All That Dust live, and Georgia Rodgers’ A to B, Late lines

Wednesday 13 November 2019

I’ve been writing up the new batch of releases by All That Dust, who had their launch gig on the weekend. Sadly, Georgia Rodgers had to cancel at the last minute, but cellist Séverine Ballon remained to play a Bach suite for the punters. The two were originally to play Rodgers’ Late lines, an electroacoustic duet. The cellist’s bowing is manipulated through digital granular synthesis, but the layering and transformation is directed much like Scelsi’s manipulation of musical notes, always focusing ever inward, drawing closer to the source to open up new realms of perception. There are no Scelsi-like spiritual claims made for this music, leaving the listener free to explore a heightened awareness of the sensory aspects of sound. All That Dust has made binaural recordings of Late lines and a similar work, A to B for solo percussionist with electronics as a download release.

In A to B, Rodgers works with Serge Vuille on snare drums and cymbals, turning steady rhythms into pulses of complex sound verging on white noise, yet constantly taking on new colourations. The effect of both pieces suggests the aural equivalent of monochrome paintings with rigorously worked surfaces of multiple layers, revealing unexpected but elusive colours and shapes. The sleeve notes invoke Robert Irwin, whose work engages space more than surface, but close listening to these recordings on headphones opens up that dimension as well. (Late lines began as an installation.) At the same time, the subject of each piece is the physical aspect of musical performance: contact between surfaces, as though seen on a microscopic level, with even the simplest interaction made up of multiple events.

New things were learned at the launch gig. My memory has and has not been playing tricks on me when hearing Cassandra Miller’s vocal music. Juliet Fraser’s performance of Tracery: Lazy, Rocking was truly ephemeral, you strained to hear and understand and then it was gone. These pieces come out differently every time, with the performance of the Tracery pieces in particular clearly an act of listening, reflection and meditation on the moment with which the singer is presented.

The new Kontakte (an excerpt played in 4-speaker surround sound) sounds great even when played in a bar. The musicians’ discussion of their approach reminded me that, for all the emphasis I put on how distinct the instruments sound here, they still blend and emerge from the electronic sounds and are distinctly embedded in the sonic space. In many performances of the work it so often sounds like musicians and tape are simply playing in parallel.

We also heard Plus-Minus Ensemble give the second performance of Tim Parkinson’s String Quartet 2019 which premiered a few days earlier in Reading – home of the Samuel Beckett archive, of course. The transcendentalists had the Unanswered Question; 2019 has the “Nobody:”, “Literally No One:” meme. String Quartet 2019 is a simple statement, made quietly and sincerely, with no evident prompting for its existence and no apparent response expected. Each phrase is followed by another, a story that twists but never turns, never hinting how this might all end. In a way, it doesn’t, really. There is some call and response, but much of the time the quartet plays in rhythmic unison, with harmonies kept thin. The first violinist takes up the melody alone, and then nothing happens. “Make sense who may.”

Piano: Tim Parkinson played by Mark Knoop

Thursday 7 November 2019

The picture gets more complex. I previously described Tim Parkinson’s opera Time With People as “warm-blooded reductionism”, noting how his music had emptied out the form, transforming structure into content. I didn’t really do him justice, neither fairly nor in full. Hearing Philip Thomas’ recording of two piano pieces on Wandelweiser a couple of years ago, I announced that “I plan to discuss this in greater detail in the near future” but never did.

Luckily, the other CD release in this second batch of albums on All That Dust is Parkinson’s Piano music 2015-16. All of it, apparently. Lest I gave anyone the impression that he is the sort of composer who gets sneeringly described by most benighted critics as “an artist”, rest assured that there is craft in abundance on this disc. piano piece 2015 and we’ll meet again from the same year sandwich seven prosaically-titled 2016 works, presenting a cornucopia of musical ideas and techniques. A reductionist cornucopia, but all the same. Moods, effects, tricks and references proliferate; some present only fleetingly, while others are dwelt upon at length. More than a diary or sketches, each piece reflects a musical mind contemplating and reconsidering music, as played and heard upon the piano.

The reflective piano piece 2015 develops in its own way, with pianist Mark Knoop sustaining an atmosphere of tenderness through its pauses and more subdued dynamics. It’s hard not to hear the 2016 pieces as a suite, each work presenting a contrast in dynamics, consistency and phrasing. Knoop can make 2016 No. 1 sound monomaniacal, before suddenly changing to a new but equally obstainate approach to the reiterated chords. Subsequent pieces bring in more variety, creating continuity out of juxtapositions of disjointed passages. I was going to say ‘phrases’ but in these pieces they sound more like sentences: each one self-contained yet with each successive instance building on what has come before or suddenly diverting the expected course, thickening the plot. Chords merge into unbroken sonority, then break apart into a Cubist study in Stride. Modernist rigour is pricked by a single postmodern flourish. Knoop sets the right tone of serious playfulness, neither po-faced nor ingratiating, revealing a multitude of facets for listeners to discover for themselves.

“A musical mind contemplating music,” but not in a systematic way. That playfulness shows Parkinson’s piano pieces to be as much about the musician as the music, a subjective response to its pleasures and conundrums; the process itself is analysed in preference to pursuing a conclusion. we’ll meet again happily throws all these problems into creating a grotesque fantasia on the song of the same name. The old-fashioned sentimentality starts off-kilter and immediately veers into the ditch, advancing by fits and starts. Distorted fragments flit by from time to time, at times teasing that the tune may eventually get back on some recognisable track, at others leaving the listener wondering if they’re starting to imagine a resemblance that is no longer there. Milton Babbitt would be delighted.

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.

Time With People: warm-blooded reductionism

Monday 8 June 2015

“Madame, you are an eloquent and warm-blooded woman. I am a cold-blooded reductionist. Let us leave it at that.”

J. V. Cunningham

Tim Parkinson has composed some music and called it an opera and titled it Time With People. The title promises an experience in which the principles of opera are reduced to their fundamental concepts. The composer’s notes further that promise:

The resultant work (or opera) has arisen around the former notion of “no instruments”. The notion of “no music”. What is meant by “no music”, since arguably and obviously there are both? The notion is perhaps more one of absence. And that which may be revealed from out of this poverty. That which remains. Towards the reality of the situation. Of some time, with some people.

The means of using “no instruments” to make music show no great effort to disguise their structuralist organisational principles (cf. Parkinson’s collaborator James Saunders.) Amongst their other compositions, what distinguishes Time With People as an opera? For a start, there is a plot, one of intrigue, conflicting passions and reckless impulses. Certainly operatic, in a relative way, but this plot is told through the opera’s materials.

Traditions abound: repertoire (recorded snatches of Rossini and Handel start and end the piece), a chorus, even a ballet right when you’d expect it. The set is trash, a stage ankle-deep in random detritus: a dramaturg‘s sometime-fashionable relocation of events to a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s too easy, it’s a cliche, and here the cliche is refuted. It turns out the trash is essential, as it is the orchestra of found objects, providing the accompaniment, and without it the opera could not exist. No instruments, but music.

Two people, sometimes silent, sometimes speaking, in turn or simultaneously, in response to audible cues. Their speech is clearly made of answers to questions we can’t hear. A nice, solid, structural process; but then it stops, and something else happens. The plot thickens: some other organisational force is at work, but we can’t tell what it is. Two pairs of drums are brought on stage – I thought there were no instruments? Things are getting dramatic; the purity of absolute music is sacrificed, made subservient to the demands of the plot, whatever it might be.

A drum-kit, two electric guitars, the chorus is equipped with headphones and alternately sing along or describe what they hear. It’s getting complicated, some aspects seem obvious while other motivations remain obscure. A mystery. By the end, two performers are intoning isolated words – “alone”, or “together” – to looped phrases of Handel. Found objects are collected and dropped, in order of descending size, diminuendo. The small words are redolent of a Romantic theme, but they’re as ambiguous as their relationship to that title. It remains unclear if this is an opera hollowed out into a shell, or recreated out of negligible scraps.

Time With People was performed by the edges ensemble under Philip Thomas’ direction. Hopefully it will appear again at the next LCMF.