Þráinn Hjálmarsson: Influence of buildings on musical tone

Thursday 8 November 2018

It’s easy to get jaded, to burn out on new music. You go listen to a lot of stuff and after a while you keep hearing the same things coming back, again and again, and you start referring to them as ‘tricks’. Everything sounds the same: a bit minimal, a bit spectral, a bit too tasteful. And if you step out of that comfort zone it comes over as forced and false – you just can’t win. You come home from another gig of exquisitely poised electroacoustic improvisation that immediately blurs in your head with a dozen others you’ve heard in the last year and you wonder what’s the point of it all.

I consider myself lucky to have been sent a CD by the Icelandic composer Þráinn Hjálmarsson a couple of months back. It’s been a kind of antidote. I’ve been playing it once or twice a week to remind myself that there’s plenty of great music still being made, that works in ways I still can’t figure out. Hjálmarsson shows a love for ’empty’ sounds – that idea Cage picked up from Japanese art – a mark made without full force, to allow ambiguities and finer details to emerge. Edges and surfaces are complex and subtle without being softened or frail. There’s a sensitivity to the finer details of sound, but it never feels precious; just as the music avoids dynamic contrasts without ever lapsing into that clichéd reverential hush. Everything feels decisive and structured while remaining alive to unexpected details appearing at every moment.

The violist Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir performs the solo Persona: a series of descending harmonics, high, hovering between breathy and raspy, harsh and soft. The sequence repeats itself in various ways, with the notes acting as a medium for the real matter of the piece, taking on distinct colouration each with each downwards pass. In Grisaille, the Icelandic Flute Ensemble play slow, staggered clusters, with each player either trailing away or lingering with faint, sustained breaths or suspended tones. At times, the music almost fades completely away, giving a new shade to the overlapping layers of sound as they eventually reappear, one by one.

There aren’t any electronics at work here, but the ensemble pieces often produce surprising timbral changes. Influence of buildings on musical tone combines solo string instruments with diverse percussion, each scraped and plucked and meeting a strange common ground, a contested site of complex tones that unexpectedly resolves into a muted palette of higher partials and silences. (MMXIV) mise en scène is even more frenetic at first, the kind of extended playing techniques that would not seem out of place at any polite new music recital, but the music stops and starts, with each new scene becoming more spare and elemental. The focus is on exploring new sounds, rather than pressing technique into the service of a theoretical language. It is probably the searching aspect of this music that makes for a haunting aspect to each piece as it progresses. With each piece, the music eventually reaches a stasis, but the end point is less a destination than some strange, new territory. The final piece preserves that rarefied, haunted atmosphere, as Lucid / Opaque begins at its destination, a refrain of three sounds that cycle throughout the piece, played by a “baroque ensemble of violin, viola and cello”. The simplicity of the material and the eloquence with which it speaks make it probably the most affecting work on the disc. Each pause feels like the end; you hope it never does.

Recorded over a couple of years with various dedicated ensembles in Reykjavík (Caput Ensemble, Nordic Affect, Enemble Adapter), this seems to be the first release dedicated to Hjálmarsson’s music. The CD version comes with a nice set of postcard photos, as per cover art. I’ve just noticed I’ve got a BBC recording on my hard drive of the first performance of his orchestral piece As heard across a room, played by BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov a few years back. I’d forgotten about this, but I can see at the time that I tagged it as “follow up”.

Matthew Shlomowitz, live and on record

Thursday 1 November 2018

I am not enjoying this. Freeze-dried samples set in stiff rhythms; that febrile, brittle texture of Eighties pop music and Eighties art musicians who wanted to be “with it”, the kind of false bombast used to disguise touchiness. Listening to Matthew Shlomowitz’s CD Avant Muzak, you wonder if it is supposed to be annoying and then you curse the music again for making you resort to seeking out an intellectual justification which may not exist.

My experience with Shlomowitz’s music up until now has been fleeting but benevolent, but with increased exposure it rapidly wore out my patience. Of the three works on this CD, played by the Norwegian group asamisimasa, two are for ensemble and sampler while the third is scored for a solo percussionist using midi pads and various devices. I’ve heard Håkon Stene play sections of Popular Contexts 8: Five soundscapes for a contemporary percussionist live and it did not help me appreciate what seems to be going on here. Shlomowitz talks about salvaging ignored, unvalued musical detritus and “ennobling” it (the ensemble pieces are titled Avant Muzak and Popular Contexts 7: Public Domain Music). It’s an admirable artistic goal, seemingly apposite for the present day circumstances of commodity culture, information saturation and social media. The approach, however, sounds like the enterprise is rooted in bad faith.

There’s that 1980s retro vibe, for a start, harking back to when sampler technology was new and full of promise. The rest of the asthetic seems to have been brought along with it, cargo cult style. The acoustic instruments repeat themselves in abrupt loops that grow as wearying as the overlaid sound samples. The ensemble itself (clarinet, cello, electric guitar, drum kit) recalls the Louis Andriessen wannabees from that decade. Perhaps that’s the point, but if it is then it reminds the listener that anything the music has to say about pop culture has already been said a generation ago and these shrill, grating compositions add nothing new. For all the claims of transforming the saccharine by taking it seriously, the music often plays out with the forced jollity of crude satire. The section titles have puns. In wishing to seem irreverent, it gives the lie to the earnestness of the musical material and the listener’s relationship to it. Each piece becomes a crass joke in which the punch line is smothered by nervous laughter and a quickly muttered “no, but seriously”.

The most disturbing aspect of this exercise in nostalgia is that, while professing to engage with the modern-day “real world”, it places the listener in an utterly anachronistic position, entirely at odds with the reality information age it seeks to embrace: a passive recipient. You can accept or reject these pieces, in toto, as is, nothing more. You can do either without feeling complicit, or conflicted, or compromised, regardless of your decision, with no impulse to pick-and-choose. This realisation hit home at last month’s Kammer Klang where another of Shlomowitz’s pieces was performed live. Lecture About Listening to Music is just that, with soprano Jessica Aszodi put in the position of delivering a spoken lecture to the audience, illustrated with musical examples on keyboard and saxophone. She talks, we listen, we’re supposed to get the point. The point is that we are supposed to recognise old pop culture artefacts, but not recognise them if they are sufficiently disguised. I listened on the assumption that any familiar musical references alluded to in the talk were bogus; it appeared that I was wrong and we were, in fact, supposed to “get it”. Again, Shlomowitz seemed to be trying to have it both ways, rewarding listeners’ complacency while passing off any shortcomings as social commentary.