New music preview: An assembly premieres a big new work by Charlie Usher

Monday 24 September 2018

The new music year has started; the Proms are over and I’m sitting at the latest 840 gig behind two punters agonising over whether to go to the Kammer Klang or City University concert next Tuesday. You can usually get to the former just in time for the start, after leaving the latter. The City Uni gigs, besides being free, present a lot of great musicians, both local and visiting, and new music that extends to the more adventurous end of contemporary composition.

The first gig next Tuesday evening is by An assembly, a local ensemble I’ve written about before. In addition to the latest in Louis D’Heudieres hall-of-mirrors Laughter Studies series, the programme features two new works commissioned by the ensemble. Rowland Hill has worked up a combined film/live performance based on Stravinsky’s Agon. “Based on”, as in “trying to recreate Balanchine’s ballet with nothing to go on but an old review of it.” I’m a sucker for this sort of approach, acknowledging and exploiting transmission of information as a form of cultural distortion. Jack Sheen, An assembly’s director, describes it as the “silliest piece I have ever commissioned”.

The other premiere is a long work by Charlie Usher, titled An assembly. It goes for about 45 minutes and, according to Usher, is mostly made up of pieces that are 13 seconds long. We’ve been exchanging some thoughts online about what it means to make music like this. I’ve heard the fragmentary nature of some of Usher’s earlier, shorter works and wondered how this approach would work in an extended timeframe.

Composing is now a routine, diligence, a way of moving through the week, and a practice… so making these small pieces has been uncomplicated. I’ve gathered a large amount written during a certain period into this 45-minute work, and that’s where the title comes from; An assembly – it’s an assembly of 122 pieces, activities, states and practices. Some of them stand alone, some of them end up in a series of pieces made from a common concept, and some of them are just self-declared filler; they were all just something to do and share.

Usually when hearing about a long piece made up of short, unrelated fragments, the result ends up either as a kaleidoscopic or mosiac-like work, or as a kind of diary. The form defines itself by its diversity or an implicit narrative. Usher talked about how some of the short pieces are reworkings or ‘lifted’ from other artists, some transcribe non-musical material into sound, others are “exercises in sensuality, making a surface that sags, bends or shifts in some way; something to seduce.” This approach, a miscellany of miniatures, seemed a familiar enough concept but then the twist came, when he went on to describe the work he put in negate the explicable interpretations of the music.

I didn’t want them played in the order that I wrote them, finding that too autobiographical, shapely, misleading. I grouped similar pieces together and, with the help of a program a friend made for me, spread them out as evenly as possible between the other evenly spaced pieces to create a sort of flatness, an avoidance of shape and drama and to put everything on the same plane, with no hierarchy.

“I’ve been conscious to avoid spectacle in my music for a while,” he added (the spectacle of miniatures?) “I’m not interested in disorientation, in sly tricks on the listener; it’s not a dynamic I find constructive. It’s the continuous present I enjoy more, a work being more a situation than a work.” I’d originally suggested ‘disorientating the listener’ to Usher when I was thinking of music that erased the anticipation of a climax or resolution, so it seemed we were thinking the same way.

I’m interested in sharing a sort of versatility, moving between active listening and passive hearing, and time not as something to be articulated but time as a place to spend some time. I thought that I’d rather spend 45 minutes with sound and friends than 45 minutes on facebook and youtube, so here’s 45 minutes set aside for that. An assembly, the title; there’s the social aspect too. Music is a public space.

I realised I’d been thinking of the continuous present, as experienced in music with more reductive means (the sixties minimal composers, Morton Feldman) and while Usher evidently shares their effacement of hierarchy in his musical material, there’s a more expansive, eclectic attitude at work here. John Cage, trying to say something nice about minimalists, suggested they were teaching us to be convivial; musicians reported that Feldman habitually dozed on and off when attending rehearsals of his late, long-ass pieces. It’s nice to know we can go to a new music concert without having to worry about getting it all, when just being there is the point.

Things Seen, Heard (2)

Monday 10 September 2018

Just quickly, I’m trying to keep a record of gigs I’ve been to lately. There were a few last weekend, all at Cafe Oto. It’s close by and the weather’s nice enough to sit outside with a G&T. On Friday I finally saw my old nemesis Phill Niblock in action. It was as I expected and I was glad of it. It’s always a learning experience to watch the old masters in action. Four sections, or panels, of sound, each made of drones of like instruments, sampled and combined on two laptops. The old films were projected. The pieces seem busier now and they probably are; a combination of increased understanding of how to listen and increased technical possibilities.

There was craft, first and foremost, displayed in all these gigs. Tim Shaw opened for Niblock – I knew nothing about him but he put his impressive rig of electronic components and array of bullhorns to good use. The slowly evolving drone that transitions from time to time can easily become trite but Shaw’s sounds were pleasantly rich and well resolved, with textural details emerging out of held tones in an organic way and not just another boring crossfade once each sound is played out.

Saturday was a duet of Angharad Davies and Phil Julian – what could have been an awkward pairing of violin and analogue electronics went together beautifully, each exploiting the knowledge of their own instrument to accent, comment, elaborate, support and contrast the other. At time you couldn’t be sure which was which, and each could be either.

The same night, cellist Lucy Railton played a solo set. I’ve only heard her playing other people’s stuff before. As expected, cello with electronics. Not expected: cello was dropped after a while, briefly returned to later and then abandoned for good. Railton spent the rest of the time working with a small table of electronic devices. The timbres were suitably gritty at first, then went happily off-piste into collages of divergent sounds, sometimes rubbing up aganst each other hard, ending with a unintelligible conversation under a wash of electronic hail. The setup was ripe for musical and physical fumbling but this was mostly avoided in a way that inspired confidence for further work in this vein.

Monday night was supposed to be spent at home but I was lured out by more G&Ts and the chance to see electroacoustic composer Bryan Eubanks do his thing live. Turned out that he was playing soprano sax as part of a sort of free jazz trio. He had what appeared to be a homebrew stompbox which transformed his instrument from time to time, sometimes moving away from pitch and into pure timbre, at others slashing away like an overdriven guitar. It was a useful insight into what makes him tick. Thinking of his previous work using windows as speakers, I listened to the second set outside.

Organs, Inner and Outer: Thomas Ankersmit, Rohan Drape

Thursday 6 September 2018

I’m a sucker for feedback synthesis* and therefore I’m very happy with Thomas Ankersmit’s new CD Homage to Dick Raaijmakers. There are two things that stand out after the first listening. Most obviously, there is the utilisation of inner-ear phenomena (the notes advise against using headphones for this piece) that predominate at certain times, creating those satisfying shifts in texture and tone when you move your head around while an otherwise static sound is playing. Almost as striking is the compositional sense at work behind the sounds. This type of music making can so often result in an overwhelming torrent of sounds that never let up, a cataloguing of technical effects or an unvarying slice of sound sculpture. Homage to Dick Raaijmakers flows with an almost romantic feeling for the material as it rises and then ebbs away, the mood passing between tension and relaxation. Repeated listening reveals new details, reflecting the blend of different media put to use here: analogue feedback units and oscillators are combined with contact microphones and tape manipulation. Multiple strands of electronic sounds are often at work, creating subtleties not noticed at first. The psychoacoustic effects arrive in two plateaux during the course of the piece, and even there the pulsing and pitches change from time to time while the listener is head-bopping.

The whole high-pitched beating frequencies thing made me remember that I wanted to mention a recent CD by Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras. Ellesmere is apparently the first commercial release by Drape – an event I’ve waited a long time for. I’ve heard him play live, in groups and solo, on several occasions and always been wowed by his technical knowledge, particularly his understanding of software as a means for making music, beyond using it as a tool to achieve a desired outcome. This virtuosity shines through from within the music, not as a flashy surface, so perhaps it should be expected that Ellesmere ignores high-end technology and consists simply of two duets for old electric organs. In the shorter work, Harleian, the two keyboards focus on high pitches, with the differences of intonation and overtones between the two instruments creating plenty of activity to keep the cochlea buzzing. The long piece, St Johns Wood, is in a more sombre register, a slow chorale for organ played as a strange double image, the matched keyboards creating microtonal chords and ghostly harmonics. The otherwise simple organ sound becomes disembodied, without background or perspective the instrument becomes unreal.

*To the point of using it myself, with both analogue and digital electronics.