Léo Dupleix, Les Certitudes; Piotr Kurek, Smartwoods

Friday 13 October 2023

Just before, I was talking about distinctions between the process and the piece when musicians get together. “The ensemble Les Certitudes was created in 2021 as a means for developing acoustic music focusing on justly tuned tones and harmonies, taking as a starting point the physicality of the instruments –resonating wood and metal– in a long musical form.” They’re a trio: on this occasion, consisting of Léo Dupleix on harpsichord, Juliette Adam on clarinet and Félicie Bazelaire on cello. The long musical form is a composition by Dupleix, titled Construire sur les ruines d’un passé encore fumant, made up from five movements together lasting nearly an hour. The emphasis on just intonation is almost too demonstrative, proceeding in a slow, deliberate way to let the beautifully constructed harmonies linger. The beginning and ending sections are dronelike without actually being motionless, the opening letting real and implied overtones rise over immobile cello, the closing determinedly cycling through a small set of chords on keyboard while clarinet and cello tentatively seek out more esoteric harmonics. The central movement omits keyboard, giving space for the more directly human instruments to find an intonation that flexes and breathes a little as they slowly circle around each other. The trio’s playing throughout is controlled; unhurried but insistent (it should be noted here that it was recorded in sections over a couple of venues and dates). The trio refuse to succumb to an easy, soft ambience and let their instruments speak full and clear; it’s an admirable commitment to keep the music in focus but I did begin to find it wearying by the end. That might be down to the musicians getting caught up in the process.

Piotr Kurek’s album Smartwoods is definitely a finished object, the end product of process and assembly, incorporating performance. A set of seven instrumental tracks which seem pleasant enough if you don’t listen too close, but then it’s hard not to listen close because the quiet strangeness that permeates each little piece draws you in. Everything’s a little bit off, never quite right. That queasy uncanny valley effect hits you straight off as you think you’re hearing a slightly old-fashioned potted MIDI orchestra plinking and tooting away, but then it’s too organic for that, nothing seems to be running by clockwork. It’s not a reasuring thought as it raises the possibility that things could run off track and turn ugly at any moment. It never does, even while it keeps implying all is not well – at least not on our terms. The small ensemble on harp, winds and bass play very neatly throughout, with the finesse of deadpan comedians pretending to be automata, never quite bumping into each other. Kurek plays keyboards, guitar and (oh jeez) MIDI wind controller, both to insert digital impostors and transform the live instruments into hi-sheen simulacra of themselves. It doesn’t stay around long enough to impose its oddness on you, which makes the oddness the subject as you wonder afterwards what it all means, with each piece a small, unsolveable puzzle.

Routines: Rasten & Dupleix, Bondi & d’incise, Astasie-abasie

Thursday 12 January 2023

There are some pieces that act like a microcosm of dealing with new music – composing it, playing it, listening to it – in the whole: observed from a distance, these activities boil down to a matter of repetition, reiteration, routine. In this situation, the importance of the act of concentration is heightened, becoming almost an aesthetic goal in itself. When listening to such music, the question is whether composer, performer and audience can all find a comparable level of concentration.

Routine differs from repetition, in that a repeated set of actions can lead to changes in those actions, as they adapt to new possibilities observed from the results. Fredrik Rasten and Léo Dupleix’s Delve II takes a composition by Rasten made from reiterated elements, expanded over thirty-eight minutes as a duet for 12-string acoustic guitar and spinet. Short gestures are repeated in near-unison, producing a composite instrument in which the features and contents are in a slow but unceasing flux. The arepggiated chords are not so much elaborated – or even extended, in the manner of an old-school minimal composer – as they are pursued into new articulations, as though allowing some natural process of musician’s curiosity to take its course. Chords are slowly pulled apart and reassembled, with new aspects casually introduced or removed, all at a seemingly steady, breath-like pace. The effect is entrancing.

Ian Andrews has made two albums now under the name Astasie-abasie. The first one, Molecular Gamelan, didn’t interest me too much as it was all too much like sound sculpture and wasn’t working as foreground. The new one, Elliptical Gamelan, is much better. As before, the pieces are all made from amplified metal objects motivated by electrical devices, so loops and cycling sounds are the base material here. Where Elliptical Gamelan succeeds is in the details, with the sounds more intrisically complex so that they are less recognisable with each repetition, overlaying each other in patterns that may be inferred but cannot be identified rhythmically. Each of the ten short pieces here evolve as they progress, giving each one a distinct sound and form, making them work as music instead of just exercises in instrument-building. One of us was paying closer attention this time.

The excessive focus on instruments has a detrimental effect on Cyril Bondi and d’incise’s latest collaboration, Le secret. Bondi made an extensive investigation into Swiss Alpenglocken before the two musicians were let loose on a large collection of bells. The focus here is on the differences in tone and timbre of bells, as they’re played in slow, antiphonal permutations, to the exclusion of almost all other considerations. Unless you want to invest it with your own significance, the arrangements here seem overly reverential and dry. Perversely, d’incise’s solo album καῦμα (kaûma) is all electronic but feels more lively and capricious, even as it tries to maintain a steady state of repeated actions. Synthesiser is mixed with analogue filters and reverb as well as digital processing, creating a fuzzy, saturated set of small riffs that perpetually drift off course. The material is simple and unassuming, but in d’incise’s renderings they become tantalisingly indistinct. It recalls the fin de siècle interest in glitchcore and lowercase, returning to follow up on where those two subgenres had left off before fully delivering on their promises.