Block Rockin’ Summer Slam, Part 1

Monday 8 August 2022

When you listen to a lot of new stuff at once you start lumping pieces together, which is great for developing an authorial conceit, not so good for the music, and very bad for ever finishing writing about it. It’s best to remember that music never ends.

Last time, I was thinking too much about newness; now I’m thinking about purity. Since the late 20th Century a narrative has emerged, of schools of composers working under the thrall of lessons learned from minimalism by way of Morton Feldman, with an insidious spiritual imperative, either religious (Pärt) or secular (Wandelweiser). Material reigns supreme (sez Feldman), construction is kept at a minimum. The material is always ‘on camera.’ There’s a difference between purity and authenticity, but when that spiritual imperative meets digital audio the two can get confused. The lingering minimal influence becomes a way of transmitting authenticity with as little artifice as possible. Listening to the pieces discussed here reminds you that lack of artifice is not the same as lack of skill.

Well, really, Ian Power’s pieces ain’t all that pure. The collection Maintenance Hums begins with a duet for piano and percussion that clatters about with obtuse, single-note arpeggios dogged by a lone cowbell that eventually takes over with numbing hammering. There’s a sly humor in the three pieces here that, depending on your musical taste, either teeters on the edge of grating on your nerves or just shoves you over that edge immediately and keeps on plowing ahead. aspirapolvere, sega, spettro, tenere, possedere is a trio for accordion, saxophone and guitar that emphasises mechanical apparatus while trying to make each instrument sound like a cheap melodica combating blasts of distortion and feedback. Power himself plays the solo BUOY (after Laurence Crane) with what sounds like an organ coerced into life by a vacuum cleaner, except the organ here is in fact electric (und Kagel und Hoffnung sind auch dabei). For his Edition Wandelweiser release, Diligence, he smartens himself up to appear more reverent, but the two solo works presented here still have messy edges to their slow, widely-separated and often repeated sounds. The cello piece occasionally triggers obscuring smears of electronic schmutz, while the clarinet piece makes its material and development from periods of ragged note-bending, smudged attacks and self-conscious repetitions that come across much as rehearsals.

Some of Power’s music, with its aesthetics of deconstruction and warped pedagogy, reminded me a little of Tim Parkinson. Deconstruction really isn’t a fair term for Parkinson, despite external appearances of pieces like his opera Time With People. For his solo and chamber pieces, the musical language isn’t overtly self-referential, except through the tacit admission that musical language is itself arbitrary. As I listen to more of Parkinson’s music, the more it changes, as with the new collection of recordings by Apartment House, put out by Another Timbre under the revealing title an album. The previously discontinuous-sounding phrases and patterns have started to take on a sort of internal logic, inscrutable to observers. This is not a function of maturation: the phenomenon can be heard in both violin and piano piece 1998 and violin and piano 2017. The latter makes fuller use of chorale-like sounds while the former leans towards sparse, high notes – a critic could draw a line of development from one to the other in either direction, were they to confuse which was which. A lot of this may be down to Apartment House, here specifically violinist Mira Benjamin and pianist Siwan Rhys, whose attentive playing captures both the delicacy and the indifference, like a work of nature. That wayward and arbitrary phrasing that once sounded like Wolff now more resembles Wolpe. So this is really reconstructive music, although Parkinson is building something new out of the old, rather than something old in his own image.

Sylvia Lim is a younger composer who is developing her own idiosyncratic language, a mix of pure acoustic phenomena with peculiar methodology. In her album of five pieces, Sounds which grow richer as they decay, the opening track is unfortunately the dullest, with her Piece for three tuned cowbells never becoming more than an inert set of studies in timbre and rhythmic texture. In the shorter vignettes that follow, things get promisingly weird. The piano piece flicker, played in Texas by Alvin Leung, takes a quirky approach to muted strings, ornate yet artless. Cellists Christopher Brown and Natasha Zielazinski played the duet Reordering the Unconsumed in London, producing strange sounds that fall away into electronic-like reverb. The title work is most striking, using a beaten harp and two trombones to extend noise into held tones, producing a grotesque of Scelsi at his most hieratic. The unlikely acoustic combinations are less bizarre in the longer Colour Catalogue: Whites, where flute, bass clarinet and cello produce overtones of each other, alternating in pairings in a succession of fading panels. This last piece suggests we can look forward to imaginative ways of forming more complex works in the future.

I’ve been catching up on some large releases on Elsewhere this year. Most recent is a double-decker by composer/clarinetist Germaine Sijstermans. Betula is a collection of ensemble pieces that emerged from her recent performance practice with a close group of fellow musicians. This kind of practice can lead to development into elaboration or refinement into purity; Sijstermans has taken the latter path. The ensemble, recorded here over a few days in September 2019, is an all-star band of performer/composers who take a like-minded approach: besides Sijstermans’ clarinet there is Antoine Beuger on flute, Rishin Singh on trombone, Johnny Chang on viola, Fredrik Rasten on guitar and Leo Svirsky on accordion. On the seven pieces ranging from seven to thirty-one minutes in length, “the six musicians’ sounds overlap with each other while slowly moving forward in parallel.” On the first listen, everything seemed so refined and pure that each piece sounded the bloody same. On the second hearing, it all opened up and each piece took on a distinct character, with a marked difference in timbre and coloration, even when the instruments stayed the same. What’s most surprising about this change was not that it happened but that it took place so quickly. I want to go into more detail about Betula but this will have to wait until next time.

What’s New? Remixes, Fluxus, Drones, Industry, Potatoes.

Saturday 30 July 2022

What do we mean when we talk about ‘new music’? The term carries multiple meaninings: for starters, there’s what strikes us as outside our previous experience, or there’s what signifies to us as looking towards the future. I’m listening to Flash Crash + Remixes, credited to Jascha Narveson & Ashley Bathgate + Guests. The cover art and the cello-plus-remixes concept symbolises newness and the futuristic, but is the music truly new? The modern understanding of the term ‘remix’ has been around for over forty years now, so the music presented here should be a fairly comfortable accommodation of folk art turned commercial practice. There’s no obligation for the music to beat us over the head with novelty, and Narveson himself says the project is inspired by his “love of community, collaboration, and techno”, all nice comfy ideas. But still, we register the package as consciously modern.

Flash Crash itself is a 2016 work composed by Narveson for cellist Ashley Bathgate with computer-controlled electronics, apparently derived from stock market data. Everything co-exists pretty harmoniously, actually, so it all works out in the end. The remixes, and the original appeals to techno, risk becoming excessively derivative of a more vital culture, the relative vitality being a matter of one imitating the other. Some, like the Lorna Dune mix, start promisingly before turning to pastiche. Matthew D. Gantt’s version substitutes MIDI instrumental patches to create a work reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s Synclavier compositions as a nod to retro-futurism. Things get more interesting later, with Lainie Fefferman’s Repairbot Q sent to Engine Room 3, working through the loneliness and Angélica Negrón’s Choque Súbito transforming the original beyond all recognition into disturbing, atmospheric works. Vladislav Delay’s remix finally delivers on the expectation of a disruptive, desconstructed (sorry) transformation of the original, pulling its elements apart to create something new.

The Wire has been celebrating its 40th anniversary with various events, including the gig Apartment House Play And Music at Cafe Oto. This was a loose grab-bag of old pieces, made new by the fact that but nobody has ever heard them. A Tony Conrad quartet (two violins, two cellos) was revived, agreeably sawing and grinding through off-kilter rhythms; a Clark Coolidge text piece rendered in voice and instruments; a fragmented ensemble piece, composed by Derek Bailey. The most familiar face in this lineup was Anthony Braxton, represented by a lively rendition of one of his Ghost Trance pieces, mixing bass clarinet, strings and prepared piano. All these old works remain new not just by being unheard, but by pointing towards future practices in music, typically in ways that suggest other approaches that remain unexplored today.

Michael von Biel, a composer usually known only by name, if at all, was represented by his Quartett mit Begleitung, where the string quartet’s Darmstadt-worthy precision is adulterated by graphic abstraction and the presence of an extra cellist left to improvise with objects. Yoko Ono, the world’s most famous unknown artist, wrote Overtone Piece in 1964; Apartment House’s realisation made it into a surprisingly deep piece of rigid, early drone. I said the setlist was loose because the promised pieces by Terry Jennings and Ben Patterson were forgotten as the evening progressed. Things got looser still when the gig finished with Henning Christiansen’s Kartoffelopera​, a 1969 composition receiving its UK premiere. The premise is simple: potatoes are scattered across five straight lines on the floor, forming a score for the musicians to play. The audience is invited to bring their own potato or move the potatoes, from time to time. Things, perhaps inevitably, get unruly. As the opera’s dramaturgy is determined by the audience, this was a distinctly British staging, with irritating playfulness that never escalated to physical injuries.

While almost all of our musical experience is now electronically mediated, we still think of it as a primarily acoustic, organic event: the presence of electronics in music still extends to us the expectation that something will be done to make things new. Where electronics predominate, it implies something outside of the human experience – possibly transcendental (new age), ecstatic (techno), cathartic (noise) or a kind of negative dialectic of entertainment (industrial). As a genre, industrial music has typically become more post-industrial, revelling in entropy and decay in a sort of romantic or nihilistic (same diff) reverie. Deison’s Magnetic Debris vol. 1 & 2 isn’t industrial, but it does make that common use of decayed tech, a romance of ruins. The fourteen tracks are composed mostly from old media and found sounds: aged cassettes, broken records and elettromagnetic interference. At first, the resulting pieces seemed inert, smoothing away the interesting details that may be found in the material. On repeated listening, however, each piece revealed a compositional depth and character that showed Magnetic Debris was not an exercise in documentation, but a restrictive means to an end in producing music that rewards subjective consideration.

One of the things with New Stuff is you don’t know at first if it’s really worth your time. Thetford, a release from the duo UNIONBLOCK, is described by the musicians “epic subterranean dirge” and so it comes with heavy associations of drone and industrial noise that already suggests a love-it-or-hate it affair. The sounds are prolonged by an abrasive buzzing, which turns out to be down to both the material and the means. Recorded in an 18th century church in Vermont, Jack Langdon plays a tracker organ (i.e. mechanical linkages) and Weston Olencki ekes drones from electromagnetic devices placed on banjos. As a grotesque reimagining of 19th century American vernacular it has its strengths, particularly in playing up the instruments’ mechanical noises and stop/start of technology. The grim conformity of the drone is broken by an interlude of more playful (in both senses of the word) improvisation before resuming. It reminded me of Pancrace’s The Fluid Hammer, but with Pancrace the music was more varied and the historical and social context was expressed with greater clarity and detail. After half an hour of Thetford‘s drones, the remaining twenty minutes becomes more muted and in this diminished state seems to have run out of things to say.

It also reminded me of Ian Power’s piece BUOY (after Laurence Crane) from his album Maintenance Hums, but this post is already too long and I’ll get around to that later.

Silence, Directness and Naïvety: Lang, Lely, Stiebler & Kanitz

Sunday 17 July 2022

I’ve been re-reading some of James Pritchett’s writing about John Cage and was reminded of how much there is still to understand about his music. This time, it was about the role of silence; not just as a presence but as the fundamental upon which all of his music is based, as an essential element for sound to exist at all. As with much of Cage, it’s a simple observation with profound implications that are easily overlooked. As it happens, the idea became suddenly relevant to me when listening to the new collection of pieces on Another Timbre by Klaus Lang, a composer who has specialised in silences, often prolonged, sometimes unresolved. The pieces on Tehran Dust confound his reputation by having sound always present, yet treating sounds as the consequence of silence gives rise to strange effects. The means used here – a simple trio – are clear enough, but the methods are not. The first piece, origami. from 2011, creates a ghostly presence of shadowy tones whose origins are obscure, even as you read the sleeve notes for the personnel involved, gradually establishing a more recognisable material form. Trio Amos (Sylvie Lacroix, flute; Krassimir Sterev, accordion; Michael Moser, cello) make the most of the ability of each instrument to range from thin and reedy to sonorous and full. While the cello-accordion duet tehran dust. makes for a more conventional chorale, the longest piece darkness and freedom. from 2017 builds something more substantial from the preceding ideas, transforming sound and structure in a more sophisticated and less obtrusive way. Lang joins the trio on organ for two brief arrangements of Ockeghem and Pierre de la Rue, just to orient you on where he’s coming from.

After the bleak austerities of his earlier music, does this mean that Lang is softening, or have our ears hardened? Probably both: he has to listen, too. (Another overlooked facet of Cage is his recognition that silence changes with the times.) Is John Lely softening too? His music has been, and continues to be, a matter of process, naked and unadorned. His The Harmonics of Real Strings play out like one of James Tenney’s Postcard Pieces and his piano release from last year, Orrery, displays a similar single-mindedness. Meander Selection, one of a set of five new Apartment House albums, presents a set of seven pieces that seem almost lyrical by comparison. Focusing on string quartets and solo piano, the first four works could almost function as a suite, despite being conceived in different circumstances over eight years. The held, homogeneous chords of Doubles from 2012 alter with the staccato repetitions of 2020’s Karnaugh Quartet, a contrast produced by track sequencing which highlights Lely’s predominant interest in contemplating each compositional element in isolation. The looped, whispered electrical static of Pale Signal makes a brief, enigmatic interlude before the title work, arranged here for string quartet as a steely counterpart to Doubles. If there are processes at work here, they are less obvious. The two piano works use similar patterning of single notes heard in Orrery, but their manner is less readable, even as the affective value is more tractable. The brief Nocturne slows things down to induce introspection, while for Philip allows notes to decay over each other, with variations in patterning, alternations and repetitions that suggest two voices, solo and accompaniment. Stopping at the Sheer Edge Will Never Abolish Space (2020) is also arranged for string quartet, but with two violas instead of the extra violin. The moving and the motionless are brought into collision here, with plaintive cadences rolling out against an unvarying, repeated note. Colouring changes, but slightly, as each instrument takes its turn to provide the pulse. The preponderance of violas add to the melancholy, while faint percussive disturbances add to the unease.

Is it even right to call this opening out of a straitened musical world a softening? I’ve already used the word ‘sophisticated’ once in this post, but that doesn’t necesarily means the methods at work are less direct. Ernstalbrecht Stiebler‘s earlier music is as direct as it could be, while refuting our complacent association of directness with frankness (vide Robert Hughes summing up Those Bricks at the Tate: “Anyone except a child can make such things.”) In the same way, we like to think we can understand the Naïve in art, mistaking it for the Primitive, which we assume to be guileless. The adamant stasis of Stiebler’s music from the 1980s and 1990s has lately loosened to permit messier shapes and textures, but the expressive substance is more closely related than it first seems. The connection with the Naïve is overwhelmingly demonstrated in Stiebler’s recent collaborations with cellist Tilman Kanitz: recorded at Kanitz’s studio over the past year with Stiebler on a slightly shaggy piano, the two unite in improvisations that verge on the sentimental yet somehow retain their decorum. The Pankow-Park Sessions Vol. 1 selects a half-dozen of these recordings, apparently 85-year-old Stiebler’s first concerted attempts at improvisation. It’s all very different, in its freshness and its seeming normality, capturing the two performers in spontaneous dialogue, informal and at ease in each other’s company. I don’t think they ever lapse into quotation, or even put their earnest romanticism into quotation marks, but they inhabit this genteel language so comfortably that I don’t dare think it could be disingenuous.

GBSR plays Barbara Monk Feldman live

Friday 15 July 2022

Last year I gave a brief rave for the all-too-rare Barbara Monk Feldman album released by Another Timbre. Since then its quiet presence has steadily grown in stature, amongst listeners in general it seems, for the the fineness of its composition and execution. Last week the same musicians regrouped at St. Anne and St. Agnes Church in the City to perform pretty much the entire album live.

The GBSR Duo (George Barton, percussion; Siwan Rhys, piano) and violinist Mira Benjamin play these pieces with an intensity of focus that gives weight to the slightest gestures, with each new moment compounding what has preceded it. In my review of the studio recordings, I said that “that delicacy never lapses into preciousness, as Monk Feldman keeps the balance of sound and silence in constant tension, always holding energy in reserve and only occasionally letting short, lyrical flourishes burst forth.” Observing as well as listening, it becomes clear just how much detail goes into these pieces, simply by watching the way Barton used different techniques on the vibraphone to produce subtle variations in attack and decay. Rhys, meanwhile, evoked similar shadings from an instrument which is comparably more clear-cut and remote. In solo, duet or trio form, each piece makes the most artful use of simple language, as rightly demonstrated in the articulate sureness of Benjamin’s phrasing, echoed by each musician. Most tellingly, the pieces varied in length from five minutes to half an hour, yet each one established an equal prominence, creating its own sense of scale. In the intimate space of the church, with a small audience of faithful and new converts, Monk Feldman’s music continued its slow journey to assert its importance.

Minimalistic: John Tilbury plays Terry Riley, plus: Kaori Suzuki

Sunday 10 July 2022

I got two discs of minimalist music here. To quote T.S. Eliot: “Well here again that don’t apply. But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.” Last night I went to a glorious concert of Barbara Monk Feldman’s music (more about that soon); the promoters described her as a “Canadian minimalist composer”. She isn’t, of course, but what really amazes me is that we’re still batting this term around after half a century, long past the point where it lost any useful meaning. (P. Glass interviewed on his dislike of labels, in 1986: “Remember back when people described some composers as impressionist? They used to call Debussy an impressionist.”) We’re hoarding the tools for our understanding against future generations.

Besides repetition, what gets called minimal often involves a reduction of one typical aspect of music to create a basis for better emphasising excess in another. Kaori Suzuki’s Music For Modified Melodica is an album given a title to conjure up a mental image of exotic timbres and mutes. The preparations, however, involve retuning the melodica’s reeds and fitting it with foot-pedalled bellows, effectively fitting the frail instrument with an overpowered exosuit. The album’s single track, Air Born Of Light, consists of a single, overblown block chord held for twenty-six minutes, pushing the wheezy little melodica to its physical limits. It makes for an enormous slab of reinforced concrete that demands you appreciate each finely-graded variation in its surface details as it grinds its entire length against your ears. It sucks, it blows, it exhausts. You cannot try this at home. If you try to play it at the appropriate volume your neighbours would call the police, except that before then you would have already chickened out and turned it down. As a recording, its failing is that it allows you the control to diminish its power.

“Recorded in Hamburg, some time between 1975 and 1995 – details forgotten.” It was a simpler time, when one could forget. The idea of John Tilbury playing Terry Riley may seem alien now but shouldn’t be surprising, given the adventurous character that laid the foundations for his exalted status. The three pieces recorded here are key solo works from 1965 that served to define Riley’s career as a performer and a composer – that close connection between the two roles sets him apart from his erstwhile critical confederates and goes some way to explaining why his musical practice, however softened by time, has retained a vitality that has abandoned Reich and Glass. Tilbury’s performances here respond to this quality, his piano rendering of Keyboard Study No. 1 swings as much as it flows. The piano sound is mellow and warm; the quality of these archival recordings, brought to public light at last by Another Timbre, is just fine. For Dorian Reeds, Tilbury switches to an electric organ with an evocative mid-70s quality, producing something smoother than Riley’s own sax interpretation. Tape delay – sorry, time-lag accumulator – is employed here to layer contrasting figures, introduce counterpoint and provide segues from one section to the next.

Tilbury’s free elaborations of the material are masterfully self-contained, maintaining an overall consistency while opening out each piece with variety, expressivity and direction that makes you forget the critics told you this music is minimal. For Keyboard Study No. 2 he overdubs piano, electric organ, harpsichord and celeste, fading each in and out over each other in a delirious rotation of colours and patterns. It’s the longest piece here, easily sustaining the trippy mood for half an hour. Besides repetition, what gets called minimal often involves a reduction of one typical aspect of music to create a basis for better emphasising excess in another.

Number Pieces live (part two), plus John White and Mark Ellestad

Thursday 30 June 2022

(Part one here.)

It was wonderful to hear Cage’s Eight played live, in the round no less, at the Music We’d Like To Hear concert in St Mary at Hill. I said I’d found the version in the Apartment House box set from last year a relative disappointment, owing to the potential for dynamic contrasts in the piece that were passed up. Sitting in a small church, however, with the winds and brasses encircling you, the small differences in timbre and force of breath became alive. With greater spatialisation, Apartment House’s emphasis on sustained tones at the expense of short sounds set the flexible structure of Cage’s composition in clearer relief: having created anarchic harmony, he made anarchic antiphony possible as well.

The sounds in the church seemed particularly warm that night. Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze played Mark Ellestad’s violin and cello duet In the Mirror of this Night, having recently recorded it for Another Timbre. In this setting, at close range, it all sounded particularly sumptious. As a communal listening experience, the piece’s wandering is less unknowable, becoming more of an exemplar of what Cage had called purposeful purposelessness.

The previous evening, members of the Plus Minus ensemble played works by Sarah Hennies, Alexey Shmurak and John White. White is a composer who should be appreciated now to avoid the rush. The pieces selected – involving piano, clarinet, double bass, percussion – were characteristically short, such as the two examples of his piano sonatas, Nos. 105 and 143. Less Scarlatti and more a late bagatelle by a Beethoven who interests have turned from tonality to oblique commentary, the piano sonatas exemplify the dual traits of White’s music appearing both benign and threatening. Each miniature, neatly assembled and considerate of your attention, conceals a nagging interrogation of the assumptions upon which it rests: a forced extension, a moment of stiffness, an unresolved lapse. In another time and place, his brief, pleasant pieces would have had him gaoled as a subversive. In this time and place, he instead suffers the small mercy of being regarded in much the same way as an outsider artist, despite his significance and achievements. He’s what, eighty-five now? The compositions heard were composed between 1989 and 2004, with the exception of his old party piece, Drinking And Hooting Machine, where Plus Minus were joined by volunteers from the audience to alternately drink from and blow across bottles, running down to empty.

John Cage’s Number Pieces live (part one)

Wednesday 29 June 2022

I still take John Cage for granted, forgetting how long it’s been since heard any played live. After the much-discussed box set of Number Pieces played by Apartment House on Another Timbre last year, it was good to hear the ensemble interpret several of them in person. At three gigs in one day at Wigmore Hall (missed the third) they played Four6 and Seven2, while at Music We’d Like To Hear the following Saturday they played Eight. Four6 doesn’t specify the sounds to be played by the four performers, just that they select twelve repeatable sounds, to be played when cued by the score’s elastic time-brackets. For this version, Heather Roche on bass clarinet, Anton Lukoszevieze on cello and percussionists Simon Limbrick and Chris Brannick fulfilled Cage’s wish that the sounds emerge as though without source, brushed into being. The sounds remained calm, without the sort of punctuation that Cage’s score permits, serene and transluscent even when at their most complex. Apartment House’s realisations of the Number Pieces strongly favour sustained sounds, while remaining sensitve to Cage’s way of thinking to avoid a ‘top-down’ approach that can destroy the delicacy of this music. It also seemed a very “full” version of the piece, with faint but pervasive sounds; in some interpretations Four6 can sound like articulated silence (Lukoszevieze’s programme notes drew a direct comparison of this piece with 4’33”).

Perversely, I was more aware than usual of the silences that open up during Seven2. This long piece (52 minutes, Four6 is 30 and Eight one hour) may the ultimate example for a case to be made for Cage as an ‘ambient’ composer, enfolding the listener in a bath of sustained low-voiced sounds. Cello, bass clarinet, bass flute, bass trombone and double bass are joined again by the two percussionists. The percussion is again unspecified, and Limbrick and Brannick’s knack for unusual but subtle sounds seeped into all of the instruments’ colouration, making this performance particularly warm.

The two Wigmore Hall matinees were supplemented by two more pieces. Ryoanji, Cage’s mid-1980s piece for soloists playing organically sliding tones over a hieratic rhythm, played in this case by two percussionists instead of the usual one, taking advantage of exploring Cage’s interest in “staggered unison”. The rarely-heard Speech 1955 is a long work for five radios accompanying a person (in this case, Miles Lukoszevieze) who occasionally reads from newpaper articles. It’s an arid piece, which is perhaps a sign of how a good piece of art can change to reflect the times in which it finds itself. Nearly seventy years on, it’s hard to imagine how the piece may have first sounded to an audience yet to be immersed in pop art. Cage’s ideas about globalism and multiple attentiveness were still developing, but however this piece may have once heralded the dawn of an information economy, it now effectively demonstrates its current dismal state. In this respect, it’s unnerving how Speech 1955 refuses to entertain in the function of a quaint anachronism.

A Week’s Diary part 2: LCMF

Wednesday 22 June 2022

I’m not buying into the premise of this year’s London Contemporary Music Festival, back after a Covid-induced hiatus, but after two hot nights beginning in bright light under the skylights at the Woolwich Fireworks Factory the third evening turned grey and rainy and I prepared for the gig by looking out over the bleak lower reaches of the Thames while a cold wet wind blew through me. The first act I caught was Andy Ingamells giving Nam June Paik’s classic Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia a dedicated performance that was still very British in its repressed melancholy. I’m going to focus on the compositions here, as the improvisations, poetry and videos left me wondering if I understand anything about them. (The videos were a mix of “spent an hour too long looking up something on Wikipedia” and a revival of the early 80s New York genre “I’ve been here so long I assume my personal fuckups are generally relatable”.)

I’ve now heard more Evan Johnson, as much as it is possible to hear his music. Richard Craig perfomed his solo bass flute émoi with a confidence that made its faint sounds seem sourceless, a low sighing between a breath and a hum that floated through the large, populated space just audible but undeniably present. A big moment was the premiere of a new Frank Denyer piece, commissioned by LCMF. Five Views of the Path matched soprano Jessica Aszodi with the Octandre Ensemble playing an eclectic mix of instruments ranging from baroque to homemade inventions. With Denyer, the exotic colouration is used as expressive material, sound as evocation. Aszodi had a thankless role sitting among the musicians, picking out high notes in vocalise that mingled with the trio of recorders and struck berimbaus. Strange colours and percussion were a recurrent theme, particularly on the following night. The Explore Ensemble gave the first UK performance of Clara Iannotta’s Eclipse Plumage, a complex woven rope of small sounds that intertwined to produce an ominously indefinite chord that continually transformed its medium and displacement. Percuissionists and normal musicians alike operated a large array of small percussion and amplified objects, backed by a grand piano rigged with an electromagnetic device to induce sinister emanations.

Also receiving its first British performance was Rebecca Saunders’ percussion duo dust II, an extraordinary work quite unlike anything I’ve heard by her before. Caspar Heinemann and Christian Dierstein gave a bravura performance as they moved from the audience to the front of the room, onto and eventually across the stage, managing a dizzying array of instruments. Saunders adopted a more relaxed pace than usual, allowing the intrinsic complexity of the sounds to provide her busier textures. Sounds were combined beautifully, with a strong focus on metallic semi-pitched sounds. The firm grasp on the material and the progression (in sound and movement) from one place to another made the piece work as music and not just a virtuosic exercise, even as the momentary effects were dazzling. To complement this, the evening began with Crystabel Riley‘s requiem of solo drumming, a prolonged study in fusing rhythm into timbre.

The Saturday evening gig began with another revived Fluxus piece, Ben Patterson’s First Symphony getting its first British airing. Someone asked me to sit on the left side of the hall for this piece, but I didn’t trust them and so sat on the right. There were four premieres that night, commissioned for the event. Cerith Wyn Evans’ …)(. finally got its complete airing, long deferred since the preview given in 2019 for its expected debut the following year. At that time, “the hieratic, slow-paced performance on piano and gongs was betrayed by a perfunctory and non-committal ending” and here the pay-off was a listless antiphonal chorale from the orchestra. Not the orchestra’s fault, given the heartfelt work they put into Tyshawn Sorey’s tone poem for cello and orchestra, For Roscoe Mitchell. Soloist Deni Teo and the pickup orchestra conducted by Jack Sheen played this beautifully scored and phrased work with rapturous solemnity, reminiscent of Feldman’s Cello and Orchestra but with fuller, less stifled voicing for the cello.

Hard not to roll the eyes at the prospect of an orchestral premiere by Elvin Brandhi aka one half of Yeah You: this kind of crossover almost never works. Except this time it kind of did. Brandhi’s GIFF WRECK took her usual materials of noise and vocal aggression and displaced them onto a video screen of two vocalists sitting at home deploying auto-tuned effects, mimicked and counterposed by dense bursts of orchestral textures. Brandhi herself kept true to her peripatetic style, pacing round the perimeters of the hall occasionally adding her own amplified interventions. Oliver Leith’s
Pearly, goldy, woody, bloody, or, Abundance trended heavily towards the jokey side of his work and probably went too far. That was probably the point but it’s at the expense of the piece’s staying power. An exuberant mish-mash of triumphant fanfares, complete with aural pyrotechnics, its self-conscious humour is good fun but disposable in the manner of Wellington’s Victory, which again is probably the point.

Mariam Rezaei’s frenzied activity on turntables and samplers for her lengthy solo SADTITZZZ was a remarkable achievement, being a virtual skronk solo that had all the singlemindedness of your typical free improv muso while being more inventive and fun than about ninety percent of them. It also worked as a nice teaser for the concluding act of the night, when Roscoe Mitchell himself appeared. He’s eighty-one now, I think. Typically considered to be jazz, which is an all too limited understanding of his musical achievements. Having just subjected people to my jazz-deafness, I prepared for disappointment but didn’t hear it in that way at all. A slight figure but mesmerising on stage, he captures the audience through plain statements that he then eloquently expands upon into detailed arguments, extending motives in different directions and then relating them in ways that are intuitively clear without ever exact repetition. He also knows when to stop, and deploys silence to pointed effect. Solos on soprano and baritone sax were then followed by percussionist Kikanju Baku, who emerged from the back of the hall as a disruptive trickster figure. Once at his drum-kit, his relentless attack acted as harsh colouration with rhtyhmic variance. Mitchell played off and against this barrage, equally unruffled whether he was matching the flow or simply commenting with isolated notes. A captivating ending.

A Week’s Diary part 1: Morphogenesis, Lucy Railton

Sunday 19 June 2022

I’ve been out all week and my brain is fuzzy. Last Sunday it was to see Morphogenesis playing at Cafe Oto, for the first time since 2015 I think. This was touted as featuring the original members but Clive Hall had to drop out and was replaced by Jonathan Bohman. At least this time they were all in the same venue: for their previous gig Ron Briefel preferred to broadcast his part from his car parked out front. This could be taken as a sign that the group has mellowed with age, now that they’re approaching the end of their fourth sporadic decade; however their sound check consisted of them playing out on the street for about an hour, inviting passersby and musos from the matinee show to get amongst it with their equipment.

Their group improvisations, made with a plethora of random objects, electronics and digital/analog interference (also a piano), deftly elude the do-a-bit-of-everything-all-over-the-place performance style that such a setup usually invites and quickly gets tedious. They play with a wealth of detail while maintaining a coherence in mood that is achieved through group activity: each follows their own path without any pressing concern to defer to the others, a novel consensus achived through the simple expedient of letting everyone talk over each other. The gig broke into four distinct pieces, each heavier and more sharply defined than the last. It’s like eavesdropping on a group of awkward middle-aged nerds doggedly pursuing their particular passion: intriguing, colourful and even illuminating, even as you fail to understand the subject. I can relate, as someone trying to learn how to socialise again after an extended reclusiveness.

Back again on Tuesday for Lucy Railton’s long-deferred two evenings, mixing her interests in modern composition, electronics and cello improvisation. The improvisations grouped cello with voices and saxophone (Sharon Gal, Caroline Kraabel, Sophie Fetokaki) and with two basses, electric and acoustic (Farida Amadou and John Edwards). The former was sparse and pure to the point of excess, the latter blunt and busy. The two compositions were a new work by Catherine Lamb and Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field. The Feldman is a sadistic piece, right out of the gate demanding melismas in harmonics from the cello and octave-leaping chords from the piano, all rapid, all pianissimo. Ten years ago in the same place I heard it played in the most gruelling of circumstances, so by comparison this occasion seemed deceptively benign. Railton and Joseph Houston played it in a plainspoken style, at a pace neither forced nor lugubrious. It was a demystifying performance, which favoured presenting variations in colour and tone over maintaining a single, ambiguous state, even offering moments of surprising brightness.

I didn’t catch the title of Catherine Lamb’s piece, if it was mentioned. It was born out of the two of them working together in Berlin, originally as a solo work for cello augmented by Lamb’s use of resonant spectral synthesis. On this occasion, it was played without electronics, with Lamb instead joining in as second musician on viola. At times I’ve found Lamb’s solo compositions for acoustic instruments excessively plain, but this was not the case here. For the viola part, she extrapolated the overtones implied in Railton’s playing, creating a sort of counter-melody that would emerge and disappear as a distinct entity. They played in relative tuning, Lamb basing her intonation on the harmonics of Railton’s pitch, a kind of sonic tightrope-walk that showed strength and resilience even as the apparent means of support were almost imperceptible.

For the rest of the week I was at the London Contemporary Music Festival, with additional excursions to Wigmore Hall for Apartment House playing John Cage. I’ll get around to these later, for my own sake. After seven days of live music, people and art-venue beers, it’s all been a little too much. In fact, I should be back at LCMF right now but the pull of a night in and a home-cooked meal is too strong. Doubtless I will regret it later.

anthem, an album

Friday 10 June 2022

As someone who instinctively distrusts curatorial conceits, this new album from the Birmingham Record Company should be welcome. anthem is an LP-length collection of five works with no common composer, ensemble, event or location; the presence of each piece becomes its own anomaly, which is kind of refreshing in itself. The sleeve notes are distractingly apologetic, in the British manner. A couple of pieces are ‘meta’-music, while others could claim to be but are not.

Emily Abdy’s anthem begins the set well by thwarting expectations and raising apprehensions. Abdy, armed with electric guitar, chants a repeated phrase that grows in intensity even as it folds in upon itself; behind her, the Thallein Ensemble play a swirling crescendo. It all collapses like a facade, retreat followed by a giddy mess of inarticulate revelation and dismissal. The whole thing takes on the rhetorical devices of “empowering” art and deploys them in the opposite direction of the genre’s null certainties. I hope I will never understand it.

I’ve described one piece by Andy Ingamells before (in collaboration with Maya Verlaak). In Petting Zoo, his method is similar to Tape Piece in that the ‘music’ is created through the inadvertent consequences of competing activities. Ingamells is emcee and narrator, describing the process by which he made, or didn’t make, the piece while inviting members of the audience onto the stage to pat, stroke and otherwise gently molest the musicians in Apartment House as they play. It can occasionally err on the side of trying to bluff its way through its own self-consciousness, but leaves open the question of whether an attempt to fail at making music constitutes a failed attempt.

Genevieve Murphy’s suite of five short pieces F.I.N.E (it stands for Fucked Insecure Neurotic Exhausted) comes from a concert by the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam in 2015. As with the other pieces mentioned so far, it’s a live performance with audience reactions apparent throughout. For the recording, we are of course disconnected from the experience, and the album shrewdly excises the applause from the end of each piece to preserve their status as isolated musical artefacts for contemplation. F.I.N.E is a pop-art style of redolent fragments, both found and created, juxtaposed in apparently arbitrary fashion to create a whole. Musical topics are touched on at arm’s length, through spoken permutations, hymn tunes and recorded conversations. Again, the question rises as to whether the nature of music is being interrogated or swerved.

Maybe a composer should just sit down once in a while and write a piece of music. Between Petting Zoo and F.I.N.E, Ryan Latimer’s orchestral bon-bon Gorilla and Orange Sun drops in like an uninvited guest, appearing all the weirder for it. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra give it the refined enthusiasm it needs to fulfil its mission. Its qualities – full, colourful, innocuous and short – make for an archetypal BBC Proms commission, but took a wrong turn here and landed in Huddersfield by mistake. The closing track, Corey Mwamba’s kr-ti-sa, compounds the bewilderment by not being a concert recording at all. Mwamba withdrew from live performance a few years ago by way of protest and now makes his jazz through overdubbing himself in a home studio. I cannot meaningfully comment on jazz as all I can hear is that it sounds like it is meant to sound. In that respect, it shares a quality with a Proms overture.

Night Music: Jack Sheen, Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras

Tuesday 31 May 2022

If not dark (pace Lorca), then indelibly crepuscular; SN Variations’ release of Jack Sheen’s large ensemble work Sub arrives just in time for northern summer. A broad, dank thicket of furtively scurrying sounds, Sheen’s ensemble writing in this piece both invites and repels comparisons to Haas and very late Feldman’s writing for large ensembles. Sub is played low: alto flutes and violas with trombones, bass clarinets, piano and percussion. The fifteen musicians of the Octandre Ensemble, conducted by Jon Hargreaves, play winding figures over and through each other, with sounds tending towards the breathy and brushed, all muted and blurred by a backdrop of audio tracks that let grey noise seep into any remaining cracks that might admit outside air. While teeming with microscopic, sightless life, Sheen’s composition is never allowed to relax into an organic flow. Cyclical passages are cut up into eleven movements over forty-seven minutes, divded by silences of varying lengths, with some sections dying away and other unnaturally stopped dead. After about twenty minutes, when you think you’re settled in to a work of moody textures, things suddenly lighten up, only to plunge back into redoubled activity. From there on each section becomes more sharply contrasted in sound balance and rhythm, always sounding stranger with the ensemble’s playing turning more febrile as the parts get simpler, until they resemble a muzzy tape recording of a full orchestra. It’s an uncanny, paradoxical work that thwarts movement while remaining in motion, yet never finds balance while remaining in place.

Rohan Drape and Anthony Pateras’ earlier work with keyboards and electronics has been discussed here before but finally received its long-awaited follow-up last year. The traces of a mistake, the most simple one possible the reactions of even younger children presents three related works, including two versions of the title piece. Originally scored for piano, violin, two organs, drums, electronics and Revox tape deck, the piece first appears here in a version for solo piano haunted by an electronically processed haze. Pateras’ piano playing here is uncharacteristically restrained, maintaining an aura of stillness even as the notes gradually fill up the spaces left by Drape’s flickering microtonal drones that slip in and out of consonance. In the middle work, Distance bestows then takes right back, the duet adds pipe organ to the mix, elaborating the ideas from the earlier work into thicker sonorities and more forthright piano work that plays within and around the shifting harmonic space. The final track opens out further, returning to the opening work in an ensemble version with violin and percussion, Drape on piano and Pateras reworking material on a variable-speed tape. Violin adds high overtones and resonance, drums the sub-bass beating signals: even as the texture becomes more active and fraught, with electronic taps and echoes, the suspense and powerful atmosphere is maintained and amplified across all three of these superbly judged and executed works.

Cage/Not-Cage: Opening Performance Orchestra’s Chess Show

Thursday 26 May 2022

“John Cage has become a playground for second-rate minds”, or words to that effect, is one of the more pertinent comments Richard Kostelanetz has made about the late composer who, all things being otherwise normal, would have been turning 110 this year. Kostelanetz has supplied one of several sets of sleeve notes that come with this double CD, although that quote is not included. Chess Show (Other Memories of John Cage) is a part-hommage, part-cargo-cult, part-remix (sorry) made in Cage’s name, certainly not the first and equally certainly not the worst; far from it, the piece comes across as one of the better examples of a genre that is obliged to be derivative. Listening to it allows the mind to contemplate questions and for me the questions always returned to wondering how well it all worked as a musical experience and how well it resisted using Cage as carte blanche.

Cage devised the simple concept of the Musicircus in the mid 1960s: Step 1. have a lot of stuff all happening at once, Step 2. that’s it. The Czech experimental ensemble Opening Performance Orchestra first began playing with the idea of creating a potted Musicircus made of samples from recordings of Cage’s music in the 1990s and have since developed it into an audio-visual work (video component not included here). There are two performances recorded here, each 64 minutes: a live performance at Ostrava in 2017 and a studio version from 2021. Like Cage’s immersive works, it’s dense but not impenetrable or oppressive. Despite the uneasy mix of chessboard structure and chance-determined deployment of recorded material, it sounds curiously consistent. The quodlibet of Cage fragments favour a prevailing texture of sustained sounds, rather like a rendition of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis or 103 with disruptions. (Perhaps the former work is favoured here, as the musicians cite it as a key inspiration behind the concept of Chess Show.) In the live version, the laptops are accompanied by Reinhold Friedl performing excerpts from the Song Books and occasional snatches of keyboard music. For the studio incarnation, the Song pieces are replaced by lively contributions from pianist Miroslav Beinhauer. The soloists are the only immediately observable difference in the two versions.

While not misappropriating Cage as a pretext, the focus on his public image in the music world becomes the piece’s raison d’être. My only other experience of Opening Performance Orchestra’s work is their performances of Milan Knížák’s Broken Music pieces; perhaps this led me to expect something more iconoclastic here. Perhaps because it’s all made up from digital soundfiles, everything comes together too neatly, with no seams showing or any feeling of imminent disruption. I wonder if it all could have been re-created to similar effect through an adventurous realisation of one of Cage’s more open scores. Chess Show is a serious work, conceived, lived with and developed in earnest. The abundance of texts in the package are present both as a justification and to place the work in a gerater context of musical and artistic practice. This is all a long way of saying that my only real problem with it is that it’s overly reverent. That’s OK, for Cage is still in need of grand acts of consolidation and affirmation, but true respect for Cage’s legacy would be to build on it rather than simply preserve it.

Ostrava Days Live 2019–2021

Friday 20 May 2022

Real life, honest-to-god concerts are happening again, so here’s a quick primer on what you’ve been missing. The Ostrava Center for New Music has put out a two-disc compilation of highlights from the last two biennial Ostrava Days festivals. The selection of pieces sets out the Ostrava Days’ credentials on disc one by starting with Ostrava founder Petr Kotík and the ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra killing Xenakis’ Aïs. This piece is now over forty years old and it still confronts the listener with its wild falsetto baritone and thumping percussion. Baritone Holger Falk whoops and wails with just enough control that you forget he’s the same man when he sings in his natural register. This 2019 performance is the work’s premiere in the Czech Republic.

A mix of the old cutting edge and the new is carried through the first part of the album. Xenakis is followed by Kotík leading the Ostravská banda in the world premiere of Christian Wolff’s Small Orchestra Piece. In its own way, it is an equally strange and singular work to the Xenakis, although Wolff playfully acts out of character throughout this piece. His signature late, discontinuous style is elaborated into coherent passages which seem to invite comparison and comment as they abrupty stop and change course. Listeners’ ears will keep pricking up at what appear to be passing references to other music styles or even pieces, such as when the violins come in about two-thirds way through, echoing a Copland pastoral before mimicking Webern’s Symphony.

The next two works form an elegy to the late Frederic Rzewski; as pianist and composer. Kotík’s own Spontano is the oldest piece here (1964), revived here by Rzewski as soloist with Ostravská banda. It’s still a bold piece in a brutalist way as it tries to put sounds together in new ways, or rather keep them apart as much as possible. Rzewski is fittingly brusque in playing terse, unresolved statements against silence, or disrupting occasional blocks of sustained chords built up from overlapping layers of pitch. The final (marked ‘furious’) of Rzewski’s 2019 Six Movements for piano appears by way of an encore.

The remaining pieces consist of new work by later generations of composers. While a musical avant-garde emerged immediately after World War II from a compulsion to create something entirely new and reject pre-existing models, subsequent generations have felt this imperative less and less, preferring, perhaps wisely, to take stock of where all these upheavals have led us today. From this too-close perspective, approach is one of assimilation and transformation, of building something new out of what they understand they already have. That understanding has continued to change and artists have learned to adapt to constantly shifting ground. Earlier attempts at assimilation and transformation resulted in collage and pastiche, as a form of deconstruction, but in recent decades this consolidation has become more sophisticated – a blessing and a curse. As ever, the identifying signs of a truly radical work lie in the differences between that which please and that which astonishes.

Martin Smolka’s Quand le tympan de l’oreille porte le poids du monde, played here by the PKF – Prague Philharmonia conducted by Roland Kluttig, seems to explores a given sonority, turning it back and forth, but then moves beyond this reductive method by expanding the material into extramusical concerns of dramatic build-ups, suspenseful ebbings away, before rising to a calamitous yet inevitable climax. The drama, however, comes from the musical means exploited by the orchestra. Petr Bakla’s There is an island above the city (Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra /Peter Rundel) is another preimiere, which at first seems as still and reverent as the beginning of Smolka’s piece, but takes a different turn by pursuing the more sinister implications of settling down in one place. A benign chorale steadily grows more fraught, developing a more turbulent aspect to its character, with an ominous humming rising up behind the strings.

Violinist Hana Kotková and the Ostravská banda (conducted this time by Jiří Rožeň) perform Ana Sokolović’s concerto Evta (2017). Each of the seven movements is named for a colour in the rainbow, proceding through the spectrum and played without breaks. The movements, or perhaps sections is a more appropriate term, are distinguished less by contrasts in mood as by means of construction. If there is any syneesthetic programme here then it is particularly obdurate on the senses: Kotková and the ensemble, both together and apart, pick up the nervous energy in the writing and produce fidgety patterns made out of reiterations of ascending and weaving patterns that slide and stutter over each other. The piece becomes a study in tension, where knots are slackened from time to time but never undone, only to be pulled tight again in the next phase. The soloist eschews the traditional roles of protagonist or adversary, acting much as a figurehead for the combative, querulous mob. Just checked the notes and there’s talk of chakras and folklore.

Led again by Kotík, Ostravská banda’s premiere of Devin Maxwell’s Bonneville Park II sees a return of brutalist construction. A sequel to his earlier electronic work of the same name, fixed media is also present here in a subtle way to flesh out the acoustic sounds. Here, the emphasis is on clashes of sonority over any movement in pitch, dwelling on contrasting colours and textures in succession to make a piece that is more stimulating than likeable. After a short but satisfying choral work by Georgina Bowden (The Fainting Sun, premiered here by Canticum Ostrava) the set concludes with a rousing finale: Miroslav Srnka’s Eighteen Agents for nineteen strings. Members of Ostravská banda & ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra (Bruno Ferrandis conducting) serve up a suitably hot and sour string ensemble, agressively hazy with its fast chromatic runs played in individual meters so that they sound, if not microtonal, then blurry and melted, even as the phrasing is aggressively jagged. It all winds up with a flourish, playing up to being the tricky but spectaular new-music-crowd-pleaser which then makes you wonder if it’s a little superficial. The piece is ten years old now and perhaps seemed more pointed at the time – like I said, the ground keeps shifting beneath our feet.

Richard Emsley: Still/s

Tuesday 26 April 2022

“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

Having first heard parts of Richard Emsley’s for piano series, started in the mid 1990s, I little suspected that these pieces signalled a change in style from his earlier work as an accused member of the British New Complexity School. The austere arrangements of undeveloped points and blocks of sound in for piano start to make a new kind of sense with this background information: the static sound-world of these later works isn’t necessarily a disavowal of the B.N.C.S.’s frantic activity, but a fresh approach to some of its values. Where the B.N.C.S.’s notorious ‘black page’ approach to notation asymptotically aspires to re-create musicianship in free flow, Emsley’s unadorned sounds can be heard as emulating the interior processes of musicians, in reflective contemplation of the stuff of their art.

Still/s is a cycle of twenty-four pieces for five musicians, composed between 2002 and 2019. On Saturday, they were played in their entirety for the first time by Apartment House as part of Music We’d Like To Hear. There were two concerts, of about two hours each, to get through the whole set. The first hint of Emsley’s approach is that each piece is for only one to three of the five instruments (the musicians here were Mira Benjamin, violin; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello; Heather Roche, clarinets; Nancy Ruffer, flutes; Kerry Yong, piano). The series was originally conceived as a counterpart to artist Joan Key’s painting, the juxtaposition of repeated shapes and muted, near-white colours finding an analogy in Emsley’s music.

These are not pieces to be approached with a restless mind, unless one is seeking to silence the internal monologue. Many of the pieces stick to one or two pitches, echoed back and forth between instruments. The apparent stasis is at odds with an inherent instability in each piece, as Emsley notates his isolated sounds in aperiodic settings, frustrating any definable pattern that might otherwise emerge. Other pieces set out gamuts of notes to be played in irregular permutations; more rarely, a piece will be made up of a brief motive heard in variations. Successive pieces will seem to vary only in instrumentation, before the next abruptly introduces something entirely anomalous: simple sounds presented in a way that is anything but simplistic.

In retrospect, the series unexpectedly reveals a microcosm of musicianship, with minor forays into studies in timbre, intonation, extended techniques and rhythm. With their focus and their awareness of the potential inside each unprepossessing piece on paper, the musicians of Apartment House steadily zoomed in on this microcosm, expanding on each hidden facet while remaining as near-monochrome as possible. What impressed most was the use of instrument tone and register, with flute and violin, clarinet and cello at times blending almost indistinguishably, at other moments coming close to mimicking each other, alto flute against cello harmonic, E-flat clarinet in just the right place to match the muted violin.

More Lost Canadians: Michael Oesterle, Mark Ellestad

Friday 22 April 2022

Thanks to the musicians who keep exposing me to contemporary Canadian composers I’d have otherwise never heard of. Quatuor Bozzini’s set of Michael Oesterle’s Quatuors opens with a nice comfy chorale that almost immediately drops away to a near-inaudible skein of harmonics. This piece, Oesterle’s String Quartet No. 4, is the latest and longest of the four pieces heard here (but not the entirety of his output for string quartet). The piece moves casually back and forth between slow pulses of alternating chords and scurrying patterns of harmonics, before returning to chorales and whispers. Oesterle gives no programme other than to assert that his musical materials are always “geometric, expressive, and puritanical”. It is the most subtly disorienting piece in the collection, as each passage yields to the next without any formal structural division, while beguiling sounds are tempered by a secretiveness as to where, if anywhere, the music may be directed. Quatuor Bozzini’s style of playing ideally evokes that shrouded expressivity, never loud but each phrase always indelible, however softly it is played.

The remaining three pieces are more easily apprehended, each falling into neatly digestible sections. String Quartet No. 3 “Alan Turing” from 2010 explores patterns, gestures and textures with an appropriate sense of wonder and discovery mingled with loss and regret. The Bozzinis bring out the gentle playfulness of each movement, slightly darkened by the melancholy of its subject. The harmonic language and gestures at times recall the freshness of a previous generation’s “post-minimal” tonality in its first flowering, before it was worked in harness to the service of Hollywood soundtracks. The titles of 2016’s Three Pieces for String Quartet evoke various animals but Oesterle’s notes again cite geometrical puzzles as each piece’s prime mover, claiming inspiration from Stravinsky and Cage. I can hear a kinship with Ruth Crawford in here, which is the highest of praise. The earliest piece here, Daydream Mechanics from 2001, is the most extended and hushed movement in the collection, with genuine whispering, searching out unexpected consequences from an otherwise confined grid of chordal patterns. Quatuor Bozzini’s championing of this composer, matching his language with a refinement of style that moves from rapid filigree to near-stillness in the same mode of emotion, reveals depths slowly swirling below the undemanding surface.

Mark Ellestad’s career as a composer has moved slowly, with extended pauses. Another Timbre has revived him from obscurity in the new collection Discreet Angel, drawing together three pieces written between 1988 and 1994. I’ve listened to these many times now and still haven’t gotten any closer to what’s happening inside them, despite the intimacy of instrumentation, performance and recording. The 1994 piece, Sigrid, is a brief tape of Ellestad overdubbing pump organ and Hardanger fiddle, the interweaving chords layered and worked into aural broadcloth. The dedicated application of craft to an undemonstrative result is the signature of the three pieces heard here.

Sigrid appears as an interlude to the larger-scale works of much lower density. Both are, in context, memorials for Ellestad’s parents. Discreet Angel itself is for guitar, with just enough musical stuff to expose the instrument’s vulnerability when played at anything less than a continuo. The pauses and unaccompanied notes allow the silence to leak through, creating music that is neither whole nor broken, neither active nor still. For guitarist Cristian Alvear, expert interpreter of some of Wandelweiser’s most esoteric works, the balance of sound and silence is deployed into the fullest and most lyrical playing I’ve heard from him. In the Mirror of this Night is a duet for violin and cello, played here by Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze. Equally slow, it finds its own path as it meanders across forty-five minutes, but again, even when all has been heard, the ultimate course of that path remains obscure. At any given moment in each of these pieces, the music itself is never forbidding, but the wider context defies the listener’s attempts to comfortably accommodate it inside any known form or structure. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze trade solo parts or join in unison almost as often as they work together. Ellestad himself praises the musicians for their “restraint, patience, stillness and a willingness to bring flexibility to time and repetition.” I can’t really add more to that, save that they convey the music with immediacy while still keeping it unknowable.