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.