Pandemic Reflections: Robin Fox, Francesco Serra

Sunday 3 April 2022

The pandemic’s legacy of space and contemplation lingers in the most social of artforms, even as things are just starting to open up around me. Francesco Serra’s Guest Room is a triptych made from empty space, vacancies that seem to offer nothing more than pure resonance. The apparent purity of floating harmonics is deceptive and false, as with the serenity of a depopulated landscape; in each successive iteration, Serra reveals more of how the evenness of sound is eerie and disturbed. Using a month-long residency in Teatro San Leonardo in Bologna, by then closed to the public, he arranged microphones beneath the vault of the church’s nave to record the echoes of his electric guitar off the walls and ceiling. The diffuse clouds of sound are hard to discern as guitar-like; the notes also mention the presence of snare drums, which you suppose are there for high-end resonance until the third part hits with dramatic force.

I haven’t really discussed Robin Fox’s music here, despite admiring it for many years and having played on the same bill as him several times. Fox’s special way with vintage synthesiser and electronics was frequently married to a visual component, keying his music to oscilloscopic light projections or to dance performance. For the former case in particular, the integrity of the concept required music of relatively simple sounds and gestures to be most effective, to the point that considering audio recordings of many of his compositions seemed to be an exercise in bad faith. The two parts (in fact, separate but related pieces) of Threnody To Now are a different matter. Recorded alone in the studio during lockdown, using a modern modular synth, each is a focused, meditative activity in clear, direct tones and gestures. The two parts clear an internal space, with the repeated harmonic movements moving beyond frustration into equanimity. Too restless and hard-edged to be a New Age sop, it gives you the real deal instead, quietening the mind through considered action. It’s a concise study of the effectiveness of Fox’s deceptively minimal musical language.

Alvear-Bondi, d’incise etc.

Sunday 20 March 2022

I’ve been catching up on Insub’s recent releases. Guitarist Cristián Alvear with Cyril Bondi on percussion, mostly, have produced a trilogy of recordings of which I have heard the first two. So far, each has paired two works by different composers, most of whom I’m not familiar with at all. The exception is d’incise, whose 40-minute Sigh (carried away) adds electronic enhancements to Alvear’s guitar and Bondi playing four cymbals. The piece suits their patience and inner stillness, often alternating between the quickly dying tones of the guitar and the rustle of percussion. It spells out a flat, thin sonata made of metallic edges and sounds extended beyond their confortable zones, keeping you alert and wary while never raising its voice. Its companion piece, Santiago Astaburuaga’s grado de potencia #2, adds field recordings which seem to take up the foreground, the musicians introducing brief snatches of speech and sound that appear and disappear in alternation. Time passes in a dreamlike state, with no logical connection or momentum, and so will either soothe, frustrate or disturb you.

Percussion and electric guitar return for Nicolás Carrasco’s sin título #26, a study in stasis that progresses slowly while seemingly making no headway. Alvear plays obstinately reiterated notes that expand into obstinately reiterated chords, counterweighted by a series of recurring percussive noises. The juxtaposition keeps everything slow but taut. Anna-Kaisa Meklin’s Ground in Cis changes things up with the composer adding her viola da gamba to Bondi on harmonium and Alvear’s guitar, making a piece that seems almost rustic by comparison. The three play in harmony over each other before briefly, one by one, breaking into a more florid melody as though allowed to lapse into normal time. It’s all rather charming, particularly as the gentle electric guitar, homely harmonium and sweetly sonorous viola da gamba make such mismatched companions. These recordings were all made in Covid-straitened times last year, with Alvear in Chile added to the other musicians based in Switzerland.

Bondi and d’incise have collaborated on compositions a number of times over the years. The 45-minute Zgodność, made over 2020-2021, is written for a seven-piece ensemble with an accompanying tape part. It sounds a bit different from their earlier pieces, with this one less beholden to processes and with greater variability in its texture and mood over time. In its instrumentation of winds (trumpet, bass clarinet, accordion, harmonium) and strings (viola, cello, double-bass) and its ebbs and flows in texture and dynamics, from faded or frayed high sounds to tutti swells and lugibrious tessitura in the low registers, Zgodność comes across to the listener as a kind of pastoral symphony, in the margin. Stringently compressed in its range and its orchestration, the playing still sounds full and expressive. The tape may play a part, but it does not seem prominent. The seven live musicians are to the forefront throughout – the Blutwurst ensemble, based in Florence, are the orchestra here. Their prowess at interpreting a spare piece to the fullest can also be heard in Emmanuel Holterbach’s Ricercar nell’ombra, a 2018 collaboration which was released on Another Timbre. Holterbach was effusive when describing Blutwurst then, and this recording is further confirmation why.

Not Dead Yet

Saturday 12 March 2022

My little world has started to open up again after a couple of years away. Went out to drink in public and hear the latest in Apartment House’s string quartet revivals: Hermann Nitsch’s String Quartet No. 2. Having heard some of Nitsch’s organ music a year ago, I figured a string quartet couldn’t hurt too much. It’s the humour that got me. Over 70 minutes, the opening movements dwelled upon fat slabs of sound as expected, but then things started to get a little more playful with creaking romantic gestures like petrified Schubert and a lop-sided, foot-stomping ländler tune like a ham-fisted Walter Zimmermann. “Hermann Nitsch lives in a castle.” Ultimately it all seemed very meaningful, which, having lived neither in a castle nor in Germany, is not the same thing as having meaning.

For virtual concerts, I’ve heard the LP of Two Duos from cellist Okkyung Lee’s gigs at Oto in 2019. On side one she’s paired with Jérôme Noetinger making real time tape manipulations, side two she’s with Nadia Ratsimandresy on ondes Martenot. Both bits of retro technology add a slightly spaced-out dimension to the cello: Noetinger adds fizz and buzz to the graininess of Lee’s playing before expanding into more overtly electronic obstacles for the cello to dodge around. Conversely, Ratsimandresy’s ondes Martenot starts out in its vox humana register, sounding uncanny against Lee’s enlarged bowing sounds. Again, the second duet takes an initial concept as a base from which to wander in ever more fanciful detours. The pleasure comes from the matching of sounds and the playing being free-spirited without self indulgence. Knowing how and when to stop also helps a lot.

More talk about the overlapping fields of composition and improvisation come up in the notes for Jonas Kocher’s Perspectives and Echoes, “an architectural struc-ture defines the temporal and spatial course of largely indeterminate events”. The electroacoustic ensemble play thick sounds distributed thin and I can’t hear it as much more than a listless group improv. More distressingly, the piece is accompanied by a performance of Luc Ferrari’s Tautologos III tackled with the same languor, so that the consequences of interactions fail to accumulate and events fail to gather significance or momentum. Perhaps the numbing isolation in this rendition is the suburban riposte to Ferrari’s city analogy.

I’ve been soaking in a small pile of intriguing recent releases on the Insub label which I need to address soon. I was going to set aside Louis Laurain’s Pulses, Pipes, Patterns but I keep trying to listen to it in different ways. It sounds like heavily sampled and processed thwacking of PVC pipes, sliced and diced in various ways to eke out an album’s worth of material. Apparently it isn’t, but instead is made from trumpets mostly, plus lots of digital processing and also “birds, white noise, vibrating metal stuff, saws, toads, sine waves…” Heard in one way it still comes across as sound sculpture, although in a highly creative and roundabout way of doing it; the reductiveness becomes admirable. If you turn it up loud and stand further away it sounds like ambient electronica from the Nineties as the conformity and instability battle it out, like another eccentric Pole Imposter.

Missed another Apartment House gig at Wigmore Hall on Thursday because I’d already booked a ticket to see a revival of Lucinda Childs’ Dance at Sadler’s Wells. For me, this was a personal indulgence in nostalgia and revisiting youth, having had a formative experience watching Childs perform in the 1990s staging of Einstein on the Beach in Melbourne. As a new experience, fresh contact with Philip Glass’s Seventies music, Childs’ choreography and Sol LeWitt’s film treatment was sweetly rejuvenating. Good artists learn from the recent past at least as much as from history lessons, taking up the loose threads as yet unfollowed. This was the future once, and it can still offer the promise of a better tomorrow.

Tom Johnson: Combinations

Saturday 26 February 2022

As Wittgenstein would often remind you, the simplest statements, when exposed to close examination, conceal a wealth of contradictions and absurdities. Several years ago I heard a chamber ensemble play Tom Johnson’s Predictables and stumble over the opening phrases as the obvious series of notes ran afoul of the conventions of performance. Johnson’s perfectly logical sequences of exahustive combinations and permutations contain profound conundrums, throwing us into the mental chasm of aesthetics where the rational becomes counter-intuitive. In making decisions that appear to defy creativity, refusal to deviate from the proposed model is a means for taking the least expected path. Even when the organising principle is clear (and it is typically reducible to a single principle), Johnson’s disciplined adherence to the rule can make the progress of his pieces appear inscrutable to the listener.

The contradictions involved in the experiences of reading, playing and listening to Johnson’s music underpin the humour that often surfaces. This is most apparent in the works for voice, where word games come to the fore, but the necessary incongruities in Johnson’s approach can’t help but become the stuff of comedy, or at least require wit to handle them effectively. The Quatuor Bozzini’s collection of Johnson’s string quartets, Combinations, exemplify this playfulness without distracting from the musical substance. The Four-Note Chords in Four Voices from 2009 are just that, collated by type to provide phrasing, homogeneous and minimal even as nothing ever repeats. There’s a tension between similarity and diversity, despite the composition’s premise that such concerns are rendered moot. Johnson has recognised that there is nothing mathematical to be learned from his work with combinations and so these pieces cannot be considered mere demonstrations, but raise new aesthetic questions from existing conditions. Much as with Alvin Lucier, Johnson displays a fertile imagination based on observation over invention.

My review copy came without sleeve notes, so it would take closer analysis to determine exactly the systematic combinations used in 2003’s Combinations for String Quartet or the mathemmatical formulas used in 1994’s Formulas for String Quartet. I’m not bothering to do so because it doesn’t matter. As Johnson himself has written elsewhere, “composers, interpreters, and listeners do not need to know all this, just as we do not need to master counterpoint in order to appreciate a Bach fugue. As always, one of the wonderful things about music is that it allows us to perceive directly things that we would never understand intellectually.” In both the above works, the most striking aspect is the diversity of modes of expression in such a presumably limited palette. Formulas opens with a lively jig-like movement, followed by sweet antiphonal counterpoint and floating harmonies. Combinations contrasts motoric passages with translucent chords and dramatic interventions. Other movements, and in Tilework for String Quartet, build mosaic-like patterns out of sinuous lines that rise and fall while slipping in and out of sequence, becoming all the more intriguing for discovering variety in a single process of juxtapositions.

The music embodies a balance between rigor and play that can also be found in a well-crafted fugue. Quatuor Bozzini play this all with the sophistication and lightness of touch that it deserves, to bring out the fullness of its self-discipline and its charm. Steadfast and non-vibrato throughout, they nonetheless keep everything sounding warm and alive. The square, even rhythms are played true, but with a suppleness that allows the Bozzinis to float for one passage before landing with a surefooted tread in the next. With careful attention to intonation and articulation, they still find expressive room in the notation bring out wider connotations of emotion. For fans of Johnson’s music, part of the fun here is how often it sounds like someone other than Tom Johnson; the deadpan drollery commonly given to his work is shaded with hints of agitation or pathos, with fleeting classical or even romantic impressions flickering by. The dual appeal to the senses and the intellect is also a hallmark of wit.

Laura Cocks: field anatomies

Monday 21 February 2022

Scariest album of flute music ever. Laura Cocks’ solo recital disc field anatomies is a gruelling, intimidating experience when heard in one sitting. Don’t let the pressed flowers on the cover fool you; get the message that these (genuine) preserved petals crushed flat between heavy black cards are sending. All five works, composed over the past ten years, are intensely physical and demanding pieces for performer and listener. I don’t mean in the Unity Capsule sense, either, although there is a similar complexity and difficulty which Cocks successfully wrestles with throughout. All five composers represented here push intricacy of pitch and rhythm into the background, pushing their emphasis partly on sonority, but particularly on emodying the flute as an extension of breath – or an obstacle to it.

Cocks presents a masterclass on the phsyicality of wind playing. We can acknowledge that past prejudices against the flute as a petty instrument are entirely unfounded, yet during the opening half of the the first work, David Bird’s Atolls for solo piccolo “and 29 spatialized piccolos” I kept steeling myself against the prospect of a barrage of relentlessly finicky virtuosity. This never happens, even as Cocks negotiates tortuous passages of overblown multiphonics with a smearin’ and sneerin’ attitude before the work suddenly explodes into dense, dark spectralism. Electronics and other devices are used in all the works here, except for Jessie Cox’s Spiritus, but even that relatively straightforward work requires Cocks to provide a low, vocalised drone to thicken out the sound of her instrument. The focus on the sound of breath and mouth in all the works becomes most extreme in Bethany Younge’s Oxygen and Reality, where musician and piccolo are hemmed in by electronic processing, affixed balloons to ration the use of air and, most ominously, “hardware”. The constricted, suffocating atmosphere is marred a little by being a little too demonstrative of its premise, as when Cocks is required to speak on the subject through the piccolo, but by this stage of the album her voice comes as a surprise as up until now she has sounded larger than life.

The most listerner-friendly piece here may be DM R’s You’ll see me return to the city of fury, but even this electroacoustic work is dark and menacing while also being the least convulsive in its progress from start to finish. The final piece, Joan Arnau Pàmies’s Produktionsmittel I is part of a 2-hour trilogy. For this segment, Cocks unloads a marathon barrage of groans, growls, grunts and howls that search out the medians and extremes between pitch and noise. I’d call it an indomitable display of power, yet the piece itself suggests human exhaustion as the flautist is buffeted by electronic bleeps until she is swept away by a tide of white noise. There are times when it starts to feel like the flute has become an adjunct to the music, a prop for a greater compositional conceit. Based on the performances given here, a composer could get some exciting results from writing piece for Cocks which required her to do without an instrument altogether.

Post-Confusion, 2: Tim Parkinson, Eventless Plot, Luciano Maggiore

Sunday 20 February 2022

Speaking of forgotten trends in experimental music from past generations, I recently listened to a two-hour free-form slab of late night US public radio from 1975. Amongst all its eccentricities, the oddest thing about it was how it reminded me of Tim Parkinson’s septet (2004), which I had played just before. Two performances of the work are given by different ensembles in this album release; it’s a piece for live chamber ensemble with use of pre-recorded audio. “Simultaneous parts begin together and thereafter continue independently. Parts for melody instruments may be played in any order. Percussion parts and audio track are fixed.” As a study in immersive simultaneity, the ideas and means are not new, but the music is still strikingly otherworldly. Part of this may be down to the awareness of history going on behind it, focusing on the sound over the technique. The live sounds vary incongruously without ever trying to be pointedly different or disruptive, while the recorded sounds remain impassive; moreover, everything appears in a dreamlike, distant haze. The musicians are expected to be placed around the room, which presumably happened in both these instances, so that the recording captures the room as much as the sounds that inhabit it.

I’ve talked about Eventless Plot a few times before, with their group compositional approach being both an extension and an antithesis of free improvisation. With several minds at work, the focus is on finding order, guiding divergent impulses into a single, emergent intelligence that is as clear as it it complex. Released last month, Apatris is a collection of four concise pieces for tapes, piano, percussion and electronics. The trio (Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas, Yiannis Tsirikoglou) play without guest members this time, producing atmospheric but transparent works that subtly develop and distinguish themselves from each other. With piano as the main melodic component here, its utterances are kept brief, setting the layers of unpitched sound into relief while giving them further colouration by contrast. It works effectively as a companion piece to No options, their earlier collaboration with bass clarinetist Chris Cundy, both in musical approach and in scale.

The unifying conceit I’ve got in the back of my head from listening to these pieces is “post-confusion”, as an evolving but contemporary approach to accommodating the state of information today, a multiplicity of ever-present, contradictory messages in constant competition. How does music adapt to, repurpose, combat or shut out this situation? The term might be used in a similar way as “post-irony” gets thrown about, which was how it kept passing through my head while listening to Luciano Maggiore’s Drenched Thatched Roof again even after I swore not to. This is the guy who did that collaboration with Louie Rice Synthesised voices and low frequencies to eat crisps with a while back. There’s even less information to work with here; if you’re one of the 150 people who got the limited edition CD then there’s a 6-page booklet to go with it but I’m going to guess that all the pages are black. Short loops of grey-sounding tapes repeat a handful of times, then stop. Pause, repeat for 68 minutes (Maggiore does tell you up front that the track divisions are meaningless). Every element is laid out one at a time, neatly separated, but it’s still incomprehensible. You’re so sure that some of these sounds are being repeated that the idea they might all be different is unbearable. I have no idea what is going on, even though it keeps telling me.

Post-Confusion, 1: Clinton Green, Tarab, Tony Buck & Rik Rue

Monday 14 February 2022

I’ve been listening to a range of pieces by artists working with degrees of freedom in their approach to composition, from fixed but open structures to pure improvisation. The eclectic sonic materials used render questions of harmonic or other pitch-based organsiation obsolete. Perhaps it’s the ultimate expression of Ezra Pound’s theory of harmony, that any two sounds can follow one anonther in consonance as long as you get the timing right: the disposition of heterogeneous sounds to create a balanced, unified musical experience is a genre that has slowly defined itself over the last half-century or so. As with the materials, the unifying forces can be left very loose, defying our expectations of associating anarchy with chaos.

The densest, noisiest works all happen to be Australian, produced across a gap of twenty-five years. Maybe there’s a pattern that singles out these three albums, or perhaps these piece are just crowding out my mind right now. There appears to be a tradition, as represented by the reissue of Tony Buck & Rik Rue’s Come Let Us Build Ourselves A City collaboration from 1996. A double improvisation of Buck on drums and electronic percussion devices, embellished and corrupted by Rue’s electronics and samples played through minidisc recorders set to shuffle, the collection of pieces push the density of signals to the brink of noise. Technology allows each musician to be their own Sixties happening in terms of immersion in omni-attentiveness. With such abundance, pacing or restraint in exposition are irrelevant: the energy is unstinting and phrasing can be confrontingly abrupt.

The same qualities can be heard in Tarab’s 2018 recording, HOUSEKEEPING, derived from an 8-channel installation. Recordings of found objects, spaces, rehearsals are all swept up in this vast accumulation of otherwise inconsequential odds and ends. The collection may appear indiscriminate but the presentation is far from flat, using the perspectives of time and space over which the piece was shaped to present sounds in sharp relief. If there’s a shared tradition here, it’s in the use of domestically-oriented material to produce something otherworldly, transcending its innate quotidian attributes to become something more than itself, rather than seeking to relocate artistic experience within the mundane.

That transcended domesticity carries over into the most recent work here, Clinton Green’s Here​?​/​Secret, a pair of related lockdown compositions created out of frustration at being unable to access his studio and equipment. The two collages were created from, and on, cassettes, using older material left at home and processed on an old 4-track cassette mixer. The gear at work here is similar to that used by Rik Rue in the 1980s. Green mentions a compositional procedure for choice of tape, tape speed and direction and panning, which yields a combination of sounds disturbingly mismatched to eerie perfection, much in the way of a prolonged chance collision. Once again, the ordinary is repurposed into a hallucinatory melange of sounds beyond conventional comprehension. It taps into a powerful strand of late 20th Century experimental music, going back to Cage’s collages from the 1950s, that’s occasionally forgotten only to be taken up again a generation later…

End of quiescence, 3: A quick comment on Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet

Sunday 30 January 2022

It took a long time to listen to this recording, but not long to find something to say about it. Morton Feldman’s music, despite immediate apperances, is not quiescent; it constantly questions the bounds that are rigorously placed upon it. (Is this what Cage meant he when first encountered Feldman’s music, finding it “heroic”?) Like many, I suspect, I imprinted on that first recording of Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet many years ago, with its dedicatees Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet pulling off something that sounded flawless, somehow making the piece the most self-contained and approachable of Feldman’s late works, even as it tests the musicians and audience alike.

Nobody needs a reason to play or record a piece again, but for the new recording of Piano and String Quartet by Apartment House on Another Timbre, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze provides an excellent summary of the piece’s compelling qualities on the label website. In their rendition, Apartment House thins out the sound, as Feldman often wished of his instruments. While neither faster nor slower, the approach taken by pianist Mark Knoop is more enervated, as though suddenly shaken out of complacency of what we have come to expect late Feldman to be. (I’m comparing this version to both that Takahashi/Kronos CD and memories of a live performance by John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet.) The strings respond in kind, as though pressed for time, making other performances seem unhelpfully languid in retrospect. After being gradually accommodated through stages of acceptance as ‘minimalist’ or ‘ambient’, it’s good to hear this piece turned away from luxuriance and towards a sound more fitting to Feldman’s less comfortable ways of thinking about music.

End of quiescence, 2: Johan Lindvall, Judith Hamann, Adrián Demoč

Tuesday 25 January 2022

What does quiescence in music mean? John Cage, seeking his way out of a musical and psychological abyss, turned to Eastern religion and embraced quiescence as a goal to be achieved, a more receptive kind of stoicism. Surrendering oneself to chance is itself a decisive act, not to be confused with the passivity of being a hostage to Fortune. The inactivity so valued in this type of art is that of heightened awareness, as with the figure in Dürer’s Melencolia I. Johan Lindvall’s Two trios (Lindvall, Rasten, Shirley) were composed for the performance heard on this Insub recording, with Lindvall on piano joined by Fredrik Rasten on acoustic guitar and Derek Shirley, cello. An almost naïve construction, without development, but played with a studied elegance to negate any base rough-hewn appeal, the first, long piece is pointillistic throughout and then the second, short piece plays in choral unison as though the first piece was folded upon itself. You swear you’ve heard this all before, but it’s so pleasant to hear now. As with the French Symbolists, each piece is held together by the recalled affinities of these familiar sounds, “too subtle for the intellect”.

Judith Hamann made A Coffin Spray last year as a memorial for a friend who passed too soon. Any quiescence here is through a reflective act of grief; the steadiness of its interwoven cello chords becoming part mourning, part remembrance, part acceptance. The low, beating overtones that recur at the beginning of the piece at first come across as funereal, but when the bass strings drop away you become keenly aware of the loss and wish the comforting certainty would return. It does, but transformed, as the harmonic space gently starts to open up through the repetitions. The mesmerising quality of the playing and cross-fading between low and high induces contemplation rather than sleep. Hamann’s income from this Superpang release goes towards funding a proper memorial.

The latest (I think) release on Discreet Editions is another set of compositions by Adrián Demoč. Sen differs from his previous collections discussed here in that the three pieces are all played on early music instruments: lutes, viola da gambas, cornettos and such. All three, very recent, are particularly reductive in their means, even by Demoč’s standards, but are no less captivating for that. Unanimity is the motive here, with the two outer tracks of block movements of chords, a line harmonised. A Luca Marenzio has been heard before on the 2019 album Žiadba; in the newly antiquified version, Jedediah Allen, Anna-Kaisa Meklin and Lukas Frank wield instruments that play against each other less sweetly and the so the piece moves along at a brisker pace, its cadences still poignant despite itself. The wilder colourations and intonations heard here become the point of Zátišie a súzvuk, a sextet Demoč composed specially for these instruments. The long title work in between is a monophonic melody for three plucked instruments in staggered unison. The trio heard here (Julia Marty, gittern; Rui Stähelin, plectrum lute; Carolin Margraf, gothic harp) are just close enough in sound to resemble echoes of each other, a kind of shifting hall of mirrors that complicates the hesitant progress of the slowly winding melody. The use of pitch and harmony in these pieces is such that, whether in stasis or in motion, its presence is of secondary concern to the listener, other than as a means of achieving a change in state of the listener’s affective awareness without revealing a structure.

End of quiescence, 1: Ilia Belorukov and Gaudenz Badrutt

Monday 24 January 2022

Time to do some catching up on winter listening. I quickly started zoning out to Ilia Belorukov’s solo release Someone Has Always Come on Sublime Retreat but then started paying closer attention and reappraising it while still playing it for the first time, which is always an encouraging sign. The four tracks here, assembled over 2017 to 2020, seem a bit samey at first in that grey dark-ambient kind of way, but the redeeming features are in the attention to detail and finish, as suggested by the lengthy gestation period and confirmed by the depths that are revealed in closer listening. Behind the rather staid impression received at a distance, each piece deploys a wealth of dark-hued tones enlivened by faint motifs that sometimes recur, imparting structure and direction for the listener and adding a nice, open-ended uncertainty quite different from the usual claustrophobic atmosphere of this genre.

I’ve discussed Belorukov before, in his collaboration with Gaudenz Badrutt, Rotonda. It got described as “slow, deliberately-paced music [that] unfolds over nearly 50 minutes, each performer knowing that the resonance of the space will fill and colour their inactivity.” The two are reunited as a duo on Sauerkraut, released on Intonema a couple of months ago. These recordings date from 2019, based on live performances with electronics, sampling, feedback and analogue synthesis. Both musicians’ use of noise, placement of sound and phrasing have developed here into a high-contrast study of extremes. Where Rotonda flirted with cautiousness, Sauerkraut tempts recklessness. Two brief tracks set up expectations for the main course, a long piece of sporadic outbursts of intricate noise, peppered with unsteady near-silences that unfold with a kind of unreadable, autonomous machine-logic. The sleeve notes suggest that the complex processor chains used in the music create plenty of opportunuities for feedback loops, which goes a long way to explaining why the David Tudor-like organised chaos heard here sounds so unforced, and why the passages of bludgeoning noise are so enjoyable.

Quiet endings: Martin Iddon, Andrew McIntosh

Friday 31 December 2021

It’s the quiet end of the year, when it seems everything can wait until later. I’ve got a lot of recordings sitting on my hard drive which I want to discuss, but many of them are new releases by artists I’ve already written about this year: I’ll space them out a bit so readers won’t think I’m trying to push favourites. Before the year ends, I want to get two more albums down. I thought I’d written about Martin Iddon’s last Another Timbre CD, Pneuma, but no; just a passing reference to “the very refined sensibility” of his compositional language while discussing Frank Denyer. His new album Sapindales keeps that softly intense, intimate voice, while speaking more clearly and forthrightly. That may be partly down to Iddon’s own evolution – three of the four pieces here post-date the works on Pneuma – but also to the instrumentation and the performers.

All four feature Heather Roche on various clarinets, with two of them composed for her. The vocal and ensemble works on Pneuma are in contrast to Sapindales‘ focus on the intertwining of three, two, or even one solitary voice. The solo for bass clarinet Ptelea is dervied from Iddon’s vocal quintet hamadryads, itself a reworking of a Josquin motet. The polyphony here is presented as four lines of notes that bend and slide, of which the performer is asked to play as much as possible simultaneously. Roche’s dexterity and studious art in multiphonics turns the piece into a complex, closely argued soliloquy, an introverted character at once measured and impassioned. Iddon’s knack for extracting gnarly details from a reduced musical image comes to the fore here: in contrast to the “new complexity” scholl of composition, his obfucations are perceptual instead of technical. The effect is compounded in Muses, which pairs Roche with soprano Juliet Fraser, creating an involuted braid of clear sounds that ripple over and against each other as they find a path through Iddon’s music. (These pieces all allow for multiple readings of the material and in this case requires a recording of an alternate performance to be played simultaneously.) Tu as navré exchanges material in the bass register between Roche’s bass and contrabass, Anton Lukoszevieze’s cello and James Opstad’s string bass, with soft but heavily-grained playing creating a blurred, buzzy sound that aspires to monody. On the title work, the clarinet’s partner is a field recording Iddon made in a nature reserve early one morning. The material from Ptelea unwinds into slow, spacious phrases that seek out a response from the unassuming environment.

Finally, something quick about a slow piece. Andrew McIntosh’s A Moonbeam Is Just A Filtered Sunbeam is an hour-long work recorded by the composer using violin, viola, piano, bowed piano, bowed wine glasses, slate, field recordings and electronics. There’s no score for it; its composition was made through collage, with a reliance on improvised music. From the opening, the piano sets out as much time as possible between one event and the next. The slowness becomes a framing device to let new material persist, or change without any overt rationale. McIntosh’s use of just intonation in his string playing produces long, droney passages in which either the time is filled with greater complexities of tone and colour, or even less happens than before, depending on the attitude you take while listening. The piece falls into four sections, which aren’t immediately obvious; rather the piece takes unexpected turns into repeated melodic phrases, a slow dance rhythm in percussion, lingers on minor details until they form a shape of their own, creating something naturally immense without straining to be epic.

Words as Music (II): Esmeralda Conde Ruiz & Dominic Coles

Friday 24 December 2021

Pandemic Art keeps coming, with the recurrent themes of online mediation and trying to build connections in unfavourable circumstances. Esmeralda Conde Ruiz’s Cabin Fever is a 24-hour audiovisual work made with online contributions from people around the world using video conferencing software. A selection of ten audio excerpts is presented on this album. From a global variety of locations and languages, performers relate dreams they remember, with accompaniment of sound effects, field recordings, other voices, music. The themes at work here in subject matter and means of presentation may seem familiar enough to us by now to feel comfortable, but the interest comes from the means of execution. The juxtaposition of words and sounds was apparently made through live performance, with all the glitches and time-lags that entails. “The software itself is the conductor, in choosing the foreground certain sounds or voices, all mediated by the ghost-mixer of the elongated gaps.” If this is the case, then it’s the album’s strength, as everything is permeated by tiny burrs and quivers in the transmitted sound, even at its most stable: a natural complexity previously denied to digital technology in music. Each piece here has a distinct character, but they’re all united by this hazy, inevitably haphazard presentation produced by means not yet fully realised, giving it an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere where loss of the message’s clarity gains meaning through the mystification of its transmission. A future history of online performance may regard this work as a small step, but a necessary one.

As an antidote to any fine feelings raised by Cabin Fever, Dominic Coles retorts from New York with the chastening everyone thinks their dreams are interesting. It’s on Edition Wandelweiser, but it’s startlingly brief and abrasive. The six pieces here “recount a series of dreams through the circuitry of a synthesizer and the processor of a computer, using the voice to drive various forms of synthesis.” The voice cannot be heard, as the resulting process generates a series of diverse electronic sounds pulverised into morsels that each possess a unique, terrible beauty. With abrupt starts and ends, often harsh and indifferent to your nervous state, they hold the fascination of phenomena in nature as observed in seismic shifts and lightning strikes. Dynamics are wide ranging and elements may or may not choose to repeat or vary. Silences are also frequent, but these heighten the structural tension in each piece more than relieve it: as often as not, your peak level meter will be held threateningly high even while you can’t hear a thing. The release notes include the texts of the dreams, if you’re interested.

“No matter what we do it ends by being melodic.” Ryoko Akama & Georgia Rodgers

Sunday 19 December 2021

From the 1950s Christian Wolff quote above to Jürg Frey playing Wandelweiser, once we have acquired a new perspective we cannot help but appreciate disparate elements in a wider context. The principle applies both to hearing music and to making it. Ryoko Akama’s Songs For A Shed, part of the latest batch of releases on Another Timbre, throws itself fully into melody after she had entertained the idea on her previous Dial 45-21-95. Both albums feature work commissioned by Another Timbre, played by the ensemble Apartment House. These new pieces started as a set of pieces for pianist Philip Thomas, with the proviso that all the pieces be pitch-based. Sadly, Thomas has been too ill to perform the pieces here.

A new impetus for plain speaking came from the lockdown which followed soon after the commission. “I was very interested in documentary kind of things…. There wasn’t much continuity; it was like, okay, I did this yesterday, I need to follow it up.” Despite works having titles like melody and this and that, Akama still creates compositions which display a subtly fluidity in the pacing and ordering of events. Some of the pieces here are in a kind of kit form, where components may be selected and arranged. The musicians of Apartment House make these ensemble works into cohesive fields of overlapping and simultaneous fragments: a collective, emergent voice. In the solo piano pieces, Siwan Rhys’ playing speaks with a quiet directness, even as Akama has her at one stage practically quoting “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman”. The long a shed song which ends the album has composer and pianist studiously compiling minor details with understated seriousness, making the piece in retrospect seem grander than it should be.

I think that September is the first readily available larger collection of pieces by composer Georgia Rodgers. Eight works here spanning 2010 to 2021 from what Marketing would describe as an Emerging Composer. I first heard her Three Pieces for String Quartet live back in 2017 and described the triptych of studies in pitched and unpitched bowing as “elements of various trends in late 20th Century music distilled into a secure but distinct musical language.” More recently, she has been working with environmental field recordings, collaging them into pieces combining instrumental and electronic sounds (Tonewood and Line Of Parts). September focuses on works for small ensemble or piano, showing how Rodgers has been trying out a variety of styles and approaches in the service of a fundamental character behind all of her music.

Influences in style can be heard from time to time: Laurence Crane in 2019’s ensemble piece September, 2017’s violin and piano duet St Andrew’s Lyddington sounding a little too much like Feldman. Common to all the pieces is a desire to achieve a flat, affectless surface, approaching a subjective purity so that the music may be better appreciated as phenomenological act. The Three Pieces for String Quartet are recorded here, displaying this effect with pitched and unpitched sounds alike. The brief electronic work Logistic from 2010 fits together hoarse quasi-pitched sounds. I only just found out in the interview that came with this album that Rodgers has a background in science and architectural acoustics, which makes sense; so does her interest in Tom Johnson.

The ensemble pieces here, again played by Apartment House, typically rely on repeated phrases to establish harmonic stasis over continuity while processes of counting and permutation work themselves out. At their best, they have an oblique, gnomic character that implies more than is said, particularly in 2016’s Masking Set where Sara Rodrigues artlessly sings vowels against Bridget Carey’s viola and Anton Lukoszevieze’s cello. The most recent piece is from this year, written for pianist Zubin Kanga. Like Masking Set, Ringinglow lays off interference between closely-pitched sounds, but here the piano is paired with sine tones. There’s a connection to the late Alvin Lucier’s music, but with Rodgers the music appears to be centred on the musician more then the process. Kanga’s reiterated chords become louder and more insistent as they spread out across the keyboard’s range, while the electronic tones recede and then swell in greater proliferation. It’s an unexpectedly dramatic turn for the composer, leaving us wondering where this might lead to next.

Words as music: Jürg Frey, Samuel Beckett, John Tilbury

Sunday 12 December 2021

Jürg Frey’s I Listened to the Wind Again, a 45-minute piece for soprano, clarinet, string trio and percussion, seems to trace the evolution of his compositional voice in microcosm. It was commissioned by the Louth Contemporary Music Society Festival in 2017 and the recording was commercially released late this year. This is the third piece by Frey I’ve heard of similar dimensions for soprano and small ensemble: 2004’s 24 Wörter is made of short movements, each dedicated to a single word accompanied by violin piano, while 2011’s Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind combines soprano, trumpet, cello, percussion and tape. The latter work unfolds like a procession, a steady state of action that keeps discovering unexpected changes in its sound through its own unhurried movements.

For I Listened to the Wind Again, Frey has constructed his text from quotations from Swiss poets Gustave Roud (also the poet of Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind) and Pierre Chappuis, adding the Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi before finally introducing the Lebanese-U.S. poet-painter Etel Adnan. The text emerges gradually, hesitant at first, in single words before tentatively expanding into phrases. The accompanying ensemble swells in tandem with the voice, starting as faint harmonics to the soprano, occasionally little more than an unvoiced breath in moments when she falls silent. The clarinet’s distinctive tone is not heard until about ten minutes in; after twenty minutes the cello bows a slow melody in its lower register. By the halfway point both voice and instruments are sounding fully, with a slow, statuesque lyricism. Soprano Hélène Fauchère’s faint vibrato becomes more pronounced as each section reaches its own modest climax and the ensemble changes the mood from clear to clouded. The ensemble (Carol Robinson, clarinet; Nathalie Chabot, violin; Garth Knox, viola; Agnès Vesterman, cello; Sylvain Lemêtre, percussion) is ideally suited to the voice and the composer, knowing how to play quietly without being soft or frail. For much of the piece they alternate between colouring the vocal line and providing antiphonies for it; in the later stages they intertwine behind the soprano, who now sings without pauses. Frey keeps adding expressivity to his once spare music, gesturing towards but never approaching melodrama.

Cafe Oto’s extended lockdown series of recordings, Takuroku, has come to an end after about 195 releases. Amongst the last is John Tilbury’s Metalessness, his reading of Samuel Beckett’s Lessness with keyboard accompaniment. Besides Tilbury’s vast body of work as pianist in free improvisation and the New York School, he has also gained a reputation over the past decade as an interpreter of Beckett’s dramatic and prose works. Lessness gains its incantatory power through its repeated phrases and the repetition of the entire text, the second time with the order of its sentences permutated by chance. The means of making the text are of less interest than the effect they have, especially as spoken by Tilbury here. The words’ disturbingly neutral descriptions of apparent desolation provide a verbal surface for meditation, mood between elegaic, yearning and resolute. Tilbury’s clavichord provides accompaniment, its faint, thin sound at first evoking a distant memory of tinkly upright piano. (The piece’s dedication is “In memoriam William Thomson, potman, pub pianist who died of TB at 39, the grandfather I never knew.”) The clavichord’s gentle recurrence in the background conjures up new images for the text, at times agitated, at others calm but searching. At one point, the elegaic cuckoo clock from Morton Feldman’s Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety is recalled. It appears to be a home recording, windows open, with extraneous household sounds adding a subtle discordant clatter to the keyboard; from time to time, a small bird outside chirps brightly.

Evan Johnson: lists, little stars

Sunday 28 November 2021

Evan Johnson’s music is hard to hear. Does everyone say that about him? While other composers may reward your closer attention, Johnson just seems to compound your uncertainty. Are you sure of what you’ve heard? When it’s over, you remember the experience of listening, but the image created in your mind is defined by its obscurity. The music’s reticence is compounded when the medium is an instrument identified with the personal and intimate forms of expression, as in Ben Smith’s collection of Johnson’s piano pieces lists, little stars issued by All That Dust.

The prevailing mood across these pieces is one of extreme introversion, where even the titles seem to be deployed to deter further inquiry (the brief mon petit pleurant is succeeded by the cycle mes pleurants, two works use ‘dehiscences’ in their titles). The 2010 piece hwil is about thirty seconds of almost inaudible deliberation at, if not on, the keyboard. There is a proliferation of precise actions in each score, somewhat in the manner of Kurtág, but the aim is not on clarity of intricate details. Johnson’s music may be faint but it is not frail; at times it is almost crude in protesting its reticence. The greater part of the two pieces in Dehiscences, Lullay (“Thou nost whider it whil turne”) is smothered in a blanket of white noise, cutting out suddenly as though to catch the listener in the act of eavesdropping. The rare loud notes at the start of mes pleurants‘ “Se Zephirus” have a similar effect.

When the piano is heard, its statements are deliberately half-formed, unresolved, with even the more expressive flourishes smudged by claustrophobic pitch spaces. You hear the thought process itself, in all its agonising uncertainty, without the cleaned-up end product. The two earlier works heard here attempt to make their sonic content inconsequential, while the later pieces make strategic use of the relative presence or absence of musical substance. The largest work here, 2013’s “atendant [sic], souffrir”, lists, little stars, is a duet in which the fuller sound is balanced by more delicate playing, more a displacement than a dialogue. Despite, or perhaps because of its greater length, it’s an easier piece to follow; but this may also be due to acclimatisation through the opening tracks on the album.

The sound quality is particularly good, given the extreme dynamic range needed to catch a reasonable impression of the piano in performance. Ben Smith would appear to play with all the exactness and greater musical consideration needed to bring these pieces into tentative life, with a talent for letting each sound fade and die in their own way. As a further vote of confidence, he is joined by Ian Pace for the title duet.