Drones Club: Allotropes, John Chantler

Thursday 25 February 2021

Been immersing myself in a succession of glorious sonic baths lately, all luxurious warmth and invigorating refreshment. Allotropes is the duet of Jim Hoult and Stephan Barrett, collaborating remotely on this piece between Sweden and London. However this was achieved, Night Signal flows as organically as any live performance by two musicians in the same room, even as it is made out of the digital and electronic manipulation of fixed media. The source material apparently originates from tiny samples of clarinet multiphonics and bells, taking the rich harmonic and timbral characteristics of each sound and continuously finding new material to be worked out of each subliminally short snippet. Each sample is extended into long, streaking clouds of sound which continue to reveal fresh details without needing any heavy reworking, while retaining a consistently deep, velvety character throughout. It’s a profound type of sensory pleasure, and the forty-minute duration feels just right.

John Chantler’s No Such Array works in a similar way, an immersive experience that opens up consciousness rather than crowd it out. He’s been building his own, small synthesisers, battery-powered with portable speakers. No Such Array is a montage of performances with these devices in hall in Gothenburg last October, with Chantler making use of the space and the handy size of his instruments to suspend and swing the speakers to add to the resonant complexities. Higher pitched, a little rougher-textured and more acerbic than Night Signal, Chantler’s drones skate over and across each other to produce sounds that are more bracing but no less pleasing. With its shorter duration, one complements the other as a shot and chaser, to be alternated at will.

(no title)

Wednesday 10 February 2021

I’ve been listening to a lot of new stuff over winter, making some notes, as well as working on my own projects, but right at the moment I’m at a bit of an impasse over what I should finish up and make public next. To complicate matters, I’ve been listening through Paradigm Discs’ superb box set retrospective of Gentle Fire and fell down a wormhole listening to and reading up on Hugh Davies’ work with electroacoustic instruments.

While I get myself together, I’ve fixed up the reviews section of the site a little so you can click through to the artists grouped by name as well as follow up artists tagged the chronological summary. There are probably older albums and gigs I’ve written up that aren’t listed yet but the further back you go the more the writing turns to social media chit-chat.

I’ve been making some recordings around the house while in lockdown, as is the custom. The most recent piece was completed at the end of last year and you can hear it on Bandcamp. The download is free, as are most things on the site. If there’s something with a price tag still on it drop me a line and I’ll probably have a download code for it. Stay good, people.

Newton Armstrong, Judith Hamann: go out, collapse

Monday 1 February 2021

Until recently I’d mostly known Newton Armstrong’s work only through his technological contributions to other people’s music, but thankfully that’s been changing lately. The way to go out is a solo release through Another Timbre, with three of his compositions for live musicians and electronics. I’d heard the premiere of A line alongside itself at Music We’d Like to Hear a couple of years ago but didn’t say much about it at the time. A work for cellist Séverine Ballon, echoing her instrument around gentle electronics, it felt a little tentative inside the church at the gig, dwelling in the space without filling it. This recording, made shortly before the public peformance, can seem too restrained in one listening and then much more revealing and emergent on another hearing, so a lot seems to depend on my mood. The musical material is a lot more stripped back than in the two earlier pieces on the disc, suggesting that Armstrong is looking at ways of further refining his language and his compositional techniques to work with his electronics. He’s explained that “all of these pieces are made from deformed, non-strict canons” and it’s not a process that is obvious to the listener, although you do detect the recursiveness and tail-chasing in the earlier ensemble pieces. (The Hunters and Collectors reference is further obscured.) Mark Knoop conducts the Plus Minus Ensemble for the two chamber works that bookend A line alongside itself, each with melismatic lines that become intricate without ever feeling precise. Armstrong’s electronics are not immediately noticeable, other than through blurring and refracting the ensemble’s playing; less a dazzling hall of mirrors, more an intriguing shimmer of heat haze. Someone on social media described all three as “lush”, which seemed odd at first but made sense as I thought it over, even for the long line of the cello piece.

Speaking of people getting long-deserved exposure for their own compositions, I make this to be the fifth release by Judith Hamann over the past year, adding to her previous total of, well, none. Created during her attenuated residency/lockdown on Suomenlinna in Finland last year, Days Collapse builds on her recent work combining her cello with field recordings and electronics. The five tracks form a suite of nearly fifty minutes, but it’s easy to take in at a single sitting. Each track’s pacing and changes in timbre, distinct without being jarring, seems to allow things to happen in their own time while always drawing the listener further into its world. Besides its length, it’s a more complex work than her previously-heard montages and brings the darker shades of her music to the fore. The field recordings are less identifiable, unable to be reconciled to a specific time or place outside the imagination; sustained sounds start as bowing and mutate into voice, wind and electrical hum, an abstracted keening. By the time you’re halfway through you’re wondering when you last heard the cello, as music-making falls away to silences and less structured sounds. If the instrument is present in these moments, then the sounds are deeply internalised, scraping and rumbling inside the body, hollow resonance. Its sombre, distressed inarticulacy makes it one of the most eloquent musical statements to date on the past year’s pandemic and personal loss, reflecting on how to continue when each facet of life has been diminished, each opportunity more indeliby circumscribed.

Martin Arnold’s Stain Ballads

Tuesday 26 January 2021

I had my first encounter with Martin Arnold’s music back in 2016, at the end of a concert by Apartment House at Wigmore Hall. It knocked me out. “The way people were talking about him before the gig suggested that I’d been missing out. They were right. His new piece Stain Ballad is incredible; striking in its mysterious ambiguity, fragile but indelible. The music shared an aesthetic that Morton Feldman aspired to, of “having mood” without being “in a mood”. As I typed this, Philip Thomas, the pianist that night just tweeted he was listening back to the piece and is “in tears… fresh, complex, meandering, intricate, lovely.” Looking back, I’ll still remember this piece as one of the highlights of the year.”

I did remember it, too. Since then, I’ve sought out Arnold’s music, both live and on CD, but the craving to get a recording of Stain Ballad is finally fulfilled. It’s one of four compositions on the new Another Timbre collection, Stain Ballads, played again by Apartment House. One of the things about the title work that particularly appeals to me is that it’s for the largest forces I’ve yet heard in an Arnold composition: string quartet with piano, reed organ and percussion. The thicker, more densely coloured instrumentation adds more to the suggestiveness of the music’s phrasing while contributing further to the elusiveness of its shape and meaning. Arnold’s sounds and melodies are always muted and their obliqueness gains poignancy and strength from that impression of heightened but suppressed emotion.

It’s a trait often shared with folk music – of the momentous or the monstrous conveyed through an impassive facade – and it seems that Arnold’s pieces get compared to folk music quite a lot, judging by the interview that comes with this release. It can also be attributed to the lack of vibrato needed to play it right and a musical language that, despite my earlier comparison to Feldman above, is direct in its content while still producing effects open to interpretation. In the lengthy duet Trousers (that title encapsulating the direct and the ambiguous) violinist Mira Benjamin and cellist Anton Lukoszevieze share interweaving phrases that pause and restart, or take up a previously heard refrain, never quite the same, as though they are inventing open-ended tropes on a remembered tune. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze’s playing is feathery and frail, almost whispered, taking Arnold’s injunction to “shut down projection, fullness of tone, resonance, the consistency, stability and predictability” and focussing on each instrument’s texture about as far as they can without detracting from the melodic foreground and lapsing into technical affectation.

Lutra for solo cello is also captured here, another piece I had the good luck to hear live at its premiere by Lukoszevieze. “A long aria for countertenor, unaccompanied save by the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze humming (intentionally) for several passages. Taking sound at its most frail and revealing how it can endure.” That thinning out of sound appears here in the cello playing in the violin’s range, all harmonics and the highest registers. The humming also pushes the piece away from the rarefied immutability affected by “the classical”. The three works discussed are from 2016-17, but the disc ends with an earlier work, Slip from 1999. Violin, cello and bass clarinet start in unison before piano quietly intrudes, marking phrases at first but gradually becoming a framework around which the trio breaks into fragments, occasional soliloquies that briefly take flight before descending into brief commentaries. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze are joined here by Heather Roche on clarinet and Mark Knoop on piano, playing with a melancholy calmness, of the kind that makes you unhurried but resolved.

Inexhaustible x3: Nick Ashwood, Ferran Fages, TRUSS

Thursday 21 January 2021

Thanks to my habit of neglecting to read the sleeve notes, I only just realised that all three albums here are from Inexhaustible Editions. Also thanks to this habit, I was completely unprepared for Nick Ashwood’s solo release Unfolding​/​Overlay. I glanced over it, saw ‘acoustic guitars’ and figured we’d get to hear a solo approach as heard on his group improvised efforts, so my first listening was spent mostly getting over the shock of how it sounded. A steely tambura drone opens the album-length piece, which I figured was going to be the groundwork for some trancey guitar noodling until it gradually dawned on me that this was the trancey guitar stuff. Ashwood’s made this piece from two long, unedited takes of bowing on an acoustic guitar and then superimposing them. As performance, it’s a meditative experience, at once introspective yet open-minded, with the slow but purposeful drifting that comes from bringing the mind to an alert passivity through concentrated action. As a composition, the listener hears the constant weaving of bowed chords as a single, braided strand, with illusory harmonies and timbres and breathing pulses that can become either strong or frail, simple or complex, always evolving into something new of its own accord.

Just a small spoiler: the first fifteen seconds of Ferran Fages’ From Grey To Blue are silent. You might want to keep that in mind before cranking the volume. Not that the piece is loud, but it is clearly present: a forty-minute work for a full and closely-miked piano, played by Lluïsa Espigolé. Thinking back to Fages’ Un lloc entre dos records, a work for solo guitar and sine tones, and remembered that it was difficult to get a grip on: “The mind struggles to reconcile the parts into a whole”. Fages pushes the unresolved shapes of his music even further here, perhaps past breaking point. The piece falls into three parts, but in each the phrases are brief and widely separated by silences. Fages and Espigolé have collaborated over a couple of years and her playing, although described in the notes as “without emotion”, captures something tentative, even reluctant to proceed. At least there’s no sentimentality, even though the gently paced combinations of single tones and minor chords (rarely more than dyads) could lend themselves to drama. In the central section, the sounds themselves seem to thin out; when more chords return in part three everything happens more slowly. It’s described as a study in resonances and the spaces between sounds, but I’m usually pretty skeptical of pieces which make a virtue of reticence. With each successive listening, however, the sounds start to feel more tied together and playing it loud reveals the piano mechanism at work and the voids start to fill in as though they’re making some sort of connection; but as to what those connections might be, I’m not sure.

Fages is also part of the group TRUSS, playing acoustic guitar and feedback with Alejandro Rojas-Marcos on clavichord and Bárbara Sela on recorders. Todos los animales se reúnen en un gran gemido is a set of seven tracks recorded on one day in late 2019. They are apparently group improvisations but I keep hearing Fages’ methods at work. There are sustained high, keening passages as heard in his earlier piece Radi d’Or and, as the album progresses, the sounds start to break up into irresolute fragments. It’s stupid to attribute this to one musician when there are three at work. It sounds like Rojas-Marcos is using various extended techniques on his instrument, complicating the picture of who plays what when paired with Fage’s guitar. Sela’s recorder can either lead or shadow the high-pitched bowing and feedback, or otherwise derail and obstruct the continuity, forcing new approaches. The way the tracks are sequenced, the early sections are distinct and sometimes busy in that conventional group improv way, but around halfway through things become more fraught, with the music never quite succumbing to silence but always on the verge of breaking up, all the same. It’s not a comfortable experience, but it asks more questions of the listener than I originally bargained for.

Maya Verlaak: All English Music Is Greensleeves

Sunday 17 January 2021

There’s more irony in this title than first appears. This collection of pieces by Verlaak is itself a hearkening back to a golden age, but her reiteration of the past deals with the rediscovery of forgotten ideas and making them new. Time and again, her compositions recall the spirit of exploration and discovery in the British experimental music scene of the early 1970s. Amongst the alumni of the Scratch Orchestra and their fans, the dividing line between music and art had never before been so dangerously blurred. They too reworked the past, drawing upon folk and popular classics and then subjecting them to analytical processes with varying degrees of irrationality. This British strand of the avant-garde was typically playful and subversive, but with a gentle side that embraced amateurism and acknowledged the inherent sentimentality of their means and methods. It was a fertile scene, but its fading seems in retrospect to be as much a product of commercial forces as of ideas moving on. By the 1980s, much of what was presented as the cutting edge of music was given over to second-guessing the audience’s tastes in a quest for ‘appeal’. For a younger generation, a cursory study of the early 70’s uncovered a lot of unfinished business.

In Another Timbre’s All English Music Is Greensleeves, Verlaak brings back this quiet, forgotten 70’s as a living tradition. The title work, which has been performed live in various forms, does not deal with the implied subject as an artefact, but as the outcome of the history of English music teaching and performance practice, as observed by a young Belgian composer recently arrived from studies at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague. In a modern twist, the music’s controlling processes are fluid and automated by a computer which decides which pitches chosen by the ensemble will cause a pre-recorded performance of the same piece to start, or stop. It’s a clever exploitation of the practice of sight-reading, and Apartment House’s rendition here captures the genteel, pocket-sized grandeur suggested in the title, refracted into a more fragmentary, ghostly formality.

Some of Verlaak’s pieces have tended towards the stunty (cf her Tape Piece collaboration with Andy Ingamells or Females premiered at Music We’d Like To Hear in 2018) but in this collection the focus remains on the music. Ideas are clearly present to substantiate the sounds we hear, but their means of operation remain tantalisingly unclear without further explication. The two solo works, Formation de Sarah and Formation de Mark respectively pit violinist Sarah Saviet and pianist Mark Knoop against a remorseless computer-generated tutor. Each performance creates a new system of pitches to which the performer must respond and negotiate. In Formation de Sarah, violin plays against sine tones and bowed nails; for Formation de Mark the relationship between performer and computer model is more fraught, with electronic tones replaced by recordings of an untrained voice attempting to sing perfect pitch. The computer’s vocalised cues sound more like a rebuke than a guide. The wobbly coexistence of objective formal rigour with human imperfection, with mechanisms of reproduction as a confounding factor, recall the early 70s works by composers like Gavin Bryars and Christopher Hobbs while still posing vital questions surrounding authenticity to the present-day listener (and performer). The music is still direct and clear, using its simplicity of means to bring those complicating perturbations of sound to the surface.

The remaining ensemble pieces are more overtly playful, in a serious, childlike manner. Lark uses formative childhood experiences as material and means, transcribing recovered cassettes of the four-year old composer improvising songs and using a music-box to regulate the musicians. The simple melodies and cultural references add pawky sentimentality to the staggered runs of single notes, always slightly off-kilter. Song and Dance ‘An excessively elaborate effort to explain or justify’ is an exercise in analysis taken in earnest, expecting the musicians to interpret a listening study of the music and infer the music from the written analysis, at a remove from the notes themselves. In each of these pieces, the joke is for (on?) the musicians, but the wit is audible to the listener as the ensemble struggles to achieve a coherent performance despite everyone’s best efforts. With Apartment House playing, it’s probably not much of a struggle really, but they beautifully convey the delicate synthesis of gracefulness and humour required to make these pieces work most effectively, without ever needing to milk it for pathos or a laugh.

EMNIOX: a simultaneous ambient playlist

Tuesday 12 January 2021

After an idea by Kraig Grady: what happens if you play every ambient album you can think of at the same time? I threw this mix together while Christmas dinner cooked and then decided it would be nice to have a video to match. EMNIOX is best viewed full screen with the lights out. It starts quietly and slowly builds steam.

Old rituals, new grounds: Hermann Nitsch and Mark Harwood

Sunday 10 January 2021

From time to time I remember that there was a Hermann Nitsch retrospective held a couple of years ago in Croydon. I didn’t go. Even in these Covid times, I don’t regret it; not because it was Croydon, but because I’ve never found shock or catharsis to be enlightening in itself and the invocation of pagan ritual always seemed artificial and derivative. Too much of the art’s supposed power depends upon dedicated promotion of the image of the artist. The real meat, so to speak, was always in the incongruity of the action and its context, or lack of it, but that’s something I’ve never heard Nitsch address and it seems to work against the goals he himself claims.

Like a good Fluxus artist, Nitsch is also a composer. I Dischi di Angelica have just released his Orgelkonzert, performed at the AngelicA festival in Bologna in 2019, in which Nitsch goes to work on the grand organ at Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi for over an hour. It’s a well-recorded, beautiful-sounding document of his later musical practice, allowing the listener to assess the music in its own right, away from its wider associations. This, however, may be a mistake, as Nitsch is not concerned with sound alone and so the reductive approach gives us much, much less to work with.

The Orgelkonzert is improvised, but cast in a form designed to impose on the audience, a large-scale, four-movement structure recalling romantic-era symphonies. The material has moved away from Nitsch’s earlier approach and is neither brutal nor bruitiste as such, relying on drones, or rather on long-held chords. For long periods of time you will hear the same chord, with occasional notes added or subtracted, with periodic flashes of movement or sudden changes. Assistants use boards to hold down clusters. There is a loose sense of alternating between consonance and dissonance, but with only a few overly dramatic clusters suddenly crashing onto a peaceful dyad. There are shifts in register and timbre too, but these are less dramatic. Much of the time you are left simply bathing in sound, a feeling all too familiar and comfortable for new music fans. The trouble with playing the organ this way is that it can so easily feel derivative, as it did when I heard John Zorn improvising on the St Paul’s Hall organ at Huddersfield years ago. There were the same clusters, keys held down by weights, drones – all the Gothic trappings and connotations that become the real material the musician plays with, more image than sound.

I’ve seen Mark Harwood’s live performances several times but haven’t really bothered with recordings until now – some exceptions aside. The gigs are disingenuous exercises in deflection from the absurdity of the audience-performer situation, typically shifting the burden of attention somewhere else, such as on a collaborator or the venue itself. A Perfect Punctual Paradise Under My Own Name is his first solo release away from his previous persona of Astor and the self-reflexive title is a heads-up to the paranoiac-critical method he employs here. As much a ritual as Nitsch’s actions (though Henning Christiansen is the more appropriate avatar here), Harwood offers up a platter of scraps, a baffling collage of field recordings, garbled dialogue and musical moments too unformed to be considered doodles. The slow-paced restlessness never settles in the push and pull between ego and self-negation, trying to present himself in as an unflattering light as possible without tipping into romanticised self-abasement. In trying to deflect from himself, Harwood creates a collage out of the musical equivalent of a child trying to register the exact moment he falls asleep. For this ritual, whatever transformative effect it had on the artist is beside the point; it is left to the listener to meditate on what significance may be found in this unconscious arrangement of unresolved residua.