Next month I’ll be part of Control, a group show of interactive music next month at Cafe Oto’s Project Space.
A single dial is connected to a single speaker, but the relationship between the two is not fixed; it flits between a range of possibilities composed by a diverse range of artists. Visitors are invited to use the dial to make sounds, and to thus explore the links between their actions, the limits of the dial, and the musical ideas embedded in the software by the artists.
It’s on from 10 to 13 September, from 1 to 9 pm each day at Oto Project Space. (Free entry.) Yes, there’s a gig the night before by some of the people in the show. I won’t be playing, but I might be talking. Hope you come and enjoy it!
I won’t search for it but a few years ago I made the passing remark that if Morton Feldman’s music can be compared to Rothko (as it often is) then Howard Skempton’s can be compared to Morandi. The use of melody and conventional harmonic patterns creates a beguiling sensation of familiarity. That initial impression is deceptive, precisely in that it doesn’t try to deceive: representation in one and functional harmony in the other are left exposed, revealed as artifice – yet they still convey their effect (or affect).
Late last year I heard Jürg Frey and a small ensemble play a concert of his recent music. At the time I wrote that:
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.
The album of Frey’s music that was recorded around the same time as that concert has now been released by Another Timbre as a double CD, titled Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014. After hearing the concert I said that, “It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.” It sounds even more tender and yielding than I expected. Is Frey mellowing with age, or am I just getting acclimatised?
I listened again to Lee’s excellent first CD of Frey’s piano music. There’s a striking contrast between those earlier works and the newer pieces on Grizzana. There’s that notorious passage in Klavierstück II where the same perfect fourth is repeated 468 times. When repetitions appear in the newer music they provide a sense of continuity, not of stasis or impasse. The music alters the listener’s perception of the world through its complex sensory effect more than through any aesthetic dialectic. (Morton Feldman distinguished his own music from John Cage’s by highlighting the didactic tendency in Cage: “Most music is metaphor… I am not metaphor. Parable, maybe. Cage is sermon.”)
I’m reading that interview with Frey about the new CD and – what do you know? – he’s talking about Morandi:
Morandi’s painting is figurative painting, but at the same time, he works with aspects of abstract painting. So you can see him also as an abstract painter who works with objects. To make a link to music (and sorry, I have to simplify it now, but in the daily process of my work, this reflection develops the whole richness of complexity), I can understand a melody as like a figurative part of a painting. Similarly to how you can remember melody as a “thing“, as a motif in music, you can see on the canvas a bottle, a house (and some painters speak about “working on the motif”). So on the other hand, in music the sound (just the sound) can be seen as an equivalent to abstract colour.
I could have just read further and quoted that instead of typing all the above.
Frey’s recent music is imbued with a quiet sophistication – the sort that doesn’t need to display its radical nature, its erudition. Where it was once necessary to make statements (like in the six-hour, almost inaudible electroacoustic collage Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit) it is now possible for these values to be affirmed as a given. The piece Ferne Farben, for example, uses field recordings in a way that may not even be noticed on casual listening, giving additional life, space and colour to the otherwise very slow and quiet playing of the acoustic instruments. Or perhaps, listening to it yet again, it’s the other way around.
As might be expected, the performances by Frey himself and his “personal army” are beautifully clear and evocative. Aspects of this album recall last year’s double CD of Laurence Crane’s music, released on the same label: a sustained mood of ambiguous detail, unbroken surfaces over hidden depths. Frey’s music here, however, creates a strange double image in which each sound feels tentative yet inarguable, like a delicate organism. In the trio Area of Three, sustained sounds are inflected with the quietest, briefest notes that pass almost like accidents, silences pass like clouds. Appropriately, another of the pieces is titled Fragile Balance.
I’ve run out of copies of my CD Redundens for Piano, so I’ve put it up on Bandcamp for download in high-quality audio.
You may pay whatever you want, or nothing at all. The main reason I’ve put the free option there is because I always find it a hassle clicking through screens and giving my payment details to download something. It’s a deterrent. Still, I will not be upset if you wish to pay a small sum of money for it.
Redundens for Piano contains seven pieces from the Redundens series. Begun in 2001, all the pieces take Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Pieces for Piano, Op. 11 as their starting point: only the top line in Schoenberg’s pieces is retained as an unaccompanied melody (or as a list of pitch classes if you’re more technically-minded.) Each set of pieces uses a different method of encoding this melody; by pitch, register, timbre, duration, dynamics, or other means.
More pieces in the Redundens series can be found on the main part of my website.
This is a weirdly evocative piece. I wrote about James Saunders’s music last year, having heard a CD and attended a live concert of his music. At the time I noted his use of found objects as well as instruments, a focus on process and structure, minimalism, controlled improvisation and group behaviour (cf. The Great Learning). One thing I didn’t discuss at the time was his ability to make pieces from simple gestures using simple domestic objects (coffee cups, sheets of paper) and transcend these materials to make rich, subtle soundscapes far removed from their mundane origins. (I’m trying to remember who made that criticism of musique concrète, that so much of it dwells in the cosy familiarity of the banal.)
Reading Saunders’ own discussion of assigned #15, it all seems straightforward: he had spent the better part of a decade making modular pieces out of combinations of short musical gestures and longer, sustained drones. These modules could be reused, mixed and matched, each piece a one-off. assigned #15 is a new work which combines a selection of these modules into a repeatable piece of music.
The resulting music was completely unexpected. This very rarely happens, but listening to the CD created a very strong sensory impression in my head. The small chamber ensemble, augmented by a small organ, shortwave radio and dictaphones, evoked memories of being on deck for a ferry crossing. The low, constant thrum of the engines, the whistling of a wind that rises and falls, the unsteady rhythms of cables caught in the crosswind, the slow sighing and creaking of the vessel shifting in the water. This is merely my personal affectation but it illustrates the transformative qualities the composition has upon its materials.
The dictaphones distort and blur the other instruments, the radio and organ recede into the wash that simultaneously covers and anchors the other instruments. The strange combination of fleeting gestures and drones means that the music changes from one minute to the next but never loses hold of a unified, enigmatic image. I’ve previously described some of Saunders’ work as verging on technical exercises but this piece goes beyond any technical considerations; it makes a surprisingly bold statement over its unbroken span of 45 minutes.
Much of these qualities are brought out by the excellent playing by Apartment House, assisted by the composer handling the electronic devices. The musicians maintain a relentlessly focussed balance between the heavy and the delicate textures throughout.
One of my formative experiences as a youth was hearing a few minutes’ excerpt from that old LP of Paragraph 7 from Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning on AM radio. It has haunted me ever since. Reading around in old journals and books to find out more about it dragged me into the world of The Scratch Orchestra, the British Avant-Garde of a preceding generation and their affiliations (“all true education is unconscious seduction”).
Initially, the most wonderful discovery was that Paragraph 7 wasn’t a fortuitous accident but a sublimely elegant act of composition, ingeniously combining skilled and unskilled musicians, subjective freedom and objective process. Learning more about the other six paragraphs just made me more intrigued to hear the rest.
The chance to see and hear it performed live eluded me until last weekend, when the entire work was played over two nights at Union Chapel. The players were from several generations and backgrounds, including original members of the Scratch Orchestra – many of whom had performed the work in the same venue in 1984. This was not a re-enactment.
The most striking aspect of The Great Learning when heard in total is the sense of space, of unfilled openness. The slow pace and scale of each section (Paragraph 5 takes two hours, the others range from 30 to 60 minutes) bear little relation to anything else composed at the end of the 1960s, with perhaps the exception of La Monte Young’s drones. (“Slowness is beauty,” Lauren Binyon said, as recalled by Ezra Pound, whose translation of Confucius’ Great Learning forms the text and structure of Cardew’s work. “Only sequoias are slow enough,” Pound added, several decades later.)
This wish for slowness appears throughout Cardew’s earlier pieces – Autumn ’60, Material, even the avowedly conservative Bun No. 1 – but never at such relentless extremes as presented here. It’s dispiriting to consider how Cardew ruthlessly purged this element from his later music, crowding out any room for reflection or contemplation, any individual thought, for sake of hammering home a political message on an audience reduced to passive recipient.
I think I’m taking things from The Great Learning that Cardew never intended – that’s what happens when you allow listeners to think for themselves. The Pound connection, in the translated text, in Binyon’s reflection on slowness, and Pound’s own peculiar interest in Confucius: “You read a sentence and it seems nothing. Twenty years later you come back to it to meditate on its significance.” Cardew’s composition is his own meditation on the significance of the words, and what insight he may have is shared through transmitting that meditative process to the performers and the audience.
Then there’s the muddling of the good with the bad, as there is in life. The second half of Paragraph 5 is given over to free expression, a long improvisation that provides license for excess, error and indulgence. Like life, it is as much to be tolerated as enjoyed, which seems to be the point.
Freedom is permitted in varying degrees. At the start of the performance, Paragraphs 1 and 2 display clear formal elements and a ritualistic feel – but this is a superficial description. Paragraph 3 brings a much greater emphasis on sonority, the beauty of harmonies and mixing sound colours between voices and low instruments dispersed throughout the chapel. Paragraph 4 swings other way into ritual, but its simplicity and repetition reasserts the focus on the subtleties of the sounds being produced by various found objects. It’s all music, but with the attributes of theatre incorporated and emphasised as part of music-making.
After Paragraph 5’s compendium of discrete compositions, elegant odes, repeated texts and improvisations, Paragraph 6 removes audible words altogether, subsuming the text into a code of performance gestures. The music shares associations with Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening exercises, and some of John Cage’s later compositions. Paragraph 6 is in some respects another improvisation, but within the same constraints later adopted by Cage, where choice is tempered by self-discipline.
For a piece known by reputation more than direct experience, there was something oddly familiar in watching the entire work unfold over the two nights. So much of what it presents has been absorbed into musical and theatrical practice over four decades. Paragraph 7 is still capable of astonishing and delighting: a mass of voices (over 40 in this instance) in a dense, microtonal cloud that drifts in pitch and in space through the chapel, coalescing into rich harmonies. You hope it will last forever, and at times it seems as though it will.
Each paragraph and their clear, contrasting styles inevitably invite comparison. Pure aesthetic and affective considerations are augmented by the theoretical, compositional ideas put into practice. Scale allows each to be given due consideration, a system of organisation given time to grow and be understood in its ramifications; “rooted in watching with affection the way people grow” as Paragraph 1 states. The scale of the piece would appear to be an important compositional element. On one level it would seem that The Great Learning is about time itself: how things may be organised so that a group of people may freely work together to create something beautiful.
Michael Parsons, Dave Smith, John Lely and many others all worked together to make this a very special event. Special mention should go to Robert Coleridge’s playing of the Union Chapel organ, making the most of Cardew’s requirement that the organist should show a sensitive understanding of the instrument’s idiosyncrasies. “It was better than 1984,” one of the older performers remarked. It was all I could have imagined this strange work could be.
I’ve been travelling, making some music and sneezing a lot over the past month but it’s not been much I want to talk about, really.
Also reading, also listening. I’ve gone back to re-read Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation” because I’ve been listening to the MIDI recording of Charles Shere’s sonata ii: compositio ut explicatio repeatedly the last couple of weeks and this music needs more attention and understanding.
This also means digging up that recording Petr Kotik’s There Is Singularly Nothing that’s around here somewhere and hearing that again, for comparison.
Today I came home to find another pack of goodies arrived from Another Timbre: more Jürg Frey, James Saunders, Magnus Granberg. Need to hear them all asap but this week I’m going out too much: the 20th anniversary gig for Apartment House, The Great Learning, Music We’d Like To Hear. Now, though, I need get back to work on this sound installation.
“Madame, you are an eloquent and warm-blooded woman. I am a cold-blooded reductionist. Let us leave it at that.”
Tim Parkinson has composed some music and called it an opera and titled it Time With People. The title promises an experience in which the principles of opera are reduced to their fundamental concepts. The composer’s notes further that promise:
The resultant work (or opera) has arisen around the former notion of “no instruments”. The notion of “no music”. What is meant by “no music”, since arguably and obviously there are both? The notion is perhaps more one of absence. And that which may be revealed from out of this poverty. That which remains. Towards the reality of the situation. Of some time, with some people.
The means of using “no instruments” to make music show no great effort to disguise their structuralist organisational principles (cf. Parkinson’s collaborator James Saunders.) Amongst their other compositions, what distinguishes Time With People as an opera? For a start, there is a plot, one of intrigue, conflicting passions and reckless impulses. Certainly operatic, in a relative way, but this plot is told through the opera’s materials.
Traditions abound: repertoire (recorded snatches of Rossini and Handel start and end the piece), a chorus, even a ballet right when you’d expect it. The set is trash, a stage ankle-deep in random detritus: a dramaturg‘s sometime-fashionable relocation of events to a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s too easy, it’s a cliche, and here the cliche is refuted. It turns out the trash is essential, as it is the orchestra of found objects, providing the accompaniment, and without it the opera could not exist. No instruments, but music.
Two people, sometimes silent, sometimes speaking, in turn or simultaneously, in response to audible cues. Their speech is clearly made of answers to questions we can’t hear. A nice, solid, structural process; but then it stops, and something else happens. The plot thickens: some other organisational force is at work, but we can’t tell what it is. Two pairs of drums are brought on stage – I thought there were no instruments? Things are getting dramatic; the purity of absolute music is sacrificed, made subservient to the demands of the plot, whatever it might be.
A drum-kit, two electric guitars, the chorus is equipped with headphones and alternately sing along or describe what they hear. It’s getting complicated, some aspects seem obvious while other motivations remain obscure. A mystery. By the end, two performers are intoning isolated words – “alone”, or “together” – to looped phrases of Handel. Found objects are collected and dropped, in order of descending size, diminuendo. The small words are redolent of a Romantic theme, but they’re as ambiguous as their relationship to that title. It remains unclear if this is an opera hollowed out into a shell, or recreated out of negligible scraps.
Another update on the work in progress that is Chain Of Ponds, a sequence of pieces I’ve been making using digital feedback. As discussed last time, the work is getting more refined. The underlying patchwork of circuits remains unchanged, but I keep modifying the script I’ve written which “composes” each performance. The script uses chance to determine which circuits are in use at any given moment, how they are tuned and configured, and how they may combine and interact with each other. Here’s a take of the script doing its thing.
There’s no editing, remixing or post-production in that recording. There is a potential maximum of 32 channels of sound in the circuit layout, but the audio output from the computer is stereo. This means that equalisation, levels and balance between speakers are all determined by the generating script. At the moment, I have no way to modify it. The conceptual purity of this situation is appealing, but aesthetic judgements of some sort are inevitable: I find myself either keeping or rejecting various takes.
It would be better to make these aesthetic decisions part of the performance process, so my next challenge is to find a way to interact – to some small but essential extent – with the myriad of potential sonic developments, in real time.
I’ve just returned from a holiday in Australia, my homeland girt by Eurovision fever.
I’m reposting the rules of the Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, with one major addition and some minor amendments. The important rule change is under the wildcards, to commemorate the inclusion of Australia in this year’s final.
I know the semi-final was last night, but I’ve just flown back to London and in any case I always recommend watching the final only. Eurovision is best played stud, with every entrant in the final coming as a complete surprise.
(Yes these things have all happened, in case you’re wondering.)
PHASE I: THE SONGS
A. Every instance within a song:
I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).
I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.
B. Once per song only:
I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.
I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.
I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.
I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.
I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.
Greeks RussiansGreeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)
I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…
I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.
I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.
PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:
I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.
I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.
I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…
PHASE II: THE VOTES
II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.
II.2 The Gimme. When Greece gives twelve points to Cyprus.
II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.
II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.
II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.
II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.
PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so just try to catch what you can.
II.6 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.
II.7 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.
II.8 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.
II.9 The Master of Suspense. It looks like everyone’s figured it out now, so this hasn’t happened for a few years, but just in case: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.
PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:
II.10 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all give each other twelve points, or a former Soviet republic gives Russia twelve points. Do not attempt without medical supervision.
W0: Australia! Any person may lead a toast at any time amongst all drinkers by shouting “Australia!”, “Aussie!”, “Oi!” or any suitably positive Australian word or noise. This can happen any time during the night as many times as wished for no reason whatsoever because OBVIOUSLY NOBODY AT EUROVISION GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES.
W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
why Italy isn’t in it
W1.c where the hell is Moldova?; or
W2 Drink to any display of national resentment or self-pity related to current events. Pay close attention to Greece/Germany, Ukraine/Russia, Armenia/Azerbaijan, Australia.
W3 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.
A toast to Bosnia and Herzegovina if they change the spelling of their country again from last year.
W5 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.
I’m flying to Australia in the morning to see some friends and family, so instead of packing I’m listening through some recordings I’ve been making. It’s a more sophisticated version of the feedback piece I played at Goldsmiths earlier this year. The sounds are more subtle, more detailed, more focused and more organic. I’m recording short takes of concentrated, nicely balanced material.
The problem is: the more I record, the more interesting details I uncover. Simultaneously, I record more dross that should be edited out. So I listen back to edit out the less successful takes. The more I listen, the more details I find interesting, and so the more I want to preserve. Here is one of the better takes; a complete, stand-alone work.
Part of me is reluctant to throw anything out, for fear of losing a pleasing subtlety that becomes more rewarding over time. I’m probably kidding myself, and the bits that strike me as good straight away will have the same effect on other listeners. On the other hand, those ‘good’ bits might sound false and gimmicky once the novelty wears off.
The usual response in this situation is to set it all aside until I’ve forgotten what I thought about the piece at all, and salvage what I can after re-hearing it fresh.
The alternative is to make finished pieces and put them on Bandcamp with a pay nothing/anything option, and see which pieces people go for. I’m thinking of using it as a place of trying new work out, as something more interesting than just dumping finished work for sale.
(Also debating if setting a minimum price puts people off just because it’s a hassle clicking through payment options. It makes it seem like you’re making a commitment to something, even if it’s only a small price.)
I’ve been listening to these two CDs from Another Timbre as a sort of diptych. Each one is a single work for ensemble, 45 to 55 minutes. Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long is credited to the group Skogen, “composition by Magnus Granberg”. Would Fall from the Sky, Would Wither and Die is credited to Magnus Granberg, “played by Skuggorna och ljuset”. Four musicians are common to both groups. I’ve heard one other Skogen disc, the rather fine Rows with Anders Dahl. Rows has an alluring sense of off-kilter formality to it, like Christian Wolff’s Exercises. These two Granberg-related discs seem to share a similar, basic principle of “composed improvisation”, but by very different means.
Both Despairs and Would Fall share other similarities. Both inhabit a sound-world somewhere between the brooding quiescence of late Morton Feldman and the uneasy stasis of AMM. Both works are built upon the skeletal remnants of song. Despairs is a sort of meditation upon the ruins of a song by the seventeenth century English composer John Dowland. Harmonic and rhythmic material from the original are deployed into an entirely new work, whose origins would be otherwise undetectable. Would Fall excavates the 1930s pop song “If I Should Lose You”. Harmonic resemblance is further denatured by the presence of a prepared piano throughout Would Fall, live electronics throughout Despairs.
Both pieces open up spaces for introspection. Small melodic fragments emerge from time to time, suggesting their songlike origins without ever recalling them; textures wind down into repeating gestures before finally breaking up and resolving into more complex debris. A melancholy sense of entropy, held barely in check, prevails in both works, allowing room for both fatalism and hope. Of the two, Despairs feels a little brighter, at least at first, thanks to the source material. The electronics and larger ensemble of ten musicians create a subtle but richly textured tapestry of sound. Would Fall is sparser, an acoustic quintet reducing the material to its essentials. The heavier sense of psychological melodrama that informs 20th century pop makes its presence felt.
I’m over-analysing. I play each disc to set a mood in the house, and each time I find myself riding a different emotional narrative through the details.
“It sounds like the music of the future,” he said as he put the CD on. He was right. It was the Organ of Corti release of a Swedish high school orchestra and choir performing Terry Riley’s Olson III in 1967. They sing and play with an amateur ferocity – this may be partly due to the audience, where a riot has broken out. The musicians win, with their implacable chanting. The rhythm and intonation are all slightly out, giving everything an otherworldly quality that suggests a mashup of the soundtracks to 2001 and Chariots of the Gods. Like any glimpse of the future, it was awe-inspiring and a little frightening.
Riley is synonymous with In C, a piece which still holds the new music world in its thrall despite being half a century old. Olson III is a similar work – a common pool of short, repeating patterns through which each musician progresses at their own pace – with the addition of a choir singing a text, but the voices are not the critical difference. In C has patterns with varying lengths and rhythms, and typically needs someone playing a pulse to keep time. In Olson III the orchestra and chorus is the pulse: all the patterns have the same length and unvarying rhythm.
That Cortical CD came out 15 years ago. I’ve never heard anything by Riley that’s like it, nor anything which is such an overwhelming, almost exhausting experience. I’d often wondered how much of this was due to the composition, and how much to the recording – the schoolkids, the restless audience, the fraught circumstances, the struggle to keep time, the ageing, long-lost tape.
Last night’s Kammer Klang at Cafe Oto ended with the Klang players and Exaudi playing Olson III. It’s not just the tape. Heard fresh, clear and direct, the music combines Riley’s typically bright and lucid harmonies with an atypical, almost forbiddingly rigid and unornamented rhythmic pulse. This impersonal aspect is then subsumed by the trancelike effect that builds in the listener over time. A type of ecstatic experience.
This really was the music of the future. From one moment to the next it evoked the interlocking figures of Steve Reich’s ensemble music from the 1970s (10 years later), the gleaming lock-grooves of those hip, rock-influenced composers of the 1980s (20 years later), trance and rave culture (30 years later), new generations of Europeans and academics “rediscovering” principles of digital reproduction and incorporating it into the concert hall (so last year).
Olson III is one of Riley’s more obscure compositions. Fifty years ago there was one solid idea, an idea so strong that nobody can even agree on whether it’s time to let it go.
Same old problem: I keep making music without thinking about what to do with it after I’ve heard it. Some of it goes on Soundcloud, some of it gets uploaded to this site and when I’m procrastinating I make videos and put them on YouTube.
From a while I had a few stacks of CDs lying around but they’re almost gone now, hopefully for good. Occasionally someone asks me about getting hold of something old; there were small editions of CD-Rs but it seems like an excess of effort to burn off some more discs and print the covers.
I spent the winter break digging up some dusty old pieces and polishing them up to a standard I could live with. Now that they’re done, I’m taking the low road of vanity publishing and putting them up for sale on Bandcamp. It’s kind of like what people these days call “closure”.
Pricing, web design, promotion are all works in progress because I don’t know what I’m doing here. For now, you can get hold of mp3s or high quality lossless audio of tracks or albums with printable cover art. At the moment the albums are old releases I’m still happy with, but if things go well I might put up some new things I’ve been working on.
If only for having the advantage of hindsight, it may be easier to rediscover the past than to discover the present. I got sent some new CDs from Another Timbre, the label that’s been putting out essential recordings of music by Laurence Crane, James Saunders, Bryn Harrison, Catherine Lamb, etc etc. One of these discs is a collection of pieces by Frank Denyer.
I’d been aware of Denyer mostly as a musician, and from his work with The Barton Workshop. It was only on hearing a broadcast of his piece The Colours of Jellyfish for soprano, children’s chorus and orchestra that I realised he was a composer with a unique voice. The pieces on this new disc, Whispers, are a few years older than that orchestral piece, and recorded mostly in 2009: a neat example of rediscovering the present.
This album can be shocking in places. Even more spare and seemingly artless than I expected, the music takes familiar techniques but approaches them from a new angle, creating a paradoxical mood that quietly works on the listener. There’s a tense feeling of expectation, or apprehension; not from the music itself, but from my wariness of what it might all turn out to mean.
The opening piece, Whispers, is about precisely that: Denyer himself whispering, humming, muttering, a halting procession of small vocal sounds. Like a man half-singing, absent-mindedly to himself. Listening in seems almost intrusive, but there are other things going on: small tappings and rustlings from various noisemakers, and at times a viola plays almost inaudibly in the distance. (The entire album is recorded very quietly, suggesting that without careful listening much of it may be lost.) The sounds vacillate between unconscious and self-conscious, the act of producing them at the same level of intensity and restraint over 20 minutes denies any accusation of self-indulgence or even self-expression. The meaning remains as unknowable, or knowable, as any unconscious sound.
The entire album flows seamlessly from one piece to the next. Woman with Jinashi Shakuhachi is, like Whispers, precisely what the title describes. The mouth sounds change to the musician Kiku Day’s voice, alternating with raw shakuhachi sounds until the two lose distinction, and again the tapping sounds. It’s tempting to think of the music as some sort of ritual, but again the ordering of sounds is too organic, too intimate. Again the sounds seem almost unconscious, as though they were the by-product of some other activity that remains unknown.
As an interlude, The Barton Workshop’s performance of Riverine Delusions may be the most conventional piece here – it’s evocative, but the image it paints is almost transparent, with faint gestures suggesting big movements, the indelible remnants of an image faded almost to invisibility. The keening flute stands out in relief, a preparation for the next work. Again, the title Two Voices with Axe explains everything but reveals nothing. A male and female voice blend in a tissue of sounds with muted instruments. The jarring intrusion of the axe comes almost as a release, breaking the tension of expectation that something loud might finally happen. Despite the most private and personal circumstances of the music-making here, the music that emerges from it is like a wild force of nature – it always seems peaceful and benign on the surface, but all along I’ve been conscious that it could turn on me without warning.
The axe-blows sound rich and varied, with no suggestion that they were contrived for aesthetic effect. The late Bob Gilmore, who produced the album, is the axeman.
In the final piece, A Woman Singing, Juliet Fraser’s voice mirrors the opening of the album. Again barely audible when played under normal conditions, the voice is suspended in a stream of unconsciousness, the emotional range suppressed to a nearly internalised expression. By being so withdrawn, the singer’s exposure feels all the more stark, through the lack of mediation, the temptation to listen in closer, like an eavesdropper.
These works are not improvised but fully, meticulously composed. There is a fine, complex understanding of the subtleties of music at work here, of the material of sound, the acting of performing and the relationship of musician to listener. At first the sound world seems close to the very refined sensibility of Martin Iddon’s excellent pneuma, which Another Timbre released last year. Denyer’s approach and musical concerns are different, of course, and so is his music: this is made evident, however, not through any ideological or programmatic pronouncement, but through the very stuff of the music itself, that entices and gnaws at the listener. The reactions this music may provoke are complex and variable, and I would not like to try to define them now.