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.

Difficult Music

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Last Saturday night I was out at Iklectic, listening to a live set by Marie-Cécile Reber and Christoph Schiller. Missed the rest of the gig as I sat outside with friends drinking beer and listening to the constant thunder of the electrical storm passing overhead. I’ve written before about Schiller’s duo CD with Morgan Evans-Weiler with the self-explanatory title spinet and violin. Couldn’t drag the spinet to London, so Schiller played zither and melodica while Reber amplified and processed small sounds into finely-grained textures. Schiller has a strangely obdurate way of playing. His plucking of the zither is always immediately muted, as with his spinet: small spikes of sound with only a tint of the string’s pitch remaining. These can act as highlights or as intrusions, coaxing the sustained sounds into different attitudes.

Another Timbre has released a new recording of Schiller’s spinet, this time playing as a trio with Cyril Bondi on harmonium and Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba. Still, it should not be a surprise to find that the disc, titled tse, does not sound like Early Music, except perhaps in a very distant way, as with Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg on Early to Late. The older instruments share that quality of sound now admired and exploited, of being ‘thinner’, less full and less absolute, with greater transparency and variability than, say, a cello or piano. Bondi and Pierre-Yves Martel play long notes that weave in and out around faint but sustained harmonies, using pitch pipes to add another thin layer of colour, slightly out of register. Schiller plays very sparingly, the percussive sound of the spinet acting both as commentary and disruption, fixing the sound into place with a defined shape, lest it all fade into a wash of ambience.

The music is improvised but defined by strict self-imposed limitations. Playing techniques are deliberately reduced and at times the pitches are restricted to just three or four, selected at random.
There are five tracks on tse – pieces, or movements, or parts, or panels – and they all sound pretty much the same. This is music which takes concentration, both to play and to listen to, with a focus on the details contained in the surface. The technical simplicity belies a complex effect on the attentive mind. It’s an extreme kind of twist on what Artur Schnabel said about Mozart’s piano sonatas, “too easy for children and too difficult for adults.”

While I was on holiday before Christmas, a disc arrived in the post from Morgan Evans-Weiler, the violinist on that duet album with Christoph Schiller. A thoughtful friend stashed it safely in a drawer I never open. Unfinished Variations (for Jed Speare) is a single piece for solo violin, released on Sarah Hennies’ label Weighter Recordings. The label blurb promises that “all releases are professionally manufactured CDs with austere letterpressed artwork” and this philosophy carries over into the music. Evans-Weiler’s playing forces the listener’s ear into a double perspective, simultaneously rigorous and fragile. It’s a kind of musical brutalism, foregrounding the rough material of the bowed violin strings, presented in a stark design. Evans-Weiler’s extended composition is made of microtonal double-stops, bowed in brief, discrete strokes. Passages range from near-inaudible to strident, always pushing the rasp of bow against string to the fore. An uneasy tension arises from repeated chords where the intonation slowly, but unsteadily, changes. The tension never resolves, but it may subside a little. Punters who get off on the solo work of Tony Conrad and Polly Bradfield would probably want to follow up on this.

Christoph Schiller & Morgan Evans-Weiler: spinet and violin

Thursday 20 July 2017

It describes itself as “an extended improvisation” but I don’t believe it. A few years back Another Timbre put out a solo album by Christoph Schiller titled Variations – a strange hybrid of improvisation and composition. Schiller worked inside an amplified spinet and piano with various objects to compose a canon out of improvisations of predetermined length. His working methods were inspired, producing evocative sounds that only occasionally betrayed their origins.

Someone could carelessly say that improvisation is about spontaneity, but that only goes some way towards a satisfying musical experience. When away from the club, the theatre, the sense of community, the bravado, the booze and only the sound remains. As Schiller said, “A recorded improvisation is as fixed (or even more fixed) as a written piece.” Improvisation is about heightened senses of judgement, knowing when and how to act, even if only on a subconscious level.

This new duet by Schiller and violinist Morgan Evans-Weiler, titled simply spinet and violin, exercises such a fine judgement over such a long time that it’s difficult to believe that, as Evans-Weiler confirms in the accompanying interview that the music was completely improvised, or that they haven’t been playing together for years:

It was clear from the second that we started playing what direction it was going to go. I think we have both become increasingly interested in pitch and so the focus was very much on permutations of pitch sets and working through these sets over time.

The focus on pitch yields a fascinating study in timbre and texture. Carefully choosing when to deploy each new note creates a beautifully paced slow arc of sound that builds up ominously before dying away to almost complete silence halfway through. Strangely, this stillness and subsequent stirring into activity again feels like a natural progression than a break or a structural argument. The shifts in dynamics throughout the piece are all the more striking and effective for being confined to a relatively narrow range.

Both musicians hover in a state halfway between definite pitch of ‘proper’ playing and the indeterminate sound of ‘extended’ techniques. The piece begins with Schiller plucking muted spinet strings against Evans-Weiler’s frail violin drones. Any tendency to pursue a particular gesture or sound gets reined in by an emphasis on pitch, yet the pitch itself remains a nebulous ideal which may be approached but never possessed. This ambiguous haze persists throughout, like a familiar image that preys on memory but never quite resolves into recognisable focus. Sustained double-stops float microtonally, the strings from both instruments rasp and buzz, a rare plucked note dropped like a pebble into a pond. The spinet rattles and echoes – at times it seems like there are electronics involved, with lower pitched sounds welling up in the background. It’s all hard to tell. I haven’t heard many pieces this year composed as well as this improvisation.