Ma, What Are They Givin’ Me? Matthew Shlomowitz, Weston Olencki, Laura Cocks

Sunday 17 March 2024

I swear I’m not warming to Matthew Shlomowitz’s music; it’s just that he jerks me around, which is doubtless part of his intention, and that I’ve been fortunate enough to swing in the right direction more often than not. Having been wowed after a few bad trips by his Explorations in Polytonality and Other Musical Wonders, Volume 1, he’s back with some of the threatened sequels to mess with my expectations again. Pleasingly, it both is and is not more of the same. Explorations in Polytonality and Other Musical Wonders, Volumes 2 and 4 presents two suites for small ensembles which extend the hyperkinetic chromaticism-by-association of the original piano set while adding cultural complications that make listening more precarious. These have been a feature in much of Shlomowitz’s music before now, and haven’t always sat well with the material. In these examples, everything is much better integrated. Volume 2 is scored for the forbidding combination of three recorders, ably played here by the Apsara trio who bolt out of the gate like an overclocked calliope in a dazzling contrapunctal frenzy. The dexterity of Shlomowitz’s writing, matched by Apsara’s precision, is placed at odds with the thickened timbre and rough attack of the instruments. The intonation is thus smudged throughout, calling into question the wisdom in attempting this polytonal exercise in the first place. Six formal studies are tooted at you, topped off by a coda labelled “Afternoon Jazz” that is more po-faced than the preceding movements – one of a number of little jokes that all land successfully this time around, highlighting the wit overall. You’re left in a conflicted position akin to viewing a finely detailed finger-painting, admiring the skill while agonising over the validity of the chosen medium.

Volume 4 features Quartet Laboratoire on a combo of synthesisers and percussion. An exacting but erratic drumkit backs xylophone and vibes with keyboards loaded with the daggiest General MIDI patches – more familiar territory for Shlomowitz but put to better use here, mixing funny and grating in its material and its means. The writing is less stiff than I remember from his earlier electroacoustic works, and the incongruities emerge through more subtle means than simple juxtaposition. The Laboratoire musicians nail down the rapid interplay of tuned percussion with the alacrity of Serious Europeans playing Zappa in a concert-hall, undermined by the electronic squeezebox synth parts that evoke, not so much retro computer gaming, as the received idea that old timey video-game music is crude and thin. While some music builds on the tension between low culture and high, Shlomowitz tweaks his sophisticated musical language by playing off the low against the low that aspires to be high. When you work through all the confusion you finally end up with a bundle of fresh, new confusion. Like I said, he jerks you around, but in a good way. The final movement’s title, “LoFi not to study to”, means what it says.

The title of this album is disingenuous. I mean, yes it’s true that Music for Two Flutes by Weston Olencki and Laura Cocks does indeed contain two flutes and nothing but, played by Olencki and Cocks themselves, but it does not prepare you for what is to come. Remember vuvuzelas? Now that you’ve recovered, I’ll clarify that the buzzing drones of Olencki’s ceòl meadhonach in fact draw on Highland bagpipe music for inspiration. The title is accurately but unhelpfully explained as being a type of music that’s neither classical nor popular – not quite an accurate summary but enough to give you the idea. Using what sounds like a trumpet embouchure for the flute is here employed to produce harmonies in a Gaelic mode, slowed to glacial pace. Halfway through the tone suddenly changes to a muted burble before recapitulating. This radical approach to traditional idioms is carried over in another set of pieces Olencki has made with Cleek Schrey, titled The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, which intend to discuss later this week. Laura Cocks presented the fearless and fearsome recital disc field anatomies a couple of years back, offering some of the most brutal flute music on record. Her composition SLUB pushes her interest in physical limits and the pursuit of extreme and even ugly sounds with elemental directness. The two use their instruments as resonators and filters for an array of partially-voiced mouth noises, alternately squealing, honking, braying, rasping and squelching in a bravura effort to redefine the instrument. Cocks warns that this “reconfiguration” comes with “instabilities”, which is emphatically true. It harks back to a bolder age of experimentation, recalling Kagel’s determination to find a music deprived of cultural and institutional support. Both pieces are monumental slabs of sound and it can all get a bit frightening.

Matthew Shlomowitz’s Explorations in polytonality and other musical wonders, Volume 1

Thursday 27 May 2021

I don’t enjoy writing bad reviews. If I can’t find anything interesting in a work then I prefer to leave it alone instead of use it as a pretext to tell more bad jokes. There has to be something in it to engage attention. When I last heard a significant chunk of Matthew Shlomowitz’s music, I was disappointed that the type of humour I’d heard before in a couple of his brief pieces was almost entirely absent, with its gentle provocation of what may be considered music supplanted by misplaced certainties that shut out further possibilities.

Mark Knoop’s recording of Shlomowitz’s Explorations in polytonality and other musical wonders, Volume 1, a set of seven piano pieces composed last year, has come as an immense relief. The opening piece “Parlour Nancarrow” takes it’s model’s piquant harmonies and staggered polyrhythms and turns them into an evocative prelude, redolent of Nancarrow’s impossible player piano studies but with the pastiche domesticated into impressionism. The precise, tricky rhythms at first sound like the piano is computer-controlled, or mechanised, but I’ve personally witnessed Knoop playing Peter Ablinger so I know he is capable of just this sort of feat. Shlomowitz’s casual wit persists throughout the set, with occasional callbacks of those Nancarrow chord progressions flitting by amidst convolutions of ear-stretching bitonality, like Nicolas Slonimsky’s keyboard exercises with more pointed artistic development.

Each successive piece finds new ways to delight and/or repulse the ear, bringing back those open-ended questions that had gone missing. It’s never played for laughs, which makes it all the funnier when you catch small phrases occasionally looping a little beyond their cue, or when a particularly frilly dance-step stumbles over irregular block chords. They reference kitsch without stooping to become kitsch itself. The po-faced “Classic chord progression with Neapolitan, doubled at the minor 2nd” could be heard as Ives or as a parody of Ives (itself an Ivesian concept). As the cycle progresses, the musical pretentions grow in ambition as the rhythms get more slippery and chromatic romanticism elides into deadpan deflation. In the concluding “Variations in octaves” Knoop gives a masterclass in sounding out of sync with himself, but he plays the entire score with the relish of an actor making the most out of some particularly juicy dialogue, finding the right level of archness or elegance to add a subtext to each passage.

If I had to complain then I’d prefer a cleaner recording, but this is more than enough for now. Am I happy with this music’s challenges just because they are cast in the more conservative form of a piano recital? I don’t think so; these pieces show the listener what may be heard instead of telling them what to hear. I hope there’s a Volume 2.

Matthew Shlomowitz, live and on record

Thursday 1 November 2018

I am not enjoying this. Freeze-dried samples set in stiff rhythms; that febrile, brittle texture of Eighties pop music and Eighties art musicians who wanted to be “with it”, the kind of false bombast used to disguise touchiness. Listening to Matthew Shlomowitz’s CD Avant Muzak, you wonder if it is supposed to be annoying and then you curse the music again for making you resort to seeking out an intellectual justification which may not exist.

My experience with Shlomowitz’s music up until now has been fleeting but benevolent, but with increased exposure it rapidly wore out my patience. Of the three works on this CD, played by the Norwegian group asamisimasa, two are for ensemble and sampler while the third is scored for a solo percussionist using midi pads and various devices. I’ve heard Håkon Stene play sections of Popular Contexts 8: Five soundscapes for a contemporary percussionist live and it did not help me appreciate what seems to be going on here. Shlomowitz talks about salvaging ignored, unvalued musical detritus and “ennobling” it (the ensemble pieces are titled Avant Muzak and Popular Contexts 7: Public Domain Music). It’s an admirable artistic goal, seemingly apposite for the present day circumstances of commodity culture, information saturation and social media. The approach, however, sounds like the enterprise is rooted in bad faith.

There’s that 1980s retro vibe, for a start, harking back to when sampler technology was new and full of promise. The rest of the asthetic seems to have been brought along with it, cargo cult style. The acoustic instruments repeat themselves in abrupt loops that grow as wearying as the overlaid sound samples. The ensemble itself (clarinet, cello, electric guitar, drum kit) recalls the Louis Andriessen wannabees from that decade. Perhaps that’s the point, but if it is then it reminds the listener that anything the music has to say about pop culture has already been said a generation ago and these shrill, grating compositions add nothing new. For all the claims of transforming the saccharine by taking it seriously, the music often plays out with the forced jollity of crude satire. The section titles have puns. In wishing to seem irreverent, it gives the lie to the earnestness of the musical material and the listener’s relationship to it. Each piece becomes a crass joke in which the punch line is smothered by nervous laughter and a quickly muttered “no, but seriously”.

The most disturbing aspect of this exercise in nostalgia is that, while professing to engage with the modern-day “real world”, it places the listener in an utterly anachronistic position, entirely at odds with the reality information age it seeks to embrace: a passive recipient. You can accept or reject these pieces, in toto, as is, nothing more. You can do either without feeling complicit, or conflicted, or compromised, regardless of your decision, with no impulse to pick-and-choose. This realisation hit home at last month’s Kammer Klang where another of Shlomowitz’s pieces was performed live. Lecture About Listening to Music is just that, with soprano Jessica Aszodi put in the position of delivering a spoken lecture to the audience, illustrated with musical examples on keyboard and saxophone. She talks, we listen, we’re supposed to get the point. The point is that we are supposed to recognise old pop culture artefacts, but not recognise them if they are sufficiently disguised. I listened on the assumption that any familiar musical references alluded to in the talk were bogus; it appeared that I was wrong and we were, in fact, supposed to “get it”. Again, Shlomowitz seemed to be trying to have it both ways, rewarding listeners’ complacency while passing off any shortcomings as social commentary.