Reprise: Eventless Plot, Catherine Lamb

Monday 7 December 2020

They’ve already put out some great stuff this year, but in the last couple of months both Eventless Plot and Catherine Lamb have each released another album. While Eventless Plot’s Another Timbre album Parallel Words showed the trio – Vasilis Liolios, Yiannis Tsirikoglou and Aris Giatas – acting as group composers for a small ensemble, Surfaces places the focus back on them as performers. It’s, basically, percussion: there are electronics at work in there – Max/MSP, that sort of thing – as well as plain old electrical devices, and the sleeve notes assure the listener that there really is an analog modular synth and guitar to be heard somewhere, too. The percussion instruments and associated sounds of small, amplified objects predominate, with the more technically advanced devices being used in a similar percussion-like manner. By ‘percussion-like’, I mean here that the trio takes the approach to percussion described by Vinko Globokar in his essay “Anti-Badabum“, where they treat their instruments “simply to invest each movement, however innocuous it first seems to be, with a meaning.” The technique is akin to James Tenney’s percussion postcard pieces, or John Cage’s later percussion works, alive to the inherent sonic qualities of objects. If there’s a compositional scheme behind this recording, then it’s sufficiently loose to allow for this type of exploration. The title Surfaces describes both their manner of playing and the music they make: passages of sound whose gross attributes appear static while being constantly alive and changing with subtle variations in timbre and texture. Ageing mechanical devices combined with inspired instrumental choices and insidious granular synthesis produce a complex, organic sound. At one critical point, they would appear to leave one piece of equipment running alone, just doing its thing.

Fresh from hearing Catherine Lamb’s vast synthesiser opus wave/forming (astrum), I’m now returned to more familiar turf with her Prisma Interius VII & VIII. The Prisma Interius series is written for live musicians with added harmonic resonance from synthesisers, made by taking sound from outside the performance space as a source for subtractive synthesis. The dynamics and coloration form a kind of harmonic space which contains the musicians inside a rarefied environment, a world that can define its own passing of time. Both pieces here stretch out towards forty minutes without ever feeling long, or even particularly slow. I’ve heard parts of this cycle before, with the same lightness of touch and faint folkish traces, but Prisma Interius VII seems to be the clearest expression in this series yet. Regular collaborator Johnny Chang on solo violin evokes a time and place with a simplicity of melody that’s unobtrusive enough to seem inevitable. The harmonic coloration is faint at first, then grows in your consciousness while never dominating, always an elusive counterpart, a true dialogue de l’ombre double (without Boulez’ crude and distracting manipulations). It has that fusion of form and content as experienced in nature, where you grasp it at once but keep coming back to it differently each time. Prisma Interius VIII expands from solo to the Harmonic Space Orchestra, an all-star ensemble on tenor recorder and low strings. For what it loses in lightness of touch, it gains in a wider pitch spectrum and drama, without stooping to the dramatic. Sometimes, the musicians stop, leaving you to wonder how the silence might reassert itself.

All That Dust, Batch 3: Lamb, Braxton, Pateras and Veltheim

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Things to be thankful for: music keeps getting made and the third batch of releases from All That Dust has come through as planned. Two are also available on CD, one as download only in binaural stereo. The three new albums share a particularly gratifying theme in these troubled times, that of an artistic retrofuturism that is finally being redeemed. I can’t be the only person who digs up old documents from fertile periods of the avant-garde and marvels at how many great pieces, artists and ideas languish in a dusty bottom drawer of art history. I listened to all three here and felt like some of these threads were being taken up and given new purpose. Catherine Lamb’s wave/forming (astrum) takes her work with synthesisers in a bold new direction. Having previously used them as a type of enhanced resonator, here they become the primary sound source. Two instruments, built and played by Bryan Eubanks and Xavier Lopez, map out harmonic patterns across a defined space. Cycles abound, slowly looping through the harmonic spectrum, across the stereo field and in the overlapping rhythmic pulses that lock in with your theta waves. The pulses, tunings, bright-coloured but soft-edged sounds and extended duration suggest it’s a lost electronic classic from the Seventies. Its constant transformations belie an academic rigor that keeps hippie vulgarity at bay while still making for a long, strange trip. This one’s the binaural recording, so good headphones and any personally administered assistance will get your head spinning out through the long, dark second wave lockdown.

All That Dust have generally liked to mix up old and new in their releases, but the oldest set this time is a selection from Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Solos. My innate aversion to jazz always leaves me approaching Braxton like a fussy child picking the good bits out of a plate of fried rice, so I cling to albums like this where I can fully embrace his approach to music. Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music comprises more than 150 pieces written over ten years or so, straddling the turn of the century. Drawing on concepts from Native American dance and musical practice, he composed modular kits with defined melodic material and entry points for improvisation, subroutines, collage and intertextual cross-references. Three primary works are presented here, each incorporating parts of other Braxton pieces. Kobe Van Cauwenberghe takes a highly inventive and distinct approach to the scores: he plays alone, on electric guitar, augmented with electronics. There is some overdubbing amongst the real-time looping, as well as a hybrid type of overdub in which he cues in samples from pre-recorded takes of the material. The music pursues erratic, discontinuous lines that can drift away into moments of dream-logic, a fantastic beast part Christian Wolff, part John Zorn. The tension between these two forces cracks open new ideas. Each of the successive pieces opens up into something wilder and woolier as Van Cauwenberghe takes the increased rhythmic freedom and adds greater tonal variety and more eccentric techniques. This is true postmodernism, an ecclecticism that retains a clear character throughout, never stooping to pastiche.

I promised to write more about Anthony Pateras’ music last week, having noted his recent tendency to strip back his often frenetic style into something elemental, placing an instrument’s timbre and resonance front and centre as the subject. Duos for Other Instruments is his latest collaboration with fellow provocative musician Erkki Veltheim. Their previous duets – The Slow Creep of Convenience and Entertainment = Control – have been large, monolithic works which confront the listener with the inherent contradictions of ‘minimalist’ music, at once subversive and commodified. The two pieces presented here, recorded in Melbourne in June, are briefer but even more severe. Ersatz is a twenty-minute trill for viola and celeste, Golden Point the same but for harpsichord and mandolin. The pitches never change – there seems to be a Scelsi-like rising of maybe a sixth-tone in the mandolin but that might be my ears playing tricks on me, or the instruments giving out. The quaint, modestly-voiced instrumentation and manageable dimensions might imply these are less ambitious works, with something of the salon concert about them, but their obstinate singularity of material and structure make their passivity all the more aggressive. All of the musical action comes from the inadvertent interplay of the overtones in the instruments’ timbres, a homespun analogue of Lamb’s synthesisers, with Veltheim’s viola in Ersatz blurring into a single, unknowable instrument and the dual protagonists of Golden Point exchanging identities from one moment to the next. The two play with a stamina that is more dogged than perfectionist, preferring to exploit the situation of a fragile collaboration that could turn adversarial.

Playing: Catherine Lamb – Cristián Alvear, James Weeks – Mira Benjamin

Thursday 29 August 2019

I’m listening to people playing instruments, making music. Are they playing with, or on, their instruments? It’s a trickier question here, as the musicians are performing scores composed for them by other people. If the playing here is to be understood as exploration, then it comes from the composer’s curiosity and from the musician discovering what can be made from the composer’s vision. Making music like this becomes largely a question of possibilities, balanced against the need for some level of restraint.

Both are solos, but augmented. Catherine Lamb’s piece, Point/Wave, is for guitarist. Accompaniment comes from the ‘Secondary Rainbow Synthesizer’: amplified ambient sound filtered into resonant frequencies. This is apparently the first piece she wrote using the device, which has since formed the basis of her Prisma Interius series of works. The sounds in Point/Wave are more clearly defined and separated here than in the later works; this would be partly due to the sole performer and to the bright, clear attack and decay of the guitar. The piece is conceptually clear, but with harmonic sophistication. The guitarist Cristián Alvear plays a cycle of chords over, or against, the passing harmonic clouds of the ambient synthesizer. Whether the two relate or not is a moot point: the interaction is one of two processes at work, each producing sounds of alternating clarity and complexity. The synthesizer’s changes are governed by the outside world; for the guitar, Lamb has composed an “infinite cycle” of chords related to smaller and larger prime numbers. Acoustic phenomena are explored and demonstrated, but in a lyrical, non-dogmatic way, rather like Alvin Lucier’s later works combining instruments with pure tones. I like that Lamb expresses her frustrations with the guitar through the piece, with the awkward tuning and quick decay turned into a virtue that adds extra colour to the sound. The piece was written for Alvear, a guitarist who has a knack of finding the space for potential shading and texture in the most seemingly reductive scores. He gives the piece warmth and presence, using a classical guitar to speak clearly, in a way Lamb thought would only be possible with steel strings.

Any play in James Weeks’ windfell is of a more serious nature. This hour-long solo for violin is also augmented: the musician is expected to sing vocalise from time to time. The piece was written for Mira Benjamin, so presumably her high, clear vocal tones are a requirement for anyone else attempting the piece. The inner sleeve of the CD warns listeners that the first five minutes or so are almost inaudible. The sounds are the most rudimentary type, the kind of inadvertent noises made in preparation to play. The home listener, already slightly apprehensive of what might follow (“resist the impulse to turn up the volume”) is then led through an open labyrinth, in which the path is marked but the ultimate direction never clear. After several hearings, it’s still hard to remember exactly where this path led. The piece doesn’t exactly build up from its near-silences, but transforms itself in ways which never seem a sudden divergence yet always efface the memory of what passed immediately before. Damndest thing. Pauses mark changes of direction; each section carries a tension with it, but the gestures are never hurried. Sounds are frequently sustained and repeated, with a restraint that always refuses to indulge the listener. Changes are marked by difference in pitch and intonation, rather than gesture and registration – just enough to be heard as new. The voice joins in at times, or whistling to blend in with the harmonics. Sometimes the voice provides three-part harmony with the double-stops – by this point in the piece, the music has become strongly present, perhaps even loud. Later, you notice things have become quieter again. Weeks (married to a violinist) demonstrates a deep understanding of the instrument, doubtlessly aided by Benjamin’s performance, a mixture of calmness and absolute control, the kind of heroic qualities that come from balancing contradictory impulses, as heard in her previous performances.

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.

Is This Wandelweiser? West Coast Soundings

Monday 27 October 2014

I think I’ve ragged on Wandelweiser a few times recently, finding fault with its apparent sense conformity and complacency. It’s not completely true, of course, and as it happens I was just sent a copy of the new Edition Wandelweiser release West Coast Soundings, a double CD which makes an excellent case for the whole Wandelweiser aesthetic and the musical thinking behind it.

This album was crowdfunded last year under the name “Cage’s Grandchildren” (this title still comes up in the CD metadata). It might well have also been called “Tenney’s Children”: James Tenney is the only featured composer from a preceding generation, and his Harmonium #1 dates from 1976 while all the other works are less than 10 years old. Most of the composers here studied with Tenney, or at Cal Arts. Harmonium #1 isn’t the point of origin for all the music here and the album makes no such claim, but the work appears later on Disc 1 as a touchstone for this genre of music.

Like John Cage, Tenney produced a bewilderingly diverse body of work which opened up so many potential new paths of discovery. West Coast Soundings takes Harmonium #1 as a reference point for one particular set of ideas: a focus on the qualities of sound itself as a subject, listening in the present without narrative context, an emphasis on process and structure, but aimed towards elaboration of the sonic content, not teleological development.

Having complained about Wandelweiser’s output getting too samey, this collection is beautifully varied and balanced, presenting different facets of the above mentioned musical concerns while still maintaining an overall mood. I’ve played it in various situations and, for twelve pieces over two hours, surprisingly it’s never felt like an endurance test. More “typical” works – long-held tones blending together, a gentle but implacable aimlessness – are given a distinct identity by being thrown into contrast against music like the sinuous electronic drone of Chris Kallmyer’s Between the Rhine and Los Angeles. Liam Mooney’s 180°, in which performers press triangles against dry ice, recalls Cage’s interest in finding new sounds, Tenney’s percussion music, sound sculpture and Fluxus happenings.

The smaller, slighter works play an important role. Mark So’s brief segue makes a mysterious introduction to the album, with cellist Anton Lukoszevieze acting as the text’s reciter. Casey Anderson’s possible dust can’t add more to Cage’s works for multiple radios, but is sequenced here as a distinctive palate cleanser before Michael Pisaro’s quietly powerful A single charm is doubtful (Gertrude Stein).

After being disappointed with Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight last month, I was very pleased to find her piece Frame for Flute the highlight of the two CDs. Written for (not so fast!) grand bass recorder and cello, the two instruments echo off each other. The sonorous notes played by Lukoszevieze and recordist Lucia Mense merge and diverge, creating rich but subtle differences in tone that often sound as though they were electronically manipulated.

Brian Olewnick’s blog gives a good summary of all the pieces played and who plays them. West Coast Soundings turns out to be one of the best kind of surprises, one that is satisfying instead of sensationalistic, when you were only expecting more of the same.

Konzert Minimal play Antoine Beuger and Catherine Lamb

Thursday 25 September 2014

I’ve been getting to know Catherine Lamb’s music. Listening to the CD of her trio three bodies (moving) from Another Timbre has been one of the year’s high points, along with her vocal work Dilations and recent orchestral piece portions transparent/opaque. The immediate point for comparison is Morton Feldman’s music: apart from the obvious preoccupation with a similar soundworld of hushed stillness, there are similar concerns with the contradictory impulses towards feeling and form and the tension in maintaining a balance between the two. She also says, rather reassuringly, “I am open to the bland”. There’s this quality many composers have struggled to define, of impassive beauty in stasis, non-demonstrative; the quality Feldman sought when he “tried not to push the sounds around”, that Cage praised in Satie wanting to make Socrate “white and pure like antiquity”.

Last Thursday Konzert Minimal played Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight at Cafe Oto, so I had to be there to hear it live for myself. They also played Antoine Bueger’s meinong nonets, which I was eager to hear for a different reason. I wrote a bit about hearing Beuger’s en una noche oscura last year and how it left me unimpressed. Sadly the second chance at hearing Beuger live only reinforced my opinion. I described last year’s exposure as “stilted and precious, disappointingly inert” and came away with much the same impression this time.

The Lamb piece didn’t work for me on the night, either. There’s bland and then there’s bland. Worse still, material/highlight, which was played first, sounded pretty much as what I remembered the Beuger sounded like, which the subsequent piece then confirmed. I’m looking at the reviews of three bodies (moving) and I find this: “a feeling of richness and harmonic depth that separates Lamb from most of the music of the Wandelweiser composers.” It’s a pity that distinction is missing from material/highlight.

I’ve got a problem with Wandelweiser (of which Beuger is a co-founder). I’ve got a problem with any art movement really (a sure sign of lots of distracting chaff), but what I’ve heard of Wandelweiser that impresses me the most is the way so many composers have found so many ways to write music that sounds the same. Long, soft tones. Pauses. It’s not just those stilted, precious, inert qualities that in themselves make the music uninteresting; it’s the sense that everyone’s working very deep within a comfort zone, that nothing is open to risk of any sort. It’s like a collective failure of nerve that’s permeated music over the past few decades: holy minimalists, lower case glitch musos, post-Feldmanites, Wandelweiser, all struck dumb in awe of their meagre materials, held in abeyance for fear that a false move is worse than no move at all.