Martin Arnold’s Stain Ballads

Tuesday 26 January 2021

I had my first encounter with Martin Arnold’s music back in 2016, at the end of a concert by Apartment House at Wigmore Hall. It knocked me out. “The way people were talking about him before the gig suggested that I’d been missing out. They were right. His new piece Stain Ballad is incredible; striking in its mysterious ambiguity, fragile but indelible. The music shared an aesthetic that Morton Feldman aspired to, of “having mood” without being “in a mood”. As I typed this, Philip Thomas, the pianist that night just tweeted he was listening back to the piece and is “in tears… fresh, complex, meandering, intricate, lovely.” Looking back, I’ll still remember this piece as one of the highlights of the year.”

I did remember it, too. Since then, I’ve sought out Arnold’s music, both live and on CD, but the craving to get a recording of Stain Ballad is finally fulfilled. It’s one of four compositions on the new Another Timbre collection, Stain Ballads, played again by Apartment House. One of the things about the title work that particularly appeals to me is that it’s for the largest forces I’ve yet heard in an Arnold composition: string quartet with piano, reed organ and percussion. The thicker, more densely coloured instrumentation adds more to the suggestiveness of the music’s phrasing while contributing further to the elusiveness of its shape and meaning. Arnold’s sounds and melodies are always muted and their obliqueness gains poignancy and strength from that impression of heightened but suppressed emotion.

It’s a trait often shared with folk music – of the momentous or the monstrous conveyed through an impassive facade – and it seems that Arnold’s pieces get compared to folk music quite a lot, judging by the interview that comes with this release. It can also be attributed to the lack of vibrato needed to play it right and a musical language that, despite my earlier comparison to Feldman above, is direct in its content while still producing effects open to interpretation. In the lengthy duet Trousers (that title encapsulating the direct and the ambiguous) violinist Mira Benjamin and cellist Anton Lukoszevieze share interweaving phrases that pause and restart, or take up a previously heard refrain, never quite the same, as though they are inventing open-ended tropes on a remembered tune. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze’s playing is feathery and frail, almost whispered, taking Arnold’s injunction to “shut down projection, fullness of tone, resonance, the consistency, stability and predictability” and focussing on each instrument’s texture about as far as they can without detracting from the melodic foreground and lapsing into technical affectation.

Lutra for solo cello is also captured here, another piece I had the good luck to hear live at its premiere by Lukoszevieze. “A long aria for countertenor, unaccompanied save by the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze humming (intentionally) for several passages. Taking sound at its most frail and revealing how it can endure.” That thinning out of sound appears here in the cello playing in the violin’s range, all harmonics and the highest registers. The humming also pushes the piece away from the rarefied immutability affected by “the classical”. The three works discussed are from 2016-17, but the disc ends with an earlier work, Slip from 1999. Violin, cello and bass clarinet start in unison before piano quietly intrudes, marking phrases at first but gradually becoming a framework around which the trio breaks into fragments, occasional soliloquies that briefly take flight before descending into brief commentaries. Benjamin and Lukoszevieze are joined here by Heather Roche on clarinet and Mark Knoop on piano, playing with a melancholy calmness, of the kind that makes you unhurried but resolved.

Inexhaustible x3: Nick Ashwood, Ferran Fages, TRUSS

Thursday 21 January 2021

Thanks to my habit of neglecting to read the sleeve notes, I only just realised that all three albums here are from Inexhaustible Editions. Also thanks to this habit, I was completely unprepared for Nick Ashwood’s solo release Unfolding​/​Overlay. I glanced over it, saw ‘acoustic guitars’ and figured we’d get to hear a solo approach as heard on his group improvised efforts, so my first listening was spent mostly getting over the shock of how it sounded. A steely tambura drone opens the album-length piece, which I figured was going to be the groundwork for some trancey guitar noodling until it gradually dawned on me that this was the trancey guitar stuff. Ashwood’s made this piece from two long, unedited takes of bowing on an acoustic guitar and then superimposing them. As performance, it’s a meditative experience, at once introspective yet open-minded, with the slow but purposeful drifting that comes from bringing the mind to an alert passivity through concentrated action. As a composition, the listener hears the constant weaving of bowed chords as a single, braided strand, with illusory harmonies and timbres and breathing pulses that can become either strong or frail, simple or complex, always evolving into something new of its own accord.

Just a small spoiler: the first fifteen seconds of Ferran Fages’ From Grey To Blue are silent. You might want to keep that in mind before cranking the volume. Not that the piece is loud, but it is clearly present: a forty-minute work for a full and closely-miked piano, played by Lluïsa Espigolé. Thinking back to Fages’ Un lloc entre dos records, a work for solo guitar and sine tones, and remembered that it was difficult to get a grip on: “The mind struggles to reconcile the parts into a whole”. Fages pushes the unresolved shapes of his music even further here, perhaps past breaking point. The piece falls into three parts, but in each the phrases are brief and widely separated by silences. Fages and Espigolé have collaborated over a couple of years and her playing, although described in the notes as “without emotion”, captures something tentative, even reluctant to proceed. At least there’s no sentimentality, even though the gently paced combinations of single tones and minor chords (rarely more than dyads) could lend themselves to drama. In the central section, the sounds themselves seem to thin out; when more chords return in part three everything happens more slowly. It’s described as a study in resonances and the spaces between sounds, but I’m usually pretty skeptical of pieces which make a virtue of reticence. With each successive listening, however, the sounds start to feel more tied together and playing it loud reveals the piano mechanism at work and the voids start to fill in as though they’re making some sort of connection; but as to what those connections might be, I’m not sure.

Fages is also part of the group TRUSS, playing acoustic guitar and feedback with Alejandro Rojas-Marcos on clavichord and Bárbara Sela on recorders. Todos los animales se reúnen en un gran gemido is a set of seven tracks recorded on one day in late 2019. They are apparently group improvisations but I keep hearing Fages’ methods at work. There are sustained high, keening passages as heard in his earlier piece Radi d’Or and, as the album progresses, the sounds start to break up into irresolute fragments. It’s stupid to attribute this to one musician when there are three at work. It sounds like Rojas-Marcos is using various extended techniques on his instrument, complicating the picture of who plays what when paired with Fage’s guitar. Sela’s recorder can either lead or shadow the high-pitched bowing and feedback, or otherwise derail and obstruct the continuity, forcing new approaches. The way the tracks are sequenced, the early sections are distinct and sometimes busy in that conventional group improv way, but around halfway through things become more fraught, with the music never quite succumbing to silence but always on the verge of breaking up, all the same. It’s not a comfortable experience, but it asks more questions of the listener than I originally bargained for.

Maya Verlaak: All English Music Is Greensleeves

Sunday 17 January 2021

There’s more irony in this title than first appears. This collection of pieces by Verlaak is itself a hearkening back to a golden age, but her reiteration of the past deals with the rediscovery of forgotten ideas and making them new. Time and again, her compositions recall the spirit of exploration and discovery in the British experimental music scene of the early 1970s. Amongst the alumni of the Scratch Orchestra and their fans, the dividing line between music and art had never before been so dangerously blurred. They too reworked the past, drawing upon folk and popular classics and then subjecting them to analytical processes with varying degrees of irrationality. This British strand of the avant-garde was typically playful and subversive, but with a gentle side that embraced amateurism and acknowledged the inherent sentimentality of their means and methods. It was a fertile scene, but its fading seems in retrospect to be as much a product of commercial forces as of ideas moving on. By the 1980s, much of what was presented as the cutting edge of music was given over to second-guessing the audience’s tastes in a quest for ‘appeal’. For a younger generation, a cursory study of the early 70’s uncovered a lot of unfinished business.

In Another Timbre’s All English Music Is Greensleeves, Verlaak brings back this quiet, forgotten 70’s as a living tradition. The title work, which has been performed live in various forms, does not deal with the implied subject as an artefact, but as the outcome of the history of English music teaching and performance practice, as observed by a young Belgian composer recently arrived from studies at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague. In a modern twist, the music’s controlling processes are fluid and automated by a computer which decides which pitches chosen by the ensemble will cause a pre-recorded performance of the same piece to start, or stop. It’s a clever exploitation of the practice of sight-reading, and Apartment House’s rendition here captures the genteel, pocket-sized grandeur suggested in the title, refracted into a more fragmentary, ghostly formality.

Some of Verlaak’s pieces have tended towards the stunty (cf her Tape Piece collaboration with Andy Ingamells or Females premiered at Music We’d Like To Hear in 2018) but in this collection the focus remains on the music. Ideas are clearly present to substantiate the sounds we hear, but their means of operation remain tantalisingly unclear without further explication. The two solo works, Formation de Sarah and Formation de Mark respectively pit violinist Sarah Saviet and pianist Mark Knoop against a remorseless computer-generated tutor. Each performance creates a new system of pitches to which the performer must respond and negotiate. In Formation de Sarah, violin plays against sine tones and bowed nails; for Formation de Mark the relationship between performer and computer model is more fraught, with electronic tones replaced by recordings of an untrained voice attempting to sing perfect pitch. The computer’s vocalised cues sound more like a rebuke than a guide. The wobbly coexistence of objective formal rigour with human imperfection, with mechanisms of reproduction as a confounding factor, recall the early 70s works by composers like Gavin Bryars and Christopher Hobbs while still posing vital questions surrounding authenticity to the present-day listener (and performer). The music is still direct and clear, using its simplicity of means to bring those complicating perturbations of sound to the surface.

The remaining ensemble pieces are more overtly playful, in a serious, childlike manner. Lark uses formative childhood experiences as material and means, transcribing recovered cassettes of the four-year old composer improvising songs and using a music-box to regulate the musicians. The simple melodies and cultural references add pawky sentimentality to the staggered runs of single notes, always slightly off-kilter. Song and Dance ‘An excessively elaborate effort to explain or justify’ is an exercise in analysis taken in earnest, expecting the musicians to interpret a listening study of the music and infer the music from the written analysis, at a remove from the notes themselves. In each of these pieces, the joke is for (on?) the musicians, but the wit is audible to the listener as the ensemble struggles to achieve a coherent performance despite everyone’s best efforts. With Apartment House playing, it’s probably not much of a struggle really, but they beautifully convey the delicate synthesis of gracefulness and humour required to make these pieces work most effectively, without ever needing to milk it for pathos or a laugh.

EMNIOX: a simultaneous ambient playlist

Tuesday 12 January 2021

After an idea by Kraig Grady: what happens if you play every ambient album you can think of at the same time? I threw this mix together while Christmas dinner cooked and then decided it would be nice to have a video to match. EMNIOX is best viewed full screen with the lights out. It starts quietly and slowly builds steam.

Old rituals, new grounds: Hermann Nitsch and Mark Harwood

Sunday 10 January 2021

From time to time I remember that there was a Hermann Nitsch retrospective held a couple of years ago in Croydon. I didn’t go. Even in these Covid times, I don’t regret it; not because it was Croydon, but because I’ve never found shock or catharsis to be enlightening in itself and the invocation of pagan ritual always seemed artificial and derivative. Too much of the art’s supposed power depends upon dedicated promotion of the image of the artist. The real meat, so to speak, was always in the incongruity of the action and its context, or lack of it, but that’s something I’ve never heard Nitsch address and it seems to work against the goals he himself claims.

Like a good Fluxus artist, Nitsch is also a composer. I Dischi di Angelica have just released his Orgelkonzert, performed at the AngelicA festival in Bologna in 2019, in which Nitsch goes to work on the grand organ at Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi for over an hour. It’s a well-recorded, beautiful-sounding document of his later musical practice, allowing the listener to assess the music in its own right, away from its wider associations. This, however, may be a mistake, as Nitsch is not concerned with sound alone and so the reductive approach gives us much, much less to work with.

The Orgelkonzert is improvised, but cast in a form designed to impose on the audience, a large-scale, four-movement structure recalling romantic-era symphonies. The material has moved away from Nitsch’s earlier approach and is neither brutal nor bruitiste as such, relying on drones, or rather on long-held chords. For long periods of time you will hear the same chord, with occasional notes added or subtracted, with periodic flashes of movement or sudden changes. Assistants use boards to hold down clusters. There is a loose sense of alternating between consonance and dissonance, but with only a few overly dramatic clusters suddenly crashing onto a peaceful dyad. There are shifts in register and timbre too, but these are less dramatic. Much of the time you are left simply bathing in sound, a feeling all too familiar and comfortable for new music fans. The trouble with playing the organ this way is that it can so easily feel derivative, as it did when I heard John Zorn improvising on the St Paul’s Hall organ at Huddersfield years ago. There were the same clusters, keys held down by weights, drones – all the Gothic trappings and connotations that become the real material the musician plays with, more image than sound.

I’ve seen Mark Harwood’s live performances several times but haven’t really bothered with recordings until now – some exceptions aside. The gigs are disingenuous exercises in deflection from the absurdity of the audience-performer situation, typically shifting the burden of attention somewhere else, such as on a collaborator or the venue itself. A Perfect Punctual Paradise Under My Own Name is his first solo release away from his previous persona of Astor and the self-reflexive title is a heads-up to the paranoiac-critical method he employs here. As much a ritual as Nitsch’s actions (though Henning Christiansen is the more appropriate avatar here), Harwood offers up a platter of scraps, a baffling collage of field recordings, garbled dialogue and musical moments too unformed to be considered doodles. The slow-paced restlessness never settles in the push and pull between ego and self-negation, trying to present himself in as an unflattering light as possible without tipping into romanticised self-abasement. In trying to deflect from himself, Harwood creates a collage out of the musical equivalent of a child trying to register the exact moment he falls asleep. For this ritual, whatever transformative effect it had on the artist is beside the point; it is left to the listener to meditate on what significance may be found in this unconscious arrangement of unresolved residua.

Takuroku Shooting Gallery: End-Of-Year Edition (Part 3)

Tuesday 29 December 2020

(Previously: Part 1 and Part 2)

These Takuroku writeups got a bit longer than intended and there’s still a few remaining releases I want to mention, the ones which are more or less just musicians playing. Of course it is never that simple. Neil Charles’ LOW and BEYOND is a set of nine tightly-packed studies for solo double bass, each one taking technique as a starting point for invention instead of a crutch. Restless but never hurried, each one demonstrates how craft is elevated to art. By way of comparison, Farida Amadou’s solos for electric bass on Reading eyes and facial expressions take the instrument itself as the subject material. The extended pair of works consist on the one hand of a sculptural essay in open string resonance, and on the other of varying methods of attack upon the strings, both by physical means and through electronic distortion.

Two sets of piano miniatures came out at the same time. Calum Storrie’s Nine Day Score is a set of graphic scores with no specific means of interpretation, played here by Steve Beresford on piano. Storrie’s scores employ a fixed set of elements, deployed in various ways across each two-page composition. Beresford’s realisations are very free, making no direct use of the musical quotations in each score; he transforms the collaged pieces into slow, widely-spaced intervals, a slender framework of notes set against the ambience of his room. It’s a home recording, on a slightly chiming upright piano, captured on a phone, albeit in stereo. The raw, blemished sound adds an immediacy that deflects any charges of preciousness in these keyboard meditations. Tom Scott’s Tattered Angels also run the risk of preciousness, being overtly pretty and delicate, but they are too modest to be guilty of affectation. His piano pieces are more fully voiced, but even briefer, averaging a little over two minutes each. They seem shorter as each one is a thumbnail sketch, stating a theme and elaborating on it a little before falling silent. On rare occasions, he dips into the lower half of the keyboard but otherwise keeps the instrument to a small, wistful voice. As you’re thinking how simple it is you start to notice the times he’s multitracked himself, as phrases echo and cascade softly. You can hear tape wobble and start to wonder how it was made.

I’ve been listening to Anton Lukoszevieze’s Word Origins for a few months, on and off. Well-known as a cellist, less so as a composer, it should be no surprise that his solo improvisations, recorded one per day, convey enough detail and substance for repeated listening. Technique is at the forefront, but at the service of presenting and articulating musical material; most of the pieces use changes in bowing position, attack and pressure to differentiate sound, rather than a reliance on pitch. Harmonics are common. Each piece may set a mood, but, with a few exceptions, there’s less interest in making each piece become a ‘meditation’ fixated on one gesture. After becoming more familiar with the more straightforward pieces that appear later in the set, the more mecurial works start to distinguish themselves in the ear.

Takuroku Shooting Gallery: End-Of-Year Edition (Part 2)

Monday 28 December 2020

In Part 1 I mentioned the substance of Takuroku’s lockdown releases and the climate of discovery they encouraged. A perfect example of this is Leon, by the ensemble Jamaica! The description of Jamaica! (“a free music ensemble comprised of adults with learning disabilities… grew out of efforts to make the music sessions held there as inclusive as possible”) does not prepare you for the experience of hearing Leon, an hour-long still point of red heat, a glowing ember that radiates energy without movement. Their playing has a focus and economy that make AMM sound like dilettantes by comparison. Not quite an hour: the ending yields to dub, which feels all the heavier for what has gone before. The bass player is Leon, who died earlier this year.

I’m listening to everything here, even if it’s a sax and drums duet. This means I didn’t miss Lookbook by @xcrswx, with Crystabel Riley on drums and Seymour Wright on horn, the two of them sustaining the faintest of rolls and overtones for over half an hour. A remarkable feat, if not in technique then in holding the listener in suspense, even as they constantly retreat, dissapating as much momentum from their playing as possible without lapsing into silence. Wright’s solo release (If) I Remember Rites (2020) takes this approach in different directions. Taken from a live-streamed performance at Cafe Oto in August, his Natural Rite [angle] is in memoriam Scratch Orchestra member Carole Finer, who died in March. A single, high harmonic on alto sax is reiterated and gradually succumbs to brittle percussion improvised on fixtures of the cafe. The distillation of essences in these works is reversed in the concluding Knot Rite, where three saxophones are used as a vehicle to produce thick, flat panels of burred, overdriven feedback.

It sounds like there’s lots of feedback at work in amongst the home-made synths, quasi-guitar rigs and miscellaneous electronics in Killers in the Clouds, a pair of works recorded by Aquiles Hadjis and Nerve in Hong Kong (I think?) in 2019. It carries that same wild impression of unbridled electronic noise and anarchic fun that is so often the goal of electronic improvisation, yet too rarely succeeds as it does here. The restless, impulsive changes in sound and texture never feel forced and are often genuinely inexplicable to the more jaded noise fans. This should be in your go-to playlist next time you’re in a music war with the neighbours (you all have this problem, right?)

There’s feedback synthesis in ТЕПЛОТА’s HEAT/WORK too, but in a more mediated way. The duet of Grundik Kasyansky on feedback synthesizer and Tom Wheatley on double bass have worked and reworked live recordings from the previous year into something at once organic and formalised, using compositional processes, loops and the percussive effects of Wheatley’s bass to produce music that shifts between the atmospheric and the rhythmic, with a substratum of deep noise held in restraint.

More duets, where the line between improvisation and composition gets increasingly blurred: The Quiet Club’s Telepathic Lockdown Tapes presents two solo improvisations by Danny McCarthy and Mick O’Shea played back simultaneously without editing. Each allows space for the unheard other, producing a soundscape of tantalisingly obscure details that never becomes dense. Eclectic materials, audio verité and coincidence produce and effect of Cagean impassiveness. Shakeeb Abu Hamdan & Sholto Dobie’s It’s Worse mixes and matches live recordings from various locations, including some guest appearances by Arturas Bumšteinas’ Lithuanian Organ Safari project. Hamdan’s often blunt percussion and Dobie’s vacuum-powered homebrew organs sound better here than they often do live, where the queasy weirdness of the sounds take precedence over the sometimes cumbersome means of producing them. Lia Mazzari & Tom White’s Lettura di un’ onda is more of a collage, I guess. Field recordings of everyday urban sounds get recontextualised in incongruous ways that emphasise the isolation of city life in the past year. The strange disassociation of many people’s lives this past year is captured in an audio diary form, but Mazzari and White’s manipulations have a playfulness about them that adds some low-key absurdist humour. The grey backdrop of city recordings is also livened up by Mazzari’s cello playing and a few sweetly processed whip cracks.

(Continued in Part 3)

Takuroku Shooting Gallery: End-Of-Year Edition (Part 1)

Sunday 27 December 2020

Cafe Oto’s Takuroku imprint has now released over a hundred albums of new music made during this year’s pandemic lockdown, with more promised for 2021. (Presumably it will end sometime next year, as will the pandemic.) Faced with such plenitude, it’s impossible to do them all justice in a substantial review. My occasional brief notes on them run the risk of making these releases seem like minor works or casual throwaways, but in most cases the artists have contributed significant statements or made bold experiments that cast their work in new light.

Along the way, Takuroku has pulled off some firsts such as, incredibly, the first solo album by Maggie Nicols. Her Creative Contradiction release has given me a better view of her work as an artist in the round than any single gig of hers I’ve witnessed. Nicols’ music often falls into the realms of improvisation and song where I feel less inclined or qualified to comment. My reviews here have tended to shy away from Takuroku’s jazz, folk and improv releases, which have made it and Oto’s live programme seem less diverse than they are. The download catalog extends even further, to film (Tori Kudo’s Archive) and their often overlooked coverage of poetry and spoken word.

Phoebe Collings-James’ Can You Move Towards Yourself Without Flinching? and Roy Claire Potter’s Entrance song; last time present us, or rather confront us, with dialogue and monologue respectively that unfolds in ways unlike a narrative and more like a Hörspiel, establishing a state of mind in the listener. Caroline Bergvall’s Sonoscura collages together a set of meditations on poetry, language and place. Michael Speers’ Green Spot Nectar of the Gods takes up language and the speaking voice as a source for music, with electronic processing transforming its sound, rhythm and informational content (instructions on how to make the piece). Nour Mobarak’s 3 Performance Works is a different proposition: stereo documentation of multichannel performance pieces and installations that document and scrutinise idiomatic uses of phonemes and phrasing. The last of these can’t help but lose a little of their impact in this format.

We’ve had previous excursions into psychedelia in this series and I would have said that Kelly Jayne Jones’ the reed flute is fire had capped the lot. In addition to the record, a accompanying limited edition of art boxes is also for sale. They contain a drawing, incense, a small pyramid, shiny stones and gold velvet, which should help give an idea of the music. Jones’s voice and flute are processed and overlaid with melting drones that can make you feel the need to crack a window and let some fresh air in so the walls stop moving. It all pales in comparison to Nakul Krishnamurthy’s Tesserae, a pair of works that draw upon Indian classical music theory and techniques. Anyone expecting patchouli-scented pabulum will quickly have their mind tied in knots by the undulating orchestra of shruti boxes and voices in Anudhatthamudhatthassvaritham, which steadily gains in psychic power through its refusal to make nice, giving the consequences of its theoretical foundations free play. Ten Thousand Dancing Shivas shows that it’s no fluke by forgoing the textural overload and still making a poweful impact on the listener, weaving together vocal phrases and instrumental responses that evoke without ever mimicking traditional practice.

(Continued in Part 2)

Magnus Granberg: Come Down To Earth Where Sorrow Dwelleth, bis

Saturday 19 December 2020

If you’re reading this, you’re probably the sort of music nerd who listens to composers like Magnus Granberg and wonder how their compositions might sound in different configurations. It’s partly intellectual and creative curiosity, but there’s also that frustration that much of the great music we hear is so often left open to interpretation and yet never heard again beyond the original version. Granberg’s music is a good example, as his string of recordings and performances present extended pieces that are heavily dependent on the colouration of their instrumental palette and a sustained, consistent mood. For the wider audience, each piece is strongly identified with the ensemble which plays it.

Well, now we get to choose – or, more likely, get both and get judgemental. Meenna has released two recordings of Granberg’s Come Down To Earth Where Sorrow Dwelleth a few months apart. The first version was recorded on its premiere tour in April last year by Ordinary Affects; for the second version Granberg joins a Japanese trio in Tokyo the following November. I listened to the second version first, because it’s twenty minutes shorter than the earlier version and I had to be somewhere else in an hour. Granberg’s prepared piano threads its way through the sustained instrumental texture here as it has on other occasions, but he has revised his piece to suit an entirely new ensemble, setting traditional Japanese instruments (Ko Ishikawa’s sho and Miki Maruta’s koto) against Toshimaru Nakamura’s feedback electronics. Nakamura also appeared on Let Pass My Weary Guiltless Ghost earlier this year; electronics have often figured in Granberg’s music but on that occasion I noted that it sounded “more abrasive and confrontatial” than before. Here, with a much thinner, sparser texture, the feedback becomes a more distinct, even intrusive presence. At rare moments, a sudden percussive burst of noise punctures the surface. There are extended periods where it settles into a high tinnitus whine. The electronic tones reflect off the sho, while the koto and muted piano pair off with short, stifled sounds. It’s the strangest, starkest work I’ve hear by Granberg yet, almost reduced at times to complete stillness. Speaking as an increasingly old and grumpy man, the high-pitched stuff started to irritate at times.

I attributed this to the instrumentation, but this theory was quickly disproved when I heard the original version of the piece played by Ordinary Affects. These are the guys I heard in Michael Pisaro’s Helligkeit, die Tiefe hatte, nicht keine Fläche a while back. This time, the ensemble is a quartet (Morgan Evans-Weiler, violin; Laura Cetilia, cello; Luke Martin, electric guitar; J.P.A. Falzone, vibraphone) plus Granberg’s piano. Even with the extra musician and the fuller timbre of the instruments, it’s a stark, strange piece. This time the vibraphone provides the backdrop as often as not, with a faint, tremulous hum. The strings work supposedly as foreground, but play with frail, reticent bowing gestures. The piano is as likely to provide an interjection as much as the electric guitar. Any obvious figuration comes from a confluence of these small sounds and, at certain moments, work in consort to produce passages of fraught continuity and stability. At other times, sustained sounds all disappear and the momentum falls away, leave holes of silence to open up in the musical texture. The certainties from the older Granberg works are fading out; in its own sinister way it’s the most changeable of his compositions I’ve heard yet and, with that small shift in equilibrium, opens up a wealth of disturbing connotations kept dormant in his previous music.

Kraig Grady: Monument Of Diamonds

Sunday 13 December 2020

Here’s a rare and welcome chance to experience a major work by Kraig Grady, courtesy of Another Timbre. Like so many who are dedicated to exploring alternative tuning systems, Grady is a composer more often heard about than heard. In these cases, you are often left wondering the value lies more in the advancement of musical theory than in artistic statements. For some of us, at least, alternative tunings are always worth hearing at least once, if only for the opportunity of hearing something you’ve never heard before; beyond that is the opening up of new possibilities for musical expression, the reminder that there is always a different way of making art. As always, when you find music which is pleasurable and fulfilling, any underlying theory is ultimately immaterial, but it always makes me a little wary when a piece wears its theory on its sleeve, as though it were seeking to justify its existence on extraneous grounds.

Monument Of Diamonds (possibly written as MONUMENT OF DIAMONDS) was composed using a 17-tone version of the ‘meta-Slendro’ tuning system created by Erv Wilson. Based on the Slendro scales heard in a lot of South-East Asian music, the tuning takes advantage of the scales’ harmonic uniformity, where no intervals have a distinctively strong consonance in priority over others. It may inevitably sound exotic to Western ears at first, but never sounds strongly “out” or wrong. Grady exploits the lack of traditional harmonic hierarchy to create a piece that develops without the usual concurrent changes in tonal tension and release. It does still develop, but in ways that are both more intellectual and more primal.

It is often noted that music based more closely on harmonic principles than on Western equal temperament tends to move more slowly – maybe to let those novel tuning ratios sink in, but more because the sounds seem to settle into the ear better, even as the brain may rebel. Grady has picked up this correlation with Eastern art: “Someone once said that the difference between Western and Eastern art was that the West is always searching beyond its confines while the East is concerned with going deeper into what is already there.” Monument Of Diamonds picks up on that exterior immobility in a novel way. For all its harmonic intricacy, the work is experienced by the listener as a vast monad. After repeated hearings, I still get the weird sensation that even as every change in pitch and intervals are clearly registered in my consciousness, the music doesn’t change. While there is movement and rhythm within the work, the affect remains the same. What is even stranger is that such an effect on the listener usually renders all the musicians’ activity dull or pointless, killing all interest, but here it exerts a compelling fascination. It’s getting to be a cliché to call a piece meditative, but Grady has truly created a sonic object for contemplation, a passage of time to be observed. The music’s triumph comes in holding the listener’s attention in all of its usual cognitive aspects without ever imposing upon them.

It’s not ambient, either. Best to play it loud, so the opening notes are present and clear – the volume slowly swells up into an overpowering force before ebbing away again. The sound is, well, monumental. This is largely down to the musicians, and Grady’s unusual way of recording the piece. For the level of precision needed to get the harmonies right, the recording is made up from sampling and sequencing, but it’s a kind of holistic, deep sampling. Grady worked closely with the musicians – Subhraag Singh playing his own Infinitone saxophone, with Kris Tiner and Emmett Kim Narushima playing conventional trumpets and trombones respectively – as they prepared to record each pitch, “engaged in the act of playing meditations on single notes”. Towards the end, Terumi Narushima adds an electric organ to the mix. Grady has evidently left electronic manipulation to a minimum, letting the musicians’ phrasing (of single notes), duration and expression guide his sequencing. That human element and subtle colouration takes what initially sounds like purely synthesised sound and pushes it into something a little unworldly.

Reprise: Eventless Plot, Catherine Lamb

Monday 7 December 2020

They’ve already put out some great stuff this year, but in the last couple of months both Eventless Plot and Catherine Lamb have each released another album. While Eventless Plot’s Another Timbre album Parallel Words showed the trio – Vasilis Liolios, Yiannis Tsirikoglou and Aris Giatas – acting as group composers for a small ensemble, Surfaces places the focus back on them as performers. It’s, basically, percussion: there are electronics at work in there – Max/MSP, that sort of thing – as well as plain old electrical devices, and the sleeve notes assure the listener that there really is an analog modular synth and guitar to be heard somewhere, too. The percussion instruments and associated sounds of small, amplified objects predominate, with the more technically advanced devices being used in a similar percussion-like manner. By ‘percussion-like’, I mean here that the trio takes the approach to percussion described by Vinko Globokar in his essay “Anti-Badabum“, where they treat their instruments “simply to invest each movement, however innocuous it first seems to be, with a meaning.” The technique is akin to James Tenney’s percussion postcard pieces, or John Cage’s later percussion works, alive to the inherent sonic qualities of objects. If there’s a compositional scheme behind this recording, then it’s sufficiently loose to allow for this type of exploration. The title Surfaces describes both their manner of playing and the music they make: passages of sound whose gross attributes appear static while being constantly alive and changing with subtle variations in timbre and texture. Ageing mechanical devices combined with inspired instrumental choices and insidious granular synthesis produce a complex, organic sound. At one critical point, they would appear to leave one piece of equipment running alone, just doing its thing.

Fresh from hearing Catherine Lamb’s vast synthesiser opus wave/forming (astrum), I’m now returned to more familiar turf with her Prisma Interius VII & VIII. The Prisma Interius series is written for live musicians with added harmonic resonance from synthesisers, made by taking sound from outside the performance space as a source for subtractive synthesis. The dynamics and coloration form a kind of harmonic space which contains the musicians inside a rarefied environment, a world that can define its own passing of time. Both pieces here stretch out towards forty minutes without ever feeling long, or even particularly slow. I’ve heard parts of this cycle before, with the same lightness of touch and faint folkish traces, but Prisma Interius VII seems to be the clearest expression in this series yet. Regular collaborator Johnny Chang on solo violin evokes a time and place with a simplicity of melody that’s unobtrusive enough to seem inevitable. The harmonic coloration is faint at first, then grows in your consciousness while never dominating, always an elusive counterpart, a true dialogue de l’ombre double (without Boulez’ crude and distracting manipulations). It has that fusion of form and content as experienced in nature, where you grasp it at once but keep coming back to it differently each time. Prisma Interius VIII expands from solo to the Harmonic Space Orchestra, an all-star ensemble on tenor recorder and low strings. For what it loses in lightness of touch, it gains in a wider pitch spectrum and drama, without stooping to the dramatic. Sometimes, the musicians stop, leaving you to wonder how the silence might reassert itself.

Liquid Transmitter / Jamie Drouin

Thursday 3 December 2020

Two of Jamie Drouin’s personae at work here. As Liquid Transmitter, Arboreal continues on from where Meander left off. Bell-like synth tones and clear washes overlap in old-school ambient tones. Nothing drones on, but comes and goes; events are sparse enough to create transparent textures. The timbres of the sounds remain simple, too. There are loops, but never heard in full more than a few times for each piece. It all sounds more linear and (slo-o-wly melodic) than Meander, with those long, sparing loops giving each piece a song-like feel while at the same time each track dwells on a single place.

Released under his own name, Drouin’s Touch: Works for Solo Dancer is both more specific and more abstract. The dance referred to is intended, not yet extant. Unlike Arboreal, he reveals the tools used here: Buchla synthesizer, tape and digital treatments. This older generation of electronic equipment produces suitably crusty sounds, with more noise in the system and specific pitches blunted or entirely absent. Presented in two parts, the music avoids obvious rhythms, repeats, steady pulses or continuity, even breaking down into silence from time to time. Droun specifies that either or both parts may be used for dance, but must be used whole. It’s an intriguing two-dimensional sound sculpture that opens up spaces more than it fills them in.

Marcus Schmickler: Richters Patterns

Monday 30 November 2020

For the past ten years I’ve been quietly kicking myself for not paying more attention to Marcus Schmickler’s compositions, failing to twig that they were more than just a sideline for a pseudonymous laptop-noise bro taking a stab at respectability and/or grants. Having been impressed by his Rule Of Inference, with its takes on Gesualdo and dervied works< I've been hanging out to hear more. Richters Patterns is a decent chunk of more recent works, a double CD from Tochnit Aleph. The five pieces here show a number of Schmickler’s interests working together to produce strong music of equal sensory and intellectual interest.

The title work, a 30-minute piece for large ensemble with Schmickler contributing with his computer, sounds the most conventional – at first. A collaboration with filmmaker Corinna Belz, the piece employs Gerhard Richter’s recent use of digital manipulation and printing to produce mirrored and repeated sections of one of his abstract paintings, in ever thinner slices. While Belz transfored these slices into a moving image, Schmickler made a musical analogue, producing an extended composition of varying degrees of activity within an overall frame of stasis: largely still, occasionally hurried, but never moving. Deprived of the movie, a casual listener may not divine the structural principles at work, as Schmickler has developed his language beyond the statement of an idea. The computer’s contribution to the music is not obvious, except maybe to make Ensemble Musikfabrik sound like a bigger orchestra (they flesh out the sound very well in any case, apparently playing without a conductor here.)

Kemp Echoes was first performed as part of a concert wedged between two of Stockhausen’s classic works combining live musicians with electronic processing. Mikrophonie II and Mixtur heralded Stockhausen’s love affair with ring modulators, employing them to create complex tones and new frequency spectra through their interaction with acoustic sound. Kemp Echoes is a tour de force in auditory phenomena, acting as history, research, summary and status report all at once. It starts innocently enough before mutating into a constant succession of sliding tones, beating frequencies, modulations, subtones and psychoacoustic phenomena. Schmickler’s computer is present here, but not always where you think: he draws upon subsequent use in composition of the harmonic series and microtonality, as used by spectralist composers, and working with Musikfabrik’s oboist Peter Veale to produce ring modulation effects through purely acoustic means. It’s a superb example of embracing the futuristic idealism of the postwar avant-garde while also showing how much of that idealism has been achieved or surpassed by means which we now take for granted. Yeah, it’s also a trip. I hope the premiere recorded here isn’t the only performance.

The remaining pieces may be less substantial, but two are equally enjoyable. Fokker Bifurcations is a microtonal set of rising arpeggios for Yarn/Wire’s ensemble of keyboard and mallet instruments that revels in its weirdness of melty, jangled harmonies and odd pitches. There’s a healthy mix of a good ear for exciting sounds and compositional chops in all of these pieces, so that you can be knocked out by the sonic novelty of certain moments without ever getting impatient waiting to hear “the good bit” again. The album concludes with ATA OTO, a collaboration with the Logos Foundation and their robot instruments. This could be a goof-off, but Logos’ robots make above-average mechanical and electronic noises, with incongruous overlaps, entries, exits and mix-matching between them. It’s not clear from the notes if Schmickler had any compositional role in the piece or if he’s just jamming along with the bots.

Although it’s the longest piece here, E-UROPAS / Plurality of Centers comes across as the slightest. A Cagean collage of cultural critique, it wears its cultural thesis of post-postmodernity as its prime material, first in one channel, then in the other. Large fragments of Cage (speaking), Berg and George Crumb are sampled and played back, and looped. The speakers quote cultural critique at length, in English and German. Everything glides over the top of everything else with Cagean placidity, at odds with the political urgency in the texts by the likes of Debord and Cardew. If we’re up on our theory (or recent music history) it feels oldfashioned and trite, as though trying and failing to achieve a synthesis; if we’re not, then it’s indulgent or patronising. Each part cancels out another, resulting in cultural nullity; this may be the point but it doesn’t seem worth the time of effort. This is by far the oldest piece here, from 2006: not only an earlier stage of Schmickler’s development but a different world, one that already seems more of a leftover of the last century than the present.

Having ended on a bummer, I should note that the album in toto is worth more than the current asking price of the download.

Mega-post: mostly Insub but also Mappa and Roeba

Sunday 22 November 2020

I’ve been listening to a bunch of collaborative recordings and group compositions over lockdown and meaning to do justice to them, but in my head they started to link up to each other to make a gargantuan meta-piece which I am now struggling to disentangle back into their distinct elements. I’ve heard some of these musicians before, in different combinations, while others are new to me. Patterns for a future human pairs Barry Chabala’s steel-string acoustic guitar with Lance Austin Olsen’s sound collages (the latter credited with ‘field recordings’ and nothing more). The music draws inspiration from Olsen’s folded and layered paintings; for his part, the sounds incorporate broadcasts, electrical sounds and audio documentation of his studio to build up a ruminative montage that opens the mind to speculation. It acts as a drape for Chabala’s guitar, colouring and commenting on his playing, although his solos were played over Olsen’s collages. Chabala plays melodies that quickly break up into fragmentary gestures, as though itself collaged. For the second, longer piece any connotations of folk music have all but disappeared as his playing becomes more halting and disruptive, with melody ever more elusive. It’s a strange mix. There’s a programme ascribed here, as alluded to in the title – the tone is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, only unknowable, if not unrelateable.

I’ve heard Otherwise, a previous release by Hübsch, Martel, Zoubek, but don’t think I wrote about it. I think I had a hard time finding something to say about it. Their new album Ize has made a much stronger impression on me, so I’ll assume it’s an improvement. It can be facile to describe music as being “like Feldman” when it stays in a slow and quiet steady-state throughout, just as it can now be facile to to play in that manner. In this case, the music and the description do the term justice. Carl Ludwig Hübsch’s tuba helps, adding a recognisable timbre to the mix and anchoring the music, making its presence felt equally when it falls silent. The five pieces here turn between tender and sombre, with a similar (but not corresponding) shifting in musical approach between the reductive and the reticently lyrical. This is most strikingly heard in the long track Kolt, which starts with Philip Zoubek’s tentative prepared piano and ends with a long, high pitched drone that sets an oscillator beating against Pierre-Yves Martel’s pitch pipes. There are electronics, but these dissapear behind piano, tuba and Martel’s viola da gamba. The incongruous combination of instruments comes together clearest at the end, when they conclude with an endless, slow-motion falling that also brings out the strongest late Feldman evocation.

There’s a back-and-forth across all these albums, between expressivity and restraint. Guitarist Cristián Alvear, so often the exemplar of Wandelweiser’s parsimonious attitude towards notes, cuts as loose as I’ve ever heard him in this set of duets with fellow guitarist Burkhard Stangl. The Pequeños fragmentos de una música discreta are untitled except for one marked ‘(almost sad music)’. “Almost” comes up several times in the brief cover notes, but they’re being too coy. The music can be proudly described as charming, downright beguiling. Alvear and Stangl share a constantly engaging interplay of instruments that never tries to dazzle the listener with bravado. Even as they lightly touch on allusions to folk and classical guitar, there’s a dignified formality that adds to the charm as each piece reveals its character through confidently employed technique. For each piece with interlocking rhythmic patterns, or gently cascading runs of notes (as in No. 4), there is a contrasting piece such as No. 5, a study in microtonal differences between the two trading harmonics. No. 2 introduces extraneous techniques, with (I presume) Stangl laying down e-bowed notes and rubbed strings as a counterpart to a slowly circling melody. The reticence of the ‘(almost sad music)’ is set against scratchy radio sounds. Bass tones appear in the final part, to end in appropriately melancholy fashion.

Making the Pequeños fragmentos seem florid by comparison, Bow down thine ear, I bring you glad tidings is a brace of works jointly made by Alvear and d’incise that reduces their music practice to base elements. Alvear’s acoustic guitar is paired with percussive “tuned objects” played by d’incise, who subsequently processed their playing in a room different from the one they were in at the time. Alvear’s playing is meticulous, repeating short patterns of clear, single notes at a steady pulse. d’incise’s percussion matches Alvear before straying into adding colouration through resonances and lingering overtones. The use of reverberation, both natural and electronic, provides the majority of the perceptible changes in these two pieces. On the rare occasions the material does change, it seems less momentous than the long-term effects it will have on the prevailing ambience. Both pieces find the musicians working in a highly constricted space, yet making enough room for themselves to make the music develop and flourish. It’s a paradox that strikes the listener as tension, whose lack of resolution becomes its own, slowly earned gratification.

ATRL is a trio of Sébastien Bouhana on percussion, Christophe Berthet on reeds and Raphaël Ortis on electric bass. Written down like that, it sounds like a recipe for jazz, but Inclusio is a set of three concise pieces tied down just as tight as Bow down thine ear. Ortis is credited as composer. Ominously subdued percussion and tapped bass gallops through Contenir, abruptly cross-cut by flat planes of wind tones or faint electrical humming. All three pieces are similarly constricted, bound by a heavy grid of regular pulsations and suddent juxtapositions of static blocks of sound. Renfermer sticks up strident sax drones against mechanistic percussion. Comprendre is a more tractable drone of interweaving horns and whistling, intruded on by a return of the insistent bass tapping from the start. All three play these oblique, alientating pieces with a directness and precision that seems fittingly less (or more) than human.

Stumblebum Aesthetics and Secluded Bronte

Monday 16 November 2020

There’s radical amateurism and then there’s amateurism that may happen to be radical. I am listening to some defiantly amateurish music-making from the Far East, which is making it quite clear that this is not some highly refined culture from an exotic land which I Just Don’t Get. Xu Shaoyang’s pair of Live from underpass recordings, made in Beijing and Taipei, greet bemused pedestrians with brief group improvisations in etiolated song structures, described in the blurb as “ramshackle” and “non-dogmatic”. I still don’t get it, and assume that there’s a pointed pointlessness to it as with much Soviet art, where a lot of faff is needed to encrypt stuff a dedadent Westener would take for granted, so that said Westener then complacently assumes there’s nothing more to it. The Beijing gig includes recorders and kazoos, those perennial signifiers of the amateur, while the Tapei gig buzzes with electricity. I would gladly attend either set live, if only to be outside at a gig on a balmy evening again, preferably with access to beer.

Amateurism becomes a curse when it is elevated as a surrogate for authenticity, that most overvalued of artistic qualities. One has to convince the audience that there is no reason to do things any better, lest one be accused, falsely or not, of playing the stumblebum. Firas Khnaisser and Ali Robertson’s Inspiring Capital is so laid-back that with slightly less effort it could disappear altogether. Recorded in an Edinburgh park during a festival time rendered inert by Covid, it presents the two local musicians simply enjoying the unexpecetd peace. Meanwhile in Huddersfield, the new release from Pressure Carcass, titled Yeast Queen, collects one hundred and twenty-something phone recordings made around town. The sound quality is generic mono, the content displays a Duchampian indifference. It presents life as drama with the boring bits left in, leaving you to decide if it’s instructive or a distraction. If there’s something you want to hear again, it’s buried somewhere in those 150 minutes (advance publicity promised us three hours, so I assume some curatorial discernment took place).

On the other hand, there’s Secluded Bronte, the free improv power trio of Adam Bohman, Jonathan Bohman and Richard Thomas. They may seem amateurish and homespun in their noisemaking and slapdash in their execution, but their collection The Horns of Andromeda is an expertly paced collage of finely crafted sounds. Like true sophisticates, their complexity is worn lightly, with a transparency that lands each brief track with an immediate impact on the listener yet sustains repeated exposure as greater depths and connections are revealed. Extracted from various performances, each musician’s experience and finely tuned sensibility comes to the fore. The abundant verbiage carries authority even as it steers into gibberish, the funny bits work through sly self-awareness. Most importantly, the self-indulgent, insider fascination with craft is entirely absent here, as divergent genres and techniques are fully embraced and then dumped again with equal enthusiasm. If there’s irony here, then it is more seductive than alienating. At odds with the vast bulk of free improv, it delivers what is so frequently, misguidedly, incorrectly promised: surprise and delight.