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

Monday 14 February 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 30 January 2022

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

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

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

Tuesday 25 January 2022

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

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

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

End of quiescence, 1: Ilia Belorukov and Gaudenz Badrutt

Monday 24 January 2022

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

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

Quiet endings: Martin Iddon, Andrew McIntosh

Friday 31 December 2021

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

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

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

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

Friday 24 December 2021

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

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

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

Sunday 19 December 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 12 December 2021

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

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

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

Evan Johnson: lists, little stars

Sunday 28 November 2021

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

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

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

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

Mattin Licking Ears

Monday 22 November 2021

Listen: Mattin is doing something to his audience, individually and collectively. What that something might be is not immediately clear, but after a while you start to get an idea.

“The room was completely dark. I entered the space and started to engage with each member of the audience individually asking questions quietly into their ear and then I performed an even more intimate gesture and then I asked for reflections afterwards. The rest of the audience could only hear whispering and laughing without really knowing what was going on.”

A music concert is at once an social activity and an intimately personal experience. Mattin’s piece, performed in a small venue in Berlin back in 2015, exposed the paradoxes of that uneasy duality. Each action performed here worked directly and indirectly, building a relationship of shared trust and consent while exercising the tensions of uncertainty, anticipation and apprehension: a kind of direct-action Luc Ferrari composition on achieving intimacy.

The recording of Licking Ears released last month (non-copyright but there are CD-Rs) is itself almost nothing, as it teases its way into the listener’s consciousness. With attention and accustomisation over time, as for the audience members in the room, the nature of the piece gradually makes itself known, but each participant yet withholds a little of the experience from the others. For us, listening to it now, the voyeuristic aspect of public performance predominates here. To listen, we must make ourselves complicit, or become empathetic, or else distance ourselves from the entire exercise. It’s another one of the ways that Mattin keeps testing us on the differences between what we hear and what we understand.

Sam Salem’s London Triptych

Friday 19 November 2021

Given that composing, playing and listening to a piece of music are distinct and unrelated acts (per Cage), then what can one hear in Sam Salem’s London Triptych? The three electroacoustic pieces, made in close collaboration with the Distractfold Ensemble from 2015 to 2017, draw their inspirations each from William Blake, Austin Osman Spare and Nicholas Hawksmoor. As might be expected from such a roll-call, the work feeds upon an occult reading of London that has seemed to accumulate steadily over the last few decades, paradoxically as the city becomes ever more global: inevitably, the spectre of Iain Sinclair is invoked. As with Sinclair’s work, you have to believe that the shaping forces behind the work really are there for the resulting form to take on any significance outside of itself. For the rest of us, the energies unleashed in Sinclair’s writing or Salem’s music are patterned in complex (but not intricate) ways that are left for us to decipher.

Salem’s pieces require the performers in groups of two or three to play a variety of amplified objects and electroacoustic constructions combined with electronics and tape (a video element is also present in live performance). It’s a sonic phantasmagoria of sounds both indefinable and hyperreal, with Distractfold adeptly handling each device with the ingrained knowhow of a keyboard or violin. The third part, The Great Inundation, was given a live broadcast a few years ago; in this later recording the sound is fuller and presented more confidently, showing both revisions and additional elements and Distractfold’s greater absorption of Salem’s esoteric language. It pays to play this loud, as colour and texture take up the forefront of the piece’s interest, considering the opaque structure and absence of clear details. With each piece, a more recognisable element emerges from time to time, with cello added to the mix in the last section and voice in the latter two. The voice is high and clear, repeating two or three notes, at odds with the bristling surroundings: a still point in the turbulent landscape which may be mistaken for a guide.

Karlheinz Essl: Gold.Berg.Werk

Monday 15 November 2021

It’s a mug’s game, really, messing with the classics. No matter what your intentions are, you will probably come across as a wannabe iconoclast or a toady. The need for your work to become a statement in itself is thrown into the shadow of a much more respected work. You choose to make your own work incapable of standing on its own merits, without it also needing to change the audience’s perception of a venerable classic. To succeed, your own work must walk a knife-edge between disrespectful and too respectful.

Karlheinz Essl’s Gold.Berg.Werk takes a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and inserts live electronic interludes. It has existed in several forms over the years, originating from his collaboration with a string trio playing an arrangement of the Bach. Essl describes his interventions as a confrontation and a liberation. This new version returns the work to keyboard, played by Xenia Pestova Bennett on piano, with Ed Bennett producing the live electronic spatialisation: a transducer has been placed inside the piano, so that the instrument’s acoustic resonances enhance the electronic sound while it is projected around the performance space. I missed the live performance last month and so was not able to hear how the electronics change from one rendition to the next, which may have helped my understanding of what is happening here.

Pestova Bennett plays a selection of twenty variations here, in groups of five bookended by the electronic interludes. The big problem here is that Essl’s interventions are occasional and ephemeral, such that for all their technical artistry, they are soon forgotten again once the Goldbergs resume. An addition of this type can be very effective in other media, such as architecture, where the presence of old and new persist in coexistence, but in this temporal scheme Essl sounds like he is politely interjecting from time to time to voice agreement with what has been said before modestly withdrawing again. It appears that Gold.Berg.Werk is to be considered as a work in toto, in which case the two composers’ elements share a very unequal partnership. Essl had marked out a particular selection of variations for his work, based on the intial string trio arrangement, and elements of the string playing modelled in the electronics persist here. In Pestova Bennett’s performance, she alternates between the canons and character variations, where Essl grouped them together.

It is perhaps best to hear this recording as Pestova Bennett’s take on Bach’s Goldbergs, even more than Essl’s. She seizes this opportunity to take on the work’s daunting reputation by interpreting it afresh, “as a living and evolving organism”. In this incarnation she presents a nicely variegated set of variations, with lively contrasts in texture and expression from one to the next, emphasising Bach’s range of voices and manners, using the electronic sections to present the whole as a vast patchwork rather than a continuum. Ed Bennett’s work on spatialising the sound to open it up even more is best heard in the binaural recording, which is also available as a download.

Small but important differences: Christopher Otto’s ‘rag′sma’

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Does this sound funny to you? I think I’ve heard enough music tuned in just intonation lately to stop it sounding immediately ‘weird’, so that the strangeness to be found in Christopher Otto’s multiple string quartet rag′sma is in the complex beauty that arises from a few pure, simple harmonies. The conventional tuning on your keyboard or sequencer is fudged, to tidy away loose ends when moving from one key to another. Intervals made of pure ratios sound clearer and sweeter, but when you start stacking them up on top of each other they drift, slightly but always further and further from the original tone. Otto makes this tiny paradoxical discrepancy the driving force of his new composition.

In rag′sma, two pre-recorded string quartets start from the same place and slowly weave back and forth on these simple harmonies, with each step building from the previous note instead of from a common reference tone. One quartet inexorably rises while the other falls, albeit at a rate too small for the ear to distinguish. After about a minute, multiplication of these simple numbers means that each quartet has deviated in pitch by one ragisma, which works out to about one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a semitone (or one-fifth of a schisma, if that helps). Can you hear a difference that small? By itself, no; in context with other pitches, yes, in mysterious ways.

What would otherwise be the same harmony can shade from sour to sweet, clear to cloudy, all on these small inflections of intonation. Here, the differences are subtle enough that the more common acoustic interference phenomena of beating and overtones are not prominent. The piece is a constant, radiant source of exotic colourations in harmony and timbre, with strings taking on a buzzing quality before resolving into a singing tone, minor key shadings on warped major triads, pitches that seem to arise from nowhere. The spiral-like movements around the tuning chart (suggested in the cover art) reflect the structure and effect of the piece: too slow and steady to make you dizzy, but a process of constant change that never lets you pin down exactly where you are until the ride is over.

This album contains two versions of rag′sma, the two-quartet recording described above and an alternate version where a third quartet plays live over the other two. The live quartet plays harmonic tropes, fading in and out with chords that augment and transition between each turn in the spiral. While denser in texture and harmony, the third quartet’s higher register brightens the overall sound and gives more extroverted colouration to the piece. The album sequences this version first, preparing the ear to appreciate the relatively more sombre two-quartet version. Oddly enough, it’s hard to immediately reconcile that the second track is made from the same basic foundation as the first, such is the effect that a small increment in tuning can have on the whole.

I didn’t see anything in the sleeve notes if someone worked out how many different pitches are played in this piece (I’m remembering how Ben Johnston’s 7th String Quartet took a simple process that branched out into 1027 tones), or if the constant shifting rendered the exercise moot. If you’re wondering how on earth a string quartet could play this stuff, it’s to do with Otto being first violinist and co-founder of the JACK Quartet. This appears to be his first major composition recording, after having nurtured an interest in alternative tunings since being a student. There’s no mention here of what, if any, technical support was needed by the quartet to get the right intonation and synchronisation between the three recordings. Having heard them play Rădulescu’s Fifth at Wigmore Hall some years back like it wasn’t a big deal, it could well be that this perfomance is another outcome of years working together on projects like this and other spectralist works made from harmonic overtones. Their playing here maintains a baroque serenity, somewhere between a consort of viols and a glass armonica. I presume it would be a challenge for others to attempt it.

Each mix has been spatialised in its own way. It’s getting released on vinyl and as download, not sure if a binaural or multichannel digital file will be made available.

All That Dust 2021: Angharad Davies, Aldo Clementi

Sunday 31 October 2021

The fourth annual batch of releases from All That Dust is here, which always brightens up things a little at the time of year when the nights draw in. As usual, some new things and a fresh look at something older. There’s a collection of piano pieces by Evan Johnson which I want to get into later, but the other new piece is violinist/composer Angharad Davies’ extended solo work gwneud a gwneud eto / do and do again. It’s an intense work of small but telling details, despite its large scale, that makes some demands of the listener and much greater ones of the musician. Davies performs a disciplined action, repeated oscillated bowing on a prepared violin (nailfile in the strings), maintaining as consistent a sound as possible while searching out detailed overtones and complex timbres from the interaction of bow, strings, file and resonance. The sounds vary from mechanical to electronically treated even as they are all produced from Davies’s bowing; played loud and listened to with attention makes it all sound the more unreal. At times, even a type of counterpoint is produced. The profile changes over time as the speed and position of the bow is shifted, while also patiently eking out new sounds through persistence in one place. This determined search for difference borne out of repeated activity, combining force with lightness, recalls both the bloodymindedness of Tony Conrad’s early pieces and also James Tenney’s “very soft, very long, very white” percussion work. Twenty-six minutes into the piece and still only halfway through, that bloodymindedness starts to take effect on the listener as the piece, of necessity with any natural process, starts to change and the continuing presence of the music warns you that this is more than a simple excercise in timbre. The title takes two meanings, as Davies’s disciplined action repeated throughout the piece is heard performed twice simultaneously. The first unedited take was supplemented by a second played while listening to the first, reinforcing and elaborating on what was played before. As a question for the listener, it’s interesting to reflect at any given moment just how many violinists are envisaged: one, two, or none.

There are not nearly enough recordings of Aldo Clementi’s music in circulation, so All That Dust’s release of Canoni circolari should be embraced. This is one of their download-only albums, recorded in binaural stereo to best capture spatialisation. A selection of four pieces in Clementi’s signature style, with groups of similar instruments playing canons that unfold into a labyrinth of intertwining, self-similar parts, the sequencing here works as a suite despite being composed between 1979 and 2006. In Ouverture Kathryn Williams overdubs flutes, piccolos and alto flutes that rise and fall in different tempi, her playing unnervingly limpid and calm as the patterns overlap to form a sonic hall of mirrors. Clementi inverts and reverses his short melodic lines, keeping them simple but never easy to pin down, using scales that maintain an ambiguous harmony when heard simultaneously. The movement is dreamlike rather than clockwork, even in L’Orologio di Arcevia for percussion, played here by Joe Richards with Mark Knoop adding the celeste and piano parts. Despite Clementi’s note that the piece is “an instrumental realisation of a clock heard in a belfry”, the mix of tuned and semi-tuned percussion (bells, chimes and a gong never quite fitting in with vibraphone and piano) unwinds into drowsiness even as the musicians articulate each melodic fragment with precision. The high metallic sounds expire halfway through for a low gong that signals darker-toned instruments; a sonnet-like ‘turn’ that reappears in his supposedly static pieces. Mira Benjamin plays the eight violins in the later work Melanconia, distant and reedy, slightly sour. The turn comes again as the violins quickly exhaust themselves, then regroup but slower and fainter, with greater pauses. You begin to notice that you don’t hear repeats in Clementi, but echoes. All four musicians combine for the final work, the late Canone circolare, whose greater timbral breadth is offset by the piece’s brevity. Here, the piece becomes an enigmatic coda and not the summation that you might have expected. It’s a delicate work which places the emphasis on material over process, even as its construction makes it softly fold in upon itself, perversely making it all the harder to grasp before it slips away. This is a short album, but any extra material would be superfluous to its ideal conception and execution.

Rocktober! (Part 2): Bill Nace, Ferran Fages et al., Dimuzio / Wobbly / Courtis

Monday 25 October 2021

Closing out the month of electric guitars, of sorts, with a couple of reissues and two new items. I’m not sure how I got this first one as it got downloaded to my hard drive without any identifying marks in its folder, so I ended up listening to it blind like some oldtimer in a back issue of The Wire. Two electric guitar noise solos about 12 minutes each, but clearly superior to the standard random scuzz-fest. It’s probably lo-fi but the colouration varies enough to make me suspect that there’s intentional deployment of heavy mid-range in places for effect. Even amongst the outbursts of furiously articulated noise there are moments of stasis which are relatively prolonged, given the small scale of the recordings, which underline the the musician’s keen ear for tone, a kind of Lärmfarbenmelodie. It really shows who’s in control when the guitarist can summon up some truly thunderous sounds out of a nasty buzzing and then resolve it all neatly with an abrasive filigree. It’s only after playing it twice I googled the filename and found it’s a reissue of Bill Nace’s Solo Guitar 2 / One Note cassette from 2008, now on vinyl, possibly just as limited edition, I dunno.

The other reissue is one of two Ferran Fages compilations. Both are gentler, with a heavier emphasis on the atmospherics, than his two recent solo releases. For John Ayrton Paris was originally released under the name Taumatrop, his duet with percussionist Eduard Márquez. Recorded one day in 2013, the 25-minute piece pairs percussion with Fages’ electronic drones which had started out on guitar but on this occasion approach pure sine tones, combining in different registers to form harmony, timbre and percussive air. Low cymbals and tam-tam sounds augment the soft bass drone, with struck and electric sounds played like a slow, solemn guitar solo.

Cuhda is a duet of similar dimensions, assembled over a longer period of time and finished this year. The duet LLUMM has Fages back on electric guitar, with Alfredo Costa Monteiro on “resonant objects” and electronics. It’s described as “an electromagnetic environment”, which seems appropriate as plucked percussive objects are amped and reverbed against guitar drone. Struck and bowed objects produce sounds which merge with distorted guitar, each pitch distempered by upper partials that preclude clear harmony, with one or two startling exceptions. While it’s as portentous as For John Ayrton Paris, Cuhda shows a greater presence of the musician’s hand in performance, with sounds more clearly sourced in human activity. Where the earlier work presents sounds without complication, Cuhda disturbs the surface by introducing pauses, changes of mind and a fallibility in how each sound is made. It’s particularly unusual how this feeling-out process is preserved in what is the more deliberately constructed piece.

The other new release is Dimuzio / Wobbly / Courtis’s Redwoods Interpretive, which I think comes out this week. It’s a jam-packed little LP which throws together Alan Courtis‘ electric guitar with Thomas Dimuzio’s synths and samplers and Jon Leidecker’s digital doohickeys, all soaked in electronic weirdness. It opens with a succinct burst of abused amplifier fuckery that gets played out into a psychedelic vignette. This punk/prog crossover sets the queasy tone for the rest of the album, a phantasmagoria of electronic genres which morph and bleed from one cultural reference into another. The prevailing mood is that of one of the more outlying examples of 1970s German soundtrack album, but that in itself is a reflection of its eclecticism and otherworldliness. Guitar, modular synth and MIDI controlled devices ping-pong sounds back and forth over distorted loops of electronic chatter. Another three tracks each carve out a strange imaginary landscape, before the side-long ‘Old Man of the North’ blurs them all together. Starting out sounding like a desultory duet of detuned Fender Rhodes and shortwave, things steadily pick up until treated sounds are happily echoed and flanged in the best UFO epic style and then get whipped up into a densely analog-sounding morass before curdling into sour drones, finally resolving into something recalling a… church organ? It doesn’t make sense when you hear it either, which is the fun of it. Each listen so far has revealed new details, like a good trip should.