Sam Ridout: Aspect Spur Disjecta

Monday 3 August 2020

Over the weekend, someone on a popular social media site shared the following video, titled “Tree branch falls on power lines – high voltage – Wicked Effect”.

The first reply was:

It’s a fair point, at least for electronic (or in this case, electrical) music. As making it has gotten easier, so has it sounded more and more constricted by a curious quality of inertness. Either it becomes too easy – acceptably interesting timbres generated almost by default, without any larger musical impetus – or it gets worked over into a highly polished surface with all spontaneous disturbances buffed out, all sheen and no substance.

I got sent a new album of music by Sam Ridout the same week I bought the latest release off John Wall’s bandcamp. Fittingly, each composer has reviewed the other’s work: you could call it logrolling but listening to both reveals a strong resemblance in thinking and purpose, if not in sound. Both share a dissatisfaction with the obvious and facile, in form and matter, each using samples which are heavily reworked into complex sounds. While Wall’s M – [ B ] extends further into richer sonorities, the pieces on Ridout’s Aspect Spur Disjecta make a virtue of restraining their sonic pallette to shades of grey. The sounds are finely shaped, textured and layered to make those greys turn iridescent. The pieces, composed between 2013 and 2017, are short. Nothing stretches beyond four minutes and the entire set is over in twenty. Each piece is a distillation, inviting and rewarding concentrated listening. As with Wall’s pieces, there’s an awareness of space, depth, perspective and silence often lacking from the ‘experimental’ side of electronic music – but that’s enough for comparisons. There’s a liveliness in this music so often missing in electronics, which is all the rarer for not trying to ingratiate itself with the listener. Those heavily-worked sounds do not try to justify their presence, but exploit acoustic phenomena in ways that create seemingly natural forms that have otherwise never existed.

Takuroku: Viola Torros, Orazbayeva, Duplant

Tuesday 28 July 2020

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

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

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

Ends and beginnings: Ernstalbrecht Stiebler

Sunday 26 July 2020

Like many people – judging by the interview on this album’s web page – my knowledge of Ernstalbrecht Stiebler’s music centres on the CDs of his 1990s music released on Hart Art. Based on this, I had mentally labelled him as “Euro-Niblock”, listened to it, enjoyed it and never went into it too deeply. An album of new pieces has now been released on Another Timbre, works for strings composed between 2007 and 2016: Für Biliana shows both how Stiebler has continued to develop as a composer and how listening has changed over the past quarter-century. Beginning with two short solo works for violinist Biliana Voutchkova, Für Biliana is made out of double-stops in which held notes are harmonised on the other string, alternating in almost cadence-like figures; in Glissando the moving tone on the double-stops slides in, or out, of unison with the held pitch. In each piece, the music is formed of phrases instead of a steady drone, with occasional tremolos in Glissando that make the piece resemble a slow caprice. Heard in retrospect, the attenuated romanticism in these brief works becomes more evident in those Nineties pieces. There’s a continuous balancing act between the instability of the harmonic language used and the stability of its immobility, where neither can truly claim precedence.

Voutchkova is joined by cellist Michael Rauter for Duo 4 / Parallelen, a longer work from 2007 where each plays overlapping dissonances in a kind of antiphony. The language is pure Fifties avant-garde, an unresolved major seventh, but it is transformed by its stasis, effectively becoming its own tonal centre. Nevertheless, the tension between the two suggests a resolution is still needed and Stiebler achieves it through silence, as each successive iteration starts to fade away into something more gentle, eventually finding rest.

I lied when I said this album was made of newer pieces. Stiebler’s Extension for string trio was composed way back in 1963 and it’s incredible in the ways it both resembles and differs from his recent work. Joined by Nurit Stark on viola, Voutchkova and Rauter play the ephemeral material with a steady, unaffected solidity, adding inflections and articulation to a recurring tritone for almost twenty minutes. It’s a prescient work that goads the critic into drawing comparisons with La Monte Young’s trio, but it’s more interesting to compare it to Stiebler’s own Duo 4 / Parallelen. Both with essentially the same subject, Extension prolongs the harmonic stasis with differentiations in attack, phrasing and dynamics, elaborating a detailed chamber work out of a minimum of developed material, while Duo 4 / Parallelen takes the same approach, but with greater subtlety and refinement. Where the earlier piece uses pizzicato disruptions and changes in speed to vary the texture, the latter work makes use of alterations in solo and duo voices, phrasings and rests.

This weekend I dug up those old Hat Art discs again and heard how those works sound much less like a function of a process than I remembered. Thanks to Für Biliana we can hear now how those pieces relate to the music that came both before and after it, simultaneously.

Words and non-words, subjects and objects

Tuesday 21 July 2020

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

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

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

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

Takuroku Shooting Gallery

Tuesday 14 July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later thoughts on Mittwoch aus Licht

Thursday 9 July 2020

The morning after I saw Mittwoch aus Licht in Birmingham, I turned on the news and heard that Neil Armstrong had died. Suddenly, the Helicopter String Quartet made sense to me; in particular, the instruction that the scene be introduced by a compere who then leads a Q&A session with the performers and the audience after the quartet has been played. Like so many aspects of Stockhausen’s operas, it seemed an inexplicable but surprisingly rewarding decision to frame the scene in this way. Why single this scene out for audience explication? Next morning, it all became clear.

All mankind went to the moon; Armstrong was our delegate. The astronauts brought back photos and moon rocks for us to marvel over and discuss. Stockhausen couldn’t get all of us hovering in the air over Birmingham, so he brings the musicians and the pilots back to the audience so we could ask them what it was like. Birmingham Opera Company just streamed a video of the entire opera over the weekend and this line of thought came back to me. I didn’t write about Mittwoch at the time – it was all overwhelming and took too long to get down in words. Besides, many others wrote so well about it. In particular, there was analysis of the double image presented by the opera, which the production didn’t make overt but was present enough for the observant audience member to detect, in disconcerting glimpses.

The Helicopter String Quartet is a key part of the double image: like the moon landing, a technical triumph of ultimately limited value. The central figures of Licht – Michael, Eva and Lucifer – are largely absent from Mittwoch until the final, complex scene. Instead, we witness humans coming together in noble endeavours that are thwarted by their own vulnerabilities, compromised from the start by flawed premises. Each success, whether sending a string quartet into the air, a “world parliament” reaching agreement, or orchestra musicians passing audition, is heavily qualified by mundane, material considerations and circumscribed by limited vision. The Licht operas function as 21st century mystery plays: in Mittwoch, we witness humanity acting on its best impulses yet stumbling in the dark without the guidance of the divine. When the great planet-shitting camel (work with me, here) makes its entrance in that last, complex scene and starts singing in the signature bass tones of Lucifer, it’s a warning that we have been led astray.

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

Tuesday 7 July 2020

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

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

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

Three LPs by Jamie Drouin and Lance Austin Olsen

Monday 6 July 2020

Good to see some people making better use of Covid-19 downtime than I have. It’s been a while since I wrote up any music by Lance Austin Olsen or Jamie Drouin (aka Liquid Transmitter) but I’ve just been hit with three new releases in short order by the two of them working together. Well, two of them are new: Snowfield is a reissue of a collaboration from way back in 2003. It began as a four-track sound installation, made up of field recordings of the two artists “interacting” with a small patch of snowbound landscape. On paper, it looks heavier on concept than on substance, but Drouin and Olsen have worked their material into seven distinct tracks of finely differentiated sounds that come together in collages that are very soft, very long, nearly white.

The two new collaborations show how their collaging chops have deepened over the years, mixing eclectic elements into something more complex yet equally organic. Both were conceived during, and resulted from, the self-isolation of pandemic lockdown. With direct working together now impossible, the pieces were created through a process of exchange, sending files back and forth online. The French Drop is a set of five pieces in which perspective and focus slip back and forth from one state to another; as in an optical illusion, each graspable image hovers between two identities, never fully resolving into one. Drouin’s synthesisers never settle into being a mere backdrop to hold Olsen’s objects and found sounds together: both sound palettes fuse into one portentous, if ambiguous, whole.

Olsen has worked this way before, with long-distance collaborations that cross the equator, not just across town. But what is space or distance these days, anyway. With less of a direct programme or idea driving the project, both The French Drop and This, And The Other Space, released a few weeks later, allow for a more purely musical experience than some of Olsen’s other work, so that the listener’s mind is free to conjecture as to what lurks beneath the surface. This, And The Other Space may be bolder in its contrasts, with more discrete elements sticking in the mind, but the dual storylines collaged together here merge into one experience which the listener may not disentangle. The two albums act as counterparts, each forming a double image of space, place and subjectivity.

Isolation Pianos (2): Lisa Ullén, Bobby Mitchell, Frederic Rzewski

Tuesday 30 June 2020

More odious comparisons: pianos, this time. This was going to get posted yesterday and include Alex White’s Transductions but I got a bit carried away about that one. I’m catching up on Takuroku’s weekly set of releases by musicians working in self-isolation over the past few months. Lisa Ullén’s Gold, 20-minute solo for prepared piano, was recorded in her living room on 1 June and I’ve just finished listening to it for a second time. Prepared piano is a difficult medium for musical expression; the overbearing timbres tend to push composers into resorting to extremes, either extravagant pyrotechnics or carefully isolated gems of sound. Ullén here stakes out a middle ground, and perhaps suffers for it. With paper threaded through the piano strings, she sets up a buzzing haze through which clear tones gradually emerge. From there, her concentration turns from timbral density to variety, picking out deliberate melodic fragments mixing muted and untreated piano notes. That middle ground of avoiding extremes makes it all feel a little safe, but then this piece isn’t about creating and resolving tension. It’s an extended study in contrasting timbres and textures, with the latter half cannily avoiding any perceptible shape to balance out the former.

Pianist Bobby Mitchell has given Takuroku something that’s as close to trad as the series will presumably get, with a suite of pieces from Frederic Rzewski’s Songs of Insurrection. A veritable Old Master of virtuoso piano composition, Rzewski shows that his compositional and motivational spark are as vital as ever with this piano cycle composed in 2016, drawing material and inspiration from popular songs of World War II soldiers, partisans and civil rights protesters. The slightly rough-and-ready recording conditions suit the idiom perfectly and Mitchell gets stuck in with the right attitude, playing with an athelticism that always lands with feet planted firmly on the ground, with a tenderness that’s never soft-hearted. There’s a great unity of purpose here between composer and pianist, each unafraid to get into some dense passages without fear of getting the listener muddled. Right now, there’s no other legitimate way to get hold of a recording of this piece so it’s kind of essential for late Rzewski.

Isolation Pianos (1): Alex White’s ‘Transductions’

Monday 29 June 2020

Alex White’s album Transductions came out on Room 40 early this month and I’m still getting over it. As a huge fan of pianos, real or virtual, being pushed beyond the physical dimensions of human playing, this set really spoke to me. It’s more than the simple surreal thrill of the instrument playing something otherwise technically impossible; it’s hearing the piano discovering new means of expression when considered separately from traditional means of performance. Nancarrow’s late player piano studies set a standard which later musicians have used as an insipration and a challenge.

“The confluence of the computer sequencer, the sampler, and Conlon Nancarrow’s work was a stimulus for many composers in the late 80s and early 90s. (Note to postgraduate students no. 2: A thesis exploring the many pieces written for computer controlled piano sounds in this period.)” – so wrote Warren Burt in 2000, reviewing Tristram Cary’s The Impossible Piano. People are still doing it today. While Nancarrow was demonstrating polyrhythms generated by temporal ratios, and Cary was exploring wider compositional concerns, Burt’s own 39 Dissonant Etudes used sequencing software to generate its own rhythmic and melodic material within broad parameters. Both “piano” and “player” operated largely autonomously, producing music outside of any overriding compositional considerations.

White’s Transductions play out in a similar tradition, but with technological advances deliciously subverted. While Burt and Cary had to work with mid-90s soundfonts and personal computers, White gets a real live Disklavier – a computer-controlled piano – and hooks it up to an analogue synthesiser. The synth’s voltage signals are translated into computer-readable MIDI data for the piano to play. Just typing that last sentence was a kick. Essentially, Transductions is a set of eight pieces for analogue electronics, oscillators and feedback, with all of the complexities and instability that implies, played through a piano instead of loudspeakers. It’s glorious. Erratic riffs and burbles emerge as spontaneously erupting chords and arpeggios that may loop, or self-mutilate, or decay within a free-flow of rhapsodising that teeters on the brink of order without ever being pinned down to any fixed structure. That feeling of discovery is an infectious joy: like with Nancarrow, you’re wowed by the theoretical implcations of what you’re hearing but at the same time, as long as you’re listening, you can’t stop smiling.

Takuroku Roundup No. 3

Friday 19 June 2020

The new music from Takuroku just keeps coming. This is London’s Cafe Oto download-only label for a series of pieces recorded by artists around the world waiting out the Covid-19 lockdown. It’s turned into a superb indicator of just how much music is being made out there; a relatively small niche, in this case, has opened up to reveal a wide range of practices and approaches with a common defining trait of inventiveness and curiosity. Toshimaru Nakamura’s Nimb #62 is a shining example of his trademark no-input mixing board method, creating mutating feedback patterns that start out with an almost funky rhythm. Things settle down after a while into a steady wash of off-white noise, with subtle colourations that gradually darken into a low, ominous hum that keeps threatening to break out again into discordant beats.

I’m trying to group things by superficial similarity here, as though I’m exercising some kind of critical skill for comparison. Ken Ikeda’s namaewamad@nai is another electronic work of similar dimensions, taking digital synth sounds and applying heavy dub effects to them. It’s a journey into a crepuscular netherworld, where King Tubby is half-morphed into Terry Riley. Drumlike sounds loop and overlap before dissovling into pulsing abstractions. Ikeda feeds sounds in to his effects box and them leaves them to slowly die away: it seems that much of the time we are listening only to the echoes of a sound that has long since passed. Like an overgrown ruin, it exerts a melancholy fascination, each sound forever beautifully fading away.

It’s got to be hell being a drummer living in self-isolation. There are a few percussion-heavy releases here, but I’ll quickly pass over Ikuro Takahashi’s Friu. A promising opening of descending cymbal rolls turns into a suite of sound-sculpture-like studies of individual percussion instruments, followed by a long exercise with a see-sawing oscillator that just made me glad when it was over. Solo percussion albums are fraught with dangers like these, which makes Valentina Magaletti’s A Queer Anthology of Drums especially welcome. Eight short pieces that deftly combine percussion instruments with electronics (of the analog bleeps and field recording variety), each managing to quickly establish a different mood and, more importantly, a sense of space. The temptation to crowd out the stereo field with pyrotechnics is resisted in favour of a restrained but distinct palette of sounds that draws the listener into each miniature. It’s reminiscent of Will Guthrie’s much-loved People Pleaser album, but cast in a more reflective mood.

I’ve just finished listening to Rie Nakajima’s Karu Kuru so I’ll talk about it now, too. It creates its own space, as well; as it needs to, for Nakajima’s toys and motorised objects to drift to and fro, making sound as they go. It’s a percussion album too, a loose arrangement of vignettes compiled into a single track. The sounds are mostly gentle, with the small contraptions accompanying her gestures giving the performance an almost whimsical air. It could all wander off into being twee, but Nakajima uses the machinery’s inherent indifference and the somewhat abstruse sonic capabilties of her array of objects to keep things focussed. Then there are darker elements, groaning friction sounds. The most intriguing section is at the beginning, where tiny chimes repeat an ascending major scale against a constant clockwork chatter. The incongruous juxtaposition of music and non-music at its most elemental implied something more than an exercise in musical craft was at stake, but this isn’t followed up.

What is the deal with Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s Sinfónía?

Thursday 18 June 2020

There have been so many times when I’ve been tempted to start a posting here with the opening sentence of that old Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait album: “What is this shit?” It’s a positive thing, mostly; an enouraging sign that the artist has made something that both engages and challenges the senses and the mind. The process by which the listener’s bafflement leads to a new form of understanding is fundamental to new art. The catch here is that this understanding may not always be a favourable outcome, for artist, audience, or both. All of this preamble is to say that for the past few weeks I’ve been resisting the temptation to use that quote when trying to say something about Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s Sinfónía.

My knowledge of Gunnarsson’s music was limited to hearing Ilan Volkov lead the Scottish BBC Orchestra in the premiere of his piece Sporgýla on the radio about five years ago. Sinfónía is a large-scale work, in four movements. Despite this formal arrangement, it’s an open composition: the score takes advantage of paperless computer-screen tech by being animated in ways intended to break down the established grid-like divisions of time and melody. Gunnarsson is part of the Icelandic art and music collective S.L.Á.T.U.R., so the concepts of collaborative working and a freer relationship between composer and performer. There’s a lo-fi, DIY element at work here too, so you’re already getting some idea in your head about what the piece might be before listening to it.

Then you put Sinfónía on and, well… it sounds like a bunch of kids blowing on toy recorders and banging crockery. There are assorted strings being twanged, too. You wonder where it will lead, and it leads to more twanging, tootling and banging. The second movement, more of the same; as with the third and fourth. It’s not a complete free-for-all, so you know it’s not a con: the balance between instruments change, the texture spreads out or tightens up, all done with a broad phrasing that indicates a compositional outline at work. (Okay, not an outline, a resultant interaction of compositional influences.) But it’s a damn job distinguishing one moment from the next.

The instruments are divided into three groups of three, played with a delicate conscientiousness by members of Fengjastrútur, another loose collective in downtown Reykjavik. The playing is noticeably restrained throughout and the recording sounds professional, not a cassette artefact. It’s all very dignified, which just raises more questions. Does the seriousness of the playing derive from the effort of musical concentration, or from keeping a poker face? It’s probably not satire: I don’t think the audience is being pranked here, nor is the concept of symphonies, or orchestras, being deflated. It isn’t even necessarily elevating the concept of a “home-made” music to symphonic status, but simply allows that such a status may exist.

The absence of rhetoric, the combination of computer-animated scores with ocarinas and found percussion, has produced a piece of music that a cultured audience literally cannot hear, in that it is almost impossible to strip away the metacultural associations and hear the music as anything other than a commentary on something else. It makes you wonder how often we hear music mediated through abstracted concepts. Listening again to Sporgýla, the relaxed, almost bucolic nature of loosely organised groups in civilised disputation, those floating wind instrument sounds, provided a better understanding of how Gunnarsson composes and that what we hear on Sinfónía is no accident. It may require patience, but not necessarily of the sort needed for forensic analysis of details. My complaint would then be my usual sticking point with arte povera, in that it shares what can seem like an overemphasis on means over ends and, with that, a compulsion for conceptual purity that will diminish the material for its own sake.

Gunnarsson’s Sinfónía has had me thinking a lot. It was worth my time but I still don’t know what to make of it. In the end, it may be fated like Self Portrait to be simultaneously praised and damned with the phrase “a qualified success”.

Unusual suspects: Magnus Granberg and Skogen, Angharad Davies, Klaus Lang, Anton Lukoszevieze

Sunday 14 June 2020

Thanks to the coronavirus snafu I misplaced the last batch of CDs from Another Timbre (will remedy this later) but now I’m happily getting amongst this even newer set from May. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “happily”; the word suggests I settled into this music too easily, when in fact both pieces here quickly clipped me over the ears for taking them for granted. unfurling is a trio improvisation by composer/performers Angharad Davies on violin, Klaus Lang on harmonium and Anton Lukoszevieze on cello. It goes about an hour, it’s got Klaus Lang, it’s on Another Timbre, even the title’s in lower case – we know how this is going to go, right? It starts as softly as you would expect, slow bowing sounds separated out, some harmonics, scraping… but then Lang joins in by shaking the bellows on his harmonium, agitating them into low thumping sounds. No panic; you think that’s OK, it’s just for texture, but all three musicians here are of the gently but firmly provocative inclination. Things escalate, and soon you’re caught up in these dense chords that extend endlessly into sirenlike wails. A nice, comfy hour of quiescent and peaceable improv is ruined. The dissonant chords finally exhaust themselves into voiceless breathing before breaking up into percussive knots of noise. This pattern of alternating between sinister drones and brittle spikes of tortured instruments repeats itself, continuously building momentum into a headlong rush that you hope will burn out before things go too far.

No reassuring certainty from the new piece by Magnus Granberg with the ensemble Skogen, either. Let Pass My Weary Guiltless Ghost promises the usual intricate blending of classical and folk instruments with objects and electronics, but things get off to a tense start. The electronics make their presence clear right from the beginning, set in stark relief against the prepared piano and percussion. Throughout the piece, sounds coexist in an uneasy truce that feels like it could end at any moment. Percussive sounds dominate, leaving the strings and winds to run the gauntlet. Electronics are more abrasive and confrontatial this time (Toshimaru Nakamura has joined thr group here), while never dominating. Instruments such as violin and sho are left to add shading, in ways that highlight the fraught atmosphere more than resolve it. Drums and untuned percussion emerge later – another disturbing addition to Skogen’s sound. By the end of the piece, the situation has insidiously accumulated a sense of urgency; the pace seems to increase slightly – something I haven’t felt in Granberg’s music before – as the music seems anxious to reach a conclusion: rushing, but slowly.

Cobalt Duo: Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm

Saturday 13 June 2020

Lost my internet over a week ago so I’ve been listening to more music but posting about it less. First thing of many I need to catch up on is this CD by pianists Kate Halsall and Fumiko Miyachi. They’ve been working together as Cobalt Duo since 2014 and I’ve managed to miss everything they’ve done until now. Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm is a great selection of pieces by contemporary composers, including Miyachi herself. It’s a neatly contrasting but complementary collection; making the album greater than the sum of its parts, even as each piece has nice little details that reward repeated individual listening.

The real oldie here is Egidija Medekšaitė’s Textile 1, a duet dating all the way back to 2006. A thoroughly beguiling interweaving of rippling piano lines that leads the ear through melodic and harmonic twists and turns without ever breaking its constant, pulsating flow, this piece opens the set and sets the tone for the album. Aspects of it recur in various guises in the subsequent pieces, including a similar, more inflected interplay at the end of Miyachi’s concluding suite. James Black’s Crow is a diptych in which a Cowell-like juxtaposition of dense block chords and strummed strings is followed by sequences of lightly tripping descending arpeggios. The deftness of touch in Cobalt Duo’s playing helps to bring off this heterogenous mix successfully. Their mixture of sureness and lightness shows these steady pulses and runs of notes to their best effect, with a tightly matched unanimity in their playing. These are real strengths in compositions such as these, which shy away from more flamboyant, romantic tendencies.

The music is still eclectic, though. Halsall and Miyachi play a small selection from the sity-two (and counting?) miniatures in Sarah Lianne Lewis’s I have observed the most distant planet to have a triple form, which range from the explosive, to the remote, to the utmost pointillism. Anton Lukoszevieze’s Sutra demands that unanimity of execution in exacting unison playing and singing. The final two pieces are for piano four hands: Michael Wolters’s Gisela Doesn’t Care takes the rippling arpeggios and tremoloes to an extreme, extending a classical cadence beyond all reason. As with the Lukoszevieze, Cobalt Duo play with a directness that can be heard as either high seriousness or sly irony. Miyachi’s own Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange, Charm is a suite of pieces dedicated to each quark. By far the longest piece here, the two central movements dominate despite containing so little stuff. “Top” slows down time with struck notes elongated by e-bowed strings, while “Bottom” brings it to a near-standstill, letting the gaps between sound becomes the foreground.

Lockdown Roundup (2): Nick Ashwood and Laura Altman, Agnes Hvizdalek, Jacken Elswyth

Sunday 31 May 2020

I’ve been busy while sequestered at home, but still listening, including some more new releases from the past few weeks. I’ve heard one record before involving Nick Ashwood, so it’s good to discover something new in his set of duets with Laura Altman. Battery was recorded inside a concrete bunker in a park near Hobart, Tasmania on a Sunday in March last year, with Ashwood playing acoustic guitar and Altman on clarinet with amplified objects. The three pieces here are expansive in scope but concentrated in their artistry: both musicians work together to create wonderfully detailed and mysterious sounds that can be both intimate and remote at the same time. The cheap electronics, prepared instruments and resonant recording space combine to transform the music into strange, ambient soundscapes. The players focus on tonal colouration and by the final track appear to be doing as little as possible to disrupt the space each sound opens up. The sense of place and altered reality is intensified by the presence of external sounds, especially when other people can faintly be heard nearby.

The presence of others in these meditative moments becomes all the more poignant right now. It can also be heard in the latter stages of Agnes Hvizdalek’s Backstage, another release from Cafe Oto’s Covid-related Takuroku downloads label. Going by the release notes, Backstage appears to be a work for solo voice. Now knowing anything about Hvizdalek before now, my usual approach to experimental vocal music is to brace myself in fear of the worst. I was completely wrong-footed here and blown away by the experience. Hvizdalek’s piece is as much about silence as sound, a wordless reflection on isolation that hovers uneasily between darkness and light. Soft, disarming bursts of electronic-sounding clicks coexists with a refrigerant hum that drones in and out through the piece. Where Ashwood and Altman used their music to create a space that opens out to the world, Hvizdalek maps out a space that moves ever inward. Her voice articulates both a resistance to and an uneasy accommodation with pervasive ambient noise and the world outside the self.

As something completely different, Jacken Elswyth’s Six Static Scenes would appear to be a set of direct musical statements. A set of song-length solos for banjo: what could be simpler? The appearances are deceptive. First of all, there are seven tracks, with one ‘scene’ broken into two contrasting parts. No obvious trickery here, with clear references to celebrated folk musicians and a consistent approach to traditional clawhammer technique. And yet… Scene 2, “after Dock Boggs” has an almost obsessive focus on a couple of triads – a very static scene – and gains a resonant halo of overtones from a wheezy-sounding shruti box. The following scene gains a drone in the form of a single tone held softly on a squeezebox. By this time, if you’re thinking Elswyth has made some sort of postmodern abstraction of Appalachiana, her picking becomes more elusive and fragmentary in that two-part fourth scene, setting her banjo in a mixture of drones that swirl together with a sinister calmness. The final scene gently extends a farewell cadence to five minutes, with a tenacity too subtle for the intellect.