Mega-post: mostly Insub but also Mappa and Roeba

Sunday 22 November 2020

I’ve been listening to a bunch of collaborative recordings and group compositions over lockdown and meaning to do justice to them, but in my head they started to link up to each other to make a gargantuan meta-piece which I am now struggling to disentangle back into their distinct elements. I’ve heard some of these musicians before, in different combinations, while others are new to me. Patterns for a future human pairs Barry Chabala’s steel-string acoustic guitar with Lance Austin Olsen’s sound collages (the latter credited with ‘field recordings’ and nothing more). The music draws inspiration from Olsen’s folded and layered paintings; for his part, the sounds incorporate broadcasts, electrical sounds and audio documentation of his studio to build up a ruminative montage that opens the mind to speculation. It acts as a drape for Chabala’s guitar, colouring and commenting on his playing, although his solos were played over Olsen’s collages. Chabala plays melodies that quickly break up into fragmentary gestures, as though itself collaged. For the second, longer piece any connotations of folk music have all but disappeared as his playing becomes more halting and disruptive, with melody ever more elusive. It’s a strange mix. There’s a programme ascribed here, as alluded to in the title – the tone is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, only unknowable, if not unrelateable.

I’ve heard Otherwise, a previous release by Hübsch, Martel, Zoubek, but don’t think I wrote about it. I think I had a hard time finding something to say about it. Their new album Ize has made a much stronger impression on me, so I’ll assume it’s an improvement. It can be facile to describe music as being “like Feldman” when it stays in a slow and quiet steady-state throughout, just as it can now be facile to to play in that manner. In this case, the music and the description do the term justice. Carl Ludwig Hübsch’s tuba helps, adding a recognisable timbre to the mix and anchoring the music, making its presence felt equally when it falls silent. The five pieces here turn between tender and sombre, with a similar (but not corresponding) shifting in musical approach between the reductive and the reticently lyrical. This is most strikingly heard in the long track Kolt, which starts with Philip Zoubek’s tentative prepared piano and ends with a long, high pitched drone that sets an oscillator beating against Pierre-Yves Martel’s pitch pipes. There are electronics, but these dissapear behind piano, tuba and Martel’s viola da gamba. The incongruous combination of instruments comes together clearest at the end, when they conclude with an endless, slow-motion falling that also brings out the strongest late Feldman evocation.

There’s a back-and-forth across all these albums, between expressivity and restraint. Guitarist Cristián Alvear, so often the exemplar of Wandelweiser’s parsimonious attitude towards notes, cuts as loose as I’ve ever heard him in this set of duets with fellow guitarist Burkhard Stangl. The Pequeños fragmentos de una música discreta are untitled except for one marked ‘(almost sad music)’. “Almost” comes up several times in the brief cover notes, but they’re being too coy. The music can be proudly described as charming, downright beguiling. Alvear and Stangl share a constantly engaging interplay of instruments that never tries to dazzle the listener with bravado. Even as they lightly touch on allusions to folk and classical guitar, there’s a dignified formality that adds to the charm as each piece reveals its character through confidently employed technique. For each piece with interlocking rhythmic patterns, or gently cascading runs of notes (as in No. 4), there is a contrasting piece such as No. 5, a study in microtonal differences between the two trading harmonics. No. 2 introduces extraneous techniques, with (I presume) Stangl laying down e-bowed notes and rubbed strings as a counterpart to a slowly circling melody. The reticence of the ‘(almost sad music)’ is set against scratchy radio sounds. Bass tones appear in the final part, to end in appropriately melancholy fashion.

Making the Pequeños fragmentos seem florid by comparison, Bow down thine ear, I bring you glad tidings is a brace of works jointly made by Alvear and d’incise that reduces their music practice to base elements. Alvear’s acoustic guitar is paired with percussive “tuned objects” played by d’incise, who subsequently processed their playing in a room different from the one they were in at the time. Alvear’s playing is meticulous, repeating short patterns of clear, single notes at a steady pulse. d’incise’s percussion matches Alvear before straying into adding colouration through resonances and lingering overtones. The use of reverberation, both natural and electronic, provides the majority of the perceptible changes in these two pieces. On the rare occasions the material does change, it seems less momentous than the long-term effects it will have on the prevailing ambience. Both pieces find the musicians working in a highly constricted space, yet making enough room for themselves to make the music develop and flourish. It’s a paradox that strikes the listener as tension, whose lack of resolution becomes its own, slowly earned gratification.

ATRL is a trio of Sébastien Bouhana on percussion, Christophe Berthet on reeds and Raphaël Ortis on electric bass. Written down like that, it sounds like a recipe for jazz, but Inclusio is a set of three concise pieces tied down just as tight as Bow down thine ear. Ortis is credited as composer. Ominously subdued percussion and tapped bass gallops through Contenir, abruptly cross-cut by flat planes of wind tones or faint electrical humming. All three pieces are similarly constricted, bound by a heavy grid of regular pulsations and suddent juxtapositions of static blocks of sound. Renfermer sticks up strident sax drones against mechanistic percussion. Comprendre is a more tractable drone of interweaving horns and whistling, intruded on by a return of the insistent bass tapping from the start. All three play these oblique, alientating pieces with a directness and precision that seems fittingly less (or more) than human.

Three LPs by Jamie Drouin and Lance Austin Olsen

Monday 6 July 2020

Good to see some people making better use of Covid-19 downtime than I have. It’s been a while since I wrote up any music by Lance Austin Olsen or Jamie Drouin (aka Liquid Transmitter) but I’ve just been hit with three new releases in short order by the two of them working together. Well, two of them are new: Snowfield is a reissue of a collaboration from way back in 2003. It began as a four-track sound installation, made up of field recordings of the two artists “interacting” with a small patch of snowbound landscape. On paper, it looks heavier on concept than on substance, but Drouin and Olsen have worked their material into seven distinct tracks of finely differentiated sounds that come together in collages that are very soft, very long, nearly white.

The two new collaborations show how their collaging chops have deepened over the years, mixing eclectic elements into something more complex yet equally organic. Both were conceived during, and resulted from, the self-isolation of pandemic lockdown. With direct working together now impossible, the pieces were created through a process of exchange, sending files back and forth online. The French Drop is a set of five pieces in which perspective and focus slip back and forth from one state to another; as in an optical illusion, each graspable image hovers between two identities, never fully resolving into one. Drouin’s synthesisers never settle into being a mere backdrop to hold Olsen’s objects and found sounds together: both sound palettes fuse into one portentous, if ambiguous, whole.

Olsen has worked this way before, with long-distance collaborations that cross the equator, not just across town. But what is space or distance these days, anyway. With less of a direct programme or idea driving the project, both The French Drop and This, And The Other Space, released a few weeks later, allow for a more purely musical experience than some of Olsen’s other work, so that the listener’s mind is free to conjecture as to what lurks beneath the surface. This, And The Other Space may be bolder in its contrasts, with more discrete elements sticking in the mind, but the dual storylines collaged together here merge into one experience which the listener may not disentangle. The two albums act as counterparts, each forming a double image of space, place and subjectivity.

Dark Night On The Black Dog Highway

Monday 27 January 2020

I’ve been playing this one on and off since the end of summer and on these cold, dark nights it’s coming into its own. Dark Night On The Black Dog Highway is the latest joint release from Lance Austin Olsen. Working this time with Tim Clément, the two pieces here are another example of long-distance collaboration that Olsen has used in various ways when making music. Each artist exchanges files back and forth, adding to or modifying a collage of field recordings, found sounds, instruments and electronics. In this case, this “third mind” approach to working has been particularly rewarding for the listener: the title work, some 35 minutes long, is a vast, brooding abstraction. The expansive pacing belies the restless activity contained within, as the transparency of the textures belies the complexity of sounds produced. Clément and Olsen have found a fortunate means of working with each other in a way that diverts both of their contributions towards an end that neither would have anticipated (knowing when to stop also helps a lot). While some of Olsen’s previous works suggest at an external reference or a programme, there is no such indication here. The work seems stronger for it, allowing it to establish a profound but elusive mood within the listener, for their own personal significance.

The companion work on the album, Memory Lost, Memory Found, provides a focal point, albeit inarticulate, through the introduction of electronically manipulated voices. I couldn’t help but resent the intrusion of the voice as a distraction after the sublime menace of Dark Night.

Around the same time, the label (Infrequency Editions) released a half-hour work by Jamie Drouin, about whom I have no other knowledge. Although it’s a single track, Ridge takes the form of a suite, with contrasting sections divided by silences. It’s evidently a solo effort, made from “amplified objects, sine wave generator, and Buchla”. The synth tones predominate, giving it a clean sound even as the amplified noises thicken the texture. They’re finely crafted studies, but come across a little too neat and untroubled for my ears, so that I keep expecting something more.

Lance Austin Olsen: Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You

Thursday 4 July 2019

This gets dark and disturbing. I’ve written before about Lance Austin Olsen, the artist and composer who uses his paintings as scores to be realised as music. “As with painting, the fabric of the music hovers between fragments of narrative and unspecified affect. It’s an elusive music, part radio drama, part collage, part pure sound.” His new release, Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You, is the most overtly musical of his tape works I’ve heard so far yet is the one with the clearest, most present narrative. It falls into three equal parts, The Event, The Descent and Lost – that middle title could describe the work as a whole. The triptych embodies a sinking into a new state of being, unwelcoming but inevitable. (In the accompanying booklet, Olsen obliquely relates the incident of an acquaintance having a stroke. The booklet includes the dense, black notebook drawings that form the basis of the work, of which this recording is only one version.) As with the previous recordings I’ve heard, Olsen has reworked and collaged recordings he made some years earlier, but here the materials sound less eclectic and more focused: voices, piano and organ recorded in a church. The feeling is less collage and more montage. The reverberant space casts the voices and sounds into a deep hollow that dominates all three parts. As implied by the titles, the three-act structure does not assure the listener with a redemptive arc, but guides into a personal abyss of private pain.

Works on Paper: Gil Sansón and Lance Austin Olsen

Monday 18 March 2019

Feels like I’ve been away forever. I got a bunch of new albums I want to talk about and a superb Alvin Lucier concert I went to last week, but right now I have to say something about this new release by Gil Sansón and Lance Austin Olsen. I got all excited about Olsen’s music last year, with his visual approach to making music. A real artist, y’know? He makes paintings, some of which function as musical scores, and takes a very collage-type approach to his recordings.

On his Another Timbre CD last year, Olsen produced a multitracked realisation of a graphic score by the Venezuelan artist Gil Sansón. I’d described A Meditation on the History of Painting as “like painting, a synthesis of gesture and editing, with traces of the two processes preserved in the medium”. On this new album, Works on Paper, Olsen and Sansón give an extended presentation of their technique of creative exchange. Disc 1 features two realisations of Olsen’s painting/score Pra Mim, recorded by Sansón in Caracas. On the second disc the roles are reversed, with Olsen in Victoria, Canada recording two realisations of Sansón’s graphic score Meditations. For two hours, the air teems with tantalising connections, potentialities.

As with painting, the fabric of the music hovers between fragments of narrative and unspecified affect. It’s an elusive music, part radio drama, part collage, part pure sound. The sense of meaning is always present, both in content and form, but is left to the listener to find for themselves. Sampled music, taken straight or manipulated, combine with field recordings, musical instruments, isolated phrases spoken or sung and mysterious electronic clicks and buzzes. Similarities between the two artists abound, inviting further connections and comparisons to be made between the two minds at work, one in British Columbia and the other in Venezuela. The sounds are captured beautifully. Within each realisation, certain elements repeat, or seem to. Everything becomes suspended in a dream-like state, fully aware but inexplicable.

The pieces have been sequenced so that words, spoken or sung, appear less and less as time goes on. Pieces end on extended hiatus, with aural figuration giving way to empty spaces, alive with background sound. The final Meditation is wordless, with Olsen interpreting Sansón’s score with layers of sparse, amplified sounds and guitar. The album’s an ideal follow-up to last year’s Dark Heart release.

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.