Back from mental vacation: Reeder, Gunnarsson

Saturday 29 June 2024

I’ve got some catching up to do after my break. Composer Kory Reeder has just issued another five albums on his Sawyer Editions imprint – I’ll get to these shortly – but this time all feature other composers. Two of his own works appear on Everywhere The Truth Rushes In, released this month on Kuyin. The title work is a string quartet, composed in 2021, which exemplifies Reeder’s preoccupation with composing low contrast music, placing full trust in the quality of his material while preferring not to impress that quality upon the listener through changes in texture or dynamics. The piece can live or die upon your attentiveness, to be either experienced closely from moment to moment or else retreating into an overall impression without recollection of details. The quartet itself plays a long sequence of chords, softly, in unison, throughout – one after another in a manner which would seem both too simple to bother with and too tricky to make it work right. Reeder’s technique is deceptively uniform, appearing to be constant while slipping in an occasional prolonged chord, a small gap, a cadence in an unexpected context. The companion work is The Way I Saw Them Turning, a 2022 piece for voice, flute, viola and piano. Nicole Barbeau is the singer (the musicians here are all local to Reeder’s base in Texas), but you’ll have to crank up the volume knob to hear her. While the string quartet is soft, this piece is mastered at a level barely above a whisper. Listen close and you find both more and less than background music. Barbeau sings a text by Reeder; it’s terse. The terseness is matched by the accompanying instruments, creating a tension with the soft dynamics, but then again everything is spaced out with enough slowness to create a piece that’s skeletal in structure and appearance, at odds with the apparent languor of its progress. You will have to pump it to notice this, though.

Maybe I’m getting the hang of it. Maybe he’s developed his curious, protean animated notation to the point where it directs the listener’s ears as effectively as it does the musicians’ gestures. Maybe it’s the editing and studio enhancements. Maybe it’s down to the use of conventional instruments. Probably all three but I’m leaning towards that last one being the main reason I can get into Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s Stífluhringurinn more than the earlier pieces I’ve heard. Gunnarsson’s compositions require ensembles to interpret a digitally animated score that can change on the fly, meaning that the texture and overall shape of the piece can be elusive, with nothing settled until the performance is done. Other works I’ve heard have been scored for homemade instruments, toys and assorted objects which further inhibit comprehension that relates to any existing model. The found objects and harmonicas are still present in Stífluhringurinn, but appear as seasoning for the French horn, clarinet, cello etc. The more refined instruments are more versatile, while an orchestra of bottles and bird-calls offers a narrower palette of sounds and shifts the genre away from composition and towards sound sculpture. Stífluhringurinn was composed in 2019 for the Caput Ensemble, who play it here as a group of thirteen musicians. The two movements, or instances, of the piece contrast between short, percussive sounds and extended tones, with the emphasis moving from one to the other in the two versions heard here. It’s a living, mercurial work in which the independent forces compete or coexist to create a gestalt form that exists in the listener’s mind, ephemeral but indelible. Caput handle their instruments well, both the familiar and the strange, using extended techniques at times to blur the distinction between the two. It may be a paradox that the success of this recording exists through the artifice behind it, as Covid restrictions required the piece to be recorded in small batches, with an additional layer of interpretation given when the smaller groups were overlaid and edited together. The chance to enhance details through this method suggests that I may have found the earlier recorded pieces to be easier to perceive when heard in a live performance. In any case, if you were me, you’d start with this record and work backwards to best appreciate what Gunnarsson is doing. The album is a digital download but also available in a vinyl edition, including a small series of unique detourned album covers which, wonderfully, don’t bother with new vinyl and just include a download code with the LP that originally came in the sleeve, a move I heartily endorse.

Sawyer Editions: Kory Reeder, Matt Sargent, Noah Jenkins

Sunday 14 January 2024

There’s a new batch of five recordings on Kory Reeder’s Sawyer Editions imprint, this time including one by Reeder himself. I’ve only heard one other piece by Reeder, the 70-minute Codex Vivere on Another Timbre, which I recall mildly disparaging in a passing comment as “polite”. Something like that, anyway; I remember feeling that it was at pains to be too accommodating to the listener. Snow, composed last year for a quartet of violin, cello, piano and percussion, is a different matter. Using the same basic approach but in a more pointed fashion, Snow makes a virtue of its reticence by lulling the listener with simple, repeated patterns threaded through other ephemeral material, but always pulling them away before they can establish themselves clearly. Those patterns, with the familiar hushed dynamics, inevitably recall late Feldman, but the repeating figures are too simple to be invested with any greater significance and, if Reeder is consciously referring to Feldman then he draws upon those moments when a passage is about to exhaust itself. In pacing and phrasing, the music is constantly about to fade into silence and stasis, turning something simple into a much deeper and elusive experience. Reeder himself leads the small ensemble on piano, with all four speaking as low and distant as they possibly can. It’s also been released on cassette, yet even as a download the piece falls into two parts exactly fifteen minutes long.

Matt Sargent’s Illuminations is a set of three gentle electroacoustic works which could almost be considered ambient were it not for the subtle manipulations beneath the surface. Taken from a longer cycle of works titled Illuminations, the three pieces are made from electronic, algorithmic processes built around live musicians. Sargent’s scores are animated, with notes fading in and out over each other, creating slow loops for the performer to play, using opacity as a guide to dynamics. In turn, their notes are sifted out by a software patch that selects certain tones to be extended and harmonised. The independent routines work together to create something that sounds alive and spontaneous, even as it maintains an overall undisturbed consistency. Slow, erratic melodies unfold against a backdrop of refreshing harmonics. It reminded me a bit of some of David Behrman’s recent interactive electroacoustic works, using novel ideas without needing to show them off. The bright timbres of the instruments used here offset the softness of the playing: the first track a duet for pianist Michael Jones on vibraphone and Shaoai Ashley Zhang on piano, the following two solos for Trevor Saint on glockenspiel and Taylor Long on vibraphone. All play with a critical senstivity to touch.

By way of contrast, the two pieces Noah Jenkins has made with trombonist Riley Leitch present yet another way of listening. Without Persistent Environments is up-front loud and proud, immersing you in the sound rather than coaxing you in. For the first twenty minutes Leitch rings the changes on a small gamut of pitches in Without persistent environments the sense of confusion and flux might only worsen, multitracked so that the notes clash and coincide with unpredictable regularity. Jenkins recorded Leitch in various locations around Chicago, adding acoustic and ambient colouration that is at first imperceptible but soon becomes a complicating force. For the following hour, Leith plays long tones in just intonation into a live looping system for Rotations Placement : Providence Everywhere, creating an implacable, complex drone of dense chords and overtones. The pitches and the brass combine to make something wonderfully agressive, that snarls and buzzes like a La Monte Young piece. It’s best played loud, in the manner of the late, lamented Phill Niblock. My only complaint is that it fades out at the end instead of dumping you cold.