Magnus Granberg: Come Down To Earth Where Sorrow Dwelleth, bis

Saturday 19 December 2020

If you’re reading this, you’re probably the sort of music nerd who listens to composers like Magnus Granberg and wonder how their compositions might sound in different configurations. It’s partly intellectual and creative curiosity, but there’s also that frustration that much of the great music we hear is so often left open to interpretation and yet never heard again beyond the original version. Granberg’s music is a good example, as his string of recordings and performances present extended pieces that are heavily dependent on the colouration of their instrumental palette and a sustained, consistent mood. For the wider audience, each piece is strongly identified with the ensemble which plays it.

Well, now we get to choose – or, more likely, get both and get judgemental. Meenna has released two recordings of Granberg’s Come Down To Earth Where Sorrow Dwelleth a few months apart. The first version was recorded on its premiere tour in April last year by Ordinary Affects; for the second version Granberg joins a Japanese trio in Tokyo the following November. I listened to the second version first, because it’s twenty minutes shorter than the earlier version and I had to be somewhere else in an hour. Granberg’s prepared piano threads its way through the sustained instrumental texture here as it has on other occasions, but he has revised his piece to suit an entirely new ensemble, setting traditional Japanese instruments (Ko Ishikawa’s sho and Miki Maruta’s koto) against Toshimaru Nakamura’s feedback electronics. Nakamura also appeared on Let Pass My Weary Guiltless Ghost earlier this year; electronics have often figured in Granberg’s music but on that occasion I noted that it sounded “more abrasive and confrontatial” than before. Here, with a much thinner, sparser texture, the feedback becomes a more distinct, even intrusive presence. At rare moments, a sudden percussive burst of noise punctures the surface. There are extended periods where it settles into a high tinnitus whine. The electronic tones reflect off the sho, while the koto and muted piano pair off with short, stifled sounds. It’s the strangest, starkest work I’ve hear by Granberg yet, almost reduced at times to complete stillness. Speaking as an increasingly old and grumpy man, the high-pitched stuff started to irritate at times.

I attributed this to the instrumentation, but this theory was quickly disproved when I heard the original version of the piece played by Ordinary Affects. These are the guys I heard in Michael Pisaro’s Helligkeit, die Tiefe hatte, nicht keine Fläche a while back. This time, the ensemble is a quartet (Morgan Evans-Weiler, violin; Laura Cetilia, cello; Luke Martin, electric guitar; J.P.A. Falzone, vibraphone) plus Granberg’s piano. Even with the extra musician and the fuller timbre of the instruments, it’s a stark, strange piece. This time the vibraphone provides the backdrop as often as not, with a faint, tremulous hum. The strings work supposedly as foreground, but play with frail, reticent bowing gestures. The piano is as likely to provide an interjection as much as the electric guitar. Any obvious figuration comes from a confluence of these small sounds and, at certain moments, work in consort to produce passages of fraught continuity and stability. At other times, sustained sounds all disappear and the momentum falls away, leave holes of silence to open up in the musical texture. The certainties from the older Granberg works are fading out; in its own sinister way it’s the most changeable of his compositions I’ve heard yet and, with that small shift in equilibrium, opens up a wealth of disturbing connotations kept dormant in his previous music.

Unusual suspects: Magnus Granberg and Skogen, Angharad Davies, Klaus Lang, Anton Lukoszevieze

Sunday 14 June 2020

Thanks to the coronavirus snafu I misplaced the last batch of CDs from Another Timbre (will remedy this later) but now I’m happily getting amongst this even newer set from May. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “happily”; the word suggests I settled into this music too easily, when in fact both pieces here quickly clipped me over the ears for taking them for granted. unfurling is a trio improvisation by composer/performers Angharad Davies on violin, Klaus Lang on harmonium and Anton Lukoszevieze on cello. It goes about an hour, it’s got Klaus Lang, it’s on Another Timbre, even the title’s in lower case – we know how this is going to go, right? It starts as softly as you would expect, slow bowing sounds separated out, some harmonics, scraping… but then Lang joins in by shaking the bellows on his harmonium, agitating them into low thumping sounds. No panic; you think that’s OK, it’s just for texture, but all three musicians here are of the gently but firmly provocative inclination. Things escalate, and soon you’re caught up in these dense chords that extend endlessly into sirenlike wails. A nice, comfy hour of quiescent and peaceable improv is ruined. The dissonant chords finally exhaust themselves into voiceless breathing before breaking up into percussive knots of noise. This pattern of alternating between sinister drones and brittle spikes of tortured instruments repeats itself, continuously building momentum into a headlong rush that you hope will burn out before things go too far.

No reassuring certainty from the new piece by Magnus Granberg with the ensemble Skogen, either. Let Pass My Weary Guiltless Ghost promises the usual intricate blending of classical and folk instruments with objects and electronics, but things get off to a tense start. The electronics make their presence clear right from the beginning, set in stark relief against the prepared piano and percussion. Throughout the piece, sounds coexist in an uneasy truce that feels like it could end at any moment. Percussive sounds dominate, leaving the strings and winds to run the gauntlet. Electronics are more abrasive and confrontatial this time (Toshimaru Nakamura has joined thr group here), while never dominating. Instruments such as violin and sho are left to add shading, in ways that highlight the fraught atmosphere more than resolve it. Drums and untuned percussion emerge later – another disturbing addition to Skogen’s sound. By the end of the piece, the situation has insidiously accumulated a sense of urgency; the pace seems to increase slightly – something I haven’t felt in Granberg’s music before – as the music seems anxious to reach a conclusion: rushing, but slowly.

Insub Meta Orchestra plays Granberg and Pisaro

Sunday 12 January 2020

I’ve praised previous recordings by the Insub Meta Orchestra, a large ensemble of some twenty-five to thirty musicians combining an eclectic mix of acoustic instruments with live electronics. Their earlier releases have been joint compositions by two of the members, Cyril Bondi and d’incise, making use of reductive formulas that enabled the musicians to act independently within highly controlled parameters. Two new recordings came out late last year, in which the orchestra interpret new works they have commissioned from external composers.

Als alle Vögel sangen mein Sehnen und Verlangen by Magnus Granberg shows the change in approach from the usual Insub Meta joint. Granberg works with a mixture of musical allusions, distilled and transformed into a distinctive soundworld. This is the largest ensemble I’ve heard play Granberg and it appears that he has deliberately thinned out the texture of this composition as much as possible. (Unusually, Granberg himself isn’t one of the performers.) Each musician’s contribution is sparse and occasional, combining to create a mosaic of distinctive colours that constantly varies in surface and texture but never in state. The large palette of sounds and their sparing use allows the character of the piece to change and evolve over time without any conscious subjective intervention.

How are these pieces made? Neither release comes with any cover notes. While the premise of Granberg’s piece remains elusive, Michael Pisaro’s Achilles, Socrates, Diotima (The Poem of Names, No. 2) is a complete mystery. There appears to be a programme at work, in which the orchestra is set to work on concentrated actions, but the underlying motive remains a secret. From silence, isolated non-musical sounds gather into a gradual rallying of forces. Each successive attempt adds another dimension to the music, at times breaking into a percussive rumble, or a constant drone. One step at a time, it builds up into something sustained and powerful, assembled out of nothing. Like an ancient artefact, stripped of subjectivity and context, it constitutes its own meaning. Repeated listenings don’t reduce its strangeness.

Similarities and differences: Cyril Bondi & d’incise, Magnus Granberg

Monday 20 May 2019

Listening to the latest release by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, it’s easy to hear similarities with their previous releases with the Insub Meta Orchestra. The sound pulses and flows without any overt movement or direction, each moment self-contained. Here are three shorter works, Mem, Aleph, Lassis, each around ten minutes. The twist is that each is played twice, first by quartet The Pitch (clarinet, vibraphone, pump organ and double bass), then by Bondi and d’incise on various small organs with Mike Majkowski on double bass. The differences are subtle, with the latter trio sounding softer, more homogeneous without the percussion to add articulation. An echo, diminuendo. The shorter durations and consequent reduction in scale gives each piece a more definite, almost subjective shape. It’s pleasant listening, but that pleasure is sequestered within a comfort zone. It sounds more modest, but that may be because I’m coming to if after hearing their other recent album of deconstructed dub under the guise of Diatribes.

When I wrote about Magnus Granberg’s last release, Nattens skogar, I compared his music to late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. This new CD, recorded with his regular group Skogen, again contains a single ensemble work. Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn is nearly an hour long and features nine musicians but retains the starker sound-world of the quartet in Nattens skogar. It begins with a scraping sound punctuated by two chords on prepared piano. The consistently low volume levels throughout belie the sharp relief of the sounds being played. This low but distinct relief continues throughout; a slow, irregular rhythm of percussive sounds, some electronically amplified, against a faint background of string drones, electronic buzzing, field recordings, or silence. At one point, a high keening can be heard from either a violin, a recorded bird, a bowed vibraphone or feedback, or possibly a combination of the above. Where earlier works by Granberg presented a continuity of sound, here the interplay of sound and silence builds a more complex image, making each new sound’s introduction or withdrawal all the more striking, whether it’s bursts of line noise or recordings of wildlife. I’d described Nattens skogar as “the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed” and Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn continues that development, where the overall image grows more mysterious even as each element comes into clearer focus.

Composed, Uncomposed, Discomposed

Monday 30 July 2018

I’m allergic to jazz; don’t know why. Probably from being raised on rock, but I always hated rock music that held on to the past as a crutch, as a sign of validation, instead of using it as a springboard for something new. I’m incapable of hearing that innovation in jazz; I keep hearing these callbacks to the past as a sop to the audience and critics, lest the musos fall from favour for getting too far out of line. Everyone’s playing something really wild and free when somebody just has to throw in a ii-V progression to reassure everyone that they’re still listening to jazz. Self-conscious rock is no fun either.

I’m listening to Guède by a French quartet of Frédéric Blondy, David Chiesa, Rodolphe Loubatière, Pierce Warnecke: piano, double bass, drums, electronics. Two pieces, each bang on 30 minutes. Everything flows and avoids resolution, seemingly without effort. Just as things start to get too cosy, pitched sounds fade away and the group plays on with noises. The pulse remains and nothing breaks the surface of restrained dynamics, a continuum is maintained while the material remains in flux. It’s improvised, so I get fussy and start wondering if it all moves a little too smoothly without a guiding compositional logic.

In some ways, the sound is similar to some of Magnus Granberg’s recent music. Granberg’s pieces are open in form, but still composed. His most recent release, Es schwindelt mir, es brennt mein Eingeweide, is a long work recorded late last year. The sextet’s playing here is more sparse than usual, with the spine of the work formed by isolated notes traded back and forth between Granberg’s prepared piano and Christoph Schiller’s spinet. Other instruments elide between violin and viola da gamba, some percussion and very subtle electronics. At times, the rest of the ensemble retreats to an almost inaudible background haze; there’s a small surprise when the violin finally plays a sustained note. The musicians give shape and structure to an hour of the slightest material, with turns in sound and instrumentation that throws each preceding section into relief.

I’ve talked before about several releases on Anthony Pateras’ Immediata label, but did not discuss North Of North’s 2015 album The Moment In And Of Itself. The nature of the trio – Pateras on piano, Erkki Veltheim on violin and Scott Tinkler on trumpet – set off my anti-jazz snobbery. The combination of instruments threatens a certain level of fussiness but this risk is immediately exploded on the group’s new self-titled album, released on their own label. There are three pieces, each titled ‘Church of All Nations’ after the recording venue. The out-of-sequence numbering of the tracks suggests that they picked out the best bits from their session, as does the strength of the playing and the coherence of the music. It’s improvised and it’s relentless, each musician serving up dense blocks of sound that alternately mesh and clash. The playing focuses on texture and timbre, with their highly developed technique and harmonic sense directed towards a greater artistic statement.

Jürg Frey & Magnus Granberg: Early to Late

Monday 19 March 2018

This Friday Music We’d Like To Hear is presenting a one-off concert outside of their usual summer season, of Ensemble Grizzana playing two new pieces by Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg. It’s a repeat of their two premieres at Huddersfield last year, which I wanted to get to but couldn’t, so I’m happy.

Even better, the gig is a launch of a new CD containing both works. Simon Reynell at Another Timbre made this recording “immediately after” the premiere concert in Huddersfield, with sound that is much cleaner and clearer, with greater immediacy and intimacy than usually possible to hear from the audience at St Paul’s Hall. For all their newness, these works are played by Grizzana play with deep knowledge and empathy for this style of music. After all, both composers play as part of the group. They respond to the contrasting expectations in the scores (Granberg allowing freedoms, Frey specifying precision) with great discipline, a studied awareness of how sounds may arise and combine. This judgement, restraint without hesitation, brings countless small, brilliant details to the ear’s attention in a natural, spontaneous way that never seems forced.

Listening to Granberg’s Nattens skogar last year I commented that “I’m starting to think of Magnus Granberg’s music the way I think of late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different.” On this CD, his How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights? combines individual sounds and small fragments of material into a type of mobile structure, allowing the musicians to draw from one group or another at different times. A resemblance to late Feldman comes here from the sense of hearing patterns overlap and repeat, only never quite the same. The music feels like one extended moment, constantly changing in appearance but never changing in substance. Most strikingly, compared to previous works I’ve heard by Granberg, is the sense of a steady flow, if not a pulse, behind the piece. The counterpoint between the instruments forms a strong but delicate web that holds the sounds together. Wisps and shards of electronic sounds permeate this texture, which create an effect that makes the notes played by the acoustic intruments less like pitches and more like sounds. Like his preceding pieces, it again takes its inspiration from existing music; in this case, William Byrd’s consort song “O, Lord How Vain”. With this in mind, its possible to hear the music in light of the Elizabethan’s awareness of mortality – a defence, fragile but assured.

I neglected to write here about the last Another Timbre release of Frey’s music, Collection Gustave Roud (that’s coming up in the next issue of Tempo). In the two longer works in that collection, there’s a sense of movement in Frey’s music that has been steadily developing in recent years. From the earlier wanderings of his pianist, alone pieces, there now comes the feeling of the music being a journey: not a traditional sense of arrival at a destination, but of the travelling itself, similar to Nono’s late lontananzas. Here, his Late Silence shows no reticence about addressing its subject with sound. It’s a sombre, tender work. As with Granberg’s piece, mortality is present: the inspiration comes from Ockeghem’s lament Déploration sur la mort de Binchois. The journey here is one of the emotions, of thought.

Pairings of instruments call and respond, in slow antiphonies. Their sounds combine in surprising ways, letting harmonics and pure tones linger. Unlike the Granberg, no electronics here, but there are harmonicas and stones, used in the same way as in Frey’s epic meditation on time and space Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit. Even more suprising is when the sounds change, as intruments drop away to replaced by others. One feels the loss as much as the new arrival. Other lonely episodes are encountered, but are never allowed to have the last word. I found listening to it a profoundly moving experience, encompassing a range of experience that belied its relatively brief length of just over 30 minutes.

I can’t remember if Cage was referring to Zen or his own preferences when he said that the purpose of the artist is to hide beauty. Both Granberg and Frey touch upon this matter of beauty in art. (Frey: “Beauty happens as a sideline. When beauty comes into focus as an end in itself, then beauty begins to disappear.” Granberg: “I guess I’m just trying to make a music which can hopefully do something to encompass and reconcile such categories with one another.”) Yet still, both composers have developed their craft to a point where they can let beauty be revealed rather than leave the listener to find it.

Magnus Granberg: ‘Nattens skogar’

Monday 30 October 2017

I’m starting to think of Magnus Granberg’s music the way I think of late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. The restrained but taut atmosphere of extreme focus prevails, over an extended span of time. Other than that, I don’t want to make comparisons. That shared attention to the small details living inside sound comes from a different place. Granberg’s scores, described as “rather open”, seem designed to allow more liberty to the performers than Feldman would permit. This approach needs the tradition of free improvisation that has developed over the last half-century, and skilled, sympathetic performers.

His regular ensemble of players, Skogen, has released several discs on Another Timbre, ranging from a ten-piece electroacoustic ensemble to a quintet. On this new release from Insub, his 2015 ensemble piece Nattens skogar is presented in a version reduced to just four musicians. Again, everything’s the same yet it’s all different. As with other recent works, Nattens skogar (it’s the Swedish translation of Nightwood) draws inspiration and material from pre-existing music; in this case, Erik Satie’s nocturnes and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood”. As before, any resemblance to the source would not be detected by the uninformed listener. The nocturnal theme suits Granberg’s, and his musicians’, palettes of sounds both dark and frail.

In this setting, every sound is set in stark relief. Part of this may be due to the recording, which sounds very close. Background noises, seemingly inadvertent, colour the music, unless it is Cyril Bondi’s percussion. Granberg plays his prepared piano in slow motion, Anna Lindal’s violin merges with harmonicas played by Bondi and d’incise. d’incise adds electronics and ‘tuned objects’ – the buzz and hum of line noise and distortion adds an unnerving edge to the music. Anything that may be construed as a slow, unhurried flow through the fifty minutes or so is upset by subtle but indelible shifts in mood; this may be down to the shadowy presence of Satie. At the beginning, events are punctuated by an ominous knocking; in the latter half of the piece, intrusions such as electric organ or bass drum cast the other instruments in a new light. It strikes me as the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed and might be the best place to start for newcomers. Ensemble Grizzana is premiering a new work by him next month in Huddersfield, which I would like to witness.

One quibble: Insub have released this on vinyl, as so many small, adventurous labels must to make ends meet these days, and as a download. It’s a shame the download version preserves the fadeout and break into two tracks from the vinyl instead of offering an uninterrupted experience. In the pause, you can hear how the ‘silence’ is charged with electrical hum, ambient noise, hiss.

Despairs, Would Fall

Wednesday 29 April 2015

wither01 I’ve been listening to these two CDs from Another Timbre as a sort of diptych. Each one is a single work for ensemble, 45 to 55 minutes. Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long is credited to the group Skogen, “composition by Magnus Granberg”. Would Fall from the Sky, Would Wither and Die is credited to Magnus Granberg, “played by Skuggorna och ljuset”. Four musicians are common to both groups. I’ve heard one other Skogen disc, the rather fine Rows with Anders Dahl. Rows has an alluring sense of off-kilter formality to it, like Christian Wolff’s Exercises. These two Granberg-related discs seem to share a similar, basic principle of “composed improvisation”, but by very different means.

Both Despairs and Would Fall share other similarities. Both inhabit a sound-world somewhere between the brooding quiescence of late Morton Feldman and the uneasy stasis of AMM. Both works are built upon the skeletal remnants of song. Despairs is a sort of meditation upon the ruins of a song by the seventeenth century English composer John Dowland. Harmonic and rhythmic material from the original are deployed into an entirely new work, whose origins would be otherwise undetectable. Would Fall excavates the 1930s pop song “If I Should Lose You”. Harmonic resemblance is further denatured by the presence of a prepared piano throughout Would Fall, live electronics throughout Despairs.

Both pieces open up spaces for introspection. Small melodic fragments emerge from time to time, suggesting their songlike origins without ever recalling them; textures wind down into repeating gestures before finally breaking up and resolving into more complex debris. A melancholy sense of entropy, held barely in check, prevails in both works, allowing room for both fatalism and hope. Of the two, Despairs feels a little brighter, at least at first, thanks to the source material. The electronics and larger ensemble of ten musicians create a subtle but richly textured tapestry of sound. Would Fall is sparser, an acoustic quintet reducing the material to its essentials. The heavier sense of psychological melodrama that informs 20th century pop makes its presence felt.

I’m over-analysing. I play each disc to set a mood in the house, and each time I find myself riding a different emotional narrative through the details.