Lockdown Roundup (2): Nick Ashwood and Laura Altman, Agnes Hvizdalek, Jacken Elswyth

Sunday 31 May 2020

I’ve been busy while sequestered at home, but still listening, including some more new releases from the past few weeks. I’ve heard one record before involving Nick Ashwood, so it’s good to discover something new in his set of duets with Laura Altman. Battery was recorded inside a concrete bunker in a park near Hobart, Tasmania on a Sunday in March last year, with Ashwood playing acoustic guitar and Altman on clarinet with amplified objects. The three pieces here are expansive in scope but concentrated in their artistry: both musicians work together to create wonderfully detailed and mysterious sounds that can be both intimate and remote at the same time. The cheap electronics, prepared instruments and resonant recording space combine to transform the music into strange, ambient soundscapes. The players focus on tonal colouration and by the final track appear to be doing as little as possible to disrupt the space each sound opens up. The sense of place and altered reality is intensified by the presence of external sounds, especially when other people can faintly be heard nearby.

The presence of others in these meditative moments becomes all the more poignant right now. It can also be heard in the latter stages of Agnes Hvizdalek’s Backstage, another release from Cafe Oto’s Covid-related Takuroku downloads label. Going by the release notes, Backstage appears to be a work for solo voice. Now knowing anything about Hvizdalek before now, my usual approach to experimental vocal music is to brace myself in fear of the worst. I was completely wrong-footed here and blown away by the experience. Hvizdalek’s piece is as much about silence as sound, a wordless reflection on isolation that hovers uneasily between darkness and light. Soft, disarming bursts of electronic-sounding clicks coexists with a refrigerant hum that drones in and out through the piece. Where Ashwood and Altman used their music to create a space that opens out to the world, Hvizdalek maps out a space that moves ever inward. Her voice articulates both a resistance to and an uneasy accommodation with pervasive ambient noise and the world outside the self.

As something completely different, Jacken Elswyth’s Six Static Scenes would appear to be a set of direct musical statements. A set of song-length solos for banjo: what could be simpler? The appearances are deceptive. First of all, there are seven tracks, with one ‘scene’ broken into two contrasting parts. No obvious trickery here, with clear references to celebrated folk musicians and a consistent approach to traditional clawhammer technique. And yet… Scene 2, “after Dock Boggs” has an almost obsessive focus on a couple of triads – a very static scene – and gains a resonant halo of overtones from a wheezy-sounding shruti box. The following scene gains a drone in the form of a single tone held softly on a squeezebox. By this time, if you’re thinking Elswyth has made some sort of postmodern abstraction of Appalachiana, her picking becomes more elusive and fragmentary in that two-part fourth scene, setting her banjo in a mixture of drones that swirl together with a sinister calmness. The final scene gently extends a farewell cadence to five minutes, with a tenacity too subtle for the intellect.

Parts: 180º, d’incise

Wednesday 18 September 2019

I’ve been listening to a lot of music released as parts lately. In some cases they are definitely extracted from a larger performance but at other times it’s less clear whether I’m hearing excerpts or separate ‘takes’; either way they depend on editing as much as performance for their musical structure. You wonder what may have been rejected or excised, from either the performance or the session. In this type of recording, there is always a subliminal awareness of a wider context in the background, in a way that doesn’t typically happen while watching a movie, for example.

This popped into my head while listening to a new record out on Splitrec called submental by a group called 180º. I’ve been all over this record just lately because 180º is a trio made up of Nick Ashwood, Jim Denley and Amanda Stewart. Ashwood is new to me but I’ve loved the work of Denley and Stewart for years, both solo and in various groups, particularly as part of legendary ensemble/collective/happening Machine for Making Sense. Here, the eight tracks were recorded over two days, track lengths ranging from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Presumably as usual, each piece was improvised with perhaps some loose coordination agreed beforehand, but not necessarily honoured in execution. The three are credited simply with acoustic guitar, bass flute and voice respectively, but there seems to be a hell of a lot going on besides. Bowing and scraping sounds, fluid drones, rattles and pops – is Stewart making that electronic creaking noise herself? I keep listening closer and I’m starting to believe they can actually make these sounds unaided: breath, flute and rubbed strings, struck instruments and oral clicks merge in mysterious ways that build up continually changing, complex aural textures. Stewart’s typically fragmented texts here disappear almost completely into pure sound; all three get deep into the grain of their respective axes, evoking profound expression without ever imposing it. They’re at the top of their game here.

There are parts to this new LP by d’incise, jointly released by Insub and Moving Furniture, but in a different way. Assemblée, relâche, réjouissance, parade collects two 2017 compositions for organs and bowed metallic objects, recorded and mixed by the composer. A L’Anglard de St-Donat is a suite of four “songs” with tune and tuning based on a mazurka by Alfred Mouret. I suspect that even listeners familiar with said mazurka may struggle to recognise it. The bowed metal and organ are partners in a set of slow dances, winding around each other to a sparse accompaniment of percussive sounds. The odd intonation, detourned folksong and reedy sounds are reminiscent of Pancrace’s The Fluid Hammer. I’d like to know more about the tuning system used here. There seems to be some method at work in how each piece begins, progresses and ends, a version based upon the original. This engaging little suite is followed by Le désir, a contrasting pair of longer pieces in which undulating loops of electric organ form an ostinato upon which a type of solo is performed on bowed metal sticks. They fit together suprisingly well, with the bowed objects seeming to rise up out of the lower organ sounds, a slow florid ornamentation that floats between flutes and reeds. The tension is retained throughout by the regular pulsation of the organ on tape forming a sinister backdrop that keeps threatening to crowd out the soloist’s lyricism, itself already carved out of the most marginal material.