Night Music: Jack Sheen, Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras

Tuesday 31 May 2022

If not dark (pace Lorca), then indelibly crepuscular; SN Variations’ release of Jack Sheen’s large ensemble work Sub arrives just in time for northern summer. A broad, dank thicket of furtively scurrying sounds, Sheen’s ensemble writing in this piece both invites and repels comparisons to Haas and very late Feldman’s writing for large ensembles. Sub is played low: alto flutes and violas with trombones, bass clarinets, piano and percussion. The fifteen musicians of the Octandre Ensemble, conducted by Jon Hargreaves, play winding figures over and through each other, with sounds tending towards the breathy and brushed, all muted and blurred by a backdrop of audio tracks that let grey noise seep into any remaining cracks that might admit outside air. While teeming with microscopic, sightless life, Sheen’s composition is never allowed to relax into an organic flow. Cyclical passages are cut up into eleven movements over forty-seven minutes, divded by silences of varying lengths, with some sections dying away and other unnaturally stopped dead. After about twenty minutes, when you think you’re settled in to a work of moody textures, things suddenly lighten up, only to plunge back into redoubled activity. From there on each section becomes more sharply contrasted in sound balance and rhythm, always sounding stranger with the ensemble’s playing turning more febrile as the parts get simpler, until they resemble a muzzy tape recording of a full orchestra. It’s an uncanny, paradoxical work that thwarts movement while remaining in motion, yet never finds balance while remaining in place.

Rohan Drape and Anthony Pateras’ earlier work with keyboards and electronics has been discussed here before but finally received its long-awaited follow-up last year. The traces of a mistake, the most simple one possible the reactions of even younger children presents three related works, including two versions of the title piece. Originally scored for piano, violin, two organs, drums, electronics and Revox tape deck, the piece first appears here in a version for solo piano haunted by an electronically processed haze. Pateras’ piano playing here is uncharacteristically restrained, maintaining an aura of stillness even as the notes gradually fill up the spaces left by Drape’s flickering microtonal drones that slip in and out of consonance. In the middle work, Distance bestows then takes right back, the duet adds pipe organ to the mix, elaborating the ideas from the earlier work into thicker sonorities and more forthright piano work that plays within and around the shifting harmonic space. The final track opens out further, returning to the opening work in an ensemble version with violin and percussion, Drape on piano and Pateras reworking material on a variable-speed tape. Violin adds high overtones and resonance, drums the sub-bass beating signals: even as the texture becomes more active and fraught, with electronic taps and echoes, the suspense and powerful atmosphere is maintained and amplified across all three of these superbly judged and executed works.

Cage/Not-Cage: Opening Performance Orchestra’s Chess Show

Thursday 26 May 2022

“John Cage has become a playground for second-rate minds”, or words to that effect, is one of the more pertinent comments Richard Kostelanetz has made about the late composer who, all things being otherwise normal, would have been turning 110 this year. Kostelanetz has supplied one of several sets of sleeve notes that come with this double CD, although that quote is not included. Chess Show (Other Memories of John Cage) is a part-hommage, part-cargo-cult, part-remix (sorry) made in Cage’s name, certainly not the first and equally certainly not the worst; far from it, the piece comes across as one of the better examples of a genre that is obliged to be derivative. Listening to it allows the mind to contemplate questions and for me the questions always returned to wondering how well it all worked as a musical experience and how well it resisted using Cage as carte blanche.

Cage devised the simple concept of the Musicircus in the mid 1960s: Step 1. have a lot of stuff all happening at once, Step 2. that’s it. The Czech experimental ensemble Opening Performance Orchestra first began playing with the idea of creating a potted Musicircus made of samples from recordings of Cage’s music in the 1990s and have since developed it into an audio-visual work (video component not included here). There are two performances recorded here, each 64 minutes: a live performance at Ostrava in 2017 and a studio version from 2021. Like Cage’s immersive works, it’s dense but not impenetrable or oppressive. Despite the uneasy mix of chessboard structure and chance-determined deployment of recorded material, it sounds curiously consistent. The quodlibet of Cage fragments favour a prevailing texture of sustained sounds, rather like a rendition of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis or 103 with disruptions. (Perhaps the former work is favoured here, as the musicians cite it as a key inspiration behind the concept of Chess Show.) In the live version, the laptops are accompanied by Reinhold Friedl performing excerpts from the Song Books and occasional snatches of keyboard music. For the studio incarnation, the Song pieces are replaced by lively contributions from pianist Miroslav Beinhauer. The soloists are the only immediately observable difference in the two versions.

While not misappropriating Cage as a pretext, the focus on his public image in the music world becomes the piece’s raison d’être. My only other experience of Opening Performance Orchestra’s work is their performances of Milan Knížák’s Broken Music pieces; perhaps this led me to expect something more iconoclastic here. Perhaps because it’s all made up from digital soundfiles, everything comes together too neatly, with no seams showing or any feeling of imminent disruption. I wonder if it all could have been re-created to similar effect through an adventurous realisation of one of Cage’s more open scores. Chess Show is a serious work, conceived, lived with and developed in earnest. The abundance of texts in the package are present both as a justification and to place the work in a gerater context of musical and artistic practice. This is all a long way of saying that my only real problem with it is that it’s overly reverent. That’s OK, for Cage is still in need of grand acts of consolidation and affirmation, but true respect for Cage’s legacy would be to build on it rather than simply preserve it.

Ostrava Days Live 2019–2021

Friday 20 May 2022

Real life, honest-to-god concerts are happening again, so here’s a quick primer on what you’ve been missing. The Ostrava Center for New Music has put out a two-disc compilation of highlights from the last two biennial Ostrava Days festivals. The selection of pieces sets out the Ostrava Days’ credentials on disc one by starting with Ostrava founder Petr Kotík and the ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra killing Xenakis’ Aïs. This piece is now over forty years old and it still confronts the listener with its wild falsetto baritone and thumping percussion. Baritone Holger Falk whoops and wails with just enough control that you forget he’s the same man when he sings in his natural register. This 2019 performance is the work’s premiere in the Czech Republic.

A mix of the old cutting edge and the new is carried through the first part of the album. Xenakis is followed by Kotík leading the Ostravská banda in the world premiere of Christian Wolff’s Small Orchestra Piece. In its own way, it is an equally strange and singular work to the Xenakis, although Wolff playfully acts out of character throughout this piece. His signature late, discontinuous style is elaborated into coherent passages which seem to invite comparison and comment as they abrupty stop and change course. Listeners’ ears will keep pricking up at what appear to be passing references to other music styles or even pieces, such as when the violins come in about two-thirds way through, echoing a Copland pastoral before mimicking Webern’s Symphony.

The next two works form an elegy to the late Frederic Rzewski; as pianist and composer. Kotík’s own Spontano is the oldest piece here (1964), revived here by Rzewski as soloist with Ostravská banda. It’s still a bold piece in a brutalist way as it tries to put sounds together in new ways, or rather keep them apart as much as possible. Rzewski is fittingly brusque in playing terse, unresolved statements against silence, or disrupting occasional blocks of sustained chords built up from overlapping layers of pitch. The final (marked ‘furious’) of Rzewski’s 2019 Six Movements for piano appears by way of an encore.

The remaining pieces consist of new work by later generations of composers. While a musical avant-garde emerged immediately after World War II from a compulsion to create something entirely new and reject pre-existing models, subsequent generations have felt this imperative less and less, preferring, perhaps wisely, to take stock of where all these upheavals have led us today. From this too-close perspective, approach is one of assimilation and transformation, of building something new out of what they understand they already have. That understanding has continued to change and artists have learned to adapt to constantly shifting ground. Earlier attempts at assimilation and transformation resulted in collage and pastiche, as a form of deconstruction, but in recent decades this consolidation has become more sophisticated – a blessing and a curse. As ever, the identifying signs of a truly radical work lie in the differences between that which please and that which astonishes.

Martin Smolka’s Quand le tympan de l’oreille porte le poids du monde, played here by the PKF – Prague Philharmonia conducted by Roland Kluttig, seems to explores a given sonority, turning it back and forth, but then moves beyond this reductive method by expanding the material into extramusical concerns of dramatic build-ups, suspenseful ebbings away, before rising to a calamitous yet inevitable climax. The drama, however, comes from the musical means exploited by the orchestra. Petr Bakla’s There is an island above the city (Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra /Peter Rundel) is another preimiere, which at first seems as still and reverent as the beginning of Smolka’s piece, but takes a different turn by pursuing the more sinister implications of settling down in one place. A benign chorale steadily grows more fraught, developing a more turbulent aspect to its character, with an ominous humming rising up behind the strings.

Violinist Hana Kotková and the Ostravská banda (conducted this time by Jiří Rožeň) perform Ana Sokolović’s concerto Evta (2017). Each of the seven movements is named for a colour in the rainbow, proceding through the spectrum and played without breaks. The movements, or perhaps sections is a more appropriate term, are distinguished less by contrasts in mood as by means of construction. If there is any syneesthetic programme here then it is particularly obdurate on the senses: Kotková and the ensemble, both together and apart, pick up the nervous energy in the writing and produce fidgety patterns made out of reiterations of ascending and weaving patterns that slide and stutter over each other. The piece becomes a study in tension, where knots are slackened from time to time but never undone, only to be pulled tight again in the next phase. The soloist eschews the traditional roles of protagonist or adversary, acting much as a figurehead for the combative, querulous mob. Just checked the notes and there’s talk of chakras and folklore.

Led again by Kotík, Ostravská banda’s premiere of Devin Maxwell’s Bonneville Park II sees a return of brutalist construction. A sequel to his earlier electronic work of the same name, fixed media is also present here in a subtle way to flesh out the acoustic sounds. Here, the emphasis is on clashes of sonority over any movement in pitch, dwelling on contrasting colours and textures in succession to make a piece that is more stimulating than likeable. After a short but satisfying choral work by Georgina Bowden (The Fainting Sun, premiered here by Canticum Ostrava) the set concludes with a rousing finale: Miroslav Srnka’s Eighteen Agents for nineteen strings. Members of Ostravská banda & ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra (Bruno Ferrandis conducting) serve up a suitably hot and sour string ensemble, agressively hazy with its fast chromatic runs played in individual meters so that they sound, if not microtonal, then blurry and melted, even as the phrasing is aggressively jagged. It all winds up with a flourish, playing up to being the tricky but spectaular new-music-crowd-pleaser which then makes you wonder if it’s a little superficial. The piece is ten years old now and perhaps seemed more pointed at the time – like I said, the ground keeps shifting beneath our feet.

Richard Emsley: Still/s

Tuesday 26 April 2022

“It’s like looking at someone with short hair. We could tell if that person had long hair in the sixties and now has short hair, as opposed to the guy who’s always had short hair since the fifties.”
Peter Gena, in conversation with Morton Feldman

Having first heard parts of Richard Emsley’s for piano series, started in the mid 1990s, I little suspected that these pieces signalled a change in style from his earlier work as an accused member of the British New Complexity School. The austere arrangements of undeveloped points and blocks of sound in for piano start to make a new kind of sense with this background information: the static sound-world of these later works isn’t necessarily a disavowal of the B.N.C.S.’s frantic activity, but a fresh approach to some of its values. Where the B.N.C.S.’s notorious ‘black page’ approach to notation asymptotically aspires to re-create musicianship in free flow, Emsley’s unadorned sounds can be heard as emulating the interior processes of musicians, in reflective contemplation of the stuff of their art.

Still/s is a cycle of twenty-four pieces for five musicians, composed between 2002 and 2019. On Saturday, they were played in their entirety for the first time by Apartment House as part of Music We’d Like To Hear. There were two concerts, of about two hours each, to get through the whole set. The first hint of Emsley’s approach is that each piece is for only one to three of the five instruments (the musicians here were Mira Benjamin, violin; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello; Heather Roche, clarinets; Nancy Ruffer, flutes; Kerry Yong, piano). The series was originally conceived as a counterpart to artist Joan Key’s painting, the juxtaposition of repeated shapes and muted, near-white colours finding an analogy in Emsley’s music.

These are not pieces to be approached with a restless mind, unless one is seeking to silence the internal monologue. Many of the pieces stick to one or two pitches, echoed back and forth between instruments. The apparent stasis is at odds with an inherent instability in each piece, as Emsley notates his isolated sounds in aperiodic settings, frustrating any definable pattern that might otherwise emerge. Other pieces set out gamuts of notes to be played in irregular permutations; more rarely, a piece will be made up of a brief motive heard in variations. Successive pieces will seem to vary only in instrumentation, before the next abruptly introduces something entirely anomalous: simple sounds presented in a way that is anything but simplistic.

In retrospect, the series unexpectedly reveals a microcosm of musicianship, with minor forays into studies in timbre, intonation, extended techniques and rhythm. With their focus and their awareness of the potential inside each unprepossessing piece on paper, the musicians of Apartment House steadily zoomed in on this microcosm, expanding on each hidden facet while remaining as near-monochrome as possible. What impressed most was the use of instrument tone and register, with flute and violin, clarinet and cello at times blending almost indistinguishably, at other moments coming close to mimicking each other, alto flute against cello harmonic, E-flat clarinet in just the right place to match the muted violin.

More Lost Canadians: Michael Oesterle, Mark Ellestad

Friday 22 April 2022

Thanks to the musicians who keep exposing me to contemporary Canadian composers I’d have otherwise never heard of. Quatuor Bozzini’s set of Michael Oesterle’s Quatuors opens with a nice comfy chorale that almost immediately drops away to a near-inaudible skein of harmonics. This piece, Oesterle’s String Quartet No. 4, is the latest and longest of the four pieces heard here (but not the entirety of his output for string quartet). The piece moves casually back and forth between slow pulses of alternating chords and scurrying patterns of harmonics, before returning to chorales and whispers. Oesterle gives no programme other than to assert that his musical materials are always “geometric, expressive, and puritanical”. It is the most subtly disorienting piece in the collection, as each passage yields to the next without any formal structural division, while beguiling sounds are tempered by a secretiveness as to where, if anywhere, the music may be directed. Quatuor Bozzini’s style of playing ideally evokes that shrouded expressivity, never loud but each phrase always indelible, however softly it is played.

The remaining three pieces are more easily apprehended, each falling into neatly digestible sections. String Quartet No. 3 “Alan Turing” from 2010 explores patterns, gestures and textures with an appropriate sense of wonder and discovery mingled with loss and regret. The Bozzinis bring out the gentle playfulness of each movement, slightly darkened by the melancholy of its subject. The harmonic language and gestures at times recall the freshness of a previous generation’s “post-minimal” tonality in its first flowering, before it was worked in harness to the service of Hollywood soundtracks. The titles of 2016’s Three Pieces for String Quartet evoke various animals but Oesterle’s notes again cite geometrical puzzles as each piece’s prime mover, claiming inspiration from Stravinsky and Cage. I can hear a kinship with Ruth Crawford in here, which is the highest of praise. The earliest piece here, Daydream Mechanics from 2001, is the most extended and hushed movement in the collection, with genuine whispering, searching out unexpected consequences from an otherwise confined grid of chordal patterns. Quatuor Bozzini’s championing of this composer, matching his language with a refinement of style that moves from rapid filigree to near-stillness in the same mode of emotion, reveals depths slowly swirling below the undemanding surface.

Mark Ellestad’s career as a composer has moved slowly, with extended pauses. Another Timbre has revived him from obscurity in the new collection Discreet Angel, drawing together three pieces written between 1988 and 1994. I’ve listened to these many times now and still haven’t gotten any closer to what’s happening inside them, despite the intimacy of instrumentation, performance and recording. The 1994 piece, Sigrid, is a brief tape of Ellestad overdubbing pump organ and Hardanger fiddle, the interweaving chords layered and worked into aural broadcloth. The dedicated application of craft to an undemonstrative result is the signature of the three pieces heard here.

Sigrid appears as an interlude to the larger-scale works of much lower density. Both are, in context, memorials for Ellestad’s parents. Discreet Angel itself is for guitar, with just enough musical stuff to expose the instrument’s vulnerability when played at anything less than a continuo. The pauses and unaccompanied notes allow the silence to leak through, creating music that is neither whole nor broken, neither active nor still. For guitarist Cristian Alvear, expert interpreter of some of Wandelweiser’s most esoteric works, the balance of sound and silence is deployed into the fullest and most lyrical playing I’ve heard from him. In the Mirror of this Night is a duet for violin and cello, played here by Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze. Equally slow, it finds its own path as it meanders across forty-five minutes, but again, even when all has been heard, the ultimate course of that path remains obscure. At any given moment in each of these pieces, the music itself is never forbidding, but the wider context defies the listener’s attempts to comfortably accommodate it inside any known form or structure. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze trade solo parts or join in unison almost as often as they work together. Ellestad himself praises the musicians for their “restraint, patience, stillness and a willingness to bring flexibility to time and repetition.” I can’t really add more to that, save that they convey the music with immediacy while still keeping it unknowable.

Guitar? Solos? Fredrik Rasten, Lauri Hyvärinen

Saturday 16 April 2022

I guess there is still a lot more that can be done with guitars; as with pianos in previous centuries, the synergy between artistic creativity and technological development is prodigious. It’s still a bit of a mystery what exact role technology plays in Fredrik Rasten’s solo album on Insub Svevning, where what sounds like an electric guitar is not. When previously heard in his collaboration with Vilhelm Bromander, Rasten’s guitar was mostly bowed to produce complex overtones. Here, everything is plucked and, while the overtones are simpler, they predominate. Svevning is two prolonged studies in arpeggiation, each successive note combining with the last to produce beating frequencies. There’s tremendous sustain in the harmonics, which suggest they have been electronically induced, yet Rasten also sings pitches against the guitar to extend and perturb the resonance of the strings. Despite the technical emphasis on psychoacoustic phenomena, a different effect takes over as content is subsumed by duration. With each piece running to forty minutes, the consistency becomes mesmerising for the listener while it becomes wearying for the player, leading to turns in the course of the music that suggest human need over theory.

Meanwhile, Intonema have released a solo album by Finnish guitarist Lauri Hyvärinen. Cut Contexts crops selections of the guitarist’s practice over the past two years of Covid retreat, presenting a set of five scenes of aural portraiture. Guitar playing is heard as a work in progress and as an activity in place, a given situation subject to transformation. While the guitar here might focus on technique, the emphasis is shifted by the locating presence of environmental sounds and by relocating device of setting each piece into a seven-minute window of time, framed by silence as needed. It creates a kind of cubist presentation, in which the often cosy domesticity of the subject matter is skewed by an oblique depiction in strictly formal terms. The method neatly excises the potential self-indulgence of the diary format that lurks beneath other pandemic documentaries. Why are there not seven pieces? Probably because that would be too many.

Out of Character: Eva-Maria Houben, Magnus Granberg

Sunday 10 April 2022

What a strange piece! What I’ve heard of Eva-Maria Houben’s music tends to fall into either of two categories: static, dispassionate music that becomes oddly affecting by its very remoteness, or static, dispassionate music that refuses any sympathetic connection with the listener. together on the way is neither: a collaboration with the GBSR Duo that’s built on the premise of suspense, in which the processes of time are suspended even as you are aware of time’s passing. At least, that’s how it comes out in this live recording of the piece in Huddersfield. I suspect the piece may take on a slightly different character each time it’s played, as a continuing collaboration between the three musicians. (Sadly I couldn’t make the London performance last weekend.) The piece is an extension of Houben’s previous work with pianist Siwan Rhys, A peaceful, silent place, premiered at LCMF in late 2019: a work of inner calm and patients that ranged from subdued to almost imperceptible. For together on the way, Houben’s organ playing and Rhys’ piano is joined by GBSR partner George Barton on percussion and while the pacing and textures are similar, the newer work sounds like an inversion of the previous performer dynamics. Houben maintains a steady drone throughout, too soft but too rigid for the listener to believe that it can stay the same. Barton and Rhys add brief, isolated interventions that provoke but never disrupt the stasis, leaving the listener perpetually waiting for a change that may never come. It’s unexpectedly dramatic, even ominous, if you allow it to be. You wonder, between the three of them, when they will allow the impasse to break, either change or drop away, or whether they can keep up the suspension of the faintest of sounds indefinitely.

The latest Magnus Granberg release reunites him with Skogen, here as an ensemble of seven musicians recorded last June. How Lonely Sits the City? wends its way around Granberg’s prepared piano, joined by harp, tuned and untuned percussion and amplified objects. A pair of violins complete the ensemble. The predominance of plucked and struck instruments here gives the piece the sparsest texture I’ve yet heard in Granberg’s compositions, even more so than in his quartet Nattens skogar. Allowing for finer shades of dark and light, it’s a cold and spiky piece, with soft but short sounds played in denuded textures. Occasional bursts of electronic noise add to the alienating experience. While recorded in summer, the piece sounds empty and wintry, largely it seems as an effect of Covid; a reflection on the world shutting down and doors closing for musicians everywhere. Interestingly, the piece also began as a quartet, but while Granberg added parts for a larger ensemble, the prevailing mood remained small and sparse, with each musician adding to the overall work as sparingly as possible, making each individual sound count.

Pandemic Reflections: Robin Fox, Francesco Serra

Sunday 3 April 2022

The pandemic’s legacy of space and contemplation lingers in the most social of artforms, even as things are just starting to open up around me. Francesco Serra’s Guest Room is a triptych made from empty space, vacancies that seem to offer nothing more than pure resonance. The apparent purity of floating harmonics is deceptive and false, as with the serenity of a depopulated landscape; in each successive iteration, Serra reveals more of how the evenness of sound is eerie and disturbed. Using a month-long residency in Teatro San Leonardo in Bologna, by then closed to the public, he arranged microphones beneath the vault of the church’s nave to record the echoes of his electric guitar off the walls and ceiling. The diffuse clouds of sound are hard to discern as guitar-like; the notes also mention the presence of snare drums, which you suppose are there for high-end resonance until the third part hits with dramatic force.

I haven’t really discussed Robin Fox’s music here, despite admiring it for many years and having played on the same bill as him several times. Fox’s special way with vintage synthesiser and electronics was frequently married to a visual component, keying his music to oscilloscopic light projections or to dance performance. For the former case in particular, the integrity of the concept required music of relatively simple sounds and gestures to be most effective, to the point that considering audio recordings of many of his compositions seemed to be an exercise in bad faith. The two parts (in fact, separate but related pieces) of Threnody To Now are a different matter. Recorded alone in the studio during lockdown, using a modern modular synth, each is a focused, meditative activity in clear, direct tones and gestures. The two parts clear an internal space, with the repeated harmonic movements moving beyond frustration into equanimity. Too restless and hard-edged to be a New Age sop, it gives you the real deal instead, quietening the mind through considered action. It’s a concise study of the effectiveness of Fox’s deceptively minimal musical language.

Alvear-Bondi, d’incise etc.

Sunday 20 March 2022

I’ve been catching up on Insub’s recent releases. Guitarist Cristián Alvear with Cyril Bondi on percussion, mostly, have produced a trilogy of recordings of which I have heard the first two. So far, each has paired two works by different composers, most of whom I’m not familiar with at all. The exception is d’incise, whose 40-minute Sigh (carried away) adds electronic enhancements to Alvear’s guitar and Bondi playing four cymbals. The piece suits their patience and inner stillness, often alternating between the quickly dying tones of the guitar and the rustle of percussion. It spells out a flat, thin sonata made of metallic edges and sounds extended beyond their confortable zones, keeping you alert and wary while never raising its voice. Its companion piece, Santiago Astaburuaga’s grado de potencia #2, adds field recordings which seem to take up the foreground, the musicians introducing brief snatches of speech and sound that appear and disappear in alternation. Time passes in a dreamlike state, with no logical connection or momentum, and so will either soothe, frustrate or disturb you.

Percussion and electric guitar return for Nicolás Carrasco’s sin título #26, a study in stasis that progresses slowly while seemingly making no headway. Alvear plays obstinately reiterated notes that expand into obstinately reiterated chords, counterweighted by a series of recurring percussive noises. The juxtaposition keeps everything slow but taut. Anna-Kaisa Meklin’s Ground in Cis changes things up with the composer adding her viola da gamba to Bondi on harmonium and Alvear’s guitar, making a piece that seems almost rustic by comparison. The three play in harmony over each other before briefly, one by one, breaking into a more florid melody as though allowed to lapse into normal time. It’s all rather charming, particularly as the gentle electric guitar, homely harmonium and sweetly sonorous viola da gamba make such mismatched companions. These recordings were all made in Covid-straitened times last year, with Alvear in Chile added to the other musicians based in Switzerland.

Bondi and d’incise have collaborated on compositions a number of times over the years. The 45-minute Zgodność, made over 2020-2021, is written for a seven-piece ensemble with an accompanying tape part. It sounds a bit different from their earlier pieces, with this one less beholden to processes and with greater variability in its texture and mood over time. In its instrumentation of winds (trumpet, bass clarinet, accordion, harmonium) and strings (viola, cello, double-bass) and its ebbs and flows in texture and dynamics, from faded or frayed high sounds to tutti swells and lugibrious tessitura in the low registers, Zgodność comes across to the listener as a kind of pastoral symphony, in the margin. Stringently compressed in its range and its orchestration, the playing still sounds full and expressive. The tape may play a part, but it does not seem prominent. The seven live musicians are to the forefront throughout – the Blutwurst ensemble, based in Florence, are the orchestra here. Their prowess at interpreting a spare piece to the fullest can also be heard in Emmanuel Holterbach’s Ricercar nell’ombra, a 2018 collaboration which was released on Another Timbre. Holterbach was effusive when describing Blutwurst then, and this recording is further confirmation why.

Not Dead Yet

Saturday 12 March 2022

My little world has started to open up again after a couple of years away. Went out to drink in public and hear the latest in Apartment House’s string quartet revivals: Hermann Nitsch’s String Quartet No. 2. Having heard some of Nitsch’s organ music a year ago, I figured a string quartet couldn’t hurt too much. It’s the humour that got me. Over 70 minutes, the opening movements dwelled upon fat slabs of sound as expected, but then things started to get a little more playful with creaking romantic gestures like petrified Schubert and a lop-sided, foot-stomping ländler tune like a ham-fisted Walter Zimmermann. “Hermann Nitsch lives in a castle.” Ultimately it all seemed very meaningful, which, having lived neither in a castle nor in Germany, is not the same thing as having meaning.

For virtual concerts, I’ve heard the LP of Two Duos from cellist Okkyung Lee’s gigs at Oto in 2019. On side one she’s paired with Jérôme Noetinger making real time tape manipulations, side two she’s with Nadia Ratsimandresy on ondes Martenot. Both bits of retro technology add a slightly spaced-out dimension to the cello: Noetinger adds fizz and buzz to the graininess of Lee’s playing before expanding into more overtly electronic obstacles for the cello to dodge around. Conversely, Ratsimandresy’s ondes Martenot starts out in its vox humana register, sounding uncanny against Lee’s enlarged bowing sounds. Again, the second duet takes an initial concept as a base from which to wander in ever more fanciful detours. The pleasure comes from the matching of sounds and the playing being free-spirited without self indulgence. Knowing how and when to stop also helps a lot.

More talk about the overlapping fields of composition and improvisation come up in the notes for Jonas Kocher’s Perspectives and Echoes, “an architectural struc-ture defines the temporal and spatial course of largely indeterminate events”. The electroacoustic ensemble play thick sounds distributed thin and I can’t hear it as much more than a listless group improv. More distressingly, the piece is accompanied by a performance of Luc Ferrari’s Tautologos III tackled with the same languor, so that the consequences of interactions fail to accumulate and events fail to gather significance or momentum. Perhaps the numbing isolation in this rendition is the suburban riposte to Ferrari’s city analogy.

I’ve been soaking in a small pile of intriguing recent releases on the Insub label which I need to address soon. I was going to set aside Louis Laurain’s Pulses, Pipes, Patterns but I keep trying to listen to it in different ways. It sounds like heavily sampled and processed thwacking of PVC pipes, sliced and diced in various ways to eke out an album’s worth of material. Apparently it isn’t, but instead is made from trumpets mostly, plus lots of digital processing and also “birds, white noise, vibrating metal stuff, saws, toads, sine waves…” Heard in one way it still comes across as sound sculpture, although in a highly creative and roundabout way of doing it; the reductiveness becomes admirable. If you turn it up loud and stand further away it sounds like ambient electronica from the Nineties as the conformity and instability battle it out, like another eccentric Pole Imposter.

Missed another Apartment House gig at Wigmore Hall on Thursday because I’d already booked a ticket to see a revival of Lucinda Childs’ Dance at Sadler’s Wells. For me, this was a personal indulgence in nostalgia and revisiting youth, having had a formative experience watching Childs perform in the 1990s staging of Einstein on the Beach in Melbourne. As a new experience, fresh contact with Philip Glass’s Seventies music, Childs’ choreography and Sol LeWitt’s film treatment was sweetly rejuvenating. Good artists learn from the recent past at least as much as from history lessons, taking up the loose threads as yet unfollowed. This was the future once, and it can still offer the promise of a better tomorrow.

Tom Johnson: Combinations

Saturday 26 February 2022

As Wittgenstein would often remind you, the simplest statements, when exposed to close examination, conceal a wealth of contradictions and absurdities. Several years ago I heard a chamber ensemble play Tom Johnson’s Predictables and stumble over the opening phrases as the obvious series of notes ran afoul of the conventions of performance. Johnson’s perfectly logical sequences of exahustive combinations and permutations contain profound conundrums, throwing us into the mental chasm of aesthetics where the rational becomes counter-intuitive. In making decisions that appear to defy creativity, refusal to deviate from the proposed model is a means for taking the least expected path. Even when the organising principle is clear (and it is typically reducible to a single principle), Johnson’s disciplined adherence to the rule can make the progress of his pieces appear inscrutable to the listener.

The contradictions involved in the experiences of reading, playing and listening to Johnson’s music underpin the humour that often surfaces. This is most apparent in the works for voice, where word games come to the fore, but the necessary incongruities in Johnson’s approach can’t help but become the stuff of comedy, or at least require wit to handle them effectively. The Quatuor Bozzini’s collection of Johnson’s string quartets, Combinations, exemplify this playfulness without distracting from the musical substance. The Four-Note Chords in Four Voices from 2009 are just that, collated by type to provide phrasing, homogeneous and minimal even as nothing ever repeats. There’s a tension between similarity and diversity, despite the composition’s premise that such concerns are rendered moot. Johnson has recognised that there is nothing mathematical to be learned from his work with combinations and so these pieces cannot be considered mere demonstrations, but raise new aesthetic questions from existing conditions. Much as with Alvin Lucier, Johnson displays a fertile imagination based on observation over invention.

My review copy came without sleeve notes, so it would take closer analysis to determine exactly the systematic combinations used in 2003’s Combinations for String Quartet or the mathemmatical formulas used in 1994’s Formulas for String Quartet. I’m not bothering to do so because it doesn’t matter. As Johnson himself has written elsewhere, “composers, interpreters, and listeners do not need to know all this, just as we do not need to master counterpoint in order to appreciate a Bach fugue. As always, one of the wonderful things about music is that it allows us to perceive directly things that we would never understand intellectually.” In both the above works, the most striking aspect is the diversity of modes of expression in such a presumably limited palette. Formulas opens with a lively jig-like movement, followed by sweet antiphonal counterpoint and floating harmonies. Combinations contrasts motoric passages with translucent chords and dramatic interventions. Other movements, and in Tilework for String Quartet, build mosaic-like patterns out of sinuous lines that rise and fall while slipping in and out of sequence, becoming all the more intriguing for discovering variety in a single process of juxtapositions.

The music embodies a balance between rigor and play that can also be found in a well-crafted fugue. Quatuor Bozzini play this all with the sophistication and lightness of touch that it deserves, to bring out the fullness of its self-discipline and its charm. Steadfast and non-vibrato throughout, they nonetheless keep everything sounding warm and alive. The square, even rhythms are played true, but with a suppleness that allows the Bozzinis to float for one passage before landing with a surefooted tread in the next. With careful attention to intonation and articulation, they still find expressive room in the notation bring out wider connotations of emotion. For fans of Johnson’s music, part of the fun here is how often it sounds like someone other than Tom Johnson; the deadpan drollery commonly given to his work is shaded with hints of agitation or pathos, with fleeting classical or even romantic impressions flickering by. The dual appeal to the senses and the intellect is also a hallmark of wit.

Laura Cocks: field anatomies

Monday 21 February 2022

Scariest album of flute music ever. Laura Cocks’ solo recital disc field anatomies is a gruelling, intimidating experience when heard in one sitting. Don’t let the pressed flowers on the cover fool you; get the message that these (genuine) preserved petals crushed flat between heavy black cards are sending. All five works, composed over the past ten years, are intensely physical and demanding pieces for performer and listener. I don’t mean in the Unity Capsule sense, either, although there is a similar complexity and difficulty which Cocks successfully wrestles with throughout. All five composers represented here push intricacy of pitch and rhythm into the background, pushing their emphasis partly on sonority, but particularly on emodying the flute as an extension of breath – or an obstacle to it.

Cocks presents a masterclass on the phsyicality of wind playing. We can acknowledge that past prejudices against the flute as a petty instrument are entirely unfounded, yet during the opening half of the the first work, David Bird’s Atolls for solo piccolo “and 29 spatialized piccolos” I kept steeling myself against the prospect of a barrage of relentlessly finicky virtuosity. This never happens, even as Cocks negotiates tortuous passages of overblown multiphonics with a smearin’ and sneerin’ attitude before the work suddenly explodes into dense, dark spectralism. Electronics and other devices are used in all the works here, except for Jessie Cox’s Spiritus, but even that relatively straightforward work requires Cocks to provide a low, vocalised drone to thicken out the sound of her instrument. The focus on the sound of breath and mouth in all the works becomes most extreme in Bethany Younge’s Oxygen and Reality, where musician and piccolo are hemmed in by electronic processing, affixed balloons to ration the use of air and, most ominously, “hardware”. The constricted, suffocating atmosphere is marred a little by being a little too demonstrative of its premise, as when Cocks is required to speak on the subject through the piccolo, but by this stage of the album her voice comes as a surprise as up until now she has sounded larger than life.

The most listerner-friendly piece here may be DM R’s You’ll see me return to the city of fury, but even this electroacoustic work is dark and menacing while also being the least convulsive in its progress from start to finish. The final piece, Joan Arnau Pàmies’s Produktionsmittel I is part of a 2-hour trilogy. For this segment, Cocks unloads a marathon barrage of groans, growls, grunts and howls that search out the medians and extremes between pitch and noise. I’d call it an indomitable display of power, yet the piece itself suggests human exhaustion as the flautist is buffeted by electronic bleeps until she is swept away by a tide of white noise. There are times when it starts to feel like the flute has become an adjunct to the music, a prop for a greater compositional conceit. Based on the performances given here, a composer could get some exciting results from writing piece for Cocks which required her to do without an instrument altogether.

Post-Confusion, 2: Tim Parkinson, Eventless Plot, Luciano Maggiore

Sunday 20 February 2022

Speaking of forgotten trends in experimental music from past generations, I recently listened to a two-hour free-form slab of late night US public radio from 1975. Amongst all its eccentricities, the oddest thing about it was how it reminded me of Tim Parkinson’s septet (2004), which I had played just before. Two performances of the work are given by different ensembles in this album release; it’s a piece for live chamber ensemble with use of pre-recorded audio. “Simultaneous parts begin together and thereafter continue independently. Parts for melody instruments may be played in any order. Percussion parts and audio track are fixed.” As a study in immersive simultaneity, the ideas and means are not new, but the music is still strikingly otherworldly. Part of this may be down to the awareness of history going on behind it, focusing on the sound over the technique. The live sounds vary incongruously without ever trying to be pointedly different or disruptive, while the recorded sounds remain impassive; moreover, everything appears in a dreamlike, distant haze. The musicians are expected to be placed around the room, which presumably happened in both these instances, so that the recording captures the room as much as the sounds that inhabit it.

I’ve talked about Eventless Plot a few times before, with their group compositional approach being both an extension and an antithesis of free improvisation. With several minds at work, the focus is on finding order, guiding divergent impulses into a single, emergent intelligence that is as clear as it it complex. Released last month, Apatris is a collection of four concise pieces for tapes, piano, percussion and electronics. The trio (Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas, Yiannis Tsirikoglou) play without guest members this time, producing atmospheric but transparent works that subtly develop and distinguish themselves from each other. With piano as the main melodic component here, its utterances are kept brief, setting the layers of unpitched sound into relief while giving them further colouration by contrast. It works effectively as a companion piece to No options, their earlier collaboration with bass clarinetist Chris Cundy, both in musical approach and in scale.

The unifying conceit I’ve got in the back of my head from listening to these pieces is “post-confusion”, as an evolving but contemporary approach to accommodating the state of information today, a multiplicity of ever-present, contradictory messages in constant competition. How does music adapt to, repurpose, combat or shut out this situation? The term might be used in a similar way as “post-irony” gets thrown about, which was how it kept passing through my head while listening to Luciano Maggiore’s Drenched Thatched Roof again even after I swore not to. This is the guy who did that collaboration with Louie Rice Synthesised voices and low frequencies to eat crisps with a while back. There’s even less information to work with here; if you’re one of the 150 people who got the limited edition CD then there’s a 6-page booklet to go with it but I’m going to guess that all the pages are black. Short loops of grey-sounding tapes repeat a handful of times, then stop. Pause, repeat for 68 minutes (Maggiore does tell you up front that the track divisions are meaningless). Every element is laid out one at a time, neatly separated, but it’s still incomprehensible. You’re so sure that some of these sounds are being repeated that the idea they might all be different is unbearable. I have no idea what is going on, even though it keeps telling me.

Post-Confusion, 1: Clinton Green, Tarab, Tony Buck & Rik Rue

Monday 14 February 2022

I’ve been listening to a range of pieces by artists working with degrees of freedom in their approach to composition, from fixed but open structures to pure improvisation. The eclectic sonic materials used render questions of harmonic or other pitch-based organsiation obsolete. Perhaps it’s the ultimate expression of Ezra Pound’s theory of harmony, that any two sounds can follow one anonther in consonance as long as you get the timing right: the disposition of heterogeneous sounds to create a balanced, unified musical experience is a genre that has slowly defined itself over the last half-century or so. As with the materials, the unifying forces can be left very loose, defying our expectations of associating anarchy with chaos.

The densest, noisiest works all happen to be Australian, produced across a gap of twenty-five years. Maybe there’s a pattern that singles out these three albums, or perhaps these piece are just crowding out my mind right now. There appears to be a tradition, as represented by the reissue of Tony Buck & Rik Rue’s Come Let Us Build Ourselves A City collaboration from 1996. A double improvisation of Buck on drums and electronic percussion devices, embellished and corrupted by Rue’s electronics and samples played through minidisc recorders set to shuffle, the collection of pieces push the density of signals to the brink of noise. Technology allows each musician to be their own Sixties happening in terms of immersion in omni-attentiveness. With such abundance, pacing or restraint in exposition are irrelevant: the energy is unstinting and phrasing can be confrontingly abrupt.

The same qualities can be heard in Tarab’s 2018 recording, HOUSEKEEPING, derived from an 8-channel installation. Recordings of found objects, spaces, rehearsals are all swept up in this vast accumulation of otherwise inconsequential odds and ends. The collection may appear indiscriminate but the presentation is far from flat, using the perspectives of time and space over which the piece was shaped to present sounds in sharp relief. If there’s a shared tradition here, it’s in the use of domestically-oriented material to produce something otherworldly, transcending its innate quotidian attributes to become something more than itself, rather than seeking to relocate artistic experience within the mundane.

That transcended domesticity carries over into the most recent work here, Clinton Green’s Here​?​/​Secret, a pair of related lockdown compositions created out of frustration at being unable to access his studio and equipment. The two collages were created from, and on, cassettes, using older material left at home and processed on an old 4-track cassette mixer. The gear at work here is similar to that used by Rik Rue in the 1980s. Green mentions a compositional procedure for choice of tape, tape speed and direction and panning, which yields a combination of sounds disturbingly mismatched to eerie perfection, much in the way of a prolonged chance collision. Once again, the ordinary is repurposed into a hallucinatory melange of sounds beyond conventional comprehension. It taps into a powerful strand of late 20th Century experimental music, going back to Cage’s collages from the 1950s, that’s occasionally forgotten only to be taken up again a generation later…

End of quiescence, 3: A quick comment on Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet

Sunday 30 January 2022

It took a long time to listen to this recording, but not long to find something to say about it. Morton Feldman’s music, despite immediate apperances, is not quiescent; it constantly questions the bounds that are rigorously placed upon it. (Is this what Cage meant he when first encountered Feldman’s music, finding it “heroic”?) Like many, I suspect, I imprinted on that first recording of Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet many years ago, with its dedicatees Aki Takahashi and the Kronos Quartet pulling off something that sounded flawless, somehow making the piece the most self-contained and approachable of Feldman’s late works, even as it tests the musicians and audience alike.

Nobody needs a reason to play or record a piece again, but for the new recording of Piano and String Quartet by Apartment House on Another Timbre, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze provides an excellent summary of the piece’s compelling qualities on the label website. In their rendition, Apartment House thins out the sound, as Feldman often wished of his instruments. While neither faster nor slower, the approach taken by pianist Mark Knoop is more enervated, as though suddenly shaken out of complacency of what we have come to expect late Feldman to be. (I’m comparing this version to both that Takahashi/Kronos CD and memories of a live performance by John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet.) The strings respond in kind, as though pressed for time, making other performances seem unhelpfully languid in retrospect. After being gradually accommodated through stages of acceptance as ‘minimalist’ or ‘ambient’, it’s good to hear this piece turned away from luxuriance and towards a sound more fitting to Feldman’s less comfortable ways of thinking about music.