Electronic Noise Shootout, Spring 2024

Monday 6 May 2024

It’s great that art doesn’t have to come from or go to any specific place, much as we’d sometimes like to forget that when we try to put our enthusiasm for it into words. Two months ago I saw John Wall and Michael Speers playing a live electronic duet at Cafe Oto, using a mixture of pre-recorded and real-time generated sounds in a way where you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Under the old rules, it would be classed as “absolute” music, a purity of self-reliance on form, structure and material that all relate to each other, even as all three attributes were constructed on the fly. If it referenced any tradition, it was to the relentless pursuit of the new. There was a similar, searching purity in the opening set by Lee Fraser, with a hyperfocus on dynamic and timbre. In contrast, Eye Measure’s curious work with “live coding and algorithmic composition” (partly in visible evidence during the set) referenced genres of popular music, taking loops associated with the clubs and then sublimating them into abstraction. The cross-cultural context implies the presence of a wider meaning to be drawn from the work, at least as a commentary on craft or at most as the basis of a disquisition of socioeconomic demographics. Of course we have the capability to do this for any medium but need to remain mindful that any pattern we determine will likely have been shaped by whatever analytical tool fell most readily to hand.

Seán Clancy: Four Sections of Music Unequally Divided (Birmingham Record Company). I dunno what any of the above has to do with Seán Clancy’s piece, except that its system of organisation draws inspiration from the past, utilising an open form of the type made famous by In C and adopting other American characteristics of the period. Bright pianos and warm synthesisers with added gamelan-type instruments start with what promises to be a rhythmic free-for-all before transitioning to the larger sections that form the substance of the work, with extended passages of dense alternating tremolos reminiscent of Charlemagne Palestine. Clancy’s liner notes reference Sol Le Witt and James Tenney. The latter may be inferred from his (checks note) “sheer joy of the plasticity of sound” but also, more pertinently, through his thinking on musical form and cognitive analysis of structure which is applied here to make a piece more complex than a simple tribute to minimalism.

Devid Ciampalini: Eterna (Dissipatio). Speaking of retro, Ciampalini is harking back to the past more self-consciously retro here, evoking earlier models of electronic music both in their surface and their style. Affectionate parody is the prevailing mood, beginning with a lo-fi imitation of the THX Deep Note before presenting ten ‘chapters’ which swing on a spectrum between electronic library music from the 1970s and crunchier DIY synthesis; at times achieving both at once. Ciampalini’s nostalgia is omnivorous: one track sounds like it was made in Coagula, so it’s not all analogue-adjacent, even while attempting to capture the look and feel.

Tewksbury: Floes: Volumes I​-​IV (self-released). Douglas Tewksbury’s four volumes of electronic drones consists of sixteen pieces of roughly equal length for a total of about three hours of music. I hate making such a glib and unoriginal comment but this really does sound like it could be edited down. Up until the latter half of Volume II everything is safely diatonic and simple, making for little more than inoffensive ambience. Things get a more interesting when some, but not all, of the pieces introduce more complex and ambiguous harmonic progressions, but then this makes the remaining pieces superfluous and you wonder if a selection would sound more compelling than the whole.

Technical Reserve: Cheap Heat (Party Perfect!!!). I guess this is retro because it immediately reminded me in a good way of those old Jon Rose LPs where he pits his 19-string cello against whatever was the latest in digital sampling and processing technology. TJ Borden’s cello is supposedly normal, but the improvisations with Hunter Brown and Dominic Coles and their computers as just as explosively anarchic. There’s a lot here: 19 tracks seventy-something minutes but it stays fresh because nobody ever seems to really know what they’re doing. This is harder than it sounds in free improv, supposedly reliant on technique yet really in need of desperation as the spur to invention. Technical Reserve takes us back to a simpler time when the gear doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, albeit now captured with pornographic clarity. It’s rude and it’s noisy but, to pursue the wrestling analogies that crop up in the sleeve notes, for this audience that’s a cheap pop.

Hunter Brown + Eric Wong: Si Distributions (Party Perfect!!!). Brown again, gigging in Wong’s bedroom. You wouldn’t know it was a bedroom recording even as the room shapes what you hear (this is also how you don’t realise how much science has improved your life). The two of them cook up a pair of severe, spatialised noise studies that keep turning aggressive, but the harshness is tamed and sculpted by responding to the acoustic dynamics of the apartment, using the placement of their bluetooth monitors as EQ to exert stern but fair authority over brittle electronic sounds. Side one takes static and white noise, introducing some low sounds later for contrast. Side two is all about rumbling low frequencies to set the speakers juddering about the room until the distortion creates its own white noise, taking us part of the way back to where we started but still ending up somewhere else.

Summer Shorts (1)

Sunday 20 August 2023

John Eagle: erosion and growth (Sawyer Editions). A long, sombre work for piano and percussion that falls into unmarked sections, each containing a specific texture. At first it’s just Eagle scraping stones and tiles, later succeeded by pianist Jack Yarbrough playing high, staccato chords. From there on the piano plays tentatively through a succession of slow, reflective near-patterns, with some interludes of grey noise percussion. Somehow it all relates to recordings Eagle made of a waterfall and then electronically processed, filtered and analysed to render up pitch data. We’re told “the resultant composition contains only acoustic sounds” but soon after piano and percussion are finally united an electric-sounding drone fills the background for the remainder of the piece. The means and the ends seem incongruous to each other, which leads you into the extra-musical game of reconciling what you’re told about the emotional context of the initial recording with the comparatively unemotional music. The results as yet are inconclusive.

Andrey Guryanov: Anthems (Abstand). Guryanov digitally torments the opening chords of multiple archival recordings of the various national anthems that have served the Soviet Union and Russia since 1917, claiming to build each track out of a microscopic analysis of the opening’s incidental details and technological flaws. He claims personal and international history as the grounding for his research, yet the music resembles Eagle’s composition insofar as it seeks to make a factual element into an external jusitfication for the music’s existence in its final state. Eagle takes this old idea onto a new tangent, while Guryanov uses it to produce gloomy dark ambient electronica complete with what sounds like occasional drum pads amongst the glitchy greyness, weighed down with a need for political relevance. Inevitably, the last track draws upon Ukraine.

Hunter Brown: Stoppages Vol. 1 [∞] (Party Perfect!!! PP-03). While some computer-assisted composition uses code as a form of inspiration (sup.), Hunter Brown’s Stoppages series means to interrogate the electronic guts of the computer process itself. Brown picks up David Tudor’s ideas on the generation and transmission of electronic sound and runs with them into new digital territory, pushing the idea of synthesis and glitching further than most. The set of pieces here were created by a digital feedback circuit designed to overload the computer’s CPU, maxing out its physical limits in attempting to reproduce sound. The results are alarming, particularly when the system flatlines and your hi-fi’s level meters are pegged by silence. Apparently unedited, each piece is defined by the amount of time it took before the programme crashed, creating inexplicably arbitrary structures of sound and silence. When the frequency spectrum looks like this, you know it’s uncompromising:

Scott Solter & Rohner Segnitz: The Murals (Bathysphere). Don’t let the J-card fool you; this is slick. Solter and Segnitz work up a mélange of techniques from ambient and glitchcore without ever lapsing into a particular genre. When I replay it in my head I remember it as the professionalism in execution and tastefulness in arrangement as somehow cancelling out their respective shortcomings, creating the world’s wildest library music. As to why this would be a bad thing, it’s probably because people with this much skill could create something more ambitious to challenge the listener (this is not the same as confrontation). Then I play it again and decide I’m thinking too much: it’s saved by the sureness of approach, building each piece from an initial sound and developing it in creative ways, without recourse to any big ideas.