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.