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.

Apartment House at Wigmore Hall

Monday 29 February 2016

You get a funny crowd at Wigmore Hall on a Saturday night. Some punters come just because it’s am awfully nice venue and they fancy an evening of refined entertainment. There was a slight but steady rate of attrition throughout Apartment House’s programme. The visiting American and her English hosts in my row were bemused at first but in the end seemed to enjoy it enough.

At least they didn’t have to deal with any stereotypical “ugly modern music”; nor did they have to appreciate any efforts by “accessible” contemporary composers which they could say were nice enough but not as good as the real 19th century thing. The gig started in a puzzling enough fashion, with the première of Luiz Henrique Yudo’s 2007 piece A QUARTET FOR CLAUDE MOLLET. Like the Yudo piece I heard at the last Apartment House gig, it’s a grid of not-quite-exactly-repeating figures. This time, a string-quartet see-sawed back and forth between notes, gently but obstinately. The patterns seemed to change a bit between pauses. Probably. Later in the evening, another Yudo piece, A QUARTET FOR FRANÇOIS MORELLET from 2012, apparently made use of chance and presented a smoothly shifting web of overlapping chords.

This is why I keep writing about these guys; they play stuff I’m interested in hearing for myself. There’s the emphasis on music as an artform, in which technique (both in composition and performance) is not an end in itself but a means to eliciting a profound response in the listener without appeals to literature or drama. There is the element of discovery and of rediscovery. Apart from giving first hearings to the two Yudo pieces, each several years old, the programme included three other world premières and a couple of older, obscure works. The older pieces, by Henning Christiansen and John White, were redolent of the cultural context in which they were created, Fluxus and the Scratch Orchestra, respectively. Both represent schools of composition too often dismissed today as historical relics, fit for discussion but not to be experienced.

Christiansen’s Modeller were written in the mid-1960s but not performed in Britain until now. They seem strangely ahead of their time: short fragments, provocatively simple. Mostly performed by a solo pianist, with occasional interruptions from the strings, harmonium and percussion near the end. One part, of unadorned oscillating thirds, effectively anticipated Philip Glass’ piano music by 20 years. The familiarity was an odd sensation, but that didn’t last long. The Modeller never stayed around long enough for the listener to get fully comfortable. At the end, the ensemble repeated an ascending arpeggio in unison, whether by accident or design imitating the beginning of the Blue Danube Waltz without ever progressing, with an increasing sense of finality.

White’s Newspaper Reading Machine (circa 1971) amused my neighbours, being pretty much what the title implies. Any sense of the piece being a dadaist stunt was tempered by a musical system clearly underpinning the performance. They also liked Egidija Medekšaitė’s Pratiksha. The new works all suggested a common heritage of assimilating the more vital musical philosophies from the last century and synthesising them into something different. The use of systems, of chance, awareness of visual arts, of music as a social activity, the rejection of dogmatic allegiance to a particular system of organising pitch and harmony, all appeared in various guises.

I’d never heard anything by Martin Arnold before. The way people were talking about him before the gig suggested that I’d been missing out. They were right. His new piece Stain Ballad is incredible; striking in its mysterious ambiguity, fragile but indelible. The music shared an aesthetic that Morton Feldman aspired to, of “having mood” without being “in a mood”. As I typed this, Philip Thomas, the pianist that night just tweeted he was listening back to the piece and is “in tears… fresh, complex, meandering, intricate, lovely.” Looking back, I’ll still remember this piece as one of the highlights of the year.