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

Wednesday 19 May 2021

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

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

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

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

Alex Paxton: Music for Bosch People

Saturday 15 May 2021

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

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

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

Voiceless voices: Jason Kahn & Antoine Läng, Biliana Voutchkova

Thursday 13 May 2021

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

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

Reinier Van Houdt: Mouths Without A Head

Sunday 9 May 2021

The theme here is prophecy, which may be why so much of the album seems presently unknowable. I’ve been aware of Reinier Van Houdt only as a pianist, interpreting the likes of Michael Pisaro, so hearing him as a composer-performer delivers the unexpected. The first instrument heard is acoustic guitar and piano is added in small doses as the album progresses. Electronic sounds and treatments pervade the music. Van Houdt plays everything himself, in recordings made just earlier this year.

Mouths Without A Head is a collection of fifteen vignettes that work together best when heard as a suite. The download I received mistakenly sequenced the tracks in alphabetical order and so I first heard the album as a collection of potent fragments. In correct order, these fragments coalesce into a quiet but disturbing progression of elements finding stability before dissolving. The point of origin is Orlando di Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum, a set of 16th century motets with 20th century chromaticism. In its most straightforward moments, Van Houdt plays a type of antiphonal chorale of single notes, on guitar or piano or in tandem, call and response. The music is calm but never settles into a fixed tonality. Deep ambient washes rumble below the surface or rise to overwhelm the instruments, electronic static crackles into life just when things seem all sedate.

Van Houdt’s notes talk about the role of the voice in this work, even as it is never heard plain. Stutter therapy tapes of extended vowels are in the mix, all but indistinguishable from wind recordings and synth pads. As prophecy, it is necessarily inarticulate, hinting at ideas that are left to the listener’s conjecture. Digital delay and reverb give one passage an almost New Age sound, while another is a comfy, nostalgic wash of synthesisers reminiscent of 1970s library music. These are little more than illusions, repeatedly dispelled, most emphatically by the “Presocratic Grid”, a long excercise in scratchy electronic noise that overlays its rhythms until verging upon voiced speech. Van Houdt manages these stark contrasts by making each change multiply and confound what has gone before. The most expressive piano playing is deferred almost to the end, followed by the bleakest and most blank of codas. Is this an act of nullification, or clearing a space for the listener’s questions? It’s an album set to grow in your mind with each successive listening.

Thomas Ankersmit’s Perceptual Geography, Phil Julian’s Carrier Dynamics

Monday 3 May 2021

You don’t have to be smart or knowledgeable to enjoy stuff. I just got hold of Thomas Ankersmit’s new release Perceptual Geography and spent the weekend getting off to it, so much that I forgot to read the sleeve notes or remember what I liked about his last album, Homage to Dick Raaijmakers. Perceptual Geography is a piece Ankersmit has worked on over the past few years, built up from sounds made on the Serge Modular synthesizer; it sounds gorgeous. The wide range of sounds, from piercing bleeps to deep, organic rumbling, is a testament to Serge Tcherepnin’s instrument building and Ankersmit’s musical chops. Finely distinguished colourations in noise evoke natural forms, but the type of nature at work here is unformed and primal, testing its bounds for a structure that would contain it. It’s this protean quality, suggesting limitless possibilities in both material and composition, that seems to distinguish electronic music I love from the majority of pieces I find to be dull, safe and antiseptic.

In the latter half of the piece the phased beeps and pulses emerge from the fabric and I started congratulating myself for picking up on the hommage to Maryanne Amacher, until I remembered that I hadn’t read the sleeve notes yet and of course it was Amacher who introduced Ankersmit to the Serge synthesizer and he’s worked with both Amacher and Tcherepnin. The album comes with a substantial interview transcript between Ankersmit and Tcherepnin, which provides a lot of historical background. While apparently more ‘pure’ in its construction than Homage to Dick Raaijmakers, Perceptual Geography is no less complex in its sounds. It had been a while since I last listened to the earlier work and the psychoacoustic effects had slipped from my memory; this new piece makes itself less “about” those phenomena by inserting them as one more complicating factor in making music an immersive, all-engaging experience.

While I’m praising examples of this genre, I should mention Phil Julian’s Carrier Dynamics. Made at Ina-GRM Paris in 2019 and released last year, it’s a suite of eleven ‘intervals’ exploiting what appears to be a restricted set of tools based around pulse generation for maximum effect. Emphasising shape and texture over colour, each track could be misheard as a particularly forbidding moment from Stockhausen’s Kontakte, but Julian’s means of organising the material are very different. The lack of sleeve notes means I’m guessing all of this, but each section tends towards stasis or, occasionally, chaos, with slips and glitches in the surface suggesting an algorithm at work, if not an element of randomness. The short opening sections develop more complex textures before suddenly reverting to longer stretches with little discernible movement. Within a relatively tight timeframe the music alternates between favouring sound sculpture, patterning, and transformation, deftly avoiding a consistent overall form. If there’s a detectable plan at work here, then you’ll be kept listening right to the end in the hope of finding it. It’s all bracingly inscrutable.

One-track minds: Michael Winter and Catherine Lamb

Monday 26 April 2021

single track is a really arresting piece that appealed to me immediately,” begins the Another Timbre proprietor’s blurb. Same, dude; same. “A seven-part canon which starts fast and gradually slows down over its 45-minute duration:” that’s exactly what it is, no more, no less. Having recently praised the creative use of algorithms in composition, I need to salute Michael Winter’s work here. The linked interview is an instructive example of the challenges in working with such an approach, which would otherwise seem to be nothing more than following a predetermined path. The idea is simple, strong and immediately grasped both when read and when heard, yet the means of make the idea aurally manifest seemed to test the bounds of possibility. It’s an unheard element that often fuels the tension and interest in music like this, where the clarity of conception is at odds with the difficulty of its execution.

Winter sets the ensemble of seven musicians – all biased towards the lower registers – an exhaustive series of permutations of six notes, sequenced in canon. The perky repetitions of harmonically consistent material recall the high summer of minimal compositions and process music, but the freshness of the piece gives it something new to contribute instead of sounding retro. This would seem to originate in the use of mathematical procedures to introduce quirks that would otherwise have been at the mercy of subjective caprice. First listening, I had forgotten that as each new instrument enters the others slow down and wondered if some electronic sustain effect was in use, introducing a halo of prolonged tones over the regular chatter, until that halo steadily engulfed the ensemble as the musicians are transformed from activity to stillness. The musicians are from a Mexican ensemble named Liminar and I understand why Winter speaks so highly of them. Each plays this unbroken span of constantly counter-intuitive moves in coordination with each other in a way that never obscures the conceptual clarity for the listener, yet do so with a solidity that never makes the simple material seem facile.

My previous exposure to Winter’s music is limited to a piece on the West Coast Soundings album with other students of James Tenney, including Catherine Lamb. I’ve discussed Lamb’s music more often, here and elsewhere, but maybe not as much as it deserves. For the past few years, much of the work I’ve heard has made use of spectral synthesis, harmonically enhancing ambient sound in accord with the instruments. Her latest release on Another Timbre, Muto Infinitas, is a long work for two musicians without electronic alterations. It’s strange to hear Lamb’s music again without that resonant aura, here made all the more stark by the severely constricted range of pitches for most of the piece’s length. For a long time, the duet of Rebecca Lane on bass flute and Jon Heilbron on double bass scarcely moves beyond the least noticeable differences in pitch. Both play in just intonation tuning, requiring the use of microtones (Lane uses a Kingma flute capable of quartertones beyond the usual alternative forms of fingering). The most noticeable changes come in overtones and beating frequencies that emerge from the playing, as the microtones and timbral profiles of each instrument interact – sounding like an Alvin Lucier piece.

In the latter stages the pitch range opens up a little and, by the end, a little melody breaks out. Apparently Lamb has been interested in the “long introduction” as a music form for a while, but the piece’s structure also strongly recalls Tenney’s Critical Band. Muto Infinitas has been in one form of development or another for about five years, honed in its composition and its performance practice. It was written for Lane and Heilbron, both experienced practitioners of this musical style, performing and composing. It’s a piece they’ve made their own as much as Lamb’s and this recording may capture just one phase of a continuing evolution. For the listener, this version runs the risk of being too focused on the performers’ experience at the expense of our own. For some people it may fascinate, but I found the prolonged delay in introducing tangible activity, followed by increasingly (relatively) hurried movement made the ending perfunctory and sounding like a destination, displacing the presumed emphasis on the journey. In other words, I wish it were shorter, or paced in some way that didn’t make me feel like it was delaying gratification.

Takuroku Springtime Speedrun

Thursday 22 April 2021

One year into global pandemic conditions and we’re all getting a bit jaded as lives settle into a routine of reduced dimensions. Cafe Oto’s Takuroku series has become a musical documentation of this prolonged, wearisome event and themes have become apparent. In particular, there is the presence of lockdown conditions as an obstacle to be either confounded (collaborations, typically conducted remotely or by stealth) or accepted (ruminative solos). Sorting through the recent batches on my playlist, I can find in the former category:

Duncan Chapman, Supriya Nagarajan & Rhodri Davies – Slowly Drifting. Carnatic singing with drones will usually end up either taut and compelling, or in a box next to the checkout at the organic shop. There’s plenty of slack between the vocal phrases here, rescued in the mix by Davies’ bowed harp, which hooks into all that free space and gives it a breath and a sense of direction.

Rebecca Wilcox & Hannah Ellul – sweeping, at least. Collaborative free improv as mumblecore. The meaning is obfuscated and any overtly musical content is all but incidental, although they do dress it up a little for our benefit. It gets said that collaboration is a form of conversation, so here we get the act of exchange as the subject itself. As in true conversation, the content doesn’t matter, or is at least none of our business.

Maria Chavez & Jordi Wheeler – The Kitchen Sessions: 1-5, 2020. Prepared instruments and electronic whatnot jostle with each other in a set of miniatures with a restlessness that makes even the longer tracks feel small. Feels like loosening up for something more, preferably outisde a venue that needs an artist credit.

Blanca Regina & Wade Matthews – Shortcuts. I used to get these duos confused with the Chavez & Wheeler set, but these four pieces stay still enough to give you some expectations to subvert, plus a hidden purpose: coming back to them, moments of preciousness in the sound come across like mock field recordings, a documentarian’s precision in capturing a phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

And in the latter:

Bridget Hayden – Transmissions. Descended electric guitar curls up in slow, sulking coils of fuzz, all but smothering the wisps of atmospheric effects that provoke and sustain the stasis. Bleak but alive.

Tina Jander – Ice Cubes. An hour of cello with field recordings that swiftly lures and traps you into something prolonged, nasal and sour, refusing to let you go. Bleak but bracing, striking in an unpleasant way that will compel you either to return to it or to remember to stay away.

Xisco Rojo – Axial Tilt. 12-string guitar played with physical and electrical bows that buzzes as much as the Hayden and sneers as much as the Jander but less bleak, even as the only backdrop for the instrument is clear silence. The sharp contrasts between the friction and the pure tones merge and then separate out as a structural device.

I’m trying to be pithy with these thumbnail impressions but it keeps sounding snarky in my head, so forgive me for continuing to note down some more at the risk of coming across as glib.

Goodiepal – The Pole Imposter & The Databar. The second of his Takuroku audio memoirs documenting the arcana of fin de siècle underground Euroculture, nostalgia qualified by questions of authenticity. As far as I can tell, the fakery here is genuine and honestly presented, except I think he just made me unwittingly listen to a… podcast?

United Bible Studies – The Night Fell Off Its Axis. The goup gets described as a “magickal conglomerate” but thankfully not as a collective. This one, big-ass track further condemns and redeems by opening itself to accusations of being art through sheer refusal to stop, pushing for further consequences to their musical actions that may not be forseen. It’s rare to find magick that questions its certitude.

Josephine Foster – Spellbinder / Experiment. The second track is revisionist weird for the sake of it, rather like that early 80s new wave form of po-faced hedonism. The hedonism throws the first track into context, a tapestry of woozy instruments making something eclectically and eccentrically sumptuous that rebuffs the usual British need for justification, shamanism, ley lines etc.

Pete Um – A British Passport. Speaking of new wave, these songs (don’t be shy) have that same fuzzy, sheltered sound which is dry and dull unless you’re on that same wavelength and then it connects hard. I don’t hear it myself, but on this album I can hear how it might work better than I can when listening to more celebrated post-punk cult figures. This is due to the artist’s insight, as are the synth patches which manage to sound both fresh and comfortable all at once.

Josten Myburgh: Sculthorpe Studies

Saturday 17 April 2021

One of the most exquisite items of late 20th Century kitsch is Bird Symphony, an album by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation featuring various Australian orchestras playing popular classics by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel with overdubbed recordings of native birdsong. Heavily advertised on Australian TV in the 1990s, it appealed to a more mature audience, of which many of the older members would recall a childhood in which they were taught that their country possessed no notable indigeneous birdlife at all, save the laughing jackass. The pairing of local nature with foreign culture was once considered a small victory in that it acknowledged the local having any aesthetic value at all, but by the age of the CD the more sophisticated Australian recognised it as a beacon of the Cultural Cringe for which we supposed ourselves famous.

It would take a crassness of Boulezian proportions to say that Peter Sculthorpe represented this form of kitsch raised to its most refined pinnacle; particularly as it isn’t even true. Nevertheless, the temptation persists: Sculthorpe’s employment of regional, non-Western sounds and culture in a European impressionist idiom earned him, for his sins, the sobriquet of “Father of Australian Music” and a standing invitation for each successive generation of composers to knock him down. (I note that the ABC has recently reissued their Sculthorpe recordings, with the original ‘modernist’ cover art replaced by postcard photos of landscapes.) For the cultural Insiders, the persistence of Sculthorpe is a complex debate that runs beneath the surface of a lot of Australian musical activity. Josten Myburgh’s Sculthorpe Studies is an unusual work in that it confronts the argument head-on and the fact that listening to it makes me want to discuss Sculthorpe more than the Myburgh is a testament both to the piece’s strength and weakness.

An ensemble (flute, saxophone, electric guitar, bass, piano, percussion) plays mid-20th Century harmonies extracted from Sculthorpe’s compositions over field recordings featuring birds from various parts of southern Australia. The instruments play ‘Sculthorpe’ as isolated, sustained tones, evoking an extended, non-directional flatness that might almost parody the impressionist cliché of Australianness. Myburgh, however, has studied with key Wandelweiser figures Antoine Beuger and Michael Pisaro, so that kind of sparse, undeveloped sound can also be taken in earnest, with international approval. Myburgh intends this piece as critique – some of his statements show symptoms of the competitive false humility typically used as cultural capital in Australia – but smartly avoids didacticism by allowing paradoxical complexities such as these to proliferate.

Sculthorpe Studies succeeds in being neither affectionate nor rebellious; as an act of “playful provocation” it achieves an ambivalence that perfectly suits the national character. As commentary, we can listen to it as a caricature, a kind of reductio ad absurdum, and remember that sarcastic mimicry is a cornerstone of Australian satire. If it is, then it gets murky when identifying who the target is. The piece itself becomes an example of the music it critiques. Or we can try to listen without thinking too hard. The birds sing prettily, the musicians add what turns out to be a surprising amount of colour and phrasing, but nothing much seems to be going on. I’ve always found Wandelweiser style at its worst when it’s noncommittal about whether it’s worth listening to it or not. Are the birds there to fill in silence between the notes? Are the notes there to justify the presence of the birds? Myburgh simply sits the two side by side, knowing that neither is truly representative nor truly natural. If nothing truly belongs anywhere anymore, then what was the problem again?

P.S. False Self plays music for six pianos

Sunday 11 April 2021

Speaking of disorienting piano, got wrong-footed by this recent Takuroku release by Rudi Arapahoe. Never heard of this guy before but he’s my kind of composer, drawing on algorithmic art and the Scratch Orchestra to create music that pulls away from being subjective expression. In False Self plays music for six pianos said computer-controlled keyboards cycle through cells of ‘jazzy’ riffs and silence: a simple process, but used here in a way that resists comprehension even as it tempts analysis. At first you wonder where the six pianos are, until there are too many coincidences to convince you there’s more going on than a single person playing. Long, limpid passages suddenly burst into cascading flourishes as though Harold Budd (RIP) just walked in. The four pieces here have the same torpid spontaneity of Morton Feldman’s Five Pianos, as mystifying and inscrutable as the flakes of white slowly swirling around a tropical scene set inside a snowglobe.

Personal notes: James Rushford’s Música Callada and See the Welter

Tuesday 6 April 2021

I want to thank James Rushford for putting me on to Mompou in the first place, during a conversation some years back. He said he’d been playing Música Callada a lot and wanted to do it justice, in response to the qualities he kept discovering beneath its unassuming surface. Since that evening I’ve been seeking out recordings of Mompou and learning to appreciate his distinctive qualities even in the most conventional, traditionally folkloristic compositions that usually fall outside my narrow sphere of attention. I’d figured I probably had enough by now but late last year Unseen Worlds released a fine double album of two interpretations by Rushford of Música Callada, as a pianist and as a composer.

The four books of twenty-eight short pieces are late Mompou at his most distilled, but not abstract. The comparison to Satie gets thrown around a lot and besides the obvious impressions of modest dimensions and transparent textures there is also a shared dedication to revealing character and discounting personality, in the same way that a mediaeval altarpiece or folk tune is both personal and anonymous. Rushford’s interpretation, recorded at the fittingly named Akademie Schloss Solitude, captures the rarefied and the rustic. Early on, during the Placide in Book I, the repeated descending line has a hollowness that evokes memories of a school piano or some other slightly wobbly upright. When described, it sounds like a flaw, but hearing it earths the piece in experience and unsolicited nostalgia, showing there is more at work here than simple melancholy charm. The ear becomes alert to the way Rushford builds up a finely graded palette of colours throughout the work’s narrow and muted spectrum. (Almost everything is marked in some nuance of the word ‘slow’; even the solitary Allegretto frequently stands still.) I recall other interpretations which tried to inject moments of dynamic bravura for the sake of contrast, or allowed everything to to drift by as though tastefully veiled.

Rushford’s own composition See the Welter was composed while learning Mompou’s intricacies and is presented here as a counterpart. He describes it as a shadow of Música Callada, not in substance but in remembered experience, that of playing Mompou, an extended essay on touch, balance and timing. The two compositions are comparable in total duration but Rushford’s piece effaces Mompou’s boundaries and matches it with a single, undifferentiated span of single notes spread over seven very slow pages. The broad pace and pauses are filled through pedalling, allowing chords to arise from the severely reduced material. For the pianist, it becomes a prolonged meditation on concentration and the subtlest adjustments in judgement. For the listener, it becomes a gently dizzying exercise in counterpoint that draws you into a labyrinth where melody and direction are always hinted at but never resolve into a single identifiable image. Without ever emulating Mompou, Rushford retrospectively adds the abstract and esoteric element through implication, while also inviting contemplation of Música Callada as a labyrinth itself.

Sense and Nonsense: Grimm Grimm v Great Rack

Wednesday 24 March 2021

We’ve been through all this before: music isn’t supposed to make sense. Koichi Yamanoha aka Grimm Grimm has produced a sweet little EP of six tracks recorded at home in London last year titled Recalling. Each is an evocative little sketch of a place in memory and none of it has to match up in anyone’s head besides Yamanoha, but for the listener it’s all delightfully incongruous. Tastefully moody synth pads suddenly escalate with great drama for no reason, then a ditzy, grimy organ waltz is titled “Making My Eyes Bleed”, then syrupy preset synths play oddly beguiling lobby music. The remaining vignettes are equally vivid while affectively ambiguous. Thinking back, I wonder how much it refers to movie soundtracks (if so, it would be one particularly crazy cult favourite) or to video game music (no, it’s all too earnest and sounds too scuzzy), but then listening to it again I realise it resists all attempts to conform to even the most electic definitions.

Great Rack’s sample pack is presented on Bandcamp as a name-your-price album but it comes with a creative comments licence and a readme file that invites you to “feel free to use the samples in however way you feel”. Sure enough, there are 100 tracks that fly by in about 13 minutes, all made with Great Rack’s alter ego Emily Bennett’s voice, a bunch of her friends and a lot of rackmount reverb. Tracks range from the wry to the inane, with a Duchampian ear for the eloquently inconsequential. Absurdities pile up. Tracks are either too short to be tracks (0.145 seconds) or samples are too long to be samples (3 minutes plus of ominous grooves). Many are contrived to defy any standard ADSR envelope (one is a brief, arbitrary list of suburbs in Melbourne) and become koans for listener and musician alike. The tracklist starts with titles, sort of, then resort to standard sample names: “056 E.Bass 2” is hilariously inappropriate, “065 String 1” is hilariously appropriate. A collection so intractable that it makes trying to listen to it fun, and makes trying to create (more) music from it an irresistable challenge.

More field recordings and music

Wednesday 17 March 2021

I wish the contradictions inherent in field recordings were great enough to make them interesting as a paradox. As material, they contain so much in themselves that to use them in composition feels obtuse, or forced, or redundant. As for authenticity, they’re either complacent or factitious. Over the past year, musicians have found themselves compelled to confront the medium as pandemic lockdowns confine them to solitude in their immediate surroundings. Now, suddenly, someone’s mundane environment has become tantalisingly exotic and remote for everyone else: each of us truly is different even as we are all the same.

But how can this situation be conveyed, beyond unaffected documentation? Mixing field recording and music is deceptively difficult. Anna Murray’s City Shadows presents three tracks of collaged recordings taken outdoors around Tokyo and blends them with samples, her own playing and a lot of effects processing. It evokes a city in twilight, a threshhold time when it is not quite itself, waiting to change identity. A strong single image, but the details lose focus between the unobtrusive music and the constant haze of traffic blurred through a tastefully arranged harmonizer.

Duncan Harrison’s compacted audio daybook Two Channels of Unedited Voice Memos is as artless as its title. Mono phone recordings, one in each ear as promised, served up with a disclaimer of any editing or synchronisation. Collage as omnium-gatherum, avoiding the problem common to field recordings and collage alike where the structure cannot support the content or the parts overwhelm the whole. Guitar doodles, ambient noise, muttering, junk, all are switched back and forth in a jumbled and supposedly candid portrait of the artist’s mind. Like last year’s Pressure Carcass release on Takuroku it protests its crudity a little too strongly, mistaking authenticity for substance. Needs more channels.

Week Nine is a collaborative audio collage with an overriding “precise” structure and work process. Teresa Cos, Julia E Dyck and Caroline Profanter exchanged sound files back and forth, adding, subtracting and manipulating segments in a systematic manner that I don’t quite follow but is clearly evident even as it remains inexplicable. Found sounds, electronic noise and snatches of popular tunes I happen to particularly dislike appear, disappear, reappear in a kind of aural kaleidoscope. The three tracks are sixty-one minutes each, which makes hitting ‘play’ a daunting prospect but to get the piece requires living with it more than dedicated commitment. It’s not so much music as wallpaper than it is music as landscape, a thing for contemplation, from time to time.

Lucy Railton’s work with cello and electronics keeps trying out new approaches to combining the two. The blurb for 5 S​-​Bahn presents the album as Railton playing her cello at her apartment in Berlin with the light rail tracks passing outside. Any preconception of one being foreground for the other quickly fades away. The sounds of Berlin predominate, with the musician’s cello and voice acting as augmentation as much as accompaniment. Together, they work as kind of an orchestra and the five parts of the album resemble a symphony, with each part emphasising a different palette of neighbourhood sounds or a different density of outside activity. Recorded last spring during lockdown, the reduced human presence casts the whole work as an ironic pastoral, even as the trains regularly pass in distant aspect or close-up. I had to double-check that multiple locations weren’t listed as the sounds are so varied. The music doesn’t pretend there’s no editing or mixing involved. Purely as a technical curiosity it would be interesting to know how much was put together and how much happened as-is but as this is art it really does not matter.

Genuine improvised duets

Sunday 14 March 2021

At a time when just getting two people into a room to play together is a dimly-remembered luxury, it’s nice to hear again the strange interactions that happen during an improvised duet. The three recordings here all took place before 2020’s pandemic and the attendant lockdowns and general curtailment of simple pleasures. It’s also nice to remember that austere doesn’t have to be synonymous with meagre. The Interstices Of These Epidemics is the result of 18 months’ preparation by Clinton Green and Barnaby Oliver, in which the two of them worked with “a restricted palette of gestures and sound sources” until they created this mesmerising pair of improvisations. Green plays bowed metal bowls, producing distinctively complex, friable drones that teem with ambiguous harmonics. It’s a sound that can easily be overused but Green plays with steadfast restraint, letting inadvertent variations come of their own accord. In the first track, he’s joined by Oliver on violin, the two of them merging into what sounds like a prepared string quartet playing a blurred, nebulous chorale. For the second, Oliver switches to piano and Green’s drones become a backdrop for a plaintive series of ostinatos. The wistful sentimentality of the chords and halting rhythm is tempered by Oliver’s refusal to be led into anything beyond the most minute expressive gestures. This is released on Green’s Shame File Music, a long-running Melbourne label that mixes up new music with reissues of historic recordings of the Australian avant-garde.

This came out a while back and I didn’t pay close attention because it seemed like more lowkey improvisation which is all just swell but after a while you’ve heard too much of it. Turns out it’s way better than that. The two tracks on Iteration were improvisations at a live gig by Lucio Capece and Werner Dafeldecker, the former on reeds and battery-powered feedback, the latter on double bass. As with Green and Oliver, the two musicians do not play as one instrument but nevertheless play with a single mind in a shared, multicoloured voice. In the first track, Capece’s bass clarinet forms the focus, with Dafeldecker’s bass adding colouration and echoes, each instrument seeking out a common register. For the second, the string instrument’s more complex textures become figuration against higher, more pure tones traded between slide saxophone and feedback until the bass harmonics threaten to engulf them. Both works are unhurried, with a clean conception of form and pacing that slows down time while still feeling like a worked-out composition.

David Grubbs and Ryley Walker first played together as a duet on “a broiling night at a neighborhood bar” in New York in summer 2019. The gig is now released as Fight or Flight Simulator on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku download label. The two electric guitars intertwine around some gently paced but steady chords and picking patterns, then gradually lead each other into more fraught terrain. Even as there is some Sturm und Drang during the 25-minute piece, a regular pulse is heard or implied throughout, which both Grubbs and Walker use to pull back and foreground the subtle complexity found in the interplay of their instruments, rather than try to dazzle the punters with histrionics. It’s hard to be objective listening to this because I can’t but feel sad about it. It makes me wish I was in another place, or another time; somewhere it isn’t still winter, where there are bars and gigs, somewhere that isn’t London, or even Europe, somewhere that electric guitars still matter, a place where I’m not so old.

Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973)

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Some archival releases are historically important, restoring a significant musical movement to present-day consciousness. Others can throw accepted history into a different light, making the past a deeper, richer source for new inspiration. As a modern musical experience, listening to historic recordings of the avant-garde is often an excercise in intellectual curiosity, or a dark form of amusement: the interpretations and performances are often unpolished or uninformed, at worst incompetent and, even at their best, often drily literal (and sometimes no worse for that). It’s a rare and exciting event when the archaeological trip works equally well as a compelling new release.

Gentle Fire: Explorations (1970 – 1973) is a superlative example of all that is best in archival box sets. Paradigm Discs has form for presenting ‘lost’ music at its most potent; this set has been years in the making and all the work has paid off in spades. In late twentieth century avant-garde music, the British group Gentle Fire is often mentioned but seldom heard. Active in the late 60s and early 70s, they remain best remembered for a small vinyl legacy: their recording of Stockhausen’s Sternklang and a German LP of pieces by the New York School. CD reissues are piecemeal and/or capriciously expensive. Explorations is three CDs of Gentle Fire recordings which, as far as I can tell, have never been publically available in complete form. Even if you are familiar with the 70s LPs, everything’s an ear-opener.

Disc one tackles familiar territory: previously unreleased performances of Cage, Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown and Toshi Ichiyanagi, all from 1970 or 1971. The typically rough-hewn electroacoustic sounds of the period are all present and correct, yet it all sounds less stark or abrasive than other contemporary avant-gardisms, even compared to their own LP. The only repeat here is Brown’s Four Systems, given an ingeniously austere realisation with Hugh Davies applying band-pass filters to a droning string ensemble (other group members Graham Hearn, Richard Orton, Richard Bernas, Michael Robinson and Stuart Jones filling in on whatever instrument is needed). There’s more detail in the Electrola LP, but the recording here is more focused on a coherent musical statement than on numbering off each of the score’s elements. It’s this emphasis on using open scores to produce a fully realised piece of music instead of “exploring possibilities” that sets Gentle Fire apart from other experimental music groups of the time. The disc starts off with a small surprise, with Christian Wolff’s For Jill instructing the performers to concentrate on combinations of selected notes into chords – an unusually traditional material compared to his better-known group realisations. An ensemble of home-made instruments by Davies et al nudges Wolff’s score back into the uncanny.

Two selections from Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen (Aufwärts and Treffpunkt) show the strength of the ensemble’s musical vision. They’re not afraid to “lead the tone wherever your thoughts lead you” as enjoined by the score, even as Stockhausen heavily directs those thoughts towards convergence. Their idea of “always return to the same place” is a lot more conceptually open and makes the piece soar in unexpected ways. Similarly with Aufwärts, where unlike with at least one other ensemble, they would not agree with, let alone solicit, Stockhausen’s guidance on what “the rhythm of the universe” might be. (Incidentally, there’s a great article in The Wire going over Gentle Fire’s history with the surviving members, including the whole “working with Stockhausen” experience.) Ichiyanagi’s Appearance threatens to get aggressively harsh but never lets up the suspense, with judicious use of ring modulators and sinewave generators creating a bleak, ominous landscape out of trumpet, cello and electric organ. Cage’s Cartridge Music does get appropriately rowdy, amping up small sounds into a cavernous roar. It’s a live recording and the audience is plainly amused by the antics required to produce some of these noises, thus fulfilling Cage’s wish that electronic music be at least as theatrically satisfying as live acoustic performance.

The second two discs are the real revelation, featuring compositions by individual group members and two large “group compositions”, each one shocking in how they interect with both their own time and ours. The pieces bring a healthy dose of the Cagean, Fluxusy extremes of the US avant-garde into the distinctly more genteel British millieu. It was a fertile period, sort of post-Cage but pre-Nyman, and Explorations expands this field hugely, beyond the usual assumed constraints of process music and the assumed freedoms of AMM. That skill for mixing acoustic and electronic comes into its own here. Stuart Jones’ Ruthie’s Piece sounds almost contemporary, using isolated piano sounds with heavy ring modulation against soft cello harmonics to create what could pass for 21st-century ambient. Richard Bernas’ Almanac For September is a more restless work but it also sets muted piano against cello harmonics, using purely acoustic means to alter tone and resonance in ways that resemble electronic processing. In Michael Robinson’s 2 Pianos Piece the composer is joined by Richard Bernas in a lop-sided process of repetition and augmentation that would fit alongside works by John White or Christopher Hobbs. Graham Hearn’s Centrepiece takes a rudimentary idea of “soloist with tape loops” and interprets it as a haunting, evocative soundtrack of muffled organ lost amongst the remnants of run-out grooves on old records. It’s a long, long way from the academic exposition of novel compositional structures.

The two group compositions push into new territories, with performance verging on installation. Group Composition VI (unfixed parities) from 1973 has the ensemble electronically transmitting and modifying speaking voices, filtering and disrupting speech with modified telephone equipment to create a dense, barely intelligible verbal soundscape. Its sonic novelty is ripe with the implications of technology, reproduction and intervention, information overload, alienation and spatial dislocation. As a dispassionately prophetic work, it’s a thrilling and disturbing space for meditation. In fleeting moments it recalls various Alvin Lucier compositions. Group Composition IV originated on the Pyramid Stage at the first Glastonbury festial in 1971 and is here recorded at the Roundhouse in London the following year. It features the gHong, a large assembly of suspended metal rods which can be played collective and coaxed into a wide array of complex sounds, augmented by various additional instruments, including Davies’ own homebrew springboards and a VCS3 synthesizer. This recording takes up the entire third disc, sounding and resounding for over an hour of deeply textured sounds that are simultaneously monumental and delicate. It’s a glorious thing.

Sound quality ranges from good (the concert recordings) to great; the cleanup work is seamless and transparent. The CD version comes in a slick box and a hefty, well-edited booklet with plenty of pictures, full documentation of who did what where and when, and a complete reprint of Hugh Davies’ essential essay Gentle Fire: An Early Approach to Live Electronic Music. Exemplary. I think a second pressing is on the way.

Antoine Beuger’s jankélévitch sextets

Tuesday 2 March 2021

In my mind I’ve worked up Antoine Beuger as my personal nemesis. Never met him, but his music has always aroused a vehement antipathy, sufficient for me to have resolved to avoid further encounters wherever possible. (The only other composer I’ve singled out for this treatment, more or less arbitrarily, is Wolfgang Rihm.) Whatever I’ve heard has always struck me as being imprisoned in theoretical purity, beholden to presenting an idea at the expense of any musical considerations; a dry, academic routine left to run its course. I found it devoid of aesthetic interest, but never in a way that challenged or provoked, and so felt no need to pursue it further.

So, when Another Timbre sent me their new recording of Beuger’s jankélévitch sextets, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my impartiality by getting really stuck in. I’m happy to report that those hopes have been dashed. This is quietly intriguing music. Maybe I needed to hear more Beuger after all, but what seems to set this piece apart from previous works I’ve heard is that the idea here focuses on musical considerations.

Then basically, the players, they do the same thing. They play long, very quiet tones. There’s nothing to practice, because individually everybody is engaging in the same activity. And they’re going to find themselves in different kinds of constellations, if you like. And there’s a whole set of pages in the score which you play separately, so you have a whole number of instances of this situation, and you move from one to the other, and it’s basically very amorphous. But it takes on some kind of form each time, and the form comes very logically and genetically from the setup, from the deep structure, if you like.

There seems to be a simple scheme in play here, not unlike some of my preferred music by Eva-Maria Houben. From this simplicity, a pleasing subtlety is allowed to emerge. As the title suggests, the piece is an homage to the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, who said that music has no itinerary, it’s not going from here to there to there, and who explored the philosophical concept of the event, the grey area where the appearance of a new state is dependent on perceiving the disappearance of an older state. The structure of the piece – musicians independently playing shared material within loosely-defined time-frames – bears a clear similarity to Cage’s late ‘number’ pieces. Indeed, the sound-world of soft, overlapping pitches strongly resemble many of those works.

There are distinct differences, however; borne out of differences in musical thinking. Where Cage allows some interpretive freedom, Beuger stipulates long and modestly soft notes throughout. With potential for harmonic and textural complexity thus reduced still further, other qualities come to the fore. The instruments (double bass, accordion, bass clarinet, violin, bassoon, viola) pair off and produce strangely sophisticated tone-colours. The mix of instruments used here by members of the ensemble Apartment House includes an accordion, which brings out unexpected beating frequencies and other acoustic phenomena. It’s a work that lovingly exemplifies the beauty of instrumental sounds, all through simple play that removes any faint traces of didacticism that linger even in Cage’s most beguiling works. Apartment House play with a steadfast simplicity that seems to suit Beuger’s style, although after a while it starts to sound a little too tender, which perhaps helps to sweeten the sound for the ear.

It figures that I must have been missing something all this time. Still wary of diving into Beuger’s back catalogue, but now because I’m worried I’ll spoil the mood.