Two from Elsewhere: Reinhard, Demoč

Friday 3 May 2024

Elsewhere has released two albums of very spare, refined music. Samuel Reinhard’s For Piano and Shō presents a pigeon pair of like-titled works which find inspiration in John Cage’s late works without imitating his style. Reinhard first heard the gagaku mouth organ in a recording of Cage’s Two4 for violin and shō and the very slow, open structure of that piece, making use of the shō’s capacity for tones of extended duration is reflected in Reinhard’s two pieces. They also seem to draw upon Cage’s earlier Two for flute and piano, in which the typical sonata-duet form is subverted by Cage restricting the flute to single, isolated notes played softly, tinting the backdrop of silence. Likewise, in For Piano and Shō pianist Paul Jacob Fossum creates figures in the foreground, while Haruna Higashida plays shō with incredible delicacy, using fine tones with the same elusive prominence as a watermark. For Piano and Shō I in fact overlays three recordings of each instrument: single piano notes with sustain pedal held down drop onto the surface and resonate in irregular patterns, threaded through with harmonising from the shō. The use of sustain keeps everything as slow as possible, to let each moment speak. It seems busy in comparison to For Piano and Shō II, now reduced to single performers, Fossum alternating between two chords, one arpeggiated and the other unbroken, while Higashida plays even more faintly than before, on single notes bridging one piano element to the next. Each musician makes full use of the freeness of tempo, allowing reflective moments of silence to emerge and, with the reiterated piano elements, seem to make time almost stop.

The three solo pieces that make up Adrián Demoč’s album Piano are also restrained – a little too much so for my taste when I first heard it. Miroslav Beinhauer plays these piano interpretations of Demoč’s chamber compositions with solemn dignity, avoiding trying to do too much to fill out the sound while not erring the other direction into enervated preciousness. The pieces Ma fin est mon commencement (from 2019) and Gebrechlichkeit (2023) were composed with small ensembles in mind, but Demoč also imagined hearing them as piano works, stripped of additional colouring. The earliest piece, 2018’s A Luca Marenzio II, is a spin-off of the original, given that it was originally composed for a scale of natural harmonics. Heard here as the first track, in equal temperament and in monochrome, it struck me on first listen as a fairly bland chorale, a little disappointing after his more exciting recent works. The second hearing changed my mind as the homogeneity in timbre and pulse was offset by the firmness of composer’s and pianist’s grasp on the material, making a piece that changes perspective from one chord to the next from sounding predominantly as harmony or as first species counterpoint, capturing a moment’s hesitation between movement and stillness. Each successive work feels more assured in this method. Ma fin est mon commencement restricts pitch range but adds introspective variations in phrasing, calm but never quite settled. The longer Gebrechlichkeit obsesses over soft, small clusters in the middle register that are each repeated a few times over on each appearance. Beinhauer’s solo interpretation makes this a study in touch, with the clearer chords of the preceding pieces replaced by smudged, muted attacks where some tones linger while others are swiftly damped, building up a bleak but compelling landscape in dabs of grey.

A Big Day Out with Apartment House (Part One)

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Only Music Can Save Us Now was the title for the three concerts presented by Apartment House at Wigmore Hall last Saturday, led as ever by Anton Lukoszevieze, where morning afternoon and evening they love-bombed us with new and unfamiliar compositions. As usual, there was no evident compulsion to justify the audience’s attention by way of a curatorial (read moral) theme, only music that it was believed would reward our fresh attention. The morning concert began with Kerry Yong giving the UK premiere of Marek Piaček’s Canzonetta, a piano piece written some thirty years ago. It’s almost as light and lively as the title implies, but offset by a contemporary interest in aggressively repeated patterns and worked with snippets of movie themes and ad jingles (“sound smog” as Piaček calls it) which might be considered po-mo except for the typically East European quizzical attitude to pop culture that realises parody is a two-edged sword. A second work by Piaček was played later in the day, his 5 Studies for piano quintet completed in 2022, where a similarly breezy approach added glossy varnish over sour humour. Šarūnas Nakas’s Cenotaph for piano trio, from 1995, may have been the most conventional work heard on the day. Composed in memory of anti-Soviet resistance fighters in Lithuania, it managed to alternate between dark and light, the tender and the brutal, with each seemingly contradictory impulse contributing to a single statement of emotional complexity. The two world premières of the morning were Christopher Fox’s Heaven as a scroll and Adrián Demoč’s Zamat (Velvet). The Fox piece is a characteristically strange piece; his music floats in the grey zone between the conventional and the experimental, so that hearing his stuff can be an elusive experience. A string quartet is accompanied by a set of bells, which had been hanging at one end of the stage all shiny and alluring all morning. The strings play with tunings to match those of the bells, with the natural harmonics and resonances guiding the musical substance beyond its usual intonation. Zamat is a spare and elegant piece, with clarinet and bass clarinet, viola and cello playing short melodic cells in unison. The strings are pizzicato throughout, slightly out of step and adding percussive colour to the two clarinets, whose timbres combine to add subtle disturbances to the pitch.

I have now also heard a slightly less weird and more approachable piece by Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson. His Sitt hvoru megin við þilið uses his computer animated scores and friable material, but in this case the instrumentation is for string quartet instead of homemade instruments and the piece is contained within a single movement. The frayed scraps of sound fall into fleeting patterns that never sit still. It’s an intriguing experience as the ear can never settle on any moment; my failure to hear what’s in front of me becomes a problem when confronted by my expectation that I should tell each movement apart. The first concert ended as it began with Yong solo giving the first British performance of David Mahler’s Only Music Can Save Me Now from the late 1970s, a piece firmly located in the minimalist ethos of the time: an ostinato cycles throughout, forming the basis for a type of open-form chaconne as right hand harmonises upon the left, playing tropes that make small but significant changes to the rhythm and phrasing. It’s a reminder of the fecundity of minimalism in its later blossoming, before the style was subsumed into its present monoculture of soundtracking pageantry.

Besides the additional Piaček, the afternoon concert included a string quartet by Dubravko Detoni, a composer who presence amongst Western music geeks seemed to fade away with the dawn of the CD era. Forgotten Music presents 27 slips of music, each relating to a different style or genre but distorted almost beyond recognition by subjecting each to intense but brief scrutiny. Multiple contradictory meanings proliferate as each moment passes, both overzealous and dismissive in interrogating the music’s contents, with possibilities for misinterpretation rife. It takes on extra significance when you remember Detoni was a Yugoslavian writing the piece in 1981. In some ways, a more acute statement of the predicament described in the two Piaček works. My personal highlight was Michaël Lévinas’s string quintet (extra viola) Les lettres enlacées IV, an enthralling work of grainy micropolyphony and spiraling scales, made out of modal figures transposed upon each other and transformed by a method derived from computer modelling of Doppler shifts in spatialised sound. A sterling example of how access to all the toys at IRCAM can pay off handsomely when used with probing, analytical thought. The afternoon’s premiere was Kerry Yong’s arrangement of Jem Finer’s album Hrdy-Grdy for reed organ and string quartet. The art of transcription here is complicated by Finer’s original being made on hurdy-gurdy with electronic processing, layering the curious instrument with delay loops and other forms of self-accompaniment. Yong and Apartment House handled these masterfully, with sampled organ blended into a multicoloured acoustic chorale with the strings. This was a different musical language to that heard the rest of the day, with direct melodic playing as the base, even as it was compounded by technical elaboration. In a curious way, the method used in presenting Finer’s collection of pieces as a live ensemble work was analogous to that of Lévinas composing his quintet.

The Spectre of Taste: Lebel, Lind, Demoč

Saturday 15 July 2023

You don’t have to be original to be good, but the experimental allows a certain leeway while anything that tends to the conventional in substance runs the risk of setting down its foundations on the shifting sands of taste. I’ve been listening to field studies, a collection of pieces by composer Emilie Cecilia LeBel, and while much of the writing is admirably spare (in evaporation, blue the pianist adds notes on a harmonica in lieu of detail to fill out the bare structure of the piece) or impressively sonorous (even if nothing but shapes and light reflected in the glass conjures up a moody horn section from solo alto flute and baritone sax, aided by tranducers attached to drums), I kept hearing moments where the music tripped over itself. It sounds like LeBel wants her music to be expressive, but then feels obliged to justify that impulse with dramatic flourishes to rationalise the seriousness of her intentions. These flourishes follow popular taste and so resemble moments of movie music, probably meant to be stirring but serving more as distracting lapses in the work’s solidity.

Or I’m just not a very sophisticated listener and I need novelty as a hook on which to hang my perceptions. At the All That Dust launch concert a few weeks back I heard Mark Knoop performing a realisation of Rósa Lind’s piano cycle Trente, completed (or at least last added to) early this year. Trente is itself part of a larger cycle of four compositions (so far?) collectively titled Kandinsky Kunstwerke, three of which are recorded on Lind’s new All That Dust CD. I’d listened to Knoop’s recording of Trente once before the concert and several times since, and I’m only just starting to hear what’s in it. Made from thirty short movements taking up a little under forty minutes, their number, brevity and variability of ordering imply a kaleidoscopic array of highly changeable moments without a focal point; yet there’s a fixity in the overall composition, attributable jointly to Lind’s conceptual framework and Knoop’s holistic comprehension of the forces in play. I read the sleeve notes and came away bamboozled by the invocation of Kandinsky and the immediate association with Galilean astronomy throughout each piece. My understanding was of little more than the music having been produced through extensive labours on a conspiracy board of themes, with what we hear being a manifestation of a highly concentrated tangle of allusions oversaturated with meaning to the point that comprehension becomes extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible. Lind manages to subsume the ontological stress of her subject with a musical language that appears relatively untroubled, even as it is highly charged: not as jarringly discrete as Messiaen’s piano cycles, nor as outlandish as Georges Lentz’s cosmological divinations; which is another way of saying, surprisingly tasteful.

The other two pieces from the Kandinsky Kunstwerke cycle presented here were recorded in Australia about ten years ago. They are also solos, but with additional electronics. Cellist Geoffrey Gartner gives a lean but ominous tone to Extrema: A Galilean Sarabande and Laura Chislett gives what resembles a character piece in the tightly virtuosic flute solo Courbe dominante. I’ve focused more on Trente here as it provides a key to interpreting the other works, but the two shorter works are more immediately accessible, conveying urgency through a compressed lyricism. The electronic and other elements are inaudible for the most part, with both pieces experiencing a sudden, anomalous disruption. Each piece makes a self-evident case for requiring repeated listening; having earned my respect I’ve started to become intrigued and may even be warming to them.

Over the last few years Adrián Demoč has been building up an impressive body of work on record. It’s entirely deserved, with each newly-heard work revealing more facets and shades of an individual, consistently beautiful compositional voice. There’s that appeal to taste again; Demoč appears to follow a muse of highly cultivated simplicity, in the manner of Howard Skempton or Morton Feldman but mimicking neither. Neha is his third CD on Another Timbre and presents two works for orchestra, allowing us to hear how he handles larger forces. As may be expected, it’s with a light touch. In both works the sound is soft and translucent, reducing the number of instruments wherever possible and still sounding intimate in the moments when playing tutti. The title of the 2018 work Neha in fact means ‘tenderness’. It holds a single moment and lingers over it for us to appreciate, seemingly in repose yet sustained by as little movement as necessitated by breathing. The unisons between instruments as they play simple chords gain a faint complexity by Demoč employing the differing timbres and means of producing notes to makes the edges of the pitches fuzz and leach out as the differing overtones mingle; a kind of micro-microtonality. The Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Marián Lejava conducting) respect the composer’s urge for delicacy and calm in this live recording. The later work is Popínavá hudba, composed for the Ostrava New Music Days 2022 and heard here in a live recording with Petr Kotík conducting the Ostrava New Orchestra. It begins with a short, rising melodic fragment, particularly reminiscent of late Feldman, but follows its own path by quietly asserting its presence in a more organic than structured fashion, using subtle changes in colouration to motivate the nascent melody through almost imperceptible transformations. The orchestra maintains the same presence as a chamber ensemble would, but with much greater complexity below the surface. Towards the end there is a turn, and although it’s unexpected it still feels like it’s part of the larger design at work.

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.

Following up Adrián Demoč: Hlaholika and Dotyky. Za zrkadlom

Monday 20 September 2021

What do you do for a follow-up? It seems like Adrián Demoč’s Žiadba was a bit of a sleeper hit last year for Another Timbre: kind of haunting but kind of beguiling all at once. A second album was released earlier this year, another set of chamber pieces titled Hlaholika. Mostly recent pieces, they’re harder to get a handle on, even as their means of construction seems simpler. Ma fin est mon commencement is a trio for clarinet, viola and piano in which Heather Roche, Reiad Chibah and Mark Knoop play a slow, tentative melody in unison: viola high, clarinet low, piano a single, reiterated note in between, harmonised by the other two instruments. All three blend into a gonglike sound that plaintively circles around a static point. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection, with ensembles moving as a single voice, the brightness and interplay heard in Žiadba now subdued. The final piece, a duet for violin and double bass played by Mira Benjamin and James Opstad, falls into two sections. In the first, both play soft, slow harmonics together; in the second, the same but slower and too soft to sound fully. The musicians here are Apartment House alumni, who give these faint gestures full significance. (The one exception, the earlier Lešenie k zahĺbeniu, is played by students of the Janáček Academy of Music in Brno. It’s a larger ensemble work consisting of hazily repeated cluster chords.) Even after multiple hearings, I still haven’t mentally pinned this music down. It can seem so slight that it feels like that frailty is meant to reify either the sound or the silence, but nothing about it comes across as didactic, or even as Cagean parable.

It gets a bit clearer in the context of hearing Dotyky. Za zrkadlom, Demoč’s hour-long piece for solo violin composed last year for Milan Pala. It seems like an intimidating prospect for the listener, as an idea but less so in practice. Pala feels out two alternating notes, one high, the other harmonic. The notes move, but inadvertently, as though the musician is finding a particular resonance in the instrument, testing out its effects little by little. Having listened to that box set of Cage’s number pieces I start thinking about how much we understand of Cage through Morton Feldman, how the latter composer holds so much sway today over what we understand by the imperative to “let the sounds be themselves”. Demoč makes an instrumental gesture the subject, heard as itself without being employed towards a more abstract compositional programme. There is context, but only in terms of the sounds’ means of existence. It may well be a single sound, played and heard in multiple perspectives. Sounding intuitive, free of external processes or pressures to change, Pala makes the piece as much his own work as Demoč’s.

Social distance: Apartment House play Demoč and Aglinskas

Friday 20 March 2020

Now everyone’s staying indoors, keeping to themselves, in a state of uncertainty, we may seek out distraction but ultimately everyone deserves some mental space, to “quieten the mind” as Cage once said of his music. Another Timbre has put together a 5-hour Coronavirus Quarantine playlist to that end. One of the pieces is Adrián Demoč’s Kvarteto for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, played by members of Apartment House and the opening track on his album Žiadba released late last year. It’s a piece that can haunt you, but in a beguiling way: an opening section of arpeggios, echoed in a type of ghost canon, cycling through poignant chord changes amkes you wonder if you’re about to hear a type of deconstructed folk music. The second, longer movement reverts to slow, unfolding sonorites that emerge one step at a time, halfway between melody and chorale. A similar structure is used in the title work, a violin solo played by Mira Benjamin slipping between high tones and harmonics.

While slow and gentle is the dominant mood throughout the album, the colouration of Benjamin’s playing points to the subtle compositional twists Demoč puts in his music to prevent things from sagging into an ambient haze. Moments of stillness alternate with periods of gently rocking sounds, like a blend of Morton Feldman early and late. The Septett for two violins, two violas, two cellos and double bass (played by Czech groups Ostravská banda and fama Q) begins with a flourish before settling into familiar quiescence, only to slowly rise and swell into a prolonged cadence as the piece progresses. Demoč mixes and matches between several recent trends in composition in a way that feels wholly assimilated into a compositional voice, without diluting the strength of his music or lapsing into a fashionable posturing.

I heard a broadcast of Apartment House playing Julius Aglinskas’ string quartet ‘‘ in concert a couple of years ago and thought their recording of his new, lengthy ensemble piece Daydreamer would be well matched with the Demoč disc. Not really. In the quartet, musicians play back-to-back, in coherent yet uncoordinated harmonies. That drift and float that you would expect in a piece titled ‘Daydreamer’ is present, but in an oddly contained and persistent, even rigorous guise. In twelve sections over some 73 minutes, it explores and reiterates a set of tropes over a chord progression. Some flow together, while others fade away before the next section starts up, like tracks on an album. The dominant sound is of amplified piano and electronic keyboards, giving everything a reverberant New Age sheen that misdirects the listener. Closer attention reveals the real, live winds and strings in the mix. Each time I listen I find myself switching back and forth between thinking it’s excessively sugar-coated, some ironic post-Soviet statement, or a type of distancing device to stop you getting too hung up on the authentic sounds of the instruments. Unlike an elusive dream, the sound is firmly present, but keeps an emotional distance. It ends as though another section is about to follow; alternatively you can play it on repeat.

I’ve linked the Demoč direct to the Bandcamp page as all sales proceeds are going direct to artists today. I didn’t find a Bandcamp link for the Aglinskas because it is not an Another Timbre release, despite all appearances.