All That Dust, Batch 3: Lamb, Braxton, Pateras and Veltheim

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Things to be thankful for: music keeps getting made and the third batch of releases from All That Dust has come through as planned. Two are also available on CD, one as download only in binaural stereo. The three new albums share a particularly gratifying theme in these troubled times, that of an artistic retrofuturism that is finally being redeemed. I can’t be the only person who digs up old documents from fertile periods of the avant-garde and marvels at how many great pieces, artists and ideas languish in a dusty bottom drawer of art history. I listened to all three here and felt like some of these threads were being taken up and given new purpose. Catherine Lamb’s wave/forming (astrum) takes her work with synthesisers in a bold new direction. Having previously used them as a type of enhanced resonator, here they become the primary sound source. Two instruments, built and played by Bryan Eubanks and Xavier Lopez, map out harmonic patterns across a defined space. Cycles abound, slowly looping through the harmonic spectrum, across the stereo field and in the overlapping rhythmic pulses that lock in with your theta waves. The pulses, tunings, bright-coloured but soft-edged sounds and extended duration suggest it’s a lost electronic classic from the Seventies. Its constant transformations belie an academic rigor that keeps hippie vulgarity at bay while still making for a long, strange trip. This one’s the binaural recording, so good headphones and any personally administered assistance will get your head spinning out through the long, dark second wave lockdown.

All That Dust have generally liked to mix up old and new in their releases, but the oldest set this time is a selection from Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Solos. My innate aversion to jazz always leaves me approaching Braxton like a fussy child picking the good bits out of a plate of fried rice, so I cling to albums like this where I can fully embrace his approach to music. Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music comprises more than 150 pieces written over ten years or so, straddling the turn of the century. Drawing on concepts from Native American dance and musical practice, he composed modular kits with defined melodic material and entry points for improvisation, subroutines, collage and intertextual cross-references. Three primary works are presented here, each incorporating parts of other Braxton pieces. Kobe Van Cauwenberghe takes a highly inventive and distinct approach to the scores: he plays alone, on electric guitar, augmented with electronics. There is some overdubbing amongst the real-time looping, as well as a hybrid type of overdub in which he cues in samples from pre-recorded takes of the material. The music pursues erratic, discontinuous lines that can drift away into moments of dream-logic, a fantastic beast part Christian Wolff, part John Zorn. The tension between these two forces cracks open new ideas. Each of the successive pieces opens up into something wilder and woolier as Van Cauwenberghe takes the increased rhythmic freedom and adds greater tonal variety and more eccentric techniques. This is true postmodernism, an ecclecticism that retains a clear character throughout, never stooping to pastiche.

I promised to write more about Anthony Pateras’ music last week, having noted his recent tendency to strip back his often frenetic style into something elemental, placing an instrument’s timbre and resonance front and centre as the subject. Duos for Other Instruments is his latest collaboration with fellow provocative musician Erkki Veltheim. Their previous duets – The Slow Creep of Convenience and Entertainment = Control – have been large, monolithic works which confront the listener with the inherent contradictions of ‘minimalist’ music, at once subversive and commodified. The two pieces presented here, recorded in Melbourne in June, are briefer but even more severe. Ersatz is a twenty-minute trill for viola and celeste, Golden Point the same but for harpsichord and mandolin. The pitches never change – there seems to be a Scelsi-like rising of maybe a sixth-tone in the mandolin but that might be my ears playing tricks on me, or the instruments giving out. The quaint, modestly-voiced instrumentation and manageable dimensions might imply these are less ambitious works, with something of the salon concert about them, but their obstinate singularity of material and structure make their passivity all the more aggressive. All of the musical action comes from the inadvertent interplay of the overtones in the instruments’ timbres, a homespun analogue of Lamb’s synthesisers, with Veltheim’s viola in Ersatz blurring into a single, unknowable instrument and the dual protagonists of Golden Point exchanging identities from one moment to the next. The two play with a stamina that is more dogged than perfectionist, preferring to exploit the situation of a fragile collaboration that could turn adversarial.

Judith Hamann: Shaking Studies, Music for Cello and Humming

Wednesday 28 October 2020

You wait for ages, then four come along at once. After starting the month with Judith Hamann’s Peaks and Portals at the start of the month, I’m ending with her two promised solo releases on Blank Forms Editions: one LP and one CD. (You can get a download, too.) On Shaking Studies, Hamann presents three of her works for solo cello. I’ve heard her play earlier iterations of this music live on a couple of occasions over the years and it’s great to hear how she has developed these pieces for recording. Her studies in using shaking as a technique (usually while playing standing, inducing tremors in both bow and cello) have evolved into a thorough exploration of complex tones, timbres and layering of sound. In the opening short piece she sends her bow rasping across the strings on the bridge, with a juddering sound that oscillates between tremolo and spiccato, changing pressure, speed and position to weave a constant flux between overtones and noise, between broken and constant sounds. The longer Pulse Study, divided into two parts, sublimates this tremor into the fabric of Hamann’s playing, with the constant pulsations emerging like a beating frequency from an interplay of bowed intervals, sometimes in the topmost pitch range, at other times below.. The pulses draw attention to the richness of harmonic colour Hamann draws out of the instrument, always changing without following any obvious process or formula. As an epilogue, she introduces a heterogeneous element, bowing low double stops over documentary recordings of various pulsating sounds.

Music for Cello and Humming collects two more of Hamann’s pieces, coupled with works for solo cello and electronics by Anthony Pateras and Sarah Hennies. A longer but equally strong collection, Hamann’s pieces combine cello with voice, as promised in the title. The opening Study merges bowed intervals with voice in a series of harmonised interference patterns. The direct use of the musical materials, with a confident resistance to adding ornamentation, is echoed by its electronic counterpart in the following piece, Anthony Pateras’ Down to Dust. This track is taken from the overwhelming box set of Pateras’ music released last year and is an exemplar of his recent compositions, making bold gestures which retain their forcefulness without resorting to bravado or pyrotechnics. (Need to talk more about Pateras’ stuff soon.) Hamann’s Humming Suite is a work commensurate with her Pulse Study: here her voice acts as the agitating factor to the cello, with the two acting as counterparts. Besides the technique, the musical difference is that Humming Suite is a more languid, contemplative work, albeit with its occasional reveries punctuated by more fraught, incongruous moments. It seems to owe something to the slightly earlier work she recorded, which appears last here. Sarah Hennies’ Loss starts out in a reassuringly austere manner, with Hamman humming repeated unisons with her cello. Things then get more complicated. The cello here is higher pitched than before, more nasal, and Hamann’s humming sometimes falters. Cello also falters; there are pauses, isolated plucked notes and finally a slackening of strings into frail subsonics. The humming breaks away to reveal more of the human behind the sound, the voice strains, breath catches, develops a cough that won’t fully go away. It’s a disturbing, confronting piece that passes from its initial pristine surface into rawer acts of internal fragility, where affectation and vulnerability are forced to coexist and gestures may be interpreted as a confusion of defiance and despair.

Jérôme Noetinger and Anthony Pateras: A Sunset For Walter

Monday 2 September 2019

The hell is going on here? It’s, it’s… beautiful. A long, long way from his signature hyperactive style, Anthony Pateras contemplatively plays slow, arpeggiated octaves over a gentle ambient hum that takes on a life of its own at the start of A Sunset For Walter, the new Penultimate LP of duos by Pateras and Jérôme Noetinger. The two have collaborated numerous times before, but this is the first legit release of the two playing together alone. Pateras on untreated piano, Noetinger on Revox tape deck, adding ambience, disembodied counter-melodies and distorted piano reflections. Bass resonances linger ominously, chords pile up and echo; each musician adds an occasional flourish to cast the prevailing mood into relief, opening up the sounds to new possibilities.

The Walter in the title is Walter Marchetti and the album is an homage to his piano music, “particularly the slowed-down subaquatic expanse of Nel Mari Del Sud.” The LP presents four excerpts from a three-hour performance given by the two at an evening concert in Stuttgart last year. The ruminative pacing and sustained tones throughout create a marine calm, always slightly eerie more than lulling. A crepuscular atmosphere prevails throughout, giving everything a suitably elegaic tone, as though the sounds are imperceptibly fading away. Presumably the entire gig was like this – we get some clues of what we haven’t heard from Noetinger’s tape, playing back manipulated fragments of the two playing. Sounds from the small audience become more audible, some children in the room, a bird somehwere.

The selections, presented out of sequence, work as distinct compositions, each preserving a mood while allowing for musical development. Both players are excel at deepening the plot, slipping a new undertone into the colouring of their sound or introducing disruptions at just the right moment, never out of place but changing the listener’s perspective. The tracks are titled only by the time at which they were played; the last track is the latest. The sounds here are at their most sparse, the tape playing thin, high sounds, people’s feet shuffling on the hard floor – it sounds like the sun has set and this is indeed the end.

Organs, Inner and Outer: Thomas Ankersmit, Rohan Drape

Thursday 6 September 2018

I’m a sucker for feedback synthesis* and therefore I’m very happy with Thomas Ankersmit’s new CD Homage to Dick Raaijmakers. There are two things that stand out after the first listening. Most obviously, there is the utilisation of inner-ear phenomena (the notes advise against using headphones for this piece) that predominate at certain times, creating those satisfying shifts in texture and tone when you move your head around while an otherwise static sound is playing. Almost as striking is the compositional sense at work behind the sounds. This type of music making can so often result in an overwhelming torrent of sounds that never let up, a cataloguing of technical effects or an unvarying slice of sound sculpture. Homage to Dick Raaijmakers flows with an almost romantic feeling for the material as it rises and then ebbs away, the mood passing between tension and relaxation. Repeated listening reveals new details, reflecting the blend of different media put to use here: analogue feedback units and oscillators are combined with contact microphones and tape manipulation. Multiple strands of electronic sounds are often at work, creating subtleties not noticed at first. The psychoacoustic effects arrive in two plateaux during the course of the piece, and even there the pulsing and pitches change from time to time while the listener is head-bopping.

The whole high-pitched beating frequencies thing made me remember that I wanted to mention a recent CD by Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras. Ellesmere is apparently the first commercial release by Drape – an event I’ve waited a long time for. I’ve heard him play live, in groups and solo, on several occasions and always been wowed by his technical knowledge, particularly his understanding of software as a means for making music, beyond using it as a tool to achieve a desired outcome. This virtuosity shines through from within the music, not as a flashy surface, so perhaps it should be expected that Ellesmere ignores high-end technology and consists simply of two duets for old electric organs. In the shorter work, Harleian, the two keyboards focus on high pitches, with the differences of intonation and overtones between the two instruments creating plenty of activity to keep the cochlea buzzing. The long piece, St Johns Wood, is in a more sombre register, a slow chorale for organ played as a strange double image, the matched keyboards creating microtonal chords and ghostly harmonics. The otherwise simple organ sound becomes disembodied, without background or perspective the instrument becomes unreal.

*To the point of using it myself, with both analogue and digital electronics.

Composed, Uncomposed, Discomposed

Monday 30 July 2018

I’m allergic to jazz; don’t know why. Probably from being raised on rock, but I always hated rock music that held on to the past as a crutch, as a sign of validation, instead of using it as a springboard for something new. I’m incapable of hearing that innovation in jazz; I keep hearing these callbacks to the past as a sop to the audience and critics, lest the musos fall from favour for getting too far out of line. Everyone’s playing something really wild and free when somebody just has to throw in a ii-V progression to reassure everyone that they’re still listening to jazz. Self-conscious rock is no fun either.

I’m listening to Guède by a French quartet of Frédéric Blondy, David Chiesa, Rodolphe Loubatière, Pierce Warnecke: piano, double bass, drums, electronics. Two pieces, each bang on 30 minutes. Everything flows and avoids resolution, seemingly without effort. Just as things start to get too cosy, pitched sounds fade away and the group plays on with noises. The pulse remains and nothing breaks the surface of restrained dynamics, a continuum is maintained while the material remains in flux. It’s improvised, so I get fussy and start wondering if it all moves a little too smoothly without a guiding compositional logic.

In some ways, the sound is similar to some of Magnus Granberg’s recent music. Granberg’s pieces are open in form, but still composed. His most recent release, Es schwindelt mir, es brennt mein Eingeweide, is a long work recorded late last year. The sextet’s playing here is more sparse than usual, with the spine of the work formed by isolated notes traded back and forth between Granberg’s prepared piano and Christoph Schiller’s spinet. Other instruments elide between violin and viola da gamba, some percussion and very subtle electronics. At times, the rest of the ensemble retreats to an almost inaudible background haze; there’s a small surprise when the violin finally plays a sustained note. The musicians give shape and structure to an hour of the slightest material, with turns in sound and instrumentation that throws each preceding section into relief.

I’ve talked before about several releases on Anthony Pateras’ Immediata label, but did not discuss North Of North’s 2015 album The Moment In And Of Itself. The nature of the trio – Pateras on piano, Erkki Veltheim on violin and Scott Tinkler on trumpet – set off my anti-jazz snobbery. The combination of instruments threatens a certain level of fussiness but this risk is immediately exploded on the group’s new self-titled album, released on their own label. There are three pieces, each titled ‘Church of All Nations’ after the recording venue. The out-of-sequence numbering of the tracks suggests that they picked out the best bits from their session, as does the strength of the playing and the coherence of the music. It’s improvised and it’s relentless, each musician serving up dense blocks of sound that alternately mesh and clash. The playing focuses on texture and timbre, with their highly developed technique and harmonic sense directed towards a greater artistic statement.

More guitars, and the editor as composer

Saturday 21 April 2018

In Sonic Youth’s imaginative but haphazardly executed album Goodbye 20th Century, their tackling of various Cage and Cageian compositions contained one key insight: electric guitars can be equated with percussion. John Cage first made a name for himself as a percussion composer using various exotic instruments and found objects, but in his later pieces he refrained from attempting to define, or even suggest, what percussion instruments to use. There was just no point, as he had found that no two percussion instruments could be relied upon to sound sufficiently alike. Morton Feldman made the observation that, while the piano, the violin had all reached a consensus ideal through centuries of focused development, the relatively neglected percussion instruments were still a little erratic.

With electric guitars, these distinctive traits became their selling point, each manufacturer promising a unique ‘tone’. This feature was immensely expanded by the introduction of additional technology: amplifiers, filters, effects boxes. With several generations now raised on guitar-centred popular music where no two musicians’ setups are alike, a composer’s score calling for an electric guitar seems vague to the point of being foolhardy… unless they approach it in some way rather like Cage. (It’s an interesting example of one of the ways Cage ceded control of his music to the performer’s tastes.)

A couple of weeks ago I heard the Belgian electric guitar quartet Zwerm play at Kammer Klang. Their set included a realisation of Earle Brown’s December 1952, interpreting the score in terms of pitch, attack, and effect pedal settings. The music was effectively electronic, rather than electroacoustic, with the guitar moved beyond amplification into being a medium for producing and transmitting electrical signals. Prior to this, they performed Joanna Bailie’s Last Song From Charleroi, a piece that combines e-bowed electric guitars with field recordings of abadnoned industrial spaces. With the presence of the four guitarists on stage, it was easy to forget that not all of the sounds you heard were coming from them.

I’ve been hearing a lot of guitars lately. As well as their recent CDs of acoustic guitar playing by Taku Sugimoto and Cristián Alvear, Another Timbre have released a solo disc by guitarist Clara de Asís. I’ve heard her realisation of d’incise’s Appalachian Anatolia (14th century), which was also recorded by Alvear at about the same time. On Do Nothing, Asís plays acoustic guitar, with percussion, but the results are in the realm of electroacoustic music, with their emphasis on the shaping and colouring of sound forming the music’s content. Asís’s playing is as clear and precise as before, with isolated guitar notes doubled on percussion instruments, creating subtle varieties of attack and overtones. Other sections are rolling interludes of mechanically-assisted percussion, acting like a slowly morphing sound sculpture. By the end, bowed guitar tones have been blended with sustained percussion sounds, resembling both but neither.

When Zwerm played their own adaptation of Dowland’s viol music for their guitars, their use of distortion sometimes called up associations with ‘heavy’ music which can seem overbearing and undersophisticated – in a word, cheesy. Guitarist Stephen O’Malley frequently places an emphasis on these dark, dramatic qualities in his playing, which can verge on the ridiculous. I first listened to Rêve Noir, his collaboration with Anthony Pateras, with a little trepidation. Putting the disc in my computer’s CD reader revealed the album was originally titled “Tape Exorcism”. The album is not exactly the live improvisation it first appears to be. Taking the concert tapes from 2011, Pateras has now used them as raw material to play through his Revox machine, cutting up and meseing up the original document. A steadily growing drone is suddenly cut dead by Pateras, just as you think O’Malley is about to break loose. Soaring washes of sound are strangled, a full-flight roar of instruments is spat out in echoing fragments. Guitar static suddenly switches to half-speed piano thuds. The three-part suite is dramatic and ominmous, all the more for keeping you suspended in uncertainty until the very end.

Pianos (II): Epstein Abrahams Pateras

Thursday 19 October 2017

Nobody has made it…. Nobody is accessible*.”

At the last Music We’d Like To Hear concert this summer I heard the first live performance in the UK of John McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos (completed in 1980). The work could be considered ‘minimal’: a continuous span of some 50 minutes, dynamically and texturally static, with a single, clear principle underlying the cycling of the material through harmonic and rhythmic changes. As a tour de force of compositional engineering, it first sounds like an evolution of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase: a unifying process developed to a point of elaboration where the inner workings of the method remain elusive to the listener, yet the presence of an intelligible principle of operation is intuitively apparent. (Works such as this are sometimes described by critics as ‘postminimalist’, inasmuch as it displays a greater development of Reich’s ideas than Reich himself achieved.)

I started thinking about this when listening again to R. Andrew Lee’s album of piano pieces by Paul A. Epstein. The relatively brief pieces here, all written in the 2010’s, achieve a similar type of complexity as in McGuire’s epic, aimed towards a different end. Epstein writes of “reducing surface repetition while retaining the ‘limited means’ that remains for me a crucial aspect of minimalism and postminimalism.” It’s probably not a coincidence that he has also written a perceptive analysis of Piano Phase. Pieces with intellectually provocative titles such as Drawing No. 4 (triangles, broken horizontal and vertical lines, rectangles, and parallelograms) hint at objective processes at work underneath the shifting mosaic of notes and chords. Rhythms are not steady but appear to conform to an underlying grid; pitches and harmonies are transformed according to rules that remain unknown to a casual listener but clearly follow a coherent order. For something that immediately sounds so straightforward, this music hovers in an ambiguous place. Typically, any music moving away from strict minimalism to greater complexity is perceived as a turn toward subjectivity, but Epstein trips our sensitivity for affective sounds through entirely rational means.

The difference in hearing this type of complexity is a little like distinguishing a knot from a tangle. Complexity, and the designing intellect behind it, can come in many forms. Music In Eight Octaves is a vast, churning ocean, cryptically credited on the front cover to “176”. This reveals itself to be the piano duo of Chris Abrahams (him off The Necks) and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard years ago that these two had recorded an album with them each improvising for an hour at a time on each octave of the keyboard in turn, then superimposing the results. From time to time I wondered what became of it. The sessions, recorded in 2005, have finally been released.

Has there been much editing of the raw material? Am I remembering this correctly? The sleeve notes don’t give anything away, instead dedicating themselves to Pateras interviewing Abrahams about the musical environment in which he developed, ranging from jazz to the avant-garde to pedagogical studies to the Australian alternative rock scene of the 1980s. (Nothing is said of Pateras other than as a reflection, a succeeding generation inheriting Abraham’s legacy.) The music is as overwhelming and ultimately pounding as you might expect, but much of the exhaustion comes from the sheer wealth of differentiated material, more than overbearing volume. The “all-over” nature of the music at first recalls Pollock’s drip canvases, but it progressively becomes clearer that a closer analogy would be to Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings. Besides the overlaying of material, the aleatory montage of different images, alternately hidden, distorted and revealed, there’s the way the music is treated as a source of further development. In the way that Richter photographs, cuts up and re-photographs some of his abstract canvases, the two pianos here seem to have been cut up, cut away, sculpted into its present form. Certain registers drop away from time to time and I’m still getting to grips with the piece to determine if there is silence or admirable restraint by the two players.

I just replaced ‘improvisers’ with ‘players’ in that last sentence. Even without editing, the act of playing in these circumstances was a compositional strategy, with the awareness that the material would be layered and combined. As a monolithic block of sound, it reveals itself to have a complex, multifaceted shape of many-coloured faces.

Pianos (I): Parkinson Dalibert Pateras

Tuesday 25 July 2017

For reasons economical as much as ideological the piano has become the one-man* laboratory for the composer as autonomous author or auteur using the instrument as a vehicle for musical manifestos. Music and ideas about music have become inseparable to the extent that to try such a separation is a theoretical statement in itself. That could be heard as a less direct demonstration of an aesthetic argument. In a similar way each piece of music may be heard as exemplifying a certain theoretical principle to a greater or lesser degree. When Feldman protested that he abjured systems he created a new means of approach for other composers to follow.

You make music out of sounds and not ideas but composition as a demonstration of a theoretical principle can be very direct and unadorned yet still be aesthetically pleasing or at least interesting even if nobody really wants to play the first part of Boulez’s Structures and skips straight to Book 2. Tom Johnson has created an oeuvre of compositions that rigorously follow even the simplest and most predictable processes yet can charm and delight through a counterintuitive adherence to an obvious pattern. The reason things get unexpectedly complicated is because there is a difference between letting a theory play out in your imagination and experiencing it as a physical acoustic phenomenon. If the idea is evident then it has to operate on musical terms.

I’ve been listening to Philip Thomas play two of Tim Parkinson’s eponymous piano pieces released by Wandelweiser a while back. The two pieces from 2006 and 2007 are discontinuous and ostensibly anonymous. Unconnected gestures and patterns separated by pauses accumulate in an arbitrary sequence. Parkinson describes the earlier piece as a constant state of beginning that is beginning with nothing. An echo of Cage’s dictum of chance starting over from zero at every instance comes to mind but here it is not chance but performance. Patterns of piano playing come to mind and are reflected on when starting over again. The latter piece is described in terms of work. Writing and playing in a given space of time and finding things new whether by playing something new or playing something heard before but hearing it new. In each case a give-and-take between the composer and the instrument reveals something unexpected.

I don’t know much about Melaine Dalibert’s music or his new album Ressac on Another Timbre. His plays two of his own compositions for solo piano. Like on the Parkison album the pieces are written in successive years. The 2014 piece is short and the second from the following year is long. Other than length it is difficult to tell the two apart. Each one is made entirely of single notes spaced widely apart with each note left to fade away. It gets monotonous but as each pitch is different from the next it is never monotonous enough to become interesting. Apparently there is some algorithm behind the sequence of pitches but this conceptual process is not demonstrated in an interesting way. The two pieces demonstrate nothing more than an idea that need not be heard. Letting each note decay so completely unfortunately recalls a previously fashionable style of ‘holy minimalism’ that assigned a superstitious reverence to each note played.

Two more piano pieces again played by the composer on Anthony Pateras’s Immediata release Blood Stretched Out. I’ve just looked and yes again the pieces are from successive years albeit in reverse order. Chronochromatics from 2013 plays like the latter Tim Parkinson piece albeit filtered through Pateras’ more manic sensibility. His programme notes list a set of ideas ideals idle thoughts obsessions and reference points which may well constitute the score for the piece. There may be autobiography in here encoded into the patchwork of allusions exercises and outbursts. As with the Parkinson anything familiar is rendered strange through context. As an idea the piece Blood Stretched Out seems simpler upon hearing it although the act of playing it seems much more arduous. An extended trill that thunders away for nearly 45 minutes would sound on the surface as a single exercise in timbre. The sleeve notes to this work are in the form of a diary compiled over two years collating thoughts on culture and music equally with reflections on society and philosophy. The opening of the piece establishes a parallel with Wagner and then starts to transform itself in a defiant attempt to break through the constraints of multiple traditions to which the most progressive musician may paradoxically find themselves bound. To distance oneself from classical tradition now puts one in debt to the past century of the avant-garde and to renounce both leads into an equally burdened history of improvisation. Pateras has carefully considered the odds and the options before deciding to launch a full-frontal attack in which competing ideas are subsumed entirely by acoustic phenomena.

Convulsive Amnesia and Disruptive Technology

Monday 26 June 2017

How does a composer respond to the modern world? Do you try to shut it out as a distraction and risk irrelevance? Or do you try to engage with it and risk co-option to commercial and political interests? Are you sufficiently aware of the changing currents in society, able to record them in such a way that your music doesn’t grow as stale as last year’s fashion?

Synergy percussion ensemble is approaching their 40th anniversary and commissions a new work to mark the occasion. They ask Anthony Pateras, who responds with an hour-long percussion sextet using over 100 instruments, with electroacoustic improvisations, written over two years. Now released on CD and download, Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All is a huge, ambitious work, far beyond a celebratory showpiece for technical virtuosity.

The title immediately recalls a misquote of Breton’s dictum, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” In fact, it’s a direct quote of the conclusion to Sylvère Lotringer’s essay The Dance of Signs. As with all the releases on Immediata, the music comes wrapped in ideas. The disc is accompanied by a booklet of interviews between Pateras, Lotringer and Jérôme Noetinger.

Presently, amnesia is impossible because we are immersed in the omnipresent archive of the Internet. The techno-utopia we have collectively bought into makes it more difficult for creative processes that consciously seek new worlds, because the weight of the past is magnified and indulged. If we cannot forget, how do we stumble on the beautiful?

Lotringer replies, “Surprise doesn’t surprise anymore. It’s already inscribed in the machine.” Cage typically liked to see the bright side of the emerging postmodern condition (we will become omni-attentive, i.e. electronic) but Lotringer cites another quote from Cage, on the need for art to “help us to forget” when we “drown in an avalanche of rigorously identical objects.” Right now, as any tech billionaire will tell you, information is an industry, rapidly defining for itself its own standards of manufacture and reproduction. Pateras notes that ubiquitous technology has given us a surfeit of self-representation, at the expense of self-awareness.

In a cultural sense, technology has allowed us to be consumed by inertia. How to break this hold? A percussion work too often asserts a return to primal origins, an attempted negation that in fact is a regression to accumulated cultural baggage and prejudices. Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All makes a regression of a more complex kind. It starts out sounding like a recording from the 1950s, the highest frequenices deadened, a faint hiss and rumble throughout. Despite the appearance of tape recorders later in the piece, at this stage everything is in fact acoustic, all sounds created by low, muffled percussion instruments of various types. An invisible act of technological disorientation.

The music is difficult, virtuosic in its complexity of composition and performance, but never in a flamboyant way. The polyrhythms and timbral shifts between instruments form a coherent hole, with no single voice standing out for display. Throughout the piece, the percussion is overdubbed with improvisations by Pateras and Noetinger on Revox tape recorders, reproducing, manipulating and distorting the percussion sounds. At times, the percussion sextet’s playing acts as an armature for the electronics, and at other times, vice versa. For all the small-scale restlessness in making the sounds, and the large-scale flux in densities and textures, the piece feels curiously monolithic. It creates its own meaning, leaving it to the listener to discern.

The question of whether the electronic and acoustic here exist in symbiosis, or instead prey upon each other in turn, is effaced by the electronic technology appearing to be obsolete (tape, open reels). To a less obvious extent it is also effaced by the ‘primitive’ percussion including highly-developed instruments and newer inventions such as Xenakis’ Sixxens. Freed from the distractions of being “cutting edge”, technology here is embraced for its truly disruptive properties, over an empty gesture of futilely attempting to renounce technology. Percussion and tape introduce complexities and complications which digital technologies have tried so hard to expunge.

We are living now in the half-forgotten legacies of the last century, from a time when first percussion music, and then tape, were seen as means of liberating sound. The use of older technology here is not an act of nostalgia but of taking up again a promise of the future left unfulfilled. If the music here seems foreboding, it still may be a utopian alternative to digitally-enforced cheerfulness.

Serious Listening Weekend

Monday 3 October 2016

Are you playing an instrument or playing music? I’m old-fashioned enough to be leery of improvisation. Spent the weekend listening to new(ish) CDs of music that was not strictly composed; not in the authorial sense. For most of them I could make the argument that these are compositions, not improvisations.

There’s a growing, interesting genre of music that defines, develops and interprets compositional parameters as a joint process between musicians. These pieces aren’t an a priori realisation of a composer’s indeterminate score, nor are they spontaneously improvised. This seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. Off the top of my head I can’t think of examples of these methods going back as far as “free improvisation” in the 1960s. There was “group composition” but that was just a term for improv musos who had to play art galleries instead of jazz clubs. It’s a sign that the genre is evolving, maturing.

I’ve been working through a rich vein of discs sent from the Another Timbre, Intonema and Immediata labels. Violinist Angharad Davies and pianist Tisha Mukarji recorded a set of improvisations over two days this February, released under the title ffansïon | fancies. In an interview on the website it mentions that the second day of recording was forced by “circumstances”, but this helped the album immensely. Material from the first day was evidently reworked, developed and refined for takes used on the final release. (“It struck me that this is a particularly fruitful way of using improvisation.”) The results show the benefit of additional time for reflection. Each piece reveals a focus on detail without losing sight of an overall direction or shape. Sounds are allowed to develop and change over time without rambling, giving each piece a character that can range from spiky pointillism to deconstructed folk music.

The St Petersburg-based Intonema label finds plenty of room to wander within what appears at first to be a pretty narrow range of music. The wandering is both musical and geographical. Tri presents a state-of-the-art improvisation in electroacoustic music with venerable electric guitarist Keith Rowe and Ilia Belorukov and Kurt Liedwart on various instruments, objects, computer processing and electronics. It documents a live performance and listening at home it’s hard to get too excited about all the technique on display. Sympathy to the guy in track one with the cough.

In contrast, Belorukov’s collaboration with Gaudenz Badrutt on electronics and “objects” and Jonas Kocher on accordion makes for fascinating listening. Rotonda is a live performance inside the Mayakovsky Library in St Petersburg. The musicians note that the space of the rotunda and its specific acoustics makes it “the fourth collaborator” in the piece. A compositional constraint is introduced: “acute attention to silences and extremely careful work with sound”. A slow, deliberately-paced music unfolds over nearly 50 minutes, each performer knowing that the resonance of the space will fill and colour their inactivity. A welcome relief from the horror vacui that affects so many musicians, without ever becoming a dry, didactic exercise in silence.

Tooth Car features Canadians Anne-F Jacques and Tim Olive playing live in the US: two fairly short extracts, which may be all that is needed for audio only. The limitations here are mechanical. Jacques constructs rotating surfaces that are played and amplified, while Olive amplifies other objects with magnetic pickups. The rotating devices provide regular ostinati throughout each piece and the various colours of metallic scraping suggest something close to sound sculpture.

For real group composition, Polis presents a combine, of intentional sounds and unexpected factors. Electroacoustic composers Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan and Louie Rice collaborated by preparing compositions and then mixed them, playing the mix through a car sound system that drove to various locations around the city of Porto. A complex but not impenetrable blending of sounds emerge, with different tracks overlapping each other, elaborated upon by different locations and live sampling of urban spaces. A neat convergence of pure sound, documentary, field recording and spatialisation.

Perhaps more conventional, Volume by the duo Illogical Harmonies on the Another Timbre label clearly identifies itself as a jointly composed piece. The violinist Johnny Chang and double bass player Mike Majkowski improvised together over several months, transcribing, performing and revising until they had sculpted this hour-long suite of five movements. This painstaking process has produced a beautifully restrained and focused performance, which at first sounds like a concentrated study on intonation and tuning but on closer listening reveals beautiful details of refined ornamentation and subtle relief.

Anthony Pateras has built a career out of being both a composer and an improviser, and his own Immediata label has recently produced a series of limited edition CDs of works that lurk in the grey area between the two domains. (Downloads are also available on Bandcamp.) I was going to discuss a couple of these now but I’ve just been listening again to his collaboration with Erkki Veltheim, Entertainment = Control. We’re back to straight violin and piano here and this bravura performance is part lost minimal epic, part social commentary, part virtuosic tour-de-force and part pisstake. I was going to say this disc is ideal if you think The Necks are too fussy or Charlemagne Palestine is too straightlaced, but then I started reading the extensive sleeve notes again. Pateras and Veltheim discuss fascism and sadomasochism, the Marx brothers, punk cabaret and the plague of El Sistema amongst other things and I can see I need to save all this for a separate post.

Australia Now and Then

Monday 18 April 2016

I’ve been listening to a lot of music which I should talk about, both live and on CD. The CDs will come up later; for starters I’ve been thinking about this concert at the BBC Studios in Maida Vale a couple of weeks ago.

Brett Dean was conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a programme of modern Australian composers. It’s the type of programme I’d normally shy away from – because of, not despite, being Australian and having heard concerts organised on the same premise back home. When a large institution is involved – an orchestra, a national broadcaster – things usually attempt to be overly safe and overly “representative”. The latter principle manifests itself in trying to cram in a number of slighter, lesser works by a broad variety of composers which don’t really gel together. Like new music in the UK, Australian music in Australia still needs to defend its own small space.

Regardless of any national slant, Dean’s programme of works was beautifully focussed, illuminating a particular thread of musical thought found in a group of diverse Australian composers working today. The introduction to the programme notes made this intent clear, to look beyond the customary identification of Australian art with the unique nature and landscape it inhabits. More importantly, the concert portrayed Australian music as being distinguished by an engagement with the rest of the world, building an increasingly complex dialogue with other cultures.

For a long time, the question of identity in Australian art was often framed as a debate between two sides, pro- and anti-. On one side, “internationalists” would deride parochialism (and imitate any new avant-garde trends in Europe and America) while “nationalists” would chauvinistically promote a local vernacular (and imitate one particular trend in Europe and America). It’s a mindset that’s hard to shake off, particularly if you make decisions for a funding body.

The concert opened with one older work, Richard Meale’s Clouds Now and Then from 1969. It’s a significant work, with its musical language derived from Messiaen and its static, contemplative form inspired by Basho’s poetry. Incorporating ideas from Europe and Japan, it floats between worlds rather than seeking dependence on one or the other. This give-and-take continued through the concert, both musically and biographically. Some of the composers – Thomas Meadowcroft, Anthony Pateras, Lisa Ilean – now live in London or Germany, while Georges Lentz was born in Luxembourg and moved to Australia in his twenties.

Ilean’s Land’s End drew upon a similar sound-world to Meale, enhanced with microtones. Meadowcroft’s Peacemaker Tattoo and Dean’s own Engelsflügel confronted European composers directly, Mahler and Brahms respectively. With Dean, it was a passionate exploration of musical ideas; with Meadowcroft, a modest, somewhat deflating side-step, equal parts deference and aversion. Lentz’s Caeli enarrant… III is an eclectic procession of disparate elements unified by the composer’s personal spiritual vision, combining Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, astronomy, serialism, chance and silence.

Both Meadowcroft and Pateras in his violin concerto Immediata appeared as performers, using an open-reel tape deck to record, play back and manipulate sounds in real time. (I’m an old friend of Pateras so I’ll try not to get too enthusiastic.) Immediata was built out of an eclectic, disruptive improvisation, elaborated by divergent combinations of instruments. Pateras recorded soloist Thomas Gould’s amplified violin and proceeded to speed, slow, warp and distort the sounds, at times going off into cadenzas of his own, in a manner reminiscent of the electronic interpolations of Varèse’s Déserts. There’s a tension between the music that’s fixed and that’s ephemeral, between the notated and improvised both in origin and performance, and of preservation and loss where, perversely, the tape recording is discarded and the piece must persist through performance of the written score.

I think BBC Radio 3 expects to broadcast this concert in August this year.

The technique. Pateras, Toral, Frey.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Not much to report lately except for two gigs, both at Cafe Oto, about one week apart.

First night: two solo sets, by Rafael Toral and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard some of Toral’s music for guitar and feedback of different types, so this was relevant to my interests. He played three “pieces”, each using different sets of very simple equipment. After the first set I started to vague-out a bit. The first was the most interesting: holding a small powered speaker in one hand, he “played” it with a microphone/light in the other, moving it to and fro to create controlled bursts of feedback. It was reminiscent of a solo improvisation on a violin, in sound and gesture. Unfortunately, it also went on for too long – I think this was because Toral seemed more interested in extracting every possible type of sound out of his instrument than in shaping a musical experience. He later mentioned that he was thinking about jazz saxophone solos while playing, so perhaps this was the problem too.

I’ve known Anthony Pateras for a long time so it was good to hear him play again. He played solo piano, without preparations to the strings or other extraneous sounds (as is often the case with him). The difference in technique between the two musicians was striking, and not just in the obvious way of comparing Toral’s meticulous gestures with Pateras’ frenzied activity. The trademark hyperactive pummelling of the keyboard is nevertheless rigorously constrained, producing sharply defined contrasts in large harmonic blocks of sound as well as more subtle distinctions in texture. His technical agility keeps focussed on one musical idea, which is then expanded and elaborated upon. He also stopped soon enough for the audience to demand an encore.

A few days later I was back at Oto to see Jürg Frey and friends (or “personal army”, as they were described on the night). He’s a clarinettist and composer, another one who’s associated with Wandelweiser. Quiet, pulseless sounds: unlike my previous experience, the usual feeling of hushed stillness had additional depths. Some of Frey’s music that I’ve heard seems, to some extent, a provocation in its refusal to yield to an implied, wider palette of sounds. (This is particularly after hearing R. Andrew Lee play Frey’s piano music.) On this occasion, there were also some surprisingly rich sounds, with an almost playful (on Frey’s terms) exploration of harmonies and instrument combinations.

Performance technique in Frey’s music becomes a matter of mastering a highly disciplined activity, to achieve the extremes of attenuated sounds demanded in the score. Looking back on the three different sets, it became clear that I was hearing differences of technique that applied equally to composition as they did to performance. The opportunity to hear Frey play his own music made this connection much clearer. A more extreme case of performance dictating composition was also presented at the Frey gig. Anton Lukoszevieze’s performance of part of John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings reveals that the harmonic structure of the piece is entirely produced by the systematic execution of a single, extended gesture by the cellist – conceptually simple, but physically difficult.

The same musicians had spent the weekend recording Frey’s music for another release by Another Timbre. It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.