Electroacoustic duos: Kevin Drumm & Adam Golebiewski, Phil Durrant and Bill Thompson

Tuesday 11 February 2020

“Improvisation. I don’t buy it.” Morton Feldman’s dickish statement keeps coming back to haunt me, even though I fundamentally disagree with it in principle. When I listen to it, I keep wondering Am I really enjoying this or is it some kind of trick? Basically, is the audience sharing a musical experience or just basking in the reflected glory of some goof(s) having fun making noise?

There was no audience at the recording “at LAS club” for The Last Minute Or Later, a set of duets by Kevin Drumm and Adam Golebiewski. Golebiewski is the percussionist, with assorted objects and instruments. Drumm is credited only with electronics. It was all recorded on one day back in 2016 but just got released last year by some new Polish label called UZNAM. Four tracks, and I don’t know how much, if any, editing went into constructing each piece: each track works as a coherent, developed composition in the best way you hope that improvisations will go. Lightening Up matches drums to Drumm’s hollow electronic tones before building up to the more pleasuirng sort of musical anarchy and white noise percussion. I Can’t Not Lie gets messier in a more free improv way, scraped objects squealing while surrounded by angry twitterings and a guttural screech. The longest track, Fenced Off From Larger Worries, stays in the higher registers throughout. It floats, but aggressively, relying less on the single-mindedness of its approach to sustain its length and more on the ringing tones produced by both musicians. Furnace returns to a barrage of metal and grumbling, juddering drones, both percussion and electronics behaving in a spontaneous way, darting from one idea to the other without losing momentum. Drumm and Golebiewski work well together, each simultaneously complementing and provoking the other.

The electronics are unspecified but sound like feedback oscillation plays are large part – as may be expected from Drumm’s guitar background. That sound is also present in Intraspect, a half-hour recording of a live gig in Guildford by Phil Durrant and Bill Thompson. Amplified objects also appear here but in a more heavily electronic setting, including “modular synthesis” and “Moog guitar”. Intraspect glides seamlessly throughout its duration without ever getting too simple or droney. Working live in this way, it’s easy to maintain a musical focus by staying in one place, but Durrant and Thompson are confident enough to let inherent instability in their electronics lead them constantly into new terrain without ever losing their bearings. Neither of these releases are a revolution in improvisation; they both just bloody good at what they set out to do.

Apartment House plays Jim O’Rourke

Sunday 9 February 2020

Jim O’Rourke’s music for small string ensembles (with electronics). I’ve been waiting for this one; an intriguing and almost unknown aspect of his music, brought to light by Apartment House. Two new works made up the second half of the gig: Anton Lukoszevieze gave the first UK airing of the solo cello piece Book of Rounds, followed by the premiere of a new version of 12 Dollars is Alot [sic] made specially for Apartment House. The two works shared the quality of being charming without stooping to be ingratiating. (O’Rourke cites Hans Otte as an inspiration.) While the music flowed smoothly, there was a restlessness that underpinned it all as it moved from one idea to another, never staying in one place for long. The picaresque structure suggested a collage, but without evident cultural references of quotation or the demonstrative freakishness of John Zorn’s collaged compositions. We’re talking more Merz than Pop Art here. Each piece largely resisted the threat of falling into shapelessness thanks to O’Rourke’s control over his materials: certain effects would be introduced, return for a while and then disappear, producing a sense of progress. Thinking back, I suspect the harmonic material was subjected to variation and recapitulation, to add structural support. 12 Dollars is Alot, arranged here for string sextet, added electronics in small but significant ways, only occasionally reminding you of there presence in ways that thickened the plot. Lukoszevieze and Apartment House handled the deceptively tricky passages well, to make each piece consistently satisfying.

The first half of the gig was taken up by a much older work: String Quartet and Oscillators I and II are a pair of 23-minute panels separated, in this case, by a resonant silence. The work was composed in 1990 as a rebuke to O’Rourke’s professors, who didn’t believe that Scesli really existed. He can’t remember if it ever got played at the time; if it were, I wonder what technology was used and how well it, and the players, coped. The apmplified quartet play long, interwoven tones which are fed through a ring modulator. The combination of bowed string and modulating electronic tones produce changes in pitch and timbre that can range from subtle to drastic. Each large block of sound shared a certain similarity with the overtone-laden drones of Phill Niblock or La Monte Young, sharing the latter’s preference for some coarse-grained rumble to disrupt the harmonics, but distinguished again by that restlessness. Things were complicated by programming the oscillators to change every time a player changed pitch. Any pretence to minimalism was dispelled by the ever-changing interactions between string and electronics, subject to a process that was unfathomable. Wild combinations came and went, of frenzied and serene, ringing and clattering, buzzing and sighing – and sometimes things just conked out for a bit. It didn’t matter; the unmasked playing by the quartet made a striking contrast when the modulation kicked in again. Played any louder and it would have been an overwhelming experience, less perceivable as a composition in its own right. I don’t think anyone would have minded it louder.

Five years of 840

Monday 3 February 2020

The year has started. Two gigs this weekend just gone, both at Cafe Oto. The 840 series celebrated their fifth anniversary on Friday with an evening of music for voices and strings. It was satisfying to see that the show had sold out and the bar was rammed, airless and sweaty as on its biggest nights; it makes a change from their usual venue of a small church in Islington.

I arrived late but in time to hear Juliet Fraser sing Cassandra Miller’s Tracery: Lazy, Rocking live. I got to hear another piece by Georgia Rodgers: Masking Set placed alto Sara Rodrigues alongside a small string ensemble in a way that seemed more beguiling than usual, but then took an unexpected turn. What seemed at first to be sentiment was revealed as phenomenology; so I liked it. A new work by John Lely, Stopping at the Sheer Edge Will Never Abolish Space, was also unexpectedly yielding in tone and structure, so that I started to wish for the reductive logic I had come to expect from his compositions.

Yes, I’m skimming a bit here because the crowd and the occasion kind of dominated on the night. The BBC was on hand to record it all so it can be heard at leisure sometime this year, I hope. The ending of the gig also became the most lingering memory, with the premiere of Laurence Crane’s European Towns. As mentioned ruefully by the announcer, Britain was leaving the European Union in 40 minutes’ time. Crane described the piece as “regretful and melancholic” but its simplicity – a repeated idea, a fragmented litany – and the sweetness with which it was sung by Fraser, accompanied by a small ensemble of introverted strings, added a note of naïve wistfulness. Listening as an Antipodean immigrant who is still, fundamentally, an outsider to this political relationship, I could also hear that unfulfilled dream of an imagined kinship with another culture that could never be fully known. Some of the audience had started singing along as the ending lingered, reluctant to let go.

Dark Night On The Black Dog Highway

Monday 27 January 2020

I’ve been playing this one on and off since the end of summer and on these cold, dark nights it’s coming into its own. Dark Night On The Black Dog Highway is the latest joint release from Lance Austin Olsen. Working this time with Tim Clément, the two pieces here are another example of long-distance collaboration that Olsen has used in various ways when making music. Each artist exchanges files back and forth, adding to or modifying a collage of field recordings, found sounds, instruments and electronics. In this case, this “third mind” approach to working has been particularly rewarding for the listener: the title work, some 35 minutes long, is a vast, brooding abstraction. The expansive pacing belies the restless activity contained within, as the transparency of the textures belies the complexity of sounds produced. Clément and Olsen have found a fortunate means of working with each other in a way that diverts both of their contributions towards an end that neither would have anticipated (knowing when to stop also helps a lot). While some of Olsen’s previous works suggest at an external reference or a programme, there is no such indication here. The work seems stronger for it, allowing it to establish a profound but elusive mood within the listener, for their own personal significance.

The companion work on the album, Memory Lost, Memory Found, provides a focal point, albeit inarticulate, through the introduction of electronically manipulated voices. I couldn’t help but resent the intrusion of the voice as a distraction after the sublime menace of Dark Night.

Around the same time, the label (Infrequency Editions) released a half-hour work by Jamie Drouin, about whom I have no other knowledge. Although it’s a single track, Ridge takes the form of a suite, with contrasting sections divided by silences. It’s evidently a solo effort, made from “amplified objects, sine wave generator, and Buchla”. The synth tones predominate, giving it a clean sound even as the amplified noises thicken the texture. They’re finely crafted studies, but come across a little too neat and untroubled for my ears, so that I keep expecting something more.

Ryoko Akama’s ‘Dial 45-21-95’; Jon Heilbron’s ‘Puma Court’

Tuesday 14 January 2020

It’s like looking at someone with short hair. We could tell if that person had long hair in the sixties and now has short hair, as opposed to the guy who’s always had short hair since the fifties.

Peter Gena, in conversation with Morton Feldman

A couple of years ago, Another Timbre released a vast recording of Ryoko Akama’s places and pages, “a collection of fifty texts to be performed at random places”. At the time, I described it as “reminiscent of Cage’s Song Books, Ferrari’s audio travelogues, Fluxus happenings, yet it sounds like none of these.” Another Timbre founder Simon Reynell has commissioned a set of pieces from Akama to be performed by the ensemble Apartment House. The collection, released on CD with the title Dial 45-21-95, is very, very different. There are notes. Pitches, even. Melodies.

Akama recently visited the archive of Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Seated at a piano with the archive director’s baby on her lap, a brief lullaby came to her. “Everything else started from that moment.” The pieces in this collection are a response to Kieslowski in a similar spirit to his films. They are simple and direct, but nothing is obvious. A plain quality that won’t tug on the emotions but allow them to roam freely. The responses are intuitive but cannot be explained.

Apartment House invests these slender scores with a distinct life and character in ways that never strain for a particular effect; each piece has a unique quality while never breaking the prevailing mood. The music is beguiling in a way that keeps inviting the listener to pay closer attention, while never making demands. Some pieces blend sustained tones between instruments in a slow melody, others draw together loose scraps of sound into a whole. One rumbles ominously, while the brief piano lullaby I’m just so-so stands out for its charm, having acquired gentle accompaniment on violin and alto flute.

Jon Heilbron is an Australian who lives in Berlin but spends time in Norway, where he made this recording. That probably doesn’t matter. His two compositions here, both titled Puma Court, are double duets: two double bass players (including Heilbron) joined by two hardanger fiddlers. Expectations of how this music will go – interweaving harmonic drones and resonances – are quickly thwarted. Is someone whistling? Bowed harmonics and the sympathetic resonator strings on the fiddles should fill the upper regions of the spectrum, but other sounds intrude. Tapping and clicking sounds punctuate the surface, while the two sets of instruments exchange chords. At times, all bowing ceases, giving way to tapping and idle whistling; sometimes near, sometimes distant, as though some of the musicians have wandered away for a while.

The reverberant space of the church they recorded in adds a futher dimension, but the composition and performance makes these pieces special. What could be an exercise in rarefied folk music or “minimalism” is transformed by allowing new complications and disruptions to occur, all of which are accommodated into a coherent but subtly complex shape. Puma Court One alternates between low and high sonorities before the plot thickens, ending with an extended coda of harmonics. Puma Court Two is more sombre, even as the basses’ harmonic playing takes a more predominant role throughout, adding a muted tone to the fiddles’ range as the players recede into ragged whispering.

Insub Meta Orchestra plays Granberg and Pisaro

Sunday 12 January 2020

I’ve praised previous recordings by the Insub Meta Orchestra, a large ensemble of some twenty-five to thirty musicians combining an eclectic mix of acoustic instruments with live electronics. Their earlier releases have been joint compositions by two of the members, Cyril Bondi and d’incise, making use of reductive formulas that enabled the musicians to act independently within highly controlled parameters. Two new recordings came out late last year, in which the orchestra interpret new works they have commissioned from external composers.

Als alle Vögel sangen mein Sehnen und Verlangen by Magnus Granberg shows the change in approach from the usual Insub Meta joint. Granberg works with a mixture of musical allusions, distilled and transformed into a distinctive soundworld. This is the largest ensemble I’ve heard play Granberg and it appears that he has deliberately thinned out the texture of this composition as much as possible. (Unusually, Granberg himself isn’t one of the performers.) Each musician’s contribution is sparse and occasional, combining to create a mosaic of distinctive colours that constantly varies in surface and texture but never in state. The large palette of sounds and their sparing use allows the character of the piece to change and evolve over time without any conscious subjective intervention.

How are these pieces made? Neither release comes with any cover notes. While the premise of Granberg’s piece remains elusive, Michael Pisaro’s Achilles, Socrates, Diotima (The Poem of Names, No. 2) is a complete mystery. There appears to be a programme at work, in which the orchestra is set to work on concentrated actions, but the underlying motive remains a secret. From silence, isolated non-musical sounds gather into a gradual rallying of forces. Each successive attempt adds another dimension to the music, at times breaking into a percussive rumble, or a constant drone. One step at a time, it builds up into something sustained and powerful, assembled out of nothing. Like an ancient artefact, stripped of subjectivity and context, it constitutes its own meaning. Repeated listenings don’t reduce its strangeness.

Philip Thomas playing Feldman and Wolff, live and on record

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Everyone has been raving about Philip Thomas’ box of pretty much all of Morton Feldman’s solo piano music which came out late last year – with good reason. So much has already been said about it elsewhere, so I’m going to focus on hearing him play it live. There was a launch gig in London a couple of months ago: the programme closely matched the first disc of this set. A survey of Feldman’s piano music will naturally split discs between long pieces and short, but Thomas has chosen a less obvious sequence than straight chronology or grouping of like with like, emphasizing the breadth of Feldman’s supposedly attenuated range. I presume all Feldman fans have experienced the same phenomenon: you think you’ve got his measure and then you hear another piece that throws you for a loop. This set steadily delivers in that respect, both in presenting some rare outliers and newly-recovered works, and in smartly placing contrasting works in a new context. It’s a close recording with high gain in mastering, emphasising detail and focussing on touch and texture. Thomas plays with a care and felicity that strongly reminded me of Feldman’s connection with the abstract expressionist painters.

That emphasis on touch comes through in the first disc, starting with two less-heard compositions, Last Pieces from 1959 and 1977’s Piano. These, followed by Extensions 3 and the late Palais de Mari, made up the programme of the gig at St Mary at Hill. Composed without an audible reliance on his famous techniques such as graph notation or reiterated patterns, the subjective sensibility at play in Feldman’s music comes to the forefront. Last Pieces is unusually slow, allowing greater contrasts and variety, particularly evident in the shifting textures of the faster sections. Never heard Piano played live before, knowing it only from Roger Woodward’s old recording (my fixation on Feldman came from that double CD so it was gratifying to read Thomas’ discussion of the waywardness in Woodward’s approach to rhythm in Tridaic Memories). Piano is a masterful extended study in dynamics and shading, with complexities that offer up something new on each listening. Thomas does it justice, acknowledging the impossibilities in Feldman’s score – as he explained in his brief but illuminating introductions to each piece. On disc, the sudden dynamic changes of this recording seem less jarring than when heard live, but then the contrasts in Extensions 3 are more prominent.

As it’s one of his most ‘accessible’ pieces, I keep thinking I’ve heard enough versions of Palais de Mari, but it keeps coming out different. After the gig, Thomas commented (correctly) that it sounded different when he played it live as opposed to in the studio. It needs an audience present, to humanise the otherwise cloying sweetness. It’s entirely forgiveable as an honest work of true sentimentality, with its mixture of tenderness and sadness.

A month later, at Cafe Oto, Thomas presented two nights combining Feldman with Christian Wolff. I caught the first one, with brief, early works by the former followed by Wolff’s large compendium Incidental Music. The Feldman included some of the noisier works, such as Illusions and a particularly assured take on Intersection 3, together with Thomas’ transcription of the music from the film Sculpture by Lipton. Incidental Music collects 100 very brief sketches written by Wolff in the early 2000s for him to play as accompaniment to Merce Cunningham’s improvised events, with the implication that Wolff may also use them as a basis for improvisation if needed. It’s a particularly intriguing example of Wolff’s later music, already based in discontinuities as it is. How can you tell the part from the whole? It may be considered as a large modular work, a mosaic of mosaics, as played by Thomas complete with detours into the insides of the piano and solos on a melodica.