Number Pieces live (part two), plus John White and Mark Ellestad

Thursday 30 June 2022

(Part one here.)

It was wonderful to hear Cage’s Eight played live, in the round no less, at the Music We’d Like To Hear concert in St Mary at Hill. I said I’d found the version in the Apartment House box set from last year a relative disappointment, owing to the potential for dynamic contrasts in the piece that were passed up. Sitting in a small church, however, with the winds and brasses encircling you, the small differences in timbre and force of breath became alive. With greater spatialisation, Apartment House’s emphasis on sustained tones at the expense of short sounds set the flexible structure of Cage’s composition in clearer relief: having created anarchic harmony, he made anarchic antiphony possible as well.

The sounds in the church seemed particularly warm that night. Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze played Mark Ellestad’s violin and cello duet In the Mirror of this Night, having recently recorded it for Another Timbre. In this setting, at close range, it all sounded particularly sumptious. As a communal listening experience, the piece’s wandering is less unknowable, becoming more of an exemplar of what Cage had called purposeful purposelessness.

The previous evening, members of the Plus Minus ensemble played works by Sarah Hennies, Alexey Shmurak and John White. White is a composer who should be appreciated now to avoid the rush. The pieces selected – involving piano, clarinet, double bass, percussion – were characteristically short, such as the two examples of his piano sonatas, Nos. 105 and 143. Less Scarlatti and more a late bagatelle by a Beethoven who interests have turned from tonality to oblique commentary, the piano sonatas exemplify the dual traits of White’s music appearing both benign and threatening. Each miniature, neatly assembled and considerate of your attention, conceals a nagging interrogation of the assumptions upon which it rests: a forced extension, a moment of stiffness, an unresolved lapse. In another time and place, his brief, pleasant pieces would have had him gaoled as a subversive. In this time and place, he instead suffers the small mercy of being regarded in much the same way as an outsider artist, despite his significance and achievements. He’s what, eighty-five now? The compositions heard were composed between 1989 and 2004, with the exception of his old party piece, Drinking And Hooting Machine, where Plus Minus were joined by volunteers from the audience to alternately drink from and blow across bottles, running down to empty.

More Lost Canadians: Michael Oesterle, Mark Ellestad

Friday 22 April 2022

Thanks to the musicians who keep exposing me to contemporary Canadian composers I’d have otherwise never heard of. Quatuor Bozzini’s set of Michael Oesterle’s Quatuors opens with a nice comfy chorale that almost immediately drops away to a near-inaudible skein of harmonics. This piece, Oesterle’s String Quartet No. 4, is the latest and longest of the four pieces heard here (but not the entirety of his output for string quartet). The piece moves casually back and forth between slow pulses of alternating chords and scurrying patterns of harmonics, before returning to chorales and whispers. Oesterle gives no programme other than to assert that his musical materials are always “geometric, expressive, and puritanical”. It is the most subtly disorienting piece in the collection, as each passage yields to the next without any formal structural division, while beguiling sounds are tempered by a secretiveness as to where, if anywhere, the music may be directed. Quatuor Bozzini’s style of playing ideally evokes that shrouded expressivity, never loud but each phrase always indelible, however softly it is played.

The remaining three pieces are more easily apprehended, each falling into neatly digestible sections. String Quartet No. 3 “Alan Turing” from 2010 explores patterns, gestures and textures with an appropriate sense of wonder and discovery mingled with loss and regret. The Bozzinis bring out the gentle playfulness of each movement, slightly darkened by the melancholy of its subject. The harmonic language and gestures at times recall the freshness of a previous generation’s “post-minimal” tonality in its first flowering, before it was worked in harness to the service of Hollywood soundtracks. The titles of 2016’s Three Pieces for String Quartet evoke various animals but Oesterle’s notes again cite geometrical puzzles as each piece’s prime mover, claiming inspiration from Stravinsky and Cage. I can hear a kinship with Ruth Crawford in here, which is the highest of praise. The earliest piece here, Daydream Mechanics from 2001, is the most extended and hushed movement in the collection, with genuine whispering, searching out unexpected consequences from an otherwise confined grid of chordal patterns. Quatuor Bozzini’s championing of this composer, matching his language with a refinement of style that moves from rapid filigree to near-stillness in the same mode of emotion, reveals depths slowly swirling below the undemanding surface.

Mark Ellestad’s career as a composer has moved slowly, with extended pauses. Another Timbre has revived him from obscurity in the new collection Discreet Angel, drawing together three pieces written between 1988 and 1994. I’ve listened to these many times now and still haven’t gotten any closer to what’s happening inside them, despite the intimacy of instrumentation, performance and recording. The 1994 piece, Sigrid, is a brief tape of Ellestad overdubbing pump organ and Hardanger fiddle, the interweaving chords layered and worked into aural broadcloth. The dedicated application of craft to an undemonstrative result is the signature of the three pieces heard here.

Sigrid appears as an interlude to the larger-scale works of much lower density. Both are, in context, memorials for Ellestad’s parents. Discreet Angel itself is for guitar, with just enough musical stuff to expose the instrument’s vulnerability when played at anything less than a continuo. The pauses and unaccompanied notes allow the silence to leak through, creating music that is neither whole nor broken, neither active nor still. For guitarist Cristian Alvear, expert interpreter of some of Wandelweiser’s most esoteric works, the balance of sound and silence is deployed into the fullest and most lyrical playing I’ve heard from him. In the Mirror of this Night is a duet for violin and cello, played here by Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze. Equally slow, it finds its own path as it meanders across forty-five minutes, but again, even when all has been heard, the ultimate course of that path remains obscure. At any given moment in each of these pieces, the music itself is never forbidding, but the wider context defies the listener’s attempts to comfortably accommodate it inside any known form or structure. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze trade solo parts or join in unison almost as often as they work together. Ellestad himself praises the musicians for their “restraint, patience, stillness and a willingness to bring flexibility to time and repetition.” I can’t really add more to that, save that they convey the music with immediacy while still keeping it unknowable.