Evan Johnson: lists, little stars

Sunday 28 November 2021

Evan Johnson’s music is hard to hear. Does everyone say that about him? While other composers may reward your closer attention, Johnson just seems to compound your uncertainty. Are you sure of what you’ve heard? When it’s over, you remember the experience of listening, but the image created in your mind is defined by its obscurity. The music’s reticence is compounded when the medium is an instrument identified with the personal and intimate forms of expression, as in Ben Smith’s collection of Johnson’s piano pieces lists, little stars issued by All That Dust.

The prevailing mood across these pieces is one of extreme introversion, where even the titles seem to be deployed to deter further inquiry (the brief mon petit pleurant is succeeded by the cycle mes pleurants, two works use ‘dehiscences’ in their titles). The 2010 piece hwil is about thirty seconds of almost inaudible deliberation at, if not on, the keyboard. There is a proliferation of precise actions in each score, somewhat in the manner of Kurtág, but the aim is not on clarity of intricate details. Johnson’s music may be faint but it is not frail; at times it is almost crude in protesting its reticence. The greater part of the two pieces in Dehiscences, Lullay (“Thou nost whider it whil turne”) is smothered in a blanket of white noise, cutting out suddenly as though to catch the listener in the act of eavesdropping. The rare loud notes at the start of mes pleurants‘ “Se Zephirus” have a similar effect.

When the piano is heard, its statements are deliberately half-formed, unresolved, with even the more expressive flourishes smudged by claustrophobic pitch spaces. You hear the thought process itself, in all its agonising uncertainty, without the cleaned-up end product. The two earlier works heard here attempt to make their sonic content inconsequential, while the later pieces make strategic use of the relative presence or absence of musical substance. The largest work here, 2013’s “atendant [sic], souffrir”, lists, little stars, is a duet in which the fuller sound is balanced by more delicate playing, more a displacement than a dialogue. Despite, or perhaps because of its greater length, it’s an easier piece to follow; but this may also be due to acclimatisation through the opening tracks on the album.

The sound quality is particularly good, given the extreme dynamic range needed to catch a reasonable impression of the piano in performance. Ben Smith would appear to play with all the exactness and greater musical consideration needed to bring these pieces into tentative life, with a talent for letting each sound fade and die in their own way. As a further vote of confidence, he is joined by Ian Pace for the title duet.

Mattin Licking Ears

Monday 22 November 2021

Listen: Mattin is doing something to his audience, individually and collectively. What that something might be is not immediately clear, but after a while you start to get an idea.

“The room was completely dark. I entered the space and started to engage with each member of the audience individually asking questions quietly into their ear and then I performed an even more intimate gesture and then I asked for reflections afterwards. The rest of the audience could only hear whispering and laughing without really knowing what was going on.”

A music concert is at once an social activity and an intimately personal experience. Mattin’s piece, performed in a small venue in Berlin back in 2015, exposed the paradoxes of that uneasy duality. Each action performed here worked directly and indirectly, building a relationship of shared trust and consent while exercising the tensions of uncertainty, anticipation and apprehension: a kind of direct-action Luc Ferrari composition on achieving intimacy.

The recording of Licking Ears released last month (non-copyright but there are CD-Rs) is itself almost nothing, as it teases its way into the listener’s consciousness. With attention and accustomisation over time, as for the audience members in the room, the nature of the piece gradually makes itself known, but each participant yet withholds a little of the experience from the others. For us, listening to it now, the voyeuristic aspect of public performance predominates here. To listen, we must make ourselves complicit, or become empathetic, or else distance ourselves from the entire exercise. It’s another one of the ways that Mattin keeps testing us on the differences between what we hear and what we understand.

Sam Salem’s London Triptych

Friday 19 November 2021

Given that composing, playing and listening to a piece of music are distinct and unrelated acts (per Cage), then what can one hear in Sam Salem’s London Triptych? The three electroacoustic pieces, made in close collaboration with the Distractfold Ensemble from 2015 to 2017, draw their inspirations each from William Blake, Austin Osman Spare and Nicholas Hawksmoor. As might be expected from such a roll-call, the work feeds upon an occult reading of London that has seemed to accumulate steadily over the last few decades, paradoxically as the city becomes ever more global: inevitably, the spectre of Iain Sinclair is invoked. As with Sinclair’s work, you have to believe that the shaping forces behind the work really are there for the resulting form to take on any significance outside of itself. For the rest of us, the energies unleashed in Sinclair’s writing or Salem’s music are patterned in complex (but not intricate) ways that are left for us to decipher.

Salem’s pieces require the performers in groups of two or three to play a variety of amplified objects and electroacoustic constructions combined with electronics and tape (a video element is also present in live performance). It’s a sonic phantasmagoria of sounds both indefinable and hyperreal, with Distractfold adeptly handling each device with the ingrained knowhow of a keyboard or violin. The third part, The Great Inundation, was given a live broadcast a few years ago; in this later recording the sound is fuller and presented more confidently, showing both revisions and additional elements and Distractfold’s greater absorption of Salem’s esoteric language. It pays to play this loud, as colour and texture take up the forefront of the piece’s interest, considering the opaque structure and absence of clear details. With each piece, a more recognisable element emerges from time to time, with cello added to the mix in the last section and voice in the latter two. The voice is high and clear, repeating two or three notes, at odds with the bristling surroundings: a still point in the turbulent landscape which may be mistaken for a guide.

Karlheinz Essl: Gold.Berg.Werk

Monday 15 November 2021

It’s a mug’s game, really, messing with the classics. No matter what your intentions are, you will probably come across as a wannabe iconoclast or a toady. The need for your work to become a statement in itself is thrown into the shadow of a much more respected work. You choose to make your own work incapable of standing on its own merits, without it also needing to change the audience’s perception of a venerable classic. To succeed, your own work must walk a knife-edge between disrespectful and too respectful.

Karlheinz Essl’s Gold.Berg.Werk takes a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and inserts live electronic interludes. It has existed in several forms over the years, originating from his collaboration with a string trio playing an arrangement of the Bach. Essl describes his interventions as a confrontation and a liberation. This new version returns the work to keyboard, played by Xenia Pestova Bennett on piano, with Ed Bennett producing the live electronic spatialisation: a transducer has been placed inside the piano, so that the instrument’s acoustic resonances enhance the electronic sound while it is projected around the performance space. I missed the live performance last month and so was not able to hear how the electronics change from one rendition to the next, which may have helped my understanding of what is happening here.

Pestova Bennett plays a selection of twenty variations here, in groups of five bookended by the electronic interludes. The big problem here is that Essl’s interventions are occasional and ephemeral, such that for all their technical artistry, they are soon forgotten again once the Goldbergs resume. An addition of this type can be very effective in other media, such as architecture, where the presence of old and new persist in coexistence, but in this temporal scheme Essl sounds like he is politely interjecting from time to time to voice agreement with what has been said before modestly withdrawing again. It appears that Gold.Berg.Werk is to be considered as a work in toto, in which case the two composers’ elements share a very unequal partnership. Essl had marked out a particular selection of variations for his work, based on the intial string trio arrangement, and elements of the string playing modelled in the electronics persist here. In Pestova Bennett’s performance, she alternates between the canons and character variations, where Essl grouped them together.

It is perhaps best to hear this recording as Pestova Bennett’s take on Bach’s Goldbergs, even more than Essl’s. She seizes this opportunity to take on the work’s daunting reputation by interpreting it afresh, “as a living and evolving organism”. In this incarnation she presents a nicely variegated set of variations, with lively contrasts in texture and expression from one to the next, emphasising Bach’s range of voices and manners, using the electronic sections to present the whole as a vast patchwork rather than a continuum. Ed Bennett’s work on spatialising the sound to open it up even more is best heard in the binaural recording, which is also available as a download.

Small but important differences: Christopher Otto’s ‘rag′sma’

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Does this sound funny to you? I think I’ve heard enough music tuned in just intonation lately to stop it sounding immediately ‘weird’, so that the strangeness to be found in Christopher Otto’s multiple string quartet rag′sma is in the complex beauty that arises from a few pure, simple harmonies. The conventional tuning on your keyboard or sequencer is fudged, to tidy away loose ends when moving from one key to another. Intervals made of pure ratios sound clearer and sweeter, but when you start stacking them up on top of each other they drift, slightly but always further and further from the original tone. Otto makes this tiny paradoxical discrepancy the driving force of his new composition.

In rag′sma, two pre-recorded string quartets start from the same place and slowly weave back and forth on these simple harmonies, with each step building from the previous note instead of from a common reference tone. One quartet inexorably rises while the other falls, albeit at a rate too small for the ear to distinguish. After about a minute, multiplication of these simple numbers means that each quartet has deviated in pitch by one ragisma, which works out to about one two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a semitone (or one-fifth of a schisma, if that helps). Can you hear a difference that small? By itself, no; in context with other pitches, yes, in mysterious ways.

What would otherwise be the same harmony can shade from sour to sweet, clear to cloudy, all on these small inflections of intonation. Here, the differences are subtle enough that the more common acoustic interference phenomena of beating and overtones are not prominent. The piece is a constant, radiant source of exotic colourations in harmony and timbre, with strings taking on a buzzing quality before resolving into a singing tone, minor key shadings on warped major triads, pitches that seem to arise from nowhere. The spiral-like movements around the tuning chart (suggested in the cover art) reflect the structure and effect of the piece: too slow and steady to make you dizzy, but a process of constant change that never lets you pin down exactly where you are until the ride is over.

This album contains two versions of rag′sma, the two-quartet recording described above and an alternate version where a third quartet plays live over the other two. The live quartet plays harmonic tropes, fading in and out with chords that augment and transition between each turn in the spiral. While denser in texture and harmony, the third quartet’s higher register brightens the overall sound and gives more extroverted colouration to the piece. The album sequences this version first, preparing the ear to appreciate the relatively more sombre two-quartet version. Oddly enough, it’s hard to immediately reconcile that the second track is made from the same basic foundation as the first, such is the effect that a small increment in tuning can have on the whole.

I didn’t see anything in the sleeve notes if someone worked out how many different pitches are played in this piece (I’m remembering how Ben Johnston’s 7th String Quartet took a simple process that branched out into 1027 tones), or if the constant shifting rendered the exercise moot. If you’re wondering how on earth a string quartet could play this stuff, it’s to do with Otto being first violinist and co-founder of the JACK Quartet. This appears to be his first major composition recording, after having nurtured an interest in alternative tunings since being a student. There’s no mention here of what, if any, technical support was needed by the quartet to get the right intonation and synchronisation between the three recordings. Having heard them play Rădulescu’s Fifth at Wigmore Hall some years back like it wasn’t a big deal, it could well be that this perfomance is another outcome of years working together on projects like this and other spectralist works made from harmonic overtones. Their playing here maintains a baroque serenity, somewhere between a consort of viols and a glass armonica. I presume it would be a challenge for others to attempt it.

Each mix has been spatialised in its own way. It’s getting released on vinyl and as download, not sure if a binaural or multichannel digital file will be made available.

All That Dust 2021: Angharad Davies, Aldo Clementi

Sunday 31 October 2021

The fourth annual batch of releases from All That Dust is here, which always brightens up things a little at the time of year when the nights draw in. As usual, some new things and a fresh look at something older. There’s a collection of piano pieces by Evan Johnson which I want to get into later, but the other new piece is violinist/composer Angharad Davies’ extended solo work gwneud a gwneud eto / do and do again. It’s an intense work of small but telling details, despite its large scale, that makes some demands of the listener and much greater ones of the musician. Davies performs a disciplined action, repeated oscillated bowing on a prepared violin (nailfile in the strings), maintaining as consistent a sound as possible while searching out detailed overtones and complex timbres from the interaction of bow, strings, file and resonance. The sounds vary from mechanical to electronically treated even as they are all produced from Davies’s bowing; played loud and listened to with attention makes it all sound the more unreal. At times, even a type of counterpoint is produced. The profile changes over time as the speed and position of the bow is shifted, while also patiently eking out new sounds through persistence in one place. This determined search for difference borne out of repeated activity, combining force with lightness, recalls both the bloodymindedness of Tony Conrad’s early pieces and also James Tenney’s “very soft, very long, very white” percussion work. Twenty-six minutes into the piece and still only halfway through, that bloodymindedness starts to take effect on the listener as the piece, of necessity with any natural process, starts to change and the continuing presence of the music warns you that this is more than a simple excercise in timbre. The title takes two meanings, as Davies’s disciplined action repeated throughout the piece is heard performed twice simultaneously. The first unedited take was supplemented by a second played while listening to the first, reinforcing and elaborating on what was played before. As a question for the listener, it’s interesting to reflect at any given moment just how many violinists are envisaged: one, two, or none.

There are not nearly enough recordings of Aldo Clementi’s music in circulation, so All That Dust’s release of Canoni circolari should be embraced. This is one of their download-only albums, recorded in binaural stereo to best capture spatialisation. A selection of four pieces in Clementi’s signature style, with groups of similar instruments playing canons that unfold into a labyrinth of intertwining, self-similar parts, the sequencing here works as a suite despite being composed between 1979 and 2006. In Ouverture Kathryn Williams overdubs flutes, piccolos and alto flutes that rise and fall in different tempi, her playing unnervingly limpid and calm as the patterns overlap to form a sonic hall of mirrors. Clementi inverts and reverses his short melodic lines, keeping them simple but never easy to pin down, using scales that maintain an ambiguous harmony when heard simultaneously. The movement is dreamlike rather than clockwork, even in L’Orologio di Arcevia for percussion, played here by Joe Richards with Mark Knoop adding the celeste and piano parts. Despite Clementi’s note that the piece is “an instrumental realisation of a clock heard in a belfry”, the mix of tuned and semi-tuned percussion (bells, chimes and a gong never quite fitting in with vibraphone and piano) unwinds into drowsiness even as the musicians articulate each melodic fragment with precision. The high metallic sounds expire halfway through for a low gong that signals darker-toned instruments; a sonnet-like ‘turn’ that reappears in his supposedly static pieces. Mira Benjamin plays the eight violins in the later work Melanconia, distant and reedy, slightly sour. The turn comes again as the violins quickly exhaust themselves, then regroup but slower and fainter, with greater pauses. You begin to notice that you don’t hear repeats in Clementi, but echoes. All four musicians combine for the final work, the late Canone circolare, whose greater timbral breadth is offset by the piece’s brevity. Here, the piece becomes an enigmatic coda and not the summation that you might have expected. It’s a delicate work which places the emphasis on material over process, even as its construction makes it softly fold in upon itself, perversely making it all the harder to grasp before it slips away. This is a short album, but any extra material would be superfluous to its ideal conception and execution.

Rocktober! (Part 2): Bill Nace, Ferran Fages et al., Dimuzio / Wobbly / Courtis

Monday 25 October 2021

Closing out the month of electric guitars, of sorts, with a couple of reissues and two new items. I’m not sure how I got this first one as it got downloaded to my hard drive without any identifying marks in its folder, so I ended up listening to it blind like some oldtimer in a back issue of The Wire. Two electric guitar noise solos about 12 minutes each, but clearly superior to the standard random scuzz-fest. It’s probably lo-fi but the colouration varies enough to make me suspect that there’s intentional deployment of heavy mid-range in places for effect. Even amongst the outbursts of furiously articulated noise there are moments of stasis which are relatively prolonged, given the small scale of the recordings, which underline the the musician’s keen ear for tone, a kind of Lärmfarbenmelodie. It really shows who’s in control when the guitarist can summon up some truly thunderous sounds out of a nasty buzzing and then resolve it all neatly with an abrasive filigree. It’s only after playing it twice I googled the filename and found it’s a reissue of Bill Nace’s Solo Guitar 2 / One Note cassette from 2008, now on vinyl, possibly just as limited edition, I dunno.

The other reissue is one of two Ferran Fages compilations. Both are gentler, with a heavier emphasis on the atmospherics, than his two recent solo releases. For John Ayrton Paris was originally released under the name Taumatrop, his duet with percussionist Eduard Márquez. Recorded one day in 2013, the 25-minute piece pairs percussion with Fages’ electronic drones which had started out on guitar but on this occasion approach pure sine tones, combining in different registers to form harmony, timbre and percussive air. Low cymbals and tam-tam sounds augment the soft bass drone, with struck and electric sounds played like a slow, solemn guitar solo.

Cuhda is a duet of similar dimensions, assembled over a longer period of time and finished this year. The duet LLUMM has Fages back on electric guitar, with Alfredo Costa Monteiro on “resonant objects” and electronics. It’s described as “an electromagnetic environment”, which seems appropriate as plucked percussive objects are amped and reverbed against guitar drone. Struck and bowed objects produce sounds which merge with distorted guitar, each pitch distempered by upper partials that preclude clear harmony, with one or two startling exceptions. While it’s as portentous as For John Ayrton Paris, Cuhda shows a greater presence of the musician’s hand in performance, with sounds more clearly sourced in human activity. Where the earlier work presents sounds without complication, Cuhda disturbs the surface by introducing pauses, changes of mind and a fallibility in how each sound is made. It’s particularly unusual how this feeling-out process is preserved in what is the more deliberately constructed piece.

The other new release is Dimuzio / Wobbly / Courtis’s Redwoods Interpretive, which I think comes out this week. It’s a jam-packed little LP which throws together Alan Courtis‘ electric guitar with Thomas Dimuzio’s synths and samplers and Jon Leidecker’s digital doohickeys, all soaked in electronic weirdness. It opens with a succinct burst of abused amplifier fuckery that gets played out into a psychedelic vignette. This punk/prog crossover sets the queasy tone for the rest of the album, a phantasmagoria of electronic genres which morph and bleed from one cultural reference into another. The prevailing mood is that of one of the more outlying examples of 1970s German soundtrack album, but that in itself is a reflection of its eclecticism and otherworldliness. Guitar, modular synth and MIDI controlled devices ping-pong sounds back and forth over distorted loops of electronic chatter. Another three tracks each carve out a strange imaginary landscape, before the side-long ‘Old Man of the North’ blurs them all together. Starting out sounding like a desultory duet of detuned Fender Rhodes and shortwave, things steadily pick up until treated sounds are happily echoed and flanged in the best UFO epic style and then get whipped up into a densely analog-sounding morass before curdling into sour drones, finally resolving into something recalling a… church organ? It doesn’t make sense when you hear it either, which is the fun of it. Each listen so far has revealed new details, like a good trip should.

Rocktober! (Part 1): Mamer, Julia Reidy

Wednesday 20 October 2021

It must be the time of year because I’ve been getting a lot of stuff involving electric guitars and suchlike lately. The Takuroku download project is entering its final stage and they’ve been releasing a lot of interesting albums of music more or less derived from pop, which I won’t talk about much mostly because I fear being exposed to ridicule as a clueless old fart. The various détournements of songforms heard there range from intriguing to charming to perplexing, but I’m going to stick to something safe and review a set of solo guitar improvisations (“Oh boy, another one!”). Mamer’s set of fifteen short tracks Freeze Wizard is a bit better than the usual stuff inasmuch as it has the self-control to stay in one place, even as he plays around. The hype-sheet would like you to think that he ‘explodes’ stuff but the strength comes from each segment complementing the last, building up an identifiable but increasingly complex tone throughout the album. Digital effects are used to create and eerie, hyperreal aura to the instrument, with harmonics or faint loops droning over the strings or pitch-shifting to create the impression of a faulty tape deck. The last four tracks feel out of place with a sudden recourse to hyperactive scrabbling which breaks the mood, but by the end this busyness has been sublimated enough to work as a sort of coda.

Speaking of sublimation, Julia Reidy’s latest release How to spot a rip features four electric guitars playing simultaneously while unplugged. I’m assuming e-bows are used to create the uninterruped tones that sustain throughout the piece’s sixteen minutes. I’ve mentioned Reidy only in passing before, noting how she’s taken steel-string acoustic playing techniques and applied them to larger structures, transcending the boundaries of the instrument’s idiom through duration and through electronic manipulation. That transcendence becomes pure here, in tone and structure. The guitars’ clear drones are tuned to pitches in a 13-limit scale (conventional Western tuning is based on ratios using prime numbers no bigger than 5, so the addition of 7, 11 and 13 to the mix pushes consonance outside of our usual experience) and move further apart from each other during the piece, with attendant overtones and beating frequencies as each of the guitars’ trajectories intersect. Reidy retunes the guitars during the piece and notices how the harmonic space can suddenly ‘break’ while the pitches slowly change. This effect is augmented by the otherwise imperceptible complications of acoustic vibrations, even with the thin timbre of an oscillating steel string. The tension in the piece is underscored at times by the characteristic sound of a string slipping on a tuning peg, reminding you of just what you’re hearing. A remarkable piece for both guitar and tuning nuts, especially for people who need more James Tenney in their music.

Guy Vandromme plays Bruno Duplant’s ‘l’infini des possibles’

Sunday 17 October 2021

I’m glad that this thing is two hours long as it gave me the chance to come around to it without having to start over. Bruno Duplant’s l’infini des possibles is a set of twelve piano études written in a style that seems baldly simplistic and devoid of inspiration. The score is made of sequences of letters naming notes, all white keys, with stops and spacing to suggest phrases and occasional indeterminate embellishments hinted at through use of accents, apostrophes and uppercase. The pianist Guy Vandromme’s masterful realisation of the score starts out sounding pretty much exactly like that. As you might expect, sounds are isolated as single notes and played with equanimity that suggests overreliance on fashionable reverence for the material’s purity.

It’s a pleasure to hear this initial state change with each successive étude. The accompanying notes tell us that Vandromme “intensely studied these 12 pieces via in-depth discussions with Duplant over two years” and the musical results bear this out with a set of throroughly developed and deeply considered piano pieces, both in the characteristics of each étude and in the overall form of the complete set. The idea of the étude asserts itself as Vandromme takes the unprepossessing score and turns Duplant’s implied markings into various examinations of harmony, texture, articulation and register, starting from the simple and tending towards the complex. The initial arbitrariness implicit in the strings of note-names become a strength as Vandromme exploits the white-note vagaries to form each étude into a new shape and patterning of sonorities. It appears to be an ideal partnership between composer and performer.

Live Music: David Dunn and Jackson Mac Low at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 13 October 2021

A double bill of American Buddhists, my god. At least if there’s any religious knowledge to be picked up here, it’s taught by example (as with Cage, the didactic element is present in parable). Back at Cafe Oto, the first gig in over 18 months with something like normal capacity and an audience all getting in surprisingly early to grab all the seats. This was the fourth gig I’ve been to this year and the third to feature the string quartet incarnation of Apartment House. I’d complain we were getting in a rut but not when they were presenting an hour-long work for string quartet and tape by David Dunn. Dunn is one of those names I’ve heard for years as part of the general millieu of the looser end of American experimental music and I’ve only just realised that I have never heard a note of music by the guy until now. Safe to assume he doesn’t get played enough: ‘The Great Liberation Through Hearing’ was composed in 1995 and received its premiere this weekend. For 25 years the piece has laid on the page as an acoustic experience to be imagined but never heard.

The quartet plays notes based on just-intonation harmonic overtones on a drone provided by a recording of Dunn’s voice, chanting slowed down until each word is stretched over several minutes. (The recording heard was a new software-enabled rendition, the original tape having been misplaced.) There’s a slow articulation of phonemes before each long, trailing drone of bass voice enmeshed with overlapping sibilants and fricatives. The cello plays in the low registers to augment the pitched sound while violins weave harmonics between the waves of hiss. Each prolonged moment takes on its own character. As a concept, it’s straightforward, using simple, strong materials imbued with natural acoustic qualities that work together in ways that continually create interest. Even at this most reductive level, away from any meditative or transcendental considerations, the piece succeeds and Apartment House have filled in another small gap in the post-war avant-garde.

The concert opened with Jackson Mac Low’s The Text on the Opposite Page from 1965. Mac Low’s reputation as a poet sadly confines too many of his pieces to the page when they are expressly meant to be performed, so this was a rare opportunity to hear his verbal abstractions. Apartment House were joined by Elaine Mitchener, who turned the atomised text into a sonic action painting of phonemes and punctuation matched by the strings’ instrumental gestures. Mitchener’s voice is ideally agile for such a mercurial score, supple enough to stretch and bend around each sound and then snap into focus at just the right places, with a presence that is always expressive without tempting the conventional avant-garde vocal attitudes of becoming grotesque or arch.

New Elsewhere: Michael Pisaro-Liu, Jordan Dykstra and Koen Nutters

Sunday 10 October 2021

Michael Pisaro-Liu (fka Michael Pisaro) walks an eccentric path between conceptual process (cf. ricefall) and free-flowing wanderings that follow a concealed narrative. In Tombstones, this approach is atomised: a collection of twenty “experimental-pop” songs, each made from the slenderest of means. Each song may be concise or extended, to extremes if desired, and arrangements are left open. For this album, the ensemble Muzzix under the direction of pianist Barbara Dang perform eleven songs, the same selection recorded by a different ensemble some nine years ago which I haven’t heard and so can’t compare.

The titles, and thus lyrics, derive from popular songs, but any vagaries or digressions are constrained by the miniaturist approach to each composition. In each song the singer, usually Maryline Pruvost, rarely exceeds a couple of words, a couple of notes. The initial impression recalls Jürg Frey’s 24 Wörter. As often with Pisaro-Liu, his musical language is too inconsistent to induce a ‘minimal’ state of quiescence in the listener’s mind, leaving the song sequence’s success to depend upon the gemlike settings of the instrumentation. This is evidently left largely in the hands of Dang and Muzzix, who alter texture and colouration in fresh and unexpected ways, with an approach that is gentle but firm when making such potentially isolated and disparate elements cohere, yet also prolonging moments of chamber music from the same material. Ultimately, the album as a whole is required by its concentration on single words and sounds to balance between the hieratic artifice of its construction and the expressive substance of its contents, leaving to the mercy of the listener’s mindset whether it aspires to profundity or to preciousness.

I’m sure I’ve never heard of Jordan Dykstra or Koen Nutters before. Their new Elsewhere release is a joint composition by the two composer/performers. This is usually grounds to be wary of an insider’s muso-fest but thanks to recent efforts by groups like Eventless Plot I’m not more hopeful. That hope is rewarded here. In Better Shape Than You Found Me is precisely one hour of music that ebbs and flows as though excerpted at random from a constant, natural process. Like nature, the only readily discernable structure or pattern is what may be observed, an impersonal, consequential logic that creates its own context and meaning as it goes on. A spare duo for piano and pitch pipes or viola is backed by soft drones and noises which drift in and out of focus, eliding between pure sound and documentary. Like Luc Ferrari under heavy sedation. An ascending scale interrupts, from time to time. Perhaps events are grouped into subtly distinguished episodes, or perhaps there are merely pauses. More likely, sometimes there is simply silence that emerges to the fore. A sense of place is created, but one where the mood or the tone never settles and so makes place into a lifelike thing.

Electronic survey, not yet weary

Thursday 30 September 2021

Electronic music tends to polarise even the individual listener, where the extremes of appreciation and disdain map out like an inverted bell curve. For each piece that realises the potential for new, exciting and unheard sounds and forms, there is at least one that utterly fails to reward your attention. (I blame the formative French tradition of exquisitely crafted snorefests – a fetish of technique and finish.) I’ve got a stack of recent releases of electronic music here which I’ve been meaning to deal with so I’m going to run through them quick, with this jaded attitude in mind.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and once you’ve dabbled with electronics a bit yourself you get surprised by how much music starts to resemble your own preliminary doodlings. That’s not to say that just anyone can fool around with software and be as good as, to pick a name at random, Dumitrescu, but that a lot of it lives or dies upon the question of what to keep and what to discard. Taku Unami’s Takuroku album Stardust is “100% computer programmed music” and it’s fairly pretty but I think you could be just as pleased by downloading a copy of Coagula. Madalyn Merkey’s Crushed Shells, on the other hand, is gentle and playful, while using the fashionable analog Eurorack modules and a Waldorf Blofeld with a capriciousness that never sounds stiff or heavy-handed. Both kind of slip back and forth between being less or more than they seem, with Merkey’s set of pieces having greater resilience.

The synthesiser duo of Richard Stenton and Zach Dawson have put out their debut release 7balcony. It sounds like a lot of effort went into making something both conceptually grating and sonically ingratiating. As such, it falls between two stools and is excessively dependent on the goodwill of the listener. This could go over better with a live audience, where all the activity seems to mean something, especially if the venue is licenced. The last track ‘microphones hanging from tall buildings’ is apparently just that and is the most confident piece here.

Another debut duo is Alex Christie and Ryan Ross Smith’s acres, which carries the sensation of improvised electronic music, both in its strengths and weaknesses. Nice crunchy electronic noises kick in and out with a pleasing arbitrariness but occasionally things come to an impasse and it sounds like the musos are struggling to make the music do something, in the hope that things will stay tastefully harsh. Unlike the two preceding albums, Paul Abbott’s Deorlaf Z (version) for XT Deorlaf X Live sounds like an artistic struggle without pulled punches. An extended live reworking of prerecorded materials using electronic (and real) percussion, excitement builds, then ebbs away only to resurge later, with the longeurs becoming excusable as a necessary part of a larger process. The live situation and the attendant materials of popular music form the substance of this piece, as opposed to simply clothing it.

Simon Balestrazzi (electronics) and Paolo Sanna (percussion) have put out a set of Disrupted Songs made from sonic found objects. They are exercises in serious play, making or taking nicely-defined sounds that would suit an earnest lower-case improv session, but then they repeatedly interrupt each other, creating a more complex structure of continuity and discontinuity. Each piece takes unexpected turns without ever descending into a free-for-all, placing the unfocused into sharp relief.

Finally, I have to mention John Chantler’s Eli Licking Ice, a glorious 25-minute slab of synthesisers spun through mobile speakers in resonant space. It drops us in media res with a wonderfully clear but chaotic mix of electronic sounds that are truly diverse and discrete. At first it seems as though things are about to go out of control but events settle into a wayward flow of their own course. As the piece continues the sound opens up and you hear acoustic events within the room, particularly a snare drum that buzzes along in sympathy. Even as sounds loop and swoop or swing from side to side, both sweet and cutting, or both at once, everything seeks out a harmonious balance, although perhaps in ways that are not readily obvious. Also, it’s a welcome addition to Takuroku’s guest dog series.

Following up Adrián Demoč: Hlaholika and Dotyky. Za zrkadlom

Monday 20 September 2021

What do you do for a follow-up? It seems like Adrián Demoč’s Žiadba was a bit of a sleeper hit last year for Another Timbre: kind of haunting but kind of beguiling all at once. A second album was released earlier this year, another set of chamber pieces titled Hlaholika. Mostly recent pieces, they’re harder to get a handle on, even as their means of construction seems simpler. Ma fin est mon commencement is a trio for clarinet, viola and piano in which Heather Roche, Reiad Chibah and Mark Knoop play a slow, tentative melody in unison: viola high, clarinet low, piano a single, reiterated note in between, harmonised by the other two instruments. All three blend into a gonglike sound that plaintively circles around a static point. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection, with ensembles moving as a single voice, the brightness and interplay heard in Žiadba now subdued. The final piece, a duet for violin and double bass played by Mira Benjamin and James Opstad, falls into two sections. In the first, both play soft, slow harmonics together; in the second, the same but slower and too soft to sound fully. The musicians here are Apartment House alumni, who give these faint gestures full significance. (The one exception, the earlier Lešenie k zahĺbeniu, is played by students of the Janáček Academy of Music in Brno. It’s a larger ensemble work consisting of hazily repeated cluster chords.) Even after multiple hearings, I still haven’t mentally pinned this music down. It can seem so slight that it feels like that frailty is meant to reify either the sound or the silence, but nothing about it comes across as didactic, or even as Cagean parable.

It gets a bit clearer in the context of hearing Dotyky. Za zrkadlom, Demoč’s hour-long piece for solo violin composed last year for Milan Pala. It seems like an intimidating prospect for the listener, as an idea but less so in practice. Pala feels out two alternating notes, one high, the other harmonic. The notes move, but inadvertently, as though the musician is finding a particular resonance in the instrument, testing out its effects little by little. Having listened to that box set of Cage’s number pieces I start thinking about how much we understand of Cage through Morton Feldman, how the latter composer holds so much sway today over what we understand by the imperative to “let the sounds be themselves”. Demoč makes an instrumental gesture the subject, heard as itself without being employed towards a more abstract compositional programme. There is context, but only in terms of the sounds’ means of existence. It may well be a single sound, played and heard in multiple perspectives. Sounding intuitive, free of external processes or pressures to change, Pala makes the piece as much his own work as Demoč’s.

The Return of Music We’d Like To Hear: Ives, Couper, Haas, Barlow, Fargion

Tuesday 7 September 2021

There’s an alien character common to all quarter-tone piano music: the claustrophobially close intervals spelled out in clear tones once so familiar to the ear can’t help but call up the air of other planets. The big personal discovery on this night was Mildred Couper, whose ballet music Xanadu was composed in 1930 for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. It’s a thrilling piece of flashing exotica and wide-eyed wonder, appropriate to the setting and the times (the piece was composed for the first production of Eugene O’Neill’s satire Marco Millions and apparently not used again). It has a bright, burlesque beauty to it, with any traces of tongue-in-cheek Chinoiserie validated by contemporary American modernism, effectively deploying steady pulses and stacked intervals that rose and fell giddily. It was the first of many microtonal pieces Couper composed and it made me feel sorry that I hadn’t known of her before this night.

The night was part of the year’s second series of Music We’d Like To Hear concerts at St Mary-at-Hill. Still working its way back from Covid, seating was reduced for these events and I’d stupidly left it too late to book for the July concerts. Friday was dedicated to piano music in quarter-tones, ably performed by Mark Knoop and Siwan Rhys on electronic sampler keyboards tuned a quarter-step apart. Thankfully, samplers these days are mostly adequate so as not to be a distraction, despite some harshness and incongruous sound location from the PA. As the concert series title reminds us, the important was that we can hear Couper and other composers played live and played well, despite current circumstances. The concert began with the obligatory Three Quarter-Tone Pieces by Ives, which on this hearing starting to make an impression on me for its compositional qualities over the pure sonic novelty which usually dominates. The free-associating patchwork of allusions to different musical styles came over well here, enough to make me wonder how securely each piece is held together.

Where Ives, like Hába, used quarter-tones as an extension of harmonic language, Couper’s Xanadu treats the microtonal scale as something new. Georg Friedrich Haas’s early set of three Hommages for quarter-tone pianos treat the base material of the scale as the subject. In each, a sole pianist is required to play both instruments at once, one hand each. The second piece was played here: in Hommage à Josef Matthias Hauer Knoop produced a continuum of arpeggiated clusters, ascending rapidly in constant repeated motion while rising in pitch only incrementally, producing a slowly varied cloud of overtones. Start and end points appeared to be arbitrary, the whole reminiscent of Ligeti’s then-uncomposed Coloana fără sfârșit, Ligeti having been the dedicatee of the previous Haas Hommage.

In the second half the lights were extinguished, but not for Haas, as Knoop and Rhys tackled Clarence Barlow’s daunting Çoğluotobüsişletmesi. This half-hour piece from the later 1970s used computer programming to calculate and distribute its arrayed masses of points, lines, layerings and trajectories across the piano keyboard. Barlow has postulated it as a work for solo pianist but performance typically employs four pianos to share out the layers. Two parts were pre-recorded here and played back, with Knoop on real piano and Rhys on sampler keyboard: four of the pitches in the scale are lowered by a quarter-tone. Even in this more practical form, each pianist was required to perform extreme leaps of register back and forth while reeling off unwieldy strings of single notes or involuted rotations around a clustered gamut of pitches. The voices enter one by one, at first sounding angular and ungainly but steadily acquiring a monumental presence. One or more striking details leap out for the ear at any given moment, suggesting other fleeting movements simultaneously passing beyond one’s attention. The retuned notes alert one to changes in material and pitch organisation, even within that welter of pianos. It’s ultimately overwhelming in its impersonal generosity, never exactly bludgeoning the listener because it is always clear that there are explicable principles of organisation at work for every moment, even as those principles remain opaque for the time being. I doubt we shall ever hear it as perfectly as we might imagine it, regardless of the forces involved, but this will do very nicely.

Saturday was given over to a single work, the premiere of Matteo Fargion’s String Quartet No. 5 ‘the nobby saddy quartet’. Written last year in lockdown and commissioned for the concert series, it’s an hour of affectionate indulgence of gentle melancholy. The slow, single movement, episodic structure, restrained timbre and extended sequence of cadences near the end all recall late Feldman, who indeed gets namechecked by the composer. The difference comes in the treatment of material, directed towards a self-aware caution of taking authenticity of musical expression for granted. All pizzicato at first, a repeated line descends chromatically over a fifth. It’s an inauspicious opening that stays around for long enough to start to feel comfortable. Like the best kinds of melancholy, it finds pleasure in its sadness and in doing so starts to forget itself; it deviates, lingering over one thought before flicking to another, then back again. As you would hope and expect, it cannot treat itself entirely seriously, even as it holds the idea of melancholy in reverence. This premiere was by Apartment House, in the same quartet manifestation last heard at Cafe Oto in May. They played it like Schubert, cold and tender. Punters claimed it felt like less than an hour; they always do, when it’s good. What struck me most about Apartment House’s playing was how slow each they could make each moment pass, without seeming too long or to be broadening out.

Thoughts on Apartment House playing John Cage: Number Pieces

Thursday 2 September 2021

It’s slowly but steadily sinking in how vast a legacy John Cage left us. Another Timbre’s new box set of Cage’s late number pieces, performed by Apartment House, was immediately received with widespread wonder and gratitude. Critics have suggested that this is a landmark release that will redefine Cage’s reputation, but this has happened before, more than once. Cage’s gradual acceptance into the musical pantheon has been a process of repeated adjustments into how the audience perceives him, a view of ever-widening horizons as more aspects of his art are brought to light. For the next stage, many critics will realise that, as with all great artists, no interpretation of Cage will ever be definitive.

In his generous sleeve notes, producer Simon Reynell observes that many of the pieces presented here have not had a new recording in close to a generation. This was a shock, as it made me realise that (a) I’m that old, (b) Cage’s oeuvre is that big, and (c) my much-loved recordings of these pieces need a fresh perspective. [The Number Pieces are a collective name given to a series of forty-odd works Cage wrote over the last five years of his life. They share the same basic principle: flexible time brackets without coordination between parts, more or less filled with more or less specification. Each is titled for the number of performers needed to play it. Cage could write them quickly, typically to fulfil commissions – he referred to them as his “watercolors” – but he was genuinely fascinated by the almost effortless variation and beauty that could be produced by his skillful employment of this simple premise.] Of course they come out differently each time, but as the ensemble Apartment House show in this collection, there can be great variation in larger-scale matters of interpretation, not just in detail. Several of the musicians here have recorded other late Cage works, particularly for Another Timbre, always finding new perspectives to what may have once been considered stable essays in random patterns. (The other great lie about Cage is that his aesthetic breakthrough was adopting chance, when the true breakthrough was his reason for adopting chance: his aesthetic judgements were now framed as questions instead of answers.) The five-plus hours of music in John Cage: Number Pieces both underlines and extends their work in expanding our appreciation of Cage. This set collects all the works written for larger ensembles: five to fourteen musicians.

One of my formative new music listening experiences was with a CD of Cage’s last completed composition, Thirteen, played twice by the ensemble who commissioned it. Both were dull as ditchwater. I’d read about how Cage had had to change his conception of what the piece should be while composing it, but still believed that the poor music was due to the ensemble taking liberties with interpretation, a top-down approach at odds with Cage’s musical instincts. Years later, I was releived to hear a far superior recording made by The Barton Workshop. Apartment House also take liberties, some quite pronounced. Almost all music requires some deviation from the score, however minor it may be; it’s a question of whether that deviation brings the musician closer to or further away from the spirit implied in the letter. Five4, composed for two saxophones and three percussionists, appears here with Heather Roche playing clarinets and only the duo of Simon Limbrick and George Barton on percussion. Limbrick and Barton also overdub themselves three times to produce the brief Six for unspecified percussion, making an oblique collage of timbres that unexpectedly appear and disappear. Five4‘s clarinet tones recall the light, clear sound of soprano sax.

The most questionable choice here is to almost completely avoid Cage’s allowance in most pieces for the possiblity of short sounds and the concomitant permission that they may be played loud or soft. Almost everything here is soft and sustained. It seems like a needless restriction to the variety these compositions allow and also threatens to limit Cage’s expressive range as a composer. Listening to hours of it should become numbing. Strangely, it just about works, to the credit of composer and interpreters alike. The opening three pieces, each five minutes long for five musicians, suggest we’re in for an extended survey of subtle differences. This changes with the longer Fourteen for bowed piano and ensemble, as the expanded colouration with piano strings and brass highlight the way Cage manipulated the parameters for his chance-determined time brackets to produce distinct changes in texture, phrasing and pace. There’s some wicked low-end sounds throughout this whole set which reward the indulgence of playing it loud, in contrast to the post-Feldman ambient haze sometimes assumed for these pieces. It’s about knowing what liberties to take.

Fourteen minimises the timbral novelty of the bowed piano strings, setting it back amongst the ensemble instead of being a de facto soloist. Conversely, the group’s approach to Seven presents a more concertante approach to the piano in the ensemble, using its more active part as a striking contrast to much of the other playing throughout the set. In other performances I’ve heard, this piece’s emphasis on wonky intonation has turned it into a buzzing microtonal cloud. Apartment House’s approach to Cage’s use of microtonality is subdued and undemonstrative. In the lengthy Five3 trombone and string quartet don’t so much clash as colour each other in fine skeins of sound that separate out, a piece that slowly breathes. In the ambitious Ten Cage envisioned an ensemble engaged in microtonal melisma until they lost sense of exact pitch. Apartment House play it without momentum, effacing pauses and changes in pace to produce one frozen moment in which tonal certainty is never a given, even with occasional interjections from a piano.

So far, my one disappointment has been Eight, an hour-long work for winds and brass. Cage gave greater leeway in expression and dynamics for this piece, which the ensemble here employ but once. Having never heard this piece before, it feels like the score’s expectation for a distinctive contrasting quality in this work was passed by to make something that, by comparison, too similar to the other works. On the other hand, the next longest piece, the fifty-two minute Seven2 for low instruments, makes a virtue of eschewing abrupt notes by emphasising the layering of soft, low tones into complex sounds that are transparent and indelible, with each instrument’s enforced absence made all the more notable. Coming back to Thirteen: The Barton Workshop’s version made full use of the ebb and flow permissible in the varied amounts of activity assigned to each instrument, all within a pitch range of a major sixth, creating a strange beauty out of inert materials. Apartment House remove the unsynchronised ebb and flow, but in doing so manage to transform the work into a lush and sonorous work of understated grandeur as they steadily unroll each new change to the gamut. It makes for a remarkably dignified commemoration to Cage’s passing.

The download comes with bonus alternative takes of several pieces and Reynell’s notes are also posted on his website: it’s recommended reading to learn more about these works. One final thought: the Number Pieces are frequently compared to Morton Feldman’s late music, particularly with the observation that Cage started them after Feldman’s death. I wonder if there’s another connection, besides that of slow, soft sounds. The scores (parts really, without overall scores) give freedom to the musician within greater bounds allowed by chance, but it places a burden on the musician as to how that freedom is to be used. Does a conscientious performer take a Cageian approach of impartiality when deciding entrances and exits, or should they play intuitively, with regard only for the strictures of the time brackets? Should the ensemble play as a group, accounting for each other’s choices, or as individuals. The Number Pieces could accommodate either approach but the pros and cons of both are unresolved. The possible indulgence of taste is a marked change in Cage’s scores, and it brings with it an anxiety that is seen throughout Feldman’s scores, where each of his manuscripts was a constant probing of the musicians’ psychology. Was this another patch of Feldman’s ‘turf’ that Cage felt he could now explore?