Laura Cocks: field anatomies

Monday 21 February 2022

Scariest album of flute music ever. Laura Cocks’ solo recital disc field anatomies is a gruelling, intimidating experience when heard in one sitting. Don’t let the pressed flowers on the cover fool you; get the message that these (genuine) preserved petals crushed flat between heavy black cards are sending. All five works, composed over the past ten years, are intensely physical and demanding pieces for performer and listener. I don’t mean in the Unity Capsule sense, either, although there is a similar complexity and difficulty which Cocks successfully wrestles with throughout. All five composers represented here push intricacy of pitch and rhythm into the background, pushing their emphasis partly on sonority, but particularly on emodying the flute as an extension of breath – or an obstacle to it.

Cocks presents a masterclass on the phsyicality of wind playing. We can acknowledge that past prejudices against the flute as a petty instrument are entirely unfounded, yet during the opening half of the the first work, David Bird’s Atolls for solo piccolo “and 29 spatialized piccolos” I kept steeling myself against the prospect of a barrage of relentlessly finicky virtuosity. This never happens, even as Cocks negotiates tortuous passages of overblown multiphonics with a smearin’ and sneerin’ attitude before the work suddenly explodes into dense, dark spectralism. Electronics and other devices are used in all the works here, except for Jessie Cox’s Spiritus, but even that relatively straightforward work requires Cocks to provide a low, vocalised drone to thicken out the sound of her instrument. The focus on the sound of breath and mouth in all the works becomes most extreme in Bethany Younge’s Oxygen and Reality, where musician and piccolo are hemmed in by electronic processing, affixed balloons to ration the use of air and, most ominously, “hardware”. The constricted, suffocating atmosphere is marred a little by being a little too demonstrative of its premise, as when Cocks is required to speak on the subject through the piccolo, but by this stage of the album her voice comes as a surprise as up until now she has sounded larger than life.

The most listerner-friendly piece here may be DM R’s You’ll see me return to the city of fury, but even this electroacoustic work is dark and menacing while also being the least convulsive in its progress from start to finish. The final piece, Joan Arnau Pàmies’s Produktionsmittel I is part of a 2-hour trilogy. For this segment, Cocks unloads a marathon barrage of groans, growls, grunts and howls that search out the medians and extremes between pitch and noise. I’d call it an indomitable display of power, yet the piece itself suggests human exhaustion as the flautist is buffeted by electronic bleeps until she is swept away by a tide of white noise. There are times when it starts to feel like the flute has become an adjunct to the music, a prop for a greater compositional conceit. Based on the performances given here, a composer could get some exciting results from writing piece for Cocks which required her to do without an instrument altogether.

Post-Confusion, 2: Tim Parkinson, Eventless Plot, Luciano Maggiore

Sunday 20 February 2022

Speaking of forgotten trends in experimental music from past generations, I recently listened to a two-hour free-form slab of late night US public radio from 1975. Amongst all its eccentricities, the oddest thing about it was how it reminded me of Tim Parkinson’s septet (2004), which I had played just before. Two performances of the work are given by different ensembles in this album release; it’s a piece for live chamber ensemble with use of pre-recorded audio. “Simultaneous parts begin together and thereafter continue independently. Parts for melody instruments may be played in any order. Percussion parts and audio track are fixed.” As a study in immersive simultaneity, the ideas and means are not new, but the music is still strikingly otherworldly. Part of this may be down to the awareness of history going on behind it, focusing on the sound over the technique. The live sounds vary incongruously without ever trying to be pointedly different or disruptive, while the recorded sounds remain impassive; moreover, everything appears in a dreamlike, distant haze. The musicians are expected to be placed around the room, which presumably happened in both these instances, so that the recording captures the room as much as the sounds that inhabit it.

I’ve talked about Eventless Plot a few times before, with their group compositional approach being both an extension and an antithesis of free improvisation. With several minds at work, the focus is on finding order, guiding divergent impulses into a single, emergent intelligence that is as clear as it it complex. Released last month, Apatris is a collection of four concise pieces for tapes, piano, percussion and electronics. The trio (Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas, Yiannis Tsirikoglou) play without guest members this time, producing atmospheric but transparent works that subtly develop and distinguish themselves from each other. With piano as the main melodic component here, its utterances are kept brief, setting the layers of unpitched sound into relief while giving them further colouration by contrast. It works effectively as a companion piece to No options, their earlier collaboration with bass clarinetist Chris Cundy, both in musical approach and in scale.

The unifying conceit I’ve got in the back of my head from listening to these pieces is “post-confusion”, as an evolving but contemporary approach to accommodating the state of information today, a multiplicity of ever-present, contradictory messages in constant competition. How does music adapt to, repurpose, combat or shut out this situation? The term might be used in a similar way as “post-irony” gets thrown about, which was how it kept passing through my head while listening to Luciano Maggiore’s Drenched Thatched Roof again even after I swore not to. This is the guy who did that collaboration with Louie Rice Synthesised voices and low frequencies to eat crisps with a while back. There’s even less information to work with here; if you’re one of the 150 people who got the limited edition CD then there’s a 6-page booklet to go with it but I’m going to guess that all the pages are black. Short loops of grey-sounding tapes repeat a handful of times, then stop. Pause, repeat for 68 minutes (Maggiore does tell you up front that the track divisions are meaningless). Every element is laid out one at a time, neatly separated, but it’s still incomprehensible. You’re so sure that some of these sounds are being repeated that the idea they might all be different is unbearable. I have no idea what is going on, even though it keeps telling me.

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

Monday 14 February 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 30 January 2022

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

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

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

Tuesday 25 January 2022

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

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

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

End of quiescence, 1: Ilia Belorukov and Gaudenz Badrutt

Monday 24 January 2022

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

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

Quiet endings: Martin Iddon, Andrew McIntosh

Friday 31 December 2021

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

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

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

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

Friday 24 December 2021

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

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

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

Sunday 19 December 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday 12 December 2021

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

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

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

Evan Johnson: lists, little stars

Sunday 28 November 2021

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

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

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

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

Mattin Licking Ears

Monday 22 November 2021

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

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

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

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

Sam Salem’s London Triptych

Friday 19 November 2021

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

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

Karlheinz Essl: Gold.Berg.Werk

Monday 15 November 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 3 November 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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