New music that stays new

Monday 23 January 2017

I need to talk about some recent releases on Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre label because I’ve got a small stack of them here and still more are due to come out in February already. There are over a hundred of these things now, all sharing a distinct aesthetic and sensibility while still exploring fresh terrain – last year’s albums of Jürg Frey’s guitar music and Linda Catlin Smith’s Dirt Road are good examples of this fresh growth. The music ranges from composed to improvised, and sometimes from somewhere in between, with composers and musicians from Britain and abroad, both familiar and new.

The hundredth CD has a little bit of everything. Seaside was recorded over two days at the pianist John Tilbury’s house, with the Palestinian oud player Dirar Kalash and composer John Lely on electronics. Group improvisations alternate with solo works by Lely and Christian Wolff. Instead of piano, Tilbury plays the clavichord; a very quiet instrument which is played unamplified throughout these recordings. Besides its delicacy, the sound is strange and exotic, aided by Tilbury making use of pitch bends and unusual intonations. The solo adaptations of two cyclical pieces Wolff wrote for Tilbury back in 1969-70 have a crystalline beauty. Kalash’s oud blends well with the clavichord, while Lely’s electronics are so discreet as to merge with the ambient sounds in and around the house. The group pieces effectively capture a moment, a place, but are less satisfying as coherent musical works. To my ears, at least; I have a problem with improvisation in general. My patience is tested.

I’m more comfortable talking about the two discs dedicated to composers, Dante Boon and Giuliano d’Angiolini. It’s fascinating to compare the two albums, particularly as each composer talks about their use of indeterminate means of organising their music. Both cite the influence of the “New York School” of composers who introduced indeterminacy to their music in the 1950s, with both of them placing particular emphasis on John Cage’s last compositions in the 1980s and early 1990s. The disruptive anarchy of the Fifties and Sixties avant-garde didn’t die away; a tradition emerged and evolved from it. It was largely unnoticed in the world of Serious Music, preoccupied as it was with certainties, whether proffered by Pierre Boulez or Philip Glass.

Cage found a peace between his philosophy and overtly “beautiful” music. Some twenty years later, Boon has assimilated Cage’s ideas well enough to be confident of using them for what he describes as “classical, romantic European art”. His album Clarinet (& Piano) features Jürg Frey as the soloist on all three works (Boon accompanies on piano on two). I’ve mentioned before how, as a composer, Frey has transcended the philosophical purity of his earlier Wandelweiser pieces to make music that more directly affects senses and sentiment without pandering to the listener. This trait becomes clear in his playing of music by others, too (and Boon discusses in more detail on the CD’s website). Boon’s music floats in that ambiguous realm of mood inhabited by Morton Feldman’s late music and similar works at the more introspective end of minimal music. The indeterminate composition makes both musicians work together, outside of externally imposed measures of time. Like late Cage, it’s simultaneously looser (as in more open to potential disruption, less claustrophobic) yet more impersonal (as in the way that nature is impersonal). It shows those works from the late 1980s were not an endpoint.

Giuliano d’Angiolini also speaks of his admiration for Cage and Feldman, and laments that indeterminacy “has been to some extent pushed to the margins, ignored or misunderstood. Too often art is artificial, and too often the artist tries to surprise us or force an emotion upon us. Indeterminacy or chance put a brake on our will.” His CD Cantilena presents works for piano, string quartet, mixed ensemble and multi-tracked flutes. d’Angiolini describes the pieces as “simple compositional machines” but the simplicity of the materials (gamuts of notes, scales) and transparency of the few rules used to perform them yield a restrained lyricism that flows through the entire disc. The slow-motion single notes of the piano piece Finale contrast with the succession of frail chords in the highest register in Allegretto 94.6. The string quartet (suoni della neve e del gelo) employs Cage’s flexible time-brackets to create a distinctive piece of short phrases and isolated sounds.

With both of these composers there’s an emphasis on producing subtle music from the simplest material, organised by simple methods to produce combinations that are complex – in affect if not in surface texture. Great reliance is placed on the performers to interpret the notation, but not in ways that requires subjective inspiration. In all this they show a lot in common with the musical thinking of Christian Wolff – another former footnote to critics of Serious Music who has recently re-emerged as a guiding spirit in the present time.

Composing or improvising, or… (II)

Thursday 16 June 2016

For the last fifty-odd years there’s been a grey area between what is composed and what is improvised. At home, I’ve been listening to some more new CDs from Another Timbre. Goldmsiths is a neat collection of four pieces for an ensemble of exceptional musicians equally adept at playing from a score or making it up. Everything is new, from last year: a piece each by Jürg Frey, Sarah Hughes and John Lely, and an improvisation. The pieces here alternate from being governed by a relatively strict, reductive principle of organisation (Frey, Lely) to music which opens up room for wider interpretation (Hughes). The improvisation is, theoretically, entirely free, but here the situation is not so simple.

The musicians take the same “hazardous course” described by John Tilbury in yesterday’s post (and Tilbury is the pianist on this disc.) They respond to the immediate circumstances of the musical situation with keen awareness of mood and a sureness of touch. Their performances of Frey’s Circular Music No. 6 and Lely’s First Page for Five are subtly coloured with a sustained sense of atmosphere.

Although it is more diverse in its material, the improvisation could easily be taken as a composed work, of a piece with the rest of the programme. This feeling is compounded by the opening work, Sarah Hughes’ A Reward is given for the Best Inframammary Fold No. 4, which sounds as though it may be a companion improvisation. The piece is in fact composed, with a determined structure, contrasts, gestures and harmonic material all specified. How the contents of this structure are to be presented is left to the musicians. Here, the music flows and ebbs as though through a spontaneous collective activity, even though these elements and overall scheme were determined in advance by the composer.

In the improvisation, with no hierarchy, the musicians must find their own constraints. They do a remarkable job of falling into the background when needed, providing tiny but essential shading that gives the music life. This becomes particularly clear in the strange, affecting coda.

Marek Poliks’ new CD hull treader sounds, at first, like another type of electroacoustic improvisation. There are two pieces, separated by a minute’s silence. In each, the sounds are amplified or entirely electronic. Music appears as large blocks of timbre; typically moving from one block to the next in sequence. The sounds are complex, verging on noise; extended techniques prevail. In an interview, Poliks talks about his interest in industrial goth, dark ambient.

Strangely, closer investigation reveals the situation to be more complicated. Firstly, it’s significant that Poliks himself doesn’t play on this disc: the performers are the ensemble Distractfold the duet of John Pickford Richards and Beth Weisser on violas(!?) and electronics. I haven’t seen the score for these pieces, but others I have seen suggest that these works are fully notated, at least down to details of techniques motifs and finer points of phrasing.

Despite the often harsh and unfamiliar sounds we’ve returned, in a roundabout way, to a type of composition from the classical era, where notation sought to preserve and then mimic the spontaneous flow of improvised music. The techniques, means and materials are however very different, after the intervention of a century or so of new thinking. Poliks’ music takes some unexpected twists and turns, as though following some internal logic beyond the knowledge of the performers. There are sudden, decisive shifts in tone, like the ominous rumble that suddenly appears a third of the way through the viola duet treader always in station and then refuses to leave. It’s like taking in a landscape – industrial, or post-industrial, in this case – only to discover the scene is in fact a vast organism with a mind of its own.

The technique. Pateras, Toral, Frey.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Not much to report lately except for two gigs, both at Cafe Oto, about one week apart.

First night: two solo sets, by Rafael Toral and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard some of Toral’s music for guitar and feedback of different types, so this was relevant to my interests. He played three “pieces”, each using different sets of very simple equipment. After the first set I started to vague-out a bit. The first was the most interesting: holding a small powered speaker in one hand, he “played” it with a microphone/light in the other, moving it to and fro to create controlled bursts of feedback. It was reminiscent of a solo improvisation on a violin, in sound and gesture. Unfortunately, it also went on for too long – I think this was because Toral seemed more interested in extracting every possible type of sound out of his instrument than in shaping a musical experience. He later mentioned that he was thinking about jazz saxophone solos while playing, so perhaps this was the problem too.

I’ve known Anthony Pateras for a long time so it was good to hear him play again. He played solo piano, without preparations to the strings or other extraneous sounds (as is often the case with him). The difference in technique between the two musicians was striking, and not just in the obvious way of comparing Toral’s meticulous gestures with Pateras’ frenzied activity. The trademark hyperactive pummelling of the keyboard is nevertheless rigorously constrained, producing sharply defined contrasts in large harmonic blocks of sound as well as more subtle distinctions in texture. His technical agility keeps focussed on one musical idea, which is then expanded and elaborated upon. He also stopped soon enough for the audience to demand an encore.

A few days later I was back at Oto to see Jürg Frey and friends (or “personal army”, as they were described on the night). He’s a clarinettist and composer, another one who’s associated with Wandelweiser. Quiet, pulseless sounds: unlike my previous experience, the usual feeling of hushed stillness had additional depths. Some of Frey’s music that I’ve heard seems, to some extent, a provocation in its refusal to yield to an implied, wider palette of sounds. (This is particularly after hearing R. Andrew Lee play Frey’s piano music.) On this occasion, there were also some surprisingly rich sounds, with an almost playful (on Frey’s terms) exploration of harmonies and instrument combinations.

Performance technique in Frey’s music becomes a matter of mastering a highly disciplined activity, to achieve the extremes of attenuated sounds demanded in the score. Looking back on the three different sets, it became clear that I was hearing differences of technique that applied equally to composition as they did to performance. The opportunity to hear Frey play his own music made this connection much clearer. A more extreme case of performance dictating composition was also presented at the Frey gig. Anton Lukoszevieze’s performance of part of John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings reveals that the harmonic structure of the piece is entirely produced by the systematic execution of a single, extended gesture by the cellist – conceptually simple, but physically difficult.

The same musicians had spent the weekend recording Frey’s music for another release by Another Timbre. It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.