Ryoko Akama’s ‘Dial 45-21-95’; Jon Heilbron’s ‘Puma Court’

Tuesday 14 January 2020

It’s like looking at someone with short hair. We could tell if that person had long hair in the sixties and now has short hair, as opposed to the guy who’s always had short hair since the fifties.

Peter Gena, in conversation with Morton Feldman

A couple of years ago, Another Timbre released a vast recording of Ryoko Akama’s places and pages, “a collection of fifty texts to be performed at random places”. At the time, I described it as “reminiscent of Cage’s Song Books, Ferrari’s audio travelogues, Fluxus happenings, yet it sounds like none of these.” Another Timbre founder Simon Reynell has commissioned a set of pieces from Akama to be performed by the ensemble Apartment House. The collection, released on CD with the title Dial 45-21-95, is very, very different. There are notes. Pitches, even. Melodies.

Akama recently visited the archive of Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Seated at a piano with the archive director’s baby on her lap, a brief lullaby came to her. “Everything else started from that moment.” The pieces in this collection are a response to Kieslowski in a similar spirit to his films. They are simple and direct, but nothing is obvious. A plain quality that won’t tug on the emotions but allow them to roam freely. The responses are intuitive but cannot be explained.

Apartment House invests these slender scores with a distinct life and character in ways that never strain for a particular effect; each piece has a unique quality while never breaking the prevailing mood. The music is beguiling in a way that keeps inviting the listener to pay closer attention, while never making demands. Some pieces blend sustained tones between instruments in a slow melody, others draw together loose scraps of sound into a whole. One rumbles ominously, while the brief piano lullaby I’m just so-so stands out for its charm, having acquired gentle accompaniment on violin and alto flute.

Jon Heilbron is an Australian who lives in Berlin but spends time in Norway, where he made this recording. That probably doesn’t matter. His two compositions here, both titled Puma Court, are double duets: two double bass players (including Heilbron) joined by two hardanger fiddlers. Expectations of how this music will go – interweaving harmonic drones and resonances – are quickly thwarted. Is someone whistling? Bowed harmonics and the sympathetic resonator strings on the fiddles should fill the upper regions of the spectrum, but other sounds intrude. Tapping and clicking sounds punctuate the surface, while the two sets of instruments exchange chords. At times, all bowing ceases, giving way to tapping and idle whistling; sometimes near, sometimes distant, as though some of the musicians have wandered away for a while.

The reverberant space of the church they recorded in adds a futher dimension, but the composition and performance makes these pieces special. What could be an exercise in rarefied folk music or “minimalism” is transformed by allowing new complications and disruptions to occur, all of which are accommodated into a coherent but subtly complex shape. Puma Court One alternates between low and high sonorities before the plot thickens, ending with an extended coda of harmonics. Puma Court Two is more sombre, even as the basses’ harmonic playing takes a more predominant role throughout, adding a muted tone to the fiddles’ range as the players recede into ragged whispering.

Ryoko Akama: places and pages

Tuesday 29 August 2017

This is a vast work, in duration and scope, made from the briefest notations. It shows that there is so much more to be explored in and understood by the term ‘minimal’ in music. Akama states simply that “places and pages is a collection of fifty texts to be performed at random places”. The texts are as gnomic as any score by George Brecht, La Monte Young or Yoko Ono in the high times of Fluxus. There seems to have been a resurgence in text scores lately, or perhaps a rise in people who know how to play them. Akama’s texts are exceptionally brief, in a way that simultaneously risks an interpretive free-for-all yet also seems forbidding in its plain lack of information. They do, however, place an emphasis on procedures, either in performance (one simply states “forty-four: walks”) or structure (“fifty overlaps”). She has published an essay describing the pieces and thinking behind them in more detail.

Another Timbre has released the recordings Akama made in various locations around Switzerland over one week last summer as part of a group with Cristián Alvear, Cyril Bondi, d’incise, Christian Müller and Stefan Thut. Over two and a half hours, forty-five of the fifty are presented. The realisations range from solos to sextets, using musical instruments, found objects, field recordings; the locations range from the recording studio to the streets. From such insubstantial slips of writing comes a sonic landscape big enough to get lost in. The musicians’ ingenious interpretations can sound in turn like a flight of inspiration or a solution to a puzzle. In the mosaic-like arrangement of pieces, this album takes on the semblance of an aural movie in which a band of explorers make a quixotic survey of their surrounds, with only a roughly-sketched map for guidance.

Some patterns seem clear on casual listening while others remain unknowable. Brief vignettes intrude, certain themes and settings reappear, new elements are introduced and these simple little pieces accumulate a history and a complexity not previously considered. There are aspects reminiscent of Cage’s Song Books, Ferrari’s audio travelogues, Fluxus happenings, yet it sounds like none of these. As the joint project of six artists, it allows for a variety of distinct approaches while maintaining an overall coherence. The more overtly musical segments put the less obvious ones in a new light, admitting a broader range of sounds as music. In turn, when the ‘music’ returns it is heard as one of a range of possible activities permitted by the score. Taken as a whole, places and pages shifts back and forth between categories: composition, performance, documentary, collage, field recording. It is a true composite.