Juliet Fraser Sings Lucier, Armstrong, Crane

Monday 19 June 2023

All That Dust has released its fifth batch of recordings, three of them as downloads in binaural audio. I went to the launch concert on Wednesday to hear live performances of some of the solo pieces by Rósa Lind and Soosan Lolavar, as well as a spatialised electronic piece by Aaron Einbond. I’ll get round to them later, but for now I want to mention the two binaural releases featuring soprano and label co-founder Juliet Fraser. The first is a performance of Alvin Lucier’s Wave Songs, a piece I don’t think has been commercially available before now. There are eleven short, wordless songs accompanied by two sine wave oscillators close enough in frequency to create beating tones that can be counted. The singer is required to sing tones precisely specified above or below either electronic frequency. Exact pitch is hard to discern when the interference of close frequencies create pulses, and with each successive piece the difference between the two sine waves narrows, from 48 hertz in the first piece down to 0.5 hertz in the last. To stay as accurate as the score requires is an excercise in futility, yet the pursuit of an ideal is as much of what makes us human as our failure to achieve it. As with much of Lucier’s work, the musical interest comes from the discrepancies between scientific perfection and human intervention, with no need to exaggerate the degree of their deviation. Fraser sings in a way which mixes precision with a softer edge (compare and contrast her rendition of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices with the version by Joan La Barbara, who first performed Wave Songs) that makes each song pulsate and shimmer. I lied when I said it’s wordless; the penultimate song sets words by Lee Lozano, the artist whose paintings inspired the piece, on the human limitations on transforming science into art. Despite all this, the music doesn’t rely on a romantic notion of imperfection: if someone were to sing it perfectly, it would be as stupendous as Giotto drawing a circle freehand.

Newton Armstrong’s The Book of the Sediments is one of a set of pieces Fraser has commissioned that draw on the writings of Rachel Carson for inspiration. Armstrong’s use of electronic shadowing of introspective melody is reduced here to essences, focusing on fragments of text reiterated in slowly rising patterns while overlapped by microtonally-tuned electronic sounds. The comparison with Wave Songs is instructive, with some 25 years of history intervening between the two works. At first the impression is that of a more developed Lucier piece, as solid tones beat against each other and Fraser’s calm recital of charged words, but the sounds from the speakers steadily grow more complex, sounding more and more like acoustic instruments before crackling, scattered rain-like sounds cover everything. The theme of the piece is accretion, as one layer replaces another, and the ending does not suggest a final state has been reached, just that observation of the process has concluded.

Another of the Rachel Carson works recently released, this time on Another Timbre, is Laurence Crane’s Natural World, an odd and affecting work of some duration. Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop wend their way through song and field recordings with a pacing that’s too slow to be considered relaxed and too deliberate to be dreamlike. After a lengthy introduction of descending piano phrases and unresolved cadences, Fraser enters with nature observations sung in repeated, gradually rising lines. The pairing with genteel chordal accompaniment makes it all seem rather stately, in a quaint and English countryside way. The qualities of Fraser’s voice come to the fore here, imbuing the words with a mixture of simple dignity and melancholy. The tone is reminiscent of Crane’s earlier European Towns, also premiered by Fraser, both in its cycling of lists and its wistful atmosphere. At times, human music gives way to recordings of nature, before resuming on a slightly different tack from before. Natural World falls into two long sections, ‘Field Guide’ and ‘Seascape’, with a briefer chorus as an interlude, making a piece nearly an hour long. The Chorus is a vocalise of descending glissadi, accompanied by birdsong and somewhat bluesy piano chords. Before ‘Seascape’ begins, the piano has given way to a small, portable electronic keyboard which plays high, reedy drones. The voice alternates between recitation and folksong-like refrains as the subject transitions from land to water. It’s a difficult piece to pull off, with its strange construction, loose seams and surface naivety, requiring confidence in the resilience of the slight materials to hold the listener in suspense as it wanders from one passage to another. Fraser and Knoop laregly succeed by maintaining seriousness without demonstrative earnestness, investing faith in the tangible phenomena depicted in words and on tape while refraining from introspection as a poor substitute. In this approach as much as the slightly awkward, almost apologetic candour that prevails throughout, it comes across as a distinctly English work.