What is the deal with Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s Sinfónía?

Thursday 18 June 2020

There have been so many times when I’ve been tempted to start a posting here with the opening sentence of that old Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait album: “What is this shit?” It’s a positive thing, mostly; an enouraging sign that the artist has made something that both engages and challenges the senses and the mind. The process by which the listener’s bafflement leads to a new form of understanding is fundamental to new art. The catch here is that this understanding may not always be a favourable outcome, for artist, audience, or both. All of this preamble is to say that for the past few weeks I’ve been resisting the temptation to use that quote when trying to say something about Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s Sinfónía.

My knowledge of Gunnarsson’s music was limited to hearing Ilan Volkov lead the Scottish BBC Orchestra in the premiere of his piece Sporgýla on the radio about five years ago. Sinfónía is a large-scale work, in four movements. Despite this formal arrangement, it’s an open composition: the score takes advantage of paperless computer-screen tech by being animated in ways intended to break down the established grid-like divisions of time and melody. Gunnarsson is part of the Icelandic art and music collective S.L.Á.T.U.R., so the concepts of collaborative working and a freer relationship between composer and performer. There’s a lo-fi, DIY element at work here too, so you’re already getting some idea in your head about what the piece might be before listening to it.

Then you put Sinfónía on and, well… it sounds like a bunch of kids blowing on toy recorders and banging crockery. There are assorted strings being twanged, too. You wonder where it will lead, and it leads to more twanging, tootling and banging. The second movement, more of the same; as with the third and fourth. It’s not a complete free-for-all, so you know it’s not a con: the balance between instruments change, the texture spreads out or tightens up, all done with a broad phrasing that indicates a compositional outline at work. (Okay, not an outline, a resultant interaction of compositional influences.) But it’s a damn job distinguishing one moment from the next.

The instruments are divided into three groups of three, played with a delicate conscientiousness by members of Fengjastrútur, another loose collective in downtown Reykjavik. The playing is noticeably restrained throughout and the recording sounds professional, not a cassette artefact. It’s all very dignified, which just raises more questions. Does the seriousness of the playing derive from the effort of musical concentration, or from keeping a poker face? It’s probably not satire: I don’t think the audience is being pranked here, nor is the concept of symphonies, or orchestras, being deflated. It isn’t even necessarily elevating the concept of a “home-made” music to symphonic status, but simply allows that such a status may exist.

The absence of rhetoric, the combination of computer-animated scores with ocarinas and found percussion, has produced a piece of music that a cultured audience literally cannot hear, in that it is almost impossible to strip away the metacultural associations and hear the music as anything other than a commentary on something else. It makes you wonder how often we hear music mediated through abstracted concepts. Listening again to Sporgýla, the relaxed, almost bucolic nature of loosely organised groups in civilised disputation, those floating wind instrument sounds, provided a better understanding of how Gunnarsson composes and that what we hear on Sinfónía is no accident. It may require patience, but not necessarily of the sort needed for forensic analysis of details. My complaint would then be my usual sticking point with arte povera, in that it shares what can seem like an overemphasis on means over ends and, with that, a compulsion for conceptual purity that will diminish the material for its own sake.

Gunnarsson’s Sinfónía has had me thinking a lot. It was worth my time but I still don’t know what to make of it. In the end, it may be fated like Self Portrait to be simultaneously praised and damned with the phrase “a qualified success”.

Unusual suspects: Magnus Granberg and Skogen, Angharad Davies, Klaus Lang, Anton Lukoszevieze

Sunday 14 June 2020

Thanks to the coronavirus snafu I misplaced the last batch of CDs from Another Timbre (will remedy this later) but now I’m happily getting amongst this even newer set from May. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “happily”; the word suggests I settled into this music too easily, when in fact both pieces here quickly clipped me over the ears for taking them for granted. unfurling is a trio improvisation by composer/performers Angharad Davies on violin, Klaus Lang on harmonium and Anton Lukoszevieze on cello. It goes about an hour, it’s got Klaus Lang, it’s on Another Timbre, even the title’s in lower case – we know how this is going to go, right? It starts as softly as you would expect, slow bowing sounds separated out, some harmonics, scraping… but then Lang joins in by shaking the bellows on his harmonium, agitating them into low thumping sounds. No panic; you think that’s OK, it’s just for texture, but all three musicians here are of the gently but firmly provocative inclination. Things escalate, and soon you’re caught up in these dense chords that extend endlessly into sirenlike wails. A nice, comfy hour of quiescent and peaceable improv is ruined. The dissonant chords finally exhaust themselves into voiceless breathing before breaking up into percussive knots of noise. This pattern of alternating between sinister drones and brittle spikes of tortured instruments repeats itself, continuously building momentum into a headlong rush that you hope will burn out before things go too far.

No reassuring certainty from the new piece by Magnus Granberg with the ensemble Skogen, either. Let Pass My Weary Guiltless Ghost promises the usual intricate blending of classical and folk instruments with objects and electronics, but things get off to a tense start. The electronics make their presence clear right from the beginning, set in stark relief against the prepared piano and percussion. Throughout the piece, sounds coexist in an uneasy truce that feels like it could end at any moment. Percussive sounds dominate, leaving the strings and winds to run the gauntlet. Electronics are more abrasive and confrontatial this time (Toshimaru Nakamura has joined thr group here), while never dominating. Instruments such as violin and sho are left to add shading, in ways that highlight the fraught atmosphere more than resolve it. Drums and untuned percussion emerge later – another disturbing addition to Skogen’s sound. By the end of the piece, the situation has insidiously accumulated a sense of urgency; the pace seems to increase slightly – something I haven’t felt in Granberg’s music before – as the music seems anxious to reach a conclusion: rushing, but slowly.

Cobalt Duo: Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm

Saturday 13 June 2020

Lost my internet over a week ago so I’ve been listening to more music but posting about it less. First thing of many I need to catch up on is this CD by pianists Kate Halsall and Fumiko Miyachi. They’ve been working together as Cobalt Duo since 2014 and I’ve managed to miss everything they’ve done until now. Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm is a great selection of pieces by contemporary composers, including Miyachi herself. It’s a neatly contrasting but complementary collection; making the album greater than the sum of its parts, even as each piece has nice little details that reward repeated individual listening.

The real oldie here is Egidija Medekšaitė’s Textile 1, a duet dating all the way back to 2006. A thoroughly beguiling interweaving of rippling piano lines that leads the ear through melodic and harmonic twists and turns without ever breaking its constant, pulsating flow, this piece opens the set and sets the tone for the album. Aspects of it recur in various guises in the subsequent pieces, including a similar, more inflected interplay at the end of Miyachi’s concluding suite. James Black’s Crow is a diptych in which a Cowell-like juxtaposition of dense block chords and strummed strings is followed by sequences of lightly tripping descending arpeggios. The deftness of touch in Cobalt Duo’s playing helps to bring off this heterogenous mix successfully. Their mixture of sureness and lightness shows these steady pulses and runs of notes to their best effect, with a tightly matched unanimity in their playing. These are real strengths in compositions such as these, which shy away from more flamboyant, romantic tendencies.

The music is still eclectic, though. Halsall and Miyachi play a small selection from the sity-two (and counting?) miniatures in Sarah Lianne Lewis’s I have observed the most distant planet to have a triple form, which range from the explosive, to the remote, to the utmost pointillism. Anton Lukoszevieze’s Sutra demands that unanimity of execution in exacting unison playing and singing. The final two pieces are for piano four hands: Michael Wolters’s Gisela Doesn’t Care takes the rippling arpeggios and tremoloes to an extreme, extending a classical cadence beyond all reason. As with the Lukoszevieze, Cobalt Duo play with a directness that can be heard as either high seriousness or sly irony. Miyachi’s own Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm is a suite of pieces dedicated to each quark. By far the longest piece here, the two central movements dominate despite containing so little stuff. “Top” slows down time with struck notes elongated by e-bowed strings, while “Bottom” brings it to a near-standstill, letting the gaps between sound becomes the foreground.

Lockdown Roundup (2): Nick Ashwood and Laura Altman, Agnes Hvizdalek, Jacken Elswyth

Sunday 31 May 2020

I’ve been busy while sequestered at home, but still listening, including some more new releases from the past few weeks. I’ve heard one record before involving Nick Ashwood, so it’s good to discover something new in his set of duets with Laura Altman. Battery was recorded inside a concrete bunker in a park near Hobart, Tasmania on a Sunday in March last year, with Ashwood playing acoustic guitar and Altman on clarinet with amplified objects. The three pieces here are expansive in scope but concentrated in their artistry: both musicians work together to create wonderfully detailed and mysterious sounds that can be both intimate and remote at the same time. The cheap electronics, prepared instruments and resonant recording space combine to transform the music into strange, ambient soundscapes. The players focus on tonal colouration and by the final track appear to be doing as little as possible to disrupt the space each sound opens up. The sense of place and altered reality is intensified by the presence of external sounds, especially when other people can faintly be heard nearby.

The presence of others in these meditative moments becomes all the more poignant right now. It can also be heard in the latter stages of Agnes Hvizdalek’s Backstage, another release from Cafe Oto’s Covid-related Takuroku downloads label. Going by the release notes, Backstage appears to be a work for solo voice. Now knowing anything about Hvizdalek before now, my usual approach to experimental vocal music is to brace myself in fear of the worst. I was completely wrong-footed here and blown away by the experience. Hvizdalek’s piece is as much about silence as sound, a wordless reflection on isolation that hovers uneasily between darkness and light. Soft, disarming bursts of electronic-sounding clicks coexists with a refrigerant hum that drones in and out through the piece. Where Ashwood and Altman used their music to create a space that opens out to the world, Hvizdalek maps out a space that moves ever inward. Her voice articulates both a resistance to and an uneasy accommodation with pervasive ambient noise and the world outside the self.

As something completely different, Jacken Elswyth’s Six Static Scenes would appear to be a set of direct musical statements. A set of song-length solos for banjo: what could be simpler? The appearances are deceptive. First of all, there are seven tracks, with one ‘scene’ broken into two contrasting parts. No obvious trickery here, with clear references to celebrated folk musicians and a consistent approach to traditional clawhammer technique. And yet… Scene 2, “after Dock Boggs” has an almost obsessive focus on a couple of triads – a very static scene – and gains a resonant halo of overtones from a wheezy-sounding shruti box. The following scene gains a drone in the form of a single tone held softly on a squeezebox. By this time, if you’re thinking Elswyth has made some sort of postmodern abstraction of Appalachiana, her picking becomes more elusive and fragmentary in that two-part fourth scene, setting her banjo in a mixture of drones that swirl together with a sinister calmness. The final scene gently extends a farewell cadence to five minutes, with a tenacity too subtle for the intellect.

Lockdown Roundup: Lucy Railton, Melaine Dalibert, James Rushford

Saturday 23 May 2020

Responses to Covid-19 are coming thick and fast now. Quarantined from the wider world, musicians are making music alone, where they can. Cafe Oto, the bold experimental music venue in London, has responded to the enforced downtime by launching Takuroku, a new netlabel dedicated to recordings produced under lockdown. As you might expect, the dominant mood right now is directed by isolation; introspective and melancholy – at least based on the three I’ve listened to so far. (In case I’m seeming more interested in analysis than advocacy, I’d recommend each of these three to the curious.)

Lucy Railton’s Lament in Three Parts adds hidden depths to this emotional state. Her work for solo cello with some additional electronics was improvised on one day in late April, with processing added a couple of days later. The music sounds much more substantial than this description suggests: as an improvisation, it definitely draws upon something that has been stored up for some time. Railton’s recent compositional work has extended beyond her cello into the use of electronics and field recordings. Earlier this year, she presented a sophisticated collaboration with synthesiser pioneer Peter Zinovieff, RFG Inventions for Cello and Computer. Lament distills Railton’s music and moves the focus away from technology: when electronics first appear at the end of the first part, it sounds like amplified bowing adding a further sighing texture to the slow chorale. Part two is a sombre melody that passes almost monophonically for its first half (I’m no expert but it sounds like she’s using Pythagorean intonation). The briefer final part resolves the preceding long line with an otherworldly sheen, the electronics adding just enough to transform the cello into something strange yet still beautiful.

My previous exposure to Melaine Dalibert consists entirely of two solo piano works which I did not like. Un Long Ralentissement is another piano piece, made as a specific response to the pandemic. As before, Dalibert takes an almost obstinately theoretical approach as justification for his carefully placed single tones, but this time it works musically. Preciousness has yielded to tenderness, and the understated rallentando adds a flexibility and flow to this slow music. The process of things slowing down is experienced, not just demonstrated, and there’s a humanising element present in the recording that makes this piece perversely relevant.

I’ve just done James Rushford recently but here’s another solo piece, this time made as a direct result of lockdown. Ouarzazate is a solo performance on a Rhodes electric keyboard. It is thirty-eight goddamn minutes long; almost twice the length of the Railton and Dalibert pieces. The contrast in his approach to the keyboard compared to his organ piece Clerestory is instructive. To work with such a limited timbral palette over such a long, unbroken span of time, you’ve got to be good. Rushford’s playing starts contrapuntally, generously paced enough to open up contemplation yet never lingering, lest momentum be lost to aimless meandering. It keeps the mind guessing with occasional leaps in register and changes in pitch sets, opening up one fork in the path after another.

On being won over: Alvear-Bondi-d’incise, NEF

Wednesday 20 May 2020

These came out over the last two months so may as well be classed as lockdown listening: the sort that relocates the attention. Both are from the Insub label, who have been turning out some monumental work lately. Neither of these are on quite the same scale, but still impress with the boldness of their conception and imaginative execution. Ocho pretextos is a set of short trios worked out by the performers in joint residences one spring in the distant past of 2019. Cristián Alvear on guitar, Cyril Bondi on percussions and d’incise on electronics; these three have become regulars on this site in one guise or another. Despite this, they keep coming up with new ways to surprise me.

The compositional nature of these pieces is immediately clear: each one works on a sort of grid of regular, repeated sounds, allowing for more ornate details to fill in the gaps. The other joint compositions I’ve heard by Bondi and d’incise are for larger forces, with variety generated by a small set of simple conditions. Here, more free play seems to be allowed within the constraints of repetition, giving each piece a greater or lesser degree of tension. What would normally sound like free improv gains a new perspective from a regular pulse that cuts across their playing. From one track to the next, the slow pulse transforms from a steady foundation to a jarring interruption, harshly strummed or snapped guitar chords mixed with insistent percussion.

I know nothing about NEF, not even why they are called NEF: the three musicians here are named Rodolphe Loubatière, Pascal Battus and Bertrand Gauguet. Seven improvisations, of the sort that are weathered and well-seasoned, always alive but never restless. Each ‘act’ of Intervalles builds up a series of complex textures from a variety of subtle tonal colours that never resolve into anything too pretty or too pat. The sonic intrigue makes sure that things never get dull and I was going to say that if you like that sort of improv you’ll love this, but then I checked the personnel again. The instruments listed are snare drum, “rotating surfaces”, alto saxophone, and nothing else. How did they make this? Where the hell was the sax? They’re even better than I thought.

Lockdown Roundup: James Rushford, Will Guthrie

Sunday 17 May 2020

Musicians everywhere are getting slugged by Covid-19 shutting down venues and travel for months. What can you do? Keep making music. New pieces are going out on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, streaming live on Youtube and wherever. I’ve talked about James Rushford and Will Guthrie each on this site several times before, but not in the capacity as solo composers. Rushford put up two new items on his Bandcamp on 1 May, the second fee-free day on the site this year. Clerestory is a solo organ performance from a gig at Hospitalkirche Stuttgart in 2017. Organ is always impressive, even John Zorn can’t mess it up too badly, but Clerestory is a more enlightening insight into Rushford’s musical thinking. It’s eclectic, but with an attention span that surprises the listener with unexpected connections instead of trying to dazzle with a rollcall of cultural references. Moody ambience yields to imperious bombast; when the sonorites and textures get thornier, the music perversely opens up into something more allusive and enigmatic for the imagination.

Prey Calling started as an installation at MONA FOMA in Tasmania earlier this year. The description of this stereo mixdown is horripilating: “a mashup of vintage synth and whale song, inspired by the story of Greenpeace expeditioners using the Serge modular synthesiser to communicate with humpback whales”. Blessedly, Rushford’s approach is closer to David Tudor’s in Soundings: Ocean Diary than a head shop: a kaleidoscopic array of complex electroacoustic sounds that verge upon whale song, recognising the ocean as a constant flux and not an inert medium. It constantly refreshes itself with the same invention and dynamism as his improvised duets with Joe Talia (see Paper Fault Line for a good, early example).

Percussionist Will Guthrie’s solo piece For Stephane is a bit older, going back to mid-March this year when it was released. I’ve spoken before about his holistic approach to percussion, observing how his performances resemble the curation of an environment of discrete but interrelated objects: an ecological method. This carries over into his work with electronics. For Stephane recalls the gamelan from his Black Truffle release Nist Nah, producing a hazy montage of distant gongs, sustained humming, hissing and rattles, muted recordings and faint radio broadcasts. The fragmented, ephemeral nature of the piece evokes memory, history, curdled nostalgia and remoteness.

Aisha Orazbayeva: Music for Violin Alone

Thursday 14 May 2020

The idea of violin, or of any musician, alone has taken on a new meaning in the last couple of months. It has further associations for Aisha Orazbayeva, a fine violinist who has spent “two years of creative silence” while starting a family. Her new release, Music for Violin Alone, was recorded in an empty house in early April as all work for the forseeable future was cancelled. The collection of seven brief pieces forms a closely woven suite that draws together themes of isolation and self discovery; the experience of a musician reorientating themselves, learning new ways of hearing and playing.

Orazbayeva opens with her interpretation of Angharad Davies’ Circular Bowing Study, an immersive exploration of a single technique that leaves performer and audience in a different place from where they started. After this act of orientation into a deeper understanding of timbre, the following 18-century pieces by Bach and Nicola Matteis Jr. have a clean, clear sound while still revealing their reliance on the violinist providing tonal colouration to give them life. Bach’s suites and sonatas for solo strings have long stood as exemplars of writing without accompaniment, and Orazbayeva’s interpretation of the Largo from the C Major Sonata frames the absences of sound, where the listener fills in the outline. It’s an introspective performance, accomplished without pulling the phrasing or pacing out of shape. Oliver Leith’s very recent Blurry Wake Song allows for greater pauses and more reticent phrasing, giving a greater melancholy weight to its repeated cadences on double-stops.

The extended span of James Tenney’s Koan is played fast, like Matteis’ arpeggios. The challenge of how to present Tenney’s process/exercise as a composition is addressed by Orazbayeva with a concentrated flourish. Ingeniously, the constantly rising intervals are transformed into becoming a vehicle for the real material of this recording, as tiny variations in timing and intonation are exposed and transformed into a kind of inadvertent cadenza. The following piece, John Cage’s violin arrangement of Eight Whiskus, was, like Koan, dedicated to Malcolm Goldstein. The Goldstein recordings I’ve heard of each are much more… well, demonstrative of the freedoms allowed in bowing and intonation. Orazbayeva’s version of Cage takes us back to her Bach, where the directness of the melody fuses with the subtlety of construction, each interpreted with a deeply nuanced but deceptively understated performance. The collection ends with Orazbayeva’s own Ring, a haunted study of close-miked bow on string.

The past two weeks has been spent making my own music and listening to recordings others have been putting out during lockdown. I hope to write up more of these over the next few days.

Telematic Concerts (with Pauline Oliveros)

Tuesday 28 April 2020

In these days of self-isloation I keep getting told that teleconfernced gigs held over Zoom are becoming a thing, only to be subsequently told that they’re not really a thing because the time-lag between participants makes coordinating the music impossible. I don’t know what technology was in play for this Telematic Concert from ten years ago, but synchronisation is neither a technical nor aesthetic issue. It’s an improvised duet between sometime collaborators Pauline Oliveros in New York and Reynols guitarist Alan Courtis “piped in digitally from Buenos Aires”. The two drag out sheets of sound between them with amped-up accordion and guitar respectively, each modifying their instruments until it can be hard to distinguish one from the other. When they do play acoustically recongisable sounds – never at the same time – their signal choice of sounds is instructive. Oliveros blasts a klaxon-like drone that jars with everything around it. Courtis’ feedback howls like Robert Fripp locked in a death-plunge with a Balrog. Whenever the situation threatens to settle into an ambient exchange, one goads the other into something more aggressive and sinister. Towards the end, both musicians suddenly crank up short, high pitched bursts until they create a chillingly evocative soundscape reminiscent of a dockside battening down for bad weather.

I think Spleen Coffin still has this on preorder for next month, coronavirus willing. I got sent a download which fades out halfway through to change LP sides, though it’s clearly a single piece.

It all just reminded me how much Oliveros’ presence is still missed today. A few years back I dischi di Angelica released another of her improv collaborations, but I’ve only heard it just now. We should be grateful for whatever we can get and, considering that Nessuno teams her up with Roscoe Mitchell, John Tilbury and Wadada Leo Smith, people should probably have gotten into this on the names alone. It’s a live set in Bologna from 2011, two large-scale pieces with a snappy encore. As with Courtis, all the players here know that sometimes it’s better not to play. There are moments when it starts to drift into something lugubriously spacey – a perpetual standby when keeping Jazz at arms-length – but the music constantly redeems and renews itself, with each member of the quartet deftly pushing anomalous sounds back and forth in an uneasy equilibrium; although, like this sentence, it seems more of a personal challenge than artistic necessity to sustain the structure for so long. It never gets outrageous, but it remains reassuringly strange throughout.

Juliet Fraser, spilled out from tangles

Thursday 23 April 2020

It’s good to remember that music is still being made. There’s a new album out soon by Juliet Fraser – I’ve raved about her singing before. In terms of presentation, spilled out from tangles is more of a showcase for the singer herself than for a particular composer. Four pieces, each by a different composer, all of them for soprano with only electronics for accompaniment. All four works were written for Fraser; the oldest composer here is in her early forties, the youngest not yet thirty. Throughout the disc, electronics are used only to provide backing: the emphasis here is less on advanced technology and more on how it is used in different ways to provide a sympathetic pairing with the voice.

Nomi Epstein’s collections for Juliet is a simple arrangement of glissandi in vocalise, with several recorded versions of Fraser heard simultaneously. Strangely, with nothing but voice, this piece sounds the most electronic: as tones merge and diverge in slow sweeps, beating frequencies and modulations arise in ways that augment the voice into something more than human. Fraser sings pure tones – almost; there is always some warmth in her voice, a vibrato more felt than heard. What seems at first a technical exercise becomes a much more reflective and intimate experience as the piece progresses. Epstein places much of the construction and interpretation of the piece on the singer; it’s a much more complex process than appears to the casual listener. Fraser’s realisation imbues the music with a sense of development and direction, making it sound natural and deceptively easy.

Lisa Illean’s A through-grown earth sets lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins to an ensemble of sampled and recorded strings, bowed and plucked, but subtly transformed. Harp and zither gain a harmonic sheen that hovers in the background, high overtones joining Fraser’s duplicated voice in ghostly chorus. She sings delicately, but with a quiet strength, her vibrato more expressive when signing poetry. Illean’s music often has that delicate quality too, which in the past has occasionally threatened to retreat into preciousness but is redeemed by her interest in just intonation and microtonality. Colouration inevitably takes on a darker, deeper hue and both composer and singer avoid the easier choices. The electronics in this piece allow more control of the tuning and add to the otherworldly atmosphere.

In this context, Sivan Eldar’s Heave feels the most conventional work. Fraser sings with great sensitivity and sincerity “a story of growth: out of the earth, into one’s own body and, finally, memory… body into light”, with an elegantly composed electronic soundscape. There’s plenty of tastefully detailed geological sounds reminiscent of the BBC Natural History Unit at its most accomplished, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve heard it all somewhere before, more than once. Lawrence Dunn’s While we are both returns to the same form as Illean’s work, of Caitlin Doherty’s poetry set to music in just intonation. The unfamiliar tuning is played on purely electronic instruments, with no obvious acoustic model. Just intonation lends itself well to unhurried music, and Dunn’s piece slowly unfolds in a dreamlike haze. Fraser sings with even greater expressivity here, almost like a lied, which just adds to the strangeness when the suspended harmonies break into high-pitched little trills. It feels simultaneously like a very early work for FM synthesisers and something very new.

The sleeve notes list two of the works as receiving their first public performance at Kettle’s Yard on 2 April. Sadly, that never happened, of course. Hopefully Fraser will be able to perform this programme live, sooner rather than later.

Lying low

Monday 30 March 2020

It’s awful when people describe music as ‘relaxing’. We know they mean to be nice, but it’s just so wrong. It’s an experience made from hearing recordings, that no longer requires listening. The only truly soothing effect I’ve had from music is from not paying attention to it, or knowing the recording so well that I fall into its shape and flow without consciously registering the sound. The so-called relaxing effect of listening to music is not that it blankets the senses, but opens up a mental space.

A little while back I wrote briefly about Jamie Drouin’s album Ridge. I wasn’t satisfied with it. Thinking back over it, that clean sound, “a little too neat and untroubled” came across to me as sounding too simple in its certainties, in a way that rebuffed interpretation or contemplation. By contrast, his new release Meander – released under the pseudonym of Liquid Transmitter – is a much more rewarding listening experience. Six short pieces are made from overlapping loops of material, combining synths and amplified sounds as before. The loops are not immediately apparent and the sounds seem more interesting than before. A simplicity in approach yields an understated complexity in sounds and structure, never easily settling into a recognisable form. “Early forms of ambient electronic music” gets a shout-out in the notes – strangely, it sounds less derivative and more like the real deal, the genre at its best.

I’ve been listening to a lot over the past week or so but haven’t felt like writing much. It’s mostly older stuff, reacquainting myself or catching up on what friends have been up to. People have been emailing me with new stuff; I won’t have the excuse of not enough time to get back to them for long. There’ll be more writing soon. I’ve also been sorting through my own music and releasing it online – more about that later. I hear this disturbing edge in my music, which doesn’t seem right for today. That will pass – we don’t need to be soothed in perpetuity.

Every now and then for the past few months I’ve played Torsten Papenheim’s release on Tanuki, Tracking – Racking. This would be the opposite of relaxing. It doesn’t necessarily provoke anxiety, but it sure is tense. What’s worse, for two pieces so rigidly gridlike and unyielding in their structure and content, I can never remember precisely how each one goes. All that’s left is that sense of tension. Tracking shuttles back and forth between minidiscs in a compressed pingponging crosstalk of indiscernable noise; Racking steadily pounds on an acoustic guitar for a similar length of time. What may pass as music is what squeezes through the cracks, surviving tendrils shaken free.

Social distance: Apartment House play Demoč and Aglinskas

Friday 20 March 2020

Now everyone’s staying indoors, keeping to themselves, in a state of uncertainty, we may seek out distraction but ultimately everyone deserves some mental space, to “quieten the mind” as Cage once said of his music. Another Timbre has put together a 5-hour Coronavirus Quarantine playlist to that end. One of the pieces is Adrián Demoč’s Kvarteto for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, played by members of Apartment House and the opening track on his album Žiadba released late last year. It’s a piece that can haunt you, but in a beguiling way: an opening section of arpeggios, echoed in a type of ghost canon, cycling through poignant chord changes amkes you wonder if you’re about to hear a type of deconstructed folk music. The second, longer movement reverts to slow, unfolding sonorites that emerge one step at a time, halfway between melody and chorale. A similar structure is used in the title work, a violin solo played by Mira Benjamin slipping between high tones and harmonics.

While slow and gentle is the dominant mood throughout the album, the colouration of Benjamin’s playing points to the subtle compositional twists Demoč puts in his music to prevent things from sagging into an ambient haze. Moments of stillness alternate with periods of gently rocking sounds, like a blend of Morton Feldman early and late. The Septett for two violins, two violas, two cellos and double bass (played by Czech groups Ostravská banda and fama Q) begins with a flourish before settling into familiar quiescence, only to slowly rise and swell into a prolonged cadence as the piece progresses. Demoč mixes and matches between several recent trends in composition in a way that feels wholly assimilated into a compositional voice, without diluting the strength of his music or lapsing into a fashionable posturing.

I heard a broadcast of Apartment House playing Julius Aglinskas’ string quartet ‘‘ in concert a couple of years ago and thought their recording of his new, lengthy ensemble piece Daydreamer would be well matched with the Demoč disc. Not really. In the quartet, musicians play back-to-back, in coherent yet uncoordinated harmonies. That drift and float that you would expect in a piece titled ‘Daydreamer’ is present, but in an oddly contained and persistent, even rigorous guise. In twelve sections over some 73 minutes, it explores and reiterates a set of tropes over a chord progression. Some flow together, while others fade away before the next section starts up, like tracks on an album. The dominant sound is of amplified piano and electronic keyboards, giving everything a reverberant New Age sheen that misdirects the listener. Closer attention reveals the real, live winds and strings in the mix. Each time I listen I find myself switching back and forth between thinking it’s excessively sugar-coated, some ironic post-Soviet statement, or a type of distancing device to stop you getting too hung up on the authentic sounds of the instruments. Unlike an elusive dream, the sound is firmly present, but keeps an emotional distance. It ends as though another section is about to follow; alternatively you can play it on repeat.

I’ve linked the Demoč direct to the Bandcamp page as all sales proceeds are going direct to artists today. I didn’t find a Bandcamp link for the Aglinskas because it is not an Another Timbre release, despite all appearances.

A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance

Sunday 15 March 2020

I listened to this new tape by Jennifer Walshe and had a whole bunch of ideas about what to write about it. Then I listened to it again and immediately forgot everything I was going to say. To collect my thoughts, I listened to some of Bach’s lute suites, played on guitar. They weren’t really written for lute either, but they were almost certainly written by Bach. All cultural transmission is distortion. On A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance, Walshe sings a selection of compositions dating from the 2nd Century to the 16th. They are arranged in chronological order. She has worked on these recordings in collaboration with CJ Carr and Zack Zukowkski, a duo collectively known as Dadabots. They work with neural network machine learning technology and produced multiple iterations of Walshe’s voice reinterpreted by artificial intelligence. In an imitation of the chronological approach, each piece is presented in a progressively more advance iteration.

As Walshe observes in her sleeve notes, this progressive approach parodies the meliorist, evolutionary narrative so commonly given in the history of Western music (as she herself had taught for years). It’s a false narrative, of course: art never improves – only the material of art changes. In this parody, chants and motets alike are rendered as a garbled melange of whispers, croaks and whistles. Over time, melody starts to emerge, a voice begins to be heard. At one point a trumpet suddenly appears out of the blue. As each piece becomes more recent to our time, a more recognisable identity can be heard; or perhaps we’ve been listening to it long enough for things to start making sense to us. It may seem crude now but it is, we are assured, the future.

Heard without any knowledge of the backstory, this is fascinatingly detailed electronic music, with an erratic logic of its own, with complex sounds moving both towards and away from acoustic sound, even dipping into an uncanny valley representation of the human voice. Would it sound more coherent with each successive piece, were we not informed of the process? Perhaps the parody is taking place on a deeper level. The premise is the same as the “we trained an AI bot to write fan fiction” jokes that have made the rounds in recent years. Are we kidding ourselves when we hear an improvement in the music’s faithfulness to the model? We’ve been leading generations of students to believe that music develops over time.

It’s easy to imagine such a project would eventually succeed, producing a replica of a singing human voice. It would be perfectly accurate, and as recognisably authentic to us as Bach’s music would be to him, were he to hear it played today.

aaangelicaaa: Charlemagne Palestine and Cassandra Miller at laaaaast

Wednesday 4 March 2020

It’s a fitting title. I dischi di Angelica seem to have been on hiatus for a few years but returned with some new releases in 2019. The label, dedicated to recordings of live gigs from the AngelicA Festival in Bologna, has put out a succession of eclectic and surprising discs, the latest of which is an absolute pearler. aaangelicaaa may 10th. 2015 captures a gig on said date by the Zipangu Ensemble, a small orchestra of string instruments playing one half-hour piece each by Charlemagne Palestine and Cassandra Miller. That may seem an odd pairing at first (although Palestine must be used to it) but both share a trait of messing with your head, big time. Palestine does it overtly, while Miller is more insidious.

Strummmmminggg for Stringggggsss N Thingggggsss is a reworking of of Palestine’s venerable Strumming Music from the early 70s. If you’re familiar with the string ensemble version of the piece included on the Sub Rosa reissue Strumming Music then you will not be fully prepared for this. Palestine begins solo, keening in falsetto over rubbed glasses; the strings come in lower pitched, with cellos and basses augmenting the violins. The heavier texture, with Palestine’s singing, creates a rich, complex drone that swells and heaves and, just as it seems to be dying away, is joined by prolonged rolls on a pair of tubular bells. There’s a manic energy in the sound and the gesture from the orchestra that matches Palestine’s solo performances.

Miller’s piece, A Large House, was written for string orchestra and is played here by a smaller ensemble. A bass drum rolls underneath the strings as they play a slow, descending glissando. The orchestra slides down, and down, and further down. Then they keep descending. An endless Shepard tone made rough and ragged by the strings, it simultaneously falls, collapses and sinks. When you think it can’t go any further, it just ploughs on remorselessly. Listening through it is like being caught in one of those looping panic dreams that never resolve, with that giddy sense of dread and perverse exhilaration. It has the psychoacoustic trippiness of the best drone while acting as an aural Rorschach blot for the listener’s subconscious. Cranked up loud, it is a face-melting experience.

The live recording sounds great; my only niggle is that the applause is left in at the end of each piece, when it could have been set aside as separate tracks.

Apartment House plays Jackson Mac Low

Saturday 29 February 2020

It was great to hear “Is That Wool Hat My Hat?” performed at last. Getting to know Mac Low’s work has often been an exercise for the imagination, reading his poetry on the page and trying to hear it in your head. The layout of his words on the page is often a score as well as a poem, with a greater or lesser degree of explicitness. His introductions, with instructions on how to interpret spacing and typography, simultaneously inspire and frustrate the interested reader.

Which is why I’m so glad Apartment House – appearing this time in the form of a vocal ensemble – dedicated a free evening concert at City University to Mac Low’s work this month. A selection of pieces spanning thirty years, covering the spectrum from speech to music. A poem such as the set of variations “Phone” – given in an exemplary rendition by Miles Lukoszevieze – starts as speech, then breaks up its components into scattered words and syllables before reassembling itself into speech again, but transformed and heightened. At the other extreme, Phonemicon is almost pure sound, presented as a duet of extended singing techniques by Loré Lixenberg and Elaine Mitchener. (The other singers were Leo Chadburn, Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze – the latter two better known for playing violin and cello respectively.)

A couple of pieces from the early 1960s reflected the typical concerns of Fluxus at that time, compiling simple actions on simple objects into an irrational whole. Mac Low gets pigeonholed as a kind of analogue to John Cage; concerts like this show that things aren’t so clear-cut. Syntax and sense were never entirely eschewed by Mac Low; unlike Cage, his words were seldom empty. As seen (and heard) in “Phone”, he still found a lot of use for meaning. Even when selected by chance, allusions are welcome, if not encouraged.

Conversely, his use of spoken word seems to be more musical than much of Cage’s work in the same genre. The earliest pieces in the concert, excerpts from his Five Biblical Poems from 1955, were performed by all the voices at once. Mac Low’s use of flexible time measures of the page results in a kind of verbal counterpoint. The use of repeated, undifferentiated material in “100” from 1961 and 1980’s “Is That Wool Hat My Hat?” allowed variations in dynamics and colouration to come to the fore.

In the pieces from the early 1970s, Mac Low had developed his linguistic notation to morph between word and sound. As performed by Apartment House, these pieces were undeniably music, with sustained phonemes taking on qualities of pitch against the rhythm and timbral variations. Meaning kept returning, whether allowed through chance or guided to some extent. The final work on the programme, “Black Tarantula Gatha” draws upon the early Kathy Acker novel and sets the readers on a set of paths that lets them find a way to move from the confronting and obscene into a reification of the transcendent.