Takuroku Shooting Gallery: End-Of-Year Edition (Part 3)

Tuesday 29 December 2020

(Previously: Part 1 and Part 2)

These Takuroku writeups got a bit longer than intended and there’s still a few remaining releases I want to mention, the ones which are more or less just musicians playing. Of course it is never that simple. Neil Charles’ LOW and BEYOND is a set of nine tightly-packed studies for solo double bass, each one taking technique as a starting point for invention instead of a crutch. Restless but never hurried, each one demonstrates how craft is elevated to art. By way of comparison, Farida Amadou’s solos for electric bass on Reading eyes and facial expressions take the instrument itself as the subject material. The extended pair of works consist on the one hand of a sculptural essay in open string resonance, and on the other of varying methods of attack upon the strings, both by physical means and through electronic distortion.

Two sets of piano miniatures came out at the same time. Calum Storrie’s Nine Day Score is a set of graphic scores with no specific means of interpretation, played here by Steve Beresford on piano. Storrie’s scores employ a fixed set of elements, deployed in various ways across each two-page composition. Beresford’s realisations are very free, making no direct use of the musical quotations in each score; he transforms the collaged pieces into slow, widely-spaced intervals, a slender framework of notes set against the ambience of his room. It’s a home recording, on a slightly chiming upright piano, captured on a phone, albeit in stereo. The raw, blemished sound adds an immediacy that deflects any charges of preciousness in these keyboard meditations. Tom Scott’s Tattered Angels also run the risk of preciousness, being overtly pretty and delicate, but they are too modest to be guilty of affectation. His piano pieces are more fully voiced, but even briefer, averaging a little over two minutes each. They seem shorter as each one is a thumbnail sketch, stating a theme and elaborating on it a little before falling silent. On rare occasions, he dips into the lower half of the keyboard but otherwise keeps the instrument to a small, wistful voice. As you’re thinking how simple it is you start to notice the times he’s multitracked himself, as phrases echo and cascade softly. You can hear tape wobble and start to wonder how it was made.

I’ve been listening to Anton Lukoszevieze’s Word Origins for a few months, on and off. Well-known as a cellist, less so as a composer, it should be no surprise that his solo improvisations, recorded one per day, convey enough detail and substance for repeated listening. Technique is at the forefront, but at the service of presenting and articulating musical material; most of the pieces use changes in bowing position, attack and pressure to differentiate sound, rather than a reliance on pitch. Harmonics are common. Each piece may set a mood, but, with a few exceptions, there’s less interest in making each piece become a ‘meditation’ fixated on one gesture. After becoming more familiar with the more straightforward pieces that appear later in the set, the more mecurial works start to distinguish themselves in the ear.

Takuroku Shooting Gallery: End-Of-Year Edition (Part 2)

Monday 28 December 2020

In Part 1 I mentioned the substance of Takuroku’s lockdown releases and the climate of discovery they encouraged. A perfect example of this is Leon, by the ensemble Jamaica! The description of Jamaica! (“a free music ensemble comprised of adults with learning disabilities… grew out of efforts to make the music sessions held there as inclusive as possible”) does not prepare you for the experience of hearing Leon, an hour-long still point of red heat, a glowing ember that radiates energy without movement. Their playing has a focus and economy that make AMM sound like dilettantes by comparison. Not quite an hour: the ending yields to dub, which feels all the heavier for what has gone before. The bass player is Leon, who died earlier this year.

I’m listening to everything here, even if it’s a sax and drums duet. This means I didn’t miss Lookbook by @xcrswx, with Crystabel Riley on drums and Seymour Wright on horn, the two of them sustaining the faintest of rolls and overtones for over half an hour. A remarkable feat, if not in technique then in holding the listener in suspense, even as they constantly retreat, dissapating as much momentum from their playing as possible without lapsing into silence. Wright’s solo release (If) I Remember Rites (2020) takes this approach in different directions. Taken from a live-streamed performance at Cafe Oto in August, his Natural Rite [angle] is in memoriam Scratch Orchestra member Carole Finer, who died in March. A single, high harmonic on alto sax is reiterated and gradually succumbs to brittle percussion improvised on fixtures of the cafe. The distillation of essences in these works is reversed in the concluding Knot Rite, where three saxophones are used as a vehicle to produce thick, flat panels of burred, overdriven feedback.

It sounds like there’s lots of feedback at work in amongst the home-made synths, quasi-guitar rigs and miscellaneous electronics in Killers in the Clouds, a pair of works recorded by Aquiles Hadjis and Nerve in Hong Kong (I think?) in 2019. It carries that same wild impression of unbridled electronic noise and anarchic fun that is so often the goal of electronic improvisation, yet too rarely succeeds as it does here. The restless, impulsive changes in sound and texture never feel forced and are often genuinely inexplicable to the more jaded noise fans. This should be in your go-to playlist next time you’re in a music war with the neighbours (you all have this problem, right?)

There’s feedback synthesis in ТЕПЛОТА’s HEAT/WORK too, but in a more mediated way. The duet of Grundik Kasyansky on feedback synthesizer and Tom Wheatley on double bass have worked and reworked live recordings from the previous year into something at once organic and formalised, using compositional processes, loops and the percussive effects of Wheatley’s bass to produce music that shifts between the atmospheric and the rhythmic, with a substratum of deep noise held in restraint.

More duets, where the line between improvisation and composition gets increasingly blurred: The Quiet Club’s Telepathic Lockdown Tapes presents two solo improvisations by Danny McCarthy and Mick O’Shea played back simultaneously without editing. Each allows space for the unheard other, producing a soundscape of tantalisingly obscure details that never becomes dense. Eclectic materials, audio verité and coincidence produce and effect of Cagean impassiveness. Shakeeb Abu Hamdan & Sholto Dobie’s It’s Worse mixes and matches live recordings from various locations, including some guest appearances by Arturas Bumšteinas’ Lithuanian Organ Safari project. Hamdan’s often blunt percussion and Dobie’s vacuum-powered homebrew organs sound better here than they often do live, where the queasy weirdness of the sounds take precedence over the sometimes cumbersome means of producing them. Lia Mazzari & Tom White’s Lettura di un’ onda is more of a collage, I guess. Field recordings of everyday urban sounds get recontextualised in incongruous ways that emphasise the isolation of city life in the past year. The strange disassociation of many people’s lives this past year is captured in an audio diary form, but Mazzari and White’s manipulations have a playfulness about them that adds some low-key absurdist humour. The grey backdrop of city recordings is also livened up by Mazzari’s cello playing and a few sweetly processed whip cracks.

(Continued in Part 3)

Takuroku Shooting Gallery: End-Of-Year Edition (Part 1)

Sunday 27 December 2020

Cafe Oto’s Takuroku imprint has now released over a hundred albums of new music made during this year’s pandemic lockdown, with more promised for 2021. (Presumably it will end sometime next year, as will the pandemic.) Faced with such plenitude, it’s impossible to do them all justice in a substantial review. My occasional brief notes on them run the risk of making these releases seem like minor works or casual throwaways, but in most cases the artists have contributed significant statements or made bold experiments that cast their work in new light.

Along the way, Takuroku has pulled off some firsts such as, incredibly, the first solo album by Maggie Nicols. Her Creative Contradiction release has given me a better view of her work as an artist in the round than any single gig of hers I’ve witnessed. Nicols’ music often falls into the realms of improvisation and song where I feel less inclined or qualified to comment. My reviews here have tended to shy away from Takuroku’s jazz, folk and improv releases, which have made it and Oto’s live programme seem less diverse than they are. The download catalog extends even further, to film (Tori Kudo’s Archive) and their often overlooked coverage of poetry and spoken word.

Phoebe Collings-James’ Can You Move Towards Yourself Without Flinching? and Roy Claire Potter’s Entrance song; last time present us, or rather confront us, with dialogue and monologue respectively that unfolds in ways unlike a narrative and more like a Hörspiel, establishing a state of mind in the listener. Caroline Bergvall’s Sonoscura collages together a set of meditations on poetry, language and place. Michael Speers’ Green Spot Nectar of the Gods takes up language and the speaking voice as a source for music, with electronic processing transforming its sound, rhythm and informational content (instructions on how to make the piece). Nour Mobarak’s 3 Performance Works is a different proposition: stereo documentation of multichannel performance pieces and installations that document and scrutinise idiomatic uses of phonemes and phrasing. The last of these can’t help but lose a little of their impact in this format.

We’ve had previous excursions into psychedelia in this series and I would have said that Kelly Jayne Jones’ the reed flute is fire had capped the lot. In addition to the record, a accompanying limited edition of art boxes is also for sale. They contain a drawing, incense, a small pyramid, shiny stones and gold velvet, which should help give an idea of the music. Jones’s voice and flute are processed and overlaid with melting drones that can make you feel the need to crack a window and let some fresh air in so the walls stop moving. It all pales in comparison to Nakul Krishnamurthy’s Tesserae, a pair of works that draw upon Indian classical music theory and techniques. Anyone expecting patchouli-scented pabulum will quickly have their mind tied in knots by the undulating orchestra of shruti boxes and voices in Anudhatthamudhatthassvaritham, which steadily gains in psychic power through its refusal to make nice, giving the consequences of its theoretical foundations free play. Ten Thousand Dancing Shivas shows that it’s no fluke by forgoing the textural overload and still making a poweful impact on the listener, weaving together vocal phrases and instrumental responses that evoke without ever mimicking traditional practice.

(Continued in Part 2)

Stumblebum Aesthetics and Secluded Bronte

Monday 16 November 2020

There’s radical amateurism and then there’s amateurism that may happen to be radical. I am listening to some defiantly amateurish music-making from the Far East, which is making it quite clear that this is not some highly refined culture from an exotic land which I Just Don’t Get. Xu Shaoyang’s pair of Live from underpass recordings, made in Beijing and Taipei, greet bemused pedestrians with brief group improvisations in etiolated song structures, described in the blurb as “ramshackle” and “non-dogmatic”. I still don’t get it, and assume that there’s a pointed pointlessness to it as with much Soviet art, where a lot of faff is needed to encrypt stuff a dedadent Westener would take for granted, so that said Westener then complacently assumes there’s nothing more to it. The Beijing gig includes recorders and kazoos, those perennial signifiers of the amateur, while the Tapei gig buzzes with electricity. I would gladly attend either set live, if only to be outside at a gig on a balmy evening again, preferably with access to beer.

Amateurism becomes a curse when it is elevated as a surrogate for authenticity, that most overvalued of artistic qualities. One has to convince the audience that there is no reason to do things any better, lest one be accused, falsely or not, of playing the stumblebum. Firas Khnaisser and Ali Robertson’s Inspiring Capital is so laid-back that with slightly less effort it could disappear altogether. Recorded in an Edinburgh park during a festival time rendered inert by Covid, it presents the two local musicians simply enjoying the unexpecetd peace. Meanwhile in Huddersfield, the new release from Pressure Carcass, titled Yeast Queen, collects one hundred and twenty-something phone recordings made around town. The sound quality is generic mono, the content displays a Duchampian indifference. It presents life as drama with the boring bits left in, leaving you to decide if it’s instructive or a distraction. If there’s something you want to hear again, it’s buried somewhere in those 150 minutes (advance publicity promised us three hours, so I assume some curatorial discernment took place).

On the other hand, there’s Secluded Bronte, the free improv power trio of Adam Bohman, Jonathan Bohman and Richard Thomas. They may seem amateurish and homespun in their noisemaking and slapdash in their execution, but their collection The Horns of Andromeda is an expertly paced collage of finely crafted sounds. Like true sophisticates, their complexity is worn lightly, with a transparency that lands each brief track with an immediate impact on the listener yet sustains repeated exposure as greater depths and connections are revealed. Extracted from various performances, each musician’s experience and finely tuned sensibility comes to the fore. The abundant verbiage carries authority even as it steers into gibberish, the funny bits work through sly self-awareness. Most importantly, the self-indulgent, insider fascination with craft is entirely absent here, as divergent genres and techniques are fully embraced and then dumped again with equal enthusiasm. If there’s irony here, then it is more seductive than alienating. At odds with the vast bulk of free improv, it delivers what is so frequently, misguidedly, incorrectly promised: surprise and delight.

Takuroku Shooting Gallery Redux: Electronics

Monday 26 October 2020

Left Hand Cuts off the Right – Worker. Modestly described as ‘sketches’ made while holding down a job during Covid, these start out as pleasant ambient tracks which turn ominous in the latter half, as less tractable sounds start to take up a once-benign language.

Nemeton / Rafael Anton Irisarri – Lot 178. A relic of Cafe Oto’s fundraiser auction earlier in the pandemic, these two tracks pair Nemeton’s sampled and processed orchestrations of Stan Adler’s cello with Irisarri’s remix of Nemeton. Both are monolithic, with Irisarri arcing up the light, the dark and the dynamic range.

Ben Bertrand and Otto Lindholm – Reversion. Bass clarinet and double bass with electronics make something less lugibrious than expected, more like analogue synths with a foggy, exhumed sound. Just noticed that The Sinking of the Titanic was a bonding experience for them, which makes sense.

Li Yilei – Specimen. Stupidly managed to not pay attention to this one first time I listened. The first track’s OK, but each section gets progressively more compelling with an eclectic range of instruments and sound sources deftly treated and combined into an intriguing and highly satisfying sequence. The website implies the whole thing is a realisation from a score consisting of a line of rocks.

Cara Tolmie – Lit by a Car. Hard to pin this one down. Tolmie harmonises and processes her voice in ways that start to lose all resemblance to voice. When she re-emerges from her soundscapes you’re left to contemplate if this is a return or a transformation.

Judith Hamann: Peaks and Portals

Thursday 1 October 2020

I’ve enjoyed cellist Judith Hamann’s music for years now, both in solo live shows and as part of Golden Fur. We’re finally getting more recordings out in public, with more on the way soon, it seems. The upcoming releases from Blank Forms focus on her cello playing, but the new Black Truffle album Peaks is an unexpected deviation into the unknown. It starts normally enough with Hamann playing characteristic sustained tones. There’s faint ambient noise in the background, which by now we recognise as the sounds of a lockdown home recording (it is not). The cello’s strings extend into a softly keening electronic drone; more prominent voices emerge from the echoes. Soon, the cello is lost altogether in hazy montage of locations, events and people, as though half-recalled in reverie. Sounds can be identified but their presence remains elusive as each slips in and out of perception. Hamann’s art has left her travelling the world for the past few years without ever settling down into a place of her own. Peaks is a powerfully evocative and poignant reflection of life in flux, made all the more compelling by never lapsing into the medium’s clichés in content or technique.

Hamann’s collaboration with Marja Ahti on Takuroku, Portals, could be a companion piece to Peaks. Each currently resident in Finland but forced to work remotely, the two musicians fashioned a dialogue of their respective crafts. Ahti’s skill at constructing soundscapes with a strong sense of place is decentred here, with Hamann adding new musical and physical perspectives. With Ahti, the sonic images and narrative are more distinct, but it’s a double image and the narrative becomes a soft but insistent dtory of displacement. These are two of the most haunting works to come out of this year’s isolation, particularly because we know from their circumstances they will continue to speak to our anxieties in other times to come.

Got yer art right here: Zach Rowden, Derek Baron

Sunday 20 September 2020

I’ve ranted about field recordings before, spouting off a poorly-connected set of complaints which can be boiled down to the medium’s general tendency towards complacency. No such thing in Zach Rowden’s piece We were listening to music on his new Takuroku release We were talking about music. The signal intrusions of electronic mediation, duplication and distortion hiss and crackle throughout, mixed with various levels of fidelity. Pipes and bowed strings slowly loop and drone amongst a persistent grey hum of urban open spaces. It is music as a practice, of activity located in space. If the dirgelike playing reminds you of folk music, then it is only because those qualities have been buried, unearthed and denatured to the point that any tenuous claim to authenticity comes from the act of claiming those traditional roots through modern practice. Rowden constantly reminds you of the self-reflective aspect to this music, turning it into both an archive and a document that calls into question any authentic representation, other than of itself.

Is music an art form? Of course, you say, that’s an easy one. But is it really? Music, I mean. Derek Baron’s Fourteen Latches of Heaven and Earth hits you with art of the uncomfortable kind, the sort that you may first wish to dismiss as music. Its fourteen tracks are less collage and more mosaic, each element working together to present an image of music that causes us to question and pursue the deeper workings beneath the bland assumptions we typically make when we listen. Yes, every element is musical – in most cases, a brief sketch on upright piano – but labelled in a way to imply that these have been turned out and casually filed away over the years: ‘e j05 copy (2013)’ is a typical example. They’re pretty and charming miniatures, but presented here as unfinished or as offcuts. The titles reflect personal references without any accompanying significance. Other elements intrude, the ambient background, drum machines, a harmonium solo, uncategorisable sounds. The juxtapositions resist context, neither thematically nor through quotidian accumulation. The centrepiece is a long, tortuous runthrough by Baron and with Dominic Frigo of Bach’s Herr Gott, dich loben wir on recorder and guitar; their laboured playing presents music as a form of cultural transmission at its most unpolished and brutal. The album ends inconclusively with an excerpted recording of a choir being taught a mediaeval Salve Regina, another unresolved act of musical pedagogy. Far from a diary or sketchbook, Fourteen Latches of Heaven and Earth is an artistic statement, presenting music as work; uncommodified labour as both its material and its technique, the machinery of how music makes sense of the world laid bare.

Urban subjectivity: Bill Orcutt, Ed Carter & Jessica Lee

Tuesday 15 September 2020

…started thinking about how popular music gets used as material these days. Once, tropes from rock or jazz would be incorporated into other musical styles to act as a signifier of that genre; now, the substance is reworked into new forms.” A gig I heard last year popped back into my head when listening to Bill Orcutt’s new solo guitar album, Warszawa. Having come to know his music relatively late and largely by accident at a gig in Brighton maybe ten years ago, I hadn’t made the connection to more recent experimental guitar music until now. What I remember from the Brighton gig was insistent activity that stayed resolutely in one place. The connections to rock came from that focus on the grain of the sound against its rhythm, listening inward, using the consistency of sound as a vehicle for the smaller timbral details to come to the fore. Warszawa is a more relaxed and varied affair, even as it features nothing more than Orcutt’s electric guitar without further adornment. The two untitled tracks are taken from a gig in the titular city last autumn. In the first, Orcutt plays melodic figures with varied pacing and elaboration, from gentle arcs to frenetic zig-zags. It’s all grounded by the open bottom string, plucked repeatedly to give a root to all the ornamentation. For all the activity, there’s a calm, steady concentration to the playing that can make it all unexpectedly sound soothing. The second piece (or side, I think this started as a cassette) is even more relaxed, which perversely makes the music even more fraught. The fixed bass is still there, but less frequent, the pace often slows to a pause, breaking the track into several sections. The restless pensiveness counter-balances the calm activity of the first half: Dürer’s Melancholia in reverse.

A superficial, fragile calm can also be heard in Threshold, a collaboration by Ed Carter and Jessica Lee. A lockdown recording, it combines Lee’s clarinet – layered over itself in slow, overlapping harmonies – combined with ambient sounds in and around her house. The environment may be encroaching upon the purity of the unaccompanied clarinet, or perhaps the clarinet is intruding into the everyday suburbia. The ambiguities are enhanced by the use of binaural microphones that open up the context and prominence of each sound, and by an Aeolian harp that is threaded through the piece, blurring boundaries between figure and ground even further. The clarinets and harp sound sweet and unhurried, but as the ear becomes trained on the details beneath the surface it all takes on a more troubled aspect. The sounds hover in limbo, neither private nor public – music heard on the doorstep, unsure of whether to venture outside or to welcome the listener in. For now, it marks time in an uneasy balance; a smile of optimism with a furrowed brow.

Jérôme Noetinger with Anthony Laguerre and Jean-Philippe Gross on Takuroku

Monday 14 September 2020

A long year ago I wrote about Jérôme Noetinger’s sublime collaboration with Anthony Pateras, A Sunset For Walter. Cafe Oto has now put out two new Noetinger collaborations, recorded over Covid summer, again featuring his use of a Revox tape recorder as an instrument. Noetinger’s live shows typically have a playful element, exploiting the unpredictable nature of bending sounds through manipulating tape directly, with the mad-scientist theatricality adding to the off-kilter element in the music. As stand-alone recordings, they retain that spirit of adventure recording-only adventures through the slightly messy technology at work and provocative formal conceits that challenge the musicians’ creativity.

The concept behind Propagations is simple. Noetinger and Anthony Laguerre exchange tapes they have made and do a number on each other’s recordings, “just like in the 80s”. Although no longer dependent on physical media and the postal service, both Laguerre and Noetinger seem to be using their tape decks in their ‘edits’ of each other’s work. Each of the two 15-minute tracks is a noisy, chaotic ride of electronic sounds that never stick around for too long. This is just as well, for as with all chaos there are occasional irritating and boring moments mixed in between effects that range from cheesy to inspired. It keeps you guessing, particularly with questions like: is it all really that simple? In an attempt to drill down and distinguish the two pieces and the two artists’ work I kept hearing similarities arise between them, with a kind of symmetry that suggests each track started as the reverse of the other before the additional transformations took hold. Maybe I’m hearing things, but authentic-sounding chaos usually carries an underlying design.

The concept behind Nos cadavres is simple. Noetinger and Jean-Philippe Gross exchanged tapes, but only the last 10 seconds of their recording for each one to carry on after the other in a game of Exquisite Corpse. So the exchange passes back and forth, each new contribution adding a new twist to a hallucinatory continuity that makes itself up as it goes along. In lesser hands, this lack of greater context would wear thin pretty quickly. The length of each section, however, was allowed to be anywhere from ten seconds up to seven minutes, so that moments of stability are allowed to emerge and define an overall shape, however mysterious it may be. Gross and Noetinger are also smart enough to vary sounds from the continuous to discontinuous, allowing silences to both break up the information overload and create more distinctive sonic forms. Between them, they manage to put together a dazzling range of interesting sounds over the course of the two extended tracks. Surprisingly, each listening has added further intrigue, so far.

Home recordings: Takuroku

Friday 28 August 2020

It’s inevitable that most of the releases on Takuroku are home recordings to some extent and most of them have avoided the obvious. An excessive focus on domesticity can lead to the petty dullness for which musique concrète was once criticised. The obvious and the simplistic are easy to do badly and very difficult to do well; domesticity can be put to good use by a truly creative mind. A number of solo Takuroku recordings are by musicians simply playing at home (or, in the case of Chik White, playing his home). Where these pieces may not be great artistic statements, they contain a directness that refutes any such pretension and so they gain a new value through their candour.

At other times, they can reveal more about the musician’s relationship to music than first expected. Hannah Marshall’s Clouds is a set of six improvisations for solo cello, recorded in a friend’s suburban spare room with an open window. The setting is itself much of the piece, but when heard at a low level the background disappears and the ordering and arrangement of the music comes to the fore. Everything is plucked or tapped, never bowed. If the pieces are numbered in order of performance, then they have been sequenced to provide a more complex and balanced structure, with one omitted. At first, they began mostly with silence, the gradually filled into rhyhtmic studies that acquire a sprightly melancholy as they progress. Unorthodox tunings are used, but this is used less for the sake of tuning and more for learning to explore the strings in new ways.

The house isn’t so much heard directly in Juliet Fraser’s My Adventures With The TC Helicon Voicelive 3, but its presence is implicit throughout. The twenty-two tracks were recorded over a six-week period, as Fraser decided to use her enforced downtime to finally learn how to use the titual piece of electronic equipment she had bought for a specific piece five years earlier. “No critical reflection” is the watchword here, with the album acting as an artist’s sketchbook, learning new effects, trying out various techniques and just singing, for the hell of it. Folksongs and poetry are here, with some garden recordings, made-up rhymes and experiments with looping, harmonising and pitch shifts. The cumulative effect becomes as much personal as it is pedagogical, an extended series of exercises in purposeful play. The deliberate gimmickry is used as a veil of modesty over Fraser’s superb vocal artistry, but can never fully obscure it. As it ranges from silly to sweet, always oddly charming, the album can’t help but become an informal portrait of Fraser herself, if not a strongly skewed view of her home life.

Senses of place: Takuroku

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Isolation drags on – at least it does for me. I’m vaguely aware of the passing of time, and kind of aware that I’ve been staying in one place for months, but a complacency sets in such that the sudden realisation of other times and places comes as something of a shock now. Cafe Oto’s Takuroku series of download releases continues for the foreseeable future, made by musicians coping with lockdown. As music made from necessity, it tends to fall into two categories, being either solo recordings at home or long-distance collaboration. The latter type is facilitated by online communication and typically takes the form of an exchange, or a series of exchanges between two or more musicians. The results are a type of montage, such as the decelptively complex sketches made up of multiple images by Ryoko Akama, Anne-F Jacques and Tim Shaw in their Takuroky album In Another Place. On the other hand, Otto Willberg and David Birchall have taken things further by exchanging the places themselves.

Willberg is a double bass player in London, while Birchall is a guitarist in Manchester. Their joint release Murky Sovereignty performs a rite of psychogeographical alchemy, by each recording a space near them and playing them back to each other. Each has scaled their playing back to forms of electronic treatment laid over the recordings, enhancing the audible space and layering them with acoustic tropes. The spaces chosen are liminal – the pair of works are titled walking about under junction 7 of the M60, singing and spending lunch time under the link road at Thamesmead a couple of times – concrete traffic overpasses with distinct acoustic characteristics yet also oppressive on a human scale. The baleful hum of traffic sets the tone for both works, a grey film that settles over every sound and darkens it. If this sounds too much like grim social realism, just remember that there’s a purposeful idleness at work in these recordings, in defiance of the utilitarian surroundings. An inadvertent performance takes place as people pass through the scene, in various guises. Willberg and Birchall are activist observers, finding life in supposedly dead spaces.

There’s a stark contract of place and time in Ute Kanngiesser and Daniel Kordík’s 5AM, recorded early one June morning not far from here, where I’ve been sitting for the past five months. I’m well aware it’s summer now, but everything I’ve been hearing this year suggests a perpetual British spring, slow and belated. Kordík’s recording of Kanngiesser playing cello on the Hackney Marshes began at 4:48 AM and it instantly reminds me that it was the right time of year to coincide with the dawn chorus. The piece is, in fact, a recording of birdsong gently accompanied by Kanngiesser adding faint sounds, usually harmonics. As an artistic statement, it’s simply an act of joining in with the surroundings, yet that simple act was both liberating and transgressive. Reading Kanngiesser’s notes reminds you of the evasive action needed to record this piece, at a time when “essential” travel was restricted. It seems later than I remembered, yet also so much longer ago than I thought. This release comes with writing by Evie Ward and is available in WAV format, as recommended by the musicians.

Tom Wheatley’s Round Trip returns to home, or stays at home, or both. The space itself becomes the subject as it encroaches upon his double-bass playing, at times disrupting it entirely. Or, the bass recedes into background noise amidst the domestic sounds that form the basis of this crowded landscape. With attentive listening, one hears musicianship frustrated by ambient obstacles; with casual listening one hears the bass notes merging into the space, a settled occupant, even if never fully at ease.

Takuroku: Viola Torros, Orazbayeva, Duplant

Tuesday 28 July 2020

My personal setbacks from coronavirus have been trivial compared to others. One of the disappointments has been the second missed chance to see Johnny Chang and Catherine Lamb’s Viola Torros Project performed live. Their double CD was one of the outstanding releases of 2018 and I was looking forward to hearing them at Counterflows in Glasgow this spring. As a small consolation, Cafe Oto’s Takuroku series has now given us Preliminary Study for V.T., a sketch exploring pre-mediaeval musical styles across Eurasia. While the Viola Torros pieces use spectral augmentation through reverberation, subtle feedback and voices, this Preliminary Study features just Chang and Lamb in a viola duet, recorded back in 2017 and reworked into a piece this year. It’s starker and more subdued, of course, closer to first principles that make it seem as much a distillation as an embryonic version of the music’s later, more developed forms. The interweaving violas play modes derived from Arabic, Byzantine and Indian music, all within a very narrow range of pitch and dynamics that brings attention to small changes in the grain of the instruments as much as their intonation. I did not give much attention to the musicological implications of the finished works at the time, as the material by that time had been transformed into a vehicle for broader timbral exploration. On the Takuroku recording, the material is heard more clearly, making it a useful addition to what I hope is a continuing series of V.T. works.

I listened to Aisha Orazbayeva’s Music for Violin Alone a couple of months ago and have come back to it repeatedly since then. Her Takuroku release Slow Change continues in a similar vein of home recordings for solo violin. Two of Orazbayeva’s exploratory works sandwich one of Orlando Gibbons’ viol fantasies, which is here played with a deliberately light touch to produce and fluting, breathy tone; Gibbons’ Jacobean sense of impeccable order faintly outlined in what Cage would call “empty” sounds. The Fantasia carries over from the first piece, in which Orazbayeva plays with paper threaded between the strings, muting and distorting the notes. For the title piece, she has created her own answer to James Tenney’s Koan from her previous release, a gradually evolving tremolo whose sonic metamorphosis is brought about by imperceptibly guiding the bow from bridge to nut.

It’s easy to describe features of Bruno Duplant’s music but he’s still hard to pin down. In his earlier Chamber and Field Works there are musicians and there are the environments they occupy, where each are present but neither makes demands of your attention. Each frames the other, with emergent properties. His Covid lockdown piece insaisissable(s) instant(s) is a piece about time, where time is an empty space upon which competing emotions and thoughts may intrude unbidden. There is a piano, sometimes, and the outside world can be heard, but at a distance. The piano’s silence becomes the subject, speaking of withdrawal indoors, moving back and forth between contemplation and impatience. As for ambience, the piece is measured out in regular domestic squeaks and thuds from around the room with a steady insistence of overfamiliarity that threatens incipient cabin fever. An electrical hum comes and goes, which may or may not help to relieve the tension. Who said this stuff is relaxing?

Words and non-words, subjects and objects

Tuesday 21 July 2020

I’ve been puzzled by Leo Chadburn’s pieces for speaking voice and ensemble: Freezywater dispassionately lists place-names that encircle the greater London area, The Indistinguishables pits a string quartet against a list of species of moth, recited with equally solemn blankness. The music is undemonstrative but fraught with the potential of escalating to the tragic, offering no readily apparent commentary on or illumination of the text, nor vice versa. Each achieves a semantic impasse that simultaneously invites and resists interpretation. Hearing them both, my mind kept protesting that there was less going on than met the ear.

Chadburn’s new record, The Subject / The Object, gives both ears and mind something more formidable to grapple with. The cool surface presented in those earlier chamber compositions has become more resistant here: The Subject / The Object can exist only as a recording, a fixed object, as it were. Instruments are reduced to voice and electronics, precisely machined into two halves of exactly twenty minutes each. The Subject is a sentence, underpainted with ominous synth rumbles that churn up the background. The spoken sentence continues in a single breath through an endless cascade of conjunctions and modifiers through which the subject slips without ever being pinned to a defintion. It’s an ingenious work of linguistic construction, vocal intonation and editing, that impresses your conciousness while the sounds get to work on the lower levels of your mind.

If it reminds you of Robert Ashley’s works for speaking voice, it might first be the resemblance in the editing that hooks you in, but really it’s the lure of a narrative thread that continually pulls you along even as you lose the sense of it. The voice is speaking and you listen, long after the words have ceased to register in your head. As with most of Ashley’s stories, I’m still not sure how it ends and if I were to go and hunt down the conclusion to find out what it all means then I’m sure I would be looking in the wrong place. The Object is the wordless counterpart, a necessary negative of multiple drones of vocalise. It plays the voice like a sampler with an empty memory, where void becomes meaning by default.

When you’re writing a violin solo. YOU, A HACK: [bunch of notes on staves]. GEORGE BRECHT, AN ARTIST: [* polishing]. One night after too many drinks I announced to nobody in particular that Fluxus invented dank memes. Both are hellbent on stripping away context and explanation to find an irreducible, irrefutable non sequitur. It came back to me when happily listening through all fifty-seven minutes and forty-nine seconds of Luciano Maggiore & Louie Rice’s Synthesised voices and low frequencies to eat crisps with. The title tells you exactly what it is. The synthesised voices, though, they speak words; a barest minimum of semantic content – an exhaustive list of permutations of the words NO PA PA ON – rendered beyond any semblance of or desire for comprehensibility. Like a bad joke told well, it should be intolerable but for its frankness and savvy stupidity, with no prospect of nor attempt at a payoff. It is easy to forget that the truly impersonal is also guileless. As with Chadburn, the words dissolve into sound and produce music. Strange, but still music, of a type that reminds you that no music has any truly existential reason to exist at all. The blurb gives you the links to the websites they used to generate the piece, should you wish to make a copy for yourself. There’s no point to having one version of this, so why not have two?

Takuroku Shooting Gallery

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Takuroku put out a batch of cool new stuff each week and I want to do them justice but I’m lazy. Will get more detailed on some of them later but for now:

Astral Social Club – ACID BARF. Neil Campbell dishes out a beat that just won’t quit despite it being subjected to every synth-pop indignity under the sun. The perverse will to endure becomes a gag that’s beaten into the ground and then beaten some more until it gets funny again.

Aylu – Frida. It starts out more normal than Astral Social Club but somewhere along the way it slips into madness and random goofiness made all the more winning after the straight beats have revealed themselves to be po-faced pop. Second guest appearance by pets.

Cam Deas – Rhythmic Landscapes. The blurb namedrops David Tudor’s Rainforest, which got my hopes up too high. In fact, it’s a nice set of field recordings of birds mixed in with overlapping patterns of percussion sounds. After a while it sounds too much like being on a verandah out in the country, sitting too close to the windchimes with a killer hangover.

Floris Vanhoof – Falala Falderiere Falderaldera. Nifty phasing electronics that jitter back and forth appealingly, interspersed with a frog pond that sounds just as electronic but isn’t, probably. It’s better than the title and I’m not dissing the electronics when I wish the frog track was longest.

Johnny R. Spykes – Less Effective Rhetoric. Plenty of action, but while sax and harsh electronics can be great fun in a pub they’re hell on the home listener. Most extreme is the mismatched stereo separation, except for one skronk recorded in low-bit mono.

Kazuhisa Uchihashi – Breathing Vegetables. Plenty of action, but at least we can have as much fun as Uchihashi is with obsessive pitch-bending, bouncy one-string guitar action and ditzy loops. The manic glee is infectious. There is a daxophone.

SHLIMP WARC – THGIE DRSOW. Acid Mothers Temple veterans Tatsuya Yoshida and Makoto Kawabata dust off some leftovers from a trio album only without Richard Pinhas, which helps brighten things up a little. Kerrazy drumming with ironic 80s guitar squalls and random keyboard barrages. Party like it’s 1994.

Naima Karlsson – [Vital Organs]: I. Heart Protector. A mere fifteen minutes, but one of the most substantial releases so far. A genuinely hypnotic piece for organ and electronics that retunes the listener’s awareness simply by breathing.

Ecka Mordecai – Critique + Prosper. A cellist and vocalist, Mordecai produces a set of personal recordings that aren’t so much introspective as self-possessed, letting the listener find their own space inside her sounds. I like to think this album was also made in a shed.

Otomo Yoshihide – 「Small Stone」. Frenetic atonal guitar soloing that unexpectedly cools into a clear-eyed reflection on the nature of protest, from the independence of public prosecutors in Japan to the independence of Hong Kong from China. A surprisingly moving sonic essay on the anxious balance between peace and vigilance.

Home listening with Han Bennink, Yoni Silver and Xenia Pestova Bennett

Tuesday 7 July 2020

The variety on display at Takuroku continues to amaze. Here are three home recordings, made during and for the mitigation of Covid lockdown. Han Bennink’s Musical Collage for Mara captures the restless energy of his live percussion sets, jumping between casual tabletop drumming, interventions by a couple of pets, and household members rolling metal boules across the wooden floors. It’s like a set of snapshots of life in a very musical house, which gives it all a charming air of casual spontaneity. When things do settle down, it’s because something has grabbed Bennink’s attention, such as how many different timbres can be coaxed with a pair of brushes out of what I like to imagine is an upturned Quality Street tin.

Yoni Silver takes it outside with his Sun and sky and garden breeze, a compelling contribution to the undervalued ‘men in sheds’ genre. Inside the makeshift musical temple in his backyard, he evokes a suburban bucolic idyll out of wind and string instruments, supplemented by his voice and various found objects. While Bennink takes action, Silver is contemplative, allowing the sounds of the surrounding birds and breezes to provide an outline for his music to shade in, building up a gently shimmering soundscape of a quiet, self-contained summer.

Since we’re imagining that home recordings are glimpses into a musician’s home life, then Xenia Pestova Bennett‘s Atonal Electronic Chamber Music For Cats seems to fit right in here. Perhaps her house really is littered with superannuated electronic detritus; in any case, she’s made a succinct collection of pieces using old keyboards that have just reached that awkward age of sufficient cheesiness. (She kindly specifies for synth nerds exactly what she’s working with: Yamaha CS1X, Korg MonoSynth 2000, MicroKorg Synth Vocoder.) It’s always a kick to hear an album that’s as good as the title. Each piece sounds like a groovy bit of background music from an episode of Tomorrow’s World that goes just a leetle too far. It’s ridiculous fun, precisely because each pastiche is so well made, with affectionate care. Expect to see a massively overpriced vinyl edition for a future Record Store Day.

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