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

Sunday 21 January 2024

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

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

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

Sawyer Editions: Kory Reeder, Matt Sargent, Noah Jenkins

Sunday 14 January 2024

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

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

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

Folks’ Music: Miller, Crane, Smith, Riley

Thursday 11 January 2024

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

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

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

Stolen Symphony: Fluxus & Neofluxus, Part 1

Saturday 30 December 2023

There’s always something horrible about Fluxus anthologies. They inevitably end up less than the sum of their parts; a motley collection of dusty, mismatched relics from a brief moment of excitement sixty years ago. As pure audio, shorn of performance context, they frequently make for very dry listening, made worse by a threadbare jokeyness that in retrospect sounds self-satisfied. If that wasn’t bad enough, the listener then starts to grouse that some of the selections aren’t Fluxusy enough. It’s a terrible position to be in and it may well be part of the point, given the Fluxus tendency to rub one’s nose in tedium, but in this current age of podcasts the concept of an information wasteland is now a daily reality and too many Fluxus pieces which attempted to problematise the situation somehow seem left behind, more quaint than prophetic.

Having said all that, the Sub Rosa anthology Stolen Symphony: Fluxus & Neofluxus, Part 1 manages to justify itself through describing the organic process by which this set of pieces grew into its present state, through members of the Opening Performance Orchestra in Ostrava meeting and being introduced to an ever-widening circle of Fluxus and Fluxus-adjacent artists. While attempting to be comprehensive, it nevertheless excuses its omissions and eccentricities through the personal artistic connections that went into making it. A number of the composers wrote new pieces for the occasion and who can turn that down? Several pieces by Milan Knížák appear, albeit in excerpts; apart from these there appear to be no other examples of the dreaded excerptitis. Most of the pieces are short: thirty pieces in a little over 150 minutes, of which only eleven exceed five minutes and, of those, just two stretch past ten minutes into the twenty-plus range.

One of the long tracks is by the Opening Performance Orchestra themselves. These regular collaborators with Knížák produce the title work, a typically dense collage of indiscriminately pillaged sounds that’s more immediately enjoyable than their Cage-inspired Chess Show because of its casual messiness. Speaking of John Cage, the anthology gets off to a bad start by listing his 0’00” as track 0 with a timing of 0’00”, accompanied in the booklet by a badly cropped reproduction of the score and a commentary by Petr Kotík indicating that he really doesn’t get what the piece is about. Apart from this stumble, the booklet is mostly above average with 72 pages of supporting essays and memoirs, while the album immediately lifts with some strikingly lively performances, perhaps uncharacterisically so in the case of Agnese Toniutti’s piano interpretation of La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #15 to Richard Huelsenbeck. Werner Durand provides overdubbed winds on a pair of Henning Christiansen’s feral folk compositions from mid 1980s. Examples of early 1960s “action pieces” by the frequently overlooked Fluxus Musicians Giuseppe Chiari are presented by cellist Deborah Walker and pianist Luciano Chessa. This is all starting to seem better than I first thought it was.

Playful, even whimsical pieces are interleaved with occasional moments of stark rigidity, which thus regain some potency as a disruptive, reorientating experience. The overall looseness is a welcome contrast to the stuffiness which can befall preserved Fluxus. Part of this is due to the studied disregard for assigning everything to a strict period of history, as here early 60s works by Young, Chiari, Yasunao Tone and others are mixed in amongst new pieces by Philip Corner and Bengt af Klintberg, as well as pieces from in between such as Toniutti’s restless performance of Dick Higgins’ hyperactive Emmett William’s Ear from 1977. Toniutti and Miroslav Beinhauer each play a piano piece by Fluxus mainstay Mieko Shiomi, but these are charming later works from 1990 and 2009, respectively. Terry Riley is represented by the austere Ear Piece from 1962 and a new piece for broken piano, written in his more characteristically insouciant style. The broken piano appears elsewhere, as another instigation behind this whole collection.

There are items of sound poetry and extended vocal works which seem to fall outside of the Fluxus remit (Sten Hanson? Dieter Schnebel?), besides some but not all of the usual suspects. Pianist Nicolas Horvath has the funniest track, striking an F-sharp over B precisely once as his sole contribution to this volume. Several pieces are culled from Toniutti’s album of Philip Corner compositions, including a suitably jagged solo rendition of the recent Small Pieces of a Fluxus Reality. I’ll have more stuff about Corner in the new year – a whole lot more. While the musicians and editors try their best to qualify and expand upon the label, this collection really does work rather well if you ignore the selling point of the F-word and treat Fluxus more as they do, an element of obscure influence over a somewhat neglected body of music created over many years into the present.

Two on Redshift: Linda Catlin Smith and Paramorph Collective

Friday 22 December 2023

Haven’t been writing much lately because I keep listening. Each time I listen changes what I want to say. The Canadian Redshift Music Society has released a new set of chamber pieces and solos by Linda Catlin Smith, performed by the Thin Edge New Music Collective. I’ve discussed Smith’s music a number of times before, but Dark Flower is the first album not made by musicians in Apartment House on the Another Timbre imprint. There’s not much duplication of pieces here: a revised version of Wanderer comes across in darker hues in Thin Edge’s interpretation than the Apartment House version, and the pieces which are new to me also contain shadows in the playing and recording. This doesn’t obscure Smith’s music so much as throw it into a more dramatic relief, pushing the emotional implications a little further while adding emphasis to the interplay and alternation between the instruments’ voices. The tenderness in Smith’s writing comes to the forefront in pieces like the Duo for 2 Cellos from 2015, played with haunting beauty here by Amahl Arulanandam and Dobrochna Zubek; the romantic angle given to all the works here are tempered by the sombre edge in the Collective’s playing, as well as Smith’s language, which is too harmonically direct to allow for indulgences and restrained by the use of counterpoint and a preference for the Mosaic over the Long Line.

Another piece by Smith appears on the Redshift album All we’re made of is borrowed by Paramorph Collective. Thought and Desire is a work of recurring phrases for a pianist who is also required to sing near the end, played and sung here with disarming simplicity by Kim Farris-Manning. Unlike Thin Edge, this collective is a bare minimum of two, the other half being An-Laurence Higgins who adds voice and guitar to the keyboards. The album, for the most part, continues in a vein of gentle quirks, with two quiet pieces by Rodney Sharman overbalanced by a large chunk of time given over to Margot George’s Fruiting Bodies, a droney processional for bombastic electric guitar and majestically synthesised organ that lands somewhere between Harold Budd and Hans Zimmer. It’s hard to tell how seriously we should take its Hollywood grandisoity, elongated either to submlimation or absurdity. Same goes for the shorter interleaving works composed by Paramorph themselves, in which earnestness is marred by overripe theatrics but then played off in a coda as just the two of them being goofy.

Bait/Switch: Ian Power, Adam Zuckerman

Thursday 14 December 2023

Some music starts out as one thing and ends up another, some music appears to be about one thing when it’s really about something else. Then, there’s Ian Power’s Ave Maria: Variations on a Theme by Giacinto Scelsi (Carrier), a piece whose title belies the complex switches in perspective on its subject matter, beyond an act of homage or an essay in style. The piece, written in 2009, was recorded last year by pianist Anne Rainwater. Scelsi’s prayer is one of a set of three he composed in 1972, a typically austere work of repeated phrases initialy written for solo voice. Rainwater is indeed obliged to sing a rendition of Scelsi’s original piece at the start, while accompanying herself in unison on the keyboard. The idea of ritual as a task, and its associated demands, is already established here, with a secluded, unpolished recording that draws out the imperfections in her voice and her instrument, with the soft creak and thud of the piano’s hammers. The subsequent variations play on the obsessive side of Scelsi’s art, with the piano alone repeating the prayer in harmonisations that get thrown against an insistently reiterated high pitch, before condensing into loud clusters of sound echoed by forceful use of the pedal on the lower strings. The strangest variation is not marked as a variation at all, but as an Interlude that suddenly wrenches the composition into a different focus. The pianist is required to repeat the theme, but to press the keys silently. Background becomes foreground in a breathless negative space, substance made of incidental noise, with the added jeopardy of sounding a note by mistake: any such mistake must then be repeated thirty-six times. The interlude becomes a fraught hiatus in the music. Scelsi always demanded an inner calm for his music, presumably to heard it as well as play it, and this pairs with the experience that even his finest music can be a bit of a chore. In Power’s version, penitence and apprehension is shared by performer and audience. Even with frailties mercilessly exposed, Rainwater’s playing remains both strong and dutiful in equal measure.

It’s telling that after repeated listenings to Adam Zuckerman’s STARPERMEABLE (Nueni) I still flip back and forth between thinking he’s too precious and he’s too sincere. A composition for “at least three musicians and processed field recording playback”, it makes no effort towards momentum, direction or movement. Each of its eighteen short sections are made of delicate and languorous melodies slowly overlapping to produce clouds of sound that veil the internal movement of pitch, so that its changes require closer attention. Each of these moments is separated by silence, confounding attempts to find continuity or coherence. The musicians frequently hum together, adding both to their serenity and our distance from them. The field recordings are noticeable only by the absence of the musicians: there are three interludes of six minutes each, making nearly half the piece’s entire length, where the only sound is that of the open air at almost imperceptible volume. Contradictions abound: it’s both too natural and too contrived, both seeking to inspire interest by actively repelling it. It starts to resemble Scelsi in that way it needs a mind at peace to be receptive to it, but whether for contemplation as an idea or as a phenomenon remains a mystery. The musicians do play very prettily though, while it lasts.

Apartment House in pursuit of the obscure

Saturday 9 December 2023

Another Apartment House gig at Cafe Oto, bringing out stuff it’s hard to imagine getting heard anywhere else. Anton Lukoszevieze began with a cello solo before being joined by the rest of his ensemble. The solo was Heiligenschein by Erkki Veltheim, which was reminiscent of a potted, all-acoustic version of his Ganzfeld Experiment, a heavily-bowed block of thick overtones that buzzed and hovered. Not sure when it was composed, but it conveyed his recent interest in cognition and parapsychology. The Tenney piece was an equally concise piece, of course carrying his own interest in gestalt cognitive theory. Timbres #1 is an unpublished score from the late 1960s, a pointillistic vignette with clever permutations between each instrument, but everything on a single pitch throughout; a kind of extreme klangfarbenmelodie, reduced and compressed flat into one dimension for our ears to hear in three. Between these was a larger work by Pluto Bell, Saint-Girons for small ensemble with field recordings. I previously had no knowledge of this composer, but kind of liked the grey late-cubist approach to combining natural and musical sounds on first listen, with the latter fragmented and ephemeral as though torn and scattered through the indistinct landscape, working to alienate the sounds that might otherwise be more recognisable.

The second half of the concert was taken up by the premiere of Derek Baron’s The Game of Letters, a suite for ensemble in seven movements written for Apartment House. I’ve previously heard Baron’s Fourteen Latches of Heaven and Earth, a gratifyingly challenging collection on Takuroku, and so expected another aesthetic confrontation. Which I pretty much got, inasmuch as The Game of Letters confounded expectations by being confrontingly homogeneous. The musicians moved in almost unison back and forth over meandering modal-type melodic fragments without any pressing urgency. It had that blank, affectless quality admired by John Cage, heard elsewhere in pieces like Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning. Baron’s writing here seemed to locate the musicians somewhere between mediaeval folksong and classical antiquity, as the impassive material gave rise to inadvertent counterpoint when things were allowed to slip out of phase. I’m not sure if the piano only came in towards the end of the piece, or if I just hadn’t noticed it in all the monophony.

In the field: Ahti & Ahti, Marta Zapparoli, Michael Pisaro-Liu

Thursday 30 November 2023

Marja Ahti and Niko-Matti Ahti created this piece for radio in 2020. Nokivesi (it means ‘soot-water’) is a musique concrète montage of domestic and natural sounds, deftly treated with electronics and some synth work, threaded through with fragments of spoken dialogue. It tells a fragmented story of some sort, which is lost on me as I don’t speak Finnish. Even though deprived of a clear meaning, it’s effective in the way it conveyed an impression of rural isolation without me needing to look that up in the sleeve notes. Even though sober tales of the ruminative and bucolic kind aren’t really my thing, I – wait, is that an electric kettle boiling near the beginning? The same kind of sound I was admiring in Ryoko Akama & d’incise’s No register No declare? Maybe they heard Nokivesi on the radio and made an homage, or it’s a happy coincidence, but for the record the Ahtis got there first.

I’ve probably ranted enough about my hangups with field recordings (tl;dr you gotta be good) so it’s nice that Dissipatio has found a novel twist on the genre. Marta Zapparoli’s field recordings are of magnetic fields, specifially those produced by the Aurora Borealis. Her Interdimensional Generated Space is a half-hour composition made from these electromagnetic emanations, captured by her on a variety of devices, including a homebrew crystal radio. It’s evidently the result of a lengthy period of field research, notable for the variety found in the thin but densely detailed sounds collected here. Zapparoli has produced something just stable enough to present a coherent listening session, yet filled with disruptions and breaks that underline the mercurial nature of the phenomenon, reflecting that their aesthetic delights (visual and aural) can be captured but not controlled. Further details emerge on re-listening. Also, props for releasing a digital download in original one-track mono instead of a dump of the CD master.

This is close to miraculous. Michael Pisaro-Liu’s A room outdoors is a 2006 composition lightly scored for harmonium, any sustaining instrument and field recordings. In this piece, the field recordings bring the outdoors, indoors, to create a imagined space for the musicians to play. These two substantial realisations published by elsewhere feature Guy Vandromme and Adriaan Severins on keyboards and synthesizer, recorded in Brussels in April 2020 (lockdown time) and a version from Cremona this summer, played by Luciana Elizondo on viola da gamba with Vandromme on Indian harmonium; Fabio Gionfrida mixes the field recordings here. The playing is sublime, recalling the subdued simplicity of Ferrari’s Presque rien, but given deeper colouring and shade by Vandromme and Severins, neither musician intruding to comment but only augment the sound into an evocative pastoral without a narrative. The Cremona realisation, with Vandromme switching to a rougher instrument and Elizondo’s string playing, adds a sharper relief of acoustic sounds to the mix, with more to direct the listener’s attention without either musician being so crass as to demand it. Each is notably different in their intepretation while staying true to the piece, with the musicians both offering a richly satisfying evocation and contemplation of landscape, much in the same way that landscape itself presents form and subject as one.

Eva Zöllner: voces, señales

Sunday 26 November 2023

To use a British euphemism, making an album of solo accordion music by Colombian composers is “a bold decision”. It’s a shared fate of colonial nations that their culture will persistently be regarded as partly borrowed and derivative; as for the accordion, it’s an instrument that has had the case made for it by many talented musicians over several decades without ever fully shedding the popular impression that its full depths are yet to be proved. Eva Zöllner has previously shown that she is a virtuoso accordionist in ability and in the audacity of her repertoire, so her album voces, señales on Genuin succeeds in the aim of pushing back the boundaries of music a little further. The collection here reflects Zöllner’s close connections to the composers and affection for the country she first visited in 2015, with all the presented compositions produced with her consultation.

There seem to be no “Old Masters” present here, with all musicians involved apparently in their mid-40s. An overarching theme emerges of a culture in transition, still wrestling with questions of how to see (and hear) itself; as such, strengths and weaknesses abound. The use of accordion as a traditional instrument in Colombian music is tested, with none of the works resting on appeals to folklore or nature. When these aspects do appear, they are contextualised in pop-art style quotation and collage, most overtly in Carlos Andrés Rico’s Nacido en el Valle, el Río y la Montaña, an attention deficit mashup of accordion tunes and samples that feels a little too self-conscious. It’s one of the drawbacks of working in a place and time where your art needs to make a statement. The use of pre-recorded sounds appear in three of the six pieces, with the album opening with the brash audio diary of Ana María Romano G.’s posdomingo 02.10.2016. The disparate elements, threaded together by Zöllner’s accordion, scored to produce evocative timbres as much as musical accompaniment, present a compelling narrative, but the specifics are lost in translation. The subject matter is the failed peace agreement with the guerrilla movement FARC, an event of great importance to Colombia, but the significance does not transmit to those of us ignorant of Columbian history. It’s necessary for a country’s artists to speak to its own people, yet in the most urgent cases this art will always remain to some degree opaque to an outside audience. A similar fate befalls Jorge Gregorio García Moncada’s Un amor, puro e incondicional, another work of remembrance for an historic event which I can only begin to contemplate after reading the sleeve notes. This last piece also uses electronics and pre-recorded voices, merging with Zöllner to create a heavy atmosphere, unlike the other two collages.

It’s notable that the three pieces with electronics are the ones most dependent on explication, as though they must rely on support from additional media to contain all that they are trying to say. Throughout the album, with and without the samples, Zöllner demonstrates her strength in the volatile and changing character of her playing, making abrupt and startling switches in temperament between the sweet and the harsh, giving the lie to the perceived uniformity of the accordion’s sound. None of the pieces settle to be a mere showcase for her versatility, but they do display her virtuosity, most demonstrably in Carolina Noguera Palau’s Canto del ave negra, a dark piece that escalates into frenzied explorations of pitch and tone without breaking its overall moodiness. Daniel Leguizamón’s signo a cambio is a more substantial work that hews to dark ambience throughout, staying low and slow but keeping enough tension in its materials to prevent things getting dreary. Brother, by Natalia Valencia Zuluaga, presents a contrast with folk materials refracted through her own experience and memory into something uniquely personal, its surface simplicity partly rarefied and partly unkempt, making it strangely relatable.

Frey; Frey; Frey?

Sunday 19 November 2023

I’m back from vacation and so can’t justify travelling to Huddersfield this year, where a day is being given over to celebrate Jürg Frey’s 70th birthday. Having heard plenty of his music, I still wish I could be there for the day’s worth of concerts as I’m sure it would add further complications to my understanding of an artist whose body of work conceals ever greater complexities beneath its quiet surface. His music has evolved, but in a way that branches out into exploring the many aspects and implications of his overall style, rather than being lead by a single overriding tendency. As he once described in an interview, his interest lies in mixing together competing impulses and resisting any ideal of asethetic purity. From the austerity of his earlier and somewhat notorious works, he has developed his method to combine elements of the lyrical and the severe in a way that avoids muddled ambiguity, evoking both at once to different degrees. The String Trio recently issued by Another Timbre is an exemplar of his recent work: a single movement some 45 minutes in length, composed in 2017 and revised last year, it blends stasis and narrative in its slow but steady progress. The slowness and quietness reminds the listener of similar composers, yet it never, for example, retreats into the claustrophobia of Morton Feldman’s diminished harmonic language or resort to the directness of Howard Skempton’s melodic clarity. Traces of other voices may also come to mind, but the work is unmistakeably unique to Frey. The trio here is from Apartment House (Mira Benjamin, violin; Bridget Carey, viola; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello) who bring the journey-like structure to life, making full use of changes in dynamics (another Frey trait, even when restricted to the soft end of the spectrum) and giving character to each scene, particularly when the ensemble changes to focus on solos or duets.

Those references to other composers and names were made intentionally to draw attention to the way that Frey’s recent work has increasingly revealed him to be something of a chameleon. His 2021 suite for fortepiano Les signes passagers has just been recorded by Keiko Shichijo for elsewhere and its seven movements covertly blend the severe and the quirky in a most congenial manner, with near-subliminal hints of other composers flitting past faintly in the background. Frey was drawn to the instability of the fortepiano’s finely delineated timbre across registers and dynamics to make pieces that bring out those subtle variations in colour; the work was composed for Shichijo, who performs it lovingly. Composer and performer work in tandem to produce a suite of keyboard pieces where clarity of materials is tempered by that slight fuzziness around the edges of the instrument’s sound. The interpretive markings for each movement are evocative: “Avec sonorité, mais très doux,” “Lumineux et calme”, delighting in the small contrasts between block chords and pedal tones, or in the individual character of each note in slow, unaccompanied melodies. Again, the atmosphere hovers between the early British school of minimalism and the Rosicrucian Satie, only with neither the naivety nor the piety. In the last two sections, Frey shows how he has learned to give warmth to his earlier austere style, in the lengthy “Tendre et monotone” and the near inaudible “Discrète et loin”.

The uncooperatively-titled Circular Music (Ext​.​n​°​1/-​n​°​2/-​Ext​.​n​°​2) released by Insub is credited to Frey, which is at least a generous acknowledgement of his influence on the musicians involved here. Insub mainstay d’incise is joined by an ensemble of seven musicians to play “adaptations” of three of his compositions: Circular Music No. 2 and Extended Circular Musics Nos. 1 and 2. No sleeve notes here so we’re in the dark as to whether these three tracks are a tribute or a reimagining, but the expansion of Frey’s three pretty brief compositions for solo piano or small ensemble into works involving voices, accordion and theremin, amongst other instruments, makes for an exasperating listening experience. Whatever the conceptual merits may have been, the homogeneity of tone and approach across all three pieces ends up making each one sound kind of the same; more critically, they don’t sound like Frey. If you’re familiar with this stuff, a blind listening would have you guessing half a dozen other composers, all of whom would most likely already have something released on Insub. If you’re not familiar with this stuff, you’d come away thinking Frey’s music was a bit undistinctive and really lugubrious, particularly after the thirty-plus minutes of Circular Music No. 2, a piece which doesn’t normally need half that time. Following that with a fifteen-minute ensemble take on the piano miniature Extended Circular Music No. 2 just makes the entire exercise feel bloated and obnoxious, with listening through the entire album becoming a tedious chore.

Some Old Favourites: Pateras, Olsen, Granberg, Eventless Plot

Wednesday 18 October 2023

There are a few composers and musicians I’ve always enjoyed and reviewed a number of times here before, so I tried to pause for a bit before writing about them yet again. Two of the recent-ish releases by Eventless Plot show how their group compositions have developed into a widely varied set of works. Birds’ singing reminds of freedom dates back to the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and takes a different tack from their usual complex but delicate textures of acoustic and electronic sounds, commemorating the event with collages of the sounds of flocks of birds that dominate much of the work. Too pervasive to be a backdrop, birdsong marks how the times of a few years ago were marked by human withdrawal from the urban world and hopes for a quick return to liberty. The trio (Vasilis Liolios, Aris Giatas, Yiannis Tsirikoglou) play mostly with small ringing percussion, augmented by the warm electronics of modular synth and tape manipulations. Towards the end, the birds start to recede, suggesting both a passing and a loss, notable by their absence left largely unfilled. Distance Between Us was composed over 2021-22 and reunites the group with clarinettist Chris Cundy on bass instrument, adding Margarita Kapagiannidou on a second clarinet. As a contrast to their usual work, this piece makes more use of silence throughout, with a sparser texture anchored by the two clarinets using their rich textures to spare but indelible effect. It’s a slower, contemplative piece that opens up space for reflection more than a surface to dwell upon.

Magnus Granberg has continued to refine his method of composing for ensemble, working with sympathetic groups of musicians to create music that is gentle but not necessarily soothing. His writing gives room for flexibility in the finer details while directing and shaping the overall course of the piece, building thoughtful expanses of complex but subtle counterpoint. Evening Star, Vesper Bell is a near-hourlong piece recorded late last year with Apartment House, Granberg’s signature prepared piano supported by clarinet, string trio and percussion (no electronics this time). This may be his most restrained, even subdued, work that I’ve heard, with slower and more isolated contributions between the six musicians leaving the textures more open than usual, eschewing anything too discordant or spiky. It’s a ruminative piece but it doesn’t ramble, with Granberg exercising his typical command over how the group’s forces channel the leeway given to them, while Apartment House embody his desired balance between spontaneity and self-control.

Lance Austin Olsen, who I believe recently turned eighty, has been steadily turning out his evocative musical collages. These occupy a conceptual space somewhere between improvised bricolage and open-form composition, with the way in which they permit found materials imparting alternative interpretations to their structural logic. The sonic space they occupy is somewhere in the back of your mind, with seemingly unrelated events merging into a hazy, dreamlike continuity. Lakeside Blues – Nachtmusik is another of his collaborations with Gil Sansón, a long-distance of exchange of ideas that overlap and jostle each other to create an aural image akin to the seamier aspects of pop art. 2021’s Sure Is A Good Hamburger is a little different, with Oslen confining himself to playing on (or in) a guitar and amplified objects against a backdrop of casual conversations that drift in and out of focus.

The analogues with Olsen’s paintings (used on some of the cover art) are discernible without being explicit. Most of these pieces are relatively large, with ruminative pacing, dynamic contrasts are never stark except on the occasions when a work fades into silence, effectively dividing a work into multiple panels. From the same year, Fukushima Rising displays the essence of his recent music, the graphic artwork acting as a score for musical interpretation, made here with a typically evocative mixture of found sounds and objects, musical improvisations on simple instruments, amplified sounds with unspecified origins. The eerie atmosphere does not make any directly observable reference to the events which inspired the piece, and is all the stronger for building up complex responses without trying to offer any explanation, either rational or emotional. The Pit, released earlier this year, presents two pieces with each pursuing the implications of Fukushima Rising in different ways. The title work reduces the sonic palette to sparse, more isolated sounds, with silence permeating the whole work like a black background that seeps through. It’s followed by a short work titled Quasimodo’s Dream, a denser piece a little over ten minutes long that presents an examplar of Olsen’s montage techniques and materials in a concise form.

I’m really glad that Anthony PaterasA Dread Of Voids has finally made it out to the public, having been fortunate enough to hear a private recording a couple of years ago. It’s a ravishing piece, grave and wistful all at once, mixing low instruments with soprano and an exquisite use of silence and stillness that lets you dwell on its small details, even as the writing itself is shorn of all excessive ornamentation. I was getting over “lockdown” pieces but this one reminded me of the sub-genre at its finest, drawing inspiration from its circumstances without seeking to use them as a justification. In the accompanying interview, Pateras mentions his interest in Morton Feldman’s use of rhythm and repetition, but feels “I’m much more receptive to my own instincts now.” That individual voice can be heard here, echoing Feldman inasmuch as it tries not to push the sounds around too much and let the music breathe, but in his own distinctive way, more open and forthright while still being pensive. The crack ensemble of performers/composers includes Rebecca Lane (bass flute), Sam Dunscombe (bass clarinet) and Jon Heilbron (double bass) with soprano Jess Aszodi, creating a sound both full and soft from such redued instrumentation. The accompanying work Patterned Language blends violins, double bass and guitar with Pateras on piano, celeste and some faint sine tones. It’s a complimentary composition from a year later, making greater use of unisons and overtones to colour the air and slow down time.

Léo Dupleix, Les Certitudes; Piotr Kurek, Smartwoods

Friday 13 October 2023

Just before, I was talking about distinctions between the process and the piece when musicians get together. “The ensemble Les Certitudes was created in 2021 as a means for developing acoustic music focusing on justly tuned tones and harmonies, taking as a starting point the physicality of the instruments –resonating wood and metal– in a long musical form.” They’re a trio: on this occasion, consisting of Léo Dupleix on harpsichord, Juliette Adam on clarinet and Félicie Bazelaire on cello. The long musical form is a composition by Dupleix, titled Construire sur les ruines d’un passé encore fumant, made up from five movements together lasting nearly an hour. The emphasis on just intonation is almost too demonstrative, proceeding in a slow, deliberate way to let the beautifully constructed harmonies linger. The beginning and ending sections are dronelike without actually being motionless, the opening letting real and implied overtones rise over immobile cello, the closing determinedly cycling through a small set of chords on keyboard while clarinet and cello tentatively seek out more esoteric harmonics. The central movement omits keyboard, giving space for the more directly human instruments to find an intonation that flexes and breathes a little as they slowly circle around each other. The trio’s playing throughout is controlled; unhurried but insistent (it should be noted here that it was recorded in sections over a couple of venues and dates). The trio refuse to succumb to an easy, soft ambience and let their instruments speak full and clear; it’s an admirable commitment to keep the music in focus but I did begin to find it wearying by the end. That might be down to the musicians getting caught up in the process.

Piotr Kurek’s album Smartwoods is definitely a finished object, the end product of process and assembly, incorporating performance. A set of seven instrumental tracks which seem pleasant enough if you don’t listen too close, but then it’s hard not to listen close because the quiet strangeness that permeates each little piece draws you in. Everything’s a little bit off, never quite right. That queasy uncanny valley effect hits you straight off as you think you’re hearing a slightly old-fashioned potted MIDI orchestra plinking and tooting away, but then it’s too organic for that, nothing seems to be running by clockwork. It’s not a reasuring thought as it raises the possibility that things could run off track and turn ugly at any moment. It never does, even while it keeps implying all is not well – at least not on our terms. The small ensemble on harp, winds and bass play very neatly throughout, with the finesse of deadpan comedians pretending to be automata, never quite bumping into each other. Kurek plays keyboards, guitar and (oh jeez) MIDI wind controller, both to insert digital impostors and transform the live instruments into hi-sheen simulacra of themselves. It doesn’t stay around long enough to impose its oddness on you, which makes the oddness the subject as you wonder afterwards what it all means, with each piece a small, unsolveable puzzle.

Michiko Ogawa & Lucy Railton: fragments of reincarnation

Sunday 8 October 2023

There’s a difference between the process and the piece. Even when the two are conflated in practice, a conceptual distinction is made by the artist to allow both to coexist on their relative merits. Sometimes, however, the former is mistakenly assumed to be the same as the latter: this happens too often when musicians improvise together and err on the side of leniency when judging whether the outcomes should be published, to say that “good enough” is the same as “good”. This solipsism is a cultural marker of the anxiety over music’s status vis-à-vis art. The collaboration between Michiko Ogawa and Lucy Railton on their album fragments of reincarnation exemplifies the two composer/performers’ advanced understanding of these ideas and aversion to self-indulgence. It’s a single piece, 45 minutes long, based on a first-take improvisation with Ogawa on shō and Railton on cello. There’s a solid structure underlying their performance, taking the shō’s tuning as the foundation to build a piece out of pitches from a chord cycle used in traditional Gagaku. All perfectly pleasant so far, but what lifts it into something much stronger is that Ogawa then went and dubbed in a part for Hammond organ. The organ blends with the two other instruments in an insidious way, its mellow tone complementing the thin reeds of the shō and the variability of the cello, yet weaving in and out of the duet as never quite foreground, nor background. (Being old and a bit wonky, the organ has a fallibility in tone to match the human element in the acoustic instruments.) Each voice reinforces the others while always maintaining its own distinct character, with the relationship between them made more complex by the small incompatabilities in pitch, the shō’s Pythagorean tuning at odds with the organ’s modern equal temperament. The cello, of course, has greater flexibility even as it leans towards the shō’s intonation, but even there Ogawa and Railton observed moments of overlap and incongruence and worked it into the cyclic structure of the piece; the organ’s role thus phases between thickening and resolving these differences. It all lands on the ear simply enough, but as it does so it opens up new spaces for listening into moments that cannot be easily explained. That’s the difference between working on your craft and working up a piece to show for it.

Just There: Aaron Einbond, Luis Fernando Amaya

Sunday 1 October 2023

Presque rien could be the watchword for Aaron Einbond’s compositional method. Each of the four pieces on his All That Dust album Cosmologies lurk in the background almost imperceptibly, to the point you just about forget they’re there, catching you unaware when they remind you of their presence. Never exactly silent, each piece maintains constant activity that may or may not produce sound. Beginning the album with Xylography, cellist Séverine Ballon is kept occupied with various techniques that appear to take place around her instrument as much as upon it, with stray, accidental sounds slowly coalescing into a frail, fragmented substance. The role of electronics in this piece is kept obscure, using close amplification to make each miniscule movement just about audible. Ballon’s intense concentration is matched by her accompanying ensemble in Graphology, where solo cello is joined by bass flute and clarinet, violin and percussion to produce a piece with no immediate difference in texture from the solo work. Aaron Holloway-Nahum leads the Riot Ensemble in an essay of supreme restraint, producing the smallest possible swatches of attenuated sounds in their most muted colours to build up a piece that exists without ever quite substantiating into a definable form. In retrospect, the most curious part is the way the musicians hold everything in poise without discenible momentum, yet never lapsing into torpor. The techniques here resemble Lachenmann in extremis, but the usual strained effect heard in music of this type is largely absent. That point becomes clearer in the following two pieces, Cosmologies and Cosmologies III. The latter piece is a Ferrari-like soundscape of collaged field recordings, occasionally punctuated without warning by string piano; the former takes the same recorded material and overlays live amplified piano by Alvise Sinivia. Again, the instrument is used less as a trope for foreground material layered over the tape, but mostly as a way of complicating the timbres, recasting naturally observable sounds into something indefinable. It all offers a disturbing perspective on the last of listening. Incidentally, the CD version of the album merges each of the paired works into compound compositions.

Luis Fernando Amaya has some related musical concerns to Einbond, inasmuch as he is seeking out new ways of creating new sonic materials for his art. The emphasis here is more on that process of finding those sounds and the contexts in which to apply them, placing the material more conspicuously on display. His album Cortahojas (released on Protomaterial) contains six compositions which apply a variety of means – extended techniques, additional devices, electronic processing – to ends that test the limits of what is considered acceptable in polite chamber music discourse. The title work, a duet for prepared violin and bassoon, is perhaps the most conventional work here, which should tip you off to how unusual some of the other pieces get. William Overcash makes his muted strings pair with Ben Roidl-Ward’s multiphonics to fit together a piece made out of fractured harmonics in lieu of pitch material. Pianist Jonathan Hannau uses e-bows to add ominous harmonic auras to the delicately spiky Pregunta no.2: Cóndor. Rubén Bañuelos and Mikołaj Rytowski perform the percussion duet guerrilla de dientes entre los árboles, in which Amaya accretes splayed clusters of pitched and half-pitched sounds into a tense standoff between the two musicians. Enjoyable percussion pieces for multiple performers are more rare than you’d think, so this is a wise choice to lead off a long album. Into the stranger terrain, comentarios inaudibles for solo cello features Isidora Nojkovic, augmented by electronics that add a blurred shadow to her playing, at once following and commenting while also threatening to merge into a composite whole. At the most extreme, Bestiario: cuatro takes a solo violinist (Theo Espy) and attaches speakers to him to confuse the localisation of sound, then agressively filters and gates the playing to produce distempered noise that reduces the playing of the violin to pure gesture, with pitch and decay crushed to the minimum. The shadowy aspects of Amaya’s reappear in the suite que del mar saliste for guitar and electronics. For this piece, Amaya feeds Ruben Mattia Santorsa’s acoustic guitar through transducers to produce a remote, watery sound. Santorsa’s gentle, reflective playing is alternately drowned in sustained overtones, worn smooth by rolling off the attacks, or has its frequency range smothered to create different perspectives of a still, submmerged world.

Strings (2), mostly bowed

Sunday 24 September 2023

As well as the two Sarah Saviet albums, I’ve been listening to several more albums of solo violin music. Well, not exactly violin: Sarah-Jane Summers’ Echo Stane is performed entirely on Hardanger fiddle. It’s an unusually folksy release for Another Timbre, abounding with modal melodics. Summers’ techniques never stray towards the outer limits of improvisation, yet she finely distinguishes each of the nine pieces here with attention to the characteristic attributes of her instrument. The fiddle’s sympethetic strings are used to give a steely sheen to some pieces, while in others the focus is on softly bowed melody with added resonance and reverberation. Double-stop fiddling is frequent but never lapses into full-on hoedown, with Summers using the buzz of the strings as colouration to some refined harmonic work, most notably in the opening track when playing melismas over a drone. The short, central piece is made up mostly of harmonics, pushing the fiddle’s sympathetic overtones to the forefront. The only letdown here is my ignorance of folk music and thus how well it adheres to or violates the bounds of the genre has me describing it all like an alien visiting Earth.

The title and cover art of Inger Hannisdal’s solo album Free Folk suggests this will be the same only more so. Nope, it’s a bait and switch. The first of the eight short tracks presents some rustic fiddle riffs, suddenly getting all handsy and half-plucked for a little bit in the middle but otherwise nothing suspicious. From there on, however, the odd rough edges heard on the first track predominate, with Hannisdal getting into the guts of the instrument, so to speak, using preparations on the violin strings to produce wheezy harmonics, gong-like pedal tones, detuning and distortion. However remote it may be, the vocabulary of folk music is always present in some faint form, keeping the strange sounds and disjunctive noises in service of succinct musical compositions, instead of just playing with acoustic effects. The ‘double-tone’ effect of prepared strings is particularly effective here, with each thin, high sound shadowed by a softer but more resonant subharmonic.

Violinist Christopher Whitley has compiled six pieces by various composers in an LP-length collection titled Describe Yourself. It’s the title of Leslie Ting’s piece on the album, not so much a reflection of the album forming a composite portrait of the artist. If the latter sense was intended, then the album is unsuccessful, for unfortunately as a collection it doesn’t add up to much. Whitley has an adventurous taste in finding new music, with most of the works here composed last year and each taking a very different approach to the solo instrument, but the resulting package is a compendium of ideas in want of a statement. Nicole Lizée’s Don’t Throw Your Head in Your Hands pits Whitley against a collage of karaoke tapes, but like much of her work it makes all the right and modern cultural and technological connections while producing something neutered and inconsequential. Ting’s titular Describe Yourself is the now-dreaded “lockdown” piece with Zoom videoconferencing, with Whitley and Ting exchanging commonplace anxieties of today’s culturally invested, music as afterthought. Kara-Lis Coverdale’s three Patterns in High Places is yet another sad case of a confident electronic artist suddenly at pains to make their acoustic music as undemanding as possible. The “old” piece is Jeffrey Ryan’s Bellatrix from 2001, which starts off the whole set simply because Whitley gets a kick out of playing it and why not: it’s flashy but compact and it’s hard not to like a piece in which the composer demands the soloist begin with a Miss Piggy “Hii-YAH!” Of the stronger new pieces, Fjóla Evans’ In Bruniquel Cave uses multi-tracked violin to spin out a translucent veil of frail pitches, while Evan J. Cartwright uses digital manipulations in his Six Tableaux for Violin to create electroacoustic objects out of Whitley’s playing, each morsel clear-edged and multi-faceted while the susbtance remains a mystery.