Insub Meta Orchestra plays Granberg and Pisaro

Sunday 12 January 2020

I’ve praised previous recordings by the Insub Meta Orchestra, a large ensemble of some twenty-five to thirty musicians combining an eclectic mix of acoustic instruments with live electronics. Their earlier releases have been joint compositions by two of the members, Cyril Bondi and d’incise, making use of reductive formulas that enabled the musicians to act independently within highly controlled parameters. Two new recordings came out late last year, in which the orchestra interpret new works they have commissioned from external composers.

Als alle Vögel sangen mein Sehnen und Verlangen by Magnus Granberg shows the change in approach from the usual Insub Meta joint. Granberg works with a mixture of musical allusions, distilled and transformed into a distinctive soundworld. This is the largest ensemble I’ve heard play Granberg and it appears that he has deliberately thinned out the texture of this composition as much as possible. (Unusually, Granberg himself isn’t one of the performers.) Each musician’s contribution is sparse and occasional, combining to create a mosaic of distinctive colours that constantly varies in surface and texture but never in state. The large palette of sounds and their sparing use allows the character of the piece to change and evolve over time without any conscious subjective intervention.

How are these pieces made? Neither release comes with any cover notes. While the premise of Granberg’s piece remains elusive, Michael Pisaro’s Achilles, Socrates, Diotima (The Poem of Names, No. 2) is a complete mystery. There appears to be a programme at work, in which the orchestra is set to work on concentrated actions, but the underlying motive remains a secret. From silence, isolated non-musical sounds gather into a gradual rallying of forces. Each successive attempt adds another dimension to the music, at times breaking into a percussive rumble, or a constant drone. One step at a time, it builds up into something sustained and powerful, assembled out of nothing. Like an ancient artefact, stripped of subjectivity and context, it constitutes its own meaning. Repeated listenings don’t reduce its strangeness.

Deeper listening: Mark R Taylor, Morgan Evans-Weiler, Michael Pisaro

Wednesday 6 February 2019

As I was saying, I’ve spent a few weeks getting to know a few CDs more closely. Two in particular have required closer attention, for differing reasons. I’ve been listening to Aftermaths, Teodora Stepančić’s collection of solo piano works by Mark R Taylor, a British composer I’m entirely unfamiliar with. I don’t get it and I dont like it because I think there’s something I’m supposed to get and I suspect that’s not how Taylor wants me to listen so I wonder if I’m hearing it all wrong. It would be easier to dismiss if I didn’t think there was some missing piece in the background that would change my attitude to the music. The pieces are relatively brief, each with the same undifferentiated surface (think Morandi in painting, Howard Skempton in music). Each piece is basically a chorale and they all sound the same to me. My first response is to never bother with this CD again, but I can’t help but think something must be going on. Most of the pieces are recent but others date back twenty, thirty, forty years. An admirable single-mindedness. One older piece uses the same method but progresses at a slow pace. One piece staggers the chords a little. Two tracks are listed in the wrong order, an entirely understandable mistake.

Taylor gets praise from musicians I respect. Maybe he’s not limited, just really focused, seeking out delight in the slightest differences. On the second listen I noticed differences in how each piece proceeds. I started to compile a list of the distinguishing feature to each piece (alternates between short and long durations, see-saws up and down, repeats in groups of four) but it quickly felt like I was trivialising the composer’s efforts. Also, I was starting to resent putting conscious effort into trying to appreciate the music.

After listening another three or four times I’ve noticed other small differences and begun to recognise a gradually emerging identity for each piece. I can appreciate it but I think I’m past the point where I need to put in any more work on the music in the hope of finding something in it. Perhaps it will hit me later; if so, it will presumably be when I unwittingly hear another piece by Taylor.

You become familiar with a style, get immersed in it and then become blasé. Here’s another Another Timbre CD of slow, quiet music. More of the same? Yes and no. It’s a specious argument, of course; every composer cannot help but be ascribed to one style or another, almost nothing is truly sui generis. I’m listening to this new Morgan Evans-Weiler and Michael Pisaro CD and wondering what it is I’m hearing, what makes it different from other works in a comparable style? There are so many pieces which are perfectly pleasant as background ambience, so why have I tagged the two pieces on this disc as preferred listening, worthy of repeat attention?

In my previous review, I mentioned that Johnny Chang’s Citaric Melodies III may suffer in comparison with the surrounding works on the album. Thinking over what I meant by that, I’m guessing it’s about what rewards closer attention. Between pieces of music in a broadly similar style, a common surface may be enjoyed, but some works can compel a deeper fascination.

Violinist and composer Morgan Evans-Weiler is the featured player on this disc, playing on Michael Pisaro’s Helligkeit, die Tiefe hatte, nicht keine Fläche (Grey Series No. 6) and his own lines and tracings. The Pisaro needs seven musicians, the Evans-Weiler five. It sounds the other way around. Compared to his austere Unfinished Variations (for Jed Speare), lines and tracings is sparingly sumptuous. A harpsichord is dotted throughout the fabric of the ensemble, violin moves from figure to ground and back again. A large part of the interest in this piece comes from the way instruments are carefully balanced throughout, with some disappearing for long stretches, creating contrasts and a sense of shape. It’s like a type of subliminal orchestration, marshalling a classical sense of form out of the slightest resources. In the Pisaro, Evans-Weiler’s violin stands out against a unfocused backdrop of finely nuanced shades of grey, played by the group Ordinary Affects. Bass clarinet, cellos (one with prepared strings) and hoarse electronics combine into a single instrument, complex and nebulous; at times sounding like percussion, at times like drone, at others like field recording. From time to time, the clarinet emerges with a spot of defined pitch as colouration, matched with a vibraphone. Nothing moves, but nothing ever feels at rest.

The Curse of Taste: Marchetti, Pisaro

Monday 16 May 2016

From the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries Western aesthetics were founded upon a fraught consensus of taste. The romantic understanding of art that was naturalistic and intuitive became, strangely, a social agreement on what constituted a sufficiently congruent analogy to its subject. This was a question of subjective judgement, which brought with it a greatly increased risk of failure.

Those old romantic notions still pervade contemporary culture, possibly more so in music than any other art form. There are, however, some composers who work in engagement with these ideas – this is different from accepting them or submitting to them. Back in March I heard Reinier van Houdt play two piano pieces: Walter Marchetti’s Per la mano sinistra and Michael Pisaro’s Green Hour, Grey Future. Both works are long and make use of pauses, isolated chords, notes, brief fragments. After a while, you think there may be some repetition or recapitulation at work, probably. The scale of the work and the dynamics recall late Feldman, but there’s none of Feldman’s patterning or obvious sectional movement. In this respect each composer seems to have allowed themselves more freedom to wander, and possibly extended this to the performer, too.

The Marchetti piece meanders purposefully, a soft-spoken but poignant monologue. The Pisaro piece isolates individual piano sounds, using silence as their context. In fact, both works are accompanied: the Pisaro with electronic tones that colour and shadow the piano, the Marchetti by an umbrella, held in the pianist’s left hand throughout, leaving only the right free to play.

When isolated sounds are separated so far by silence, how do you know that it’s music? I’ve been listening to another solo piece by Pisaro, Mind is Moving IX for electric guitarist. This is another recent release on the Intonema label, which I wrote about a little while ago. Recording this piece was a two-year process: “we made several recordings in different spaces, listened and discussed all the details with the composer and the performer” before capturing the final version released on this CD.

Without an independent electronic part, Mind is Moving IX sounds even more sparse and austere, to the point of breaking up any sense of musical continuity. Single, separated notes of various length; towards the end a descending sequence of intervals becomes a major development. Occasionally there is a long tone on bowed guitar or, in contrast, the guitarist whistling, or static from a small radio. There is a clicking of stones at certain points. Each element seems to appear more than once during the piece, suggesting some faint traces of an overall shape.

As suggested above, the piece depends heavily on how it is interpreted and performed. Those “details” that were discussed, on what did they depend? The sense of timing becomes critical. The qualities needed to make the piece succeed are the same that can make it fail: we’re back into the realm of taste. With a reliance on personal judgement, the challenge becomes immense. You can hope that you’re immersing yourself in the nature of the music, away from aesthetic second-guessing, but always have the fear that your interpretation is a more or less accurate approximation of aesthetic decisions previously heard in other music. In this recording, Denis Sorokin’s performance seems as finely nuanced as you could hope for, with a sufficiently dispassionate seriousness.

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.

July Mountain in Clapton

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Pretty special night on Saturday, at the Round Chapel in Clapton. Tim Parkinson and a host of other muscian/composers including folks from Sonic Arts Research in Oxford playing music by Michael Pisaro and Makiko Nishikaze.

Punters sat in the gallery that encircled the long, high hall, looking down on the performers below. Pisaro’s Ricefall, a piece previously created by studio overdubbing, was here realised by a small orchestra of sixteen musicians allowing grains of rice to fall at different rates onto various objects and surfaces: paper, metal, plastic, leaves, ceramics, wood, stone. The blend of soft sounds were unamplified and rose up into the gallery. The gradations in the type of sound and the varying textures as the flow of grains ebbed and flowed became more and more distinct. In some respects little more than an exercise in listening, the work took a more substantial presence when performed as a live, group activity.

This piece and the rest of the evening fit perfectly into some of my current musical preoccupations, which I recently discussed: “contrasts and shifts in texture, space, colouring and weight”. Parkinson’s performance of Nishikaze’s very beautiful Piano in Person I dealt with similar matters. With no logic, argument, theme or linear development apparent to the listener, for maybe half an hour took on qualities more reminiscent of painting, questions of touch, surface, shading, balance, contrast. The same questions, addressed differently, in Morton Feldman’s early and middle-period piano music, before patterns became discernible. Again, there was that other preoccupation, of music undirected and undifferentiated.

The third and final piece brought back the small orchestra for Pisaro’s July Mountain. A tape that wove together field recordings into an unbroken skein of sound played through the hall. Wallace Stevens’ poem of the same name provides the key to the way these recordings are blended, but this underlying structure is not evident to the listener. Snare drums are rubbed, drums and vibraphones are bowed, small speakers agitate loose objects on tympani and amplified surfaces. These live sounds somehow blend in seamlessly with the recordings of wind, birds and traffic. Unusually for electroacoustic music, the technology is used for the sake of the acoustic sounds, and yet the electronically-reproduced field recordings are enhanced and augmented, made hyperreal, by the acoustic sounds. It’s a remarkable relationship, both symbiotic and paradoxical. The music is impressively monumental but thrillingly restless.

In a different space it would be an overwhelming, engulfing experience – as it has been in previous performances. In the chapel the sound was softer and less aggressive, like a passing natural phenomenon that fascinates, consuming your attention without demanding or expecting it.

Listening to Some Recent Silences

Monday 23 September 2013

Like John Cage, I’m drawn to art with either too much or not enough in it. This means that I was compelled to attend the Apartment House gig on Sunday afternoon, curated by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. Some Recent Silences was a quietly ambitious (heh) show, focussing on the various ways composers use silence as a fundamental element of music.

Despite knowing the programme and the concept behind the gig, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. What such a concert might actually sound like could easily be conjectured upon but still be very difficult to imagine how it might come across to the audience. There was a risk/hope that it would play out as an experiment, or a manifesto, or a challenge. Wonderfully, it all worked superbly as a varied programme of contrasting pieces with a strong thematic unity. Although the ostensible theme was silence, the recurring point of fascination throughout the show was the reliance on the faintest subtleties in sound, shared by so many composers working today. So many musicians who acknowledge the importance of Cage seem to interpret him through Morton Feldman.

Context becomes extra important with this music. The car park in Peckham would not have been a suitable venue. The smaller hall at Kings Place can feel like a sterile bunker at times, but in this case it was perfect for the concentration needed by performers and punters alike. I have to compliment the musicians and organisers for their punctuality. I arrived a couple of minutes after 4 and the show had already started, so I didn’t hear the first silence. The next ten minutes were spent listening to the strange meld of sounds in the Kings Place atrium, made more incongruous by the student jazz band rehearsing on one of the landings.

The programme revolved around two contrasting poles: György Kurtág’s brief, witty Quarrelling 2 (Dumb Show) and Mathias Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke, both from the mid-70s. Everything else was from the present century. Spahlinger meticulously prescribes the slightest inflections on the room’s ambience, whereas Kurtág’s exaggerated pantomime “silence” produces its own subtleties. In this company, works like Ben Isaacs’ allone and Charlie Sdraulig’s close seem almost normal, making almost exclusive use of what are typically thought of as “extended” techniques that may or may not yield audible results. Perhaps in this case, “attenuated techniques” may be a more appropriate term. The sound world is rich and evocative once we’ve acclimatised to the reduced scale.

The final piece, Michael Pisaro’s Fade for solo piano, seems almost aggressively simplistic. Single notes, seemingly at random, struck and repeated with ever-decreasing force, with long, irregular pauses between each new note. It seems like something a high-minded but lazy teenager would conceive as something “arty”: something for private contemplation, not to be shared. The repetitions give a strange, lulling sense of continuity, even though we know it to be false. You feel your brain being pulled and pushed between the senses of presence and absence. It seems too artless to be didactic. I don’t really know what to make of this piece.