xenopraxis: In A Sedimental Mood

Monday 19 February 2024

Like a bad dream, you wake from it and it fades, only to resume as soon as you relax. You can’t remember the details, it’s all a vague wash of disturbing impressions, far in the back of your consciousness. I assume xenopraxis will take this summary of his In A Sedimental Mood in the complimentary way it’s intended. He cites Satie’s furniture music as an inspiration (said music functioning as much obstacle as background), but it also recalls the pointed directionlessness and discontinuities of Christian Wolff’s later work, with a strong dose of Brian Eno’s Unwelcome Jazz from the Nineties. There’s also tangential connection to Edlritch Priest, which tracks.

In A Sedimental Mood somehow contrives to spin out some seventy-odd minutes of music that is not quite ignorable but also not quite interesting. The lazy cocktail-bar atmosphere of piano and hi-hat is denatured by rambling, self-centred keyboards, including an out-of-tune Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ perpetually at odds with each other, and a crummy MIDI guitar. It soon fades out, but then starts over just as before, only different. Everything tastes bad and the servings are too small. Each little section seems to fade out quicker than the last, but there are so many of them and the timing is just so that it’s impossible to keep track. There is structure, but without form, leaving any attempts at deeper listening confounded by trying to find any greater distinction between one congealed lump of seemingly arbitrary noodling and another, with the growing suspicion that the details are irrelevant even as they sustain the work’s duration. Any theorising about a continual present is both reinforced and thwarted by the repeated fade-out and resets; it exploits deficiency of attention to create a work of near intolerable duration. As a work of perversity, and of questioning values of significance and perception, it is high art.

(Coming back to it, I realise it also reminds me of the music made by Australian artist Phil Edwards. Often working as part of a group of improvising artists with variable musical experience, the spontaneity and lack of goals, as heard in free improvisation, is tamed by a language of conventional instruments and techniques and an approach that tries to be popular, yet remains alien and unknowable exactly because of its refusal to be perceived as something entirely new.)

Electronic Noise Shootout, Winter 2024

Friday 9 February 2024

I feel like I’m rating different grades of sandpaper when writing listening notes on these. They’re all deliberately awkward music made from digital electronic synthesis and/or processing. Andreja Andric’s two Pocket Electronic Symphonies (Are-Verlag) use filtered and reprocessed noise as their sonic basis, with each piece performed by the composer using a combined variable sound generator and score coded into a javascript app loaded onto a smartphone. Conceptually, it’s irresistable: a lightweight and accessible source and interface without needing to rely on additional material stuff. Andric’s method resolves issues of live performance and those of determining form and structure through the use of the generated score, nudging the audio software beyond being little more than a noisy toy of a type often encountered in this genre. If the smartphone’s audio output is attenuated, Andric makes up for it with some dense and complex sounds. This complexity means it tends to the harsh side, but each piece carries its own compositional concerns well enough and makes a decent job of differentiating between passages with contrasting tones and textures. The two performances here were made some three years apart, inviting comparisons in approach while suggesting the basic setup could be expanded in different ways.


Release numbers four and six from Party Perfect!!! continue in the same vein of the label’s other releases with a maximum of noise and minimum of compromise (I’m guessing as I haven’t heard two or five). Ryu Hankil’s Envelope Demon is a lengthy, scratchy suite for digital synthesis, rolling back and forth over small bursts of sound that are subjected to various intensities of strangulation. It’s a piece worked on over several years but, even as it has reached a heightened state of refinement, some of the initial excitement may have been lost. With many unique electronic setups, their ingenuity is offset by inherent limitations in their premise, and so they end up with realisations where it seems as though every possible option has been worked out until the premise is exhausted; the question is thus rasied as to whether what we’ve heard is in fact a musical composition. I don’t know if that’s the case with Envelope Demon but after forty minutes it feels like it, something Andric’s Symphonies manage to avoid. Michael Speers’ four short pieces For David Stockard, on the other hand, suggest boundless invention concentrated into a very precise form. Very different from his earlier Green Spot Nectar of the Gods, the pieces exploit his canny observation of the similarities between percussion and electronics. It’s an area which still seems to be insufficiently explored, how these sound sources share common attributes of timbral and harmonic complexity as well as indeterminacy. Speers focuses on the roles of contact, friction and touch and how they influence each other in different media. Part Perfect No. 6 consists only of Stefan Maier’s piece Nervous Systems, which is unsual compared to his previous release and the PP label in general in making some concessions to the listener, with sounds given more gentle attacks and everything wrapped in a soothing cloak of reverb. Without the edginess it can’t help but be slightly disappointing, as the basic materials come across as much the same. Perhaps I’m disappointed this particular release doesn’t come with a zine or recipes.


What’s the dividing line between ‘art’ and ‘pop’ with this stuff? Why am I pigeonholing the next two as the latter as opposed to the former? Not because it’s all short stuff; definitely not because it could be considered remotely popular. Perhaps because there are discernible remnants of ‘deconstructed’ popular idioms, but then these pieces have reached such an advanced stage of disassembly that it’s a moot point. It’s probably the attitude behind it, as the motivation shifts from technical considerations to affective consequences. A glimmer of demotic, late romantic transcendentalism still peeps through, faint but as recognisable as in a love ballad or movie soundtrack. GAŁGAŁ describes his Ich schw​ö​re ich hab Angst (Abstand) in terms of ideas – freedom, individualism and vision. The eleven short tracks are constructed from edits of live improvisations with samplers and synthesis, and they start out feeling suitably scrappy and spontaneous but after a while settle into something more consistent and serious. I kept waiting for a change in direction to recapture that open-ended impression from the start, but once a certain type of anti-groove locks in GAŁGAŁ stays put. Reincanto / Real Bwoy (Artetetra) on the other hand keeps hopping back and forth between ideas as a way of preserving momentum. It’s a split release (it’s also available on cassette so I guess the concept stil makes sense) between Kinked and Señor Service respectively, apparently dealing with storytelling and ritual-type stuff. I’m hearing a nice little set of hyperactive sonic globs pulled from various corners of the electronic repetoire and repurposed into bite-sized morsels. The lack of consistency and continuity becomes their strength, appealing in the manner of kinetic junk scupltures with commensurate irreverence and insolence. Their purposeful refusal to groove just makes them seem even more arty. To tell them apart, Kinked works mostly with noise while Señor Service throws in mass media and kiddie sounds.

Extradition and friends play Philip Corner, for fourteen hours

Sunday 4 February 2024

Someone expected me to listen to fourteen hours of music by a composer I didn’t like. It’s not that I disliked Philip Corner’s music as such; just that I found it easy to admire it philosophically while never wanting to listen to it. What I’d happened to hear, together with all the praise I’d read, imbued it with a medicinal quality, a stern but necessary purgative for conventional aesthetics, and about as palatable. It wasn’t helped by a number of enthusiasts who dodged the nuances in his thinking to seize upon the bleedin’ obvious (“Yeah dude but have you ever like really listened to a saucepan?”) It all seemed to pursue asceticism as its own reward. This is all wrong of course but listening to the music had never seemed to help; I always felt like I needed to read something before I could get it.

Philip Corner turned ninety last year and the Oregon ensemble Extradition had spent the preceding year or so working up a fitting tribute by performing and recording as much of his music as they could, including a series of concerts in early 2023. They also collected performances of his pieces by friends and associates wherever they could, with all of it gathered together on Extradition Plays Philip Corner. There’s fourteen hours of it. Really, given Corner’s stature and what with still being active at ninety, anything less would be an insult but still, fourteen hours. There are sixty-one performances collected here, of compositions ranging from the late 1950s to the present. The idea of an endurance test fit perfectly with my preconceived caricature of the composer, so I resolved to plough through the whole thing and try to find some points of differentiation, at least.

The ordering is not chronological, but it does begin with the oldest piece here. 2-Part Monologues No. 1 presents two instruments cast as melody and drone, played here by Lee Elderton on clarinet and Collin Oldham on cello respectively. The stasis in the cello holds the unfolding melody in permanent suspense, creating a parallax movement of its own. It sounds very clean and contemporary, while having been composed in 1957. The piece situates Corner at the earliest flowerings of what were to become dominant shaping ideas for new music in the latter half of the century: minimalism, indeterminacy, improvisation, rethinking of tonality and simplicity. The fourteen hours of music demonstrates that Corner has been across all of these ideas for many years, combined with an awareness of the interaction between sound, performer and environment. What’s most striking about the pieces where nature and the environment are at the forefront, is the way Corner balances a respectful approach to the subject while still subjecting it to compositional rigor. No mindless nature worship or ecological superstition here: Loren Chasse’s superb interpretation of the 1999 piece Ear Here with Musician plays with the sounds made by stones and paper alongside a shallow creek, where the actions of human and nature are often indistinguishable. Conversely, works like Presence from 1995 are performed entirely by ensemble, with Extradition using small objects and Corner’s score of durations and continuities to create a complex of sounds reminiscent of a bog at dusk. Acoustic, electronic, manufactured and natural keep blurring into each other throughout this set, for fourteen hours.

Everything Extradition presents sounds much deeper and richer to me than the thin sonic gruel I have been dosed with in previous Corner recordings. The five concerts at the start are a bit rough around the edges in audio quality but serve beautifully as a live document. The remaining thirty-nine pieces by Extradition and others are at least as good, but what matters as much as capturing the sound is the quality of sounds that Corner has inspired in these musicians. Denis Sorokin’s guitar rendition of Lingering Random Chords (after William Faulkner) digs into his instrument’s peculiarities of attack and decay, while Skin Champions takes a Serge modular synthesizer through an abrupt realisation of the text score Continue. When I said there are fourteen hours of this, I should specify that it totals fourteen hours, eleven minutes and twelve seconds. Corner’s wry approach to more conventional music theory appears throughout, from the ruthlessly severe The Art of No-Art series to the strict but free (or free but strict) Just Another 12-Tone Piece. In the latter, Extradition make a complex ensemble composition out of Corner’s instruction that each performer play a 12-tone row, of a type and in a manner of their own choosing. By contrast The Art of No-Art is a vast cycle of compositions made of a single pitch and its octaves. There are hundreds of these things, twelve of which appear throughout the fourteen hours, and they sound both rigorously minimal and expressively pointillistic at once, maintaining momementum despite the lack of harmonic or melodic movement through the tension of the opposing tendencies in their musical language. Extradition et al. play some of these simultaneously, creating new textures and potential counterpoints.

By now you’re probably figured out that I’ve been won over. Just to keep my newfound enthusiasm in check, I’ll note that getting somewhere around the halfway point a few of those dry presentations of acoustic phenomena without context do appear. They are admittedly very nicely presented. One of these is 1982’s Boiling Water – water here boiled by Ricardo Arias – so now I know that Ahti & Ahti, Akama & d’incise were all about forty years late but at least they did something with it. Some pieces, such as An Agreed-Upon Mood Mode “for ensemble with discussion” conflate the thing and the idea about the thing in the same detrimental manner. Before these moments come along, your overall impression will presumably be how everything has been surprisingly good to listen to. There is, after all, fourteen damn hours of this stuff so everyone’s experience will vary. I’ve barely scratched the surface here but hopefully it tells you enough about the variety to be found here, all of which goes towards giving you a much more detailed and complete portrait of Corner as a composer.

With all the diversity in approach, it’s striking how Corner’s various methods are used to achieve consistent ends. Themes weave their way through the collection, of collage (with or without recordings), awareness of multiplicity and uniqueness (through permutation and improvisation), examination of what makes us individuals (compared to another, an object, natural forces). Each new side to his work remembers the others. Where some of Corner’s scores can seem vague or insubstantial at first, the performances by Extradition and their associates show how even his broadest statements are always made with consciousness of specific outcomes, even as those outcomes are undetermined. The score for 2006’s Ultimate Improvisation, performed here by Matt Hannafin, consists of the line “Like nothing else, like never before.” There’s a substantial booklet that provides further details and context for each of the works presented. It’s rare for a celebration of an artist’s work to be also a forceful work of advocacy; Extradition have achieved both in spades. Fourteen fucking hours. I am in awe.

New Music Premieres 2024: An Introduction

Saturday 27 January 2024

Ah yeah I’ve heard some new music this year. It was Apartment House again at Cafe Oto again, this time premiering four new works. Apparently it was part of some larger project with an interdisciplinary curatorial agenda but I forget what it was. There was a new string quartet by Eldritch Priest. I had his weird-ass guitar piece Omphaloskepsis sitting in my listening pile for over a year and a collection of earlier chamber pieces even longer, but the new work Dust Breeding took things in a different direction from those pieces and their lop-sided, angular melodic lines. Heavy emphasis on harmonics throughout, with their high, sweet intimations of just intonation adding a further tantalising element to the expectation that sooner or later the loose, almost-looping patterns between the instruments may mesh into something unified and coherent. The piece functions like a complex knot, slackened to the point where you can’t tell if grabbing one end will pull it tight or unravel it completely. I believe Apartment House is recording some Eldritch Priest this year.

Of the other pieces, like oil it glistens multicolours by Finlay Clark, whose work I knew nothing about, mixed together disparate elements on strings and keyboard with field recordings and electronics in that bold, eclectic way without any evident over-arching principle, reminiscent of experimental video editing. Later in the piece some distressed electronic beats accompany the musicians but these are wisely used as another weapon in the music’s resistance to easy comprehension, just as I was starting to worry the piece would end in a bathetic attempt at being popular, or worse, cool. Denis Sorokin’s Arbor is a pleasantly bittersweet movement of quiet contemplation, shedding light on his work as a guitarist who has performed works by the likes of Michael Pisaro-Liu. His ensemble writing is finely judged, although I found the work a little too pleasant and was waiting for something to disturb its untroubled surface. The final work was by violinist/violist Chihiro Ono, sometime Apartment House participant herself. If I remember right, Rabbit Hole – alive. emove. 108. is her first proper composition, with the small ensemble playing alongside recordings of nature in various states of domestication. It’s a fairly open score and with the field recordings the performance had an amiably bucolic affect to its rambling form, as minor incidents came and went. Aided by the group’s playing and their talent for finding substance in the ephemeral, the work’s contents had an elusive, ungraspable quality that anchored the work with a fundamental seriousness and made it hard to assign any obvious influence or comparison to Ono’s compositional style.

Definite Uncertainty: Jürg Frey’s String Quartet No. 4

Sunday 21 January 2024

There was a lot of excited chatter around when Quatuor Bozzini gave the UK premiere of Jürg Frey’s Fourth String Quartet in Huddersfield in November. For those of us who missed it, the Bozzinis’ recording of String Quartet No. 4 from last May is now commerically available. Composed over a couple of years, its gestation proceeds from that of his String Trio, recently recorded by Apartment House. Like the trio, the quartet is a large work, made all the more imposing in substance through consisting of five movements instead of one elongated span. Frey’s longer works have often taken on the form of a journey, with episodes, incidents and detours, but with this quartet the sense of movement has been sublimated while the questioning aspects remain.

In a way not readily apparent before, Frey lets a curious lop-sidedness define this composition from the outset and then tries to find a balance between the incongruous forces at play. The overall structure even suggests this, with the fifth movement taking up a little over half of the quartet’s hour-plus duration. His early tendency towards silence and his later one towards romanticism are set against each other throughout the piece. The opening movement even falls into two halves, when the reduced heart rate of the slow-breathing chorale that begins the work suddenly drops into a period of whispered, near-pitchless bowing. For the rest of the piece, you’re left wondering if a similar gap in the sound will re-open. Subsequent movements contrast moments of prolonged stillness with more classically-motivated interplay between the instruments, albeit in Frey’s characteristic manner of distilling such passages to their most essential, in slow motion. The second movement takes fragile gestures from unaccompanied and builds them into something articulate and expressive, while the third begins with a more assertive chorale before dissolving into brooding, introspective solos. That long final movement consolidates the preceding tendencies into a coherent statement, but without resolving any of the contradictions, finding it to be achievement enough to give expression to the complexities inherent to the composition. Heard in isolation, the movement could be taken as a self-sufficient and eloquent work in its own right, but what we’ve heard before exposes us to the tensions that animate the music.

This is a troubled work, where Frey has stripped away more of the artifice that has previously constrained his expressive tendencies behind a facade of impassive observation. It shows us more of a composer wrestling with imbalances and contradictions, in turn requiring the listener’s involvement far beyond what would have once been assumed as little more than contemplation of an impeccable surface. Quatuor Bozzini excel at revealing these difficulties without drawing attention to their own labour. They excel at distinguishing between the finest gradations of dark and light, infusing greater colours into a work with such an attenuated range of dynamics. In their performances of older repertoire, I’ve always been struck at how they find a timeless element in the music. For Frey’s latest quartet, their ear is attuned to Schubert and Webern.

Sawyer Editions: Kory Reeder, Matt Sargent, Noah Jenkins

Sunday 14 January 2024

There’s a new batch of five recordings on Kory Reeder’s Sawyer Editions imprint, this time including one by Reeder himself. I’ve only heard one other piece by Reeder, the 70-minute Codex Vivere on Another Timbre, which I recall mildly disparaging in a passing comment as “polite”. Something like that, anyway; I remember feeling that it was at pains to be too accommodating to the listener. Snow, composed last year for a quartet of violin, cello, piano and percussion, is a different matter. Using the same basic approach but in a more pointed fashion, Snow makes a virtue of its reticence by lulling the listener with simple, repeated patterns threaded through other ephemeral material, but always pulling them away before they can establish themselves clearly. Those patterns, with the familiar hushed dynamics, inevitably recall late Feldman, but the repeating figures are too simple to be invested with any greater significance and, if Reeder is consciously referring to Feldman then he draws upon those moments when a passage is about to exhaust itself. In pacing and phrasing, the music is constantly about to fade into silence and stasis, turning something simple into a much deeper and elusive experience. Reeder himself leads the small ensemble on piano, with all four speaking as low and distant as they possibly can. It’s also been released on cassette, yet even as a download the piece falls into two parts exactly fifteen minutes long.

Matt Sargent’s Illuminations is a set of three gentle electroacoustic works which could almost be considered ambient were it not for the subtle manipulations beneath the surface. Taken from a longer cycle of works titled Illuminations, the three pieces are made from electronic, algorithmic processes built around live musicians. Sargent’s scores are animated, with notes fading in and out over each other, creating slow loops for the performer to play, using opacity as a guide to dynamics. In turn, their notes are sifted out by a software patch that selects certain tones to be extended and harmonised. The independent routines work together to create something that sounds alive and spontaneous, even as it maintains an overall undisturbed consistency. Slow, erratic melodies unfold against a backdrop of refreshing harmonics. It reminded me a bit of some of David Behrman’s recent interactive electroacoustic works, using novel ideas without needing to show them off. The bright timbres of the instruments used here offset the softness of the playing: the first track a duet for pianist Michael Jones on vibraphone and Shaoai Ashley Zhang on piano, the following two solos for Trevor Saint on glockenspiel and Taylor Long on vibraphone. All play with a critical senstivity to touch.

By way of contrast, the two pieces Noah Jenkins has made with trombonist Riley Leitch present yet another way of listening. Without Persistent Environments is up-front loud and proud, immersing you in the sound rather than coaxing you in. For the first twenty minutes Leitch rings the changes on a small gamut of pitches in Without persistent environments the sense of confusion and flux might only worsen, multitracked so that the notes clash and coincide with unpredictable regularity. Jenkins recorded Leitch in various locations around Chicago, adding acoustic and ambient colouration that is at first imperceptible but soon becomes a complicating force. For the following hour, Leith plays long tones in just intonation into a live looping system for Rotations Placement : Providence Everywhere, creating an implacable, complex drone of dense chords and overtones. The pitches and the brass combine to make something wonderfully agressive, that snarls and buzzes like a La Monte Young piece. It’s best played loud, in the manner of the late, lamented Phill Niblock. My only complaint is that it fades out at the end instead of dumping you cold.

Folks’ Music: Miller, Crane, Smith, Riley

Thursday 11 January 2024

Evidently, I missed a few great gigs in Ireland last year. Fortunately, the Louth Contemporary Music Society has preserved them. Folks’ Music documents three works commissioned by them, each one extraordinary in their own way. The first piece presented here is almost powerful enough to overwhelm the two that follow: Cassandra Miller’s The City, Full of People is a work for unaccompanied mixed chorus teems with life, with individual voices cascading over each other in repeated figures that seem to blend into each other, creating a vocal labyrinth. The piece builds upon her previous work made from her privately singing along to other music, multiplied and expanded. The basic approach is similar to her earlier a capella composition Guide, but here that piece’s wild and woolly nature has been tamed into something more controlled and potent than unalloyed catharsis. The structure here is simple but ingenious, falling into three sections: the first launching out at full tilt before resolving to an end with extreme slowness, the second building from nothing to recapture the force of the beginning, followed by a coda which condenses the music’s essence into a final moment for contemplation. There’s also skill in knowing when to stop.

The performance by Chamber Choir Ireland (directed by Paul Hiller) is a model of clarity and strength, using directness instead of dramatics to gain the listener’s undivided attention. They also premiered Linda Catlin Smith’s Folio, a work which feels more conventional in this company but further illustrates Smith’s skill in making works of subtle complexity while appearing simple to the point of naivety on initial hearing. The texts are selections from Emily Dickinson, which seems like a natural fit, words and setting each frank while keeping full grasp of the meaning elusive. Between these two choral works comes Laurence Crane’s String Quartet No. 2, played by the Esposito Quartet. Crane shares with Smith the ability to speak plainly while remaining cryptic. It comes out more strongly in his longer works such as this one, as one clear statement follows another without resolution. The Quartet seems more tightly structured than many of Crane’s previous pieces on this scale, the impression of wandering replaced by an implied relationship between the handful of distinct phrases juxtaposed here, each reduced to the most slender of elements so that they seem to defy elaboration. Esposito plays with obstinate authority to assert this music has a greater and more troubling presence than most of the fashionably subdued and tonal.

On the same date Chamber Choir Ireland were signing in Dublin, a concert took place in Dundalk: fiddler Zoë Conway led a band of traditional Irish musicians in a rendition of Terry Riley’s In C. Yeah yeah, you say, that old chestnut again; sure it’s good for a bit of fun but do we need to hear yet another gimmick version of it? Well in the first place, In C is always worth hearing done well and this version is a cracker. Secondly, “a bit of fun” with an Irish band is always going to brighten your evening immeasurably. Thirdly, this is In C Irish, a new version developed with Riley’s imprimatur to accommodate the musicians’ background in improvisation with the notated particles that make up the score. With the insistent pulse, the instruments work together a treat; the most striking difference here is the way the musicians give each other room to foreground certain elements as solos, adding new interpretations to the music throughout while never letting the momentum droop. It reminds you that the piece is about communal music making, above demonstrating theoretical questions over indeterminacy and open form. Given the piece’s celebratory atmosphere it feels fitting when the band end the piece in a glorious free-for-all that feels in keeping with the spirit of the work. Two trad encores top off the evening. Éamonn Quinn, director of the Louth society, cautioned me that “maybe it is only for Irish folk.” He was wrong.