Parts: 180º, d’incise

Wednesday 18 September 2019

I’ve been listening to a lot of music released as parts lately. In some cases they are definitely extracted from a larger performance but at other times it’s less clear whether I’m hearing excerpts or separate ‘takes’; either way they depend on editing as much as performance for their musical structure. You wonder what may have been rejected or excised, from either the performance or the session. In this type of recording, there is always a subliminal awareness of a wider context in the background, in a way that doesn’t typically happen while watching a movie, for example.

This popped into my head while listening to a new record out on Splitrec called submental by a group called 180º. I’ve been all over this record just lately because 180º is a trio made up of Nick Ashwood, Jim Denley and Amanda Stewart. Ashwood is new to me but I’ve loved the work of Denley and Stewart for years, both solo and in various groups, particularly as part of legendary ensemble/collective/happening Machine for Making Sense. Here, the eight tracks were recorded over two days, track lengths ranging from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Presumably as usual, each piece was improvised with perhaps some loose coordination agreed beforehand, but not necessarily honoured in execution. The three are credited simply with acoustic guitar, bass flute and voice respectively, but there seems to be a hell of a lot going on besides. Bowing and scraping sounds, fluid drones, rattles and pops – is Stewart making that electronic creaking noise herself? I keep listening closer and I’m starting to believe they can actually make these sounds unaided: breath, flute and rubbed strings, struck instruments and oral clicks merge in mysterious ways that build up continually changing, complex aural textures. Stewart’s typically fragmented texts here disappear almost completely into pure sound; all three get deep into the grain of their respective axes, evoking profound expression without ever imposing it. They’re at the top of their game here.

There are parts to this new LP by d’incise, jointly released by Insub and Moving Furniture, but in a different way. Assemblée, relâche, réjouissance, parade collects two 2017 compositions for organs and bowed metallic objects, recorded and mixed by the composer. A L’Anglard de St-Donat is a suite of four “songs” with tune and tuning based on a mazurka by Alfred Mouret. I suspect that even listeners familiar with said mazurka may struggle to recognise it. The bowed metal and organ are partners in a set of slow dances, winding around each other to a sparse accompaniment of percussive sounds. The odd intonation, detourned folksong and reedy sounds are reminiscent of Pancrace’s The Fluid Hammer. I’d like to know more about the tuning system used here. There seems to be some method at work in how each piece begins, progresses and ends, a version based upon the original. This engaging little suite is followed by Le désir, a contrasting pair of longer pieces in which undulating loops of electric organ form an ostinato upon which a type of solo is performed on bowed metal sticks. They fit together suprisingly well, with the bowed objects seeming to rise up out of the lower organ sounds, a slow florid ornamentation that floats between flutes and reeds. The tension is retained throughout by the regular pulsation of the organ on tape forming a sinister backdrop that keeps threatening to crowd out the soloist’s lyricism, itself already carved out of the most marginal material.

Pancrace: The Fluid Hammer

Monday 9 September 2019

Lot of excitement over the first Pancrace album that came out in 2017. The follow-up by the French quintet is not so much a departure as starting over in a completely different way – I doubt anyone expected something like The Fluid Hammer. The instrumentation throughout consists of a freakish amalgam of MIDI-controlled pipe organ, toys and radios with mediaeval folk instruments like hurdy-gurdy, fiddle and Uilleann pipes. It’s modern-day tech, high and low, put to use on ancient noisemakers. The sound is rough and guttural, machine-bowed strings mixing with wheezing pipes pushed to extremis by computers. The combination of instruments works like a single, huge, ramshackle pneumatic organ wound up and let go.

It simultaneously recalls Ligeti’s mechanical pieces, folk music from some remote region of Europe, and a rediscovered archive of tapes by some obscure outsider artist – all while resembling nothing like anything you’ve ever heard before. The sound is delightfully baffling, like discovering an entirely new, alien culture. The paradoxical elements give the music a timeless quality, that could have come from this or any other century. The novelty of the sound doesn’t wear off, as the group introduce new textures and effects on each of the LP’s four sides. Each side adds a new dimension, as the bucolic early tracks change into chittering Ligeti spoof ‘Etude aléatoire’, or the percussive effects established on side 3 with ‘CSO’ and ‘Stridulations’. Side 4 starts out unexpectedly funky, sort of, with bassline and rhythm before dissolving into a swooning, soaring cloud of colours and shifting tonalties on ‘Nothing but the Place’.

On each side, one track gives way to recorded dialogue (in French), as pump shop proprietors Gaubert père et fils (est. 1872) discuss the business of pipework and pumps, motors, the album, tapes, cheap imports and the internet. Their store happened to be across the street from the hall where recording took place. Their discussion adds to the folkloric and archival atmosphere of the music as well as adding a kind of parallel commentary of the work going on behind the record. (Pancrace started out as a residence with the instrument inventor Léo Maurel; it’s easy to assume at first that the talk is Maurel discussing his own work.) The album rewards repeated listening, both for deciphering the complex patterns and musical details and for exploring a deeper meaning behind the music. When so many artists are tempted to tack on a ‘meaning’ to their work, The Fluid Hammer effortlessly raises questions about art relating to society, meshing the past with the future, and meta-commentary on the creative process and labour, all embodied in the medium of fun, intriguing music. A remarkable achievement.

Jérôme Noetinger and Anthony Pateras: A Sunset For Walter

Monday 2 September 2019

The hell is going on here? It’s, it’s… beautiful. A long, long way from his signature hyperactive style, Anthony Pateras contemplatively plays slow, arpeggiated octaves over a gentle ambient hum that takes on a life of its own at the start of A Sunset For Walter, the new Penultimate LP of duos by Pateras and Jérôme Noetinger. The two have collaborated numerous times before, but this is the first legit release of the two playing together alone. Pateras on untreated piano, Noetinger on Revox tape deck, adding ambience, disembodied counter-melodies and distorted piano reflections. Bass resonances linger ominously, chords pile up and echo; each musician adds an occasional flourish to cast the prevailing mood into relief, opening up the sounds to new possibilities.

The Walter in the title is Walter Marchetti and the album is an homage to his piano music, “particularly the slowed-down subaquatic expanse of Nel Mari Del Sud.” The LP presents four excerpts from a three-hour performance given by the two at an evening concert in Stuttgart last year. The ruminative pacing and sustained tones throughout create a marine calm, always slightly eerie more than lulling. A crepuscular atmosphere prevails throughout, giving everything a suitably elegaic tone, as though the sounds are imperceptibly fading away. Presumably the entire gig was like this – we get some clues of what we haven’t heard from Noetinger’s tape, playing back manipulated fragments of the two playing. Sounds from the small audience become more audible, some children in the room, a bird somehwere.

The selections, presented out of sequence, work as distinct compositions, each preserving a mood while allowing for musical development. Both players are excel at deepening the plot, slipping a new undertone into the colouring of their sound or introducing disruptions at just the right moment, never out of place but changing the listener’s perspective. The tracks are titled only by the time at which they were played; the last track is the latest. The sounds here are at their most sparse, the tape playing thin, high sounds, people’s feet shuffling on the hard floor – it sounds like the sun has set and this is indeed the end.

Charles Ross at Cafe Oto

Sunday 1 September 2019

You really need to see it as well as hear it; not just the visual element, but to appreciate the music as a theatrical experience. Until now, my exposure to Charles Ross’ music has been limited to two pieces heard on the radio, the orchestral work His Master’s Voice and the strange ensemble piece The Ventriloquist. The former piece was conducted by Ilan Volkov; the latter programmed by him as part of his Tectonics festival. Reviewers at the Glasgow performance of The Ventriloquist seem to have all expressed varying degrees of bafflement, particularly given that Ross performed his part in a small, waterlogged sandpit mounted on stage. Every biographical sketch mentions that he is British but has lived in a hut in a remote corner of Iceland for years. He studied music with Frank Denyer, which becomes obvious.

At Oto on Tuesday night, Ross was joined by Volkov, Yoni Silver, flautist Maayan Franco and Crystabel Riley on percussion. The second half was an improvisation by the quintet. Before that came two compositions by Ross, one a premiere and the other getting its first hearing in the UK. The trio in the nameless town had Ross with viola, Franco, and Silver on bass clarinet, not playing, but swaying silently. Their tread became audible, a steady rhythm that gained accompaniment from their instruments. The soft stamping recurred later, staggered into a slow folk dance. Ross choreographs sound and movement, each playing its part. As with folk music, the sounds can be rough and at times may even be roughly handled, but are always made with a clear-minded certainty, a sense of necessity. As with Denyer’s music, continuity follows what appears to be an emotional, dramatic logic in preference to conventional musical form. The immediate distinction between the two composers is Ross’ taste for blunt, restricted gestures, limited in range and variation. Here, sound is used as a means of inculcating a particular frame of mind, a subjective shading by which the music may be understood.

The premiere, titled newlyblind, was composed for Yoni Silver and required him to simultaneously play various combinations of piano, clarinet, prepared violin and guitar and percussion. As a virtuouso showcase, technical fireworks were not at the forefront. Even in the opening, played solo, Silver was required to repeat a dense, one-handed chord on the keyboard in an irregular stutter. Held clarinet tones and vocal cries added to the claustrophobic atmosphere. The prepared string instruments produced muted percussive sounds – quiet, complex, ambiguous. At one point Silver held a stone in his left hand, grinding it against another, while his right plucked and struck at the violin resting on the edge of the piano. The violin’s curved back rocked unsteadily, threatening to fall as the rocks scraped and hissed.

Playing: Catherine Lamb – Cristián Alvear, James Weeks – Mira Benjamin

Thursday 29 August 2019

I’m listening to people playing instruments, making music. Are they playing with, or on, their instruments? It’s a trickier question here, as the musicians are performing scores composed for them by other people. If the playing here is to be understood as exploration, then it comes from the composer’s curiosity and from the musician discovering what can be made from the composer’s vision. Making music like this becomes largely a question of possibilities, balanced against the need for some level of restraint.

Both are solos, but augmented. Catherine Lamb’s piece, Point/Wave, is for guitarist. Accompaniment comes from the ‘Secondary Rainbow Synthesizer’: amplified ambient sound filtered into resonant frequencies. This is apparently the first piece she wrote using the device, which has since formed the basis of her Prisma Interius series of works. The sounds in Point/Wave are more clearly defined and separated here than in the later works; this would be partly due to the sole performer and to the bright, clear attack and decay of the guitar. The piece is conceptually clear, but with harmonic sophistication. The guitarist Cristián Alvear plays a cycle of chords over, or against, the passing harmonic clouds of the ambient synthesizer. Whether the two relate or not is a moot point: the interaction is one of two processes at work, each producing sounds of alternating clarity and complexity. The synthesizer’s changes are governed by the outside world; for the guitar, Lamb has composed an “infinite cycle” of chords related to smaller and larger prime numbers. Acoustic phenomena are explored and demonstrated, but in a lyrical, non-dogmatic way, rather like Alvin Lucier’s later works combining instruments with pure tones. I like that Lamb expresses her frustrations with the guitar through the piece, with the awkward tuning and quick decay turned into a virtue that adds extra colour to the sound. The piece was written for Alvear, a guitarist who has a knack of finding the space for potential shading and texture in the most seemingly reductive scores. He gives the piece warmth and presence, using a classical guitar to speak clearly, in a way Lamb thought would only be possible with steel strings.

Any play in James Weeks’ windfell is of a more serious nature. This hour-long solo for violin is also augmented: the musician is expected to sing vocalise from time to time. The piece was written for Mira Benjamin, so presumably her high, clear vocal tones are a requirement for anyone else attempting the piece. The inner sleeve of the CD warns listeners that the first five minutes or so are almost inaudible. The sounds are the most rudimentary type, the kind of inadvertent noises made in preparation to play. The home listener, already slightly apprehensive of what might follow (“resist the impulse to turn up the volume”) is then led through an open labyrinth, in which the path is marked but the ultimate direction never clear. After several hearings, it’s still hard to remember exactly where this path led. The piece doesn’t exactly build up from its near-silences, but transforms itself in ways which never seem a sudden divergence yet always efface the memory of what passed immediately before. Damndest thing. Pauses mark changes of direction; each section carries a tension with it, but the gestures are never hurried. Sounds are frequently sustained and repeated, with a restraint that always refuses to indulge the listener. Changes are marked by difference in pitch and intonation, rather than gesture and registration – just enough to be heard as new. The voice joins in at times, or whistling to blend in with the harmonics. Sometimes the voice provides three-part harmony with the double-stops – by this point in the piece, the music has become strongly present, perhaps even loud. Later, you notice things have become quieter again. Weeks (married to a violinist) demonstrates a deep understanding of the instrument, doubtlessly aided by Benjamin’s performance, a mixture of calmness and absolute control, the kind of heroic qualities that come from balancing contradictory impulses, as heard in her previous performances.

Playing: Simon Balestrazzi & Nicola Quiriconi, A Spirale w/ Chris Cogburn

Wednesday 21 August 2019

I’m listening to people playing instruments, making music. In these cases, they’re playing with their instruments, the verb used in the sense of exploration. Making music like this becomes largely a question of taste, of value judgements. It risks a dead end, making sounds that are pleasant but eschewing the potential for discovery and meaning. The temptation to recline into the comfortably tasteful is tempered by working with unfamiliar instruments, which won’t conform so readily to your expectations. Licheni is a relatively brief suite of pieces by Simon Balestrazzi and Nicola Quiriconi. Balestrazzi works with “objects and self built little instruments” while Quiriconi uses contact microphones and voice. The pieces are intricate and detailed without being fussy, maintaining a quiet consistency in sound like a protracted close-up, unflinchingly intimate. Acoustic and electronic merge, as does subtle uses of voice woven into the sound. Both musicians show a firm control over their media, allowing it to lead them into new areas of sound while also restraining it in the service of compositional development.

The duo A Spirale (Maurizio Argenziano on electric guitar, Mario Gabola on “feedback sax”) are joined by percussionist Chris Cogburn on Autocannibalism. The form is similar to Licheni: a similar suite of seven sections of similar dimensions, but the instruments present other difficulties. Jazz allergics like me will be relived to learn there is no noodling going on here; Autocannibalism is an extended study in feedback. Guitar and saxophone merge in sustained tones ranging from smooth to abrasvie, with a heavier emphasis on the choppy side as abetted by the percussion. It’s easy to describe things as sounding ‘organic’ and assume qualities of complexity and coherence, but the struggles of playing in such a way become clearer here, when listened to closely. The easily available range of feedback sounds is limited, requiring skill, invention and, again, taste to keep things interesting without the musicians repeating themselves. There’s less detail and depth than Licheni, but both albums offer a comparable musical experience, executed in different media. In both, it’s not clear if the sections are excerpts from a larger performance or otherwise assembled from various takes.

The End of Time: Olivier Messiaen, Linda Catlin Smith

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Who would have thought that Messiaen needed rescuing? Yet all this time, in full view, his reputation has been in peril. Despite his secure position as one of the great figures of twentieth century music, he is often met with the Wrong Sort of apprehension – not for being “too modern” but for being too ornate and overbearing, loaded down with symbolism that he elaborates upon to an extent that tests the audience’s Sitzfleisch. He was teacher to a generation of avant-garde luminaries who waved off his radical techniques and gently dismissed him with the contempt bred by familiarity. Messiaen is now a double image that cannot be reconciled; he has been embraced by an audience at the expense of his modernity, while the more progressively minded continue to regard his modernity askance. We are only permitted to see him in part at any time. Advocating for him as an innovator is made to seem like a revisionist act.

It seems like a bold move for a new recording of Quatuor pour la fin du temps to be released by Another Timbre, a record label that’s made its name for working a rich seam of contemporary music while seldom straying beyond a range that extends from, say, John Tilbury to Wandelweiser. For those already familiar with this classic, this interpretation should come as a discreet but satisfying revelation. Rather than trying to reinterpret or (God forbid) ‘reimagine’ Messiaen, the musicians make a clear-eyed attempt to see his work plain. As with many twentieth century composers, first recordings of Messiaen have a rawness that comes with the strangeness of the new musical idiom and the need to emphasise the new, alien quality. A modern group taking this stark, ‘just the notes’ approach would be boring, uninflected and perversely colourless. For Another Timbre, the musicians are Heather Roche on clarinet, violinist Mira Benjamin, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, and Philip Thomas on piano. I’m sure I’ve discuss solo performances and recordings by all four musicians many times before. They each excel at new and contemporary music, through both technical achievement and interpretive nous. They approach the Quatuor as a contemporary work, combining flowing virtuosity with an appreciation for grit, never taking the composer’s craft for granted.

This performance-based approach produces rhythms and phrasing that are more deliberate (not necessarily slower) than other versions I remember. It stays true to the complex emotional experience of hearing the sute of eight movements while giving clarity to certain points. The opening “Liturgie de Cristal” emphasises is strangeness through its abruptness, hammered home by the sudden contrasts in the following Vocalise. Messiaen comes across as prescient of current musical trends here, particularly in the glacially slow clarinet solo “Abîme des oiseaux”, played by Roche with a tone that’s both pensive and unyielding, and “Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes”. The latter, played by all four in unison, is the most arresting version I’ve heard: the lock-step precision produces a unique timbre and repeated phrases take on an urgency I haven’t heard before. Messiaen has the capacity to shock.

The Quatuor is paired with a piece for the same four instruments by Linda Catlin Smith, whose work has been presented on Another Timbre a couple of times before. Among the Tarnished Stars is an older work, from the late Nineties, which may be why it bears some more overt resemblances to other composers. In particular, it recalls late Feldman at his most extroverted, i.e. short fragments of lyricism in a tone that’s more wistful than claustrophobic. Piano plays against the clarinet and strings like a muted concerto. A less overtly dramatic work than the Messiaen, it still provides plenty of contrasts and incidents while still feeling compact at half an hour length. Heard alone, it could provide a fitting epilogue to the Quatuor, but in fact precedes it on the disc. It seems an unusual choice to have the later work first, but in this way it sets a new context in which Messiaen may be heard. Smith’s music is clearly a work of the present time without ornamenting itself with any overt signifiers of end-of-century fashions, whether cultural, social or technological. Messiaen’s connections with contemporary music may now be more closely observed.

Music We’d Like To Hear, 2019 season (part 3)

Wednesday 7 August 2019

(Part 2 here.)

The fiftieth Music We’d Like To Hear concert began with Séverine Ballon playing from her compositions for solo cello, which I’ve described before from a recital and her inconnaisance CD she released last year. These were followed by A line alongside itself, a new piece by Newton Armstrong which extended Ballon’s playing with electronics. By complete contrast, the second half the gig began with Michael Parsons’ 1995 electronic composition Tenebrio, an unusual piece quite unlike other pieces I’ve heard by him. Composed on a pair of Yamaha CX5M synthesisers (one such unit was on display for the audience to enjoy the authentic retro-techno vibe), the piece see-sawed between grainy drones and low-resolution noise.

I’m glossing over this stuff a bit because the final piece felt like a culmination of the entire series so far. The curators had flown over the American soprano Beth Griffith to perform John McGuire’s intricate vocal juggernaut A Cappella. Having presented a superb rendition of McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos two years earlier, this all-too-rare opportunity to hear his music was even more ambitious. A Cappella was written for Griffith in the mid 90s, weaving together brief samples of her voice with live singing, in melodic and spatial counterpoint between left and right loudspeakers. The piece unfurls with a steady, unyielding momentum, with the crispness and directness of rhythm and harmonies reminiscent of American ‘post-minimalist’ composers – without, however, any of the associated irritation. If heard inattentively, it resembles one of those 80s-90s pieces with a superficial brightness that quickly becomes inane and lethargic. That misconception soon disappears, as A Cappella continues to reveal new details and turns in expression without expanding upon the initial material. The piece is redeemed by this strong framework of compositional logic, resisting the need for subjective intervention while still being more sophisticated than simple bell-ringing patterns; there is also a suppleness to the rhythms engineered into the steady pulse. Griffith’s singing was essential to bringing out these shadings and depths in the musical texture to their fullest. Standing before the audience with a handheld microphone, she alternately led and followed the disembodied chorus that surrounded her, turning her head from one to the other, shifting effortlessly between registers, skimming the surface of the polyphony and then suddenly darting up to hover above it.

Music We’d Like To Hear, 2019 season (part 2)

Tuesday 6 August 2019

(Part 1 here.)

Music We’d Like To Hear‘s latest season continued their bold approach to reappraising recent music. The second concert began with a live performance of Timing by Phil Harmonic (aka Kenneth Werner) – a piece which had only existed up to now as a recording of a one-off, unscripted studio performance in 1979. Two performers on electric keyboards play chords, each telling the other when to change. It seems like nothing more than a simple excercise, but the performance revealed deeper implications. Each musician, and the music, is dependent on the other’s actions; yet neither can control what the other may do, only when they shall do it. Each knows what to do, but not when they may do it. In one way it is like one of Christian Wolff’s open scores where the musicians can only progress by consensus, but with an adversarial element. Each musician has the power, should they choose to do so, to subvert and disrupt as well as to collaborate. The spoken imperative to “change now” takes on a greater burden for the audience. Francesca Fargion and Tim Parkinson’s performance used a transcription of the same chords from the recording but in this piece, timing is everything.

I went to a fine performance of Alvin Lucier’s Chambers at one of these gigs a few years ago so it was slightly surprising to see it get another airing, except this was a completely different interpretation. The basic concept of filtering sounds through different, small acoustic spaces was reinterpreted by Rie Nakajima and Lee Patterson in a much broader way. Much of the sound was non-electronic and unamplified, particularly Nakajima’s. Any concave object or surface was considered as a potential acoustic filter for the transmission of sounds; even the sound of an open or hollow object against another surface is determined by the shape, down to a bottlecap pushed across the floor.

The gig ended with Enrico Malatesta performing Éliane Radigue’s Occam XXVI, circumnavigating a pair of cymbals with a violin bow, occasionally holding a frame drum to resonate above the cymbals’ surface. There’s a kind of meticulousness in these pieces in which the perfection of the player’s gestures in producing an immaculate surface of sound becomes fascinating in itself. Here, the music again seemed like a technical exercise but this time I struggled to find anything deeper. Radigue’s long history of work with synthesiser drones should mean that the apparently simple surface of harmonies reveal a more complex interplay of shifting overtones, but perhaps here the lack of precise control over the instrument’s harmonic spectrum and the overfamiliarity of bowed percussion sounds work against the odds of the listener finding an aural epiphany.

Music We’d Like To Hear, 2019 season (part 1)

Monday 5 August 2019

Summer has been cruelly disrupted, but not before I got to take in all of this year’s Music We’d Like To Hear season. I got to write about the 2018 season in more detail for last January’s issue of Tempo, but I still need to get a few things down about the concerts just passed.

It was the programme’s fifteenth anniversary and ended with their fiftieth concert. The 2019 series began with a recital for violin and piano by Mira Benjamin and Philip Thomas. The term ‘recital’ here perhaps ought to be used advisedly, but this gig was the most conventionally-formed ‘evening concert in a church’ out of the three – at least on the surface. MWLTH gigs, curated by composers John Lely and Tim Parkinson, always bring a combination of the brand new, the unfamiliar and the unjustly overlooked, often reviving works previously thought lost to live performance. Benjamin and Thomas ended their gig with a collaborative work, Marc Sabat and Matteo Fargion’s duet YOU MAY NOT WANT TO BE HERE (after Bruce Nauman). The words from the title phrase (taken from Nauman’s Poem Piece) were spoken in various permutations, or substituted with pitches on violin or piano. As twilight slowly faded through the church windows, slow exchanges between voice and instrument, instrument and instrument, untreated and prepared piano sounds inculcated a state of mesmerisation in the audience, subdued but held in suspense. I had to remind myself that Naumann was not directly involved in the composition of this piece – that impression may have been helped along by Parkinson worrying aloud in his introduction that the piece may rub some people the wrong way.

The concert began with Thomas Stiegler’s Inferner Park, a set of thirty-one slender pieces and fragments that skirted the boundaries between charming, obstinate and foreboding. The work is named after Paul Klee’s set of drawings. Works by Nomi Epstein, Tim Parkinson and Georgia Denham seemed to work together to form a sort of deconstructed violin sonata, each providing a distinct, isolated aspect of the players’ roles in the form. Epstein focused on gesture, attack and colouration, Parkinson on material with minimal interpretation, Denham on sonority and sentiment.

New Show! Like, For Real This Time! The Museum of Aphorisms and Platitudes

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Ah yeah, remember that art show I was in last month? Well, apparently I wasn’t. That was some kind of mix-up in the listings when I was in fact due to appear in the next instalment of The Museum of Aphorisms and Platitudes, curated by Phil Edwards. It opens at Rubicon ARI in North Melbourne on 24 July (that’s right now) and runs until 10 August – full deets on the Rubicon ARI website. Sadly, I won’t be there to see this one either, but I plan to give it some more online exposure after the show closes. My piece is a small musical score with an online sound realisation, so if you can’t make it to Melbourne then you won’t completely miss out.

The MoP&A – The Museum of Platitudes and Aphorisms is part of a series of exhibitions and events that explore how individual artists and audiences explore their thinking about the presence of art in a studio or a gallery environment. It seems that there is a kind of peripheral vision that occurs in all artist’s practices that, once recognised, avoids or extends the awareness of the role of art and galleries in our lives. The aim of the project is to ask both makers and observers to reflect upon their own values in the experiences of making, encountering and looking at art. The role of the museum or gallery as the psychological architecture used to reflect upon accepted knowledge is also in review.

Samstag aus Licht in Paris

Tuesday 16 July 2019

A friend of mine once attended the summer school Stockhausen hosted at Kürten each year. When he told me about it, we joked back and forth about the ridiculousness of it all, the cult atmosphere, the white outfits, the harem, the cosmic consciousness, the megalomania. I asked him what the course was like and he suddenly got serious. “It changed my life.” He then stressed that he didn’t mean just music, he meant life itself.

Having experienced four of Stockhausen’s Licht operas now, I can fully understand my friend’s attitude. The premise is hopelessly overambitious, the substance absurd to the point of offensiveness, the execution demands the preposterous. And each time, the audience (sometimes with the performers) ends up milling around outside the venue afterwards in a state of euphoria.

After getting enthused about the Le Balcon’s staging of Donnerstag aus Licht at Southbank, I looked them up to see when they planned the next instalment of their proposed complete cycle in Paris, only to find out it was happening this summer. It was a short but unforgettable holiday. Le Balcon has been taking a relatively practical approach to staging these spectacles, so I was worried that the relatively stripped-back approach would take the edge off Samstag, which places a heavier reliance on theatrical presentation over libretto to tell its story.

No fear of that. Each scene depicts a single, bold image, detailed in music and gesture more than words. It is almost childishly simple. Of the three Licht protagonists, Samstag takes Lucifer as its subject, and your immediate hopes that this will make the opera suitably badass are pretty much fully rewarded. From the first scene where Lucifer stalks onto the stage, bangs out an ominous chord on a piano and summons his musician, this production captured the right mix of hermetic esoterica and giddy coups de théâtre. (Bass Damien Pass pulled off the portayal of Lucifer as self-possessed arrogance covering a deep-set core of anxiety.) Over the following scenes, the piano was pressed into service as a podium and then, end on, as a protruding tongue from a grimacing, demonic face. The use of projections was highly effective, illuminating the music and its underlying symbolic conceits without cluttering things up.

That theme of transformation was strongly present again. In Donnerstag, it is largely confined to the stage but from Samstag onwards Stockhausen turned his attention to transforming the audience. Le Balcon ran the first three scenes together into an unbroken span of three hours. Even on that supremely hot weekend, the punters stayed focused and enthusiastic throughout. (Props to the elderly lady who strolled away afterwards, bedecked with explosive debris from the first scene as a trophy.) The final scene of Lucifer’s exorcism and farewell took place in, and in front of, a nearby church. At six PM we were all calmly taking our seats in a concert hall; by eleven we were in a mob on the street rapturously cheering while passersby were inadvertently sprayed with debris by coconut-hurling monks chanting St Francis’ Salutatio Virtutum. “What’s going on?” one tourist asked me. We’ve exorcised Lucifer, have some coconut.

Lance Austin Olsen: Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You

Thursday 4 July 2019

This gets dark and disturbing. I’ve written before about Lance Austin Olsen, the artist and composer who uses his paintings as scores to be realised as music. “As with painting, the fabric of the music hovers between fragments of narrative and unspecified affect. It’s an elusive music, part radio drama, part collage, part pure sound.” His new release, Look At The Mouth That Is Looking At You, is the most overtly musical of his tape works I’ve heard so far yet is the one with the clearest, most present narrative. It falls into three equal parts, The Event, The Descent and Lost – that middle title could describe the work as a whole. The triptych embodies a sinking into a new state of being, unwelcoming but inevitable. (In the accompanying booklet, Olsen obliquely relates the incident of an acquaintance having a stroke. The booklet includes the dense, black notebook drawings that form the basis of the work, of which this recording is only one version.) As with the previous recordings I’ve heard, Olsen has reworked and collaged recordings he made some years earlier, but here the materials sound less eclectic and more focused: voices, piano and organ recorded in a church. The feeling is less collage and more montage. The reverberant space casts the voices and sounds into a deep hollow that dominates all three parts. As implied by the titles, the three-act structure does not assure the listener with a redemptive arc, but guides into a personal abyss of private pain.

Hearing it again: awirë

Tuesday 25 June 2019

I was at this gig and I swore I’d written something about it, but nope. My memory gets hazy and my mind wanders. It happens sometimes when listening to music and I think it happened at this gig, but I could be wrong. Cyril Bondi, Pierre-Yves Martel and Christoph Schiller were playing at Cafe Oto to promote their fine album tse. At the end of the night, the trio were joined by violinist Angharad Davies for an improvised set.

This kind of scenario where musos work together for the first time in front of an audience is often the bane of free improvisation, where the potential thrill of risk-taking and discovery usually succumbs to awkward longeurs or unsatisfying busywork. At Oto, the quartet seemed to be at pains to keep out of each others’ way, working with a highly restrained palette and seemingly determined to make as little sound as possible. Scratch ‘possible’, replace with ‘necessary’: as they played it became clear that they were deliberately taking this approach, each of them focused on the unique timbres of their instruments (violin, viola da gamba, prepared spinet, harmonium drones and pipes) with an absolute minimum of embellishment or extraneous context, other than that provided by their fellow musicians.

Still, I couldn’t fully let go of my hang-ups about improvisation and kept listening out for any signs that the music was becoming too hesitant or precious. Live, in a bar in Dalston, it held together but on the frailest of threads. It felt like a delicate, shared experience that couldn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. I was therefore very surprised when Another Timbre (which had released tse) decided to release this set as a 30-minute CD, now with the title awirë. The short length isn’t the issue; it’s hard to think of anything that could be reasonably paired with it that would not detract from attention to this one piece. Was it really that good?

It would be trite to say that listening to the CD was a revelation, but you get the idea. First, the recording sounds damn good (it has been cleaned up to remove the Unber Eats scooters outside and me spilling Westmalle inside) and what could have been indistinct now sounds incredibly resilient. For thirty minutes the four players spin out a long, thin line of sound, held taut and in suspension without ever slacking or letting it drop, even as they pass it back and forth between each other. The small sounds stand out as significant elements in a self-reinforcing structure that’s as strong as it is light.

As it turns out, there was a compositional method at work. Besides the premeditated approach, a chance-determined gamut of pitches was drawn before playing, keeping the quartet focused on certain notes for a given time, with occasional opportunities for ‘free’ playing. This goes some way to explaining the coherence of the piece, but to work so well as music requires the skill and imagination of the quartet. The arbitrary pitches and structure inspire creativity as much as they impose order, and there is a superb sense of pacing and nuance that ensures that every gesture places the whole attention on sound over idea. A kind of virtuosity that is invisible. Even at the moments of greatest stillness, the music is never at rest.

New Show! The Museum of Aphorisms and Platitudes

Monday 17 June 2019

Anyone in Melbourne over the next month has the chance to see (and hear) a new work of mine at the group show The Museum of Aphorisms and Platitudes, curated by Phil Edwards. It opens at c3 Contemporary Art Space in The Abbotsford Convent on 19 June (6 to 8 pm for the launch). The show runs until 14 July – full deets on the c3 website. Lol nope it’s actually on at Rubicon ARI in July/August. Sadly, I won’t be there to see it, but I plan to give it some more online exposure after the show closes.

The MoP&A – The Museum of Platitudes and Aphorisms is part of a series of exhibitions and events that explore how individual artists and audiences explore their thinking about the presence of art in a studio or a gallery environment. It seems that there is a kind of peripheral vision that occurs in all artist’s practices that, once recognised, avoids or extends the awareness of the role of art and galleries in our lives. The aim of the project is to ask both makers and observers to reflect upon their own values in the experiences of making, encountering and looking at art. The role of the museum or gallery as the psychological architecture used to reflect upon accepted knowledge is also in review.