Difficult Music

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Last Saturday night I was out at Iklectic, listening to a live set by Marie-Cécile Reber and Christoph Schiller. Missed the rest of the gig as I sat outside with friends drinking beer and listening to the constant thunder of the electrical storm passing overhead. I’ve written before about Schiller’s duo CD with Morgan Evans-Weiler with the self-explanatory title spinet and violin. Couldn’t drag the spinet to London, so Schiller played zither and melodica while Reber amplified and processed small sounds into finely-grained textures. Schiller has a strangely obdurate way of playing. His plucking of the zither is always immediately muted, as with his spinet: small spikes of sound with only a tint of the string’s pitch remaining. These can act as highlights or as intrusions, coaxing the sustained sounds into different attitudes.

Another Timbre has released a new recording of Schiller’s spinet, this time playing as a trio with Cyril Bondi on harmonium and Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba. Still, it should not be a surprise to find that the disc, titled tse, does not sound like Early Music, except perhaps in a very distant way, as with Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg on Early to Late. The older instruments share that quality of sound now admired and exploited, of being ‘thinner’, less full and less absolute, with greater transparency and variability than, say, a cello or piano. Bondi and Pierre-Yves Martel play long notes that weave in and out around faint but sustained harmonies, using pitch pipes to add another thin layer of colour, slightly out of register. Schiller plays very sparingly, the percussive sound of the spinet acting both as commentary and disruption, fixing the sound into place with a defined shape, lest it all fade into a wash of ambience.

The music is improvised but defined by strict self-imposed limitations. Playing techniques are deliberately reduced and at times the pitches are restricted to just three or four, selected at random.
There are five tracks on tse – pieces, or movements, or parts, or panels – and they all sound pretty much the same. This is music which takes concentration, both to play and to listen to, with a focus on the details contained in the surface. The technical simplicity belies a complex effect on the attentive mind. It’s an extreme kind of twist on what Artur Schnabel said about Mozart’s piano sonatas, “too easy for children and too difficult for adults.”

While I was on holiday before Christmas, a disc arrived in the post from Morgan Evans-Weiler, the violinist on that duet album with Christoph Schiller. A thoughtful friend stashed it safely in a drawer I never open. Unfinished Variations (for Jed Speare) is a single piece for solo violin, released on Sarah Hennies’ label Weighter Recordings. The label blurb promises that “all releases are professionally manufactured CDs with austere letterpressed artwork” and this philosophy carries over into the music. Evans-Weiler’s playing forces the listener’s ear into a double perspective, simultaneously rigorous and fragile. It’s a kind of musical brutalism, foregrounding the rough material of the bowed violin strings, presented in a stark design. Evans-Weiler’s extended composition is made of microtonal double-stops, bowed in brief, discrete strokes. Passages range from near-inaudible to strident, always pushing the rasp of bow against string to the fore. An uneasy tension arises from repeated chords where the intonation slowly, but unsteadily, changes. The tension never resolves, but it may subside a little. Punters who get off on the solo work of Tony Conrad and Polly Bradfield would probably want to follow up on this.

Insub Meta Orchestra: Choices & Melodies

Friday 25 May 2018

Insub Meta Orchestra: Choices & MelodiesRight at the end of last year I wrote about a CD of two pieces by the Insub Meta Orchestra; a fine disc that showed what can be done when a simple but smart rule is applied to a large group of musicians to interpret simultaneously. The same group has now released an LP/download of two more pieces, recorded around the same time. Two choices: each player shall make either of two sounds and may change every five seconds. Autonomous melodies: each player may play a free melody, of just three or four notes.

These two open compositions, again by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, show what can be achieved when creativity is constrained in a way that may be considered extreme. Of the Another Timbre disc, I observed that it “reveals more of the musicians; not of their ‘personalities’ but of their understanding of how to give music life.” This LP continues the theme but explores it in ways not heard on the previous album. If the listener were to compare the two, they would notice striking differences appear straight away. Two choices works with unpitched sounds, forming a thread of complex sound that constantly changes timbre without a change in character. In fact, the exact nature of the sound remains elusive throughout. With some 32 musicians all making sound at the same time, with electronics, acoustic instruments and voice, no single timbre will ever come into focus. They are all presumably playing softly. Any change of an individual musician may only be perceptible as part of a group, but the exact combination of sounds that change cannot be known. The overall perception of the sound will be affected by how the individual sounds interact with each other.

On the flip side, Autonomous melodies takes a different direction; it’s loud and lurches through a repeating melody that can still never be quite pinned down. The sleeve notes even refer to it as “a kind of alien piece in the orchestra’s esthetic”. The pitch of each note becomes a complex chord that is never resolved. Obvious elements frequently reappear, but there are so many of them that they never settle into a context. It all ends up sounding like a single, protean voice that echoes and reverberates through a melody that remains simulataneously distinct yet undefinable.

It’s a powerful demonstration of indeterminacy applied to large groups. In both pieces, each musician’s interpretation, taken separately, would be noticeably different in content but obviously the same in structure. Taken simultaneously, a strange reversal happens: the content is unified but the structure becomes unknowable, other than through explanation.

Glenn Branca

Tuesday 15 May 2018

After a while, all that remains is the music. Heard last night that Glenn Branca died. After what I said a couple of weeks ago about there always being something stoopid about electric guitars, I can’t help but remember how listening to Branca with the wrong mindset could induce a fit of the giggles. Still, I’d always defend him because there’s too much about that music that I hold dear. Besides his commitment to music as art, which seems to have influenced so many, there was the way he first showed me what can be done with alternate tunings and microtonality – structurally, cognitively, expressively – other than simply sound different.

I’ve only heard his music played live once, in London (no, not that time). I wrote to myself about it at the time and looking at it again it still reflects what I feel now, so I’m linking to it here.

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2018 Same-As-Last-Time-I-Guess Edition

Friday 11 May 2018

It seems to come earlier every year. Just noticed the semi-finals happened already, but then I have never watched the semi-finals and recommend that you should just stick to the final. Eurovision is best played stud, with every entrant in the final coming as a complete surprise.

(Everything below has happened.)

CURTAIN UP

At the first appearance of the presenters, drink to the health of Masha and Pasha.

PHASE I: THE SONGS

2018 Special: Albania. During Albania’s song, everyone shall, in their own time, raise their drink approvingly and chortle “The Chinese are missing out!

A. Every instance within a song:

I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).

I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.

B. Once per song only:

I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.

I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.

I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.

I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.

I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.

I.B.6 The GreeksRussiansGreeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)

I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…

I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.

I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.

PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.

I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.

I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it.

PHASE II: THE VOTES

II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.

II.2 The Gimme. When Greece maxes out its points to Cyprus.

II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.

II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, the United Kingdom gets its first point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.

II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.

II.6 The Wogan. Any blatant display of favouritism between particular countries in the jury, or a hasty correction by a flustered announcer when reading out results. Keep an eye on Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and anomalies in votes for Slavic and Balkan countries.

PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so a liberal interpretation is allowed.

II.7 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.

II.8 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.

II.9 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.

II.10 The Master of Suspense. This hasn’t happened for a few years but people might get confused by the new rules: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.

PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

II.11 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all vote for each other, or a former Soviet republic votes for Russia. Do not attempt without medical supervision.

THE WILDCARDS

W0: Australia! Any person may lead a toast amongst all drinkers by shouting “Australia!”, “Aussie!”, “Oi!” or any suitably positive Australian word or noise. This can happen any time during the night as many times as wished for no reason whatsoever because OBVIOUSLY NOBODY AT EUROVISION GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES.

W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b why the United Kingdom is in it;
W1.c why ItalyTurkey isn’t in it;
W1.d why Russia isn’t in it this year;
W1.e where the hell is Moldova?; or
W1.f Australia?

W2 Drink to any display of national resentment or self-pity related to current events. Pay close attention to Armenia/Azerbaijan, Ukraine/Russia, Greece/Germany, anybody/United Kingdom, Australia.

W3 Pretend to drink when someone makes a disparaging comment about the United Kingdom. Finish your drink if someone makes a disparaging comment about Russia.

W4 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W5 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

Music by Henning Christiansen: The Executioner and Den Røde Skov

Thursday 10 May 2018

Most musicians don’t trust artists. Too focused on content, on saying stuff. Not enough emphasis on technique, always the risk that someone on stage might make sounds the wrong way or, worse still, someone in the audience will hear them the wrong way. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. Let an artist into music and it starts to give the game away, that all the rules are arbitrary and nothing in itself makes sense. Far easier to banish it to the netherworld of ‘performance art’ where it won’t affect anyone.

People like to send me cool stuff and so I got advance rips of two new releases of Henning Christiansen’s film soundtracks from Penultimate Press. The label’s been specialising for a while in bringing out unreleased or long-lost work by unjustly neglected artists and has been championing Christiansen’s music for a while now. Neither of these soundtracks has been issued to the public before. Despite being a major figure of recent European art, and one who was particularly dedicated to music, his music has largely been marginalised in the UK and, it seems, pretty much everywhere else. (A notable exception is the ensemble Apartment House, who have presented performances and arrangements of his work whenever possible.)

The Executioner, from 1971, is the first film made by Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Henning C.’s partner and collaborator. Disclaimer: I know nothing about either movie and am going by the soundrack LPs alone. From the start of the record, the music is disarmingly backward-looking; a soprano with piano accompaniment sings a sentimental melody. It’s a nostalgic world of domestic 19th century culture – if there is any irony here, then it is possibly in juxtaposition with the images on screen. In Christiansen’s music, these simple gestures are genuinely felt, but their effect is more complex. The romantic salon melody takes on the characteristics of a folk tune, tapping into sentiment even older and harder to define. This recurs throughout the album, as soprano and piano are later blended with whistles and other folk instruments. The music segues into collages, field recordings of natural sounds, ritualistic droning on organ keyboards. If you’ve heard other works by Christiansen then you’ll be familiar with each of these elements, but probably haven’t heard them combined in such a way, or directed toward such an overt expression of mood and emotion. Some of this may come from the soundtrack editing, which combines sound and dialogue from the film into a montage that works as an audio drama and not as a collection of music cues.

Den Røde Skov is another film by Ursula Reuter Christiansen, from 1986. This is the most developed sound work I’ve heard by Christiansen, with much more studio work and use of overdubbing and electronics. Again, the tracks segue into a complete, coherent work. Some may be due to editing but there is a stronger presence of collaborators in the material itself, particularly the sound work by Ernst Kretzer. It’s all recognisably Christiansen’s work, but showing a side I’ve never realy heard before. The collages combine modified field recordings with electronically-generated sounds, with voices calling out and echoing over each other. Nature sounds and acoustic instruments are recorded and manipulated into surreal soundscapes. For all those ritualistic qualities present throughout the album, all sounds here remain in flux, morphing and crossfading from an ominous rumble to birdsong and insects underlaid with restless electronic doodles, and again to plaintive flutes and glass sound sculptures. The lengthy track Wolf song is particularly dense with a rush of aural images that range from natural to uncanny, but the entire album is packed with details that will be savoured over repeated listenings.

More than just bringing to light two previously unavailable works, each album works particularly well as a listening experience. It seems that either would make an unusually good entry-way to Christiansen’s music, presenting key aspects of his thinking in a variety of guises. (Based on personal experience, first contact with recordings of Christiansen can sound too single-minded, tied to a particular artwork, or documentation of a performance, where too much context is missing.) I’m judging from digital files but the sound quality seems particularly good, even as it deliberately shifts between studio recording, outside documentation and found sounds. It seems these two titles are only limited edition vinyl for now but hopefully digital alternatives become available later.

More guitars, and the editor as composer

Saturday 21 April 2018

In Sonic Youth’s imaginative but haphazardly executed album Goodbye 20th Century, their tackling of various Cage and Cageian compositions contained one key insight: electric guitars can be equated with percussion. John Cage first made a name for himself as a percussion composer using various exotic instruments and found objects, but in his later pieces he refrained from attempting to define, or even suggest, what percussion instruments to use. There was just no point, as he had found that no two percussion instruments could be relied upon to sound sufficiently alike. Morton Feldman made the observation that, while the piano, the violin had all reached a consensus ideal through centuries of focused development, the relatively neglected percussion instruments were still a little erratic.

With electric guitars, these distinctive traits became their selling point, each manufacturer promising a unique ‘tone’. This feature was immensely expanded by the introduction of additional technology: amplifiers, filters, effects boxes. With several generations now raised on guitar-centred popular music where no two musicians’ setups are alike, a composer’s score calling for an electric guitar seems vague to the point of being foolhardy… unless they approach it in some way rather like Cage. (It’s an interesting example of one of the ways Cage ceded control of his music to the performer’s tastes.)

A couple of weeks ago I heard the Belgian electric guitar quartet Zwerm play at Kammer Klang. Their set included a realisation of Earle Brown’s December 1952, interpreting the score in terms of pitch, attack, and effect pedal settings. The music was effectively electronic, rather than electroacoustic, with the guitar moved beyond amplification into being a medium for producing and transmitting electrical signals. Prior to this, they performed Joanna Bailie’s Last Song From Charleroi, a piece that combines e-bowed electric guitars with field recordings of abadnoned industrial spaces. With the presence of the four guitarists on stage, it was easy to forget that not all of the sounds you heard were coming from them.

I’ve been hearing a lot of guitars lately. As well as their recent CDs of acoustic guitar playing by Taku Sugimoto and Cristián Alvear, Another Timbre have released a solo disc by guitarist Clara de Asís. I’ve heard her realisation of d’incise’s Appalachian Anatolia (14th century), which was also recorded by Alvear at about the same time. On Do Nothing, Asís plays acoustic guitar, with percussion, but the results are in the realm of electroacoustic music, with their emphasis on the shaping and colouring of sound forming the music’s content. Asís’s playing is as clear and precise as before, with isolated guitar notes doubled on percussion instruments, creating subtle varieties of attack and overtones. Other sections are rolling interludes of mechanically-assisted percussion, acting like a slowly morphing sound sculpture. By the end, bowed guitar tones have been blended with sustained percussion sounds, resembling both but neither.

When Zwerm played their own adaptation of Dowland’s viol music for their guitars, their use of distortion sometimes called up associations with ‘heavy’ music which can seem overbearing and undersophisticated – in a word, cheesy. Guitarist Stephen O’Malley frequently places an emphasis on these dark, dramatic qualities in his playing, which can verge on the ridiculous. I first listened to Rêve Noir, his collaboration with Anthony Pateras, with a little trepidation. Putting the disc in my computer’s CD reader revealed the album was originally titled “Tape Exorcism”. The album is not exactly the live improvisation it first appears to be. Taking the concert tapes from 2011, Pateras has now used them as raw material to play through his Revox machine, cutting up and meseing up the original document. A steadily growing drone is suddenly cut dead by Pateras, just as you think O’Malley is about to break loose. Soaring washes of sound are strangled, a full-flight roar of instruments is spat out in echoing fragments. Guitar static suddenly switches to half-speed piano thuds. The three-part suite is dramatic and ominmous, all the more for keeping you suspended in uncertainty until the very end.

Alvear plays Sugimoto; Sugimoto plays Duplant

Wednesday 28 March 2018

I went a Taku Sugimoto gig in a community centre in Footscray about fifteen years ago and he didn’t do shit. For an hour or so he sat there, guitar on his lap, adjusting the volume knob on his amplifier once or twice. We were all partly listening, partly waiting, straining to hear if there would be anything to hear. We watched to see if anything was happening that we hadn’t heard and so we listened to hear if anything was happening that we didn’t see*. He’s playing tonight with the singer Minami Saeki at a club a few blocks away from me but I’m not going, mostly because it’s miserable out and I’m a bit hungover and will be impatient and inattentive. He’s playing in Sheffield tomorrow night and you should probably go.

Instead, I have been listening to two new recordings of him playing. On one, he plays Bruno Duplant’s composition lEttEr to tAku. On the other, he is joined by Cristián Alvear for a guitar duet composed by Sugimoto. On paper, both pieces may well look much the same: single notes, scattered here and there. For lEttEr to tAku, recorded in a Park in Tokyo last year, Sugimoto is credited with “guitar, small amplifier, bow, park”. Guitar notes are played and heard, in what would be a splendid isolation from each other. As at that Footscray gig, there is an attentiveness, a precision in how he plays and in how he doesn’t play. Is he responding to the sounds in his environment? Duplant says “Taku played a lot with them while respecting the score” (emphasis mine). It seems that the piece is a field recording, with the sounds of the park and the surrounding city taking up most of the attention. Yet the guitar is always present, as much in its anticipation as its sound. The guitar sounds themselves are gentle, but pure and clear against the indeterminate tapestry of sounds. The guitar defines the context, allowing the city to become a musical accompaniment, but also acts as a frame, elevating the background noise to the foreground of attention. It’s like an aural work of urban environmental art, a small intervention that transforms the substance of a piece of everyday life.

Sugimoto’s guitar duet, simply titled h, is closely related to his songs with Minami Saeki which I’m not hearing tonight. h was also recorded in Tokyo last year, but indoors, at a concert. The piece is essentially one of Sugimoto’s songs, with the voice part transcribed for guitar. He and Cristián Alvear each play slow, wandering melodies that weave an irregular counterpoint between the two instruments. (Alvear’s playing has that same quiet, imperturbable patience as Sugimoto, as heard on his recordings of Sarah Hennies and d’incise.) The voice part plays in harmonics, against the more fully sounded notes of the other guitar. Both parts have sufficient lightness as to almost merge and colour each other at times. When the two overlap, tiny differences in intonation emerge (the guitar’s frets enforce a type of equal temperament, at odds with the harmonic overtones). Halfway through it feels like it’s about to outstay its welcome but it never does. The colouration, unpredicatble melody and irregular exchanges and overlappings between the two instruments holds a sort of quiet fascination.

* This is another example of seeing and hearing music.

Jürg Frey & Magnus Granberg: Early to Late

Monday 19 March 2018

This Friday Music We’d Like To Hear is presenting a one-off concert outside of their usual summer season, of Ensemble Grizzana playing two new pieces by Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg. It’s a repeat of their two premieres at Huddersfield last year, which I wanted to get to but couldn’t, so I’m happy.

Even better, the gig is a launch of a new CD containing both works. Simon Reynell at Another Timbre made this recording “immediately after” the premiere concert in Huddersfield, with sound that is much cleaner and clearer, with greater immediacy and intimacy than usually possible to hear from the audience at St Paul’s Hall. For all their newness, these works are played by Grizzana play with deep knowledge and empathy for this style of music. After all, both composers play as part of the group. They respond to the contrasting expectations in the scores (Granberg allowing freedoms, Frey specifying precision) with great discipline, a studied awareness of how sounds may arise and combine. This judgement, restraint without hesitation, brings countless small, brilliant details to the ear’s attention in a natural, spontaneous way that never seems forced.

Listening to Granberg’s Nattens skogar last year I commented that “I’m starting to think of Magnus Granberg’s music the way I think of late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different.” On this CD, his How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights? combines individual sounds and small fragments of material into a type of mobile structure, allowing the musicians to draw from one group or another at different times. A resemblance to late Feldman comes here from the sense of hearing patterns overlap and repeat, only never quite the same. The music feels like one extended moment, constantly changing in appearance but never changing in substance. Most strikingly, compared to previous works I’ve heard by Granberg, is the sense of a steady flow, if not a pulse, behind the piece. The counterpoint between the instruments forms a strong but delicate web that holds the sounds together. Wisps and shards of electronic sounds permeate this texture, which create an effect that makes the notes played by the acoustic intruments less like pitches and more like sounds. Like his preceding pieces, it again takes its inspiration from existing music; in this case, William Byrd’s consort song “O, Lord How Vain”. With this in mind, its possible to hear the music in light of the Elizabethan’s awareness of mortality – a defence, fragile but assured.

I neglected to write here about the last Another Timbre release of Frey’s music, Collection Gustave Roud (that’s coming up in the next issue of Tempo). In the two longer works in that collection, there’s a sense of movement in Frey’s music that has been steadily developing in recent years. From the earlier wanderings of his pianist, alone pieces, there now comes the feeling of the music being a journey: not a traditional sense of arrival at a destination, but of the travelling itself, similar to Nono’s late lontananzas. Here, his Late Silence shows no reticence about addressing its subject with sound. It’s a sombre, tender work. As with Granberg’s piece, mortality is present: the inspiration comes from Ockeghem’s lament Déploration sur la mort de Binchois. The journey here is one of the emotions, of thought.

Pairings of instruments call and respond, in slow antiphonies. Their sounds combine in surprising ways, letting harmonics and pure tones linger. Unlike the Granberg, no electronics here, but there are harmonicas and stones, used in the same way as in Frey’s epic meditation on time and space Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit. Even more suprising is when the sounds change, as intruments drop away to replaced by others. One feels the loss as much as the new arrival. Other lonely episodes are encountered, but are never allowed to have the last word. I found listening to it a profoundly moving experience, encompassing a range of experience that belied its relatively brief length of just over 30 minutes.

I can’t remember if Cage was referring to Zen or his own preferences when he said that the purpose of the artist is to hide beauty. Both Granberg and Frey touch upon this matter of beauty in art. (Frey: “Beauty happens as a sideline. When beauty comes into focus as an end in itself, then beauty begins to disappear.” Granberg: “I guess I’m just trying to make a music which can hopefully do something to encompass and reconcile such categories with one another.”) Yet still, both composers have developed their craft to a point where they can let beauty be revealed rather than leave the listener to find it.

MP Hopkins: Aeroplanes & Puddles

Monday 12 March 2018

Australians have a knack for eviscerating the more rarefied pretentions of psychography. While the Europeans drew upon an inherited mythology, the Americans self-mythologised. Meanwhile, the Australians remained reluctant to ascribe meaning to a landscape they understood only as alien, where there presence was never entirely legitimised, or even voluntary. Eventually, the outback was eulogised but the urban landscape remained void of significance, self-consciously imitative of both the UK and US while understanding it could never be accepted as either.

One of the finest cultural artefacts of the last century is Barry Humphries’ tape Sandy Agonistes, recorded in a basement flat in London in 1960. In a slow, somniloquent voice, his character Sandy Stone recreates the city of Melbourne in his mind, in a contextless, trance-like litany of street names, brand names, radio jingles, train stations and advertising slogans. The recitation loops back upon itself, nothing is added, nothing is learned. If Leopold Bloom’s jumble of half-finished thoughts made manifest the failure of the Enlightenment, then Sandy shows that a further half-century of commodity capitalism has delivered the coup de grâce. Far removed from the left bank of Paris, he relentlessly paces the city but never appropriates its space; instead, its spectacle appropriates his character, completely. He is the anti-flâneur.

Rather than praise or damn the metropolis, the Australian artist is more likely to treat it the same way as the natural landscape, inscrutable and indifferent. Given the vast majority of the population lives there, it’s hard to conceive living outside of it. When the differentiation does occur, the countryside becomes the “other” where the darker side of human nature is revealed, shorn of the civilising veneer that is assumed to be normal.

The opening sounds of MP Hopkins’ Aeroplanes & Puddles suggest the work is another one of those terribly earnest field recordings, all about faithful documentation of the soundscape of some very real place. The place is indeed real, a run-down industrial part of Sydney that has resisted redevelopment, not through struggle but through circumstance. Electronic sounds and treatments inflect the soundscape, reminding us that this is a work of artifice. There are the mildest disruptions, intruding just enough to stir the listener from complacency, throwing the shape and direction of the work into doubt.

Hopkins speaks, his voice low and close-miked. “A political fantasy…?” he ruminates. He does not elaborate. Further comments appear from time to time, in the same slow, thoughtful, faintly ironic tone. There are oblique fragments of wit, hinting at a satirical discourse that never reveals itself to the listener. Like the sounds of water and traffic, the words are also a collage, quotes from local politics, local economics. Throughout, the ubiquitous dull roar of the city weaves in and out, an undefinable mixture of distant aircraft, traffic and industry that echoes through the air.

Is it all a joke? In a way, but a joke of the highest seriousness. The collage is part survey, part critique, part elegy and part exorcism, a meditation on interior and exterior space and how one affects the other. The tone is personal, even intimate, but any hermeticism in the work is keenly aware of the external factors that condition it, whether the space itself or the circumstances of urban planning upon which it depends and by which it may soon disappear. Keeping this complex of motivations in play, Aeroplanes & Puddles simultaneously embraces and refutes the tenets of psychogeography.

When I mentioned Americans self-mythologising, I neglected to discuss Robert Ashley. His operas often deal with the issue of how mythology is created, or is allowed to create itself. Meaning becomes engendered in places simply through the act of occupying them, or avoiding them. As colonists, it’s an experience common to Australians. Having no mythology in the landscape, significance is nonetheless attributed to it, even though the nature of that significance is unknown. Ashley’s music often expounds on this process. Hopkins’ piece shares a similarity, in this respect. In both, the need for the listener to directly experience that process becomes paramount, with all narrative or explanation subverted, leaving the art as complex as the reality it illuminates.

This piece has been released by the small Slovakian cassette label, mappa. They send me their intriguing releases every now and then. It’s available as digital download but, unlike the previous releases I’ve reviewed, this one seems particularly suited to the cassette format, with its focus on the personal, the run-down and on technological mediation. There are also texts and photos included.

Words and Music: Opera?

Wednesday 28 February 2018

There’s a CD rip of Samuel Beckett’s play Words and Music in my MP3 player, with the music composed by Morton Feldman. I’ve tagged it as an opera. Earlier this week I replied to a tweet asking what composers think of Philip Pullman’s comment that “Structure is a superficial feature of narrative”. My hot take was that narrative is really a subset of structure. Thinking about it now, Beckett’s dramatic works exemplify this concept beautifully. Beckett wrote several radio plays that juxtapose words and music and, even when there is no specific musical content much of his later writing eschews development of plot or character in favour of structural procedures such as repetition with variation, elaboration, transposition and recapitulation.

Last Thursday the new music ensemble An assembly, directed by composer/conductor Jack Sheen, presented a double bill of words and music that may or may not be opera at the Round Chapel in Hackney. Beckett’s Words and Music, conceived as a radio work, was given a live, stage performance with Feldman’s accompanying music. Beckett wrote the play in 1961 but was never fully satisfied with the music that others composed for it. Feldman’s music was composed in 1987, the last year of his life. Some ten years earlier, the two had consciously collaborated on an opera, Neither. Both men shared an expressed dislike of opera. The opera had one singer, no characters, no plot, no specified staging and almost no libretto.

The staging of Words and Music in Hackney was a fitting counterpart to Neither. The musicians, singer and dancer from the first half of the programme vacated the space and the audience in the balcony looked down onto the large empty room below as the drama between the music and two voices played out, unseen. If it is not opera then it is, at least, as Luigi Nono described his Prometeo, a “tragedy of listening”. In alternation and then, reluctantly, together, the voices of actors Alex Felton and Peter Clements and the musicians of An assembly search for a way of giving meaning to sentiment. Listening with an ear for music, one is struck by the musical aspects of the words; not just in vocabulary but more particularly in construction. The counterpoint between one voice and another, between voice and music, the introduction of themes, reoccurence of phrases, turns and changes of subject. The words are heard as part of a joint composition with the music. Feldman’s unusually brief musical interjections are surprising in the way that each presents such a distinct contrast in mood from the preceding one. Like his last work, it suggests ways in which his music may have developed had he lived longer. It also makes you think it’s a pity he got fired from his job as a soundtrack composer.

The first half of the evening was the premiere of Anton Lukoszevieze’s Opéret OPERA Operec. Better known as a cellist, Lukoszevieze’s piece is perhaps unsurprisingly composed for four cellist, supplemented by a keyboard player, percussionist, singer and dancer. It has ‘opera’ in the title so let’s say it is. With the dancer and coloured floor lighting, the staging recalled Lukoszevieze’s chamber arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s fluxorum organum, adding a layer of oblique theatre and ritual. With voice provided by Josephine Stephenson, the collage-like nature of the work also suggested a connection with the realisation of Tom Phillips’ opera Irma from last year.

Opéret OPERA Operec juxtaposes, through no objective necessity, the words of Georges Perec and Benjamin Péret. Perec is presented through dance, composed out of material from Perec’s Species of Spaces and performed here by Rachel Krische, ranging far and wide across the available space, at times part of the ensemble before striking off on her own again. Péret’s poetry was presented in music: the singing was fairly plain and simple throughout, while the musical accompaniment was, according to Lukoszevieze, generated through “phonetic patterns, voice pitch translation, braille and puns”. This may explain the strange sense of collage throughout the work, despite the absence of diversity in the material’s sources. The music was by turns arbitrary and incongruous, redolent of other genres yet never confirming to a recognisable model. It had the air of old-school dada, as an insolent travesty of a salon recital or cabaret show. Rather like Satie’s theatrical music, an array of familiar objects were subjected to some capricious outside force to create something more unnerving than amusing. Then the work unexpectedly ended with a long litany intoned over a harsh, juddering wall of sound as the percussionist displayed and discarded a series of posters containing progressively more complicated spurious equations. Make sense who may.

My only complaint is that at times the words could be hard to hear, but this is the consequence of playing in the boomy acoustics of a church, coupled with balcony seating and, thanks to the late onset of cold in February, a head full of gunk. Most punters kept their coats and scarves on, but it was worth the trouble to hear and see such and imaginative and thought-provoking programme.

Principal Sound: Feldman and Nono in particular

Wednesday 21 February 2018

In the days when information was scarce, one of the few readily available recordings of Morton Feldman’s late work was the CD of Joan La Barbara singing Three Voices. It was an invaluable, but unusual, entry point. A rare example of Feldman working with tape – the only one outside of his experiments in the early 50s – and a long work for voice alone, with other small curiosities that set it apart from his other pieces of the time. Last weekend, the Principal Sound festival at St John’s Smith Square presented a chance to hear this strange music in a new way.

Having just written about the importance of seeing/hearing music performed live, Juliet Fraser’s performance of Three Voices was a perfect example of what can be gained from the concert experience. I haven’t heard Fraser’s recording of the piece from a couple of years ago, but her performance on Friday night showed this piece and Feldman’s musical qualities in general at their finest. Imperceptible shifts in shading to the voice(s) kept the music hovering in an ambiguous emotional space, between tender and cold, sensuous and forbidding. Fraser’s perceptive programme notes mentioned that she chose to disregard the score’s instruction against vibrato; this had the added effect of softening the edges of the notes, slightly blurring the distinction between the live voice and the ‘tombstoney’ loudspeakers at each side, inviting a connection to be made between them. Working, unusually, with such a ‘full’ sounding instrument as the human voice, Feldman’s constricted harmonies cause beatings and overtones to emerge between the voices – this was clarified somewhat by the spatial distinction across the stage, particularly when the three identical voices hocket back and forth on the same pitch.

It was a smartly-programmed concert. Feldman is the source of inspiration for the concert series, but the programme this year focused on Luigi Nono, particularly his late works, which share Feldman’s need for hushed expanses of time searching for a form. Each work contained an elegy or dedication of some sort, and the choice of Feldman’s work echoed Nono’s use of electronics and spatialisation of sound. The series began with Nono’s A Pierre. Dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum: flute and clarinet hidden away in the upper reaches of the church, swathed in trailing streams of harmonic resonances and echoes that circled around the audience below.

Over the weekend I got to hear the Quatuor Bozzini play again, after hearing them play Jürg Frey so well in Huddersfield, years ago. Their rendering of Nono’s Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima was a telling contrast to the interpretation I heard the Arditti Quartet give ten years ago. In his late works, Nono contructs fragile webs of sound out of the most meagre of materials. Stark, unpolished, often rudimentary instrumental gestures, broken off from any phrasing or context. With Arditti, Nono’s quartet became a transcendence of musical refuse into thwarted lyricism. With Bozzini, it became more coherent, like remnants of an ancient culture that has endured the ravages of time, faded but still refulgent. The following afternoon, the Bozzini’s two violinists played the duet “Hay que caminar” soñando. Nono’s last piece remains one of my favourite works, for its miraculous capturing of sonorities in the same realm as his electroacoustic works, produced entirely through acoustic means. Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung’s use of bow pressure, placement and angles brought out colouration of the violins’ sound that rivalled the electronics heard on the first night.

I don’t want to run down a checklist of everything that happened, so I’ll just mention a few more things that stick in my head now. Hearing Exaudi premiere a new work for unaccompanied chorus by Linda Catlin Smith, getting to experience Aisha Orazbayeva and Mark Knoop playing Bryn Harrison’s Receiving the Approaching Memory live and relishing that it’s as labyrinthine for them as it is for us, the Bozzini Quartet playing something by Claudia Molitor that has finally made me start to pay attention and, conversely, something by the wonderful Aldo Clementi that I found, to my surprise and shame, dull.

Hearing it, seeing it.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

I’ve seen a few cases of really petty criticism lately about people talking of ‘seeing a concert’ instead of hearing it. It’s a stupid argument based on false pedantry. This doesn’t mean there are significant differences between hearing a recording of a piece of music and hearing it performed live. Apart from context, the visual aspect plays a large role.

I’ve written in the past about the advantages of being at a live concert over listening to a record, and of the problems in how to present live music with minimal visual content (i.e. laptops). Last week’s Kammer Klang gig at Cafe Oto highlighted some of these contrasts in a very stark way, juxtaposing a tape-only work by Hanna Hartman (who often plays live with an elaborate, visually-intriguing setup) with two chamber compositions performed by Distractfold that both used theatrics. (This was all followed by Jennifer Walshe so, yeah, Performance.)

Even in the most traditional music gig, visual cues to the music abound, drawing attention to structure and the interplay of elements that may not be immediately obvious to a casual listener. (Walshe’s piece, Is it cool to try hard now? included a section that referred to how these gestures can be faked to elecit an emotional response.) Distractfold played Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s piece The man who couldn’t stop laughing, a work I’d previously heard on the radio. In addition to electronic playback, the musicians dress up for the piece and are required to grimace or gesticulate at various points in the score. It adds another layer to the piece, one which I had been unaware of when hearing it the first time. I don’t know how much it helps to have the theatrical part. In a crowded space like Oto (Kammer Klang nights seem to be habitually rammed) it’s easy to miss a lot of what’s going on; plus I’m biased towards sound and less well disposed to the cabaret-like stylised subjectivity on which the theatre was based.

The first piece, Barblina Meierhans’ May I ask you something? also used theatre, but with a different approach, at once both more naturalistic and more deconstructive. Beginning with a kind of meta-narrative of the musicians discussing the piece and performance instead of playing, then sliding back and forth between music and theatre. The approach came across like the work of one of the composers associated with Bastard Assignments – with a focus on speech, performance gesture, memory and social context – only with more overt ‘music music’ content. Again, it could be hard to see, but it became activity that merged with the surrounding audience.

I want to finish with a counterexample. I first heard John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings performed by Anton Lukoszevieze at a live concert and was a little underwhelmed. Even for my reductionist tastes it seemed a little too simple: a slow sweep up the length of a cello string, from low to high, pressing lightly to produce harmonics. Months later, I bought the CD recording and became intrigued. Harmonics don’t ascend in the same linear arrangement as fully-sounded pitch, but emerge and disappear, sounding lower or higher according to each harmonic node reached. As sound only, without watching that finger progressing up the fingerboard to each successive node, the music gained a depth and complexity that my eyes had denied me.

Repost: The Fall and the Liminality of Kitten Kong

Wednesday 24 January 2018

(Originially posted 2006. RIP Mark E. Smith, who my girlfriend thought “looked pretty good for sixty-five” at the time.)

Has anyone made a comedy map of Britain? I don’t mean a map indicating clubs and the birthplaces of comedians; I mean a map marking the real locations inhabited by fictional comic characters, haunted by absurdist conceits. The more anonymous and duller a place is, the more likely it is to have been infused with significance by generations of comic minds: dormitory suburbs, brownfields, dead ends, postwar nowheres. Balham, Putney, Hendon, Cheam: London and the counties are held together in an invisible network of bathetic, negative landmarks. The enervated traveller crossing these liminal spaces is suddenly seized with a numinous inversion of meaning with which the no-place has become invested. What ley-lines connect these psychogeographical lacunae; do they awkwardly bisect the zones of conscious importance, or sneak behind and between through forgotten territory?

Last Friday night a self-selected cross-section of Londoners and American tourists were sharing a small frisson at finding themselves congregated outside a bingo hall in Cricklewood, reminding each other that The Goodies lived in Cricklewood. This wasn’t the reason we were all there; we had come to see a different British institution, of similar cultish appeal. We had come to see The Fall; or not see The Fall, as the case may be.

The Americans amongst us were hopeful of seeing a real, genuine Fall gig, having been repeatedly exasperated at home by the nominal band’s touring habits: either gracelessly imploding on stage or working a setlist top-heavy with interminable ten-minute dirges about supermarket car parks in Salford. (Mark E. Smith has his own appetite for psychogeographical nullity.) Perhaps they didn’t know that the band’s London gigs tended to be equally perfunctory: it seems anything south of Birmingham is much of a muchness, as far as Smith is concerned.

To get an idea of the venue, take a look at their website (proletarian visions of prosperity). No really, it’s priceless. A gilt-edged coffin for Punk’s corpse, WMC Blobs laid to boozy rest with Celtic troubadors and cowboys from Carlisle. As a harbinger of the muzzy haze of regression that threatened, the opening act was John Cooper Clarke, preserved like Sharon Osbourne.

Perhaps it was the faded premises on the cultural and subcultural margin that made the band turn up and play. The band, such as it is, all vestigal entity outside of Smith himself having long departed and now routinely replaced with such regularity that even fans can’t keep track of the musos’ names, has a reputation for only partly turning up, in body or mind; with Smith himself late, drunk, or a no-show. Instead of a vicarious trainwreck thrill we got the embodiment of a Rock Band at Work, of performance as routine.

Smith, famously looking 20 years older than his real age, stumbled round the stage snarling and hollering incoherently as usual, into one or two mics, as usual, dropping one or picking up the other, peripetetically bemused by their technical failings, nonconsensually futzing with his bandmates’ gear, as usual. Performance as routine, stripped of its romance and mythology when seen plain on stage as schtick – in the same way that he refuses to play any songs more than a few years old, Smith’s performance denies his fans the delusion of shamanism, of recollection of an intangible psychic resonance. What is left is form and technique, with no invocation of the past, to impress the punters – not appeals to faith. (My companion for the night, oblivious to The Fall’s history and significance, attested to this.) The conventional becomes experimental.

The band confined themselves to solid riffs, one per song, starting out OK and then locking into a tighter groove that propelled the music and voice into the higher levels, into the lower reaches of the transcendent state a good rock gig can give. After this peak it was in the recoil of the interval, ebbing into a slower, muted rhythm, “Blindness”, its protracted disorientation nudging the punters into a dreamlike semiconsciousness. Smith himself had delayed his entrance onstage, like Elvis in Vegas, but then disappeared early as well, before and after the encore, effacing himself backstage inconspicuously, not to return. It seemed over too soon.

Catching the band in an upswing of collateral cool thanks to John Peel’s untimely death, the crowd was a mixture of disoriented tourists, middle-aged punks in mufti, prematurely-aged anoraks comparing notes on Tuesday night’s gig (and observing that one band member had been sacked in the interim), curious students, a mosh pit, bright young things their dowdy finest, a pair of them dancing like frenzied muppets on the balcony behind the band, alternately irritating and amusing the more sombrely dedicated punters. And of course, the indifferent regulars up the back getting their pints in all the while.

Opera as Entropy: Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2

Monday 22 January 2018

Many years ago I experienced a production of John Cage’s last three Europeras in Cologne. Soon after, I blew the chance to see the first two of the set – the “big” ones with greater complexity and more elaborate staging. Don’t know how but somehow noticed that a new production of Europeras 1 & 2 was happening just before Christmas, at Staatstheater Braunschweig. It seemed a little odd that Cage was being presented in what appeared to be a fairly small, regional theatre. “It’s where theatre people in Germany get their first real job” someone explained to me.

The company raided the theatre’s sets and props to an appropriately disorienting effect. The singers and actors seemed enthusiastic enough as they threw themselves into the melange – literally so, in the case of the soprano with the dumpster. Beside the singing, the orchestra parts are particularly strange: a type of collage both fragmentary and unaltered, which is unusual for Cage. The peculiarity came from its success as music in its own right instead of a mere concept, as so often happens in these situations. Like a paticularly unfocused piece by Berio, it persisted without differentiation or structure, distinctively undistinguished Euro-mood music that faltered, wobbled, but never ceased.

There were rough edges – the handling of the Truckera tape collage’s appearances was clumsy – but no obvious horseplay, cutting up or general piss-taking by the musicians. Hopefully those dark days of self-sabotage are behind us. There was occasional mugging or playing up to the audience, which is forgivable to some degree; it’s a comedy, after all. The biggest revelation was in the lighting. In the Cologne productions I saw, Cage’s detailed lighting cues were ignored. In Braunschweig, lighting made all the difference. Onstage antics between singers, dancers and actors were cast in a dim, reflected glow, or with long shadows, while a bright spot was cast on the side of a pillar downstage, or focusing on a discarded watering can. Scenes played out half-hidden in the background, comedy in chiaroscuro. The audience’s attention was effectively decentred, wandering over scenery and actors without overt direction: Cage’s conception of the circus contained within a proscenium arch.

As for the audience, it was small for Europera 1 and, after the interval, noticeably smaller still for Europera 2. It looks like there are more performances scheduled in June, so perhaps summer might be more of an occasion than a cold, wet night in December.

I’ve commented before on how Cage’s music, like other great art, continues to speak to the world in surprising, often disturbing ways. In the thirty years since the Europeras first appeared, the apparent shift in attitudes towards ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture has only accelerated. At the time of its conception, the work would have been viewed by many, whether pro or anti, as an iconoclastic exercise in irreverent anarachy, in the footsteps Chuck Jones and the Marx brothers. It’s hard to get that same feeling, these days (although the defecting audience members in Braunschweig might disagree). Opera, once a signifier of the rich, the powerful and the cultured, is now a signifier of the old and out of touch. The stereotype of the top-hatted toff persists, but as much as an anachronism as of a symbol of privilege. These days, real power prefers the corporate hospitality at the football and backstage access at the U2 gig.

In this time, the opera is an institution more to be pitied than mocked and here Cage’s celebration of the genre was more wake than circus. The persistent image was one of entropy: the disassociated costumes and props seemed like salvaged detritus, fragments which could no longer make a whole. As opera, even as an idea, recedes from popular culture and consciousness, iconoclasm becomes a moot point. Pure indifference has already done Cage’s work for him. At various times, stagehands brought out portraits of opera composers, propped them up and later knocked them down, unless they fell of their own accord, sometimes immediately. As the evening progressed, the empty stage accumulated clutter of cast-off inventory from the theatre’s storage, presented and abandoned. Rather than removing meaning, perfoming Cage’s Europeras now seems like an act of finding new meaning, whatever it may be and wherever it may lay.

I remember how in the programme for Einstein on the Beach, audience members were encouraged to talk quietly amongst themselves, if they so wished. Never noticed it happening, though. In Braunschweig, the group in the row in front of me kept up a quiet conversation throughout, pointing, commenting, debating. I didn’t get the impression they even liked Cage particularly much, but they were engaged with the opera and weren’t noticeably dismissive or disruptive. Nothing they said or did was a distraction; in fact they slightly enhanced the musical and theatrical experience.

Working With Limitations: Olivia Block

Wednesday 10 January 2018

How do you compose through improvisation? Just let go and try not to think about it? Keep it as it is, or go back and revise? If you revise, do you cut back or elaborate? This new release by Olivia Block is an untitled, 35-minute suite of three movements, played on and inside a piano, with additional parts on organ and some electronics. She has stated that this piece was created over several years of rehearsals and performances. Musical material was developed, but in a way which left lots of space for improvisation, an open structure where placement of the composed elements was never entirely fixed.

The scope for improvisation is thus circumscribed. In doing so, the improvisation becomes of a piece with the composed elements, each seeking out a coherent context. At first, the piano sound predominates, with untreated and prepared piano notes combining with harmonic resonances. The central movement introduces contrasting percussive sounds from inside the instrument. The final movement returns to the keyboard but much sparser, with silences becoming more persistent and occasional intrusions of electronic distortion. Each time I listen to this CD, I hear the performance as an act of heightened responsiveness. Aesthetic decisions are made, but always in reaction to what is heard. Sounds are augmented, changed, reduced. It isn’t continuous, the changes are perceptible, the sounds and sections are clearly differentiated – still, the three movements play as an organic whole.