Mega-post: mostly Insub but also Mappa and Roeba

Sunday 22 November 2020

I’ve been listening to a bunch of collaborative recordings and group compositions over lockdown and meaning to do justice to them, but in my head they started to link up to each other to make a gargantuan meta-piece which I am now struggling to disentangle back into their distinct elements. I’ve heard some of these musicians before, in different combinations, while others are new to me. Patterns for a future human pairs Barry Chabala’s steel-string acoustic guitar with Lance Austin Olsen’s sound collages (the latter credited with ‘field recordings’ and nothing more). The music draws inspiration from Olsen’s folded and layered paintings; for his part, the sounds incorporate broadcasts, electrical sounds and audio documentation of his studio to build up a ruminative montage that opens the mind to speculation. It acts as a drape for Chabala’s guitar, colouring and commenting on his playing, although his solos were played over Olsen’s collages. Chabala plays melodies that quickly break up into fragmentary gestures, as though itself collaged. For the second, longer piece any connotations of folk music have all but disappeared as his playing becomes more halting and disruptive, with melody ever more elusive. It’s a strange mix. There’s a programme ascribed here, as alluded to in the title – the tone is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, only unknowable, if not unrelateable.

I’ve heard Otherwise, a previous release by Hübsch, Martel, Zoubek, but don’t think I wrote about it. I think I had a hard time finding something to say about it. Their new album Ize has made a much stronger impression on me, so I’ll assume it’s an improvement. It can be facile to describe music as being “like Feldman” when it stays in a slow and quiet steady-state throughout, just as it can now be facile to to play in that manner. In this case, the music and the description do the term justice. Carl Ludwig Hübsch’s tuba helps, adding a recognisable timbre to the mix and anchoring the music, making its presence felt equally when it falls silent. The five pieces here turn between tender and sombre, with a similar (but not corresponding) shifting in musical approach between the reductive and the reticently lyrical. This is most strikingly heard in the long track Kolt, which starts with Philip Zoubek’s tentative prepared piano and ends with a long, high pitched drone that sets an oscillator beating against Pierre-Yves Martel’s pitch pipes. There are electronics, but these dissapear behind piano, tuba and Martel’s viola da gamba. The incongruous combination of instruments comes together clearest at the end, when they conclude with an endless, slow-motion falling that also brings out the strongest late Feldman evocation.

There’s a back-and-forth across all these albums, between expressivity and restraint. Guitarist Cristián Alvear, so often the exemplar of Wandelweiser’s parsimonious attitude towards notes, cuts as loose as I’ve ever heard him in this set of duets with fellow guitarist Burkhard Stangl. The Pequeños fragmentos de una música discreta are untitled except for one marked ‘(almost sad music)’. “Almost” comes up several times in the brief cover notes, but they’re being too coy. The music can be proudly described as charming, downright beguiling. Alvear and Stangl share a constantly engaging interplay of instruments that never tries to dazzle the listener with bravado. Even as they lightly touch on allusions to folk and classical guitar, there’s a dignified formality that adds to the charm as each piece reveals its character through confidently employed technique. For each piece with interlocking rhythmic patterns, or gently cascading runs of notes (as in No. 4), there is a contrasting piece such as No. 5, a study in microtonal differences between the two trading harmonics. No. 2 introduces extraneous techniques, with (I presume) Stangl laying down e-bowed notes and rubbed strings as a counterpart to a slowly circling melody. The reticence of the ‘(almost sad music)’ is set against scratchy radio sounds. Bass tones appear in the final part, to end in appropriately melancholy fashion.

Making the Pequeños fragmentos seem florid by comparison, Bow down thine ear, I bring you glad tidings is a brace of works jointly made by Alvear and d’incise that reduces their music practice to base elements. Alvear’s acoustic guitar is paired with percussive “tuned objects” played by d’incise, who subsequently processed their playing in a room different from the one they were in at the time. Alvear’s playing is meticulous, repeating short patterns of clear, single notes at a steady pulse. d’incise’s percussion matches Alvear before straying into adding colouration through resonances and lingering overtones. The use of reverberation, both natural and electronic, provides the majority of the perceptible changes in these two pieces. On the rare occasions the material does change, it seems less momentous than the long-term effects it will have on the prevailing ambience. Both pieces find the musicians working in a highly constricted space, yet making enough room for themselves to make the music develop and flourish. It’s a paradox that strikes the listener as tension, whose lack of resolution becomes its own, slowly earned gratification.

ATRL is a trio of Sébastien Bouhana on percussion, Christophe Berthet on reeds and Raphaël Ortis on electric bass. Written down like that, it sounds like a recipe for jazz, but Inclusio is a set of three concise pieces tied down just as tight as Bow down thine ear. Ortis is credited as composer. Ominously subdued percussion and tapped bass gallops through Contenir, abruptly cross-cut by flat planes of wind tones or faint electrical humming. All three pieces are similarly constricted, bound by a heavy grid of regular pulsations and suddent juxtapositions of static blocks of sound. Renfermer sticks up strident sax drones against mechanistic percussion. Comprendre is a more tractable drone of interweaving horns and whistling, intruded on by a return of the insistent bass tapping from the start. All three play these oblique, alientating pieces with a directness and precision that seems fittingly less (or more) than human.

Stumblebum Aesthetics and Secluded Bronte

Monday 16 November 2020

There’s radical amateurism and then there’s amateurism that may happen to be radical. I am listening to some defiantly amateurish music-making from the Far East, which is making it quite clear that this is not some highly refined culture from an exotic land which I Just Don’t Get. Xu Shaoyang’s pair of Live from underpass recordings, made in Beijing and Taipei, greet bemused pedestrians with brief group improvisations in etiolated song structures, described in the blurb as “ramshackle” and “non-dogmatic”. I still don’t get it, and assume that there’s a pointed pointlessness to it as with much Soviet art, where a lot of faff is needed to encrypt stuff a dedadent Westener would take for granted, so that said Westener then complacently assumes there’s nothing more to it. The Beijing gig includes recorders and kazoos, those perennial signifiers of the amateur, while the Tapei gig buzzes with electricity. I would gladly attend either set live, if only to be outside at a gig on a balmy evening again, preferably with access to beer.

Amateurism becomes a curse when it is elevated as a surrogate for authenticity, that most overvalued of artistic qualities. One has to convince the audience that there is no reason to do things any better, lest one be accused, falsely or not, of playing the stumblebum. Firas Khnaisser and Ali Robertson’s Inspiring Capital is so laid-back that with slightly less effort it could disappear altogether. Recorded in an Edinburgh park during a festival time rendered inert by Covid, it presents the two local musicians simply enjoying the unexpecetd peace. Meanwhile in Huddersfield, the new release from Pressure Carcass, titled Yeast Queen, collects one hundred and twenty-something phone recordings made around town. The sound quality is generic mono, the content displays a Duchampian indifference. It presents life as drama with the boring bits left in, leaving you to decide if it’s instructive or a distraction. If there’s something you want to hear again, it’s buried somewhere in those 150 minutes (advance publicity promised us three hours, so I assume some curatorial discernment took place).

On the other hand, there’s Secluded Bronte, the free improv power trio of Adam Bohman, Jonathan Bohman and Richard Thomas. They may seem amateurish and homespun in their noisemaking and slapdash in their execution, but their collection The Horns of Andromeda is an expertly paced collage of finely crafted sounds. Like true sophisticates, their complexity is worn lightly, with a transparency that lands each brief track with an immediate impact on the listener yet sustains repeated exposure as greater depths and connections are revealed. Extracted from various performances, each musician’s experience and finely tuned sensibility comes to the fore. The abundant verbiage carries authority even as it steers into gibberish, the funny bits work through sly self-awareness. Most importantly, the self-indulgent, insider fascination with craft is entirely absent here, as divergent genres and techniques are fully embraced and then dumped again with equal enthusiasm. If there’s irony here, then it is more seductive than alienating. At odds with the vast bulk of free improv, it delivers what is so frequently, misguidedly, incorrectly promised: surprise and delight.

All That Dust, Batch 3: Lamb, Braxton, Pateras and Veltheim

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Things to be thankful for: music keeps getting made and the third batch of releases from All That Dust has come through as planned. Two are also available on CD, one as download only in binaural stereo. The three new albums share a particularly gratifying theme in these troubled times, that of an artistic retrofuturism that is finally being redeemed. I can’t be the only person who digs up old documents from fertile periods of the avant-garde and marvels at how many great pieces, artists and ideas languish in a dusty bottom drawer of art history. I listened to all three here and felt like some of these threads were being taken up and given new purpose. Catherine Lamb’s wave/forming (astrum) takes her work with synthesisers in a bold new direction. Having previously used them as a type of enhanced resonator, here they become the primary sound source. Two instruments, built and played by Bryan Eubanks and Xavier Lopez, map out harmonic patterns across a defined space. Cycles abound, slowly looping through the harmonic spectrum, across the stereo field and in the overlapping rhythmic pulses that lock in with your theta waves. The pulses, tunings, bright-coloured but soft-edged sounds and extended duration suggest it’s a lost electronic classic from the Seventies. Its constant transformations belie an academic rigor that keeps hippie vulgarity at bay while still making for a long, strange trip. This one’s the binaural recording, so good headphones and any personally administered assistance will get your head spinning out through the long, dark second wave lockdown.

All That Dust have generally liked to mix up old and new in their releases, but the oldest set this time is a selection from Anthony Braxton’s Ghost Trance Solos. My innate aversion to jazz always leaves me approaching Braxton like a fussy child picking the good bits out of a plate of fried rice, so I cling to albums like this where I can fully embrace his approach to music. Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music comprises more than 150 pieces written over ten years or so, straddling the turn of the century. Drawing on concepts from Native American dance and musical practice, he composed modular kits with defined melodic material and entry points for improvisation, subroutines, collage and intertextual cross-references. Three primary works are presented here, each incorporating parts of other Braxton pieces. Kobe Van Cauwenberghe takes a highly inventive and distinct approach to the scores: he plays alone, on electric guitar, augmented with electronics. There is some overdubbing amongst the real-time looping, as well as a hybrid type of overdub in which he cues in samples from pre-recorded takes of the material. The music pursues erratic, discontinuous lines that can drift away into moments of dream-logic, a fantastic beast part Christian Wolff, part John Zorn. The tension between these two forces cracks open new ideas. Each of the successive pieces opens up into something wilder and woolier as Van Cauwenberghe takes the increased rhythmic freedom and adds greater tonal variety and more eccentric techniques. This is true postmodernism, an ecclecticism that retains a clear character throughout, never stooping to pastiche.

I promised to write more about Anthony Pateras’ music last week, having noted his recent tendency to strip back his often frenetic style into something elemental, placing an instrument’s timbre and resonance front and centre as the subject. Duos for Other Instruments is his latest collaboration with fellow provocative musician Erkki Veltheim. Their previous duets – The Slow Creep of Convenience and Entertainment = Control – have been large, monolithic works which confront the listener with the inherent contradictions of ‘minimalist’ music, at once subversive and commodified. The two pieces presented here, recorded in Melbourne in June, are briefer but even more severe. Ersatz is a twenty-minute trill for viola and celeste, Golden Point the same but for harpsichord and mandolin. The pitches never change – there seems to be a Scelsi-like rising of maybe a sixth-tone in the mandolin but that might be my ears playing tricks on me, or the instruments giving out. The quaint, modestly-voiced instrumentation and manageable dimensions might imply these are less ambitious works, with something of the salon concert about them, but their obstinate singularity of material and structure make their passivity all the more aggressive. All of the musical action comes from the inadvertent interplay of the overtones in the instruments’ timbres, a homespun analogue of Lamb’s synthesisers, with Veltheim’s viola in Ersatz blurring into a single, unknowable instrument and the dual protagonists of Golden Point exchanging identities from one moment to the next. The two play with a stamina that is more dogged than perfectionist, preferring to exploit the situation of a fragile collaboration that could turn adversarial.

Judith Hamann: Shaking Studies, Music for Cello and Humming

Wednesday 28 October 2020

You wait for ages, then four come along at once. After starting the month with Judith Hamann’s Peaks and Portals at the start of the month, I’m ending with her two promised solo releases on Blank Forms Editions: one LP and one CD. (You can get a download, too.) On Shaking Studies, Hamann presents three of her works for solo cello. I’ve heard her play earlier iterations of this music live on a couple of occasions over the years and it’s great to hear how she has developed these pieces for recording. Her studies in using shaking as a technique (usually while playing standing, inducing tremors in both bow and cello) have evolved into a thorough exploration of complex tones, timbres and layering of sound. In the opening short piece she sends her bow rasping across the strings on the bridge, with a juddering sound that oscillates between tremolo and spiccato, changing pressure, speed and position to weave a constant flux between overtones and noise, between broken and constant sounds. The longer Pulse Study, divided into two parts, sublimates this tremor into the fabric of Hamann’s playing, with the constant pulsations emerging like a beating frequency from an interplay of bowed intervals, sometimes in the topmost pitch range, at other times below.. The pulses draw attention to the richness of harmonic colour Hamann draws out of the instrument, always changing without following any obvious process or formula. As an epilogue, she introduces a heterogeneous element, bowing low double stops over documentary recordings of various pulsating sounds.

Music for Cello and Humming collects two more of Hamann’s pieces, coupled with works for solo cello and electronics by Anthony Pateras and Sarah Hennies. A longer but equally strong collection, Hamann’s pieces combine cello with voice, as promised in the title. The opening Study merges bowed intervals with voice in a series of harmonised interference patterns. The direct use of the musical materials, with a confident resistance to adding ornamentation, is echoed by its electronic counterpart in the following piece, Anthony Pateras’ Down to Dust. This track is taken from the overwhelming box set of Pateras’ music released last year and is an exemplar of his recent compositions, making bold gestures which retain their forcefulness without resorting to bravado or pyrotechnics. (Need to talk more about Pateras’ stuff soon.) Hamann’s Humming Suite is a work commensurate with her Pulse Study: here her voice acts as the agitating factor to the cello, with the two acting as counterparts. Besides the technique, the musical difference is that Humming Suite is a more languid, contemplative work, albeit with its occasional reveries punctuated by more fraught, incongruous moments. It seems to owe something to the slightly earlier work she recorded, which appears last here. Sarah Hennies’ Loss starts out in a reassuringly austere manner, with Hamman humming repeated unisons with her cello. Things then get more complicated. The cello here is higher pitched than before, more nasal, and Hamann’s humming sometimes falters. Cello also falters; there are pauses, isolated plucked notes and finally a slackening of strings into frail subsonics. The humming breaks away to reveal more of the human behind the sound, the voice strains, breath catches, develops a cough that won’t fully go away. It’s a disturbing, confronting piece that passes from its initial pristine surface into rawer acts of internal fragility, where affectation and vulnerability are forced to coexist and gestures may be interpreted as a confusion of defiance and despair.

Takuroku Shooting Gallery Redux: Electronics

Monday 26 October 2020

Left Hand Cuts off the Right – Worker. Modestly described as ‘sketches’ made while holding down a job during Covid, these start out as pleasant ambient tracks which turn ominous in the latter half, as less tractable sounds start to take up a once-benign language.

Nemeton / Rafael Anton Irisarri – Lot 178. A relic of Cafe Oto’s fundraiser auction earlier in the pandemic, these two tracks pair Nemeton’s sampled and processed orchestrations of Stan Adler’s cello with Irisarri’s remix of Nemeton. Both are monolithic, with Irisarri arcing up the light, the dark and the dynamic range.

Ben Bertrand and Otto Lindholm – Reversion. Bass clarinet and double bass with electronics make something less lugibrious than expected, more like analogue synths with a foggy, exhumed sound. Just noticed that The Sinking of the Titanic was a bonding experience for them, which makes sense.

Li Yilei – Specimen. Stupidly managed to not pay attention to this one first time I listened. The first track’s OK, but each section gets progressively more compelling with an eclectic range of instruments and sound sources deftly treated and combined into an intriguing and highly satisfying sequence. The website implies the whole thing is a realisation from a score consisting of a line of rocks.

Cara Tolmie – Lit by a Car. Hard to pin this one down. Tolmie harmonises and processes her voice in ways that start to lose all resemblance to voice. When she re-emerges from her soundscapes you’re left to contemplate if this is a return or a transformation.

Maya Verlaak & Andy Ingamells: Tape Piece

Friday 23 October 2020

Art gags: don’t you just hate them? Especially when they’re made by artists. If it’s going to work at all, you’ve got to commit to it – ideally by just keeping on pushing the idea past all decency until it becomes funny out of spite. Maya Verlaak and Andy Ingamells’ Tape Piece is an uncommon creature, being a composition made in 2012 which has since been performed on repeated occasions. It’s a duet in which each performer wraps themselves in a roll of adhesive tape and then, having accomplished this, break free of their self-imposed bonds. A cute pun, an amusing gimmick and it makes an entertaining little piece. I think I’ve seen a performance myself, but while trying to confirm this started to doubt that I really had. This hazy and possibly false memory speaks both to the work’s conceptual simplicity and its lack of substance.

Now, Verlaak and Ingamells have released a recording of the piece and have done it a great service by pushing the idea further. This is an entirely analogue production, recorded direct to tape and then dubbed onto a limited edition of cassettes. (Digital download is available for the less fashion-conscious.) More than an obligatory act of documentation, the recordings take on a new life as music, without the distraction of the theatrical gag. It also helps that the sound here is loud and detailed, which was mostly lost in my (fanciful?) experience of the live performance. You can truly enjoy it as a piece of old-school electronic noise – a genuine tape piece. The recordings are direct and unpolished, with each sound brutally impersonal, even the vocalisations during some of the more diffult ‘escape’ sections. Tape Piece is evidently one of those odd ideas that persists in the creators’ minds, that takes on greater significance and necessity as wider implications become clear. The composition is in three movements (each using a different type of tape), summoning up various associations and comparisons both within the piece and to other compositions; it is specifically a duet, which opens up greater sonorous and structural complexity while also inviting unspecified cultural allusions.

It’s a brief piece: four realisations have been collected here for the listener’s discernment. The brand names of tape are identified in the notes, but unfortunately not the recording dates or venuesyou have to look at the inlay card and read the recording dates and venues, it’s printed right there you dope.

Clara de Asís & Mara Winter

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Another product of this year’s lockdown and enforced isolation is the first release on a new label based in Basel, named Discreet Editions. Rise, follow is an hour-long composition by Mara Winter for two bass Renaissance flutes, recorded in April this year. The material of the piece is very austere, yet Winter and Johanna Bartz play with the type of concentration that keeps the sound constantly alive to the discovery of new details. The two alternate in overlapping, long-held tones, taking a long time to feel any need to add a second pitch. The music gradually opens out into a widening range of consonant harmonies, in a similar manner to a La Monte Young piece. The difference here is in the way Winter and Bartz happen upon harmonics and sonorites inside the resonant recording space and allow them to develop, feeling out the sound with small adjustments in their articulation and breath. Subtle variations in timbre and overtones become the substance of the music. The recording venue is the 500-year-old Kartäuserkirche in Basel, which comes across here as a cavernous space which is steadily filled by Winter’s elemental compositional framework. The two recorders sound huge and their combined tones with the church’s resonance create a deep, oversaturated sound from humble resources.

Rise, follow was recorded by Clara de Asís. Both she and Winter recorded another album in the same church, Repetition of the same dream, released on Another Timbre. Here, Winter plays flute, joined by Asís on percussion and electronics. Again, they both take full advantage of the church’s acoustics, making it a third player in their quarantine ensemble. It’s particularly clear in the first two collaborations: in one, Winter and de Asís use gentle blowing and rolling sounds that approach the softest, whitest noise they can make, coloured by their gestures and natural resonance. In the other, flute and bowed percussion work together to elaborate on the edges of pure tones. After a brief solo by each of them, the final piece is a solo work credited to de Asís, focusing on Winter’s flute. A passage through sounds like a companion piece to Rise, follow, with the flute’s notes again slow, but here separated. The steady alternation of repeated and alternating pitches here sounds more like an act of discipline than of exploration; Winter plays with a steady determination that gives the piece a reductive force, both opening out and narrowing down. The listener has to work harder too, and gets repeatedly nudged to seek out shape and direction amidst all the reverberation.

Les introuvables de Henning Christiansen, cont.

Monday 12 October 2020

New releases from the Henning Christiansen Archive continue to build up a much more comprehensive understanding of the sometime Fluxus artist’s achievements as a composer. The links between music and all aspects of Fluxus should not come as a surprise, but the growing body of recordings now available to the public should refute and prior concepts of Christiansen’s music as an inadvertent by-product of action art. Op. 201 L’essere Umano Errabando La Voce Errabando is a striking case in point. This 1991 composition for intoning voices set against an ambient backing of sea drones and pulses occupies the grey area between European expressionism and American impassiveness. The voices declaim unconnected words in various attitudes into and indifferent, resonant space that takes on the condition of weather, evoking distance, alienation from the self and erasure of national boundaries – signs of true journeying. Such thoughts of effacing the centre come from our conception of Eastern spirituality, and here Christiansen approaches the idea from both directions at once. The power of the music’s disingenuous simplicity is Christiansen at his finest and it’s incredible that this piece has been out of earshot for nearly thirty years.

A collection of four shorter, earlier works puts us on more familiar ground. In Op. 41 BADET Charlotte Strandgaard reads her poem “The Bath” on location, as it were, while Christiansen accompanies her on melodica and generally splashes about. It’s a somewhat melancholy documentation. The homemade quality of Christiansen’s music prevails here, with two tape collages from the early 70s adding a brighter element while still retaining a sinister aspect. The six brief parts of Op. 72 Bondeføreren Knud Lavard were made as incidental music for a school play, of all things: instrumental playing of folkloric naïveté is rapidly juxtaposed by abrupt switches in mood. Kom Frem For Satan collages together a similarly disjointed narrative from sound effects, found street music and instrumental interludes. The set is rounded out by a recording of the lament from the notorious Horse Sacrifice performance, in a mournful rendition sure to bum out every listener.

Finally, something new: SAVE THE NATURE – USE FLUXUS documents a performance in the car park of The Box gallery in Los Angeles last November, given to mark the opening of a Henning Christiansen / Ursula Reuter Christiansen exhibition. Christiansen’s music is not heard directly, but through his legacy; most directly in his son, Thorbjørn Reuter Christiansen’s performance in which he combined recordings of his father with a new sound piece on Henning’s instruments. It’s a heavily reverberant, percussive piece, steadily encroached upon by nature sounds that are less demonstrative but no less compelling. All four sides (if you’re listening to this as an LP) share an attribute of giving the listener an engaging, if at times abstract, soundscape that holds attention even when the exact business of the performance at hand is obscure. Paul McCarthy, with daughter and gallery founder Mara McCarthy and Chiara Giovando perform and equally percussive work, with vocalisations constantly disrupted by McCarthy père banging the back door of the gallery with a 2 by 4. Bjørn Nørgaard reworks elements of his collaborations with Christiansen and Joseph Beuys simultaneously with Mai Dengsøe Hansen performing Christiansen’s EURASIENSTAB fluxorum organum op. 39. It’s perhaps the most opaque work here, as was many of all the artists’ collaborative performances in the 60s and 70s, with multiple references and meanings self-consciously piled atop each other in a way that was both decayed and oversaturated, ensuring failure of explication. “Serious but not hopeless; or, hopeless but not serious.” The set ends with Mark Harwood’s Chile Metal Freedom, a sound collage from his recent trip to Chile that coincided with widespread protest and unrest. A relentlessly tumultuous piece that recalls Nono’s Non consumiamo Marx without the stultifying dogma, in hindsight it appears to be prophecy, giving that LA audience a glimpse of what 2020 would bring to their country.

Judith Hamann: Peaks and Portals

Thursday 1 October 2020

I’ve enjoyed cellist Judith Hamann’s music for years now, both in solo live shows and as part of Golden Fur. We’re finally getting more recordings out in public, with more on the way soon, it seems. The upcoming releases from Blank Forms focus on her cello playing, but the new Black Truffle album Peaks is an unexpected deviation into the unknown. It starts normally enough with Hamann playing characteristic sustained tones. There’s faint ambient noise in the background, which by now we recognise as the sounds of a lockdown home recording (it is not). The cello’s strings extend into a softly keening electronic drone; more prominent voices emerge from the echoes. Soon, the cello is lost altogether in hazy montage of locations, events and people, as though half-recalled in reverie. Sounds can be identified but their presence remains elusive as each slips in and out of perception. Hamann’s art has left her travelling the world for the past few years without ever settling down into a place of her own. Peaks is a powerfully evocative and poignant reflection of life in flux, made all the more compelling by never lapsing into the medium’s clichés in content or technique.

Hamann’s collaboration with Marja Ahti on Takuroku, Portals, could be a companion piece to Peaks. Each currently resident in Finland but forced to work remotely, the two musicians fashioned a dialogue of their respective crafts. Ahti’s skill at constructing soundscapes with a strong sense of place is decentred here, with Hamann adding new musical and physical perspectives. With Ahti, the sonic images and narrative are more distinct, but it’s a double image and the narrative becomes a soft but insistent dtory of displacement. These are two of the most haunting works to come out of this year’s isolation, particularly because we know from their circumstances they will continue to speak to our anxieties in other times to come.

Oliver Leith: good day good day bad day bad day

Sunday 27 September 2020

Damn this is a good title. It feels self-explanatory and yet it keeps you listening for a deeper meaning behind it. As such, it matches the music perfectly as each successive movement adds a layer of sentiment that hovers close to wistful melancholy, gently rocking itself into more troubled depths. Oliver Leith’s good day good day bad day bad day is a forty-five minute duet for percussion and keyboard, played here by the GBSR duo: George Barton and Siwan Rhys. A keenly observed ambiguity presides over the piece, not least in the sounds themselves: a mixture of samplers and instruments such as the waterphone blur the lines between each musician’s role, when heard on record. The inventive use of instrumentation adds depth and complexity, while the duet form of the piece gives clarity. Together, they manage to combine the bright and the plaintive into an indivisible whole. It feels like a piece that will continue to grow and change for the listener, even as a single recording.

This is Leith’s longest work to date yet its musical language is more direct (compared to the handful of pieces heard to date). There’s a simplicity that appeals to the listener in the manner of the populist wing of the minimally modern composers, but with an emotional sophistication which just deepens with each successive listen, where so many others would quickly wear themselves out. The piece does not necessarily get darker as it proceeds, just more sweetly inextricable in the complexity of its mood. The piece welcomes you in as it refuses to explain itself, like a favourite love song that gratifies your need for sadness. At the first performance, Barton and Rhys played on stage surrounded by domestic furniture, as though in their living room, “a private thing, a home space, some mugs, a rug, maybe a lamp in the middle of a concert hall.” The two musicians play with an evenness and interior calm that makes the music’s formal structure and changes in instrumentation flow naturally without apparent effort. They make it all seem inevitable, even as the outcomes remain unknown, with a transparency that makes their playing inseperable from the music.

Wet Ink: Smoke, Airs

Wednesday 23 September 2020

The Wet Ink Ensemble describe themselves as a collective, but with a ‘band’ atmosphere. As you would hope, they place an emphasis on improvisation and collaboration accross genres while also fitting more or less comfortably into a recital hall programme (subscribers may disagree). Their collection Smoke, Airs is the latest release on Huddersfield Contemporary Records and features the four electroacoustic pieces they premiered at last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Three of the recordings are taken directly from those premiere performances; Charmaine Lee’s Smoke, airs was recorded again in New York the following month with Lee herself joining in as a vocalist.

Lee is as much an improviser as a composer and her piece allows Wet Ink some freedom in how interpret the score’s framework of ’empty’ sounds, building substance out of a texture of partly-voiced breaths, rasps and electronic noises. It’s suitably atmospheric, but with enough substance to raise it above pure ephemera. The sounds are inarticulate while still being expressive, and both Lee and Wet Ink know when to pause and when to change course to stop it sounding entirely like old-school free improv. It can still sound a little self-conscious at times, with Lee’s twittering and trills sometimes filling space as much as expanding the textures: the BBC broadcast of the live premiere was more subdued but allowed the sounds to create a negative space, at the expense of dramatic impact.

Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s (un)weave works in a similar vein of acoustics and electronics on the threshold between sound and noise, using free play to make complex details within a predetermined structure. Here, the premise is more adversarial, with the musicians running a gauntlet of electronic ticks, thuds and acoustic interruptions, static and a persistent tinnitus hiss. Then, a third of the way through, they’re obliged to start over. From one moment to the next, there’s a menacing weariness to the sounds, but taken as a whole it feels a little too neatly packaged. What might have worked as a bristling, repressed chaos straining at its restraints comes across instead as just sufficiently tamed. Your attitude may vary.

The two remaining pieces are more straight-up composition. Kristina Wolfe’s A Mere Echo of Aristoxenus is a diptych of acoustic reconstructions of lost sites from ancient Greece. Thankfully, it is not imitative Classical exotica but informed by Wolfe’s research in music archaeology, drawing on Greek accounts of examples of the exploitation of resonance and reverberation. The pieces bear repeated listening: what had, at first, seemed the least interesting music in the set became intriguing. Wolfe allows sonic spaces to open up, using slowness in the first piece to reveal how each sustained sound is disturbed by subtle undercurrents, while in the second the muscians yield to the background, serving to articulate and transform a continuous electroacoustic rumble. Wet Ink’s players switch smoothly from fluid to glacial as needed.

The standout here is Bryn Harrison’s Dead Time, another of his tours de force in messing with your perception of time, sound and memory. It feels like cheating to single this one out as I’ve enthused about Harrison’s music before, but this work continues to refine his techniques into ever more subtle forms of bewidlerment. In Dead Time, Harrison’s slowly unfurling loops and repetitions are more ghostly and dreamlike, with the musicians repeating as though to themselves, lost in suspended thought. At times, it sounded like an echoing loop of tape, then I had to remind myself that it is, in fact, tape. Pre-recorded and live musicians echo each other without it ever being readily clear how the two may be distinguished. Whenever the music somehow pulls itself out of its spiral, you’re not sure if it has moved on or has started over: everything seems the same and yet you recognise nothing. Wet Ink’s musicians play with the same wan, faded quality of a worn-out tape, pushing the muted sounds of Harrison’s earlier music into a dim, muffled dreamworld, consciousness almost smothered.

Got yer art right here: Zach Rowden, Derek Baron

Sunday 20 September 2020

I’ve ranted about field recordings before, spouting off a poorly-connected set of complaints which can be boiled down to the medium’s general tendency towards complacency. No such thing in Zach Rowden’s piece We were listening to music on his new Takuroku release We were talking about music. The signal intrusions of electronic mediation, duplication and distortion hiss and crackle throughout, mixed with various levels of fidelity. Pipes and bowed strings slowly loop and drone amongst a persistent grey hum of urban open spaces. It is music as a practice, of activity located in space. If the dirgelike playing reminds you of folk music, then it is only because those qualities have been buried, unearthed and denatured to the point that any tenuous claim to authenticity comes from the act of claiming those traditional roots through modern practice. Rowden constantly reminds you of the self-reflective aspect to this music, turning it into both an archive and a document that calls into question any authentic representation, other than of itself.

Is music an art form? Of course, you say, that’s an easy one. But is it really? Music, I mean. Derek Baron’s Fourteen Latches of Heaven and Earth hits you with art of the uncomfortable kind, the sort that you may first wish to dismiss as music. Its fourteen tracks are less collage and more mosaic, each element working together to present an image of music that causes us to question and pursue the deeper workings beneath the bland assumptions we typically make when we listen. Yes, every element is musical – in most cases, a brief sketch on upright piano – but labelled in a way to imply that these have been turned out and casually filed away over the years: ‘e j05 copy (2013)’ is a typical example. They’re pretty and charming miniatures, but presented here as unfinished or as offcuts. The titles reflect personal references without any accompanying significance. Other elements intrude, the ambient background, drum machines, a harmonium solo, uncategorisable sounds. The juxtapositions resist context, neither thematically nor through quotidian accumulation. The centrepiece is a long, tortuous runthrough by Baron and with Dominic Frigo of Bach’s Herr Gott, dich loben wir on recorder and guitar; their laboured playing presents music as a form of cultural transmission at its most unpolished and brutal. The album ends inconclusively with an excerpted recording of a choir being taught a mediaeval Salve Regina, another unresolved act of musical pedagogy. Far from a diary or sketchbook, Fourteen Latches of Heaven and Earth is an artistic statement, presenting music as work; uncommodified labour as both its material and its technique, the machinery of how music makes sense of the world laid bare.

Urban subjectivity: Bill Orcutt, Ed Carter & Jessica Lee

Tuesday 15 September 2020

…started thinking about how popular music gets used as material these days. Once, tropes from rock or jazz would be incorporated into other musical styles to act as a signifier of that genre; now, the substance is reworked into new forms.” A gig I heard last year popped back into my head when listening to Bill Orcutt’s new solo guitar album, Warszawa. Having come to know his music relatively late and largely by accident at a gig in Brighton maybe ten years ago, I hadn’t made the connection to more recent experimental guitar music until now. What I remember from the Brighton gig was insistent activity that stayed resolutely in one place. The connections to rock came from that focus on the grain of the sound against its rhythm, listening inward, using the consistency of sound as a vehicle for the smaller timbral details to come to the fore. Warszawa is a more relaxed and varied affair, even as it features nothing more than Orcutt’s electric guitar without further adornment. The two untitled tracks are taken from a gig in the titular city last autumn. In the first, Orcutt plays melodic figures with varied pacing and elaboration, from gentle arcs to frenetic zig-zags. It’s all grounded by the open bottom string, plucked repeatedly to give a root to all the ornamentation. For all the activity, there’s a calm, steady concentration to the playing that can make it all unexpectedly sound soothing. The second piece (or side, I think this started as a cassette) is even more relaxed, which perversely makes the music even more fraught. The fixed bass is still there, but less frequent, the pace often slows to a pause, breaking the track into several sections. The restless pensiveness counter-balances the calm activity of the first half: Dürer’s Melancholia in reverse.

A superficial, fragile calm can also be heard in Threshold, a collaboration by Ed Carter and Jessica Lee. A lockdown recording, it combines Lee’s clarinet – layered over itself in slow, overlapping harmonies – combined with ambient sounds in and around her house. The environment may be encroaching upon the purity of the unaccompanied clarinet, or perhaps the clarinet is intruding into the everyday suburbia. The ambiguities are enhanced by the use of binaural microphones that open up the context and prominence of each sound, and by an Aeolian harp that is threaded through the piece, blurring boundaries between figure and ground even further. The clarinets and harp sound sweet and unhurried, but as the ear becomes trained on the details beneath the surface it all takes on a more troubled aspect. The sounds hover in limbo, neither private nor public – music heard on the doorstep, unsure of whether to venture outside or to welcome the listener in. For now, it marks time in an uneasy balance; a smile of optimism with a furrowed brow.

Jérôme Noetinger with Anthony Laguerre and Jean-Philippe Gross on Takuroku

Monday 14 September 2020

A long year ago I wrote about Jérôme Noetinger’s sublime collaboration with Anthony Pateras, A Sunset For Walter. Cafe Oto has now put out two new Noetinger collaborations, recorded over Covid summer, again featuring his use of a Revox tape recorder as an instrument. Noetinger’s live shows typically have a playful element, exploiting the unpredictable nature of bending sounds through manipulating tape directly, with the mad-scientist theatricality adding to the off-kilter element in the music. As stand-alone recordings, they retain that spirit of adventure recording-only adventures through the slightly messy technology at work and provocative formal conceits that challenge the musicians’ creativity.

The concept behind Propagations is simple. Noetinger and Anthony Laguerre exchange tapes they have made and do a number on each other’s recordings, “just like in the 80s”. Although no longer dependent on physical media and the postal service, both Laguerre and Noetinger seem to be using their tape decks in their ‘edits’ of each other’s work. Each of the two 15-minute tracks is a noisy, chaotic ride of electronic sounds that never stick around for too long. This is just as well, for as with all chaos there are occasional irritating and boring moments mixed in between effects that range from cheesy to inspired. It keeps you guessing, particularly with questions like: is it all really that simple? In an attempt to drill down and distinguish the two pieces and the two artists’ work I kept hearing similarities arise between them, with a kind of symmetry that suggests each track started as the reverse of the other before the additional transformations took hold. Maybe I’m hearing things, but authentic-sounding chaos usually carries an underlying design.

The concept behind Nos cadavres is simple. Noetinger and Jean-Philippe Gross exchanged tapes, but only the last 10 seconds of their recording for each one to carry on after the other in a game of Exquisite Corpse. So the exchange passes back and forth, each new contribution adding a new twist to a hallucinatory continuity that makes itself up as it goes along. In lesser hands, this lack of greater context would wear thin pretty quickly. The length of each section, however, was allowed to be anywhere from ten seconds up to seven minutes, so that moments of stability are allowed to emerge and define an overall shape, however mysterious it may be. Gross and Noetinger are also smart enough to vary sounds from the continuous to discontinuous, allowing silences to both break up the information overload and create more distinctive sonic forms. Between them, they manage to put together a dazzling range of interesting sounds over the course of the two extended tracks. Surprisingly, each listening has added further intrigue, so far.

Alvin Lucier on Black Truffle

Thursday 10 September 2020

As well as releasing lots of fine music by new composers, Black Truffle has been preserving the legacy of the old masters. In particular, they have been steadily releasing recent pieces by Alvin Lucier. I went into details last year about a magnificent concert given at the Round Chapel in Clapton by the Ever Present Orchestra. That gig was recorded by the BBC but I don’t think it’s been broadcast. At least, the new ensemble pieces from that concert have been recorded and released a couple of months ago by members of the same group. Works For The Ever Present Orchestra is made up of new recordings of these works that coax iridescent interference patterns from the interaction of acoustic instruments and electronic tones. In this case, the electronics are provided by e-bowed electric guitars, adding another subtle layer of complexity and colouration. The pace here is brisker and the textures sound more transparent than what I remember from the concert: this may be due to the resonance of the Round Chapel, a reduction in personnel or just that my attention is no longer distracted by the theatrical presence of the large ensemble at work in intense concentration.

Lucier doesn’t so much reward attention as demand it. As writer Brian Olewnick observed after listening to String Noise, another release from this year, “Alvin Lucier once again testing my patience. And testing it well.” If I thought Lucier was getting lush and lyrical in his old age, these three hefty pieces for solo and duo violins brought that conceit crashing down around my ears. Tapper is the solo work, from 2004, written for Conrad Harris who plays it here for nearly an hour. The performer repeatedly taps the body of his instrument with the butt end of the bow while moving around the performance space. That’s the piece. No strings involved at all – except, of course they are. As I said, his music demands your attention. It’s no Fluxus exercise in mundanity, and Harris plays with the same combination of rigour and flexibility afforded a Bach partita. Lucier fans will spot the connection to his 60s echolocation piece Vespers and how the sound is shaped by its surroundings, but Tapper removes the extramusical rationalisation and focuses on the sound as music itself. If you don’t listen, you miss the tiny gradations in decay and shading, augmented by the resonance of the violin’s body, as well as its strings.

The two remaining works are played here as duets by Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris. In Love Song, from 2016, they play long tones using only the open E string, while moving in a circular motion around the performance space. Their two violins are joined at the bridge by a long wire, which transfers resonating tones between the instruments. As the players move, changes in the wire’s tension adds to the complex microcosm of tones produced by this minimum of overt activity. A fascinating sound, if you’re paying attention. Halo, composed last year, is similar to Tapper, but requires the violinists to move through the space bowing long tones, making each slight shift in sound less prominent while producing the finest detectable gradations in sound colour. The alchemical qualities of Lucier’s music persist to this day, with less focus on the demonstrative or pedagogical angles and a more assured reliance on their art.