world through its complex sensory effect more than through any aesthetic dialectic. (Morton Feldman distinguished his own music from John Cage’s by highlighting the didactic tendency in Cage: “Most music is metaphor… I am not metaphor. Parable, maybe. Cage is sermon.”)

I’m reading that interview with Frey about the new CD and – what do you know? – he’s talking about Morandi:

Morandi’s painting is figurative painting, but at the same time, he works with aspects of abstract painting. So you can see him also as an abstract painter who works with objects. To make a link to music (and sorry, I have to simplify it now, but in the daily process of my work, this reflection develops the whole richness of complexity), I can understand a melody as like a figurative part of a painting. Similarly to how you can remember melody as a “thing“, as a motif in music, you can see on the canvas a bottle, a house (and some painters speak about “working on the motif”). So on the other hand, in music the sound (just the sound) can be seen as an equivalent to abstract colour.

I could have just read further and quoted that instead of typing all the above.

Frey’s recent music is imbued with a quiet sophistication – the sort that doesn’t need to display its radical nature, its erudition. Where it was once necessary to make statements (like in the six-hour, almost inaudible electroacoustic collage Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit) it is now possible for these values to be affirmed as a given. The piece Ferne Farben, for example, uses field recordings in a way that may not even be noticed on casual listening, giving additional life, space and colour to the otherwise very slow and quiet playing of the acoustic instruments. Or perhaps, listening to it yet again, it’s the other way around.

As might be expected, the performances by Frey himself and his “personal army” are beautifully clear and evocative. Aspects of this album recall last year’s double CD of Laurence Crane’s music, released on the same label: a sustained mood of ambiguous detail, unbroken surfaces over hidden depths. Frey’s music here, however, creates a strange double image in which each sound feels tentative yet inarguable, like a delicate organism. In the trio Area of Three, sustained sounds are inflected with the quietest, briefest notes that pass almost like accidents, silences pass like clouds. Appropriately, another of the pieces is titled Fragile Balance.

James Saunders – assigned #15

Tuesday 28 July 2015

This is a weirdly evocative piece. I wrote about James Saunders’s music last year, having heard a CD and attended a live concert of his music. At the time I noted his use of found objects as well as instruments, a focus on process and structure, minimalism, controlled improvisation and group behaviour (cf. The Great Learning). One thing I didn’t discuss at the time was his ability to make pieces from simple gestures using simple domestic objects (coffee cups, sheets of paper) and transcend these materials to make rich, subtle soundscapes far removed from their mundane origins. (I’m trying to remember who made that criticism of musique concrète, that so much of it dwells in the cosy familiarity of the banal.)

Reading Saunders’ own discussion of assigned #15, it all seems straightforward: he had spent the better part of a decade making modular pieces out of combinations of short musical gestures and longer, sustained drones. These modules could be reused, mixed and matched, each piece a one-off. assigned #15 is a new work which combines a selection of these modules into a repeatable piece of music.

The resulting music was completely unexpected. This very rarely happens, but listening to the CD created a very strong sensory impression in my head. The small chamber ensemble, augmented by a small organ, shortwave radio and dictaphones, evoked memories of being on deck for a ferry crossing. The low, constant thrum of the engines, the whistling of a wind that rises and falls, the unsteady rhythms of cables caught in the crosswind, the slow sighing and creaking of the vessel shifting in the water. This is merely my personal affectation but it illustrates the transformative qualities the composition has upon its materials.

The dictaphones distort and blur the other instruments, the radio and organ recede into the wash that simultaneously covers and anchors the other instruments. The strange combination of fleeting gestures and drones means that the music changes from one minute to the next but never loses hold of a unified, enigmatic image. I’ve previously described some of Saunders’ work as verging on technical exercises but this piece goes beyond any technical considerations; it makes a surprisingly bold statement over its unbroken span of 45 minutes.

Much of these qualities are brought out by the excellent playing by Apartment House, assisted by the composer handling the electronic devices. The musicians maintain a relentlessly focussed balance between the heavy and the delicate textures throughout.

The Great Learning at Union Chapel, 2015

Monday 20 July 2015

One of my formative experiences as a youth was hearing a few minutes’ excerpt from that old LP of Paragraph 7 from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning on AM radio. It has haunted me ever since. Reading around in old journals and books to find out more about it dragged me into the world of The Scratch Orchestra, the British Avant-Garde of a preceding generation and their affiliations (“all true education is unconscious seduction”).

Initially, the most wonderful discovery was that Paragraph 7 wasn’t a fortuitous accident but a sublimely elegant act of composition, ingeniously combining skilled and unskilled musicians, subjective freedom and objective process. Learning more about the other six paragraphs just made me more intrigued to hear the rest.

The chance to see and hear it performed live eluded me until last weekend, when the entire work was played over two nights at Union Chapel. The players were from several generations and backgrounds, including original members of the Scratch Orchestra – many of whom had performed the work in the same venue in 1984. This was not a re-enactment.

The most striking aspect of The Great Learning when heard in total is the sense of space, of unfilled openness. The slow pace and scale of each section (Paragraph 5 takes two hours, the others range from 30 to 60 minutes) bear little relation to anything else composed at the end of the 1960s, with perhaps the exception of La Monte Young’s drones. (“Slowness is beauty,” Lauren Binyon said, as recalled by Ezra Pound, whose translation of Confucius’ Great Learning forms the text and structure of Cardew’s work. “Only sequoias are slow enough,” Pound added, several decades later.)

This wish for slowness appears throughout Cardew’s earlier pieces – Autumn ’60, Material, even the avowedly conservative Bun No. 1 – but never at such relentless extremes as presented here. It’s dispiriting to consider how Cardew ruthlessly purged this element from his later music, crowding out any room for reflection or contemplation, any individual thought, for sake of hammering home a political message on an audience reduced to passive recipient.

I think I’m taking things from The Great Learning that Cardew never intended – that’s what happens when you allow listeners to think for themselves. The Pound connection, in the translated text, in Binyon’s reflection on slowness, and Pound’s own peculiar interest in Confucius: “You read a sentence and it seems nothing. Twenty years later you come back to it to meditate on its significance.” Cardew’s composition is his own meditation on the significance of the words, and what insight he may have is shared through transmitting that meditative process to the performers and the audience.

Then there’s the muddling of the good with the bad, as there is in life. The second half of Paragraph 5 is given over to free expression, a long improvisation that provides license for excess, error and indulgence. Like life, it is as much to be tolerated as enjoyed, which seems to be the point.

Freedom is permitted in varying degrees. At the start of the performance, Paragraphs 1 and 2 display clear formal elements and a ritualistic feel – but this is a superficial description. Paragraph 3 brings a much greater emphasis on sonority, the beauty of harmonies and mixing sound colours between voices and low instruments dispersed throughout the chapel. Paragraph 4 swings other way into ritual, but its simplicity and repetition reasserts the focus on the subtleties of the sounds being produced by various found objects. It’s all music, but with the attributes of theatre incorporated and emphasised as part of music-making.

After Paragraph 5’s compendium of discrete compositions, elegant odes, repeated texts and improvisations, Paragraph 6 removes audible words altogether, subsuming the text into a code of performance gestures. The music shares associations with Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening exercises, and some of John Cage’s later compositions. Paragraph 6 is in some respects another improvisation, but within the same constraints later adopted by Cage, where choice is tempered by self-discipline.

For a piece known by reputation more than direct experience, there was something oddly familiar in watching the entire work unfold over the two nights. So much of what it presents has been absorbed into musical and theatrical practice over four decades. Paragraph 7 is still capable of astonishing and delighting: a mass of voices (over 40 in this instance) in a dense, microtonal cloud that drifts in pitch and in space through the chapel, coalescing into rich harmonies. You hope it will last forever, and at times it seems as though it will.

Each paragraph and their clear, contrasting styles inevitably invite comparison. Pure aesthetic and affective considerations are augmented by the theoretical, compositional ideas put into practice. Scale allows each to be given due consideration, a system of organisation given time to grow and be understood in its ramifications; “rooted in watching with affection the way people grow” as Paragraph 1 states. The scale of the piece would appear to be an important compositional element. On one level it would seem that The Great Learning is about time itself: how things may be organised so that a group of people may freely work together to create something beautiful.

Michael Parsons, Dave Smith, John Lely and many others all worked together to make this a very special event. Special mention should go to Robert Coleridge’s playing of the Union Chapel organ, making the most of Cardew’s requirement that the organist should show a sensitive understanding of the instrument’s idiosyncrasies. “It was better than 1984,” one of the older performers remarked. It was all I could have imagined this strange work could be.

Time With People: warm-blooded reductionism

Monday 8 June 2015

“Madame, you are an eloquent and warm-blooded woman. I am a cold-blooded reductionist. Let us leave it at that.”

J. V. Cunningham

Tim Parkinson has composed some music and called it an opera and titled it Time With People. The title promises an experience in which the principles of opera are reduced to their fundamental concepts. The composer’s notes further that promise:

The resultant work (or opera) has arisen around the former notion of “no instruments”. The notion of “no music”. What is meant by “no music”, since arguably and obviously there are both? The notion is perhaps more one of absence. And that which may be revealed from out of this poverty. That which remains. Towards the reality of the situation. Of some time, with some people.

The means of using “no instruments” to make music show no great effort to disguise their structuralist organisational principles (cf. Parkinson’s collaborator James Saunders.) Amongst their other compositions, what distinguishes Time With People as an opera? For a start, there is a plot, one of intrigue, conflicting passions and reckless impulses. Certainly operatic, in a relative way, but this plot is told through the opera’s materials.

Traditions abound: repertoire (recorded snatches of Rossini and Handel start and end the piece), a chorus, even a ballet right when you’d expect it. The set is trash, a stage ankle-deep in random detritus: a dramaturg‘s sometime-fashionable relocation of events to a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s too easy, it’s a cliche, and here the cliche is refuted. It turns out the trash is essential, as it is the orchestra of found objects, providing the accompaniment, and without it the opera could not exist. No instruments, but music.

Two people, sometimes silent, sometimes speaking, in turn or simultaneously, in response to audible cues. Their speech is clearly made of answers to questions we can’t hear. A nice, solid, structural process; but then it stops, and something else happens. The plot thickens: some other organisational force is at work, but we can’t tell what it is. Two pairs of drums are brought on stage – I thought there were no instruments? Things are getting dramatic; the purity of absolute music is sacrificed, made subservient to the demands of the plot, whatever it might be.

A drum-kit, two electric guitars, the chorus is equipped with headphones and alternately sing along or describe what they hear. It’s getting complicated, some aspects seem obvious while other motivations remain obscure. A mystery. By the end, two performers are intoning isolated words – “alone”, or “together” – to looped phrases of Handel. Found objects are collected and dropped, in order of descending size, diminuendo. The small words are redolent of a Romantic theme, but they’re as ambiguous as their relationship to that title. It remains unclear if this is an opera hollowed out into a shell, or recreated out of negligible scraps.

Time With People was performed by the edges ensemble under Philip Thomas’ direction. Hopefully it will appear again at the next LCMF.

Despairs, Would Fall

Wednesday 29 April 2015

wither01 I’ve been listening to these two CDs from Another Timbre as a sort of diptych. Each one is a single work for ensemble, 45 to 55 minutes. Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long is credited to the group Skogen, “composition by Magnus Granberg”. Would Fall from the Sky, Would Wither and Die is credited to Magnus Granberg, “played by Skuggorna och ljuset”. Four musicians are common to both groups. I’ve heard one other Skogen disc, the rather fine Rows with Anders Dahl. Rows has an alluring sense of off-kilter formality to it, like Christian Wolff’s Exercises. These two Granberg-related discs seem to share a similar, basic principle of “composed improvisation”, but by very different means.

Both Despairs and Would Fall share other similarities. Both inhabit a sound-world somewhere between the brooding quiescence of late Morton Feldman and the uneasy stasis of AMM. Both works are built upon the skeletal remnants of song. Despairs is a sort of meditation upon the ruins of a song by the seventeenth century English composer John Dowland. Harmonic and rhythmic material from the original are deployed into an entirely new work, whose origins would be otherwise undetectable. Would Fall excavates the 1930s pop song “If I Should Lose You”. Harmonic resemblance is further denatured by the presence of a prepared piano throughout Would Fall, live electronics throughout Despairs.

Both pieces open up spaces for introspection. Small melodic fragments emerge from time to time, suggesting their songlike origins without ever recalling them; textures wind down into repeating gestures before finally breaking up and resolving into more complex debris. A melancholy sense of entropy, held barely in check, prevails in both works, allowing room for both fatalism and hope. Of the two, Despairs feels a little brighter, at least at first, thanks to the source material. The electronics and larger ensemble of ten musicians create a subtle but richly textured tapestry of sound. Would Fall is sparser, an acoustic quintet reducing the material to its essentials. The heavier sense of psychological melodrama that informs 20th century pop makes its presence felt.

I’m over-analysing. I play each disc to set a mood in the house, and each time I find myself riding a different emotional narrative through the details.

Olson III: everything was mapped out in 1967

Wednesday 15 April 2015

“It sounds like the music of the future,” he said as he put the CD on. He was right. It was the Organ of Corti release of a Swedish high school orchestra and choir performing Terry Riley’s Olson III in 1967. They sing and play with an amateur ferocity – this may be partly due to the audience, where a riot has broken out. The musicians win, with their implacable chanting. The rhythm and intonation are all slightly out, giving everything an otherworldly quality that suggests a mashup of the soundtracks to 2001 and Chariots of the Gods. Like any glimpse of the future, it was awe-inspiring and a little frightening.

Riley is synonymous with In C, a piece which still holds the new music world in its thrall despite being half a century old. Olson III is a similar work – a common pool of short, repeating patterns through which each musician progresses at their own pace – with the addition of a choir singing a text, but the voices are not the critical difference. In C has patterns with varying lengths and rhythms, and typically needs someone playing a pulse to keep time. In Olson III the orchestra and chorus is the pulse: all the patterns have the same length and unvarying rhythm.

That Cortical CD came out 15 years ago. I’ve never heard anything by Riley that’s like it, nor anything which is such an overwhelming, almost exhausting experience. I’d often wondered how much of this was due to the composition, and how much to the recording – the schoolkids, the restless audience, the fraught circumstances, the struggle to keep time, the ageing, long-lost tape.

Last night’s Kammer Klang at Cafe Oto ended with the Klang players and Exaudi playing Olson III. It’s not just the tape. Heard fresh, clear and direct, the music combines Riley’s typically bright and lucid harmonies with an atypical, almost forbiddingly rigid and unornamented rhythmic pulse. This impersonal aspect is then subsumed by the trancelike effect that builds in the listener over time. A type of ecstatic experience.

This really was the music of the future. From one moment to the next it evoked the interlocking figures of Steve Reich’s ensemble music from the 1970s (10 years later), the gleaming lock-grooves of those hip, rock-influenced composers of the 1980s (20 years later), trance and rave culture (30 years later), new generations of Europeans and academics “rediscovering” principles of digital reproduction and incorporating it into the concert hall (so last year).

Olson III is one of Riley’s more obscure compositions. Fifty years ago there was one solid idea, an idea so strong that nobody can even agree on whether it’s time to let it go.

Frank Denyer’s Whispers

Tuesday 31 March 2015

Denyer01a

If only for having the advantage of hindsight, it may be easier to rediscover the past than to discover the present. I got sent some new CDs from Another Timbre, the label that’s been putting out essential recordings of music by Laurence Crane, James Saunders, Bryn Harrison, Catherine Lamb, etc etc. One of these discs is a collection of pieces by Frank Denyer.

I’d been aware of Denyer mostly as a musician, and from his work with The Barton Workshop. It was only on hearing a broadcast of his piece The Colours of Jellyfish for soprano, children’s chorus and orchestra that I realised he was a composer with a unique voice. The pieces on this new disc, Whispers, are a few years older than that orchestral piece, and recorded mostly in 2009: a neat example of rediscovering the present.

This album can be shocking in places. Even more spare and seemingly artless than I expected, the music takes familiar techniques but approaches them from a new angle, creating a paradoxical mood that quietly works on the listener. There’s a tense feeling of expectation, or apprehension; not from the music itself, but from my wariness of what it might all turn out to mean.

The opening piece, Whispers, is about precisely that: Denyer himself whispering, humming, muttering, a halting procession of small vocal sounds. Like a man half-singing, absent-mindedly to himself. Listening in seems almost intrusive, but there are other things going on: small tappings and rustlings from various noisemakers, and at times a viola plays almost inaudibly in the distance. (The entire album is recorded very quietly, suggesting that without careful listening much of it may be lost.) The sounds vacillate between unconscious and self-conscious, the act of producing them at the same level of intensity and restraint over 20 minutes denies any accusation of self-indulgence or even self-expression. The meaning remains as unknowable, or knowable, as any unconscious sound.

The entire album flows seamlessly from one piece to the next. Woman with Jinashi Shakuhachi is, like Whispers, precisely what the title describes. The mouth sounds change to the musician Kiku Day’s voice, alternating with raw shakuhachi sounds until the two lose distinction, and again the tapping sounds. It’s tempting to think of the music as some sort of ritual, but again the ordering of sounds is too organic, too intimate. Again the sounds seem almost unconscious, as though they were the by-product of some other activity that remains unknown.

As an interlude, The Barton Workshop’s performance of Riverine Delusions may be the most conventional piece here – it’s evocative, but the image it paints is almost transparent, with faint gestures suggesting big movements, the indelible remnants of an image faded almost to invisibility. The keening flute stands out in relief, a preparation for the next work. Again, the title Two Voices with Axe explains everything but reveals nothing. A male and female voice blend in a tissue of sounds with muted instruments. The jarring intrusion of the axe comes almost as a release, breaking the tension of expectation that something loud might finally happen. Despite the most private and personal circumstances of the music-making here, the music that emerges from it is like a wild force of nature – it always seems peaceful and benign on the surface, but all along I’ve been conscious that it could turn on me without warning.

The axe-blows sound rich and varied, with no suggestion that they were contrived for aesthetic effect. The late Bob Gilmore, who produced the album, is the axeman.

In the final piece, A Woman Singing, Juliet Fraser’s voice mirrors the opening of the album. Again barely audible when played under normal conditions, the voice is suspended in a stream of unconsciousness, the emotional range suppressed to a nearly internalised expression. By being so withdrawn, the singer’s exposure feels all the more stark, through the lack of mediation, the temptation to listen in closer, like an eavesdropper.

These works are not improvised but fully, meticulously composed. There is a fine, complex understanding of the subtleties of music at work here, of the material of sound, the acting of performing and the relationship of musician to listener. At first the sound world seems close to the very refined sensibility of Martin Iddon’s excellent pneuma, which Another Timbre released last year. Denyer’s approach and musical concerns are different, of course, and so is his music: this is made evident, however, not through any ideological or programmatic pronouncement, but through the very stuff of the music itself, that entices and gnaws at the listener. The reactions this music may provoke are complex and variable, and I would not like to try to define them now.

George Maciunas, Musical Scoring Systems

Tuesday 24 February 2015

I was always annoyed by the insincerity of the art world; I mean the way it pays lip service to stuff it says is important and then ingnores. That’s what makes projects like the ensemble Apartment House’s new CD of music by George Maciunas so important.

Every art history and not enough music histories discuss Fluxus, but the work itself has been neglected, disappeared from the cultural exchange. This silence prevents the art from considered as an artistic experience. A complacent assumption sinks in that these works are of interest only as an historical footnote, unworthy of further examination.

Sadly, I missed a repeat performance of the Scratch Orchestra’s Nature Study Notes last weekend. The performance last summer was excellent. There’s another example of music being rediscovered after a generation in the wilderness. Last Tuesday I was at a concert given by the new music ensemble at City Univeristy, where they performed Paragraph 7 of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning and an octophonic version of Takehisa Kosugi’s Micro 1. Both wonderful pieces, both set aside as artefacts of their time. So much of what has happened since the Sixties seems less like moving on and more of a retreat.

Having been born a little too late, I grew up with the second-hand impression that so much had changed from the pre-1975 cultural scene not because it was old hat but because people couldn’t handle it. It’s been a long time waiting but these childhood impressions have increasingly been proven correct.

Here is the fairly standard photograph of people performing George Maciunas’ In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti. This is usually as far as anyone gets with Fluxus performance, a photo half as old as the grainy snapshots of the Cabaret Voltaire. What is this piece? Each performer devises a list of actions and assigns each action a number. They then must perform each action in a sequence determined by the numbers found on a discarded roll of paper from an adding machine. The means is historical; the method is still contemporary.

On the Musical Scoring Systems CD, Apartment House play In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti: the first by an ensemble making diverse sounds, the second by a string quartet. John Cage is always cited as a large influence on Fluxus, but Maciunas’ piece anticipates Cage’s last compositions by 30 years, pieces like Four 6 where performers are free to choose sounds but not when to make them. Other works by Maciunas such as Music for Everyman use similar methods, of sounds placed into subdivided grids of time, Musical Scoring Systems.

The pieces in this album are all from the early 1960s, at a time when Cage was starting to explore the limits of chance and indeterminacy. It took Cage a couple more decades to achieve such a level of directness in his composition as shown on this CD. In the right hands Maciunas’ music is as open in its sound-world and transparent in its organisation as Cage’s.

There’s an important distinction here, summarised by Cage’s friendly advice: “Permission granted, but not to do what you want.” Cage wanted his interpreters to exercise self-discipline and longed for self-imposed order. Maciunas, for all the irreverence brought into his musical scores (balloons, mouthfarts), is also bringing discipline and order into play. All those everyday actions, for all their apparent spontaneity in music or in life, are constrained into a strict, predetermined sequence of events. In Maciunas’s music the composer’s relationship with the performer, allowing the players to choose the order to be imposed upon themselves, is made more evident and gives away the lie behind the ideals Cage was extolling at the time.

Solo for Rich Man is performed here, one of Satie’s oblique parables translated into actions. The paradoxes of the connections between money (or lack of it) and freedom (or lack of it) pile up in this simple score. Like all scores, its effect as an object itself is limited; it must be enacted.

The Apartment House CD comes with no pictures of scores or descriptions of individual works, but it does come with an essay on Maciunas’ musical thinking. To be taken as seriously as any other music it is to be heard on its own merits. Solo for Rich Man is five minutes of ringing coins and crumpled paper in a montage of methodical transactions that are meaningless. Other than the Cagean connections, fifty years of exposure to New Music has allowed listeners to catch up with Fluxus. Deprived of theatrical spectacle, Solo for Violin (for Sylvano Bussotti) changes from a Dadaist stunt to a darkly comic caricature of a sonata by Helmut Lachenmann. The poor instrument’s protestations cannot help but recall the textures of the preceding Solo for Balloons (for Jean Pierre Wilhelm) – another palette of sounds which has since been fully claimed by avant-garde percussionists.

I’m told this project was a labour of love. I’m extremely grateful for the Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, Apartment House and Anton Lukoszevieze for making it happen. (I’m also grateful to the last for sending me a copy.)