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.

Reduced circumstances: Bondi & d’incise

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Cyril Bondi and d’incise’s collaborative work with various enembles, including the large Insub Meta Orchestra, has been documented here in recent years. How has lockdown treated them? Well, it’s been ups and downs, it seems, as you might expect. Diminished opportunities to work as a group has forced them into making music on a smaller scale. La lavintse (de Asís​-​Schiller​-​Tantanozi​-​Tataroglou​-​Winter) continues in what appears to be a similar vein from last year’s Levitas: an ensemble playing strangely curtailed compositions that build their character in the small differences of limited means. It’s all acoustic this time, with Clara de Asís returning on guitar, joined by Christoph Schiller on spinet; Marina Tantanozi on flutes with Mara Winter on medieval flutes, and Tassos Tataroglou on trumpet. The four tracks are distinguished by a delicate interplay of small sounds, less mysterious than Levitas but with an elegant transparency. Guitar and spinet intertwine for the first piece, later acting as a very subtle percussion while the distinction between the winds becomes more and more blurred. Tataroglou’s trumpet becomes more noticeably present as the ears adjust. By the last track, a discernible shape to the composition has vanished completely, with the musicians feeling their way through the sounds, one at a time.

While Bondi and d’incise describe La lavintse as “a brief moment of sunshine” in 2020, their September recordings with the Insub Meta Orchestra are remembered as “not fully satisfying”. “Being an orchestra means much more than music to us,” and the necessities of the pandemic broke the 30-odd piece ensemble into smaller chunks to be assembled later in the studio to make the three pieces heard in Ten / Sync. As before, the processes at work are often discernible while being no less intriguing for revealing so much of their inner working to the listener. The logic of Tutti-Soli alternates a large goup chord with a single note sustained by one member once the others have stopped. Presumably, each musician chooses their note, creating a dense haze contrasted with an arbitrary note by a random instrument, sounding like a new wrinkle on the methods used in some of Cage’s late compositions. Sparge would appear to be a slow, circulating chord sequence in which parts of the sequence are skipped in turn, creating a refrain that almost repeats itself without ever being quite the same, a lulling sense of security which is never anchored in true certainty. The longer À la Denzler is less yielding to interpretation, with a sinister ticking underpinning the whole work, softened but never appeased by sustained notes from individual members of the orchestra, in single file or in groups. Lockdown may have pressed them into greater ingenuity here, but hopefully they can reform in full force soon.

Where are we going? And what are we doing?

Thursday 10 June 2021

I heard Erkki Veltheim give a talk a couple of years ago which made me reconsider how I heard his music. I knew of his clear-eyed cynicism about the music business and admired how he took a reductive, positivist approach to playing and composing that produced music both questioning and liberating. It took a while to get my head around his talk about shamanism and the use of ritual and esoteric applications of form. In fact, I still don’t fully get on board with it, but hearing how his foregrounding of the intangibles informs and amplifies his use of impersonal structures added a new, complicating dimension to listening to his work.

Ganzfeld Experiment came out soon after: a solo work for electric violin with electronic processing and a video component. The title sums up the parapsychological zone the piece inhabits, where science blurs with mysticism. White noise pulses and phases throughout, at a rate matching the light and dark in the video – I don’t know if the pulsing aims to match or simply reference the alpha/theta wave frequencies used in old biofeedback meditation systems. It definitely recalls Brion Gysin’s Dream Machines and, more particularly, Tony Conrad’s movie The Flicker. Conrad’s violin playing is also recalled, but Veltheim’s approach is more insidious. Starting as faint electronic artefacts trailing from the white noise, it gradually emerges from the pulse with the bleached-out tone of amplified strings, stuttering without apparent concern for aesthetics. At its peak, before receding again, Veltheim’s playing is too florid to be considered minimal, too stern to be psychedelia. It’s a rigour of process in which expressiveness is earned and, presumably, unbidden by the player’s desires. The notes recommend playing with the video in the dark; I’d imagine it’s more effective the louder it’s played, too. How much of it is an experiment on the performer and how much on the listener is a question left to play on your mind.

Ganzfeld Experiment came out before the year of lockdowns, so its self-isolating qualities have become prophetic. It came to mind when listening to Julia Eckhardt’s Time Suspension (Back and Forth) on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku download label. An extended work for solo viola player created during a month of lockdown last year, its frail sounds are built on a foundation of self-reliance, time, memory and place. Improvising each day for a month, trying to repeat from memory what was played the day before with another minute added on the end, the half-hour recording moves backwards and forwards through time, each section opening up to both the recollection of past experience and expectation of the future. There’s a narrative thread, for us to find for ourselves. The room is present, anchoring time to one place as a stationary dérive in which one achieves greater awareness through mentally recapturing a place already visited. As it happens, there is also a video, photos of the sky overhead taken each day. The music’s ending is strangely hopeful, even transcendent.

Sound as Environment: Ernie Althoff, Clinton Green

Sunday 6 June 2021

Ernie Althoff has been a mainstay of the Australian experimental music scene for decades: a situation that often ends up with one’s presence being taken for granted. It’s been good to hear what he’s gotten up to lately, particularly as the new work is so strong. Althoff builds kinetic music machines; partly or entirely self-playing instruments and other homemade devices from simple found materials. This post(?) Covid release consists of “two overly lengthy tracks” using a couple of these automated devices and Althoff playing and egg-slicer and elastic bands attached a cardboard box. HRWT extends over 50 minutes, Half As is, well, half as long. Despite the daunting dimensions, these two works are the most successful recordings of Althoff’s music I’ve heard. In shorter pieces, they can often sound like little more than demonstrations of a novel instrument, or documentation of a sound scultpure – a common drawback to this type of music-making. In long form, the small variations in sound from the machine instruments take on a life of their own, with incidents becoming part of a more organic process. This is enhanced by Althoff using digital manipulation of tempo and pitch, with manual instruments adding enhancements and subtle variety. The sleeve notes cannily draw a connection to his earlier work in field recordings: the complex but undemonstrative sounds in Althoff’s instruments emulate the interplay of small sounds in nature. As with field recordings, it’s easy to immerse yourself in this composition, responding to it as it evolves in its own way. Easier, in fact, as the surface indifference of sound is focused and guided by the musician’s responses to the material. Half As takes a different approach to form, with Althoff playing a slow ostinato on elastic bands throughout the piece, its simplistic melody and persistence paradoxically emphasising the work’s duration while exerting a mesemerising effect.

Kinetic instruments are also at work in Clinton Green’s Relativity​/​Only. A few months ago I reviewed his collaboration with Barnaby Oliver, The Interstices Of These Epidemics. The four pieces here focus solely on machine-driven percussion and again draw comparisons with field recordings with their haphzardly interacting objects. In this case, I found them less compelling than Interstices or Althoff’s long works and my old complaint about the limitations of recorded kinetic instruments came back to haunt me. The four pieces are arranged so that each is less densely textured than the last, which left me speculating on how the music could have been arranged more effectively to bring out the practice of hearing more in less. This is probably my problem, overthinking and backseat driving rather than hearing what is there to be heard.

A live concert

Monday 31 May 2021

The crowd was small and well-spaced, by necessity. After fifteen months without socialising, it looked like I wasn’t the only one who was both a bit excited and a bit anxious at once, which made for a subdued audience: in good spirits but gentle, like a recuperating patient. I was back at Cafe Oto hearing Apartment House play live again, like old times.

Having just said that the ensemble had amassed a formidable repertoire of new and rediscovered music, the evening’s programme emphasised the point with its unusual shape and even bolder than usual choice of pieces. First half was a premiere by a guy I’ve never heard of. Dead Creek Organum by Henry Birdsey (the “Vermontian rust-drone man” it says here) is half an hour of densely-packed microtonal chords, roughly hewn into long, close-fitting spans. Tonight’s full ensemble played, string quartet (Gordon MacKay and Mira Benjamin, violins; Bridget Carey, viola; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello) modulated by pedal tones from an electric organ (Kerry Yong on various keyboards). For the audience, it was acclimatisation through immersion, retuning to heightened musical sensibilities.

The second half commenced with Yong playing Adelaide composer/pianist Stephen Whittington’s compressed but capricious take on Strawberry Fields as an incongruous introduction to several graphic scores, focusing on the overlooked and unexpected. Apartment House have performed selections from Louise Bourgeois’ Insomnia Drawings on other occasions, having noticed that these artworks drawn on music paper are “eminently performable”. With strings and string piano combining thin, raspy sounds, they take on an appropriately disturbing but hazy sonic form. Two Impulses by the Slovak Milan Adamčiak was more densely woven, with a score that intersected Adamčiak’s interests in art, music and visual poetry.

Personally, the most fascinating piece was Roland Kayn’s Inerziali. Kayn’s best known for his electronic, cybernetic works (or should be known – a Bandcamp page is dedicated to mastering and releasing a large backlog of mostly unheard pieces) but this early piece revealed his compositional roots in serialism, aleatory methods and stochastic composition. Inerziali is an open score of unspecified but finely organised events and combinations. Apartment House produced a taut, rapid interplay of prepared instrument sounds, using exacting means to produce complex sounds far beyond the usual consideration of pitch relationships. It’s an intriguing insight when hearing his later works, which build grand, forceful impressions from the curation of intricate details.

To finish, Milan Knižak’s Broken Music presented itself as a kind of musical antimatter. Like his negotiably playable collaged records, the score is fragments of defaced and collaged scores, which Apartment House played amongst recordings of the records. The matter here is as much in the gaps and the breaks, audible faultlines where the content has been lost, literally skipping from one anonymised fragment to the next. Crucially, unlike most collage, anything coherently recognisable is shredded, rendering typical considerations of content and taxonomy useless. You’re left with undifferentiated musical protoplasm, new to our ears because it’s unrecognisable. The ensemble boldly dedicated itself to alternating scratches and atomised half-gestures to produce something which forces effort from the audience to even hear it, in a way that registers. It’s a good way to start over.

Matthew Shlomowitz’s Explorations in polytonality and other musical wonders, Volume 1

Thursday 27 May 2021

I don’t enjoy writing bad reviews. If I can’t find anything interesting in a work then I prefer to leave it alone instead of use it as a pretext to tell more bad jokes. There has to be something in it to engage attention. When I last heard a significant chunk of Matthew Shlomowitz’s music, I was disappointed that the type of humour I’d heard before in a couple of his brief pieces was almost entirely absent, with its gentle provocation of what may be considered music supplanted by misplaced certainties that shut out further possibilities.

Mark Knoop’s recording of Shlomowitz’s Explorations in polytonality and other musical wonders, Volume 1, a set of seven piano pieces composed last year, has come as an immense relief. The opening piece “Parlour Nancarrow” takes it’s model’s piquant harmonies and staggered polyrhythms and turns them into an evocative prelude, redolent of Nancarrow’s impossible player piano studies but with the pastiche domesticated into impressionism. The precise, tricky rhythms at first sound like the piano is computer-controlled, or mechanised, but I’ve personally witnessed Knoop playing Peter Ablinger so I know he is capable of just this sort of feat. Shlomowitz’s casual wit persists throughout the set, with occasional callbacks of those Nancarrow chord progressions flitting by amidst convolutions of ear-stretching bitonality, like Nicolas Slonimsky’s keyboard exercises with more pointed artistic development.

Each successive piece finds new ways to delight and/or repulse the ear, bringing back those open-ended questions that had gone missing. It’s never played for laughs, which makes it all the funnier when you catch small phrases occasionally looping a little beyond their cue, or when a particularly frilly dance-step stumbles over irregular block chords. They reference kitsch without stooping to become kitsch itself. The po-faced “Classic chord progression with Neapolitan, doubled at the minor 2nd” could be heard as Ives or as a parody of Ives (itself an Ivesian concept). As the cycle progresses, the musical pretentions grow in ambition as the rhythms get more slippery and chromatic romanticism elides into deadpan deflation. In the concluding “Variations in octaves” Knoop gives a masterclass in sounding out of sync with himself, but he plays the entire score with the relish of an actor making the most out of some particularly juicy dialogue, finding the right level of archness or elegance to add a subtext to each passage.

If I had to complain then I’d prefer a cleaner recording, but this is more than enough for now. Am I happy with this music’s challenges just because they are cast in the more conservative form of a piano recital? I don’t think so; these pieces show the listener what may be heard instead of telling them what to hear. I hope there’s a Volume 2.

Spaces: Tasting Menu and Tarab

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Sometimes you can’t help but hear things the wrong way. I first put this on by mistake, having thought I’d cued up Booker T. & The MG’s. I’ve had worse surprises and stuck out the whole thing. Stand closer when you have something to say is a new release on Mappa, that Slovakian cassette label – the description sounds agonisingly hipsterish, albeit less so the closer you get to Slovakia. The band here, however, is Tasting Menu, a trio from Los Angeles: Cassia Streb, Cody Putman and Tim Feeney. Their instrument is their studio (the room, that is; not some old Eno adage): concrete floors, fire doors. If you’ve been to live gigs of this sort of music you’re already picturing the venue in your head.

Two separate sessions are recorded here, made a couple of weeks apart, basically group improvisations for found objects and abraded percussion. Long swatches of varying grain and textures, verging on sound sculpture. They apparently worked over the room systematically and that constraint helps greatly in making this a much more compelling musical experience than simple indulgent noisemaking. Heard live, you’d want it loud and all-engulfing; as audio (or cassette) it works surprisingly well even if not fully cranked. The middle part of the first track is particularly effective as the soundworld veers away from the expected and stays for an ominously long time. Maybe it shouldn’t have moved on – instruments appear at the end of each track. The opening of the second track adds deep ambient tones and ends with a jumbled mass of distant extraneous noise from the street outside. Then there is, inevitably, a sax.

More site recordings appear in HOLES, a similarly recent recording by the Melbourne musician Tarab on his promisingly named Sonic Rubbish label. The term ‘space’ takes on multiple meanings here, with the material making up these collages comprising “sounds borrowed from various rooms, the things that happened in them, and those that come in from outside.” As soon as it starts, it stops again: abrupt silences permeate all five tracks. Spaces open up inside other spaces. Sometimes, the scene shifts without warning. Percussive room ambience is displaced by sparse electronic beeps, TV transmissions, digital interference. Longeurs of liminal acoustics isolate sonic events, rendering them inexplicable. I’ve only just played this once and what’s got me more excited than usual here is the compositional nous at work that not only gives the captured sounds a shape and a point, but also asks questions both of the listener and the materials. HOLES never takes its contents for granted and replaces the complacent trust of an “authentic” musician in their tools with a probing skepticism that renders dull questions of aural representation moot. Here, all meaning is in the mediation.

Jim O’Rourke: Best that you do this for me

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Over the last twenty-five-plus years, the ensemble Apartment House has amassed a formidable repertoire of new and rediscovered music, much of it recorded on the Another Timbre label. I’ve been listening to their release of Jim O’Rourke’s string trio Best that you do this for me, composed for the ensemble and recorded late last year, on and off during the past few weeks, mentally wrestling with needless doubts. It makes me wonder, in turn, if I’m thinking too much about it, or too easily pleased by it, falsely believing that there is more to it than meets the ear. Whatever intellectual or sensual attitude I take, after hearing it again I always come away satisfied that its frail, simple outline contains a maturely conceived and executed musical plenitude.

A year ago, I heard a concert of Apartment House playing a selection of old and new works by O’Rourke. It was an impressive concert and I found the newer works particularly charming, so it was an initially disturbing surprise to hear Best that you do this for me. It seemed like a regression, to the unadorned earlier works in the concert programme: too easy, too conveniently minimal. It’s a flexible score, made of segments in which each musician softly bows a harmonic on muted strings and hums along, or sings, or whistles. One event per segment. Timing is unspecified but tends to be slow. Apartment House play here for about an hour. Haven’t we all heard something like this before? No, as it turns out; we haven’t.

For a start, O’Rourke has created an open score of elegant simplicity and eloquence, inviting a wide range of possibilities in content and continuity while maintaining a clearly defined form. The three string instruments may enter freely, allowing variations in phrasing and texture that remove the episodic structure of the score. The voices, untrained and trying to match or harmonise the instruments, add further colouration through their inexactness, compounding the sounds the way that electronic signal processing might, but in ways that cannot help but recall connotations of profound fragility. The three musicians (Mira Benjamin, violin; Bridget Carey, viola; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello) are essential in making this work so effective here, showing the type of deep understanding and respect for a score that allows them to puruse it in ways that enlarge upon the music in ways the composer may have not forseen.

Right from the start, the musicians combine to make a strange warbling effect of gentle, uneven bowing and humming interfering with a faintly wavering harmonic. Each successive phrase adds to this otherworldly atmosphere. Changes in bowing become a major element in the piece’s progress, adding tension, complications and resolutions as they go. Pauses emerge from the score and between the musicians. There are dramatic turns, spaced at roughly even intervals. O’Rourke cites Martin Smolka as the inspiration for added vocalising, but for me it strongly recalled Morton Feldman’s Five Pianos, another work that finds poetic excess in straitened technique. Far from a regression, Best that you do this for me shows a distillation of O’Rourke’s recent compositional approaches into a single coherent, contemplative moment.

Alex Paxton: Music for Bosch People

Saturday 15 May 2021

The word ‘manic’ pops up twice in the press release for Alex Paxton’s album Music for Bosch People. ‘Garish’ should be used too, meant as a positive; it should come as no surprise from the cover art that this music is played by an amplified ensemble with saxophone, electric guitars, drum kit and samplers bouncing around Paxton’s trombone. The bright, clashing colours and patterns in the packaging threaten the listener with a “fun” experience, which too often means music that is at once hectoring and ingratiating. Paxton and his crack team of musicians thankfully avoid this for the most part.

I got the download version of this, with the tracks tagged as ‘Jazz’, so I had to strip those tags out before listening so I wasn’t too prejudiced against it. The album falls into two halves: the long title piece, with a mani-… let’s say frantic solo coda of Paxton vocalising on trombone, and a suite of “Prayers”. The musical idiom throughout is good old-fashioned New York Downtown free improv: constant activity, frenetic and eclectic. TV and movie samples break out amongst the music, like listening to alternative radio in 1990. Is this an exercise in retro pastiche? The remarkable thing here is that Paxton has composed this densely-packed free-for-all, while allowing the musicians scope for improvisation. The advantage is that the momentum and inspiration never flags; the disadvantage is that it never soars to any exhilarating highs, either. For all its wildness, the music tries its best to stay likeable and so remains harmless, never acquiring even the undercurrent of casual menace that makes this kind of playing come alive for the listener. Heard in the wrong frame of mind, parts of the long track come across like attempted humour, stiff and forced.

Given Paxton’s and the ensembles adeptness with the established techniques and technology, he seems strangely reluctant to use it to say anything new – hence the impression of pastiche. The second half of the album is stronger, as he uses his devices in a new and more interesting way. These five short tracks were made by Paxton using cheap MIDI keyboards, improvisation and multitracking as compositional devices, building up layers of improvised solos and then transcribing them into notated arrangements for ensemble. Everything is much more fluid in these pieces, with fleeting gestures and soundbites appearing and disappearing with greater independence and mutual indifference, thus sounding with greater spontaneity. It allows a track titled “Prayer with Strings and Joan Rivers” to be crude and witty without needing to slap you on the back. Even as these tracks are less dense, the musicians can create more connections between the sounds and present the listener with a more complex experience than the title piece.

Voiceless voices: Jason Kahn & Antoine Läng, Biliana Voutchkova

Thursday 13 May 2021

To uncultured ears such as mine, avant-garde vocal performance often falls into a sort of uncanny valley; the moments in which it resembles human expression without reaching verbalisation are when it seems most alien to human experience. I’m listening again to Jason Kahn & Antoine Läng’s Insub release Paratopia, which pairs two improvisations by the duo using their voices as the sound source. The first piece documents a recent performance, made in a forest during lockdown last year. The only technological interventions made to their voices is through the use of megaphones; these amplify small, incidental mouth sounds over vocal content. More importantly, they act as filters which thin out the voice, hollowing out the vocalisations for greater prominence on aspirations and fricatives. For a long time, the voice is not identifiable and the piece sounds like an improvisation for found objects and abraded percussion. Long swatches of varying grain and textures, verging on sound sculpture. This could be detrimental to a recorded percussion performance but the use of voice adds more than novelty, adding different details that would never arise otherwise. The forest ambience adds it own subtle complexity. Once the piece passes twenty minutes more recognisable vocalisations start to emerge, but for me the effect was less transformative and more left me wondering where the track could have been truncated to have kept the sounds in a different realm, outside of human measurement. The second track captures one of the duo’s first performances, with voices weaving in and out of the greay zone between man and nature with that restless urge to make more of a show which has been almost tamed in the later recording.

Last year I reviewed Biliana Voutchkova’s recordings of Ernstalbrecht Stiebler’s violin pieces dedicated to her. Her Takuroku recording Seed of Songs presents her as composer as well as performer. As with many Takuroku releases, it documents her response to forced inactivity in the year of Coronavirus. Unexpectedly, it doesn’t depict the artist at work, or even in a prolonged moment of quiescent contemplation. Seed of Songs was born out of attentiveness, from time without motivation to create. Late in the year she responded to this existential act of listening by recording small sounds – violin, her voice, objects, environmental sounds. Early in the new year she created this collage which is both empty and full, an excercise in receptiveness to what might become. Voutchkova’s voice is present throughout, even if mostly through its absence, as an intermittent thread. In repeated listenings it sounds different each time. One time I was surprised that it was much emptier than I remembered it; this last time I just realised that the violin appears much earlier than I had thought and small sounds teem throughout. Things that Voutchkova might recognise of herself – voice, violin, handmade sounds – remain faintly distinguishable from the surrounding environment. Like Dürer’s Melencolia I, it depicts an impasse which has conditioned the mind to a heightened state of perception, ready to make things new.