Genuine improvised duets

Sunday 14 March 2021

At a time when just getting two people into a room to play together is a dimly-remembered luxury, it’s nice to hear again the strange interactions that happen during an improvised duet. The three recordings here all took place before 2020’s pandemic and the attendant lockdowns and general curtailment of simple pleasures. It’s also nice to remember that austere doesn’t have to be synonymous with meagre. The Interstices Of These Epidemics is the result of 18 months’ preparation by Clinton Green and Barnaby Oliver, in which the two of them worked with “a restricted palette of gestures and sound sources” until they created this mesmerising pair of improvisations. Green plays bowed metal bowls, producing distinctively complex, friable drones that teem with ambiguous harmonics. It’s a sound that can easily be overused but Green plays with steadfast restraint, letting inadvertent variations come of their own accord. In the first track, he’s joined by Oliver on violin, the two of them merging into what sounds like a prepared string quartet playing a blurred, nebulous chorale. For the second, Oliver switches to piano and Green’s drones become a backdrop for a plaintive series of ostinatos. The wistful sentimentality of the chords and halting rhythm is tempered by Oliver’s refusal to be led into anything beyond the most minute expressive gestures. This is released on Green’s Shame File Music, a long-running Melbourne label that mixes up new music with reissues of historic recordings of the Australian avant-garde.

This came out a while back and I didn’t pay close attention because it seemed like more lowkey improvisation which is all just swell but after a while you’ve heard too much of it. Turns out it’s way better than that. The two tracks on Iteration were improvisations at a live gig by Lucio Capece and Werner Dafeldecker, the former on reeds and battery-powered feedback, the latter on double bass. As with Green and Oliver, the two musicians do not play as one instrument but nevertheless play with a single mind in a shared, multicoloured voice. In the first track, Capece’s bass clarinet forms the focus, with Dafeldecker’s bass adding colouration and echoes, each instrument seeking out a common register. For the second, the string instrument’s more complex textures become figuration against higher, more pure tones traded between slide saxophone and feedback until the bass harmonics threaten to engulf them. Both works are unhurried, with a clean conception of form and pacing that slows down time while still feeling like a worked-out composition.

David Grubbs and Ryley Walker first played together as a duet on “a broiling night at a neighborhood bar” in New York in summer 2019. The gig is now released as Fight or Flight Simulator on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku download label. The two electric guitars intertwine around some gently paced but steady chords and picking patterns, then gradually lead each other into more fraught terrain. Even as there is some Sturm und Drang during the 25-minute piece, a regular pulse is heard or implied throughout, which both Grubbs and Walker use to pull back and foreground the subtle complexity found in the interplay of their instruments, rather than try to dazzle the punters with histrionics. It’s hard to be objective listening to this because I can’t but feel sad about it. It makes me wish I was in another place, or another time; somewhere it isn’t still winter, where there are bars and gigs, somewhere that isn’t London, or even Europe, somewhere that electric guitars still matter, a place where I’m not so old.

Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973)

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Some archival releases are historically important, restoring a significant musical movement to present-day consciousness. Others can throw accepted history into a different light, making the past a deeper, richer source for new inspiration. As a modern musical experience, listening to historic recordings of the avant-garde is often an excercise in intellectual curiosity, or a dark form of amusement: the interpretations and performances are often unpolished or uninformed, at worst incompetent and, even at their best, often drily literal (and sometimes no worse for that). It’s a rare and exciting event when the archaeological trip works equally well as a compelling new release.

Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973) is a superlative example of all that is best in archival box sets. Paradigm Discs has form for presenting ‘lost’ music at its most potent; this set has been years in the making and all the work has paid off in spades. In late twentieth century avant-garde music, the British group Gentle Fire is often mentioned but seldom heard. Active in the late 60s and early 70s, they remain best remembered for a small vinyl legacy: their recording of Stockhausen’s Sternklang and a German LP of pieces by the New York School. CD reissues are piecemeal and/or capriciously expensive. Explorations is three CDs of Gentle Fire recordings which, as far as I can tell, have never been publically available in complete form. Even if you are familiar with the 70s LPs, everything’s an ear-opener.

Disc one tackles familiar territory: previously unreleased performances of Cage, Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and Toshi Ichiyanagi, all from 1970 or 1971. The typically rough-hewn electroacoustic sounds of the period are all present and correct, yet it all sounds less stark or abrasive than other contemporary avant-gardisms, even compared to their own LP. The only repeat here is Brown’s Four Systems, given an ingeniously austere realisation with Hugh Davies applying band-pass filters to a droning string ensemble (other group members Graham Hearn, Richard Orton, Richard Bernas, Michael Robinson and Stuart Jones filling in on whatever instrument is needed). There’s more detail in the Electrola LP, but the recording here is more focused on a coherent musical statement than on numbering off each of the score’s elements. It’s this emphasis on using open scores to produce a fully realised piece of music instead of “exploring possibilities” that sets Gentle Fire apart from other experimental music groups of the time. The disc starts off with a small surprise, with Christian Wolff’s For Jill instructing the performers to concentrate on combinations of selected notes into chords – an unusually traditional material compared to his better-known group realisations. An ensemble of home-made instruments by Davies et al nudges Wolff’s score back into the uncanny.

Two selections from Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen (Aufwärts and Treffpunkt) show the strength of the ensemble’s musical vision. They’re not afraid to “lead the tone wherever your thoughts lead you” as enjoined by the score, even as Stockhausen heavily directs those thoughts towards convergence. Their idea of “always return to the same place” is a lot more conceptually open and makes the piece soar in unexpected ways. Similarly with Aufwärts, where unlike with at least one other ensemble, they would not agree with, let alone solicit, Stockhausen’s guidance on what “the rhythm of the universe” might be. (Incidentally, there’s a great article in The Wire going over Gentle Fire’s history with the surviving members, including the whole “working with Stockhausen” experience.) Ichiyanagi’s Appearance threatens to get aggressively harsh but never lets up the suspense, with judicious use of ring modulators and sinewave generators creating a bleak, ominous landscape out of trumpet, cello and electric organ. Cage’s Cartridge Music does get appropriately rowdy, amping up small sounds into a cavernous roar. It’s a live recording and the audience is plainly amused by the antics required to produce some of these noises, thus fulfilling Cage’s wish that electronic music be at least as theatrically satisfying as live acoustic performance.

The second two discs are the real revelation, featuring compositions by individual group members and two large “group compositions”, each one shocking in how they interect with both their own time and ours. The pieces bring a healthy dose of the Cagean, Fluxusy extremes of the US avant-garde into the distinctly more genteel British millieu. It was a fertile period, sort of post-Cage but pre-Nyman, and Explorations expands this field hugely, beyond the usual assumed constraints of process music and the assumed freedoms of AMM. That skill for mixing acoustic and electronic comes into its own here. Stuart Jones’ Ruthie’s Piece sounds almost contemporary, using isolated piano sounds with heavy ring modulation against soft cello harmonics to create what could pass for 21st-century ambient. Richard Bernas’ Almanac For September is a more restless work but it also sets muted piano against cello harmonics, using purely acoustic means to alter tone and resonance in ways that resemble electronic processing. In Michael Robinson’s 2 Pianos Piece the composer is joined by Richard Bernas in a lop-sided process of repetition and augmentation that would fit alongside works by John White or Christopher Hobbs. Graham Hearn’s Centrepiece takes a rudimentary idea of “soloist with tape loops” and interprets it as a haunting, evocative soundtrack of muffled organ lost amongst the remnants of run-out grooves on old records. It’s a long, long way from the academic exposition of novel compositional structures.

The two group compositions push into new territories, with performance verging on installation. Group Composition VI (unfixed parities) from 1973 has the ensemble electronically transmitting and modifying speaking voices, filtering and disrupting speech with modified telephone equipment to create a dense, barely intelligible verbal soundscape. Its sonic novelty is ripe with the implications of technology, reproduction and intervention, information overload, alienation and spatial dislocation. As a dispassionately prophetic work, it’s a thrilling and disturbing space for meditation. In fleeting moments it recalls various Alvin Lucier compositions. Group Composition IV originated on the Pyramid Stage at the first Glastonbury festial in 1971 and is here recorded at the Roundhouse in London the following year. It features the gHong, a large assembly of suspended metal rods which can be played collective and coaxed into a wide array of complex sounds, augmented by various additional instruments, including Davies’ own homebrew springboards and a VCS3 synthesizer. This recording takes up the entire third disc, sounding and resounding for over an hour of deeply textured sounds that are simultaneously monumental and delicate. It’s a glorious thing.

Sound quality ranges from good (the concert recordings) to great; the cleanup work is seamless and transparent. The CD version comes in a slick box and a hefty, well-edited booklet with plenty of pictures, full documentation of who did what where and when, and a complete reprint of Hugh Davies’ essential essay Gentle Fire: An Early Approach to Live Electronic Music. Exemplary. I think a second pressing is on the way.

Antoine Beuger’s jankélévitch sextets

Tuesday 2 March 2021

In my mind I’ve worked up Antoine Beuger as my personal nemesis. Never met him, but his music has always aroused a vehement antipathy, sufficient for me to have resolved to avoid further encounters wherever possible. (The only other composer I’ve singled out for this treatment, more or less arbitrarily, is Wolfgang Rihm.) Whatever I’ve heard has always struck me as being imprisoned in theoretical purity, beholden to presenting an idea at the expense of any musical considerations; a dry, academic routine left to run its course. I found it devoid of aesthetic interest, but never in a way that challenged or provoked, and so felt no need to pursue it further.

So, when Another Timbre sent me their new recording of Beuger’s jankélévitch sextets, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my impartiality by getting really stuck in. I’m happy to report that those hopes have been dashed. This is quietly intriguing music. Maybe I needed to hear more Beuger after all, but what seems to set this piece apart from previous works I’ve heard is that the idea here focuses on musical considerations.

Then basically, the players, they do the same thing. They play long, very quiet tones. There’s nothing to practice, because individually everybody is engaging in the same activity. And they’re going to find themselves in different kinds of constellations, if you like. And there’s a whole set of pages in the score which you play separately, so you have a whole number of instances of this situation, and you move from one to the other, and it’s basically very amorphous. But it takes on some kind of form each time, and the form comes very logically and genetically from the setup, from the deep structure, if you like.

There seems to be a simple scheme in play here, not unlike some of my preferred music by Eva-Maria Houben. From this simplicity, a pleasing subtlety is allowed to emerge. As the title suggests, the piece is an homage to the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, who said that music has no itinerary, it’s not going from here to there to there, and who explored the philosophical concept of the event, the grey area where the appearance of a new state is dependent on perceiving the disappearance of an older state. The structure of the piece – musicians independently playing shared material within loosely-defined time-frames – bears a clear similarity to Cage’s late ‘number’ pieces. Indeed, the sound-world of soft, overlapping pitches strongly resemble many of those works.

There are distinct differences, however; borne out of differences in musical thinking. Where Cage allows some interpretive freedom, Beuger stipulates long and modestly soft notes throughout. With potential for harmonic and textural complexity thus reduced still further, other qualities come to the fore. The instruments (double bass, accordion, bass clarinet, violin, bassoon, viola) pair off and produce strangely sophisticated tone-colours. The mix of instruments used here by members of the ensemble Apartment House includes an accordion, which brings out unexpected beating frequencies and other acoustic phenomena. It’s a work that lovingly exemplifies the beauty of instrumental sounds, all through simple play that removes any faint traces of didacticism that linger even in Cage’s most beguiling works. Apartment House play with a steadfast simplicity that seems to suit Beuger’s style, although after a while it starts to sound a little too tender, which perhaps helps to sweeten the sound for the ear.

It figures that I must have been missing something all this time. Still wary of diving into Beuger’s back catalogue, but now because I’m worried I’ll spoil the mood.

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.