Unusual suspects: Magnus Granberg and Skogen, Angharad Davies, Klaus Lang, Anton Lukoszevieze

Sunday 14 June 2020

Thanks to the coronavirus snafu I misplaced the last batch of CDs from Another Timbre (will remedy this later) but now I’m happily getting amongst this even newer set from May. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “happily”; the word suggests I settled into this music too easily, when in fact both pieces here quickly clipped me over the ears for taking them for granted. unfurling is a trio improvisation by composer/performers Angharad Davies on violin, Klaus Lang on harmonium and Anton Lukoszevieze on cello. It goes about an hour, it’s got Klaus Lang, it’s on Another Timbre, even the title’s in lower case – we know how this is going to go, right? It starts as softly as you would expect, slow bowing sounds separated out, some harmonics, scraping… but then Lang joins in by shaking the bellows on his harmonium, agitating them into low thumping sounds. No panic; you think that’s OK, it’s just for texture, but all three musicians here are of the gently but firmly provocative inclination. Things escalate, and soon you’re caught up in these dense chords that extend endlessly into sirenlike wails. A nice, comfy hour of quiescent and peaceable improv is ruined. The dissonant chords finally exhaust themselves into voiceless breathing before breaking up into percussive knots of noise. This pattern of alternating between sinister drones and brittle spikes of tortured instruments repeats itself, continuously building momentum into a headlong rush that you hope will burn out before things go too far.

No reassuring certainty from the new piece by Magnus Granberg with the ensemble Skogen, either. Let Pass My Weary Guiltless Ghost promises the usual intricate blending of classical and folk instruments with objects and electronics, but things get off to a tense start. The electronics make their presence clear right from the beginning, set in stark relief against the prepared piano and percussion. Throughout the piece, sounds coexist in an uneasy truce that feels like it could end at any moment. Percussive sounds dominate, leaving the strings and winds to run the gauntlet. Electronics are more abrasive and confrontatial this time (Toshimaru Nakamura has joined thr group here), while never dominating. Instruments such as violin and sho are left to add shading, in ways that highlight the fraught atmosphere more than resolve it. Drums and untuned percussion emerge later – another disturbing addition to Skogen’s sound. By the end of the piece, the situation has insidiously accumulated a sense of urgency; the pace seems to increase slightly – something I haven’t felt in Granberg’s music before – as the music seems anxious to reach a conclusion: rushing, but slowly.

LCMF 2019 Highlights, Part 3

Tuesday 31 December 2019

(Continued from Part 2, here.)

It’s the last day of the year. On my desk is a small ammonite fossil; it is 140 million years old. It was handed to me as I entered the premiere of Jennifer Walshe’s new piece TIME TIME TIME, an ambitious commission by LCMF and the Serpentine Gallery. It’s a collaborative work, with contributions by Áine O’Dwyer, Lee Patterson and M.C. Schmidt, with a quartet of musicians distributed around the audience. The text, by Walshe and Timothy Morton, deals with the title subject in a similarly emphatic yet inarticulate way. Any honest subjective approach to the concept of time and its consequences must be one of incomprehension, of struggling to understand how time truly relates to subjective experience. Each audience member was holding a fossil of an age we can barely even conceive of in the abstract.

I’ve previously discussed Walshe’s recent work ALL THE MANY PEOPLS and the way it observes the new conditions of subjectivity in the present age. TIME TIME TIME shows how people must invent their own understandings of the passage of time, from the deep geological time of the earth’s development, of the dinosaurs, how it is measured and apportioned, to how it passes.

Compared to other performances by the same composer, it unfolds at a less frenetic pace, including a song from O’Dwyer, dance from Walshe, resplendent in a green sequined dress on a catwalk in the middle of the room, and theatre as performers crawled through the space imitating extinct species. In between all this was antiphonal patter from Walshe and Schmidt, accompanied by videos depicting fictional dinosaurs, geothermal simulations of the earth’s interior, smartphones, atomic clocks and observations of insitutions at nearby Greenwich on the Prime Meridian. Amidst the urgency, the frustrations, the urgency, through it all came a mood of reverie, yearning to grasp something that can never be possessed, as one might long for the past.

It all sounded as good as it looked, with humour and pathos balanced nicely throughout in a way that carried the capacity audience along. Most memorable still is the period where vocalists, musicians and electronic artists combined to surround audiences with sounds resembling primeval swampland, with the innocence and charm of an aural Rousseau painting. Throughout the evening, motionless above the stage, a lone figure sat cross-legged in meditation.

The final night was combined poetry by CA Conrad with short films, including Marianna Simnett’s new film The Bird Game which combined the very British traditions of nursery rhymes and public information films. The two new musical commissions presented were for orchestra, again conducted by Jack Sheen. Burrows & Fargion’s Let us stop this mad rush towards the end was beautifully executed but suffered from a fatally close resemblance to Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in conception and method. Angharad Davies’ I ble’r aeth y gwrachod i gyd…? on the other hand was a powerful experience. Compositions by musicians with a greater reputation for improvisation can often come across as flawed or lacking (whether fairly or not) but this was thrillingly stark and complex in equal measures. Davies’ presence as a soloist was shadowy, confimed to recordings of her playing violin inside a church: isolated slashes of sound, amplified and left to resonate. The orchstra echoed and augmented the violin with dark harmonies and dense coloration. The initial impression of call and response broadened out into an orchestration of and counterpart to the tape, in a way that remained clear and controlled without ever becoming simplistic. It would be good to hear this again.

Hearing it again: awirë

Tuesday 25 June 2019

I was at this gig and I swore I’d written something about it, but nope. My memory gets hazy and my mind wanders. It happens sometimes when listening to music and I think it happened at this gig, but I could be wrong. Cyril Bondi, Pierre-Yves Martel and Christoph Schiller were playing at Cafe Oto to promote their fine album tse. At the end of the night, the trio were joined by violinist Angharad Davies for an improvised set.

This kind of scenario where musos work together for the first time in front of an audience is often the bane of free improvisation, where the potential thrill of risk-taking and discovery usually succumbs to awkward longeurs or unsatisfying busywork. At Oto, the quartet seemed to be at pains to keep out of each others’ way, working with a highly restrained palette and seemingly determined to make as little sound as possible. Scratch ‘possible’, replace with ‘necessary’: as they played it became clear that they were deliberately taking this approach, each of them focused on the unique timbres of their instruments (violin, viola da gamba, prepared spinet, harmonium drones and pipes) with an absolute minimum of embellishment or extraneous context, other than that provided by their fellow musicians.

Still, I couldn’t fully let go of my hang-ups about improvisation and kept listening out for any signs that the music was becoming too hesitant or precious. Live, in a bar in Dalston, it held together but on the frailest of threads. It felt like a delicate, shared experience that couldn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. I was therefore very surprised when Another Timbre (which had released tse) decided to release this set as a 30-minute CD, now with the title awirë. The short length isn’t the issue; it’s hard to think of anything that could be reasonably paired with it that would not detract from attention to this one piece. Was it really that good?

It would be trite to say that listening to the CD was a revelation, but you get the idea. First, the recording sounds damn good (it has been cleaned up to remove the Unber Eats scooters outside and me spilling Westmalle inside) and what could have been indistinct now sounds incredibly resilient. For thirty minutes the four players spin out a long, thin line of sound, held taut and in suspension without ever slacking or letting it drop, even as they pass it back and forth between each other. The small sounds stand out as significant elements in a self-reinforcing structure that’s as strong as it is light.

As it turns out, there was a compositional method at work. Besides the premeditated approach, a chance-determined gamut of pitches was drawn before playing, keeping the quartet focused on certain notes for a given time, with occasional opportunities for ‘free’ playing. This goes some way to explaining the coherence of the piece, but to work so well as music requires the skill and imagination of the quartet. The arbitrary pitches and structure inspire creativity as much as they impose order, and there is a superb sense of pacing and nuance that ensures that every gesture places the whole attention on sound over idea. A kind of virtuosity that is invisible. Even at the moments of greatest stillness, the music is never at rest.

Serious Listening Weekend

Monday 3 October 2016

Are you playing an instrument or playing music? I’m old-fashioned enough to be leery of improvisation. Spent the weekend listening to new(ish) CDs of music that was not strictly composed; not in the authorial sense. For most of them I could make the argument that these are compositions, not improvisations.

There’s a growing, interesting genre of music that defines, develops and interprets compositional parameters as a joint process between musicians. These pieces aren’t an a priori realisation of a composer’s indeterminate score, nor are they spontaneously improvised. This seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of examples of these methods going back as far as “free improvisation” in the 1960s. There was “group composition” but that was just a term for improv musos who had to play art galleries instead of jazz clubs. It’s a sign that the genre is evolving, maturing.

I’ve been working through a rich vein of discs sent from the Another Timbre, Intonema and Immediata labels. Violinist Angharad Davies and pianist Tisha Mukarji recorded a set of improvisations over two days this February, released under the title ffansïon | fancies. In an interview on the website it mentions that the second day of recording was forced by “circumstances”, but this helped the album immensely. Material from the first day was evidently reworked, developed and refined for takes used on the final release. (“It struck me that this is a particularly fruitful way of using improvisation.”) The results show the benefit of additional time for reflection. Each piece reveals a focus on detail without losing sight of an overall direction or shape. Sounds are allowed to develop and change over time without rambling, giving each piece a character that can range from spiky pointillism to deconstructed folk music.

The St Petersburg-based Intonema label finds plenty of room to wander within what appears at first to be a pretty narrow range of music. The wandering is both musical and geographical. Tri presents a state-of-the-art improvisation in electroacoustic music with venerable electric guitarist Keith Rowe and Ilia Belorukov and Kurt Liedwart on various instruments, objects, computer processing and electronics. It documents a live performance and listening at home it’s hard to get too excited about all the technique on display. Sympathy to the guy in track one with the cough.

In contrast, Belorukov’s collaboration with Gaudenz Badrutt on electronics and “objects” and Jonas Kocher on accordion makes for fascinating listening. Rotonda is a live performance inside the Mayakovsky Library in St Petersburg. The musicians note that the space of the rotunda and its specific acoustics makes it “the fourth collaborator” in the piece. A compositional constraint is introduced: “acute attention to silences and extremely careful work with sound”. A slow, deliberately-paced music unfolds over nearly 50 minutes, each performer knowing that the resonance of the space will fill and colour their inactivity. A welcome relief from the horror vacui that affects so many musicians, without ever becoming a dry, didactic exercise in silence.

Tooth Car features Canadians Anne-F Jacques and Tim Olive playing live in the US: two fairly short extracts, which may be all that is needed for audio only. The limitations here are mechanical. Jacques constructs rotating surfaces that are played and amplified, while Olive amplifies other objects with magnetic pickups. The rotating devices provide regular ostinati throughout each piece and the various colours of metallic scraping suggest something close to sound sculpture.

For real group composition, Polis presents a combine, of intentional sounds and unexpected factors. Electroacoustic composers Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan and Louie Rice collaborated by preparing compositions and then mixed them, playing the mix through a car sound system that drove to various locations around the city of Porto. A complex but not impenetrable blending of sounds emerge, with different tracks overlapping each other, elaborated upon by different locations and live sampling of urban spaces. A neat convergence of pure sound, documentary, field recording and spatialisation.

Perhaps more conventional, Volume by the duo Illogical Harmonies on the Another Timbre label clearly identifies itself as a jointly composed piece. The violinist Johnny Chang and double bass player Mike Majkowski improvised together over several months, transcribing, performing and revising until they had sculpted this hour-long suite of five movements. This painstaking process has produced a beautifully restrained and focused performance, which at first sounds like a concentrated study on intonation and tuning but on closer listening reveals beautiful details of refined ornamentation and subtle relief.

Anthony Pateras has built a career out of being both a composer and an improviser, and his own Immediata label has recently produced a series of limited edition CDs of works that lurk in the grey area between the two domains. (Downloads are also available on Bandcamp.) I was going to discuss a couple of these now but I’ve just been listening again to his collaboration with Erkki Veltheim, Entertainment = Control. We’re back to straight violin and piano here and this bravura performance is part lost minimal epic, part social commentary, part virtuosic tour-de-force and part pisstake. I was going to say this disc is ideal if you think The Necks are too fussy or Charlemagne Palestine is too straightlaced, but then I started reading the extensive sleeve notes again. Pateras and Veltheim discuss fascism and sadomasochism, the Marx brothers, punk cabaret and the plague of El Sistema amongst other things and I can see I need to save all this for a separate post.