Apartment House plays Jim O’Rourke

Sunday 9 February 2020

Jim O’Rourke’s music for small string ensembles (with electronics). I’ve been waiting for this one; an intriguing and almost unknown aspect of his music, brought to light by Apartment House. Two new works made up the second half of the gig: Anton Lukoszevieze gave the first UK airing of the solo cello piece Book of Rounds, followed by the premiere of a new version of 12 Dollars is Alot [sic] made specially for Apartment House. The two works shared the quality of being charming without stooping to be ingratiating. (O’Rourke cites Hans Otte as an inspiration.) While the music flowed smoothly, there was a restlessness that underpinned it all as it moved from one idea to another, never staying in one place for long. The picaresque structure suggested a collage, but without evident cultural references of quotation or the demonstrative freakishness of John Zorn’s collaged compositions. We’re talking more Merz than Pop Art here. Each piece largely resisted the threat of falling into shapelessness thanks to O’Rourke’s control over his materials: certain effects would be introduced, return for a while and then disappear, producing a sense of progress. Thinking back, I suspect the harmonic material was subjected to variation and recapitulation, to add structural support. 12 Dollars is Alot, arranged here for string sextet, added electronics in small but significant ways, only occasionally reminding you of there presence in ways that thickened the plot. Lukoszevieze and Apartment House handled the deceptively tricky passages well, to make each piece consistently satisfying.

The first half of the gig was taken up by a much older work: String Quartet and Oscillators I and II are a pair of 23-minute panels separated, in this case, by a resonant silence. The work was composed in 1990 as a rebuke to O’Rourke’s professors, who didn’t believe that Scesli really existed. He can’t remember if it ever got played at the time; if it were, I wonder what technology was used and how well it, and the players, coped. The apmplified quartet play long, interwoven tones which are fed through a ring modulator. The combination of bowed string and modulating electronic tones produce changes in pitch and timbre that can range from subtle to drastic. Each large block of sound shared a certain similarity with the overtone-laden drones of Phill Niblock or La Monte Young, sharing the latter’s preference for some coarse-grained rumble to disrupt the harmonics, but distinguished again by that restlessness. Things were complicated by programming the oscillators to change every time a player changed pitch. Any pretence to minimalism was dispelled by the ever-changing interactions between string and electronics, subject to a process that was unfathomable. Wild combinations came and went, of frenzied and serene, ringing and clattering, buzzing and sighing – and sometimes things just conked out for a bit. It didn’t matter; the unmasked playing by the quartet made a striking contrast when the modulation kicked in again. Played any louder and it would have been an overwhelming experience, less perceivable as a composition in its own right. I don’t think anyone would have minded it louder.

Five years of 840

Monday 3 February 2020

The year has started. Two gigs this weekend just gone, both at Cafe Oto. The 840 series celebrated their fifth anniversary on Friday with an evening of music for voices and strings. It was satisfying to see that the show had sold out and the bar was rammed, airless and sweaty as on its biggest nights; it makes a change from their usual venue of a small church in Islington.

I arrived late but in time to hear Juliet Fraser sing Cassandra Miller’s Tracery: Lazy, Rocking live. I got to hear another piece by Georgia Rodgers: Masking Set placed alto Sara Rodrigues alongside a small string ensemble in a way that seemed more beguiling than usual, but then took an unexpected turn. What seemed at first to be sentiment was revealed as phenomenology; so I liked it. A new work by John Lely, Stopping at the Sheer Edge Will Never Abolish Space, was also unexpectedly yielding in tone and structure, so that I started to wish for the reductive logic I had come to expect from his compositions.

Yes, I’m skimming a bit here because the crowd and the occasion kind of dominated on the night. The BBC was on hand to record it all so it can be heard at leisure sometime this year, I hope. The ending of the gig also became the most lingering memory, with the premiere of Laurence Crane’s European Towns. As mentioned ruefully by the announcer, Britain was leaving the European Union in 40 minutes’ time. Crane described the piece as “regretful and melancholic” but its simplicity – a repeated idea, a fragmented litany – and the sweetness with which it was sung by Fraser, accompanied by a small ensemble of introverted strings, added a note of naïve wistfulness. Listening as an Antipodean immigrant who is still, fundamentally, an outsider to this political relationship, I could also hear that unfulfilled dream of an imagined kinship with another culture that could never be fully known. Some of the audience had started singing along as the ending lingered, reluctant to let go.

Dark Night On The Black Dog Highway

Monday 27 January 2020

I’ve been playing this one on and off since the end of summer and on these cold, dark nights it’s coming into its own. Dark Night On The Black Dog Highway is the latest joint release from Lance Austin Olsen. Working this time with Tim Clément, the two pieces here are another example of long-distance collaboration that Olsen has used in various ways when making music. Each artist exchanges files back and forth, adding to or modifying a collage of field recordings, found sounds, instruments and electronics. In this case, this “third mind” approach to working has been particularly rewarding for the listener: the title work, some 35 minutes long, is a vast, brooding abstraction. The expansive pacing belies the restless activity contained within, as the transparency of the textures belies the complexity of sounds produced. Clément and Olsen have found a fortunate means of working with each other in a way that diverts both of their contributions towards an end that neither would have anticipated (knowing when to stop also helps a lot). While some of Olsen’s previous works suggest at an external reference or a programme, there is no such indication here. The work seems stronger for it, allowing it to establish a profound but elusive mood within the listener, for their own personal significance.

The companion work on the album, Memory Lost, Memory Found, provides a focal point, albeit inarticulate, through the introduction of electronically manipulated voices. I couldn’t help but resent the intrusion of the voice as a distraction after the sublime menace of Dark Night.

Around the same time, the label (Infrequency Editions) released a half-hour work by Jamie Drouin, about whom I have no other knowledge. Although it’s a single track, Ridge takes the form of a suite, with contrasting sections divided by silences. It’s evidently a solo effort, made from “amplified objects, sine wave generator, and Buchla”. The synth tones predominate, giving it a clean sound even as the amplified noises thicken the texture. They’re finely crafted studies, but come across a little too neat and untroubled for my ears, so that I keep expecting something more.

Ryoko Akama’s ‘Dial 45-21-95’; Jon Heilbron’s ‘Puma Court’

Tuesday 14 January 2020

It’s like looking at someone with short hair. We could tell if that person had long hair in the sixties and now has short hair, as opposed to the guy who’s always had short hair since the fifties.

Peter Gena, in conversation with Morton Feldman

A couple of years ago, Another Timbre released a vast recording of Ryoko Akama’s places and pages, “a collection of fifty texts to be performed at random places”. At the time, I described it as “reminiscent of Cage’s Song Books, Ferrari’s audio travelogues, Fluxus happenings, yet it sounds like none of these.” Another Timbre founder Simon Reynell has commissioned a set of pieces from Akama to be performed by the ensemble Apartment House. The collection, released on CD with the title Dial 45-21-95, is very, very different. There are notes. Pitches, even. Melodies.

Akama recently visited the archive of Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Seated at a piano with the archive director’s baby on her lap, a brief lullaby came to her. “Everything else started from that moment.” The pieces in this collection are a response to Kieslowski in a similar spirit to his films. They are simple and direct, but nothing is obvious. A plain quality that won’t tug on the emotions but allow them to roam freely. The responses are intuitive but cannot be explained.

Apartment House invests these slender scores with a distinct life and character in ways that never strain for a particular effect; each piece has a unique quality while never breaking the prevailing mood. The music is beguiling in a way that keeps inviting the listener to pay closer attention, while never making demands. Some pieces blend sustained tones between instruments in a slow melody, others draw together loose scraps of sound into a whole. One rumbles ominously, while the brief piano lullaby I’m just so-so stands out for its charm, having acquired gentle accompaniment on violin and alto flute.

Jon Heilbron is an Australian who lives in Berlin but spends time in Norway, where he made this recording. That probably doesn’t matter. His two compositions here, both titled Puma Court, are double duets: two double bass players (including Heilbron) joined by two hardanger fiddlers. Expectations of how this music will go – interweaving harmonic drones and resonances – are quickly thwarted. Is someone whistling? Bowed harmonics and the sympathetic resonator strings on the fiddles should fill the upper regions of the spectrum, but other sounds intrude. Tapping and clicking sounds punctuate the surface, while the two sets of instruments exchange chords. At times, all bowing ceases, giving way to tapping and idle whistling; sometimes near, sometimes distant, as though some of the musicians have wandered away for a while.

The reverberant space of the church they recorded in adds a futher dimension, but the composition and performance makes these pieces special. What could be an exercise in rarefied folk music or “minimalism” is transformed by allowing new complications and disruptions to occur, all of which are accommodated into a coherent but subtly complex shape. Puma Court One alternates between low and high sonorities before the plot thickens, ending with an extended coda of harmonics. Puma Court Two is more sombre, even as the basses’ harmonic playing takes a more predominant role throughout, adding a muted tone to the fiddles’ range as the players recede into ragged whispering.

Insub Meta Orchestra plays Granberg and Pisaro

Sunday 12 January 2020

I’ve praised previous recordings by the Insub Meta Orchestra, a large ensemble of some twenty-five to thirty musicians combining an eclectic mix of acoustic instruments with live electronics. Their earlier releases have been joint compositions by two of the members, Cyril Bondi and d’incise, making use of reductive formulas that enabled the musicians to act independently within highly controlled parameters. Two new recordings came out late last year, in which the orchestra interpret new works they have commissioned from external composers.

Als alle Vögel sangen mein Sehnen und Verlangen by Magnus Granberg shows the change in approach from the usual Insub Meta joint. Granberg works with a mixture of musical allusions, distilled and transformed into a distinctive soundworld. This is the largest ensemble I’ve heard play Granberg and it appears that he has deliberately thinned out the texture of this composition as much as possible. (Unusually, Granberg himself isn’t one of the performers.) Each musician’s contribution is sparse and occasional, combining to create a mosaic of distinctive colours that constantly varies in surface and texture but never in state. The large palette of sounds and their sparing use allows the character of the piece to change and evolve over time without any conscious subjective intervention.

How are these pieces made? Neither release comes with any cover notes. While the premise of Granberg’s piece remains elusive, Michael Pisaro’s Achilles, Socrates, Diotima (The Poem of Names, No. 2) is a complete mystery. There appears to be a programme at work, in which the orchestra is set to work on concentrated actions, but the underlying motive remains a secret. From silence, isolated non-musical sounds gather into a gradual rallying of forces. Each successive attempt adds another dimension to the music, at times breaking into a percussive rumble, or a constant drone. One step at a time, it builds up into something sustained and powerful, assembled out of nothing. Like an ancient artefact, stripped of subjectivity and context, it constitutes its own meaning. Repeated listenings don’t reduce its strangeness.

Philip Thomas playing Feldman and Wolff, live and on record

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Everyone has been raving about Philip Thomas’ box of pretty much all of Morton Feldman’s solo piano music which came out late last year – with good reason. So much has already been said about it elsewhere, so I’m going to focus on hearing him play it live. There was a launch gig in London a couple of months ago: the programme closely matched the first disc of this set. A survey of Feldman’s piano music will naturally split discs between long pieces and short, but Thomas has chosen a less obvious sequence than straight chronology or grouping of like with like, emphasizing the breadth of Feldman’s supposedly attenuated range. I presume all Feldman fans have experienced the same phenomenon: you think you’ve got his measure and then you hear another piece that throws you for a loop. This set steadily delivers in that respect, both in presenting some rare outliers and newly-recovered works, and in smartly placing contrasting works in a new context. It’s a close recording with high gain in mastering, emphasising detail and focussing on touch and texture. Thomas plays with a care and felicity that strongly reminded me of Feldman’s connection with the abstract expressionist painters.

That emphasis on touch comes through in the first disc, starting with two less-heard compositions, Last Pieces from 1959 and 1977’s Piano. These, followed by Extensions 3 and the late Palais de Mari, made up the programme of the gig at St Mary at Hill. Composed without an audible reliance on his famous techniques such as graph notation or reiterated patterns, the subjective sensibility at play in Feldman’s music comes to the forefront. Last Pieces is unusually slow, allowing greater contrasts and variety, particularly evident in the shifting textures of the faster sections. Never heard Piano played live before, knowing it only from Roger Woodward’s old recording (my fixation on Feldman came from that double CD so it was gratifying to read Thomas’ discussion of the waywardness in Woodward’s approach to rhythm in Tridaic Memories). Piano is a masterful extended study in dynamics and shading, with complexities that offer up something new on each listening. Thomas does it justice, acknowledging the impossibilities in Feldman’s score – as he explained in his brief but illuminating introductions to each piece. On disc, the sudden dynamic changes of this recording seem less jarring than when heard live, but then the contrasts in Extensions 3 are more prominent.

As it’s one of his most ‘accessible’ pieces, I keep thinking I’ve heard enough versions of Palais de Mari, but it keeps coming out different. After the gig, Thomas commented (correctly) that it sounded different when he played it live as opposed to in the studio. It needs an audience present, to humanise the otherwise cloying sweetness. It’s entirely forgiveable as an honest work of true sentimentality, with its mixture of tenderness and sadness.

A month later, at Cafe Oto, Thomas presented two nights combining Feldman with Christian Wolff. I caught the first one, with brief, early works by the former followed by Wolff’s large compendium Incidental Music. The Feldman included some of the noisier works, such as Illusions and a particularly assured take on Intersection 3, together with Thomas’ transcription of the music from the film Sculpture by Lipton. Incidental Music collects 100 very brief sketches written by Wolff in the early 2000s for him to play as accompaniment to Merce Cunningham’s improvised events, with the implication that Wolff may also use them as a basis for improvisation if needed. It’s a particularly intriguing example of Wolff’s later music, already based in discontinuities as it is. How can you tell the part from the whole? It may be considered as a large modular work, a mosaic of mosaics, as played by Thomas complete with detours into the insides of the piano and solos on a melodica.

LCMF 2019 Highlights, Part 3

Tuesday 31 December 2019

(Continued from Part 2, here.)

It’s the last day of the year. On my desk is a small ammonite fossil; it is 140 million years old. It was handed to me as I entered the premiere of Jennifer Walshe’s new piece TIME TIME TIME, an ambitious commission by LCMF and the Serpentine Gallery. It’s a collaborative work, with contributions by Áine O’Dwyer, Lee Patterson and M.C. Schmidt, with a quartet of musicians distributed around the audience. The text, by Walshe and Timothy Morton, deals with the title subject in a similarly emphatic yet inarticulate way. Any honest subjective approach to the concept of time and its consequences must be one of incomprehension, of struggling to understand how time truly relates to subjective experience. Each audience member was holding a fossil of an age we can barely even conceive of in the abstract.

I’ve previously discussed Walshe’s recent work ALL THE MANY PEOPLS and the way it observes the new conditions of subjectivity in the present age. TIME TIME TIME shows how people must invent their own understandings of the passage of time, from the deep geological time of the earth’s development, of the dinosaurs, how it is measured and apportioned, to how it passes.

Compared to other performances by the same composer, it unfolds at a less frenetic pace, including a song from O’Dwyer, dance from Walshe, resplendent in a green sequined dress on a catwalk in the middle of the room, and theatre as performers crawled through the space imitating extinct species. In between all this was antiphonal patter from Walshe and Schmidt, accompanied by videos depicting fictional dinosaurs, geothermal simulations of the earth’s interior, smartphones, atomic clocks and observations of insitutions at nearby Greenwich on the Prime Meridian. Amidst the urgency, the frustrations, the urgency, through it all came a mood of reverie, yearning to grasp something that can never be possessed, as one might long for the past.

It all sounded as good as it looked, with humour and pathos balanced nicely throughout in a way that carried the capacity audience along. Most memorable still is the period where vocalists, musicians and electronic artists combined to surround audiences with sounds resembling primeval swampland, with the innocence and charm of an aural Rousseau painting. Throughout the evening, motionless above the stage, a lone figure sat cross-legged in meditation.

The final night was combined poetry by CA Conrad with short films, including Marianna Simnett’s new film The Bird Game which combined the very British traditions of nursery rhymes and public information films. The two new musical commissions presented were for orchestra, again conducted by Jack Sheen. Burrows & Fargion’s Let us stop this mad rush towards the end was beautifully executed but suffered from a fatally close resemblance to Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in conception and method. Angharad Davies’ I ble’r aeth y gwrachod i gyd…? on the other hand was a powerful experience. Compositions by musicians with a greater reputation for improvisation can often come across as flawed or lacking (whether fairly or not) but this was thrillingly stark and complex in equal measures. Davies’ presence as a soloist was shadowy, confimed to recordings of her playing violin inside a church: isolated slashes of sound, amplified and left to resonate. The orchstra echoed and augmented the violin with dark harmonies and dense coloration. The initial impression of call and response broadened out into an orchestration of and counterpart to the tape, in a way that remained clear and controlled without ever becoming simplistic. It would be good to hear this again.

LCMF 2019 Highlights, Part 2

Sunday 29 December 2019

(Continued from Part 1, here.)

I’ve already said eclectic, haven’t I? The thrid night began with a Bulgarian folk ritual, performed by the Mogila Kukeri Group: enactments of peasant life encircled by animal-headed creatures swathed in dozens of cowbells. The look and sound of these costumes was overpowering, the bells loud enough to drown out even the bagpipes. There was an emphasis in their movements in establishing boundaries, defining a space and direct representation of common activities. It was the closest the festival came to the heart of its theme of witchcraft. With the departing Bulgarians still fading away into the distance, the space was given over to Fluxus, with the combined forces of Musarc and An Assembly performing Alison Knowles’ Work for Wounded Furniture, segueing into La Monte Young’s Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc. Again, common objects and simple actions were presented plain, with Knowles giving us inadvertent theatre and music through establishing a new frame of reference for observing the partial destruction and ineffectual repair of household objects, while Young gives a new focus to unintentional sound, and to the inherent theatricality of making music. The musicians regrouped in the wings for Heleen van Haegenborgh’s new piece Material Affordance, which awkwardly tried to make sense out of its mix of antiphonal singing and half-blowing over recorders before suddenly setting off on a march to nowhere across the space and out again.

More striking was another LCMF commission, Alwynne Pritchard’s piece for pianist Zubin Kanga, Heart of Glass. Kanga fearlessly carried out this piece on, in and around the piano while confined to tuxedo and stilettos, deftly performing complex musical gestures in an apparent fugue state. Pritchard’s audio score dictates the the pianist, attempting to approximate a state of hypnosis. There were accompanying videos as well, which I could never get a good look at. The premise of the piece required a certain suspension of disbelief but I suspect would still be an effective piece of music without the theatrical element, due to the obscutiry of the sounds and the amorphous, dream logic behind them. The following night, Kanga premeried Michael Finnissy’s Hammerklavier, another LCMF commission. Again combining piano with video, Finnissy’s typically brilliant and incisive discourse on Sviatoslav Richter and Beethoven was paired with Adam de la Cour’s film collage of Richter in concert and vintage gay erotica. The alchemical connections between these elements were stronger for being palpable even as they resist (or are forbidden from) being addressed in words, even as the cultural references are as opaque to me as Bulgarian folk rituals.

There is a common problem to so much “magical” or transformative art, in that it makes grand claims for itself beyond art that are hard to sustain. I’m not sure what Bhanu and Rohini Kapil’s One or the other is not enough was supposed to be about; all I got was a muddled lecture about metaphysics and theosophists over a small pile of stuff. Almost inevitably, more audience participation was requested. Shamans are a pushy lot, it seems. There were films, too, which I can’t comment on much other than this bemused Anglophone observer was reminded of the existence of that curious sub-genre of postwar European artists who were still bravely socking it to the same 1905-Bolshevik pasteboard gallery of priests and generals as late as the turn of this century.

The theme of “eavesdropping” on Thursday night incorporated Rowland Hill’s performance of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (“a recreation of”, according to the programme). The change in gender wasn’t so much the confounding element as the change in form: a performance for an audience, heard but not seen. The interpersonal dynamic here was the same as a particularly uncomfortable standup comedy gig. Louis D’Heudieres’ Laughter Studies 6 provided actual comedy with its noble but doomed attempts to alternately describe and/or imitate a stop-start series of unheard sounds played to members of An Assembly through headphones; art is mediated experience, and all mediation is distortion.

I’ll give Cerith Wyn Evans’ …. )( the benefit of the doubt as it was described as a “precum teaser” for a much larger commission for the 2020 LCMF. The hieratic, slow-paced performance on piano and gongs was betrayed by a perfunctory and non-committal ending, so let’s hope it’s a fragment of a work in progress. The set by duo O YAMA O (Rie Nakajima and Keiko Yamamoto) was a disappointment, considering Nakajima’s captivating and inventive interpretation of Alvin Lucier’s Chambers this summer. Maybe it was the vast space of Ambika P3, or one of us was having an off night, but the duo’s small sounds came across as inert and trivial.

Finally, there was the chance to hear Cassandra Miller’s incredible Duet for Cello and Orchestra played live. For this performance the soloist was Anton Lukoszevieze, with an orchestra conducted by Jack Sheen. I’ve raved about this music before, so I’ll just compare this interpretation to the Tectonics recording: here was more grit and grain in the cello’s stasis, with a more rough-hewn phrasing in the orchestra’s tangled melodies. This brought out more of the folk-inspired aspect of Miller’s music, as heard in other of her pieces. The piece remarkably maintains an inner calm, even as the interweaving of the orchestral parts pushes the piece to the brink of chaos (think Cage’s unbridled simultaneity instead of Ligeti’s intricacy). The poignancy of the closing cadenza was felt all the more in the faint, exhausted rasp of the cello’s harmonic soliloquy.

LCMF 2019 Highlights, Part 1

Sunday 22 December 2019

Flubbed last year but saw all of the latest London Contemporary Music Festival. Curators Igor Toronyi-Lalic and Jack Sheen put together the most ambitious programme yet – six gigs over nine days, with bold, eclectic programming and newly-commissioned large-scale works. The theme of “Witchy Methodologies” implied that it might demand the punter to buy into a ragbag of mismatched and demotic metaphysical woo. This was thankfully avoided, although each of the first two nights did feature performers who expected the audience to join in. The blurb that promised “rituals and reenchantment, doubling and transformation, gossip and eavesdropping, hauntologies and orreries, mysticism and technomancy” etc. was interpreted broadmindedly enough to make a varied, compelling programme, setting very different works into a new context. Questions over the nature of transformation and meaning ran through each evening in music that ranged from musical table-rapping to Fluxus.

It all began this year with a performance of Ligeti’s Poème symphonique, repurposed here as a kind of initiation rite. As a bold but seemingly empty gesture, it served as a threshold to the unknown. Its soundworld was echoed later in the evening by Fritz Hauser’s Schraffur, which began with Hauser alone in the middle of the vast space of Ambika P3 scraping a notched drumstick and then multiplied throughout the audience, with performers using different resonant surfaces at hand to create an enveloping cicada-like din.

The rest of the gig was all voices, with the group Musarc giving beautifully realised performances, unexpectedly matching Poulenc’s Un soir de Neige against new commissions by Joseph Kohlmaier and Lina Lapelytė. The two premieres made simple use out of call-and-responde and convergence in a way that felt tentative and underdeveloped, making both somewhat disappointing in their lack of adventurousness. By contrast, Jennifer Walshe’s The White Noisery was a powerfully sustained celebration cum laceration of pop culture, tradition and social movements. A slightly older work (2013), it received its first UK performance here and gave a rare occasion to hear Walshe’s music without the commanding presence of the composer herself. Musarc was fully up meeting the same level of manic intensity and sudden mood swings, in a piece where the usual ironic postmodern collage of cultural references is turned in upon itself, depicting a world where all experience is mediated. It was a sign of things to come, later in the festival.

The first Sunday was a quieter night: “On Hauntology” was appropriately given over to the past. Susan Hiller’s video Belshazzar’s Feast feels quaint now, while Rosemary Brown’s little piano pieces have taken on a new currency. Brown gained notoriety in the Sixties for her musical medium schtick, channelling the spirits of Chopin and Liszt to transcribe new compositions they dictated to her. As observed by Nicolas Slonimsky, the old masters’ talents had been “fatally affected by their protracted states of death”, but he also saw that she was a musically gifted woman who had been denied the opportunities to develop her talent. Strangely, her use of stable tonality, gentle arpeggiation and modest scale means that her music fits right in with what would now be classified as “modern composition”. The Brown was interleaved with short improvisations by veteran vocalist Maggie Nicols, who continued the theme of confused groping for the past.

High point of the evening was a new commission by Eva-Maria Houben. A peaceful, silent place is a lengthy work for reed organ and piano. Houben played organ, sat across the hall from pianist Siwan Rhys, who had previously played Rosemary Brown. Houben’s organ pieces can range from subdued to almost imperceptible, and here she blended this restrained gamut of dynamics into a subtle, ever-changing palette of tones and textures. The tone of the organ became particularly mysterious, sounding muted, half-stopped and breathless. The cavernous space became part of the instrument, as Houben’s playing sought out different resonances and overtones, creating new harmonics out of the air. At times it was hard to tell if she was just very soft or completely silent, letting the ambience reverberate. Rhys played piano with infinite patience, an occasional high chord in close harmony that rippled through the sustained organ tones, stirring up new emergent sounds, gently pushing the air a little more.

Frank Denyer’s ‘The Fish that became the Sun’

Sunday 1 December 2019

Frank Denyer: The Fish that became the SunFrank Denyer’s hour-long work for chorus and large ensemble The Fish that became the Sun received its premiere at a sold-out performance in Huddersfield last week, some twenty-three years after the work was completed. The work was recorded for Another Timbre last year and has just been released to coincide with the concert. I’ve written about Denyer’s music before, but these were all briefer compositions for much smaller forces. The predominant tone in those pieces was of a very close, personal intimacy. What happens when he composes on a broader scale?

Subtitled ‘Songs of the Dispossessed’, The Fish that became the Sun matches voices with diverse groups of musicians; between them, forty musicians play a total of eighty-seven instruments. The family of sounds drawn together is highly eclectic and restricted to small groups and combinations heard at any one time. The most immediately striking thing about the piece is Denyer’s extensive use of found objects and specially-constructed instruments made of broken and discarded items – junk. This alien orchestra is joined by instruments including sitar, crumhorns, dulcimers and modern Western instruments. Different tunings abound. The use of space for the music is an essential component, enhancing the theatrical dimension of the work. Despite the obvious parallels that can be drawn, the theatre is less like that of Harry Partch and more like the music of George Crumb: a set of tableaux that shift from one scene to the next in highly discrete emotional states, each one a contrast – sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring – yet steadily building up a single, complex image. The strangeness comes from less from the surface and more from the substance, and its significance.

The panoply of unusual sounds (I doubt that many of them have been heard by listeners before) are so unfamiliar as to resemble sounds from nature, less refined and thus less knowable. The chorus sings wordlessly; the musicians dispersed through the space also sing and hum. Moments of simple unison playing clash with microtones and non-uniform timbres. The raw, unpolished order of nature culminates when a pair of children sing the only words heard in the piece. Their song has the gnomic simplicity of a nursery rhyme, along with the fraught ambiguity and underlying cruelty.

The word ‘ritual’ seems to get used too freely when describing pieces by modern composers. The Fish that became the Sun is packed with too much music to be considered, at least in recording, a document of a performance: it succeeds as an extended, purely musical statement, immediately rewarding at each moment. It does, however, operate on the level of a myth. From the title to the rhymes and distant fanfare at the end, we are placed in ther realm of transformative myth, the type of transformation that drives an origin story, to explain where we are now and how we got there. Denyer wrote the piece through the early 90s; Michael Turnbull’s sleeve notes describe the work as a response to the times. History supposedly having ended, we entered uncharted territory. The signs are ominous, and seem even more so now, but Denyer’s transformations are equally hopeful, as with the orchestra made from detritus. How much of culture is a constructed paradise and how much of it is a defence against the darkness? The Fish that became the Sun may signal a path to redemption or a fate to which we are condemned, but we don’t know which.

The recording features many of the musicians at the Huddersfield premiere, the Octandre Ensemble conducted by Jon Hargreaves, the New London Chamber Choir and Consortium5, with Benjamin Marquise Gilmore as the solo violinist. The performance and recording is satisfying to the extent that I can’t imagine the work being carried off with greater clarity or force. In conception, execution and presentation, The Fish that became the Sun is an immense achievement.

Jennifer Walshe: ALL THE MANY PEOPLS

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Jennifer Walshe makes computer music. Her voice remains at the centre of things, free of electronic modification but shaped and conditioned by present-day information technology. The most essentially human and direct of instruments is transformed into something our ancestors may not have recognised but our contemporaries know all too well: something about being human has changed. ALL THE MANY PEOPLS is an intensely focused study on attention deficit.

A century ago, Joyce (and Flaubert before him) made it their duty to inform us that the Enlightenment had been a failure, creating people who know a little about everything and understand nothing. People’s minds have been full of eclectic information ever since; the extent of knowledge defined itself by its incompleteness. Attempts made to synthesise this eclecticism into a coherent whole invariably fail. Since the invention of the printing press, things have only gotten worse. Any rando could publish a book of tall tales, presented with as much authority as the Bible itself. Tabloids, pamphlets, penny dreadfuls, advertising, a cacophony of information and misinformation.

As for now: “You really think someone would do that? Just go on the internet and tell lies?” The proliferation of useless data has become a neverending explosion. With all information reduced to a common undifferentiated state, nothing matters. Jokes are taken seriously (4Chan); seriousness is taken as a joke (Francis E. Dec). It’s a hothouse for conspiracies, ignorance ennobled.

A scholar may describe ALL THE MANY PEOPLS as a collage, but it’s a moot point. Everything these days is a collage. Walshe violently yokes together field recordings, video games, steam engines and public-domain soundbites with her own one-person babel: memes, screeds, bad jokes, second-hand anecdotes and passable imitations of nature sounds. Nothing lasts for long and nothing is finished, although it may be repeated. Switches in voice, tone and subject matter are made at breakneck speed. It’s as carefully paced as a Hollywood blockbuster, to leave the impression of relentless action. The frenetic whirl of verbiage paints a portrait of despairing ignorance: questions not only unanswered but unasked, save by Google’s autocomplete function.

Half a century ago, it was prophecied that information would be the medium we swim through, immersed. The dire consequence of this has become that, in the welter of information we share on a daily basis with friends and strangers alike, the information shared has become irrelevant. It has become a medium for sharing attention.

In 1966, John Cage wrote that “Nowadays everything happens at once and our souls are conveniently electronic (omniattentive).” Some fifteen years earlier, his Black Mountain colleague Charles Olson wrote “when the attentions change / the jungle leaps in”; Olson is the first person known to describe his era as “post-modern”. As joint prophets of postmodernism, Olson became the pessimist counterweight to Cage’s optimism. For Olson, Fuller’s Global Village held no more people than before, they were simply atomised, scattered to the four corners of the Earth. Guy Davenport, in his 1976 essay on Olson, lamented that:

What has happened to American culture (Melville observed that we are more a world than a nation) is a new disintegration that comes hard upon our integration. A new daimon has got into the world, a daimon that cancels place (American cities all look like each other), depletes the world’s supply of fossil fuel (if anybody’s around to make the statement, our time can be put into a sentence: the Late Pleistocene ate the Eocene), transforms the mind into a vacuum (“Do they grow there?” a New Yorker asked of the offshore rocks at Gloucester) which must then be filled with evaporating distractions called entertainment. Olson… was of De Gaulle’s opinion that we are the first civilization to have bred our own barbarians…. a hunnish horde of young who have been taught nothing, can do nothing, and exhibit a lemming restlessness. Their elders are scarcely more settled or more purposeful to themselves or their neighbors.

Forty years on, for ‘America’ read ‘the world’. Walshe’s music, like Robert Ashley’s operas, taps into current states of thinking and relating to the world that have not yet been fully assimilated by art: it’s hard to consider them as ‘real music’. It can seem simultaneously amusing, disturbing and baffling.

The old ways of making your art work are no good anymore. Imagery? Image is everything, from selfies to flag-burning. The signifier itself has become significant. Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle updated Marxist analysis of economics, observing that images had replaced objects as items of exchange value. Whether sharing pictures of grandkids on Facebook, holidays on Instagram or protests on Twitter, the illusion of happiness, success or action are one and the same as the thing itself. Walshe plunders this world of images to reveal a new, disturbing successor to the Spectacle: the “attention economy”. If we are truly modern creatures who swim through social media, we no longer interpret it but exist as part of it. (As with television, it’s not for watching, it’s for being on.) As image detached from material success, attention is detaching itself from fame. Billions of people are clamouring for your attention, for proof that they exist. It has become a new definition of what it is to be human in this culture.

Walshe over-emotes, she puts on accents. They’re stoopid. They’re not meant to be good, or accurate. She wants to tell you something. There are funny lines, obnoxious noises, verbal pratfalls, false bravado. Who is speaking? The internet: everyone and no-one. Humanity, taken as a random sample of survey respondents. Like it or hate it, you can’t help but notice some of it. Like Instagram, this music is desperate for your approval but disdainful of your incomprehension. It doesn’t need you.

ALL THE MANY PEOPLS falls into two parts, each the right size to fill the side of an LP. It’s available as a download or “a limited edition gatefold colour-drop vinyl”. There’s still a place for commodities in the economy. Artists shouldn’t work just for exposure.

Frank Denyer: The Boundaries of Intimacy

Sunday 24 November 2019

This weekend, Frank Denyer’s hourlong work The Fish that became the Sun receives its premeire at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, some twenty-five years after it was composed. It goes a long way to addressing the lack of attention Denyer’s compositions have received, at home and abroad. Another Timbre has already recorded the work and released it to coincide with its live debut; having missed the gig, I intend to write about the disc shortly. The same label has also released a companion disc of shorter works, ranging from the mid-70s to last year, titled The Boundaries of Intimacy.

The title is appropriate, but not as much as the piece from which it is taken, a solo for flute with electronics named Beyond the Boundaries of Intimacy. Back in 2015, writing about Whispers, Another Timbre’s previous release of Denyer’s music, I was struck mostly by that intimate quality of his small-scale muisc. As with true intimacy, it can be confronting, painful, even frightening, especially when given freely as the music is offered here. The opening work Mother, Child and Violin gives us just that: small, private sounds uttered by a woman and a child with equally plain but elusive sounds from a violin. It feels almost voyeuristic; are mother and child making sounds to each other or each to themselves? That ambiguity gives a complexity to that intense relationship and how it may so often change. It’s a much more raw and human portrayal than the conventional, sentimental tableau implied by the title. The sounds are wordless.

All the compositions on this disc share an artlessness in the sounds and gestures; Denyer leaves any phrasing tenderly unformed, like a pre-verbal state of being. In each piece, the musicians seem to be exploring sound, but in a purely private sense as though for themselves – and perhaps immediate others. It is left to the listeners to presume whether they are part of the latter. That wordless state persists, intimacy in speaking through sound instead of through psychological confession. In this music, truth is found on the mythological level, even as it is retold, passed from composer to musician. Who speaks, the composer or the musician? Both and neither.

Talented and sympathetic musicians are needed to give this music its power. Juliet Fraser’s singing makes you think first of its directness and sincerity, with her technical skills evident only in closer analysis. Flautist and longtime Barton Workshop colleague Jos Zwaanenberg performs the title work, the only time Denyer has been persuaded to work with electronics. Zwaanenberg plays at the threshhold of audibility, given near-impossibly fine gradations in emphasis by the composer “between ppppppp and ppppp“. The electronics are almost imperceptible, serving to render the sounds as though without source. The sleeve notes (rare for an Another Timbre release) advise the listener to “imagine them performing intimately, without amplification, and often in an under-voice in order not to disturb the neighbours.”

Violist Elisabeth Smalt revives a solo work Denyer composed for a neglected string instrument he invented in 1980, and Nobutaka Yosjizawa plays both versions of a koto solo composed in 1975. In all of these pieces, the music becomes as dependent on sound as on the state of mind in which musician and listener find themselves. Unlike most compositions, this music cannot live inside one’s head, or on the page. It’s a kind of blessing to be able to hear them at last.

The most recent work, a String Quartet, receives a precarious performance by the Luna String Quartet. Frail sequences of notes rise and fall away, at times like one strange composite instrument very faint and far away, at others like lost, individual voices that never join together in force. Other sounds intrude, the musicians make unpolished vocalisations – wordless again. All four instruments are heavily mutes. This near-silence constrains a great, inner turmoil as the composition constantly strains the boundaries of expression and music. If music is art, how does this artform give voice to voiceless thought? Denyer’s quartet may well be the strangest in the genre, and the most disturbing.

.​.​.​for some reason that escapes us

Monday 18 November 2019

I got sent this a while back and it keeps popping up on my stereo and I to go look up what it is. It keeps reminding me of other things but is clearly not any one of them. Mostly sustained chords, slightly wheezy, like a faded memory of lost mediaeval music as played on a hurdy gurdy or reed organ. A more sedate version of the latest Pancrace release or a more sombre work by Viola Torros. Despite the more restricted palette, it gets weirder when I remember how it’s made. Vilhelm Bromander plays double bass while Fredrik Rasten plays guitar, both usually bowed in some fashion. Harmonics and overtones combine in strange ways to colour what would otherwise be thin harmonies, usually confined to the middle range. Both sing as well, just faintly, which adds a glassy hum of beating frequencies.

.​.​.​for some reason that escapes us presents two brief chorales, each followed by a longer work. It all seems carefully worked out, rather than a purely improvised experience. This comes off well, both in the restraint in their playing and the concision of each musical statement: the longest work is in three movements yet doesn’t crack twenty minutes. The scale and the pacing make you take on board each small detail as a compositional element, instead of simply immerse yourself in drone.

All That Dust live, and Georgia Rodgers’ A to B, Late lines

Wednesday 13 November 2019

I’ve been writing up the new batch of releases by All That Dust, who had their launch gig on the weekend. Sadly, Georgia Rodgers had to cancel at the last minute, but cellist Séverine Ballon remained to play a Bach suite for the punters. The two were originally to play Rodgers’ Late lines, an electroacoustic duet. The cellist’s bowing is manipulated through digital granular synthesis, but the layering and transformation is directed much like Scelsi’s manipulation of musical notes, always focusing ever inward, drawing closer to the source to open up new realms of perception. There are no Scelsi-like spiritual claims made for this music, leaving the listener free to explore a heightened awareness of the sensory aspects of sound. All That Dust has made binaural recordings of Late lines and a similar work, A to B for solo percussionist with electronics as a download release.

In A to B, Rodgers works with Serge Vuille on snare drums and cymbals, turning steady rhythms into pulses of complex sound verging on white noise, yet constantly taking on new colourations. The effect of both pieces suggests the aural equivalent of monochrome paintings with rigorously worked surfaces of multiple layers, revealing unexpected but elusive colours and shapes. The sleeve notes invoke Robert Irwin, whose work engages space more than surface, but close listening to these recordings on headphones opens up that dimension as well. (Late lines began as an installation.) At the same time, the subject of each piece is the physical aspect of musical performance: contact between surfaces, as though seen on a microscopic level, with even the simplest interaction made up of multiple events.

New things were learned at the launch gig. My memory has and has not been playing tricks on me when hearing Cassandra Miller’s vocal music. Juliet Fraser’s performance of Tracery: Lazy, Rocking was truly ephemeral, you strained to hear and understand and then it was gone. These pieces come out differently every time, with the performance of the Tracery pieces in particular clearly an act of listening, reflection and meditation on the moment with which the singer is presented.

The new Kontakte (an excerpt played in 4-speaker surround sound) sounds great even when played in a bar. The musicians’ discussion of their approach reminded me that, for all the emphasis I put on how distinct the instruments sound here, they still blend and emerge from the electronic sounds and are distinctly embedded in the sonic space. In many performances of the work it so often sounds like musicians and tape are simply playing in parallel.

We also heard Plus-Minus Ensemble give the second performance of Tim Parkinson’s String Quartet 2019 which premiered a few days earlier in Reading – home of the Samuel Beckett archive, of course. The transcendentalists had the Unanswered Question; 2019 has the “Nobody:”, “Literally No One:” meme. String Quartet 2019 is a simple statement, made quietly and sincerely, with no evident prompting for its existence and no apparent response expected. Each phrase is followed by another, a story that twists but never turns, never hinting how this might all end. In a way, it doesn’t, really. There is some call and response, but much of the time the quartet plays in rhythmic unison, with harmonies kept thin. The first violinist takes up the melody alone, and then nothing happens. “Make sense who may.”

Piano: Tim Parkinson played by Mark Knoop

Thursday 7 November 2019

The picture gets more complex. I previously described Tim Parkinson’s opera Time With People as “warm-blooded reductionism”, noting how his music had emptied out the form, transforming structure into content. I didn’t really do him justice, neither fairly nor in full. Hearing Philip Thomas’ recording of two piano pieces on Wandelweiser a couple of years ago, I announced that “I plan to discuss this in greater detail in the near future” but never did.

Luckily, the other CD release in this second batch of albums on All That Dust is Parkinson’s Piano music 2015-16. All of it, apparently. Lest I gave anyone the impression that he is the sort of composer who gets sneeringly described by most benighted critics as “an artist”, rest assured that there is craft in abundance on this disc. piano piece 2015 and we’ll meet again from the same year sandwich seven prosaically-titled 2016 works, presenting a cornucopia of musical ideas and techniques. A reductionist cornucopia, but all the same. Moods, effects, tricks and references proliferate; some present only fleetingly, while others are dwelt upon at length. More than a diary or sketches, each piece reflects a musical mind contemplating and reconsidering music, as played and heard upon the piano.

The reflective piano piece 2015 develops in its own way, with pianist Mark Knoop sustaining an atmosphere of tenderness through its pauses and more subdued dynamics. It’s hard not to hear the 2016 pieces as a suite, each work presenting a contrast in dynamics, consistency and phrasing. Knoop can make 2016 No. 1 sound monomaniacal, before suddenly changing to a new but equally obstainate approach to the reiterated chords. Subsequent pieces bring in more variety, creating continuity out of juxtapositions of disjointed passages. I was going to say ‘phrases’ but in these pieces they sound more like sentences: each one self-contained yet with each successive instance building on what has come before or suddenly diverting the expected course, thickening the plot. Chords merge into unbroken sonority, then break apart into a Cubist study in Stride. Modernist rigour is pricked by a single postmodern flourish. Knoop sets the right tone of serious playfulness, neither po-faced nor ingratiating, revealing a multitude of facets for listeners to discover for themselves.

“A musical mind contemplating music,” but not in a systematic way. That playfulness shows Parkinson’s piano pieces to be as much about the musician as the music, a subjective response to its pleasures and conundrums; the process itself is analysed in preference to pursuing a conclusion. we’ll meet again happily throws all these problems into creating a grotesque fantasia on the song of the same name. The old-fashioned sentimentality starts off-kilter and immediately veers into the ditch, advancing by fits and starts. Distorted fragments flit by from time to time, at times teasing that the tune may eventually get back on some recognisable track, at others leaving the listener wondering if they’re starting to imagine a resemblance that is no longer there. Milton Babbitt would be delighted.