The End of Time: Olivier Messiaen, Linda Catlin Smith

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Who would have thought that Messiaen needed rescuing? Yet all this time, in full view, his reputation has been in peril. Despite his secure position as one of the great figures of twentieth century music, he is often met with the Wrong Sort of apprehension – not for being “too modern” but for being too ornate and overbearing, loaded down with symbolism that he elaborates upon to an extent that tests the audience’s Sitzfleisch. He was teacher to a generation of avant-garde luminaries who waved off his radical techniques and gently dismissed him with the contempt bred by familiarity. Messiaen is now a double image that cannot be reconciled; he has been embraced by an audience at the expense of his modernity, while the more progressively minded continue to regard his modernity askance. We are only permitted to see him in part at any time. Advocating for him as an innovator is made to seem like a revisionist act.

It seems like a bold move for a new recording of Quatuor pour la fin du temps to be released by Another Timbre, a record label that’s made its name for working a rich seam of contemporary music while seldom straying beyond a range that extends from, say, John Tilbury to Wandelweiser. For those already familiar with this classic, this interpretation should come as a discreet but satisfying revelation. Rather than trying to reinterpret or (God forbid) ‘reimagine’ Messiaen, the musicians make a clear-eyed attempt to see his work plain. As with many twentieth century composers, first recordings of Messiaen have a rawness that comes with the strangeness of the new musical idiom and the need to emphasise the new, alien quality. A modern group taking this stark, ‘just the notes’ approach would be boring, uninflected and perversely colourless. For Another Timbre, the musicians are Heather Roche on clarinet, violinist Mira Benjamin, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, and Philip Thomas on piano. I’m sure I’ve discuss solo performances and recordings by all four musicians many times before. They each excel at new and contemporary music, through both technical achievement and interpretive nous. They approach the Quatuor as a contemporary work, combining flowing virtuosity with an appreciation for grit, never taking the composer’s craft for granted.

This performance-based approach produces rhythms and phrasing that are more deliberate (not necessarily slower) than other versions I remember. It stays true to the complex emotional experience of hearing the sute of eight movements while giving clarity to certain points. The opening “Liturgie de Cristal” emphasises is strangeness through its abruptness, hammered home by the sudden contrasts in the following Vocalise. Messiaen comes across as prescient of current musical trends here, particularly in the glacially slow clarinet solo “Abîme des oiseaux”, played by Roche with a tone that’s both pensive and unyielding, and “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes”. The latter, played by all four in unison, is the most arresting version I’ve heard: the lock-step precision produces a unique timbre and repeated phrases take on an urgency I haven’t heard before. Messiaen has the capacity to shock.

The Quatuor is paired with a piece for the same four instruments by Linda Catlin Smith, whose work has been presented on Another Timbre a couple of times before. Among the Tarnished Stars is an older work, from the late Nineties, which may be why it bears some more overt resemblances to other composers. In particular, it recalls late Feldman at his most extroverted, i.e. short fragments of lyricism in a tone that’s more wistful than claustrophobic. Piano plays against the clarinet and strings like a muted concerto. A less overtly dramatic work than the Messiaen, it still provides plenty of contrasts and incidents while still feeling compact at half an hour length. Heard alone, it could provide a fitting epilogue to the Quatuor, but in fact precedes it on the disc. It seems an unusual choice to have the later work first, but in this way it sets a new context in which Messiaen may be heard. Smith’s music is clearly a work of the present time without ornamenting itself with any overt signifiers of end-of-century fashions, whether cultural, social or technological. Messiaen’s connections with contemporary music may now be more closely observed.

Canadian Composers Concluded: Smith, Jang, Olsen

Wednesday 29 August 2018

I mean this as highest praise to say the new Linda Catlin Smith CD on Another Timbre is more of the same. The two previous releases of her music, Dirt Road and Drifter, are superb and this disc of ensemble pieces played by Apartment House continues with the same fusion of clarity and sophistication in conception and execution. Wanderer is less diverse in its sound palette than the two-CD set Drifter, but gains in coherence, with the selection of works coming across as an extended suite. The piano acts as a thread running through the music, with Morning Glory beginning as a solo before opening out into different instrumental colours. Smith has a striking way of using her instruments selectively, choosing for each one a time to speak and a time to be silent. The piano runs like a spine through the next few pieces, changing to harpsichord in a very melancholy Sarabande before finding sensuous depths in the restricted colour range of the piano duet Velvet. By the end of the disc, the piano is subsumed into the ensemble for Wanderer, contributing small fragments in contrast to the other instruments, before finally disappearing for the final piece, a pensive duet for cello and vibraphone.

As mentioned before, when hearing Apartment House play Stare at the River live at Cafe Oto, Smith is still capable of surprising the listener. That work appears here, along with other facets of Smith’s work not heard on the previous two albums. Knotted Silk’s abrupt, staccato piano chords and percussion held against sustained winds and strings are suitably evocative, while the brief piano solo Music for John Cage is unexpectedly winsome, both embracing his professed openness in aesthetics while teasing him for his asceticism.

I’ve suggested that the composers heard so far in this Canadian Composer Series share common interests in the usage of traditional forms and harmony, “repurposed into something new and – not so much strange, as uncanny.” There is also a similar usage of volume, constant and subdued, and a general absence of frenetic activity – the usual busywork of virtuosic presenteeism. The two other titles in Another Timbre’s Canadian series deviate from this formula, to lesser and greater degrees. I described Alex Jang’s piece distributed tourism as a more elusive presence, “with more diffuse sounds and an obscure structure that put the listeners on much less certain ground” when played live. His new CD, momentary encounters, opens with a softly whispered statement. For momentary encounters (5), clarinettist Heather Roche plays sustained, isolated tones outdoors; in this instance, out on Tooting Bec Common. The musician’s overt activity is minimal, the instrument acting as a framing device for the ambient sounds. Like an artist’s intervention on a found object, perspective is subtly but indelibly shifted, composing the surrounding sounds as much as the musician’s instrument.

The remaining works are conventional recordings of acoustic instruments in studio but that first piece is instructive. In any three players, members of Apartment House play a slowly drifting melody on melodica, vibraphone and cello, the three voices intertwining, merging and diverging. Their manner of playing produces sounds that may be characterised as faint or fragile, but are closer to Cage’s definition of ’empty sounds’, receptive to other adjacent sounds, variable in nature and open to interpretation, not crowding themselves out with absolute certainty of pitch or timbre. Cristián Alvear provides his skill for immobile inner calm when playing the solo guitar piece a gray, bent interior horizon, a work more silence than sound, each plucked note a muted harmonic, both ringing and stifled. When the disc ends with Apartment House playing the aforementioned distributed tourism, it feels almost normal.

The big new discovery in this set of discs would be Dark Heart by Lance Austin Olsen, if it were fair to call an artist in his seventies discovered only today. This CD is the outlier in the entire series, in background, method and sound. Olsen is a painter, musician and composer – his artwork appears on a number of the titles in this series. Visual arts are the instigations for several pieces recorded here and all the works are collaborations, each in a different way. Theseus’ Breath is both painting and graphic score and is presented in two realisations, one by members of Apartment House – who have form for this type of thing – and an ensemble including Ryoko Akama, Isaiah Ceccarelli and Katelyn Clark. When comparing the two versions, the most striking thing is how similar they are, despite the difference in instrumentation and musicians. There is clearly more going on than a visually ‘inspired’ improvisation. The presence of electronics in the sound mix is also a notable divergence from the other composers in the series. The electronics are lo-fi and homespun but not quaint; of the messy sort, not the domesticated.

Unlike at the Oto gig, conventional instruments disappear altogether for the two large pieces that fill the disc, pushing further into that nebulous region where sound becomes both the material and the subject. Both Dark Heart and A Meditation on the History of Painting are collages; like painting, a synthesis of gesture and editing, with traces of the two processes preserved in the medium. Dark Heart began as tapes guitarist Terje Paulsen sent to Olsen, which he then worked with, set aside for years, and then reworked. A low relief of electric guitar sounds, field recordings, snippets of television drama and other “found objects” string together narrative elements that never resolve into a clear message but remain obscured, like a journey recalled from a dream. The half-hour presented here itself an edit; the full version supposedly exists on the Another Timbre website, somewhere.

For A Meditation on the History of Painting the collaborators’ roles are reversed. The graphic score was made by the Venezuelan artist and composer Gil Sansón; Olsen produced the realisation. Outdoor sounds give way to distant voices, then a haunting mix of organ reeds signalling to each other like foghorns. It’s a tremendously eerie effect, pardoxially becoming more atmospheric as the silence intrudes more and more. The spacing and positioning of the sounds produce a paradoxially cinematic experience through listening, made all the more potent by the avoidance of explanation.

Real Live Canadians at Cafe Oto

Monday 20 August 2018

They were promised, and they delivered. It takes one hell of a strong programme to get me to bear an August evening inside Cafe Oto so of course I went to the Canadian Composers Series Concert last Monday. The first series produced some of the best gig moments from last year, launching the first half of Another Timbre’s series of ten CDs. Those first five releases were particularly strong and presented Canada as something of a hot spot for an intriguing group of contemporary composers. The long-awaited second half of the series has now finally dropped.

Two of the new discs are dedicated to Cassandra Miller, now resident in London. I’ve been hanging for these CDs to come out because Miller has a particular knack for messing with parts of my head that most other composers don’t reach. The Oto set was topped and tailed with her O Zomer!, a piece which perfectly illustrates what I’m talking about. A single, harmonic note is passed back and forth between cello and contrabass, over a muted vibraphone. It’s beautifully balanced, superbly judged, and then it all swerves into an unhinged whaling on piano, crotales and blaring trumpet. It stops, eventually. Crazy. For Mira is a brief but substantial work for solo violin which morphs back and forth between Bach partita and Handanger fiddle tune; it was played by its dedicatee, the Canadian Mira Benjamin. The musicians had the impertinence to start on time and so I missed the other solo turn, when Canadian clarinettist Heather Roche played Alex Jang’s momentary encounters (5) outside the venue.

Together with musicians from Apartment House and conductor Jack Sheen, they played four chamber works by Linda Catlin Smith, including Blackwing, a world premiere not listed in the advance publicity. I’ve praised Smith’s music on several previous occasions but I need to point out her ability to keep surprising me with pieces such as Stare at the River, where piano, trumpet, double bass and percussion evoke cool jazz before solidifying into a stately procession.

Another great part of the night was getting to hear two more composers with whom I’m not at all familiar. I’ve heard one short piece by Alex Jang, which suggested a similarity with other composers in this series: a use of traditional forms and harmony, repurposed into something new and – not so much strange, as uncanny. His longer piece played at Oto, distributed tourism, was quite different from this, with more diffuse sounds and an obscure structure that put the listeners on much less certain ground. The ambiguousness of its sound was more pronounced by being the longest piece played on the night.

There was also a sense of certainties breaking up into suggestive but nebulous sounds in the other premiere of the night, the appropriately named Shadow Worlds by Lance Austin Olsen. I’m completely unfamiliar with Olsen’s work other than as a painter, including the covers of several CDs in this series. The combination of trumpet, cello, double bass and percussion approached sound in a different way, skirting between sound as material (for harmony, for timbre) and sound as subject unlike any of the other composers in the series. I’m looking forward to listening through the new CDs and reporting back after further investigation.

The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre: Sabat, Ceccarelli and live

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Three nights last week at Cafe Oto to hear concerts dedicated to The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre. As always, you get new perspectives on hearing and seeing music performed live, compared to what’s on the record. In their performance of Linda Catlin Smith’s Dirt Road, Mira Benjamin and Simon Limbrick revealed just how sparing, yet quietly decisive each gesture must be. The music’s language is pared back to the bones, yet never consciously feels empty or repetitive.

It was strange how different Chiyoko Szlavnics’ During a Lifetime sounded on the night. I’ve already noted how Szlavnics’ use of sine tones mixed with live instruments differs from their usual exploitation of psychoacoustic phenomena. This distinction became clearer in concert: the electronic tones act as an instrumental voice in their own right. At times, the musicians stop playing altogether, revealing harmonies – even chords – in pure tones before the instruments come in again to compound the sound. The music took on a poignant, melancholy aspect. The Konus Quartett reproduced their clear, pure tones beautifully.

The series ended with a world premiere, Lutra for solo cello, by Martin Arnold. I’ve drawn comparisons with Morton Feldman’s music before so I’ll add another here: the elevation of instrumental timbre as a compositional element, coupled with the determined restriction of that instrument’s sound. As with much of Feldman’s solo cello writing, Lutra remains constricted to harmonics and the highest registers throughout, without any of the instrument’s famous sonorous qualities. A long aria for countertenor, unaccompanied save by the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze humming (intentionally) for several passages. Taking sound at its most frail and revealing how it can endure.

The series began with a set of what were apparently largely improvised duets by Isaiah Ceccarelli and Katelyn Clark. Clark played organetto while Ceccarelli played percussion, a small keyboard or, unexpectedly, sang. Two such duets open and close his album Bow, while the rest of the disc contains compositions for string quartet and trio and two more semi-improvised duets, for violin and percussion. All of them share a strangely rustic aspect, with gently rocking, slightly ragged harmonies that, on occasion, give way to brief lyrical exclamations of utmost restraint. The subdued and homespun atmosphere kept reminding me of the British avant-garde in the early 1970s and, in a similar way, these deceptively simple pieces are staring to grow on me.

As a fan of James Tenney and Ben Johnston I was eager to hear more of Marc Sabat’s music. The two string quartets on Sabat’s CD, simply titled Harmony, share a soundworld closer to Tenney’s music for string ensembles, while combining both composers’ interest in making music for tuning systems outside of conventional Western equal temperament. The JACK Quartet gives nicely studied readings of 2012’s Jean-Philippe Rameau, in which Sabat uses just intonation to add a subtle torsion to an unbroken chain of chords, and the earlier, austere duet for violin and cello Claudius Ptolemy. In the latter work, sustained, isolated sounds brush up against each other like a piece by Webern in slow motion.

The other quartet, Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, is a longer and more varied work with occasional passages of more hurried activity. The tuning is based upon applying Euler‘s concept of the Tonnetz to pure harmonic intervals, without the need to restrict them to a palette of 12 fixed tones. The phrasing and some of the harmonies used are often reminiscent of Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, with added piquancy from the microtonal shifts in intonation. At Oto, members of Apartment House played a 2015 work, Gioseffo Zarlino, where Philip Thomas joined in on piano to make an oddly charming combination of tempered and untempered sounds. The night before, Thomas’ solo set included two more of Sabat’s works. Without having to wonder about tuning theory, Nocturne and Ich fahre nach Köln allowed me to admire the way Sabat could get lopsided figures to loop and intertwine without sounding congested, like an irreverent Scelsi, relieved of a spiritual burden.

The Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre: Smith, Arnold, Szlavincs

Monday 1 May 2017

In its own quiet way, this is one of the major events I’ve been looking forward to in 2017. Over the past year or so I haven’t been alone in noticing how much of the freshest, most intriguing and affecting music has been coming from Canadian composers. This week, there are three nights of music this week focusing on new music by these composers and more at Cafe Oto. The gigs are to launch the first five releases in a ten-disc Canadian Composers Series on Another Timbre. I’ve had all five on heavy rotation at home the last few days and will need to write more about them during/after hearing the live shows.

The double CD of works by Linda Catlin Smith, Drifter, opens with a duet for viola and vibraphone. Cantilena‘s instrumentation recalls the magnificent 70-minute violin and percussion Dirt Road Another Timbre put out last year and is a brighter, briefer work with fewer complications to mull over. Any suspicion that the album would offer diminishing returns are evaporated by the 2014 Piano Quintet and Drifter itself, another odd pairing of instruments, guitar and piano.

The Quintet presents a hothouse atmosphere of lyrical flourishes in the strings, framed by restive, unresolved harmonies in the piano. It’s like a passage from romantic European chamber music at its ripest, held in suspense, their details enhanced while their function is diminished. When the strings finally break into sustained drones against the piano, it serves only to maintain the cool tension already achieved. In Drifter, the two instruments play in turn, the guitar as an echo of the piano, the same chords but transformed by the change in timbre and decay, surprising the unsuspecting listener with the way the harmonic material appears to be subtly transformed. Eventually, each takes turns in leading on the other, or playing in unison, an unhurried interplay of two partners sounding out each others’ qualities.

Over ten pieces, Apartment House and Quatuor Bozzini present Smith as a composer capable of finding great diversity of expression within a single, coherent compositional voice that focuses on depth more than breadth. Suggestions and traces of other music styles are recalled, but never in pastiche. Those string arpeggios in the Piano Quintet relate equally to folk playing as to a salon. The clearly delineated phrases of the Ricercar for solo cello are modelled on Baroque music but do not imitate. Unexpected shifts in mood come in the strange processional Moi Qui Tremblais and in the final string quartet, Folkestone, a cycle of introspective fragments in fragile diminuendo.

A small book of interviews has been published together with the CDs. From what I’ve skimmed so far, some common themes emerge between composers: the isolation, allowing them to work in blissful ignorance of more common theoretical hang-ups occupying colleagues’ minds in the US or Europe, is spoken of approvingly more than once. There’s also a repeated referral to the legacy of John Cage, particularly via Morton Feldman. Previous generations who might have claimed such an influence would frequently be stridently avant-garde, often more in style than in substance. While never sounding derivative, distinct traits can be observed that show a firm understanding of Feldman’s music. Ambivalence of mood, the embrace of traditional harmony while simultaneously rejecting its traditional structural function. The allowance of stasis, a musical ‘surface’ of sustained dynamics, typically tending towards the quiet. A careful consideration of instruments’ attributes, enabling otherwise unusual combinations of instruments to be heard in new ways, in contrast or in complement.

Another echo of Feldman can be heard in Martin Arnold’s album, The Spit Veleta. The three works on this disc comprise a sort of extended suite. In each of them, the music continues in a slow and seemingly aimless way, yet always with a faint suggestion of a waltz. There’s always the sense of something a little faded, diffuse, of what might have once been a more rigid order. If the music that is left is more elusive, then it is at once more free yet more sophisticated. In Points & Walzes for solo piano and then in Slip Minuet for solo violin, each with titles referring to dances in triple rhythm, the musician (Philip Thomas and Mira Benjamin, respectively) circles elegantly, if a little erratically. The two combine on the final, title work.

In each piece, a change occurs halfway through. The delicate counterpoint of Points & Walzes gives way to a relentless tessitura of chords in the piano’s lower register. Slip Minuet suddenly turns to pizzicato, articulating a downbeat to a dance otherwise inaudible. There is more silence than sound, yet the underlying shape of the music is still clearly perceptible. It sounds like the violinist is accompanying a tune heard only in her head. In The Spit Veleta, the duo build a slow, complex rhythm of intertwining dances, before freezing, erasing almost all memory of the music with a succession of soft chords and dyads, played simultaneously. The piano sound decays, revealing the violin’s sustained tone underneath, a faint colouration of the silence suspended between one isolated chord and the next.

There’s a beautiful poignancy and melancholy in these pieces, found in the way that Arnold allows the matter of his music to be reduced to the most spare and etiolated state without ever suggesting that the music is withholding anything from the listener. For what could easily be considered as studies in decay, there is a welcome lack of postmodern didacticism. In fact, it reminded me more of modernist thinking. I’ve referred before to Guy Davenport’s quote that completing an image “involves a stupidity of perception“. Hugh Kenner observed that in the twentieth century, Westerners learned to interpret fragments outside of their original settings, gathering meaning from non-consecutive arrays. As Ezra Pound wrote, “Points define a periphery.” Perhaps in the respect these Canadians’ sensibility is like my own Australian one: as colonial cultures, we can accept ruins as what they are, not just what they once were.

This post is already too long and I want to write about Marc Sabat and Isaiah Ceccarelli after I’ve heard them live at Oto. Right now I need to mention Chiyoko Szlavnics’ remarkable During a Lifetime. Szlavnics pits live acoustic musicians against pure sine tones; a combination well-known for its use by Alvin Lucier, Warren Burt and others. While those latter composers typically exploit the small differences in intonation between acoustic pitches and pure tones, Szlavnics works with the same deceptively simple combinations to very different ends. During a Lifetime is for saxophone quartet and electronic tones, but for much of the piece sounds like neither. A large, complex multiphonic sound swells, pulses, grows rough and then smooth again as variances in tone between the instruments modulate each other as much as the sine waves do. The electronics merge and disappear, then emerge again as one of the voices in the ensemble. This played by the Konus Ensemble, who do an exceptional job of balancing clear tones against some subtle, raspier edges. I heard these guys’ superb performance of Jürg Frey’s Memoire, Horizon at Huddersfield a couple of years ago, and they’re playing both pieces at Oto on Thursday.

Violin+1: Bryn Harrison and Linda Catlin Smith

Monday 29 August 2016

First, I have to say that I had Linda Catlin Smith all wrong.

A couple of months ago Another Timbre released four CDs under the general title ‘Violin+1’: four violinists, each in duet with a different type of musician. Two of the discs are of composed works, the other two are jointly composed between the musicians through improvisation. Violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and pianist Mark Knoop play a new work by Bryn Harrison, Receiving the Approaching Memory. I raved about Harrison’s monumental piano piece Vessels a couple of years ago, hearing it live and on CD. At the time I made the inevitable comparison to Morton Feldman’s late works, but noted significant differences. Unlike Feldman’s carpet-inspired patterns, Vessels was more like a vast labyrinth, beguiling in the way Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano or Josef Matthias Hauer can be.

Receiving the Approaching Memory takes these aspects of Vessels and somehow makes them more subtle. The scale of the piece is less intimidating – scarcely more than half the length of Vessels and broken into five movements instead of a single, relentless span. The surface resemblance to Feldman is closer, like his last orchestral works: Harrison takes up a musical element and, rather than develop it, gently turns it from side to side, like the facets of a crystal catching the light. Any listener lulled by this apparent familiarity may not even notice that they are slowly becoming disoriented. As each new movement begins, the mystery deepens. Have we heard this part before? Did the last movement change at all, really? Are we starting over from the same place, or will we end up where the last movement ended, only not to remember it when we arrive? Does each movement differ at all? Which movement are we up to? The musicians make the music float, as though without any physical reference for the listener to hold on to.

Linda Catlin Smith seemed to be a composer a little bit outside the usual sound-world of Another Timbre. What little I’d heard of her music up until now showed influences of folk music, particularly of traditions from North America. Based on that, I’d lazily pigeonholed her with the current generation of American composers who have found commercial success through exploiting a ‘vernacular’ of a steady pulse and conventional harmony. This was unfair of me. Dirt Road, a lengthy set of 15 movements for violin and percussion, was written 10 years ago but is making a wider impression only now.

The title itself suggested an appeal to folksy authenticity that has been fashionable lately, in music as much as anywhere, and has already started to grate as much as the lumberjack shirt on an artisanal barista. Listening to the disc with that mindset becomes an astonishing revelation. The first movement is minimal, a violin drone supplemented with bass drum and occasional flourishes of vibraphone. The second suggests a folk influence, modal patterns to slow and brief to be considered full melodies. The pairing of instruments is peculiar, violin with percussionist, often on mallet instruments with occasional drum or cymbal. The first time I listened, the music went from pleasant, to strange, to captivating – it’s beautiful in a way that the listener can never settle into and take for granted.

Each new movement opens up a new perspective on the whole, returning to ideas heard before and presenting them in a new way, introducing a twist, opening up a new set of sounds that casts different light on what was heard before. Some movements can be quietly lyrical, others severely minimal, yet the work holds together as a unified experience, more than the sum of its parts. There’s a complexity of musical thinking going on here, belied by the simplicity of technique.

Violinist Mira Benjamin and percussionist Simon Limbrick play with a richly detailed grain to their sound, with edges just rough enough to give predominance to the physical sounds of the instruments that are so important to making the music work. Each moves effortlessly between foreground and background when needed. This CD has deservedly been getting a lot of attention. As Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes, “Smith’s time has, finally, come.”