Electronic Noise Shootout, Spring 2024

Monday 6 May 2024

It’s great that art doesn’t have to come from or go to any specific place, much as we’d sometimes like to forget that when we try to put our enthusiasm for it into words. Two months ago I saw John Wall and Michael Speers playing a live electronic duet at Cafe Oto, using a mixture of pre-recorded and real-time generated sounds in a way where you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Under the old rules, it would be classed as “absolute” music, a purity of self-reliance on form, structure and material that all relate to each other, even as all three attributes were constructed on the fly. If it referenced any tradition, it was to the relentless pursuit of the new. There was a similar, searching purity in the opening set by Lee Fraser, with a hyperfocus on dynamic and timbre. In contrast, Eye Measure’s curious work with “live coding and algorithmic composition” (partly in visible evidence during the set) referenced genres of popular music, taking loops associated with the clubs and then sublimating them into abstraction. The cross-cultural context implies the presence of a wider meaning to be drawn from the work, at least as a commentary on craft or at most as the basis of a disquisition of socioeconomic demographics. Of course we have the capability to do this for any medium but need to remain mindful that any pattern we determine will likely have been shaped by whatever analytical tool fell most readily to hand.

Seán Clancy: Four Sections of Music Unequally Divided (Birmingham Record Company). I dunno what any of the above has to do with Seán Clancy’s piece, except that its system of organisation draws inspiration from the past, utilising an open form of the type made famous by In C and adopting other American characteristics of the period. Bright pianos and warm synthesisers with added gamelan-type instruments start with what promises to be a rhythmic free-for-all before transitioning to the larger sections that form the substance of the work, with extended passages of dense alternating tremolos reminiscent of Charlemagne Palestine. Clancy’s liner notes reference Sol Le Witt and James Tenney. The latter may be inferred from his (checks note) “sheer joy of the plasticity of sound” but also, more pertinently, through his thinking on musical form and cognitive analysis of structure which is applied here to make a piece more complex than a simple tribute to minimalism.

Devid Ciampalini: Eterna (Dissipatio). Speaking of retro, Ciampalini is harking back to the past more self-consciously retro here, evoking earlier models of electronic music both in their surface and their style. Affectionate parody is the prevailing mood, beginning with a lo-fi imitation of the THX Deep Note before presenting ten ‘chapters’ which swing on a spectrum between electronic library music from the 1970s and crunchier DIY synthesis; at times achieving both at once. Ciampalini’s nostalgia is omnivorous: one track sounds like it was made in Coagula, so it’s not all analogue-adjacent, even while attempting to capture the look and feel.

Tewksbury: Floes: Volumes I​-​IV (self-released). Douglas Tewksbury’s four volumes of electronic drones consists of sixteen pieces of roughly equal length for a total of about three hours of music. I hate making such a glib and unoriginal comment but this really does sound like it could be edited down. Up until the latter half of Volume II everything is safely diatonic and simple, making for little more than inoffensive ambience. Things get a more interesting when some, but not all, of the pieces introduce more complex and ambiguous harmonic progressions, but then this makes the remaining pieces superfluous and you wonder if a selection would sound more compelling than the whole.

Technical Reserve: Cheap Heat (Party Perfect!!!). I guess this is retro because it immediately reminded me in a good way of those old Jon Rose LPs where he pits his 19-string cello against whatever was the latest in digital sampling and processing technology. TJ Borden’s cello is supposedly normal, but the improvisations with Hunter Brown and Dominic Coles and their computers as just as explosively anarchic. There’s a lot here: 19 tracks seventy-something minutes but it stays fresh because nobody ever seems to really know what they’re doing. This is harder than it sounds in free improv, supposedly reliant on technique yet really in need of desperation as the spur to invention. Technical Reserve takes us back to a simpler time when the gear doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, albeit now captured with pornographic clarity. It’s rude and it’s noisy but, to pursue the wrestling analogies that crop up in the sleeve notes, for this audience that’s a cheap pop.

Hunter Brown + Eric Wong: Si Distributions (Party Perfect!!!). Brown again, gigging in Wong’s bedroom. You wouldn’t know it was a bedroom recording even as the room shapes what you hear (this is also how you don’t realise how much science has improved your life). The two of them cook up a pair of severe, spatialised noise studies that keep turning aggressive, but the harshness is tamed and sculpted by responding to the acoustic dynamics of the apartment, using the placement of their bluetooth monitors as EQ to exert stern but fair authority over brittle electronic sounds. Side one takes static and white noise, introducing some low sounds later for contrast. Side two is all about rumbling low frequencies to set the speakers juddering about the room until the distortion creates its own white noise, taking us part of the way back to where we started but still ending up somewhere else.

Block Rockin’ Summer Slam, Part 2

Monday 15 August 2022

Getting back to Germaine Sijstermans’ Betula: each of the compositions is written for a small minimum of pitched instruments, mostly without getting too fussy about type or number. Only one seems to specify that the instruments should sustain. All the instruments used here, can (Rasten plays guitar with an ebow). The musicans here produce a tour de force of ensemble playing, making each of Sijstermans’ intensely focused studies on small variations reveal a unique character while never deviating from a central principle. They embody stillness at its most alert, alive to incipient motion, when so much of this style of playing heard elsewhere can seem merely inert.

By comparison, two other discs I’d heard earlier, Hope Lies Fallow by Johnny Chang & Keir GoGwilt and Landmarks by Katelyn Clark & Isaiah Ceccarelli, now seem almost extroverted. Having previously been one half of Illogical Harmonies and Viola Torros, Chang teams up with GoGwilt to create violin duos that seem modern and ancient at once. Each piece is a solo composition, three each for the two string players. Their references are Hildegard von Bingen and Orlando di Lasso. In making something new they excavate something old, adding to it by creative subtraction, as though details have been effaced by time. Their slow, attenuated counterpoint is bowed raw but soft. Performed in a church in Auckland (Aotearoa), Chang even has his pieces recorded from further away, making them more frail and remote. For the last three pieces they are joined by Celeste Oram’s voice, haunting the music wordlessly as another layer of echo. Ceccarelli and Clark have previously presented some duos with organetto, but Landmarks gives an entire album to their work with various organs and percussion, this time credited as joint compositions. The church atmosphere prevails, with deep cowbells and bell plates complementing the keyboards, but the duet here brings out the more ancient, ritualistic aspects of European religion. The set begins dramatically with rich chords, gongs and rumbling deep bass drum, but each of the longer works becomes slower, turning into almost drone-like processionals. There’s an improvisation on ‘Kyrie Eleison’ that is more about sublimation than augmentation. It all ends with two brief, gnomic episodes respectively on organ and percussion alone, with no synthetic resolution.

I ventured outdoors again last week to see the rather odd improv trio of John Wall, Mark Sanders and John Edwards at Cafe Oto. Edwards on bass, Sanders on percussion, Wall on laptop working digital synthesis and processing of live sounds (tech permitting). I’m calling them odd because they don’t run the usual gamut of extended licks and technical obligations that dominate the genre. With your eyes shut it can be hard to tell who’s doing what at times, as they each turn their instruments into means of exploring boundaries between attack and decay, pitch and noise. As a group, they seem most interested in ways of ferreting in between the others’ sounds, settling down into them before breaking them apart. There was a focus on computer music and electronics on the night, with the other acts being Tom Mudd demonstrating a semi-chaotic synthesiser using feedback resonators to elide from detuned chorales to coloured bursts of static, and a too-rare chance to hear some of James Clarke’s compositions for manipulated orchestral samples. In some ways, these pieces resemble drawings of his works for live musicians, stretching and extending gestures and sonorities as a way of opening up microcosmic structures.

I’ve worked my way back from purity to newness, so I need to briefly mention a new release on Tripticks Tapes by guitarist/composer Matteo Liberatore. Lacquer strongly draws on noise rock, to the point that I’m not sure if there isn’t an electric guitar involved somewhere at some stage of this album described as “analog synthesis”. The riffs and the aggression are there, as are the attacks in the sudden injection and withdrawal of heterogeneous layers of noise. Some of the off-kilter patterns strongly resemble stomp boxes left to their own devices in a closed circuit, which gives the racket a youthful exuberance. The noise may be cheap but it’s the sophistication with which Liberatore cuts and pastes it all together that prevents anything outstaying its welcome or, more importantly, gives each piece the substance to be taken seriously and not as just a throwaway goof.

Kammer Klang: John Wall and Michael Finnissy

Saturday 23 April 2016

Managed to make it to the latest Kammer Klang gig at Cafe Oto (it’s available in streaming audio for the next few weeks). For years they’ve been putting on regular nights featuring a clash of eclectic genres, mixing High Art Modern Music with improvisation, live electronic performance, pop etc. It’s a neat combination which manages to avoid labouring a theoretical point or trying to force one genre to somehow validate another. The big events this evening were the performance of Michael Finnissy’s chamber violin concerto “above earth’s shadow…” and a live electronic set by John Wall.

I just read a statement by Peter Rehberg that “laptop music stopped being interesting when the computers stopped crashing”. It’s a stupid, sentimental thing to say, up there with saying Hendrix wasn’t so great because he used effects pedals. I’ve been to a number of Wall’s gigs now, all improvised sets with his laptop and superb examples of what a devastating sonic and compositional tool the small computer can be when in the right hands. I’ve always been impressed by the way he holds in suspense the conflicting demands his music makes: the free-ranging spontaneity of sounds, an intense technical focus on details and a constant awareness of an overall compositional shape.

The Kammer Klang night was unusual in that Wall started with one of his ‘fixed’ compositions, Cphon from 2005, followed immediately by an improvisation. (The two are played separately in the radio broadcast.) In Cphon the sounds leak out as though under some pressurised constraint, with isolated sounds in narrow frequency ranges – often very high – and occasional brief activity slipping through thin, sustained pitches. This sound-world steadily mutates over time, revealing more depth and detail but still with everything kept on a short leash throughout, allowing the sounds to be intimately revealed without ever being fully released to let rip in a sensory outburst.

The following improvisation was immediately noticeable for the change in sonic materials but with no easily noticeable enlargement of possibilities permitted by the intervening decade of technological advances. The sounds became wider in range, producing an inexhaustible variety of tones and colours throughout the piece. Seemingly influenced by Cphon, a similar attitude of restraint was applied, extending and elaborating on the previous work instead of drawing an obvious contrast.

Making music live is always very different from working with a recording, whether on paper or on tape. There’s a theatrical element, and a social element which must always be addressed to be sure that the music has gotten over with the punters. Wall perhaps minimises this by typically sitting behind the audience and focusing on the music coming from the PA. In any case, listening back to the radio broadcast I’m surprised at how well it works as a recording, with its own musical internal logic and free of the unspoken dictates of entertaining a room full of people with booze.

Earlier in the night, violinist Oscar Perks with an ensemble conducted by Mark Knoop did justice to Michael Finnissy’s “above earth’s shadow…”. Finnissy is one of Britain’s foremost living composers; he turns 70 this year so the performance was a fitting tribute. Although the piece is now over 30 years old, this seems to have been only the third time it has been played in the UK, so it may as well be new to us. In 2012 the Proms held a matinee concert in Cadogan Hall which included the British premiere of his 2nd Piano Concerto, written some 35 years earlier. I think Finnissy has had one piece played at the Proms since then. For this year, the usually anniversary-happy Proms have programmed sweet F. A.