xenopraxis: In A Sedimental Mood

Monday 19 February 2024

Like a bad dream, you wake from it and it fades, only to resume as soon as you relax. You can’t remember the details, it’s all a vague wash of disturbing impressions, far in the back of your consciousness. I assume xenopraxis will take this summary of his In A Sedimental Mood in the complimentary way it’s intended. He cites Satie’s furniture music as an inspiration (said music functioning as much obstacle as background), but it also recalls the pointed directionlessness and discontinuities of Christian Wolff’s later work, with a strong dose of Brian Eno’s Unwelcome Jazz from the Nineties. There’s also tangential connection to Edlritch Priest, which tracks.

In A Sedimental Mood somehow contrives to spin out some seventy-odd minutes of music that is not quite ignorable but also not quite interesting. The lazy cocktail-bar atmosphere of piano and hi-hat is denatured by rambling, self-centred keyboards, including an out-of-tune Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ perpetually at odds with each other, and a crummy MIDI guitar. It soon fades out, but then starts over just as before, only different. Everything tastes bad and the servings are too small. Each little section seems to fade out quicker than the last, but there are so many of them and the timing is just so that it’s impossible to keep track. There is structure, but without form, leaving any attempts at deeper listening confounded by trying to find any greater distinction between one congealed lump of seemingly arbitrary noodling and another, with the growing suspicion that the details are irrelevant even as they sustain the work’s duration. Any theorising about a continual present is both reinforced and thwarted by the repeated fade-out and resets; it exploits deficiency of attention to create a work of near intolerable duration. As a work of perversity, and of questioning values of significance and perception, it is high art.

(Coming back to it, I realise it also reminds me of the music made by Australian artist Phil Edwards. Often working as part of a group of improvising artists with variable musical experience, the spontaneity and lack of goals, as heard in free improvisation, is tamed by a language of conventional instruments and techniques and an approach that tries to be popular, yet remains alien and unknowable exactly because of its refusal to be perceived as something entirely new.)

Electronic Noise Shootout, Winter 2024

Friday 9 February 2024

I feel like I’m rating different grades of sandpaper when writing listening notes on these. They’re all deliberately awkward music made from digital electronic synthesis and/or processing. Andreja Andric’s two Pocket Electronic Symphonies (Are-Verlag) use filtered and reprocessed noise as their sonic basis, with each piece performed by the composer using a combined variable sound generator and score coded into a javascript app loaded onto a smartphone. Conceptually, it’s irresistable: a lightweight and accessible source and interface without needing to rely on additional material stuff. Andric’s method resolves issues of live performance and those of determining form and structure through the use of the generated score, nudging the audio software beyond being little more than a noisy toy of a type often encountered in this genre. If the smartphone’s audio output is attenuated, Andric makes up for it with some dense and complex sounds. This complexity means it tends to the harsh side, but each piece carries its own compositional concerns well enough and makes a decent job of differentiating between passages with contrasting tones and textures. The two performances here were made some three years apart, inviting comparisons in approach while suggesting the basic setup could be expanded in different ways.

Release numbers four and six from Party Perfect!!! continue in the same vein of the label’s other releases with a maximum of noise and minimum of compromise (I’m guessing as I haven’t heard two or five). Ryu Hankil’s Envelope Demon is a lengthy, scratchy suite for digital synthesis, rolling back and forth over small bursts of sound that are subjected to various intensities of strangulation. It’s a piece worked on over several years but, even as it has reached a heightened state of refinement, some of the initial excitement may have been lost. With many unique electronic setups, their ingenuity is offset by inherent limitations in their premise, and so they end up with realisations where it seems as though every possible option has been worked out until the premise is exhausted; the question is thus rasied as to whether what we’ve heard is in fact a musical composition. I don’t know if that’s the case with Envelope Demon but after forty minutes it feels like it, something Andric’s Symphonies manage to avoid. Michael Speers’ four short pieces For David Stockard, on the other hand, suggest boundless invention concentrated into a very precise form. Very different from his earlier Green Spot Nectar of the Gods, the pieces exploit his canny observation of the similarities between percussion and electronics. It’s an area which still seems to be insufficiently explored, how these sound sources share common attributes of timbral and harmonic complexity as well as indeterminacy. Speers focuses on the roles of contact, friction and touch and how they influence each other in different media. Part Perfect No. 6 consists only of Stefan Maier’s piece Nervous Systems, which is unsual compared to his previous release and the PP label in general in making some concessions to the listener, with sounds given more gentle attacks and everything wrapped in a soothing cloak of reverb. Without the edginess it can’t help but be slightly disappointing, as the basic materials come across as much the same. Perhaps I’m disappointed this particular release doesn’t come with a zine or recipes.

What’s the dividing line between ‘art’ and ‘pop’ with this stuff? Why am I pigeonholing the next two as the latter as opposed to the former? Not because it’s all short stuff; definitely not because it could be considered remotely popular. Perhaps because there are discernible remnants of ‘deconstructed’ popular idioms, but then these pieces have reached such an advanced stage of disassembly that it’s a moot point. It’s probably the attitude behind it, as the motivation shifts from technical considerations to affective consequences. A glimmer of demotic, late romantic transcendentalism still peeps through, faint but as recognisable as in a love ballad or movie soundtrack. GAŁGAŁ describes his Ich schw​ö​re ich hab Angst (Abstand) in terms of ideas – freedom, individualism and vision. The eleven short tracks are constructed from edits of live improvisations with samplers and synthesis, and they start out feeling suitably scrappy and spontaneous but after a while settle into something more consistent and serious. I kept waiting for a change in direction to recapture that open-ended impression from the start, but once a certain type of anti-groove locks in GAŁGAŁ stays put. Reincanto / Real Bwoy (Artetetra) on the other hand keeps hopping back and forth between ideas as a way of preserving momentum. It’s a split release (it’s also available on cassette so I guess the concept stil makes sense) between Kinked and Señor Service respectively, apparently dealing with storytelling and ritual-type stuff. I’m hearing a nice little set of hyperactive sonic globs pulled from various corners of the electronic repetoire and repurposed into bite-sized morsels. The lack of consistency and continuity becomes their strength, appealing in the manner of kinetic junk scupltures with commensurate irreverence and insolence. Their purposeful refusal to groove just makes them seem even more arty. To tell them apart, Kinked works mostly with noise while Señor Service throws in mass media and kiddie sounds.

Extradition and friends play Philip Corner, for fourteen hours

Sunday 4 February 2024

Someone expected me to listen to fourteen hours of music by a composer I didn’t like. It’s not that I disliked Philip Corner’s music as such; just that I found it easy to admire it philosophically while never wanting to listen to it. What I’d happened to hear, together with all the praise I’d read, imbued it with a medicinal quality, a stern but necessary purgative for conventional aesthetics, and about as palatable. It wasn’t helped by a number of enthusiasts who dodged the nuances in his thinking to seize upon the bleedin’ obvious (“Yeah dude but have you ever like really listened to a saucepan?”) It all seemed to pursue asceticism as its own reward. This is all wrong of course but listening to the music had never seemed to help; I always felt like I needed to read something before I could get it.

Philip Corner turned ninety last year and the Oregon ensemble Extradition had spent the preceding year or so working up a fitting tribute by performing and recording as much of his music as they could, including a series of concerts in early 2023. They also collected performances of his pieces by friends and associates wherever they could, with all of it gathered together on Extradition Plays Philip Corner. There’s fourteen hours of it. Really, given Corner’s stature and what with still being active at ninety, anything less would be an insult but still, fourteen hours. There are sixty-one performances collected here, of compositions ranging from the late 1950s to the present. The idea of an endurance test fit perfectly with my preconceived caricature of the composer, so I resolved to plough through the whole thing and try to find some points of differentiation, at least.

The ordering is not chronological, but it does begin with the oldest piece here. 2-Part Monologues No. 1 presents two instruments cast as melody and drone, played here by Lee Elderton on clarinet and Collin Oldham on cello respectively. The stasis in the cello holds the unfolding melody in permanent suspense, creating a parallax movement of its own. It sounds very clean and contemporary, while having been composed in 1957. The piece situates Corner at the earliest flowerings of what were to become dominant shaping ideas for new music in the latter half of the century: minimalism, indeterminacy, improvisation, rethinking of tonality and simplicity. The fourteen hours of music demonstrates that Corner has been across all of these ideas for many years, combined with an awareness of the interaction between sound, performer and environment. What’s most striking about the pieces where nature and the environment are at the forefront, is the way Corner balances a respectful approach to the subject while still subjecting it to compositional rigor. No mindless nature worship or ecological superstition here: Loren Chasse’s superb interpretation of the 1999 piece Ear Here with Musician plays with the sounds made by stones and paper alongside a shallow creek, where the actions of human and nature are often indistinguishable. Conversely, works like Presence from 1995 are performed entirely by ensemble, with Extradition using small objects and Corner’s score of durations and continuities to create a complex of sounds reminiscent of a bog at dusk. Acoustic, electronic, manufactured and natural keep blurring into each other throughout this set, for fourteen hours.

Everything Extradition presents sounds much deeper and richer to me than the thin sonic gruel I have been dosed with in previous Corner recordings. The five concerts at the start are a bit rough around the edges in audio quality but serve beautifully as a live document. The remaining thirty-nine pieces by Extradition and others are at least as good, but what matters as much as capturing the sound is the quality of sounds that Corner has inspired in these musicians. Denis Sorokin’s guitar rendition of Lingering Random Chords (after William Faulkner) digs into his instrument’s peculiarities of attack and decay, while Skin Champions takes a Serge modular synthesizer through an abrupt realisation of the text score Continue. When I said there are fourteen hours of this, I should specify that it totals fourteen hours, eleven minutes and twelve seconds. Corner’s wry approach to more conventional music theory appears throughout, from the ruthlessly severe The Art of No-Art series to the strict but free (or free but strict) Just Another 12-Tone Piece. In the latter, Extradition make a complex ensemble composition out of Corner’s instruction that each performer play a 12-tone row, of a type and in a manner of their own choosing. By contrast The Art of No-Art is a vast cycle of compositions made of a single pitch and its octaves. There are hundreds of these things, twelve of which appear throughout the fourteen hours, and they sound both rigorously minimal and expressively pointillistic at once, maintaining momementum despite the lack of harmonic or melodic movement through the tension of the opposing tendencies in their musical language. Extradition et al. play some of these simultaneously, creating new textures and potential counterpoints.

By now you’re probably figured out that I’ve been won over. Just to keep my newfound enthusiasm in check, I’ll note that getting somewhere around the halfway point a few of those dry presentations of acoustic phenomena without context do appear. They are admittedly very nicely presented. One of these is 1982’s Boiling Water – water here boiled by Ricardo Arias – so now I know that Ahti & Ahti, Akama & d’incise were all about forty years late but at least they did something with it. Some pieces, such as An Agreed-Upon Mood Mode “for ensemble with discussion” conflate the thing and the idea about the thing in the same detrimental manner. Before these moments come along, your overall impression will presumably be how everything has been surprisingly good to listen to. There is, after all, fourteen damn hours of this stuff so everyone’s experience will vary. I’ve barely scratched the surface here but hopefully it tells you enough about the variety to be found here, all of which goes towards giving you a much more detailed and complete portrait of Corner as a composer.

With all the diversity in approach, it’s striking how Corner’s various methods are used to achieve consistent ends. Themes weave their way through the collection, of collage (with or without recordings), awareness of multiplicity and uniqueness (through permutation and improvisation), examination of what makes us individuals (compared to another, an object, natural forces). Each new side to his work remembers the others. Where some of Corner’s scores can seem vague or insubstantial at first, the performances by Extradition and their associates show how even his broadest statements are always made with consciousness of specific outcomes, even as those outcomes are undetermined. The score for 2006’s Ultimate Improvisation, performed here by Matt Hannafin, consists of the line “Like nothing else, like never before.” There’s a substantial booklet that provides further details and context for each of the works presented. It’s rare for a celebration of an artist’s work to be also a forceful work of advocacy; Extradition have achieved both in spades. Fourteen fucking hours. I am in awe.

New Music Premieres 2024: An Introduction

Saturday 27 January 2024

Ah yeah I’ve heard some new music this year. It was Apartment House again at Cafe Oto again, this time premiering four new works. Apparently it was part of some larger project with an interdisciplinary curatorial agenda but I forget what it was. There was a new string quartet by Eldritch Priest. I had his weird-ass guitar piece Omphaloskepsis sitting in my listening pile for over a year and a collection of earlier chamber pieces even longer, but the new work Dust Breeding took things in a different direction from those pieces and their lop-sided, angular melodic lines. Heavy emphasis on harmonics throughout, with their high, sweet intimations of just intonation adding a further tantalising element to the expectation that sooner or later the loose, almost-looping patterns between the instruments may mesh into something unified and coherent. The piece functions like a complex knot, slackened to the point where you can’t tell if grabbing one end will pull it tight or unravel it completely. I believe Apartment House is recording some Eldritch Priest this year.

Of the other pieces, like oil it glistens multicolours by Finlay Clark, whose work I knew nothing about, mixed together disparate elements on strings and keyboard with field recordings and electronics in that bold, eclectic way without any evident over-arching principle, reminiscent of experimental video editing. Later in the piece some distressed electronic beats accompany the musicians but these are wisely used as another weapon in the music’s resistance to easy comprehension, just as I was starting to worry the piece would end in a bathetic attempt at being popular, or worse, cool. Denis Sorokin’s Arbor is a pleasantly bittersweet movement of quiet contemplation, shedding light on his work as a guitarist who has performed works by the likes of Michael Pisaro-Liu. His ensemble writing is finely judged, although I found the work a little too pleasant and was waiting for something to disturb its untroubled surface. The final work was by violinist/violist Chihiro Ono, sometime Apartment House participant herself. If I remember right, Rabbit Hole – alive. emove. 108. is her first proper composition, with the small ensemble playing alongside recordings of nature in various states of domestication. It’s a fairly open score and with the field recordings the performance had an amiably bucolic affect to its rambling form, as minor incidents came and went. Aided by the group’s playing and their talent for finding substance in the ephemeral, the work’s contents had an elusive, ungraspable quality that anchored the work with a fundamental seriousness and made it hard to assign any obvious influence or comparison to Ono’s compositional style.

Definite Uncertainty: Jürg Frey’s String Quartet No. 4

Sunday 21 January 2024

There was a lot of excited chatter around when Quatuor Bozzini gave the UK premiere of Jürg Frey’s Fourth String Quartet in Huddersfield in November. For those of us who missed it, the Bozzinis’ recording of String Quartet No. 4 from last May is now commerically available. Composed over a couple of years, its gestation proceeds from that of his String Trio, recently recorded by Apartment House. Like the trio, the quartet is a large work, made all the more imposing in substance through consisting of five movements instead of one elongated span. Frey’s longer works have often taken on the form of a journey, with episodes, incidents and detours, but with this quartet the sense of movement has been sublimated while the questioning aspects remain.

In a way not readily apparent before, Frey lets a curious lop-sidedness define this composition from the outset and then tries to find a balance between the incongruous forces at play. The overall structure even suggests this, with the fifth movement taking up a little over half of the quartet’s hour-plus duration. His early tendency towards silence and his later one towards romanticism are set against each other throughout the piece. The opening movement even falls into two halves, when the reduced heart rate of the slow-breathing chorale that begins the work suddenly drops into a period of whispered, near-pitchless bowing. For the rest of the piece, you’re left wondering if a similar gap in the sound will re-open. Subsequent movements contrast moments of prolonged stillness with more classically-motivated interplay between the instruments, albeit in Frey’s characteristic manner of distilling such passages to their most essential, in slow motion. The second movement takes fragile gestures from unaccompanied and builds them into something articulate and expressive, while the third begins with a more assertive chorale before dissolving into brooding, introspective solos. That long final movement consolidates the preceding tendencies into a coherent statement, but without resolving any of the contradictions, finding it to be achievement enough to give expression to the complexities inherent to the composition. Heard in isolation, the movement could be taken as a self-sufficient and eloquent work in its own right, but what we’ve heard before exposes us to the tensions that animate the music.

This is a troubled work, where Frey has stripped away more of the artifice that has previously constrained his expressive tendencies behind a facade of impassive observation. It shows us more of a composer wrestling with imbalances and contradictions, in turn requiring the listener’s involvement far beyond what would have once been assumed as little more than contemplation of an impeccable surface. Quatuor Bozzini excel at revealing these difficulties without drawing attention to their own labour. They excel at distinguishing between the finest gradations of dark and light, infusing greater colours into a work with such an attenuated range of dynamics. In their performances of older repertoire, I’ve always been struck at how they find a timeless element in the music. For Frey’s latest quartet, their ear is attuned to Schubert and Webern.

Sawyer Editions: Kory Reeder, Matt Sargent, Noah Jenkins

Sunday 14 January 2024

There’s a new batch of five recordings on Kory Reeder’s Sawyer Editions imprint, this time including one by Reeder himself. I’ve only heard one other piece by Reeder, the 70-minute Codex Vivere on Another Timbre, which I recall mildly disparaging in a passing comment as “polite”. Something like that, anyway; I remember feeling that it was at pains to be too accommodating to the listener. Snow, composed last year for a quartet of violin, cello, piano and percussion, is a different matter. Using the same basic approach but in a more pointed fashion, Snow makes a virtue of its reticence by lulling the listener with simple, repeated patterns threaded through other ephemeral material, but always pulling them away before they can establish themselves clearly. Those patterns, with the familiar hushed dynamics, inevitably recall late Feldman, but the repeating figures are too simple to be invested with any greater significance and, if Reeder is consciously referring to Feldman then he draws upon those moments when a passage is about to exhaust itself. In pacing and phrasing, the music is constantly about to fade into silence and stasis, turning something simple into a much deeper and elusive experience. Reeder himself leads the small ensemble on piano, with all four speaking as low and distant as they possibly can. It’s also been released on cassette, yet even as a download the piece falls into two parts exactly fifteen minutes long.

Matt Sargent’s Illuminations is a set of three gentle electroacoustic works which could almost be considered ambient were it not for the subtle manipulations beneath the surface. Taken from a longer cycle of works titled Illuminations, the three pieces are made from electronic, algorithmic processes built around live musicians. Sargent’s scores are animated, with notes fading in and out over each other, creating slow loops for the performer to play, using opacity as a guide to dynamics. In turn, their notes are sifted out by a software patch that selects certain tones to be extended and harmonised. The independent routines work together to create something that sounds alive and spontaneous, even as it maintains an overall undisturbed consistency. Slow, erratic melodies unfold against a backdrop of refreshing harmonics. It reminded me a bit of some of David Behrman’s recent interactive electroacoustic works, using novel ideas without needing to show them off. The bright timbres of the instruments used here offset the softness of the playing: the first track a duet for pianist Michael Jones on vibraphone and Shaoai Ashley Zhang on piano, the following two solos for Trevor Saint on glockenspiel and Taylor Long on vibraphone. All play with a critical senstivity to touch.

By way of contrast, the two pieces Noah Jenkins has made with trombonist Riley Leitch present yet another way of listening. Without Persistent Environments is up-front loud and proud, immersing you in the sound rather than coaxing you in. For the first twenty minutes Leitch rings the changes on a small gamut of pitches in Without persistent environments the sense of confusion and flux might only worsen, multitracked so that the notes clash and coincide with unpredictable regularity. Jenkins recorded Leitch in various locations around Chicago, adding acoustic and ambient colouration that is at first imperceptible but soon becomes a complicating force. For the following hour, Leith plays long tones in just intonation into a live looping system for Rotations Placement : Providence Everywhere, creating an implacable, complex drone of dense chords and overtones. The pitches and the brass combine to make something wonderfully agressive, that snarls and buzzes like a La Monte Young piece. It’s best played loud, in the manner of the late, lamented Phill Niblock. My only complaint is that it fades out at the end instead of dumping you cold.

Folks’ Music: Miller, Crane, Smith, Riley

Thursday 11 January 2024

Evidently, I missed a few great gigs in Ireland last year. Fortunately, the Louth Contemporary Music Society has preserved them. Folks’ Music documents three works commissioned by them, each one extraordinary in their own way. The first piece presented here is almost powerful enough to overwhelm the two that follow: Cassandra Miller’s The City, Full of People is a work for unaccompanied mixed chorus teems with life, with individual voices cascading over each other in repeated figures that seem to blend into each other, creating a vocal labyrinth. The piece builds upon her previous work made from her privately singing along to other music, multiplied and expanded. The basic approach is similar to her earlier a capella composition Guide, but here that piece’s wild and woolly nature has been tamed into something more controlled and potent than unalloyed catharsis. The structure here is simple but ingenious, falling into three sections: the first launching out at full tilt before resolving to an end with extreme slowness, the second building from nothing to recapture the force of the beginning, followed by a coda which condenses the music’s essence into a final moment for contemplation. There’s also skill in knowing when to stop.

The performance by Chamber Choir Ireland (directed by Paul Hiller) is a model of clarity and strength, using directness instead of dramatics to gain the listener’s undivided attention. They also premiered Linda Catlin Smith’s Folio, a work which feels more conventional in this company but further illustrates Smith’s skill in making works of subtle complexity while appearing simple to the point of naivety on initial hearing. The texts are selections from Emily Dickinson, which seems like a natural fit, words and setting each frank while keeping full grasp of the meaning elusive. Between these two choral works comes Laurence Crane’s String Quartet No. 2, played by the Esposito Quartet. Crane shares with Smith the ability to speak plainly while remaining cryptic. It comes out more strongly in his longer works such as this one, as one clear statement follows another without resolution. The Quartet seems more tightly structured than many of Crane’s previous pieces on this scale, the impression of wandering replaced by an implied relationship between the handful of distinct phrases juxtaposed here, each reduced to the most slender of elements so that they seem to defy elaboration. Esposito plays with obstinate authority to assert this music has a greater and more troubling presence than most of the fashionably subdued and tonal.

On the same date Chamber Choir Ireland were signing in Dublin, a concert took place in Dundalk: fiddler Zoë Conway led a band of traditional Irish musicians in a rendition of Terry Riley’s In C. Yeah yeah, you say, that old chestnut again; sure it’s good for a bit of fun but do we need to hear yet another gimmick version of it? Well in the first place, In C is always worth hearing done well and this version is a cracker. Secondly, “a bit of fun” with an Irish band is always going to brighten your evening immeasurably. Thirdly, this is In C Irish, a new version developed with Riley’s imprimatur to accommodate the musicians’ background in improvisation with the notated particles that make up the score. With the insistent pulse, the instruments work together a treat; the most striking difference here is the way the musicians give each other room to foreground certain elements as solos, adding new interpretations to the music throughout while never letting the momentum droop. It reminds you that the piece is about communal music making, above demonstrating theoretical questions over indeterminacy and open form. Given the piece’s celebratory atmosphere it feels fitting when the band end the piece in a glorious free-for-all that feels in keeping with the spirit of the work. Two trad encores top off the evening. Éamonn Quinn, director of the Louth society, cautioned me that “maybe it is only for Irish folk.” He was wrong.

Stolen Symphony: Fluxus & Neofluxus, Part 1

Saturday 30 December 2023

There’s always something horrible about Fluxus anthologies. They inevitably end up less than the sum of their parts; a motley collection of dusty, mismatched relics from a brief moment of excitement sixty years ago. As pure audio, shorn of performance context, they frequently make for very dry listening, made worse by a threadbare jokeyness that in retrospect sounds self-satisfied. If that wasn’t bad enough, the listener then starts to grouse that some of the selections aren’t Fluxusy enough. It’s a terrible position to be in and it may well be part of the point, given the Fluxus tendency to rub one’s nose in tedium, but in this current age of podcasts the concept of an information wasteland is now a daily reality and too many Fluxus pieces which attempted to problematise the situation somehow seem left behind, more quaint than prophetic.

Having said all that, the Sub Rosa anthology Stolen Symphony: Fluxus & Neofluxus, Part 1 manages to justify itself through describing the organic process by which this set of pieces grew into its present state, through members of the Opening Performance Orchestra in Ostrava meeting and being introduced to an ever-widening circle of Fluxus and Fluxus-adjacent artists. While attempting to be comprehensive, it nevertheless excuses its omissions and eccentricities through the personal artistic connections that went into making it. A number of the composers wrote new pieces for the occasion and who can turn that down? Several pieces by Milan Knížák appear, albeit in excerpts; apart from these there appear to be no other examples of the dreaded excerptitis. Most of the pieces are short: thirty pieces in a little over 150 minutes, of which only eleven exceed five minutes and, of those, just two stretch past ten minutes into the twenty-plus range.

One of the long tracks is by the Opening Performance Orchestra themselves. These regular collaborators with Knížák produce the title work, a typically dense collage of indiscriminately pillaged sounds that’s more immediately enjoyable than their Cage-inspired Chess Show because of its casual messiness. Speaking of John Cage, the anthology gets off to a bad start by listing his 0’00” as track 0 with a timing of 0’00”, accompanied in the booklet by a badly cropped reproduction of the score and a commentary by Petr Kotík indicating that he really doesn’t get what the piece is about. Apart from this stumble, the booklet is mostly above average with 72 pages of supporting essays and memoirs, while the album immediately lifts with some strikingly lively performances, perhaps uncharacterisically so in the case of Agnese Toniutti’s piano interpretation of La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #15 to Richard Huelsenbeck. Werner Durand provides overdubbed winds on a pair of Henning Christiansen’s feral folk compositions from mid 1980s. Examples of early 1960s “action pieces” by the frequently overlooked Fluxus Musicians Giuseppe Chiari are presented by cellist Deborah Walker and pianist Luciano Chessa. This is all starting to seem better than I first thought it was.

Playful, even whimsical pieces are interleaved with occasional moments of stark rigidity, which thus regain some potency as a disruptive, reorientating experience. The overall looseness is a welcome contrast to the stuffiness which can befall preserved Fluxus. Part of this is due to the studied disregard for assigning everything to a strict period of history, as here early 60s works by Young, Chiari, Yasunao Tone and others are mixed in amongst new pieces by Philip Corner and Bengt af Klintberg, as well as pieces from in between such as Toniutti’s restless performance of Dick Higgins’ hyperactive Emmett William’s Ear from 1977. Toniutti and Miroslav Beinhauer each play a piano piece by Fluxus mainstay Mieko Shiomi, but these are charming later works from 1990 and 2009, respectively. Terry Riley is represented by the austere Ear Piece from 1962 and a new piece for broken piano, written in his more characteristically insouciant style. The broken piano appears elsewhere, as another instigation behind this whole collection.

There are items of sound poetry and extended vocal works which seem to fall outside of the Fluxus remit (Sten Hanson? Dieter Schnebel?), besides some but not all of the usual suspects. Pianist Nicolas Horvath has the funniest track, striking an F-sharp over B precisely once as his sole contribution to this volume. Several pieces are culled from Toniutti’s album of Philip Corner compositions, including a suitably jagged solo rendition of the recent Small Pieces of a Fluxus Reality. I’ll have more stuff about Corner in the new year – a whole lot more. While the musicians and editors try their best to qualify and expand upon the label, this collection really does work rather well if you ignore the selling point of the F-word and treat Fluxus more as they do, an element of obscure influence over a somewhat neglected body of music created over many years into the present.

Two on Redshift: Linda Catlin Smith and Paramorph Collective

Friday 22 December 2023

Haven’t been writing much lately because I keep listening. Each time I listen changes what I want to say. The Canadian Redshift Music Society has released a new set of chamber pieces and solos by Linda Catlin Smith, performed by the Thin Edge New Music Collective. I’ve discussed Smith’s music a number of times before, but Dark Flower is the first album not made by musicians in Apartment House on the Another Timbre imprint. There’s not much duplication of pieces here: a revised version of Wanderer comes across in darker hues in Thin Edge’s interpretation than the Apartment House version, and the pieces which are new to me also contain shadows in the playing and recording. This doesn’t obscure Smith’s music so much as throw it into a more dramatic relief, pushing the emotional implications a little further while adding emphasis to the interplay and alternation between the instruments’ voices. The tenderness in Smith’s writing comes to the forefront in pieces like the Duo for 2 Cellos from 2015, played with haunting beauty here by Amahl Arulanandam and Dobrochna Zubek; the romantic angle given to all the works here are tempered by the sombre edge in the Collective’s playing, as well as Smith’s language, which is too harmonically direct to allow for indulgences and restrained by the use of counterpoint and a preference for the Mosaic over the Long Line.

Another piece by Smith appears on the Redshift album All we’re made of is borrowed by Paramorph Collective. Thought and Desire is a work of recurring phrases for a pianist who is also required to sing near the end, played and sung here with disarming simplicity by Kim Farris-Manning. Unlike Thin Edge, this collective is a bare minimum of two, the other half being An-Laurence Higgins who adds voice and guitar to the keyboards. The album, for the most part, continues in a vein of gentle quirks, with two quiet pieces by Rodney Sharman overbalanced by a large chunk of time given over to Margot George’s Fruiting Bodies, a droney processional for bombastic electric guitar and majestically synthesised organ that lands somewhere between Harold Budd and Hans Zimmer. It’s hard to tell how seriously we should take its Hollywood grandisoity, elongated either to submlimation or absurdity. Same goes for the shorter interleaving works composed by Paramorph themselves, in which earnestness is marred by overripe theatrics but then played off in a coda as just the two of them being goofy.

Bait/Switch: Ian Power, Adam Zuckerman

Thursday 14 December 2023

Some music starts out as one thing and ends up another, some music appears to be about one thing when it’s really about something else. Then, there’s Ian Power’s Ave Maria: Variations on a Theme by Giacinto Scelsi (Carrier), a piece whose title belies the complex switches in perspective on its subject matter, beyond an act of homage or an essay in style. The piece, written in 2009, was recorded last year by pianist Anne Rainwater. Scelsi’s prayer is one of a set of three he composed in 1972, a typically austere work of repeated phrases initialy written for solo voice. Rainwater is indeed obliged to sing a rendition of Scelsi’s original piece at the start, while accompanying herself in unison on the keyboard. The idea of ritual as a task, and its associated demands, is already established here, with a secluded, unpolished recording that draws out the imperfections in her voice and her instrument, with the soft creak and thud of the piano’s hammers. The subsequent variations play on the obsessive side of Scelsi’s art, with the piano alone repeating the prayer in harmonisations that get thrown against an insistently reiterated high pitch, before condensing into loud clusters of sound echoed by forceful use of the pedal on the lower strings. The strangest variation is not marked as a variation at all, but as an Interlude that suddenly wrenches the composition into a different focus. The pianist is required to repeat the theme, but to press the keys silently. Background becomes foreground in a breathless negative space, substance made of incidental noise, with the added jeopardy of sounding a note by mistake: any such mistake must then be repeated thirty-six times. The interlude becomes a fraught hiatus in the music. Scelsi always demanded an inner calm for his music, presumably to heard it as well as play it, and this pairs with the experience that even his finest music can be a bit of a chore. In Power’s version, penitence and apprehension is shared by performer and audience. Even with frailties mercilessly exposed, Rainwater’s playing remains both strong and dutiful in equal measure.

It’s telling that after repeated listenings to Adam Zuckerman’s STARPERMEABLE (Nueni) I still flip back and forth between thinking he’s too precious and he’s too sincere. A composition for “at least three musicians and processed field recording playback”, it makes no effort towards momentum, direction or movement. Each of its eighteen short sections are made of delicate and languorous melodies slowly overlapping to produce clouds of sound that veil the internal movement of pitch, so that its changes require closer attention. Each of these moments is separated by silence, confounding attempts to find continuity or coherence. The musicians frequently hum together, adding both to their serenity and our distance from them. The field recordings are noticeable only by the absence of the musicians: there are three interludes of six minutes each, making nearly half the piece’s entire length, where the only sound is that of the open air at almost imperceptible volume. Contradictions abound: it’s both too natural and too contrived, both seeking to inspire interest by actively repelling it. It starts to resemble Scelsi in that way it needs a mind at peace to be receptive to it, but whether for contemplation as an idea or as a phenomenon remains a mystery. The musicians do play very prettily though, while it lasts.

Apartment House in pursuit of the obscure

Saturday 9 December 2023

Another Apartment House gig at Cafe Oto, bringing out stuff it’s hard to imagine getting heard anywhere else. Anton Lukoszevieze began with a cello solo before being joined by the rest of his ensemble. The solo was Heiligenschein by Erkki Veltheim, which was reminiscent of a potted, all-acoustic version of his Ganzfeld Experiment, a heavily-bowed block of thick overtones that buzzed and hovered. Not sure when it was composed, but it conveyed his recent interest in cognition and parapsychology. The Tenney piece was an equally concise piece, of course carrying his own interest in gestalt cognitive theory. Timbres #1 is an unpublished score from the late 1960s, a pointillistic vignette with clever permutations between each instrument, but everything on a single pitch throughout; a kind of extreme klangfarbenmelodie, reduced and compressed flat into one dimension for our ears to hear in three. Between these was a larger work by Pluto Bell, Saint-Girons for small ensemble with field recordings. I previously had no knowledge of this composer, but kind of liked the grey late-cubist approach to combining natural and musical sounds on first listen, with the latter fragmented and ephemeral as though torn and scattered through the indistinct landscape, working to alienate the sounds that might otherwise be more recognisable.

The second half of the concert was taken up by the premiere of Derek Baron’s The Game of Letters, a suite for ensemble in seven movements written for Apartment House. I’ve previously heard Baron’s Fourteen Latches of Heaven and Earth, a gratifyingly challenging collection on Takuroku, and so expected another aesthetic confrontation. Which I pretty much got, inasmuch as The Game of Letters confounded expectations by being confrontingly homogeneous. The musicians moved in almost unison back and forth over meandering modal-type melodic fragments without any pressing urgency. It had that blank, affectless quality admired by John Cage, heard elsewhere in pieces like Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning. Baron’s writing here seemed to locate the musicians somewhere between mediaeval folksong and classical antiquity, as the impassive material gave rise to inadvertent counterpoint when things were allowed to slip out of phase. I’m not sure if the piano only came in towards the end of the piece, or if I just hadn’t noticed it in all the monophony.

In the field: Ahti & Ahti, Marta Zapparoli, Michael Pisaro-Liu

Thursday 30 November 2023

Marja Ahti and Niko-Matti Ahti created this piece for radio in 2020. Nokivesi (it means ‘soot-water’) is a musique concrète montage of domestic and natural sounds, deftly treated with electronics and some synth work, threaded through with fragments of spoken dialogue. It tells a fragmented story of some sort, which is lost on me as I don’t speak Finnish. Even though deprived of a clear meaning, it’s effective in the way it conveyed an impression of rural isolation without me needing to look that up in the sleeve notes. Even though sober tales of the ruminative and bucolic kind aren’t really my thing, I – wait, is that an electric kettle boiling near the beginning? The same kind of sound I was admiring in Ryoko Akama & d’incise’s No register No declare? Maybe they heard Nokivesi on the radio and made an homage, or it’s a happy coincidence, but for the record the Ahtis got there first.

I’ve probably ranted enough about my hangups with field recordings (tl;dr you gotta be good) so it’s nice that Dissipatio has found a novel twist on the genre. Marta Zapparoli’s field recordings are of magnetic fields, specifially those produced by the Aurora Borealis. Her Interdimensional Generated Space is a half-hour composition made from these electromagnetic emanations, captured by her on a variety of devices, including a homebrew crystal radio. It’s evidently the result of a lengthy period of field research, notable for the variety found in the thin but densely detailed sounds collected here. Zapparoli has produced something just stable enough to present a coherent listening session, yet filled with disruptions and breaks that underline the mercurial nature of the phenomenon, reflecting that their aesthetic delights (visual and aural) can be captured but not controlled. Further details emerge on re-listening. Also, props for releasing a digital download in original one-track mono instead of a dump of the CD master.

This is close to miraculous. Michael Pisaro-Liu’s A room outdoors is a 2006 composition lightly scored for harmonium, any sustaining instrument and field recordings. In this piece, the field recordings bring the outdoors, indoors, to create a imagined space for the musicians to play. These two substantial realisations published by elsewhere feature Guy Vandromme and Adriaan Severins on keyboards and synthesizer, recorded in Brussels in April 2020 (lockdown time) and a version from Cremona this summer, played by Luciana Elizondo on viola da gamba with Vandromme on Indian harmonium; Fabio Gionfrida mixes the field recordings here. The playing is sublime, recalling the subdued simplicity of Ferrari’s Presque rien, but given deeper colouring and shade by Vandromme and Severins, neither musician intruding to comment but only augment the sound into an evocative pastoral without a narrative. The Cremona realisation, with Vandromme switching to a rougher instrument and Elizondo’s string playing, adds a sharper relief of acoustic sounds to the mix, with more to direct the listener’s attention without either musician being so crass as to demand it. Each is notably different in their intepretation while staying true to the piece, with the musicians both offering a richly satisfying evocation and contemplation of landscape, much in the same way that landscape itself presents form and subject as one.

Eva Zöllner: voces, señales

Sunday 26 November 2023

To use a British euphemism, making an album of solo accordion music by Colombian composers is “a bold decision”. It’s a shared fate of colonial nations that their culture will persistently be regarded as partly borrowed and derivative; as for the accordion, it’s an instrument that has had the case made for it by many talented musicians over several decades without ever fully shedding the popular impression that its full depths are yet to be proved. Eva Zöllner has previously shown that she is a virtuoso accordionist in ability and in the audacity of her repertoire, so her album voces, señales on Genuin succeeds in the aim of pushing back the boundaries of music a little further. The collection here reflects Zöllner’s close connections to the composers and affection for the country she first visited in 2015, with all the presented compositions produced with her consultation.

There seem to be no “Old Masters” present here, with all musicians involved apparently in their mid-40s. An overarching theme emerges of a culture in transition, still wrestling with questions of how to see (and hear) itself; as such, strengths and weaknesses abound. The use of accordion as a traditional instrument in Colombian music is tested, with none of the works resting on appeals to folklore or nature. When these aspects do appear, they are contextualised in pop-art style quotation and collage, most overtly in Carlos Andrés Rico’s Nacido en el Valle, el Río y la Montaña, an attention deficit mashup of accordion tunes and samples that feels a little too self-conscious. It’s one of the drawbacks of working in a place and time where your art needs to make a statement. The use of pre-recorded sounds appear in three of the six pieces, with the album opening with the brash audio diary of Ana María Romano G.’s posdomingo 02.10.2016. The disparate elements, threaded together by Zöllner’s accordion, scored to produce evocative timbres as much as musical accompaniment, present a compelling narrative, but the specifics are lost in translation. The subject matter is the failed peace agreement with the guerrilla movement FARC, an event of great importance to Colombia, but the significance does not transmit to those of us ignorant of Columbian history. It’s necessary for a country’s artists to speak to its own people, yet in the most urgent cases this art will always remain to some degree opaque to an outside audience. A similar fate befalls Jorge Gregorio García Moncada’s Un amor, puro e incondicional, another work of remembrance for an historic event which I can only begin to contemplate after reading the sleeve notes. This last piece also uses electronics and pre-recorded voices, merging with Zöllner to create a heavy atmosphere, unlike the other two collages.

It’s notable that the three pieces with electronics are the ones most dependent on explication, as though they must rely on support from additional media to contain all that they are trying to say. Throughout the album, with and without the samples, Zöllner demonstrates her strength in the volatile and changing character of her playing, making abrupt and startling switches in temperament between the sweet and the harsh, giving the lie to the perceived uniformity of the accordion’s sound. None of the pieces settle to be a mere showcase for her versatility, but they do display her virtuosity, most demonstrably in Carolina Noguera Palau’s Canto del ave negra, a dark piece that escalates into frenzied explorations of pitch and tone without breaking its overall moodiness. Daniel Leguizamón’s signo a cambio is a more substantial work that hews to dark ambience throughout, staying low and slow but keeping enough tension in its materials to prevent things getting dreary. Brother, by Natalia Valencia Zuluaga, presents a contrast with folk materials refracted through her own experience and memory into something uniquely personal, its surface simplicity partly rarefied and partly unkempt, making it strangely relatable.

Frey; Frey; Frey?

Sunday 19 November 2023

I’m back from vacation and so can’t justify travelling to Huddersfield this year, where a day is being given over to celebrate Jürg Frey’s 70th birthday. Having heard plenty of his music, I still wish I could be there for the day’s worth of concerts as I’m sure it would add further complications to my understanding of an artist whose body of work conceals ever greater complexities beneath its quiet surface. His music has evolved, but in a way that branches out into exploring the many aspects and implications of his overall style, rather than being lead by a single overriding tendency. As he once described in an interview, his interest lies in mixing together competing impulses and resisting any ideal of asethetic purity. From the austerity of his earlier and somewhat notorious works, he has developed his method to combine elements of the lyrical and the severe in a way that avoids muddled ambiguity, evoking both at once to different degrees. The String Trio recently issued by Another Timbre is an exemplar of his recent work: a single movement some 45 minutes in length, composed in 2017 and revised last year, it blends stasis and narrative in its slow but steady progress. The slowness and quietness reminds the listener of similar composers, yet it never, for example, retreats into the claustrophobia of Morton Feldman’s diminished harmonic language or resort to the directness of Howard Skempton’s melodic clarity. Traces of other voices may also come to mind, but the work is unmistakeably unique to Frey. The trio here is from Apartment House (Mira Benjamin, violin; Bridget Carey, viola; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello) who bring the journey-like structure to life, making full use of changes in dynamics (another Frey trait, even when restricted to the soft end of the spectrum) and giving character to each scene, particularly when the ensemble changes to focus on solos or duets.

Those references to other composers and names were made intentionally to draw attention to the way that Frey’s recent work has increasingly revealed him to be something of a chameleon. His 2021 suite for fortepiano Les signes passagers has just been recorded by Keiko Shichijo for elsewhere and its seven movements covertly blend the severe and the quirky in a most congenial manner, with near-subliminal hints of other composers flitting past faintly in the background. Frey was drawn to the instability of the fortepiano’s finely delineated timbre across registers and dynamics to make pieces that bring out those subtle variations in colour; the work was composed for Shichijo, who performs it lovingly. Composer and performer work in tandem to produce a suite of keyboard pieces where clarity of materials is tempered by that slight fuzziness around the edges of the instrument’s sound. The interpretive markings for each movement are evocative: “Avec sonorité, mais très doux,” “Lumineux et calme”, delighting in the small contrasts between block chords and pedal tones, or in the individual character of each note in slow, unaccompanied melodies. Again, the atmosphere hovers between the early British school of minimalism and the Rosicrucian Satie, only with neither the naivety nor the piety. In the last two sections, Frey shows how he has learned to give warmth to his earlier austere style, in the lengthy “Tendre et monotone” and the near inaudible “Discrète et loin”.

The uncooperatively-titled Circular Music (Ext​.​n​°​1/-​n​°​2/-​Ext​.​n​°​2) released by Insub is credited to Frey, which is at least a generous acknowledgement of his influence on the musicians involved here. Insub mainstay d’incise is joined by an ensemble of seven musicians to play “adaptations” of three of his compositions: Circular Music No. 2 and Extended Circular Musics Nos. 1 and 2. No sleeve notes here so we’re in the dark as to whether these three tracks are a tribute or a reimagining, but the expansion of Frey’s three pretty brief compositions for solo piano or small ensemble into works involving voices, accordion and theremin, amongst other instruments, makes for an exasperating listening experience. Whatever the conceptual merits may have been, the homogeneity of tone and approach across all three pieces ends up making each one sound kind of the same; more critically, they don’t sound like Frey. If you’re familiar with this stuff, a blind listening would have you guessing half a dozen other composers, all of whom would most likely already have something released on Insub. If you’re not familiar with this stuff, you’d come away thinking Frey’s music was a bit undistinctive and really lugubrious, particularly after the thirty-plus minutes of Circular Music No. 2, a piece which doesn’t normally need half that time. Following that with a fifteen-minute ensemble take on the piano miniature Extended Circular Music No. 2 just makes the entire exercise feel bloated and obnoxious, with listening through the entire album becoming a tedious chore.

Some Old Favourites: Pateras, Olsen, Granberg, Eventless Plot

Wednesday 18 October 2023

There are a few composers and musicians I’ve always enjoyed and reviewed a number of times here before, so I tried to pause for a bit before writing about them yet again. Two of the recent-ish releases by Eventless Plot show how their group compositions have developed into a widely varied set of works. Birds’ singing reminds of freedom dates back to the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and takes a different tack from their usual complex but delicate textures of acoustic and electronic sounds, commemorating the event with collages of the sounds of flocks of birds that dominate much of the work. Too pervasive to be a backdrop, birdsong marks how the times of a few years ago were marked by human withdrawal from the urban world and hopes for a quick return to liberty. The trio (Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas, Yiannis Tsirikoglou) play mostly with small ringing percussion, augmented by the warm electronics of modular synth and tape manipulations. Towards the end, the birds start to recede, suggesting both a passing and a loss, notable by their absence left largely unfilled. Distance Between Us was composed over 2021-22 and reunites the group with clarinettist Chris Cundy on bass instrument, adding Margarita Kapagiannidou on a second clarinet. As a contrast to their usual work, this piece makes more use of silence throughout, with a sparser texture anchored by the two clarinets using their rich textures to spare but indelible effect. It’s a slower, contemplative piece that opens up space for reflection more than a surface to dwell upon.

Magnus Granberg has continued to refine his method of composing for ensemble, working with sympathetic groups of musicians to create music that is gentle but not necessarily soothing. His writing gives room for flexibility in the finer details while directing and shaping the overall course of the piece, building thoughtful expanses of complex but subtle counterpoint. Evening Star, Vesper Bell is a near-hourlong piece recorded late last year with Apartment House, Granberg’s signature prepared piano supported by clarinet, string trio and percussion (no electronics this time). This may be his most restrained, even subdued, work that I’ve heard, with slower and more isolated contributions between the six musicians leaving the textures more open than usual, eschewing anything too discordant or spiky. It’s a ruminative piece but it doesn’t ramble, with Granberg exercising his typical command over how the group’s forces channel the leeway given to them, while Apartment House embody his desired balance between spontaneity and self-control.

Lance Austin Olsen, who I believe recently turned eighty, has been steadily turning out his evocative musical collages. These occupy a conceptual space somewhere between improvised bricolage and open-form composition, with the way in which they permit found materials imparting alternative interpretations to their structural logic. The sonic space they occupy is somewhere in the back of your mind, with seemingly unrelated events merging into a hazy, dreamlike continuity. Lakeside Blues – Nachtmusik is another of his collaborations with Gil Sansón, a long-distance of exchange of ideas that overlap and jostle each other to create an aural image akin to the seamier aspects of pop art. 2021’s Sure Is A Good Hamburger is a little different, with Oslen confining himself to playing on (or in) a guitar and amplified objects against a backdrop of casual conversations that drift in and out of focus.

The analogues with Olsen’s paintings (used on some of the cover art) are discernible without being explicit. Most of these pieces are relatively large, with ruminative pacing, dynamic contrasts are never stark except on the occasions when a work fades into silence, effectively dividing a work into multiple panels. From the same year, Fukushima Rising displays the essence of his recent music, the graphic artwork acting as a score for musical interpretation, made here with a typically evocative mixture of found sounds and objects, musical improvisations on simple instruments, amplified sounds with unspecified origins. The eerie atmosphere does not make any directly observable reference to the events which inspired the piece, and is all the stronger for building up complex responses without trying to offer any explanation, either rational or emotional. The Pit, released earlier this year, presents two pieces with each pursuing the implications of Fukushima Rising in different ways. The title work reduces the sonic palette to sparse, more isolated sounds, with silence permeating the whole work like a black background that seeps through. It’s followed by a short work titled Quasimodo’s Dream, a denser piece a little over ten minutes long that presents an examplar of Olsen’s montage techniques and materials in a concise form.

I’m really glad that Anthony PaterasA Dread Of Voids has finally made it out to the public, having been fortunate enough to hear a private recording a couple of years ago. It’s a ravishing piece, grave and wistful all at once, mixing low instruments with soprano and an exquisite use of silence and stillness that lets you dwell on its small details, even as the writing itself is shorn of all excessive ornamentation. I was getting over “lockdown” pieces but this one reminded me of the sub-genre at its finest, drawing inspiration from its circumstances without seeking to use them as a justification. In the accompanying interview, Pateras mentions his interest in Morton Feldman’s use of rhythm and repetition, but feels “I’m much more receptive to my own instincts now.” That individual voice can be heard here, echoing Feldman inasmuch as it tries not to push the sounds around too much and let the music breathe, but in his own distinctive way, more open and forthright while still being pensive. The crack ensemble of performers/composers includes Rebecca Lane (bass flute), Sam Dunscombe (bass clarinet) and Jon Heilbron (double bass) with soprano Jess Aszodi, creating a sound both full and soft from such redued instrumentation. The accompanying work Patterned Language blends violins, double bass and guitar with Pateras on piano, celeste and some faint sine tones. It’s a complimentary composition from a year later, making greater use of unisons and overtones to colour the air and slow down time.