Silence, Directness and Naïvety: Lang, Lely, Stiebler & Kanitz

Sunday 17 July 2022

I’ve been re-reading some of James Pritchett’s writing about John Cage and was reminded of how much there is still to understand about his music. This time, it was about the role of silence; not just as a presence but as the fundamental upon which all of his music is based, as an essential element for sound to exist at all. As with much of Cage, it’s a simple observation with profound implications that are easily overlooked. As it happens, the idea became suddenly relevant to me when listening to the new collection of pieces on Another Timbre by Klaus Lang, a composer who has specialised in silences, often prolonged, sometimes unresolved. The pieces on Tehran Dust confound his reputation by having sound always present, yet treating sounds as the consequence of silence gives rise to strange effects. The means used here – a simple trio – are clear enough, but the methods are not. The first piece, origami. from 2011, creates a ghostly presence of shadowy tones whose origins are obscure, even as you read the sleeve notes for the personnel involved, gradually establishing a more recognisable material form. Trio Amos (Sylvie Lacroix, flute; Krassimir Sterev, accordion; Michael Moser, cello) make the most of the ability of each instrument to range from thin and reedy to sonorous and full. While the cello-accordion duet tehran dust. makes for a more conventional chorale, the longest piece darkness and freedom. from 2017 builds something more substantial from the preceding ideas, transforming sound and structure in a more sophisticated and less obtrusive way. Lang joins the trio on organ for two brief arrangements of Ockeghem and Pierre de la Rue, just to orient you on where he’s coming from.

After the bleak austerities of his earlier music, does this mean that Lang is softening, or have our ears hardened? Probably both: he has to listen, too. (Another overlooked facet of Cage is his recognition that silence changes with the times.) Is John Lely softening too? His music has been, and continues to be, a matter of process, naked and unadorned. His The Harmonics of Real Strings play out like one of James Tenney’s Postcard Pieces and his piano release from last year, Orrery, displays a similar single-mindedness. Meander Selection, one of a set of five new Apartment House albums, presents a set of seven pieces that seem almost lyrical by comparison. Focusing on string quartets and solo piano, the first four works could almost function as a suite, despite being conceived in different circumstances over eight years. The held, homogeneous chords of Doubles from 2012 alter with the staccato repetitions of 2020’s Karnaugh Quartet, a contrast produced by track sequencing which highlights Lely’s predominant interest in contemplating each compositional element in isolation. The looped, whispered electrical static of Pale Signal makes a brief, enigmatic interlude before the title work, arranged here for string quartet as a steely counterpart to Doubles. If there are processes at work here, they are less obvious. The two piano works use similar patterning of single notes heard in Orrery, but their manner is less readable, even as the affective value is more tractable. The brief Nocturne slows things down to induce introspection, while for Philip allows notes to decay over each other, with variations in patterning, alternations and repetitions that suggest two voices, solo and accompaniment. Stopping at the Sheer Edge Will Never Abolish Space (2020) is also arranged for string quartet, but with two violas instead of the extra violin. The moving and the motionless are brought into collision here, with plaintive cadences rolling out against an unvarying, repeated note. Colouring changes, but slightly, as each instrument takes its turn to provide the pulse. The preponderance of violas add to the melancholy, while faint percussive disturbances add to the unease.

Is it even right to call this opening out of a straitened musical world a softening? I’ve already used the word ‘sophisticated’ once in this post, but that doesn’t necesarily means the methods at work are less direct. Ernstalbrecht Stiebler‘s earlier music is as direct as it could be, while refuting our complacent association of directness with frankness (vide Robert Hughes summing up Those Bricks at the Tate: “Anyone except a child can make such things.”) In the same way, we like to think we can understand the Naïve in art, mistaking it for the Primitive, which we assume to be guileless. The adamant stasis of Stiebler’s music from the 1980s and 1990s has lately loosened to permit messier shapes and textures, but the expressive substance is more closely related than it first seems. The connection with the Naïve is overwhelmingly demonstrated in Stiebler’s recent collaborations with cellist Tilman Kanitz: recorded at Kanitz’s studio over the past year with Stiebler on a slightly shaggy piano, the two unite in improvisations that verge on the sentimental yet somehow retain their decorum. The Pankow-Park Sessions Vol. 1 selects a half-dozen of these recordings, apparently 85-year-old Stiebler’s first concerted attempts at improvisation. It’s all very different, in its freshness and its seeming normality, capturing the two performers in spontaneous dialogue, informal and at ease in each other’s company. I don’t think they ever lapse into quotation, or even put their earnest romanticism into quotation marks, but they inhabit this genteel language so comfortably that I don’t dare think it could be disingenuous.

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.

Klaus Lang & Golden Fur: Beissel

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Usually, when someone says that a piece grows on you, they mean that they didn’t like it at first but then came to find at least certain aspects to admire. I’ve started to write this review without any clear idea of what I’m going to say about Beissel, because it is a work so protean in nature that it is much harder to define than its form at first suggests. The piece keeps growing with each hearing, accruing new qualities that both enhance and confound what had been heard before. Another half-dozen hearings and my review would be different again to what I had originally planned to write after listening the first time around.

To start with some facts: Beissel is a collaboration between composer/performers Klaus Lang and the trio Golden Fur (Samuel Dunscombe, clarinets; Judith Hamann, cello; James Rushford, viola and harmonium). The work is a group composition, performed in the abbey at St Lambrecht near Styria in Austria, in 2016. Lang is best known for his compositions made from faint traces of sound, at times hardly there at all (listeners may or may not notice that his early string quartet The Sea of Despair ends with 20 minutes of silence.) As an ensemble, I’ve only previously heard Golden Fur as interpreters of other composers’ works.

To continue my simplistic caricature of Lang’s music, Golden Fur have drawn him out of his shell for this session. The most significant moment in Beissel comes early on, when the harmonium rises up out of the church organ’s tones in a different intonation, at once wonky and radiant like a force of nature. It’s quite glorious and is emblematic of the music to follow. For forty-five minutes the music flows from rest to restiveness, at once disturbing and oddly reassuring. Each performer blends in yet can also act as a goad from time to time, pushing the sound out of any complacent consensus.

The other instruments combine in ways which can make them difficult to distinguish, giving them the aural trick of taking on qualities from whatever I’ve just listened to before. On certain hearings, the music has resembled electric guitar drones, string ensembles, large solo organ, pure electronics, a phantom flute. Like I said, the music is protean. The title refers to Johann Conrad Beissel, the 18th century religious leader who travelled to America to found a utopian religious community. He devised a compositional method of algorithmic permutations, designed to reinterpret the text of the bible as music. Beissel is apparently one of these hymns, slowed down to glacial stillness.

It would be nice to praise the playing as focused, but there’s a tremendous sense of freedom in what’s happening, of sounds discovered in a shared moment. The source material allows a rich field of possible combinations, where strange tunes and harmonies are liable to burst out at any moment. Beissel is a fine example of the artist as a critic, opening up new avenues of exploration in existing work. The playing of the four musicians captures an act of rediscovery, unveiling an alternative musical world.