Live Music: David Dunn and Jackson MacLow at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 13 October 2021

A double bill of American Buddhists, my god. At least if there’s any religious knowledge to be picked up here, it’s taught by example (as with Cage, the didactic element is present in parable). Back at Cafe Oto, the first gig in over 18 months with something like normal capacity and an audience all getting in surprisingly early to grab all the seats. This was the fourth gig I’ve been to this year and the third to feature the string quartet incarnation of Apartment House. I’d complain we were getting in a rut but not when they were presenting an hour-long work for string quartet and tape by David Dunn. Dunn is one of those names I’ve heard for years as part of the general millieu of the looser end of American experimental music and I’ve only just realised that I have never heard a note of music by the guy until now. Safe to assume he doesn’t get played enough: ‘The Great Liberation Through Hearing’ was composed in 1995 and received its premiere this weekend. For 25 years the piece has laid on the page as an acoustic experience to be imagined but never heard.

The quartet plays notes based on just-intonation harmonic overtones on a drone provided by a recording of Dunn’s voice, chanting slowed down until each word is stretched over several minutes. (The recording heard was a new software-enabled rendition, the original tape having been misplaced.) There’s a slow articulation of phonemes before each long, trailing drone of bass voice enmeshed with overlapping sibilants and fricatives. The cello plays in the low registers to augment the pitched sound while violins weave harmonics between the waves of hiss. Each prolonged moment takes on its own character. As a concept, it’s straightforward, using simple, strong materials imbued with natural acoustic qualities that work together in ways that continually create interest. Even at this most reductive level, away from any meditative or transcendental considerations, the piece succeeds and Apartment House have filled in another small gap in the post-war avant-garde.

The concert opened with Jackson Mac Low’s The Text on the Opposite Page from 1965. Mac Low’s reputation as a poet sadly confines too many of his pieces to the page when they are expressly meant to be performed, so this was a rare opportunity to hear his verbal abstractions. Apartment House were joined by Elaine Mitchener, who turned the atomised text into a sonic action painting of phonemes and punctuation matched by the strings’ instrumental gestures. Mitchener’s voice is ideally agile for such a mercurial score, supple enough to stretch and bend around each sound and then snap into focus at just the right places, with a presence that is always expressive without tempting the conventional avant-garde vocal attitudes of becoming grotesque or arch.

New Elsewhere: Michael Pisaro-Liu, Jordan Dykstra and Koen Nutters

Sunday 10 October 2021

Michael Pisaro-Liu (fka Michael Pisaro) walks an eccentric path between conceptual process (cf. ricefall) and free-flowing wanderings that follow a concealed narrative. In Tombstones, this approach is atomised: a collection of twenty “experimental-pop” songs, each made from the slenderest of means. Each song may be concise or extended, to extremes if desired, and arrangements are left open. For this album, the ensemble Muzzix under the direction of pianist Barbara Dang perform eleven songs, the same selection recorded by a different ensemble some nine years ago which I haven’t heard and so can’t compare.

The titles, and thus lyrics, derive from popular songs, but any vagaries or digressions are constrained by the miniaturist approach to each composition. In each song the singer, usually Maryline Pruvost, rarely exceeds a couple of words, a couple of notes. The initial impression recalls Jürg Frey’s 24 Wörter. As often with Pisaro-Liu, his musical language is too inconsistent to induce a ‘minimal’ state of quiescence in the listener’s mind, leaving the song sequence’s success to depend upon the gemlike settings of the instrumentation. This is evidently left largely in the hands of Dang and Muzzix, who alter texture and colouration in fresh and unexpected ways, with an approach that is gentle but firm when making such potentially isolated and disparate elements cohere, yet also prolonging moments of chamber music from the same material. Ultimately, the album as a whole is required by its concentration on single words and sounds to balance between the hieratic artifice of its construction and the expressive substance of its contents, leaving to the mercy of the listener’s mindset whether it aspires to profundity or to preciousness.

I’m sure I’ve never heard of Jordan Dykstra or Koen Nutters before. Their new Elsewhere release is a joint composition by the two composer/performers. This is usually grounds to be wary of an insider’s muso-fest but thanks to recent efforts by groups like Eventless Plot I’m not more hopeful. That hope is rewarded here. In Better Shape Than You Found Me is precisely one hour of music that ebbs and flows as though excerpted at random from a constant, natural process. Like nature, the only readily discernable structure or pattern is what may be observed, an impersonal, consequential logic that creates its own context and meaning as it goes on. A spare duo for piano and pitch pipes or viola is backed by soft drones and noises which drift in and out of focus, eliding between pure sound and documentary. Like Luc Ferrari under heavy sedation. An ascending scale interrupts, from time to time. Perhaps events are grouped into subtly distinguished episodes, or perhaps there are merely pauses. More likely, sometimes there is simply silence that emerges to the fore. A sense of place is created, but one where the mood or the tone never settles and so makes place into a lifelike thing.

Electronic survey, not yet weary

Thursday 30 September 2021

Electronic music tends to polarise even the individual listener, where the extremes of appreciation and disdain map out like an inverted bell curve. For each piece that realises the potential for new, exciting and unheard sounds and forms, there is at least one that utterly fails to reward your attention. (I blame the formative French tradition of exquisitely crafted snorefests – a fetish of technique and finish.) I’ve got a stack of recent releases of electronic music here which I’ve been meaning to deal with so I’m going to run through them quick, with this jaded attitude in mind.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and once you’ve dabbled with electronics a bit yourself you get surprised by how much music starts to resemble your own preliminary doodlings. That’s not to say that just anyone can fool around with software and be as good as, to pick a name at random, Dumitrescu, but that a lot of it lives or dies upon the question of what to keep and what to discard. Taku Unami’s Takuroku album Stardust is “100% computer programmed music” and it’s fairly pretty but I think you could be just as pleased by downloading a copy of Coagula. Madalyn Merkey’s Crushed Shells, on the other hand, is gentle and playful, while using the fashionable analog Eurorack modules and a Waldorf Blofeld with a capriciousness that never sounds stiff or heavy-handed. Both kind of slip back and forth between being less or more than they seem, with Merkey’s set of pieces having greater resilience.

The synthesiser duo of Richard Stenton and Zach Dawson have put out their debut release 7balcony. It sounds like a lot of effort went into making something both conceptually grating and sonically ingratiating. As such, it falls between two stools and is excessively dependent on the goodwill of the listener. This could go over better with a live audience, where all the activity seems to mean something, especially if the venue is licenced. The last track ‘microphones hanging from tall buildings’ is apparently just that and is the most confident piece here.

Another debut duo is Alex Christie and Ryan Ross Smith’s acres, which carries the sensation of improvised electronic music, both in its strengths and weaknesses. Nice crunchy electronic noises kick in and out with a pleasing arbitrariness but occasionally things come to an impasse and it sounds like the musos are struggling to make the music do something, in the hope that things will stay tastefully harsh. Unlike the two preceding albums, Paul Abbott’s Deorlaf Z (version) for XT Deorlaf X Live sounds like an artistic struggle without pulled punches. An extended live reworking of prerecorded materials using electronic (and real) percussion, excitement builds, then ebbs away only to resurge later, with the longeurs becoming excusable as a necessary part of a larger process. The live situation and the attendant materials of popular music form the substance of this piece, as opposed to simply clothing it.

Simon Balestrazzi (electronics) and Paolo Sanna (percussion) have put out a set of Disrupted Songs made from sonic found objects. They are exercises in serious play, making or taking nicely-defined sounds that would suit an earnest lower-case improv session, but then they repeatedly interrupt each other, creating a more complex structure of continuity and discontinuity. Each piece takes unexpected turns without ever descending into a free-for-all, placing the unfocused into sharp relief.

Finally, I have to mention John Chantler’s Eli Licking Ice, a glorious 25-minute slab of synthesisers spun through mobile speakers in resonant space. It drops us in media read with a wonderfully clear but chaotic mix of electronic sounds that are truly diverse and discrete. At first it seems as though things are about to go out of control but events settle into a wayward flow of their own course. As the piece continues the sound opens up and you hear acoustic events within the room, particularly a snare drum that buzzes along in sympathy. Even as sounds loop and swoop or swing from side to side, both sweet and cutting, or both at once, everything seeks out a harmonious balance, although perhaps in ways that are not readily obvious. Also, it’s a welcome addition to Takuroku’s guest dog series.

Following up Adrián Demoč: Hlaholika and Dotyky. Za zrkadlom

Monday 20 September 2021

What do you do for a follow-up? It seems like Adrián Demoč’s Žiadba was a bit of a sleeper hit last year for Another Timbre: kind of haunting but kind of beguiling all at once. A second album was released earlier this year, another set of chamber pieces titled Hlaholika. Mostly recent pieces, they’re harder to get a handle on, even as their means of construction seems simpler. Ma fin est mon commencement is a trio for clarinet, viola and piano in which Heather Roche, Reiad Chibah and Mark Knoop play a slow, tentative melody in unison: viola high, clarinet low, piano a single, reiterated note in between, harmonised by the other two instruments. All three blend into a gonglike sound that plaintively circles around a static point. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection, with ensembles moving as a single voice, the brightness and interplay heard in Žiadba now subdued. The final piece, a duet for violin and double bass played by Mira Benjamin and James Opstad, falls into two sections. In the first, both play soft, slow harmonics together; in the second, the same but slower and too soft to sound fully. The musicians here are Apartment House alumni, who give these faint gestures full significance. (The one exception, the earlier Lešenie k zahĺbeniu, is played by students of the Janáček Academy of Music in Brno. It’s a larger ensemble work consisting of hazily repeated cluster chords.) Even after multiple hearings, I still haven’t mentally pinned this music down. It can seem so slight that it feels like that frailty is meant to reify either the sound or the silence, but nothing about it comes across as didactic, or even as Cagean parable.

It gets a bit clearer in the context of hearing Dotyky. Za zrkadlom, Demoč’s hour-long piece for solo violin composed last year for Milan Pala. It seems like an intimidating prospect for the listener, as an idea but less so in practice. Pala feels out two alternating notes, one high, the other harmonic. The notes move, but inadvertently, as though the musician is finding a particular resonance in the instrument, testing out its effects little by little. Having listened to that box set of Cage’s number pieces I start thinking about how much we understand of Cage through Morton Feldman, how the latter composer holds so much sway today over what we understand by the imperative to “let the sounds be themselves”. Demoč makes an instrumental gesture the subject, heard as itself without being employed towards a more abstract compositional programme. There is context, but only in terms of the sounds’ means of existence. It may well be a single sound, played and heard in multiple perspectives. Sounding intuitive, free of external processes or pressures to change, Pala makes the piece as much his own work as Demoč’s.

The Return of Music We’d Like To Hear: Ives, Couper, Haas, Barlow, Fargion

Tuesday 7 September 2021

There’s an alien character common to all quarter-tone piano music: the claustrophobially close intervals spelled out in clear tones once so familiar to the ear can’t help but call up the air of other planets. The big personal discovery on this night was Mildred Couper, whose ballet music Xanadu was composed in 1930 for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. It’s a thrilling piece of flashing exotica and wide-eyed wonder, appropriate to the setting and the times (the piece was composed for the first production of Eugene O’Neill’s satire Marco Millions and apparently not used again). It has a bright, burlesque beauty to it, with any traces of tongue-in-cheek Chinoiserie validated by contemporary American modernism, effectively deploying steady pulses and stacked intervals that rose and fell giddily. It was the first of many microtonal pieces Couper composed and it made me feel sorry that I hadn’t known of her before this night.

The night was part of the year’s second series of Music We’d Like To Hear concerts at St Mary-at-Hill. Still working its way back from Covid, seating was reduced for these events and I’d stupidly left it too late to book for the July concerts. Friday was dedicated to piano music in quarter-tones, ably performed by Mark Knoop and Siwan Rhys on electronic sampler keyboards tuned a quarter-step apart. Thankfully, samplers these days are mostly adequate so as not to be a distraction, despite some harshness and incongruous sound location from the PA. As the concert series title reminds us, the important was that we can hear Couper and other composers played live and played well, despite current circumstances. The concert began with the obligatory Three Quarter-Tone Pieces by Ives, which on this hearing starting to make an impression on me for its compositional qualities over the pure sonic novelty which usually dominates. The free-associating patchwork of allusions to different musical styles came over well here, enough to make me wonder how securely each piece is held together.

Where Ives, like Hába, used quarter-tones as an extension of harmonic language, Couper’s Xanadu treats the microtonal scale as something new. Georg Friedrich Haas’s early set of three Hommages for quarter-tone pianos treat the base material of the scale as the subject. In each, a sole pianist is required to play both instruments at once, one hand each. The second piece was played here: in Hommage à Josef Matthias Hauer Knoop produced a continuum of arpeggiated clusters, ascending rapidly in constant repeated motion while rising in pitch only incrementally, producing a slowly varied cloud of overtones. Start and end points appeared to be arbitrary, the whole reminiscent of Ligeti’s then-uncomposed Coloana fără sfârșit, Ligeti having been the dedicatee of the previous Haas Hommage.

In the second half the lights were extinguished, but not for Haas, as Knoop and Rhys tackled Clarence Barlow’s daunting Çoğluotobüsişletmesi. This half-hour piece from the later 1970s used computer programming to calculate and distribute its arrayed masses of points, lines, layerings and trajectories across the piano keyboard. Barlow has postulated it as a work for solo pianist but performance typically employs four pianos to share out the layers. Two parts were pre-recorded here and played back, with Knoop on real piano and Rhys on sampler keyboard: four of the pitches in the scale are lowered by a quarter-tone. Even in this more practical form, each pianist was required to perform extreme leaps of register back and forth while reeling off unwieldy strings of single notes or involuted rotations around a clustered gamut of pitches. The voices enter one by one, at first sounding angular and ungainly but steadily acquiring a monumental presence. One or more striking details leap out for the ear at any given moment, suggesting other fleeting movements simultaneously passing beyond one’s attention. The retuned notes alert one to changes in material and pitch organisation, even within that welter of pianos. It’s ultimately overwhelming in its impersonal generosity, never exactly bludgeoning the listener because it is always clear that there are explicable principles of organisation at work for every moment, even as those principles remain opaque for the time being. I doubt we shall ever hear it as perfectly as we might imagine it, regardless of the forces involved, but this will do very nicely.

Saturday was given over to a single work, the premiere of Matteo Fargion’s String Quartet No. 5 ‘the nobby saddy quartet’. Written last year in lockdown and commissioned for the concert series, it’s an hour of affectionate indulgence of gentle melancholy. The slow, single movement, episodic structure, restrained timbre and extended sequence of cadences near the end all recall late Feldman, who indeed gets namechecked by the composer. The difference comes in the treatment of material, directed towards a self-aware caution of taking authenticity of musical expression for granted. All pizzicato at first, a repeated line descends chromatically over a fifth. It’s an inauspicious opening that stays around for long enough to start to feel comfortable. Like the best kinds of melancholy, it finds pleasure in its sadness and in doing so starts to forget itself; it deviates, lingering over one thought before flicking to another, then back again. As you would hope and expect, it cannot treat itself entirely seriously, even as it holds the idea of melancholy in reverence. This premiere was by Apartment House, in the same quartet manifestation last heard at Cafe Oto in May. They played it like Schubert, cold and tender. Punters claimed it felt like less than an hour; they always do, when it’s good. What struck me most about Apartment House’s playing was how slow each they could make each moment pass, without seeming too long or to be broadening out.

Thoughts on Apartment House playing John Cage: Number Pieces

Thursday 2 September 2021

It’s slowly but steadily sinking in how vast a legacy John Cage left us. Another Timbre’s new box set of Cage’s late number pieces, performed by Apartment House, was immediately received with widespread wonder and gratitude. Critics have suggested that this is a landmark release that will redefine Cage’s reputation, but this has happened before, more than once. Cage’s gradual acceptance into the musical pantheon has been a process of repeated adjustments into how the audience perceives him, a view of ever-widening horizons as more aspects of his art are brought to light. For the next stage, many critics will realise that, as with all great artists, no interpretation of Cage will ever be definitive.

In his generous sleeve notes, producer Simon Reynell observes that many of the pieces presented here have not had a new recording in close to a generation. This was a shock, as it made me realise that (a) I’m that old, (b) Cage’s oeuvre is that big, and (c) my much-loved recordings of these pieces need a fresh perspective. [The Number Pieces are a collective name given to a series of forty-odd works Cage wrote over the last five years of his life. They share the same basic principle: flexible time brackets without coordination between parts, more or less filled with more or less specification. Each is titled for the number of performers needed to play it. Cage could write them quickly, typically to fulfil commissions – he referred to them as his “watercolors” – but he was genuinely fascinated by the almost effortless variation and beauty that could be produced by his skillful employment of this simple premise.] Of course they come out differently each time, but as the ensemble Apartment House show in this collection, there can be great variation in larger-scale matters of interpretation, not just in detail. Several of the musicians here have recorded other late Cage works, particularly for Another Timbre, always finding new perspectives to what may have once been considered stable essays in random patterns. (The other great lie about Cage is that his aesthetic breakthrough was adopting chance, when the true breakthrough was his reason for adopting chance: his aesthetic judgements were now framed as questions instead of answers.) The five-plus hours of music in John Cage: Number Pieces both underlines and extends their work in expanding our appreciation of Cage. This set collects all the works written for larger ensembles: five to fourteen musicians.

One of my formative new music listening experiences was with a CD of Cage’s last completed composition, Thirteen, played twice by the ensemble who commissioned it. Both were dull as ditchwater. I’d read about how Cage had had to change his conception of what the piece should be while composing it, but still believed that the poor music was due to the ensemble taking liberties with interpretation, a top-down approach at odds with Cage’s musical instincts. Years later, I was releived to hear a far superior recording made by The Barton Workshop. Apartment House also take liberties, some quite pronounced. Almost all music requires some deviation from the score, however minor it may be; it’s a question of whether that deviation brings the musician closer to or further away from the spirit implied in the letter. Five4, composed for two saxophones and three percussionists, appears here with Heather Roche playing clarinets and only the duo of Simon Limbrick and George Barton on percussion. Limbrick and Barton also overdub themselves three times to produce the brief Six for unspecified percussion, making an oblique collage of timbres that unexpectedly appear and disappear. Five4‘s clarinet tones recall the light, clear sound of soprano sax.

The most questionable choice here is to almost completely avoid Cage’s allowance in most pieces for the possiblity of short sounds and the concomitant permission that they may be played loud or soft. Almost everything here is soft and sustained. It seems like a needless restriction to the variety these compositions allow and also threatens to limit Cage’s expressive range as a composer. Listening to hours of it should become numbing. Strangely, it just about works, to the credit of composer and interpreters alike. The opening three pieces, each five minutes long for five musicians, suggest we’re in for an extended survey of subtle differences. This changes with the longer Fourteen for bowed piano and ensemble, as the expanded colouration with piano strings and brass highlight the way Cage manipulated the parameters for his chance-determined time brackets to produce distinct changes in texture, phrasing and pace. There’s some wicked low-end sounds throughout this whole set which reward the indulgence of playing it loud, in contrast to the post-Feldman ambient haze sometimes assumed for these pieces. It’s about knowing what liberties to take.

Fourteen minimises the timbral novelty of the bowed piano strings, setting it back amongst the ensemble instead of being a de facto soloist. Conversely, the group’s approach to Seven presents a more concertante approach to the piano in the ensemble, using its more active part as a striking contrast to much of the other playing throughout the set. In other performances I’ve heard, this piece’s emphasis on wonky intonation has turned it into a buzzing microtonal cloud. Apartment House’s approach to Cage’s use of microtonality is subdued and undemonstrative. In the lengthy Five3 trombone and string quartet don’t so much clash as colour each other in fine skeins of sound that separate out, a piece that slowly breathes. In the ambitious Ten Cage envisioned an ensemble engaged in microtonal melisma until they lost sense of exact pitch. Apartment House play it without momentum, effacing pauses and changes in pace to produce one frozen moment in which tonal certainty is never a given, even with occasional interjections from a piano.

So far, my one disappointment has been Eight, an hour-long work for winds and brass. Cage gave greater leeway in expression and dynamics for this piece, which the ensemble here employ but once. Having never heard this piece before, it feels like the score’s expectation for a distinctive contrasting quality in this work was passed by to make something that, by comparison, too similar to the other works. On the other hand, the next longest piece, the fifty-two minute Seven2 for low instruments, makes a virtue of eschewing abrupt notes by emphasising the layering of soft, low tones into complex sounds that are transparent and indelible, with each instrument’s enforced absence made all the more notable. Coming back to Thirteen: The Barton Workshop’s version made full use of the ebb and flow permissible in the varied amounts of activity assigned to each instrument, all within a pitch range of a major sixth, creating a strange beauty out of inert materials. Apartment House remove the unsynchronised ebb and flow, but in doing so manage to transform the work into a lush and sonorous work of understated grandeur as they steadily unroll each new change to the gamut. It makes for a remarkably dignified commemoration to Cage’s passing.

The download comes with bonus alternative takes of several pieces and Reynell’s notes are also posted on his website: it’s recommended reading to learn more about these works. One final thought: the Number Pieces are frequently compared to Morton Feldman’s late music, particularly with the observation that Cage started them after Feldman’s death. I wonder if there’s another connection, besides that of slow, soft sounds. The scores (parts really, without overall scores) give freedom to the musician within greater bounds allowed by chance, but it places a burden on the musician as to how that freedom is to be used. Does a conscientious performer take a Cageian approach of impartiality when deciding entrances and exits, or should they play intuitively, with regard only for the strictures of the time brackets? Should the ensemble play as a group, accounting for each other’s choices, or as individuals. The Number Pieces could accommodate either approach but the pros and cons of both are unresolved. The possible indulgence of taste is a marked change in Cage’s scores, and it brings with it an anxiety that is seen throughout Feldman’s scores, where each of his manuscripts was a constant probing of the musicians’ psychology. Was this another patch of Feldman’s ‘turf’ that Cage felt he could now explore?

[Will Guthrie] (+ | ×) [Jean-Luc Guionnet] = ????

Monday 30 August 2021

There hasn’t been enough discussion of Will Guthrie here. I’ve briefly talked about his holistic approach to percussion here but not discussed his wider application of these methods. That far-sighted, wide-ranging approach has been heard in its most digested form in People Pleaser, his “Guthrie Goes Pop” release on Black Truffle in 2017. It was such a success that he’s now delivered People Pleaser Pt​. ​II, a second concise serving of short bursts of head-funk that thunder through your ears in a fever-dream collage where you’re never sure if, or what, he’s drumming. It’s a mad collage of dizzy eclecticism and musicological shitbaggery which reaches an early peak when Guthrie seems to be playing something from a bit of half a dozen FM radio staples all at once, before trapping you in more prolonged labyrinths of loops and found sounds. What makes this all work is understanding the difference between randomness and spontaneity; there’s an absurdist anti-logic and unselfconscious irreverence that makes the record a delight, even as it grows more menacing and sombre, like a cheesy horror movie that’s a little too good. The way the sequel differs from the original is explained by the cover art, where Warhol-bright variations have been replaced by a disorienting blur. Even the tracking becomes increasingly arbitrary. It doesn’t clamour for your attention, as it expects it will fascinate, amuse and deceive you in the same way it did its creator.

On the flipside of rewarding/punishing attention, a little while back Takuroku released Jean-Luc Guionnet’s Totality, an album that defies you to listen to it. The thing’s damn near four hours but without any of the usual pacing or development that might get the listener acclimatised. It moves both too fast and too slow, too much and not enough. When elements make a point in outstaying their welcome it seems of a piece with the work’s stated excess. There are lacunae. Voices sporadically appear throughout, in a continuing non-sequitur. Everything is distorted, transmitted imperfectly. It starts to make sense in a meta way, listening to it like you’re randomly tuning a shortwave radio back and forth, searching out meaning but happy to find a place where you can stay awhile, just to see if anything develops. It’s download only, so after initial hearings the best way for listeners to further engage with the work is likely through taking matters into their own hands and flicking the cursor to one place or another at random until the scope of the contents sinks in.

Now, what happens when you put these two together? Guionnet and Guthrie have collaborated for many years, usually on what gets lumped together as free jazz and noise. At least they describe it as “aggressive and antisocial” jazz, so I can dig it. Electric Rag plays out as People Pleaser Pt​. ​II‘s evil twin: the pop-music fever dream returns as once again it can be hard to tell what sound is coming from Guthrie’s percussion and what from Guionnet’s keyboards and sax. Everything’s close-miked, compressed and distorted into bursts of deep-fried noise. The two albums are structured in a similar way, but here the pop references, cutaways and found objects are stripped out for straight-out duets that become increasingly abrasive as the album progresses. Guthrie’s drumming zones in and out of electronic pulses while Guionnet’s instruments verge on feedback and musique concrète. Their playing has an aggression to it that at first seems to become more hostile the deeper you get into the album, until you realise it’s all building up to something more ominous. For all its convulsions, the sounds they unleash share the disruptive and cathartic qualities that always leave me with impression of having just listened to rock.

Time Travel with Secluded Bronte and The Bohman Brothers

Monday 9 August 2021

I know it’s a little early but I’m putting this down as the best prog album of the decade. It’s based on a live gig from 2019 but I don’t care, Queen’s by Secluded Bronte, the free improv power trio of Adam Bohman, Jonathan Bohman and Richard Thomas, has all the mutable energy, serious wit, free-ranging allusions, voracious diversity and wide-open imagination that even first-rank prog claims more often than it delivers. More to the point, the three of them readily play fast and loose with both erudition and stoopidity; they must know which is which, deep down, but they will get you confused. While their Takuroku release The Horns of Andromeda was a audio crazy quilt, Queen’s is an edit made last year out of a gig at Queen’s University, Belfast and so comes with direction and momentum. An extended prologue of incoherent confessional escalates into psychodrama, with the track sequence forming an exquisite corpse of distorted movie cues, musically arresting in their own right while obliquely signalling their scorn for the moods they evoke, rather like The Fall at their most disoriented. The second half brings back spoken vignettes accompanied by field recordings, mood music, call-and-response, détourned folk music and, well, rock’n’roll. It all starts to make sense even as you understand that none of it adds up.

The Merz-like collage method at work in the Bohman brothers’ music can be heard compressed into a concise sound-object in their most recent release, In Their 70s. It’s a dense nugget of lo-fi grey noise, acerbic asides, pawky puppet-show music and strangulated distortion, all apparently recorded on the run with hand-held devices and patched together with a rough but sure sense of what feels right, even if it sounds wrong. It’s arbitrarily snipped in halves, presumably for a very short cassette. Like beauty, the humour is there to be discovered by the audience, more engaging for having been harder won. The supposed casualness of its means and motive seemed like a great encapsulation of their art in full maturity, but in yet another case of not-reading-the-notes I just realised that the material is lifted from the Bohmans’ earliest home recordings, from around the mid 1970s. It’s all in the edit, I tell myself. “The brothers’ aesthetic appears alarmingly fully-formed,” says the promotional blurb. Don’t you hate it when the hype is correct?

Anthony Pateras: Pseudacusis

Tuesday 3 August 2021

One of the most special gifts I received in lockdown last year was an early mix of Anthony Pateras’ Pseudacusis, and I resolved to say something about it here as soon as it was ready for release but then missed it. I only briefly touched on his humongous box set Collected Works Vol. II in passing last year, observing how his style has developed. While his early music, both composed and improvised, displayed a distinctive flavour of hyperactivity and relentless and unforced energy, his more recent work has consolidated this extroversion into music that is more focused and cogent, but thankfully not tamed. Even in some pieces that tended towards the minimal, he now makes bold gestures which retain their forcefulness without resorting to bravado or pyrotechnics. The increasingly assured style still leaves room for pieces which can digress, or dazzle, or throw the listener off-balance in ways that carry a stronger motivation than a simple need to fill space. This has resulted in some stunning large-scale works such as Decay of Logic from the last box.

Pseudacusis is another large work, an electroacoustic piece about fifty minutes long for seven live musicians and another seven on tape, with further electronic manipulations. It’s an ambitious work that becomes imposing through its hearing, absent of any stated extramusical pretensions. The pacing seems understandably generous at first, with repeated single piano notes and sustained tones over what sounds like a recording of a dawn chorus of birds, but it doesn’t take long for things to spiral beyond comforable stasis. A percussionist taps restlessly in the background, those birds sound more electronic than real, or perhaps they’re the string instruments, a tape deck jerks into life and soon the atmosphere has moved from twittering to ominous rumbling. The mood swings come regularly, sometimes sudden and sometimes insidious. They work with a cumulative effect, each adding a new twist to the affective character of the work and casting the previous mood into a more troubled context. I originally hadn’t realised that the piece is formally divided into seven sections and I think the piece’s dream logic works more effectively when heard in ignorance of the section breaks. Each part works as an extended block of sound, perceived at a microscopic level of continual movement and change, impressive in form and detail.

The playing heard here, between live acoustic musicians, taped musicians and electronics, is seamless. It’s remarkable here how the ensemble sounds as a protean electroacoustic whole, given that this is a live recording from the 2019 Sacrum Profanum Festival in Kraków, with musicians who were mostly new to the piece. By the latter half of the work, you’re wondering how much of the frenzied, stuttering percussion solos are happening in front of the audience and whether you hallucinated Pateras playing some cocktail lounge jazz rhapsody in amongst it all. Yeah it’s out now. Has been for some time.

Takuroku update: Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and Taku Sugimoto

Wednesday 28 July 2021

I had to throw out my original review of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto’s ano kane wo narasu. In that one I enthused over his superb handling of electronics, marvelling at how he let simple drones build and expand through judicious use of reverb and gain to open up new expanses of tonality and colour throughout the half-hour composition without ever losing a tight focus on the piece’s conceptual foundations. Tonal layers evolve into timbral changes and recede, allowing new sections to emerge with a subtle addition of noise to give the piece an internal motivation. There’s a special skill here, not just in technical management but in musical judgement, in how to let more happen through leaving things alone. Then I read the release notes and, uh, looked at the cover art and well shit-a-brick turns out it’s an album of solo percussion playing, with Yamamoto using bowed cymbals and gongs throughout. So as it happens, there is a whole load of technical skill going on here with Yamamoto maintaining timbral consistency and harmonic momentum, as well as a greater musical discretion in maintaining variety while resisting a larger, distracting range of possible sounds which would otherwise have been technologically proscribed. Recorded as a single performance, some delay system is evidently at work, used to great effect near the end to build up a fascinating, troubling drone of aggregated and compounded tones. However it’s made, it’s a special piece of work.

I’ve told the Taku Sugimoto gig anecdote before, so I’ll refer you to my previous review. That time, as well as his own work, Sugimoto had recorded Bruno Duplant’s lEttEr to tAku in a Park, combining sparse guitar notes with al fresco field recording. He has now recorded his own compositional approach to this soundworld for Takuroku, analytically titled G major (2, 3, 5, 7 / III, IV, V) / VII / G major (2, 3, 5, 7 / III, IV, V). Recorded in two sessions in Tokyo this year, Sugimoto plays electric guitar and, much less actively, acoustic. The amplification is modest, enough to make audible the resonance of the muted harmonics that make up most of Sugimoto’s playing here, in irregularly scattered moments. The city is distant, a faint roar that rises and falls like the surf. There are a few birds in the area, perhaps more if they come and go. The slow pulse of background sound gives a regularity that might have made Sugimoto more (relatively) extroverted here. His guitar playing, while gentle, is more free here than usual, making more of a mark against the lulling backdrop. Where his guitar has previously been present largely through its absence, here the pauses become more of a matter of phrasing. At one time the field recording drops away: still, we can hear something strangely pastoral in the unhurried pacing of the sounds, at odds with the forbidding urban setting and technical contrivances. For now, we can enjoy this for what it is and worry about Sugimoto’s potential slide into stylistic decadence later.

Ferran Fages: Electronics

Thursday 22 July 2021

I think it’s safe to call Ferran Fages eclectic. These two reissues from 2010 are works for electronics, different from the sparse works for guitar and piano previously reviewed here. There’s a form of economy at work in these pieces too, but where the later works use sound sparingly, each of these two pieces crowd out all available space with unbroken blocks of sound. In Llavi vell Fages determinedly bows an electric guitar, exploiting the harmonic nodes on the fretboard to create simultaneous layers of sound, ringing harmonics over the rapid brushing of amplified metal-wound strings. Towards the end a contact microphone is used to produce feedback hum as additional drone. It’s a vast monad of sound, at once impenetrable and insubstantial, combining the chatter of a hundred randomly-tuned radios with tambura and sferics, a fixed piece made of constant molecular movement. This is a revised version from the original release and also a little shorter, although an extended playing time would not hurt.

On the other hand, further exposure to Llum moll probably would hurt. Each time I’ve heard it, even at low volume, I’ve had a persistent ringing in my ears hours later. It goes away eventually. This piece actually does use AM radios, combined with digital electronic interference to create narrow bands of noise at various frequency ranges. The piece begins with bracing bursts of coldly abrasive sounds but then about five minutes in it quits playing nice and locks into a persistent high-pitched squeal that threatens to brick your cochlea. The remainder of the piece zeroes in on one static frequency after another, usually at an extreme of hearing range. A cleverly constructed piece that may harbour malevolent intent to the listener, it might be a one-and-done listening experience as you rely on your memories of the piece to discuss it rather than sit all the way through it again. As a worst-case scenario, it makes its case on conceptual grounds ahead of aural.

Eventless Plot: Anisixia

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Collective composer Eventless Plot is made up of Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas and Yiannis Tsirikoglou, using objects and instruments combined with live electronics. They jointly produce performance scores for themselves and chamber ensembles, as in this new Edition Wandelweiser release of a 2019 composition titled Anisixia. The additional musicians here – Nefeli Sani, piano; Chris Cundy, bass clarinet; Eva Matsigou, flute – take the foreground, to the extent that a casual hearing suggests the piece is entirely acoustic. The core trio’s contributions on digital processing, analog synthesiser and psaltery played with e-bow act to subtly transform the acoustic instruments, extending decays and sustaining overtones. This group shows admirable commitment to effacing both their individual identities in composition and their presence in performance.

It’s an Edition Wandelweiser release so no detailed notes on the composition. “Variations of the initial score were incorporated within the choreographic performance “guest project” presented at the Archeological Museum of Thessaloniki, October 2019.” More than other works I’ve heard by them, Anisixia displays signs of subjectivity in the way it unfolds. With no obvious overriding force guiding the piece, it takes the form of a stately but gentle processional, with the piano taking the lead as the others provide a harmonic shadowing. At just under 37 minutes, it establishes the same quiet presence as some of Feldman’s longer works, making its own time. I’m not sure if the recording was made as part of the museum performances or not: my only complaint about this piece is that I wish it was captured with greater depth and clarity.

Old regulars: Lance Austin Olsen and friends

Tuesday 13 July 2021

Canadian-based artist-musician-composer Lance Austin Olsen appears to be getting even more prolific, with at least four releases this year, so far. I’ve reviewed a bunch of them in the past (see the index) and every time I started writing one up another came in. Presumably, becoming familiar with an artist’s style makes one more critical, with the risk of finding fault where things differ as much as where things remain the same. I’m going to run through all four here with some quick impressions, testing how I currently sit with each one.

Olson often collaborates, working back and forth with a fairly free approach but guided by interpretations of his visual works as a score. His collaboration with guitarist Barry Chabala, A field of wildflowers for our lost souls, is in three sections: Olson, duo, Chabala. Olson’s typically textural sound work forms a prolonged introduction to the duet, where the more distinct tone and pitch of guitar coalesces into a defined but shadowy musical passage. Chabala’s solo electric guitar coda is longer than the preceding movement, starting out as a sculpture made of single notes before washes of reversed chorus effects fade in. This strikes me now as a more complete work than their previous Patterns for a future human, even as (or possibly because) the two musicians’ work is less clearly differentiated.

The most satisfying of these four has been Olson’s piece with Terje Paulsen, Nattinsekter. A single movement nearly forty minutes long, it feels like the most technically assured work using this particular methodology to date. Olson’s collaging of amplified objects, stray instrumental sounds and crusty sounding electronics combines here with Paulsen’s mix of field recordings and organ. They’re very sympatico in approach, each complementing the other with an ecological language fusing nature and memory that presents subjectivity as a matter for contemplation. Each sound blends with another to take on a life of its own as the piece constantly evolves.

That development of language can be heard in the two solo releases here. The Telling is a remaster of a 2015 work, a very subdued montage of sustained, overlapping sounds which require closer attention and an inner stillness to appreciate. The contrast with this year’s Polishing The Mirrors Of Psychosis is striking: an equally subdued, low-level work which broods and even lapses into silences at times, but with sounds that are much more detailed and eclectic yet never become disruptive. Events merge and flow in an ever more naturalistic way. The disruption here comes from human intrusion, a strange poem recited, pondering imponderables. As an appendix comes a fragmentary travelogue, a Ferrari-like sketch of lingering impressions of place and conversation.

Another Timbre: Spring to Summer

Tuesday 29 June 2021

The Another Timbre label has adapted a solid practice of releasing albums by new or under-represented artists and then following through with further recordings to establish their presence. The latest batch includes their first release of compositions by Barbara Monk Feldman, in what appears to be only the third disc to date that is dedicated entirely to her music. Verses is a collection of works for one, two and three musicians, sharing an intimacy of scale and a delicacy of touch. In the opening Duo for Piano and Percussion, the former is shadowed almost imperceptibly by the latter, with chimes and mallet instruments acting as a treatment of the piano, altering the colouration and adding faint echoes to disturb the background. That delicacy never lapses into preciousness, as Monk Feldman keeps the balance of sound and silence in constant tension, always holding energy in reserve and only occasionally letting short, lyrical flourishes burst forth. In the solo Verses for vibraphone, the instrument’s signature decay is measured out or drastically cut short, allowing sounds to sustain only to beat against subsequent notes. The GBSR Duo (George Barton, percussion; Siwan Rhys, piano) are joined by violinist Mira Benjamin on the longer The Northern Shore and it’s here that they truly excel in guiding the ear from one instrument to the next as the music passes through the scenery with unhurried but determined pace.

Ballad is the fifth Another Timbre disc to feature Linda Catlin Smith. Just two pieces for cello and piano here, from 1994 and 2005. The latter work Ballad is an extraordinary, incongruous 45 minutes. I said of an earlier collection of Smith’s music that it was high praise to call it more of the same; this is not the same. Besides the length and the dream-logic in the way it changes from one section to the next, the duet repeatedly conjures up new combinations of tone that could not be expected. At times playing in unison, at others letting high piano melody stagger above lugubrious pizzicato, or fragmentary folk tune over steadily repeated chords, the two instruments are united in that neither seems to be quite certain that it is itself, if not the other. Cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and pianist Kerry Yong play with a distanced solemnity somewhere between rapt and dazed, reinforcing the otherworldly experience.

If there are shared values to be observed between the four albums here, then Oliver Leith’s Me Hollywood is perhaps the outlier. The five pieces here expand upon the impression made by last year’s recording of the long good day good day bad day bad day, pursuing some of the tendencies heard there to more extreme ends. The characteristic melancholy is there, expressed through greater or lesser degrees of reticence in pacing and a deliberate, fuzzy vagueness in the ensemble pieces’ harmony and phrasing. Members of the Explore Ensemble infuse the sound with an appropriate remoteness even as Leith tempts potential, less au courant musicians into sentimentality. His gentle musical language is tempered by deploying it as an armature for ironic wit (whether this is self-awareness of defensiveness remains to be seen). Electronics are used in some works either to recontextualise the music or divert the meaning altogether. The title work is presented as a putative soundtrack to banal domestic activities, like a more knowing version of Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast and the conflicted response that may induce in the listener. 664 love songs guaranteed to cure heartache pushes a bass flute into unsteady lyricism while a keyboard sampler expands the ensemble’s palette yet also deflates with bogus pomp. The ludicrous Ten Commandments choir and strings gradually fade, leaving more earnest emotions that are not entirely soothing.

On the other hand, it may be James Weeks who is the outlier here. His previous release on Another Timbre was windfell, a solitary long, frail work for violinist. The five compositions on this new disc, Summer, show a preference for reducing where other composers would normally expand, with a tendency to leave pieces as their simplest, sparest elements. The brief piano piece Durham rests on two slowly alternating notes, which are then harmonised before falling silent. As a kind of counterpart, Düsseldorf is a gauzy depiction of quiet urban scenery, distant sounds heard in succession, disrupted by pealing chimes. Siwan Rhys returns here, on piano and Celtic harp, along with Barton and the Explore Ensemble. At times, things can seem a little too simple: the duets Violet and Violute are played simultaneously, as though interchangeable. The larger works are stronger, with the musicians finding ways to make the music breathe and take on subtle textures even when Weeks deals out the content so stringently. In Summer the piano takes the foreground, its chords draped by alternating colours and a slightly uncanny electronic sheen. Siro’s Garden is a thirty-minute setting of Virgil, but with reciting voices in the background, part of the warp and weft of a slowly expanding texture of interweaving instruments that ripens into contemplative lyricism.

Deep Ambience: Maya Dunietz and Andie Brown

Monday 21 June 2021

If you’ve read enough of my stuff here you’ll already have figured out that I like funny pianos. Yes, they can get over-fetishised and sentimentalised over but it’s always wonderful to hear someone come up with yet another new way of making music with them. Maya Dunietz’s work with performing music, composition and art installations converges on “a family of five retired pianos,” the titular Five Chilling Mammoths, taking a quaint enough premise into alien territory. Dunietz treats the instruments as large resonating objects and subjects them to forces that expose their unique, complex sonic qualities in a form that is abstract in its purity. The instruments are activated by transducers attached to them – basically, large speaker drivers. The principle is similar to that used in David Tudor’s Rainforest IV, but Dunietz uses digital signals instead of amplified sounds. Dunietz and sound artist Daniel Meir collaborated on creating an algorithmic system based on Pythagorean ratios to generate the signals, allowing a wide variety of signals governed by a common logic.

The sounds themselves? An evocation of untamed nature, in that the natural acoustic phenomena are heard without any reassuring framing device to relate to on a human scale. As with nature at its most powerful, the listener’s experience of it is marked by the awareness of nature’s indifference as the sounds switch without warning from the soothing to the harsh or intimitdating, creating music that is both fascinating and disturbing at once. The deep, booming tones that predominate, and the continual resonances of the pianos floating throughout the recording, create a kind of immersive, undersea sound, amorphous and, again, simultaneously natural and alien.

Andie Brown’s Alucita is a similar type of deep ambience, where the sound is pervasive not through colouring the background of everything heard but by soaking through all available space merging foreground and background into one. Brown has been exploring the acoustic and harmonic properties of wine glasses for years and, rather like Dunietz, has embraced the ability of larger objects to bring out more complex sonic phenomena. Seriously, some of these glasses are huge; they take a lot of care and nerve to work with them. In Alucita, Brown takes a particularly bold approach, coupling a single glass, four glasses, eight glasses with electronics to create three seamless panels of sourceless harmonics that stain the air with a dark drone that projects higher frequencies in the way that a rainbow’s spectrum is reflected on an oil slick. The three works heard here were created as installations, but each works well as a minimal, single-minded composition. Brown has tailored each piece so the length is inversely proportional to the amount of readily perceptible activity: the severity of form maximising the amount of subtle detail to be discovered in closer listening.