Takuroku: Viola Torros, Orazbayeva, Duplant

Tuesday 28 July 2020

My personal setbacks from coronavirus have been trivial compared to others. One of the disappointments has been the second missed chance to see Johnny Chang and Catherine Lamb’s Viola Torros Project performed live. Their double CD was one of the outstanding releases of 2018 and I was looking forward to hearing them at Counterflows in Glasgow this spring. As a small consolation, Cafe Oto’s Takuroku series has now given us Preliminary Study for V.T., a sketch exploring pre-mediaeval musical styles across Eurasia. While the Viola Torros pieces use spectral augmentation through reverberation, subtle feedback and voices, this Preliminary Study features just Chang and Lamb in a viola duet, recorded back in 2017 and reworked into a piece this year. It’s starker and more subdued, of course, closer to first principles that make it seem as much a distillation as an embryonic version of the music’s later, more developed forms. The interweaving violas play modes derived from Arabic, Byzantine and Indian music, all within a very narrow range of pitch and dynamics that brings attention to small changes in the grain of the instruments as much as their intonation. I did not give much attention to the musicological implications of the finished works at the time, as the material by that time had been transformed into a vehicle for broader timbral exploration. On the Takuroku recording, the material is heard more clearly, making it a useful addition to what I hope is a continuing series of V.T. works.

I listened to Aisha Orazbayeva’s Music for Violin Alone a couple of months ago and have come back to it repeatedly since then. Her Takuroku release Slow Change continues in a similar vein of home recordings for solo violin. Two of Orazbayeva’s exploratory works sandwich one of Orlando Gibbons’ viol fantasies, which is here played with a deliberately light touch to produce and fluting, breathy tone; Gibbons’ Jacobean sense of impeccable order faintly outlined in what Cage would call “empty” sounds. The Fantasia carries over from the first piece, in which Orazbayeva plays with paper threaded between the strings, muting and distorting the notes. For the title piece, she has created her own answer to James Tenney’s Koan from her previous release, a gradually evolving tremolo whose sonic metamorphosis is brought about by imperceptibly guiding the bow from bridge to nut.

It’s easy to describe features of Bruno Duplant’s music but he’s still hard to pin down. In his earlier Chamber and Field Works there are musicians and there are the environments they occupy, where each are present but neither makes demands of your attention. Each frames the other, with emergent properties. His Covid lockdown piece insaisissable(s) instant(s) is a piece about time, where time is an empty space upon which competing emotions and thoughts may intrude unbidden. There is a piano, sometimes, and the outside world can be heard, but at a distance. The piano’s silence becomes the subject, speaking of withdrawal indoors, moving back and forth between contemplation and impatience. As for ambience, the piece is measured out in regular domestic squeaks and thuds from around the room with a steady insistence of overfamiliarity that threatens incipient cabin fever. An electrical hum comes and goes, which may or may not help to relieve the tension. Who said this stuff is relaxing?

Aisha Orazbayeva: Music for Violin Alone

Thursday 14 May 2020

The idea of violin, or of any musician, alone has taken on a new meaning in the last couple of months. It has further associations for Aisha Orazbayeva, a fine violinist who has spent “two years of creative silence” while starting a family. Her new release, Music for Violin Alone, was recorded in an empty house in early April as all work for the forseeable future was cancelled. The collection of seven brief pieces forms a closely woven suite that draws together themes of isolation and self discovery; the experience of a musician reorientating themselves, learning new ways of hearing and playing.

Orazbayeva opens with her interpretation of Angharad Davies’ Circular Bowing Study, an immersive exploration of a single technique that leaves performer and audience in a different place from where they started. After this act of orientation into a deeper understanding of timbre, the following 18-century pieces by Bach and Nicola Matteis Jr. have a clean, clear sound while still revealing their reliance on the violinist providing tonal colouration to give them life. Bach’s suites and sonatas for solo strings have long stood as exemplars of writing without accompaniment, and Orazbayeva’s interpretation of the Largo from the C Major Sonata frames the absences of sound, where the listener fills in the outline. It’s an introspective performance, accomplished without pulling the phrasing or pacing out of shape. Oliver Leith’s very recent Blurry Wake Song allows for greater pauses and more reticent phrasing, giving a greater melancholy weight to its repeated cadences on double-stops.

The extended span of James Tenney’s Koan is played fast, like Matteis’ arpeggios. The challenge of how to present Tenney’s process/exercise as a composition is addressed by Orazbayeva with a concentrated flourish. Ingeniously, the constantly rising intervals are transformed into becoming a vehicle for the real material of this recording, as tiny variations in timing and intonation are exposed and transformed into a kind of inadvertent cadenza. The following piece, John Cage’s violin arrangement of Eight Whiskus, was, like Koan, dedicated to Malcolm Goldstein. The Goldstein recordings I’ve heard of each are much more… well, demonstrative of the freedoms allowed in bowing and intonation. Orazbayeva’s version of Cage takes us back to her Bach, where the directness of the melody fuses with the subtlety of construction, each interpreted with a deeply nuanced but deceptively understated performance. The collection ends with Orazbayeva’s own Ring, a haunted study of close-miked bow on string.

The past two weeks has been spent making my own music and listening to recordings others have been putting out during lockdown. I hope to write up more of these over the next few days.