This is the (new) music: Decommissioned, and a giveaway

Monday 13 April 2020

Waiting for things to blow over, I’ve been sorting through old files and dusted off an old piece. Decommissioned is an hour-long piece made back in 2004. I don’t know how to describe this piece. It doesn’t seem like anything else I’ve done before or since.

There was a small edition of CD-Rs which ran out yonks ago, so it’s now on Bandcamp for free.

In fact, while Covid-19 drags on, almost everything on my Bandcamp is free/name your price (i.e. free). I’m giving away download codes for the other albums, while they last.

Chain of Ponds: chance determined feedback synthesis.
kde7-gfp6 zq6x-3q7y ztdp-5tua 3zqg-bbm7 5y83-whk5 rkzl-h5gf antj-jrrm jbua-5zkr e6xx-jf89 gncj-kp7z tj9d-3m7y t92c-h6af

Piano Sonata No. 1 (Toccata Furioso): chaotic fractal microtonal extravaganza for three-handed pianist.
9r8d-hzln ylns-vtve 3eae-gbz3 a6fg-3×94 rzdn-cvgm d2qv-h8r6 uxtx-y47x xekp-7maq h838-5z3t qnxy-bgl7 3h6n-j56r 5q3x-6r8l

Redeem codes here.

Immanence of the Eater and the Eaten

Wednesday 1 April 2020

The scene starts in a charity shop in Echuca, where a young Australian man with sideburns and a Planet of the Apes t-shirt finds an Atari 2600 game console. When he plugs it in a crudely synthesised voice begins to stutter its way through Bataille’s ‘Theory of Religion’, with cryptic embellishments to the text. Inspired, the young man interprets the speech by setting it to a real rap beat on an 808 he naturally carries around with him at all times, but the instrument has been distorted by prolonged exposure to the Australian rural sun.

A paddlesteamer docks at the pier, and a sailor on deck commences to recite the exciting true story of the discovery of Australia. The waistband of his Calvin Klein undies is pulled up over the top of his breeches, revealing a message stitched above the crotch that reads “Escaped refugees welcome here.” A chorus of sailors join him in song, but no sooner have they begun than a freak storm capsizes the boat.

The location switches to Melbourne’s Federation Square development, where an emerging artist wearing a ‘Team Bataille’ baseball cap is installing an expensive piece of public art. An antenna connected to the artwork picks up the synthesised voice transmissions from Echuca, which directs a pivoted concave mirror to focus the sun’s rays into a powerful beam which incinerates the surrounding architecture in a pattern the shape of the Yorta Yorta land claim.

Back in Echuca, the sailors have struggled out of the river onto the pier and assess the damage to the paddlesteamer. An elegy to the twilight of colonialism is played by the Jindyworobak String Quartet: three middle-age men and a women in batik shirts saw slowly and sadly at eucalyptus saplings while domestic cats devour small native fauna.

An Australian Poet is reported dead in non-suspicious circumstances. The sad event is commemorated by a reenactment of the encounter of Flinders and Baudin, with the sailors dressed as Françoise Hardy solemnly recounting the Poet’s demise to the accompaniment of twist music by Serge Gainsbourg. The town’s inhabitants gather for a wake, with a DJ playing a special dance mix of the music on a limited edition vinyl reissue on the Ecstatic Peace label.

As the stuttering voice of reconstituted Bataille dissipates the scene shifts to a carport in Glen Waverley. Two teenagers attempt to foment suburban revolution by channelling the ghosts of Robyn Boyd and Iannis Xenakis, then challenging each other to an apocalyptic game of pingpong. Their activity summons the ghost of Percy Grainger, who immediately devises a free-music machine in the form of a ping-pong table shaped like a three-dimensional Galton board, down which balls may continually cascade according to the laws of probability. After much exertion the local council rezones the block to light industrial.

(1 April 2002.)

Lying low

Monday 30 March 2020

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

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

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

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

Social distance: Apartment House play Demoč and Aglinskas

Friday 20 March 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 15 March 2020

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

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

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

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

aaangelicaaa: Charlemagne Palestine and Cassandra Miller at laaaaast

Wednesday 4 March 2020

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

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

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

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

Apartment House plays Jackson Mac Low

Saturday 29 February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Xenia Pestova Bennett: Atomic Legacies

Saturday 22 February 2020

I’ve heard Xenia Pestova Bennett’s piano playing on various occasions, but not heard of her work as a composer until now. Her new release Atomic Legacies features two substantial works focused on the magnetic resonator piano, an instrument invented by Andrew McPherson about ten years ago. The basic principle is similar to Alvin Lucier’s Music For Piano With Magnetic Strings, which requires the pianist to place e-bows directly on the instrument’s strings. The magnetic resonator piano has developed the idea into a dedicated set of magnetic drivers that can sound each string on a piano at the pianist’s control while remaining at the keyboard. Pestova Bennett has been working with this instrument for a long time now (I remember a performance at Cafe Oto a few years back) and developed a deep understanding of the instrument and how to turn its novelties into a vehicle for musical expression.

My memories of the Oto gig are hazy. It’s easy to get dazzled by the gee-whiz factor, both the visual impact of a grand piano fitted with a cybernetic rack of wires and relays and the aural effects of bowed piano sounds, floating harmonics with no discernible attack or source. It’s harder to get past this immediate impression to find a lasting musical experience. Before putting this record on I wondered how well it work as a purely musical experience, especially as the composer is the performer, who may have gotten a little too close to the process to perceive the product.

Turns out it works damn well. Pestova Bennett’s highly skillful playing reflects how much time and dedication has been invested in this project, producing a sophisticated blend of bowed and ‘normal’ sounds that work together to produce a wide range of colours and moods. The first piece is a five-part suite for solo piano, Glowing Radioactive Elements, which begins with characteristic spacey harmonics before adding struck notes, transforming the instrument into a self-contained piano-with-strings ensemble. The amount of control possible over the bowed sounds becomes more and more evident through the piece and a large part of this must be due to Pestova Bennett’s technique. Just when you think you’re used to the sustained resonances, she reminds you of the otherworldliness of the instrument by playing arpeggiated harmonics over a single note, or reverts to bowed sounds of alien purity. “Plutonium” begins in such a way before expanding into a late-romantic rumbling of struck notes with atypical harmonization. Sounds get complex, as with the following movement’s overtone fantasia on a slow, two-note ostinato. The brief “Radon” exploits the highest notes to create sounds that seem electronic. The music dazzles as much by its twists and turns as by pure sonic surprise.

Things get even better in the second piece. Atomic Legacies combines piano with the Ligeti Quartet, string instruments joined by a steely consort of viols where the disjunction of bowed sounds and harmonic nodes create a wonderfully evocative entanglement of suspended sounds. There’s nothing show-offy about this music as it broods and pulses with its internalised complexities and contradictions. The sounds continually evoke a range of allusions and references without ever settling into a defined state; a fine mix of surface and substance. Just beautiful.

Electroacoustic duos: Kevin Drumm & Adam Golebiewski, Phil Durrant and Bill Thompson

Tuesday 11 February 2020

“Improvisation. I don’t buy it.” Morton Feldman’s dickish statement keeps coming back to haunt me, even though I fundamentally disagree with it in principle. When I listen to it, I keep wondering Am I really enjoying this or is it some kind of trick? Basically, is the audience sharing a musical experience or just basking in the reflected glory of some goof(s) having fun making noise?

There was no audience at the recording “at LAS club” for The Last Minute Or Later, a set of duets by Kevin Drumm and Adam Golebiewski. Golebiewski is the percussionist, with assorted objects and instruments. Drumm is credited only with electronics. It was all recorded on one day back in 2016 but just got released last year by some new Polish label called UZNAM. Four tracks, and I don’t know how much, if any, editing went into constructing each piece: each track works as a coherent, developed composition in the best way you hope that improvisations will go. Lightening Up matches drums to Drumm’s hollow electronic tones before building up to the more pleasuirng sort of musical anarchy and white noise percussion. I Can’t Not Lie gets messier in a more free improv way, scraped objects squealing while surrounded by angry twitterings and a guttural screech. The longest track, Fenced Off From Larger Worries, stays in the higher registers throughout. It floats, but aggressively, relying less on the single-mindedness of its approach to sustain its length and more on the ringing tones produced by both musicians. Furnace returns to a barrage of metal and grumbling, juddering drones, both percussion and electronics behaving in a spontaneous way, darting from one idea to the other without losing momentum. Drumm and Golebiewski work well together, each simultaneously complementing and provoking the other.

The electronics are unspecified but sound like feedback oscillation plays are large part – as may be expected from Drumm’s guitar background. That sound is also present in Intraspect, a half-hour recording of a live gig in Guildford by Phil Durrant and Bill Thompson. Amplified objects also appear here but in a more heavily electronic setting, including “modular synthesis” and “Moog guitar”. Intraspect glides seamlessly throughout its duration without ever getting too simple or droney. Working live in this way, it’s easy to maintain a musical focus by staying in one place, but Durrant and Thompson are confident enough to let inherent instability in their electronics lead them constantly into new terrain without ever losing their bearings. Neither of these releases are a revolution in improvisation; they both just bloody good at what they set out to do.

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.