Catherine Lamb and Johnny Chang with or without Viola Torros

Monday 4 February 2019

When I got back to town, people told me I’d missed a great gig, with Johnny Chang and Catherine Lamb playing at St Mary at Hill. At the end of the year, I received a new batch of CDs from Another Timbre, including a double album of works by Chang and Lamb. I’ve been spending a lot of time with these discs over the past month.

The gig and the album centred on the music of Viola Torros. Interviews with Chang and Lamb and other promotional material offer up all sorts of details about Torros as an historical figure, all of which may be safely disregarded without any impediment to appreciating the fine music to be heard here*. The background reading doesn’t prepare the listener or shed any additional light on the music as such, which is all the better for being heard on its own merits outside of a putative back story. Viola Torros, mediated through these ‘augmentations’ is at most a strong example of the Third Mind at work, producing music that owes something to both and neither creator simultaneously. On the first CD, we hear the second and third of these interpretations, effectively creating a diptych that invites comparisons and contrasts.

The focus is on the two violas of Chang and Lamb playing in tandem. Their playing is expressive, employing a range of gestures, but highly restrained in pitch range, to the point where only microtonal adjustments in intonation are audible. The music recalls Cage’s description of the sound he wanted in his last, microtonal works, “melisma, florid song”. The listener’s attention focuses on the grain of the violas’ sound, the rasp of bow on string made sonorous by emphasising the lower registers of the instrument. It takes longer to tune in on the resonances used to enhance the violas, electronics that add subtle but indelible colours. Then the voices come in and the small, new world the violas have created is transformed again.

As with V.T. Augmentations II, so is V.T. Augmentations III. The approach is the same but the methods employed take on a different attitude. The viola playing is starker, with a range that is greater but lower, often singling out one player at a time. The exposed playing, without its resonant halo, creates a more sombre mood. When electronics do appear, the aded reverberation is more prominent, like a shadow. The voices, when they appear, are now exclusively female, giving the shape of the piece its own distinct turn.

The second disc presents two more pieces, each a solo work by one of the collaborators. Chang’s Citaric Melodies III forgoes electronics for a larger ensemble. With greater instrumental colouration, winds and electric guitar to supplement violin and viola to construct a varied but translucent web of overlapping sounds. The piece is brighter and more varied than the preceding works. As a stand-alone, it can feel more superficial in comparison with the other pieces, but in context it provides a pleasing contrast.

Finally, Lamb’s Prisma Interius VI (for v.t.) continues the series of works she has made from mixing live musicians with synthesized processing of external ambient sound. The initial theme of the album is resumed, with only the two violas and a cello playing within an ambient space of harmonised environmental sounds. It’s an urban environment, which can sometimes intrude harshly. The grey, unstable drone of city sounds and reduced instrumental colours create a piece that feels like the Viola Torros pieces with further layers stripped away. It’s never quite ‘nearly nothing’; the musicianship throughout is almost folkloric at times, but it’s folklore removed to a distant, half-remembered time and place. I’d have loved to have heard it live, but the CDs will do nicely.

* Fictional artists are a bugbear of mine, along with imaginary movie soundtracks. Both make me reflexively anticipate a conceptual smokescreen to mask an artistic deficiency.

Serious Listening Weekend

Monday 3 October 2016

Are you playing an instrument or playing music? I’m old-fashioned enough to be leery of improvisation. Spent the weekend listening to new(ish) CDs of music that was not strictly composed; not in the authorial sense. For most of them I could make the argument that these are compositions, not improvisations.

There’s a growing, interesting genre of music that defines, develops and interprets compositional parameters as a joint process between musicians. These pieces aren’t an a priori realisation of a composer’s indeterminate score, nor are they spontaneously improvised. This seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of examples of these methods going back as far as “free improvisation” in the 1960s. There was “group composition” but that was just a term for improv musos who had to play art galleries instead of jazz clubs. It’s a sign that the genre is evolving, maturing.

I’ve been working through a rich vein of discs sent from the Another Timbre, Intonema and Immediata labels. Violinist Angharad Davies and pianist Tisha Mukarji recorded a set of improvisations over two days this February, released under the title ffansïon | fancies. In an interview on the website it mentions that the second day of recording was forced by “circumstances”, but this helped the album immensely. Material from the first day was evidently reworked, developed and refined for takes used on the final release. (“It struck me that this is a particularly fruitful way of using improvisation.”) The results show the benefit of additional time for reflection. Each piece reveals a focus on detail without losing sight of an overall direction or shape. Sounds are allowed to develop and change over time without rambling, giving each piece a character that can range from spiky pointillism to deconstructed folk music.

The St Petersburg-based Intonema label finds plenty of room to wander within what appears at first to be a pretty narrow range of music. The wandering is both musical and geographical. Tri presents a state-of-the-art improvisation in electroacoustic music with venerable electric guitarist Keith Rowe and Ilia Belorukov and Kurt Liedwart on various instruments, objects, computer processing and electronics. It documents a live performance and listening at home it’s hard to get too excited about all the technique on display. Sympathy to the guy in track one with the cough.

In contrast, Belorukov’s collaboration with Gaudenz Badrutt on electronics and “objects” and Jonas Kocher on accordion makes for fascinating listening. Rotonda is a live performance inside the Mayakovsky Library in St Petersburg. The musicians note that the space of the rotunda and its specific acoustics makes it “the fourth collaborator” in the piece. A compositional constraint is introduced: “acute attention to silences and extremely careful work with sound”. A slow, deliberately-paced music unfolds over nearly 50 minutes, each performer knowing that the resonance of the space will fill and colour their inactivity. A welcome relief from the horror vacui that affects so many musicians, without ever becoming a dry, didactic exercise in silence.

Tooth Car features Canadians Anne-F Jacques and Tim Olive playing live in the US: two fairly short extracts, which may be all that is needed for audio only. The limitations here are mechanical. Jacques constructs rotating surfaces that are played and amplified, while Olive amplifies other objects with magnetic pickups. The rotating devices provide regular ostinati throughout each piece and the various colours of metallic scraping suggest something close to sound sculpture.

For real group composition, Polis presents a combine, of intentional sounds and unexpected factors. Electroacoustic composers Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan and Louie Rice collaborated by preparing compositions and then mixed them, playing the mix through a car sound system that drove to various locations around the city of Porto. A complex but not impenetrable blending of sounds emerge, with different tracks overlapping each other, elaborated upon by different locations and live sampling of urban spaces. A neat convergence of pure sound, documentary, field recording and spatialisation.

Perhaps more conventional, Volume by the duo Illogical Harmonies on the Another Timbre label clearly identifies itself as a jointly composed piece. The violinist Johnny Chang and double bass player Mike Majkowski improvised together over several months, transcribing, performing and revising until they had sculpted this hour-long suite of five movements. This painstaking process has produced a beautifully restrained and focused performance, which at first sounds like a concentrated study on intonation and tuning but on closer listening reveals beautiful details of refined ornamentation and subtle relief.

Anthony Pateras has built a career out of being both a composer and an improviser, and his own Immediata label has recently produced a series of limited edition CDs of works that lurk in the grey area between the two domains. (Downloads are also available on Bandcamp.) I was going to discuss a couple of these now but I’ve just been listening again to his collaboration with Erkki Veltheim, Entertainment = Control. We’re back to straight violin and piano here and this bravura performance is part lost minimal epic, part social commentary, part virtuosic tour-de-force and part pisstake. I was going to say this disc is ideal if you think The Necks are too fussy or Charlemagne Palestine is too straightlaced, but then I started reading the extensive sleeve notes again. Pateras and Veltheim discuss fascism and sadomasochism, the Marx brothers, punk cabaret and the plague of El Sistema amongst other things and I can see I need to save all this for a separate post.