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.

Rocktober! (Part 1): Mamer, Julia Reidy

Wednesday 20 October 2021

It must be the time of year because I’ve been getting a lot of stuff involving electric guitars and suchlike lately. The Takuroku download project is entering its final stage and they’ve been releasing a lot of interesting albums of music more or less derived from pop, which I won’t talk about much mostly because I fear being exposed to ridicule as a clueless old fart. The various détournements of songforms heard there range from intriguing to charming to perplexing, but I’m going to stick to something safe and review a set of solo guitar improvisations (“Oh boy, another one!”). Mamer’s set of fifteen short tracks Freeze Wizard is a bit better than the usual stuff inasmuch as it has the self-control to stay in one place, even as he plays around. The hype-sheet would like you to think that he ‘explodes’ stuff but the strength comes from each segment complementing the last, building up an identifiable but increasingly complex tone throughout the album. Digital effects are used to create and eerie, hyperreal aura to the instrument, with harmonics or faint loops droning over the strings or pitch-shifting to create the impression of a faulty tape deck. The last four tracks feel out of place with a sudden recourse to hyperactive scrabbling which breaks the mood, but by the end this busyness has been sublimated enough to work as a sort of coda.

Speaking of sublimation, Julia Reidy’s latest release How to spot a rip features four electric guitars playing simultaneously while unplugged. I’m assuming e-bows are used to create the uninterruped tones that sustain throughout the piece’s sixteen minutes. I’ve mentioned Reidy only in passing before, noting how she’s taken steel-string acoustic playing techniques and applied them to larger structures, transcending the boundaries of the instrument’s idiom through duration and through electronic manipulation. That transcendence becomes pure here, in tone and structure. The guitars’ clear drones are tuned to pitches in a 13-limit scale (conventional Western tuning is based on ratios using prime numbers no bigger than 5, so the addition of 7, 11 and 13 to the mix pushes consonance outside of our usual experience) and move further apart from each other during the piece, with attendant overtones and beating frequencies as each of the guitars’ trajectories intersect. Reidy retunes the guitars during the piece and notices how the harmonic space can suddenly ‘break’ while the pitches slowly change. This effect is augmented by the otherwise imperceptible complications of acoustic vibrations, even with the thin timbre of an oscillating steel string. The tension in the piece is underscored at times by the characteristic sound of a string slipping on a tuning peg, reminding you of just what you’re hearing. A remarkable piece for both guitar and tuning nuts, especially for people who need more James Tenney in their music.

Guy Vandromme plays Bruno Duplant’s ‘l’infini des possibles’

Sunday 17 October 2021

I’m glad that this thing is two hours long as it gave me the chance to come around to it without having to start over. Bruno Duplant’s l’infini des possibles is a set of twelve piano études written in a style that seems baldly simplistic and devoid of inspiration. The score is made of sequences of letters naming notes, all white keys, with stops and spacing to suggest phrases and occasional indeterminate embellishments hinted at through use of accents, apostrophes and uppercase. The pianist Guy Vandromme’s masterful realisation of the score starts out sounding pretty much exactly like that. As you might expect, sounds are isolated as single notes and played with equanimity that suggests overreliance on fashionable reverence for the material’s purity.

It’s a pleasure to hear this initial state change with each successive étude. The accompanying notes tell us that Vandromme “intensely studied these 12 pieces via in-depth discussions with Duplant over two years” and the musical results bear this out with a set of throroughly developed and deeply considered piano pieces, both in the characteristics of each étude and in the overall form of the complete set. The idea of the étude asserts itself as Vandromme takes the unprepossessing score and turns Duplant’s implied markings into various examinations of harmony, texture, articulation and register, starting from the simple and tending towards the complex. The initial arbitrariness implicit in the strings of note-names become a strength as Vandromme exploits the white-note vagaries to form each étude into a new shape and patterning of sonorities. It appears to be an ideal partnership between composer and performer.

Live Music: David Dunn and Jackson Mac Low at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 13 October 2021

A double bill of American Buddhists, my god. At least if there’s any religious knowledge to be picked up here, it’s taught by example (as with Cage, the didactic element is present in parable). Back at Cafe Oto, the first gig in over 18 months with something like normal capacity and an audience all getting in surprisingly early to grab all the seats. This was the fourth gig I’ve been to this year and the third to feature the string quartet incarnation of Apartment House. I’d complain we were getting in a rut but not when they were presenting an hour-long work for string quartet and tape by David Dunn. Dunn is one of those names I’ve heard for years as part of the general millieu of the looser end of American experimental music and I’ve only just realised that I have never heard a note of music by the guy until now. Safe to assume he doesn’t get played enough: ‘The Great Liberation Through Hearing’ was composed in 1995 and received its premiere this weekend. For 25 years the piece has laid on the page as an acoustic experience to be imagined but never heard.

The quartet plays notes based on just-intonation harmonic overtones on a drone provided by a recording of Dunn’s voice, chanting slowed down until each word is stretched over several minutes. (The recording heard was a new software-enabled rendition, the original tape having been misplaced.) There’s a slow articulation of phonemes before each long, trailing drone of bass voice enmeshed with overlapping sibilants and fricatives. The cello plays in the low registers to augment the pitched sound while violins weave harmonics between the waves of hiss. Each prolonged moment takes on its own character. As a concept, it’s straightforward, using simple, strong materials imbued with natural acoustic qualities that work together in ways that continually create interest. Even at this most reductive level, away from any meditative or transcendental considerations, the piece succeeds and Apartment House have filled in another small gap in the post-war avant-garde.

The concert opened with Jackson Mac Low’s The Text on the Opposite Page from 1965. Mac Low’s reputation as a poet sadly confines too many of his pieces to the page when they are expressly meant to be performed, so this was a rare opportunity to hear his verbal abstractions. Apartment House were joined by Elaine Mitchener, who turned the atomised text into a sonic action painting of phonemes and punctuation matched by the strings’ instrumental gestures. Mitchener’s voice is ideally agile for such a mercurial score, supple enough to stretch and bend around each sound and then snap into focus at just the right places, with a presence that is always expressive without tempting the conventional avant-garde vocal attitudes of becoming grotesque or arch.

New Elsewhere: Michael Pisaro-Liu, Jordan Dykstra and Koen Nutters

Sunday 10 October 2021

Michael Pisaro-Liu (fka Michael Pisaro) walks an eccentric path between conceptual process (cf. ricefall) and free-flowing wanderings that follow a concealed narrative. In Tombstones, this approach is atomised: a collection of twenty “experimental-pop” songs, each made from the slenderest of means. Each song may be concise or extended, to extremes if desired, and arrangements are left open. For this album, the ensemble Muzzix under the direction of pianist Barbara Dang perform eleven songs, the same selection recorded by a different ensemble some nine years ago which I haven’t heard and so can’t compare.

The titles, and thus lyrics, derive from popular songs, but any vagaries or digressions are constrained by the miniaturist approach to each composition. In each song the singer, usually Maryline Pruvost, rarely exceeds a couple of words, a couple of notes. The initial impression recalls Jürg Frey’s 24 Wörter. As often with Pisaro-Liu, his musical language is too inconsistent to induce a ‘minimal’ state of quiescence in the listener’s mind, leaving the song sequence’s success to depend upon the gemlike settings of the instrumentation. This is evidently left largely in the hands of Dang and Muzzix, who alter texture and colouration in fresh and unexpected ways, with an approach that is gentle but firm when making such potentially isolated and disparate elements cohere, yet also prolonging moments of chamber music from the same material. Ultimately, the album as a whole is required by its concentration on single words and sounds to balance between the hieratic artifice of its construction and the expressive substance of its contents, leaving to the mercy of the listener’s mindset whether it aspires to profundity or to preciousness.

I’m sure I’ve never heard of Jordan Dykstra or Koen Nutters before. Their new Elsewhere release is a joint composition by the two composer/performers. This is usually grounds to be wary of an insider’s muso-fest but thanks to recent efforts by groups like Eventless Plot I’m not more hopeful. That hope is rewarded here. In Better Shape Than You Found Me is precisely one hour of music that ebbs and flows as though excerpted at random from a constant, natural process. Like nature, the only readily discernable structure or pattern is what may be observed, an impersonal, consequential logic that creates its own context and meaning as it goes on. A spare duo for piano and pitch pipes or viola is backed by soft drones and noises which drift in and out of focus, eliding between pure sound and documentary. Like Luc Ferrari under heavy sedation. An ascending scale interrupts, from time to time. Perhaps events are grouped into subtly distinguished episodes, or perhaps there are merely pauses. More likely, sometimes there is simply silence that emerges to the fore. A sense of place is created, but one where the mood or the tone never settles and so makes place into a lifelike thing.

Electronic survey, not yet weary

Thursday 30 September 2021

Electronic music tends to polarise even the individual listener, where the extremes of appreciation and disdain map out like an inverted bell curve. For each piece that realises the potential for new, exciting and unheard sounds and forms, there is at least one that utterly fails to reward your attention. (I blame the formative French tradition of exquisitely crafted snorefests – a fetish of technique and finish.) I’ve got a stack of recent releases of electronic music here which I’ve been meaning to deal with so I’m going to run through them quick, with this jaded attitude in mind.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and once you’ve dabbled with electronics a bit yourself you get surprised by how much music starts to resemble your own preliminary doodlings. That’s not to say that just anyone can fool around with software and be as good as, to pick a name at random, Dumitrescu, but that a lot of it lives or dies upon the question of what to keep and what to discard. Taku Unami’s Takuroku album Stardust is “100% computer programmed music” and it’s fairly pretty but I think you could be just as pleased by downloading a copy of Coagula. Madalyn Merkey’s Crushed Shells, on the other hand, is gentle and playful, while using the fashionable analog Eurorack modules and a Waldorf Blofeld with a capriciousness that never sounds stiff or heavy-handed. Both kind of slip back and forth between being less or more than they seem, with Merkey’s set of pieces having greater resilience.

The synthesiser duo of Richard Stenton and Zach Dawson have put out their debut release 7balcony. It sounds like a lot of effort went into making something both conceptually grating and sonically ingratiating. As such, it falls between two stools and is excessively dependent on the goodwill of the listener. This could go over better with a live audience, where all the activity seems to mean something, especially if the venue is licenced. The last track ‘microphones hanging from tall buildings’ is apparently just that and is the most confident piece here.

Another debut duo is Alex Christie and Ryan Ross Smith’s acres, which carries the sensation of improvised electronic music, both in its strengths and weaknesses. Nice crunchy electronic noises kick in and out with a pleasing arbitrariness but occasionally things come to an impasse and it sounds like the musos are struggling to make the music do something, in the hope that things will stay tastefully harsh. Unlike the two preceding albums, Paul Abbott’s Deorlaf Z (version) for XT Deorlaf X Live sounds like an artistic struggle without pulled punches. An extended live reworking of prerecorded materials using electronic (and real) percussion, excitement builds, then ebbs away only to resurge later, with the longeurs becoming excusable as a necessary part of a larger process. The live situation and the attendant materials of popular music form the substance of this piece, as opposed to simply clothing it.

Simon Balestrazzi (electronics) and Paolo Sanna (percussion) have put out a set of Disrupted Songs made from sonic found objects. They are exercises in serious play, making or taking nicely-defined sounds that would suit an earnest lower-case improv session, but then they repeatedly interrupt each other, creating a more complex structure of continuity and discontinuity. Each piece takes unexpected turns without ever descending into a free-for-all, placing the unfocused into sharp relief.

Finally, I have to mention John Chantler’s Eli Licking Ice, a glorious 25-minute slab of synthesisers spun through mobile speakers in resonant space. It drops us in media res with a wonderfully clear but chaotic mix of electronic sounds that are truly diverse and discrete. At first it seems as though things are about to go out of control but events settle into a wayward flow of their own course. As the piece continues the sound opens up and you hear acoustic events within the room, particularly a snare drum that buzzes along in sympathy. Even as sounds loop and swoop or swing from side to side, both sweet and cutting, or both at once, everything seeks out a harmonious balance, although perhaps in ways that are not readily obvious. Also, it’s a welcome addition to Takuroku’s guest dog series.