I promised to post a sample of what to expect at next Saturday’s gig in the Great Hall at Goldsmiths College, so here it is.
Chain Of Ponds is a composed system of interconnected digital feedback circuits. All the sounds are generated in the software programme AudioMulch, configured into a complex network of components. None of the components generate an audio signal or play samples; the sounds are produced by the interaction between the components.
I’ve written a script in Cakewalk Application Language which generates a chance-determined MIDI file to control the AudioMulch file. Over 800 parameters are individually controlled and adjusted by this MIDI file. The weightings of the chance operation in the script can be manipulated by the user, to influence the probabilities affecting attributes such as density of events, types of activity, the range of possible changes, lengths of periods of stability/instability, subdivisions within the work and to “silence” or “freeze” certain parameters, each assignable to different groups of controls.
In the Great Hall I’ll be diffusing the sounds generated in real time, controlling the sounds sent to each of the eight speakers located around the room.
Things start at noon on Saturday; I’ll be on at 1.30 pm.
All the performers will be playing around with the acoustics of the Great Hall through an unusual 8-channel speaker arrangement. The whole event is an informal, exploratory occasion, with composers and musicians trying out different ideas or playing full pieces. People are welcome to come and go and wander around the space as they please. The schedule is pretty much continuous throughout the day.
I think I’ll be working on this new piece for multiple interconnected feedback loops, which I was polishing over the new year break. I’ll post some teaser samples of what I’ve got in mind later in the week.
I think this is might be the earliest piece I wrote which I still have lying around, but I’d never heard a satisfactory realisation of it. I’d been reading about mathematicians constructing visualisations of the decimal places of π, to better its apparent randomness. This made me think of a musical interpretation, to find out if long strings of decimal places would deviate from the mean over time or else show true randomness with no significant long-term deviation.
The final piece, of course, does no such thing.
Each instrument in the quartet obtains its material from a different string of decimal places of π. Each digit is compared to the mean of the preceding digits, with the difference expressed as a (microtonal) pitch change. Instruments exchange digit strings to obtain note durations, from 0 (grace note) to 9 beats. About halfway into the piece, rests replace notes for the most extreme deviations from the mean, and the range allowed for pitch changes reduces until by the end all deviations from the mean are expressed as silence.
The piece was conceived as a string quartet, using a scale of 36 tones to the octave; both to keep within the 2-octave range common to all four instruments and to avoid excessive ‘leaping’ from one pitch to the next. It was not expected that performers would perform the microtones accurately, but would drift away from a sense of shared tuning as they went along. Despite this, the piece would still be very difficult to play and I’ve never wanted to pester any musicians into attempting it.
I’d made a couple of MIDI realisations of the piece before, using various intonations and instrument patches to retain some of the string instruments’ properties of attack and sustain, but none of them were acceptable substitutes. Over the new year break I dug up the old MIDI files for one last shot and completely remade the piece. The tuning now has the inaccuracy lacking from the previous versions and the samples used give a rough approximation of the instruments’ sound. I figure this will be as good as it gets, so I’m offloading it to Soundcloud for at least a little while.
So far this year, I have been busy on making a half-acceptable realisation of a very old piece. I suspect it’s unplayable by live musicians and my previous attempts at synthesised versions were dreadful. It seems more acceptable to revisit an old piece as long as I am working on learning new ways of achieving what I wanted at the time, if not now. I think this year I will be resuming some old, unfinished pieces and pursuing ideas never realised.
This piece will probably get uploaded somewhere when it’s finished, soon. Right now I need to make a collage of background studio noise.
“Composers are over, they’re last century.” This was the gist of one of the conversations I had over Christmas lunch; at least that’s how I remember it, being drunk at the time and much, much drunker soon after. I could see the point but wanted to demur in some way. The universities still seem to turn out fresh undead, as can be heard every year in premieres at the Proms, and even in Strasbourg, Donaueschingen and Huddersfield.
The conception of what it means to be someone who makes music has supposedly been changing for decades but it’s only now become possible to perceive a clear difference in the understanding of post-WWII music as it was at the end of the Nineties and now. The older consensus on where the mainstream lay had gone, but people still felt its after-effects and took a while to fully realise that it’s not coming back.
The best example I can think of this schism is the London Sinfonietta’s recent performance of Fausto Romitelli’s An Index Of Metals. The rhetoric of cyberpunk and rock’n’roll was dated at the time and wrong-headed from the start; Romitelli’s image of the composer as a visionary pioneer was a romantic throwback. It’s a tragedy he didn’t live to outgrow this phase to settle into being a neo-romantic old fart like Boulez, if not Glass.
(I must point out that Romitelli’s music is often much better than the claims made for it: explorensemble’s performance of the complete Professor Bad Trip trilogy last month was superb.)
Much of my musical year seemed to revolve around the Another Timbre record label, the ensemble Apartment House and the Wandelweiser school/movement/philosophy? – three corners of a triangle. I’m surprised at the way minimalism has stayed such a pervasive influence on so much music today. I thought by the mid-1990s it had been exhausted by ‘bands’ playing stuff that Probably Sounded OK In MIDI and ECM recording anyone who owned a cloak. Instead, much new music made these days, which could be easily lumped in together as “minimalist”, is returning to the experimental roots from which minimalism emerged.
Some of the best new-ish CDs I heard this year (Wandelweiser’s West Coast Soundings, Apartment House’s Laurence Crane collection, music by Bryn Harrison and Martin Iddon) could be thought of as having a broadly common sound-world, but they all shared an interest in picking up and pursuing lines of thought largely dormant since the 1970s. As a useful reference, three other events this year provided a comparison: The Scratch Orchestra’s Nature Study Notes, a concert/talk from Christian Wolff, and the opening concert at the LCMF which reunited leading figures from the British avant-garde from 40 years ago.
Parallels between the Scratch Orchestra performance and compositions by James Saunders seemed very clear. Another excellent record I heard only recently – Rows, a collaboration by Anders Dahl & Skogen – displayed similar methods to those used by Christian Wolff in his Exercises and other pieces. Between the generations there’s a shared interest in processes and the nature of sound, at the expense of “self-expression”.
I’m OK with the idea of the effacement of the composer if it means that the music continues to live. The alternative is a ghastly scenario presented by Who Killed Classical Music?, which offered a way for composers to still be considered ‘relevant’ in society, as long as their music could never be taken seriously.
As Christmas lunch carried on past midnight, another topic came up. One of the best gigs of the year, Thomas Buckner’s recital of works by Robert Ashley, was so poorly attended. “Now that Ashley’s dead,” my host said, “people are relieved that they don’t feel obliged to pay attention to what he had to say.”
Behind all this, one mystery lingers. What happened at that
La Monte Young piano gig in January? Did it happen? Did anyone witness it?
I’m working on a new piece of music, made from live digital electronic synthesis. The concept is quite simple.
Lots of software patches, connected together into interconnecting circuits. None of the patches are designed to make sound, only to process it; but when you connect them into circuits they produce audible feedback. When you feed the circuits into each other they modify each other’s feedback. This can have a cascading effect, with unexpected consequences.
I work on it: the piece starts to behave in the way I expected it to. It’s a bit rough around the edges, so I work on it some more: it sounds terrible. Next day I tweak a couple of points: suddenly it’s magnificent. All it needs is a little polishing: when it’s done the piece is unlistenable.
At each stage, it feels as though to make progress it is necessary to in fact step backwards and undo the most recent work. Listening back to previous stages, it is apparent that this is not the case. This creative process reveals itself more as a continual retracing of steps, rediscovering what was there all along. With sufficient patience, you could in theory approach asymptotically an idealised conception of the work.
In the meantime, here are two short test recordings. Each is the same, only the chance-determined weightings for each patch’s controls are different.
I didn’t write about the last time Robert Ashley was in town. Sometimes you have an experience that gives you too much to think about, to write it down coherently and do it justice; not at first, and then you leave it later and later until it seems too late. For much the same reason, I didn’t write about when he died in March this year, either. So many of us have been slow in catching up to the implications of Ashley’s work.
Last night, long-time collaborator Thomas Buckner sang a programme dedicated to Robert Ashley’s music at Cafe Oto, to an audience of as many as twenty people. Much of it was in Ashley’s signature style of speech heightened to the state of music (not to be confused with sprechstimme), but Buckner’s virtuosic shaping of phrase and intonation and even melody from Ashley’s text revealed an aspect I had not fully realised before. The virtuosic speech which is Ashley’s most recognisable stylistic trait is more than patter, an overwhelming flow of information; there are pauses, hesitations, repetition which mould the semantic and emotional content of the words and the voice into complex states of thought and feeling as skilfully as any great aria.
For the record, Buckner performed a version of Ashley’s opera Atalanta (Acts of God), consisting of the “Odalisque” aria from Act I, “Mystery of the River” from Act II, and the Anecdote “The Producer Speaks” from Act III. The first act was accompanied by piano, electric piano and synthesized organ, the third act by piano alone. “Mystery of the River” was a new electronic realisation, made only last year as it had never been performed before then. After the interval, Buckner sang Tract, a wordless melody with electronic accompaniment, and World War III Just the Highlights, for voice and chorus. Tract began as a setting of a Wallace Stevens poem for voice and string quartet until Ashley realised he didn’t want to bend other people’s texts to fit music and as for string quartets, well.
The music conveys a stillness of contemplation, containing an agitation of thought. Connections abound. Ashley rhymes his subjects like Ezra Pound in the Cantos. Like William Carlos Williams, he adopts Pound’s methods to articulate the fraught sense of an emerging cultural awareness in his contemporary U.S.A., wondering whether it will survive and grow, and in what form. “Mystery of the River” repurposes mythology into geography and family history, as any colonial community must if they are to find meaning in their environment. World War III Just the Highlights starts by dissecting the economics of an opera company staging the Ring Cycle before crossing the Atlantic to analyse the romanticisation of El Cid and the Italian condottieri: the subject matter, characters, their juxtaposition and the connections between them are all the stuff of the Cantos.
Every performance of Ashley’s music I’ve witnessed has been a revelation, leading always to bigger and better questions about the content of his work. It pains me how few other people were there to hear it for themselves.
Not much to report lately except for two gigs, both at Cafe Oto, about one week apart.
First night: two solo sets, by Rafael Toral and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard some of Toral’s music for guitar and feedback of different types, so this was relevant to my interests. He played three “pieces”, each using different sets of very simple equipment. After the first set I started to vague-out a bit. The first was the most interesting: holding a small powered speaker in one hand, he “played” it with a microphone/light in the other, moving it to and fro to create controlled bursts of feedback. It was reminiscent of a solo improvisation on a violin, in sound and gesture. Unfortunately, it also went on for too long – I think this was because Toral seemed more interested in extracting every possible type of sound out of his instrument than in shaping a musical experience. He later mentioned that he was thinking about jazz saxophone solos while playing, so perhaps this was the problem too.
I’ve known Anthony Pateras for a long time so it was good to hear him play again. He played solo piano, without preparations to the strings or other extraneous sounds (as is often the case with him). The difference in technique between the two musicians was striking, and not just in the obvious way of comparing Toral’s meticulous gestures with Pateras’ frenzied activity. The trademark hyperactive pummelling of the keyboard is nevertheless rigorously constrained, producing sharply defined contrasts in large harmonic blocks of sound as well as more subtle distinctions in texture. His technical agility keeps focussed on one musical idea, which is then expanded and elaborated upon. He also stopped soon enough for the audience to demand an encore.
A few days later I was back at Oto to see Jürg Frey and friends (or “personal army”, as they were described on the night). He’s a clarinettist and composer, another one who’s associated with Wandelweiser. Quiet, pulseless sounds: unlike my previous experience, the usual feeling of hushed stillness had additional depths. Some of Frey’s music that I’ve heard seems, to some extent, a provocation in its refusal to yield to an implied, wider palette of sounds. (This is particularly after hearing R. Andrew Lee play Frey’s piano music.) On this occasion, there were also some surprisingly rich sounds, with an almost playful (on Frey’s terms) exploration of harmonies and instrument combinations.
Performance technique in Frey’s music becomes a matter of mastering a highly disciplined activity, to achieve the extremes of attenuated sounds demanded in the score. Looking back on the three different sets, it became clear that I was hearing differences of technique that applied equally to composition as they did to performance. The opportunity to hear Frey play his own music made this connection much clearer. A more extreme case of performance dictating composition was also presented at the Frey gig. Anton Lukoszevieze’s performance of part of John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings reveals that the harmonic structure of the piece is entirely produced by the systematic execution of a single, extended gesture by the cellist – conceptually simple, but physically difficult.
The same musicians had spent the weekend recording Frey’s music for another release by Another Timbre. It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.
I think I’ve ragged on Wandelweiser a few times recently, finding fault with its apparent sense conformity and complacency. It’s not completely true, of course, and as it happens I was just sent a copy of the new Edition Wandelweiser release West Coast Soundings, a double CD which makes an excellent case for the whole Wandelweiser aesthetic and the musical thinking behind it.
This album was crowdfunded last year under the name “Cage’s Grandchildren” (this title still comes up in the CD metadata). It might well have also been called “Tenney’s Children”: James Tenney is the only featured composer from a preceding generation, and his Harmonium #1 dates from 1976 while all the other works are less than 10 years old. Most of the composers here studied with Tenney, or at Cal Arts. Harmonium #1 isn’t the point of origin for all the music here and the album makes no such claim, but the work appears later on Disc 1 as a touchstone for this genre of music.
Like John Cage, Tenney produced a bewilderingly diverse body of work which opened up so many potential new paths of discovery. West Coast Soundings takes Harmonium #1 as a reference point for one particular set of ideas: a focus on the qualities of sound itself as a subject, listening in the present without narrative context, an emphasis on process and structure, but aimed towards elaboration of the sonic content, not teleological development.
Having complained about Wandelweiser’s output getting too samey, this collection is beautifully varied and balanced, presenting different facets of the above mentioned musical concerns while still maintaining an overall mood. I’ve played it in various situations and, for twelve pieces over two hours, surprisingly it’s never felt like an endurance test. More “typical” works – long-held tones blending together, a gentle but implacable aimlessness – are given a distinct identity by being thrown into contrast against music like the sinuous electronic drone of Chris Kallmyer’s Between the Rhine and Los Angeles. Liam Mooney’s 180°, in which performers press triangles against dry ice, recalls Cage’s interest in finding new sounds, Tenney’s percussion music, sound sculpture and Fluxus happenings.
The smaller, slighter works play an important role. Mark So’s brief segue makes a mysterious introduction to the album, with cellist Anton Lukoszevieze acting as the text’s reciter. Casey Anderson’s possible dust can’t add more to Cage’s works for multiple radios, but is sequenced here as a distinctive palate cleanser before Michael Pisaro’s quietly powerful A single charm is doubtful (Gertrude Stein).
After being disappointed with Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight last month, I was very pleased to find her piece Frame for Flute the highlight of the two CDs. Written for (not so fast!) grand bass recorder and cello, the two instruments echo off each other. The sonorous notes played by Lukoszevieze and recordist Lucia Mense merge and diverge, creating rich but subtle differences in tone that often sound as though they were electronically manipulated.
Brian Olewnick’s blog gives a good summary of all the pieces played and who plays them. West Coast Soundings turns out to be one of the best kind of surprises, one that is satisfying instead of sensationalistic, when you were only expecting more of the same.
Just reading about what Fausto Romitelli hoped to achieve with his final work, the “video opera” An Index of Metals, is enough to cause apprehension. The wish to immerse the audience in a solid, all-consuming mass of sound and light was never going to be realised, certainly not with an electroacoustic ensemble and three video screens in a concert hall. The gap between the ambition and the physical reality was always going to be too big to ignore, rather like the dreams of futurists from 100 years ago whose reach exceeded their grasp.
Also like the futurists, Romitelli seems to have been stridently demonstrative about wanting to be modern, but did so in ways utterly beholden to the past. A piece for solo electric guitar titled Trash TV Trance written in 2002 is obsolete before its première. I went to see Hila Plitmann and the London Sinfonietta play An Index of Metals last week and found that like his fellow Italians a century earlier, Romitelli preferred to wax romantically about what modernity could be like than be modern himself. Reviews seem to be divided between what you would like it to be as imagined in your head and what you actually heard and saw on stage.
The music worked hard a creating a persistent mood throughout the evening, which I suspect will make it all sound as quaint as Antheil in a generation or so. The playing on the night seemed to lack both the coherence and the bite that Romitelli had in mind. There were video projections; I’ve seen plenty worse. Romitelli’s sound world is distinct and striking, but it has an exotic decadence about it which sits oddly against the claims to be a bold pioneer.
They sent their sonnets off to a newspaper, which printed both. The honest Smith called his “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.” Shelley called his “Ozymandias.” Genius may also be knowing how to title a poem.
– Guy Davenport
I am learning to accept that titles are as important as I have always wanted them to be. It seemed like an easy distraction, that one could dream up titles all day for works that would never be started, let alone finished; that a mediocre work could be elevated to the illusion of greatness by a few choice words to flatter the audience’s sensibilities. How many works of art exist as little more than armatures for the finer feelings expressed in the title?
“I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity,” said Krzysztof Penderecki of his work originally titled 8’37″. Some works can find a match in subject and surface; others can’t bear the weight of expectations the title imposes upon them. The title finds its purest expression in John Barton Wolgamot’s trilogy: the titles are the Substance which live through the text’s Accident (thus beating Alain Robbe-Grillet by at least 20 years).
For years I laboured under the illusion that disregarding the frippery of the title for the real meat of the work itself was a sign of maturity. It’s a simplistic position. A few years back I heard Helmut Lachenmann praising Morton Feldman’s use of titles and I’ve been reconsidering ever since.
A while ago I finally got to hear Apartment House play Harley Gaber’s masterpiece The Winds Rise in the North live. Afterwards I kept thinking, “what a great title.” The string quintet keens and sighs for two hours, always changing but never deviating from what it first presents itself to be. The title’s a reference to ancient Chinese poetry and Taoism, which invokes a whole other realm of associations, but throughout it all is the evocation of wind, wind as a portent. It may rise to a murmur or a roar, either of which may be imagined at any point in Gaber’s music. A merging of subject and substance, between categories.
I was going to write a blog post tonight but I started thinking about creating graphic representations of 144 Pieces For Organ – in Excel, of course.
Four of them are on YouTube now. Any resemblance to John Cage’s late prints is purely coincidental.
I’ve been getting to know Catherine Lamb’s music. Listening to the CD of her trio three bodies (moving) from Another Timbre has been one of the year’s high points, along with her vocal work Dilations and recent orchestral piece portions transparent/opaque. The immediate point for comparison is Morton Feldman’s music: apart from the obvious preoccupation with a similar soundworld of hushed stillness, there are similar concerns with the contradictory impulses towards feeling and form and the tension in maintaining a balance between the two. She also says, rather reassuringly, “I am open to the bland”. There’s this quality many composers have struggled to define, of impassive beauty in stasis, non-demonstrative; the quality Feldman sought when he “tried not to push the sounds around”, that Cage praised in Satie wanting to make Socrate “white and pure like antiquity”.
Last Thursday Konzert Minimal played Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight at Cafe Oto, so I had to be there to hear it live for myself. They also played Antoine Bueger’s meinong nonets, which I was eager to hear for a different reason. I wrote a bit about hearing Beuger’s en una noche oscura last year and how it left me unimpressed. Sadly the second chance at hearing Beuger live only reinforced my opinion. I described last year’s exposure as “stilted and precious, disappointingly inert” and came away with much the same impression this time.
The Lamb piece didn’t work for me on the night, either. There’s bland and then there’s bland. Worse still, material/highlight, which was played first, sounded pretty much as what I remembered the Beuger sounded like, which the subsequent piece then confirmed. I’m looking at the reviews of three bodies (moving) and I find this: “a feeling of richness and harmonic depth that separates Lamb from most of the music of the Wandelweiser composers.” It’s a pity that distinction is missing from material/highlight.
I’ve got a problem with Wandelweiser (of which Beuger is a co-founder). I’ve got a problem with any art movement really (a sure sign of lots of distracting chaff), but what I’ve heard of Wandelweiser that impresses me the most is the way so many composers have found so many ways to write music that sounds the same. Long, soft tones. Pauses. It’s not just those stilted, precious, inert qualities that in themselves make the music uninteresting; it’s the sense that everyone’s working very deep within a comfort zone, that nothing is open to risk of any sort. It’s like a collective failure of nerve that’s permeated music over the past few decades: holy minimalists, lower case glitch musos, post-Feldmanites, Wandelweiser, all struck dumb in awe of their meagre materials, held in abeyance for fear that a false move is worse than no move at all.
“They’re playing the Lachenmann last. I didn’t want to hear the Carter; I need a life.”
[BBC announcer walks on-stage.] “We’re in for some torture first.”
“So apparently she’s this hugely important and revered cultural figure in Lebanon, but when you present her in the opera she just comes across as Widow Twankey. He doesn’t get it. I tried explaining Widow Twankey to him and he thinks she’s a real person.”
First, I want to thank whoever it was who once perfectly described laptop performers as having the stage presence of “bored men checking their email”. This is one of the more important reasons why I avoided giving live performances with computers for many years.
Of course, with experimental musicians mostly being awkward, poorly-socialised geek boys, your typical underground new music gig wasn’t much livelier before computers became affordable, but at least the equipment available at the time enforced a certain minimum of on-stage activity.
The role and aesthetics of the theatrical (but not dramatic) element of new music performance don’t get discussed much. I was once on a panel talk with several other musicians which drifted onto this topic and stayed there for the rest of the session. Nothing much was agreed, except that there are no real models to work from, and everyone has to pretty much work out their own methods for themselves. And, more importantly, that VJs are a blight upon the earth.
What was most interesting to learn was that so many musicians, even though you wouldn’t think it to watch them, are conscious of the visual aspect of their gigs. They may also, however, be at a loss as to what they can do to help it.
I wrote the above four paragraphs for publication as part of the Collected Collaborations show, as part of a discussion of my use of computers in live performance. I’ve done a few more live laptop gigs since then but instead of talking about that now I’m thinking of an electronic music gig I saw last weekend at the ICA.
I didn’t like it. All the sounds were samples, with no variation from one use of the sound to the next. I’d just seen the Matisse cut-outs show so I knew that even those flat planes of colour had their own life and shading to them. The music was all derivative of electronic dance music, but not transformative. Dance music has lives or dies on its sense of rhythm, balance, structure, so deconstructing it to its constituent components was a signally unrewarding exercise. Worse, the ICA room is typically set up so the musos are up the back, obscured from the audience view.
Mark Fell was advertised as playing on the night, but he didn’t appear in the programme. As it turned out, his set was in fact performed by the cellist Lucy Railton (sadly not with a MIDI cello). Even though no-one could really see it, this was an intriguing idea. Would it have sounded any different if Fell had played it himself? Probably not, but that seemed kind of the point. Think how much the theatre, if not the music, of a laptop gig could be improved by having the piece performed by someone who had no part in making it.
What would happen in each case where someone else stepped in to play with the computer interface? I need to stop thinking about my own performance practice and start thinking about a more general practice. How can I allow for this and still keep it a satisfactory musical experience. It needs to be a piece (not an instrument) but in what ways could it be made so a different performer can interpret it in unforseen ways?