Music We’d Like to Hear, 2023 (part 1)

Sunday 9 July 2023

Fresh from hearing Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop together on record in Laurence Crane’s Natural World, on Friday I heard them again, live this time, at the first Music We’d Like to Hear concert for the year. They performed the soprano and piano reduction of Satie’s Socrate, a piece which, despite the decades of belated praise and reassessment, must still be described as unfairly overlooked. Certainly, opportunities to hear it in any form are all too rare, even though by now Satie’s magnum opus must surely hold more sway over contemporary music practice than, say, Pierrot Lunaire. Fraser and Knoop gave the first part a disarmingly clean, alert character before making ‘Les bords de l’Ilissus’ soft and lingering, only in the final part reaching towards the “whiteness” of expression Satie desired even as word and music might be expected to reach an emotional peak, letting subject and manner taper off into stillness.

The concert had already begun with the lulling effect of Bea Redweik’s Songs as Process, a “pre-concert event” in which Redweik strummed and plucked an acoustic guitar while half singing, half murmuring to herself while accompanied by video of herself doing the same thing at home. The two echoed and circled around each other, blurring into the effect of having heard a song without registering or retaining its details, partway between performance and installation. There were parallels to be found with Walter Zimmermann’s Abgeschiedenheit, which began Knoop’s solo recital after the interval. If the deconstructed folklorism associated with Zimmermann’s music is present in this piece, then it is in a highly abstracted form: a labyrinth of long, straight corridors and empty rooms where refrains appear haphazardly. Knoop played through it with suitable directness, eschewing mystery to present a disorientating experience as a disturbing presence that refuses to reveal any secrets. The concert concluded with Galina Ustvolskaya’s fourth and sixth sonatas. (This might be the first time two pianists have tackled the sixth in different venues in the same town on consecutive nights, Siwan Rhys having thrown herself into it at Southbank on Thursday.) Knoop made the most of distinguishing fine grades of dynamics in these notoriously forceful, single-minded compositions and threw himself straight into the sixth without without waiting for applause after the fourth. The massed clusters and stamped out single notes are a punishing experience, even as their tangled sonorities both reveal and allude to larger orchestral details within their stark outlines. Even so, Knoop held something in reserve to make the forearm clusters towards the end hammer home with even greater force. It was a Haessler piano and it held up very well.

Explore and EXAUDI premiere Lamb and Lang

Sunday 2 July 2023

The Spitalfields Music Festival doubles as a way of visiting some of the historic churches of London, and so last I evening I sat in a pew beside the reposing effigy of Tubby Clayton in All Hallows-by-the-Tower, a church with remaining parts dated back to Anglo-Saxon times, to hear the Explore Ensemble give two premieres by Catherine Lamb and Klaus Lang. (A few streets away is St Mary At Hill, home of next weekend’s Music We’d Like To Hear concerts.) The concert began with a 2021 composition by Lara Agar, titled Ham after the chimpanzee fired into space. It’s a curious piece, with cello, piano, synth and electric guitar dispersed around the nave and side-aisles, musicians bedecked in fairy lights and/or tinfoil hats. With its opinion-column subject matter, abstracted narrative and harmless eccentricities in musical language and presentation, it reminded me of that generation of ‘modern’ Australian composers who felt defensive enough to answer to their audience by using their work primarliy to justify their existence, while also sugaring the pill.

For Catherine Lamb’s color residua, the string players of Explore were joined by three voices from EXAUDI, soprano, mezzo and baritone. It’s a concise work, in comparison to recent pieces I’ve heard by her, but I would have been happy for it to continue beyond its ten minutes. The voices, wordless, non-vibrato, soft even when in registers above or below what you would usually expect, interact with the strings in ways that produce unexpected tones recalling other instruments and pitches, using these effects as a third group of instruments that blends in amongst those present in the hall. It’s a warmer, more tender piece than Lamb’s usual work; she has developed her use of just intonation and harmonic tuning to a point where the psychoacoustic phenomena decisively colours the music without drawing attention to itself, allowing the sounds to flow without an apparent need to direct them to any specific end.

Composer Klaus Lang’s long work march (william morris) was composed for the Explore Ensemble, whose musicians have a talent for taking the most distant and cold material on the page and imbuing it with colour and breath, however faint it may be – a kind of interpreter’s empathy for their subject, no matter how forbidding. Lang himself was there to play the church’s organ for the premiere, with Explore forming a group of piano, flute and clarinet with string trio. I don’t think I’ve been to a live performance of Lang’s music before, but this was not the experience of hearing him in an ancient church that I had imagined. With so much of his music predicated on the inaudible (whether implied or actual), march (william morris) is a multi-movement work filled with sound and activity. Seven parts arranged symmetrically, the piece begins with a steady flurry of high piano arpeggios blurred and reverberated by sustained notes on strings and organ, aided by sporadic flourishes on piccolo and E-flat clarinet. Three slow chorales for ensemble make up the inner movements, interleaved by two interludes for solo piano. The ensemble plays staggered chords that rock and lilt, but never lull the listener into relaxation; the organ renders the instruments amorphous and strange while the piano interjects with pedal points. In each iteration, the tone is lower and darker, with the winds playing bass flute and bass clarinet by the penultimate movement, but the pace is not as ‘glacial’ as the programme notes suggest. The piano interludes, however, are extremely sparse and reticent, pastorales slowed to the point of gaps opening up in the music, pricking the anxiety that some further detail needs to be filled in.

Has Lang gone Hollywood? That would be an overstatement, but in his programme notes he writes about William Morris being the impetus for this new piece, using the stanzas of his poem “March” to guide each of the inner ensemble movements. Lang relates Morris to his own thoughts in his essay “The Return of Craft”, finding parallels between the Victorian era and our own, making art a refutation of the increasing use of cheaply automated manufacturing and digitalisation and the concomitant effect of diminishing our abilities in concentration, patience and skill. While Lang’s own compositional skills are more overtly evident than before in his new piece, it’s strange how his previous music has embodied this refutation of short-term materialism, while march (william morris) is less an exemplar and more an expression of anxiety of his own situation, shifting from object to subject.

All Hallows-by-the-Tower sits just above the old Circle and District tube lines and so their periodic rumble provided an accompaniment throughout the concert, functioning as an extra bourdon stop to the organ in a way that never really seemed out of place with the music.

Pauline Oliveros and Chamber Music

Tuesday 27 June 2023

Pauline Oliveros is one of those artists whose genius is sufficiently radical for her vast legacy to be generally acknowledged but rarely examined. A cursory review of her career highlights her pioneering work in electronics, free improvisation and psychosomatic music, but until now her work as a composer for ensembles has been overshadowed by the focus on the meditative and collaborative aspects of her practice. The imbalance is being addressed by two new albums, the first from Another Timbre featuring members of Apartment House. Sound Pieces collects six pieces, composed between 1975 and 1998, and marks a critical introduction to performance of Oliveros’ music without her direct involvement. The earliest piece here may also be the best known: Horse sings from cloud has appeared in a couple of versions on Oliveros’ albums and on this occasion uses clarinet, violin, viola, cello and percussion to produce long tones held over sustained chords. With one exception, the realisations here are all compact pieces, sub-10 minutes each. These works, David Tudor from 1980, Quintessential and From unknown silences from 1996, and 1998’s Sound Piece present distinct works that juxtapose sounds in novel ways. Quintessential, for example, places isolated sounds into a freely-arranged structure, while David Tudor finds new ways of creating continuities through joint activity. It’s curious that the pieces don’t seem to belong to a particular point in time, with no sign of reflecting trends or fashions whether in the Seventies or the Nineties. These are text pieces, giving brief instructions to the performers, so it’s easier to associate them with the late 1960s, particularly Christian Wolff’s open compositions which find a form through the musicians’ consensus. This field of interpretation is grist for the mill for Apartment House, a collective who can make even the least promising material come alive. Apparently, practically no rehearsal went into most of these recordings, placing musicians who have worked together frequently with some newer faces to create music very much focused in the moment. Despite the strong spiritual associations with much of Oliveros’ later work, the emphasis in these pieces is on the immediate experience of sound, without reliance on a grander philosophical (or theosophical) aspiration to give the music meaning: compare with Stockhausen’s ‘intuitive music’ to hear the contrast.

The long work on the album is the forty-minute Tree/Peace from 1984, for string trio with piano. It is structured in seven sections and provides specific pitches for the musicians to work with, but leaves the deployment of that material open to their interpretation of associations to be found in the programmatic text. The album’s presentation shies away from the drama school connotations of the interpretative text, possibly for the best, as Apartment House produce a slender but substantial chamber work of small but significant contrasts in atmosphere and texture, with points of structural reference and moments that almost resemble traditional compositional development. In their hands, at least, the work has an unassuming but assertive presence with greater and lesser characteristics that become more apparent with each listen; a far cry from the usual homophonous haze associated with meditative music.

Meanwhile in Canada, Art Metropole has released a provocative testament to Oliveros with their book and album Resonance Gathering. The audio component begins with a spoken word piece by IONE, poet and Oliveros’ widow. Recorded in their home in 2021, The Sound Of Awakening alternates speech and silence, with phrases that start on the self and move outwards in situation and history. It describes a struggle between individual and collective, of progress and setbacks. Old battles return with new significance, throwing the past into a different light. It’s a fitting introduction to the recording of Oliveros’ large composition To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation, which takes up the remainder of the album. Composed in 1970 for anything from six people to a large orchestra, it presents her group methods on a larger scale, at a turning point between her earlier and later approaches to music. Using coloured lighting for the space, changes in colour cue the musicians on how to use the five pitches they have selected in advance, singly or in groups, with greater or lesser freedom. Notes are played long and allow for wide ranges of modulation. The performance heard here comes from the end of a series of concerts and rehearsals in Toronto by the collective Public Recordings and artist/composer Christopher Willes. There’s about twenty people, musicians and non-musicians, producing an immense, vibrant wall of sound reminiscent of some of the Scratch Orchestra’s concerts-cum-public rallies or a particularly wild Fluxus gig. The apparent simplistic directness of the score, which strikes us now as a marker of that time, carries with it at least some self-awareness often lacking in politically-charged art, with a consciousness of the contradictory implications to imposing self-discipline. That, along with the single-mindedness of a diverse group, affords the piece some enduring power. As listeners, we cannot say if the concert experience was agitating as well as agitated, but it’s good to hear a spirited approach to a piece that gets namedropped but otherwise never heard. Well, here it’s heard in part: three fifteen-minutes excerpts from each large section, with fades in between, from a piece written to be 135 minutes. It would be preferable to have access to the whole thing as a download, in addition to the versions prepped for a limited edition double-LP plus book. As an aural appendix, the book comes with a flexidisc of long tones recorded by the individual orchestra members which you are invited to manipulate to create lock grooves. Perversely, the download provides a demonstration but not the stems for your own non-destructive creative session.

The Unexpected: Robert Piotrowicz, Jérôme Noetinger and Anthony Pateras

Thursday 22 June 2023

Had not one but two very pleasant surprises from Penultimate Press; well, more than two really. I’m sure I’ve never heard of Robert Piotrowicz before: he’s a Polish composer and sound artist (don’t panic) and I wish I knew more about him because the three pieces on Afterlife are the kind of serious fun I can really get behind. These are fully electronic pieces, although what is sampled and what is synthesised remains elusive. They work as extended studies in hyperreality, made all the more hallucinatory by using that grey area between physical and virtual as the starting premise instead of the ultimate goal. Piotrowicz has created what sounds like an enormous pipe organ, tuned in 1/3-tones instead of conventional instrumentation and capable of summoning and dispelling entire ranks of additional stops at the wave of a hand. The first two pieces, Rozpylenie (Overdusting) and Noumen seethe and scintillate, making sudden turns in mood and harmonies in ways that seem capricious yet also calculated to retain tension and concentration as he shapes each piece in ways that verge on sheets of electronic noise without ever quite shedding an uncanny resemblence to the acoustic phenomena of organ pipes (which in turn can be pretty uncanny in themselves). The title work is as long as the first two put together and forgoes the tighter focus to produce a dirge-like chorale that swings back and forth between denatured chords to build up auditory hallucinations and then strip them away, only to find new apparitions lurking underneath.

I said more than two surprises because although it was nice to see a new release by Jérôme Noetinger and Anthony Pateras I somehow expected a kind of follow-up to their contemplative A Sunset For Walter from a few years back. Nuh-uh. 15 Coruscations is an entirely different beast: a suite of electroacoustic vignettes that build up into a deceptively devastating montage of analogue and digital electronics with manipulated found sounds that traverse the highest and lowest ends of the genre. The piano is gone, but the tape-munching and synth module graffiti remain, along with more subtle and devious collaging methods, created both in real time and the editing suite. The sounds are fresh and things move fast, mixing and matching ephemera with a quick-witted decisiveness reminiscient of the most subsersive pop art. (There’s that idea of serious fun again.) Too wise to identify a specific target for their subversion, Noetinger and Pateras nevertheless hone in on their theme; as the sequence progresses, the pacing of events broadens out and leads the listener into more reflective spaces. As the novelty and restlessness dissipates, the greater focus on sound and atmosphere holds the listener in the expectation that darker forces could erupt at any moment. It’s a neatly freighted expression of hope. Both of these albums look like they could be released on vinyl but apparently aren’t because screw inferior-sounding consumer object fetishism.

Juliet Fraser Sings Lucier, Armstrong, Crane

Monday 19 June 2023

All That Dust has released its fifth batch of recordings, three of them as downloads in binaural audio. I went to the launch concert on Wednesday to hear live performances of some of the solo pieces by Rósa Lind and Soosan Lolavar, as well as a spatialised electronic piece by Aaron Einbond. I’ll get round to them later, but for now I want to mention the two binaural releases featuring soprano and label co-founder Juliet Fraser. The first is a performance of Alvin Lucier’s Wave Songs, a piece I don’t think has been commercially available before now. There are eleven short, wordless songs accompanied by two sine wave oscillators close enough in frequency to create beating tones that can be counted. The singer is required to sing tones precisely specified above or below either electronic frequency. Exact pitch is hard to discern when the interference of close frequencies create pulses, and with each successive piece the difference between the two sine waves narrows, from 48 hertz in the first piece down to 0.5 hertz in the last. To stay as accurate as the score requires is an excercise in futility, yet the pursuit of an ideal is as much of what makes us human as our failure to achieve it. As with much of Lucier’s work, the musical interest comes from the discrepancies between scientific perfection and human intervention, with no need to exaggerate the degree of their deviation. Fraser sings in a way which mixes precision with a softer edge (compare and contrast her rendition of Morton Feldman’s Three Voices with the version by Joan La Barbara, who first performed Wave Songs) that makes each song pulsate and shimmer. I lied when I said it’s wordless; the penultimate song sets words by Lee Lozano, the artist whose paintings inspired the piece, on the human limitations on transforming science into art. Despite all this, the music doesn’t rely on a romantic notion of imperfection: if someone were to sing it perfectly, it would be as stupendous as Giotto drawing a circle freehand.

Newton Armstrong’s The Book of the Sediments is one of a set of pieces Fraser has commissioned that draw on the writings of Rachel Carson for inspiration. Armstrong’s use of electronic shadowing of introspective melody is reduced here to essences, focusing on fragments of text reiterated in slowly rising patterns while overlapped by microtonally-tuned electronic sounds. The comparison with Wave Songs is instructive, with some 25 years of history intervening between the two works. At first the impression is that of a more developed Lucier piece, as solid tones beat against each other and Fraser’s calm recital of charged words, but the sounds from the speakers steadily grow more complex, sounding more and more like acoustic instruments before crackling, scattered rain-like sounds cover everything. The theme of the piece is accretion, as one layer replaces another, and the ending does not suggest a final state has been reached, just that observation of the process has concluded.

Another of the Rachel Carson works recently released, this time on Another Timbre, is Laurence Crane’s Natural World, an odd and affecting work of some duration. Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop wend their way through song and field recordings with a pacing that’s too slow to be considered relaxed and too deliberate to be dreamlike. After a lengthy introduction of descending piano phrases and unresolved cadences, Fraser enters with nature observations sung in repeated, gradually rising lines. The pairing with genteel chordal accompaniment makes it all seem rather stately, in a quaint and English countryside way. The qualities of Fraser’s voice come to the fore here, imbuing the words with a mixture of simple dignity and melancholy. The tone is reminiscent of Crane’s earlier European Towns, also premiered by Fraser, both in its cycling of lists and its wistful atmosphere. At times, human music gives way to recordings of nature, before resuming on a slightly different tack from before. Natural World falls into two long sections, ‘Field Guide’ and ‘Seascape’, with a briefer chorus as an interlude, making a piece nearly an hour long. The Chorus is a vocalise of descending glissadi, accompanied by birdsong and somewhat bluesy piano chords. Before ‘Seascape’ begins, the piano has given way to a small, portable electronic keyboard which plays high, reedy drones. The voice alternates between recitation and folksong-like refrains as the subject transitions from land to water. It’s a difficult piece to pull off, with its strange construction, loose seams and surface naivety, requiring confidence in the resilience of the slight materials to hold the listener in suspense as it wanders from one passage to another. Fraser and Knoop laregly succeed by maintaining seriousness without demonstrative earnestness, investing faith in the tangible phenomena depicted in words and on tape while refraining from introspection as a poor substitute. In this approach as much as the slightly awkward, almost apologetic candour that prevails throughout, it comes across as a distinctly English work.

Learning Alphabets with Dominic Coles

Sunday 11 June 2023

Dominic Coles has been working on music that skirts along the edges of speech for some time, but on Alphabets he also skirts along the edges of music. As with his earlier Wandelweiser release everyone thinks their dreams are interesting, dreams are once again the material but not the subject. While that set of pieces transformed speech into short bursts of electronic noise, Alphabets presents itself as a lesson in translation. Most of the album is taken up by the fifty-odd minute alphabet 1: p-u-s-h, which takes snippets of speech from a recollection of a dream and juxtaposes the phonemes with a parallel context of associated electronic sounds. The sounds are thin and astringent, functioning as symbols instead of sensory allusions. The words are repeated, clipped short or cut long. “Repeat any word over and over and listen as it gradually loses its meaning in the mouth.” The electronic sounds may substitute words by repeated association, while simultaneously occluding any semantic connection between word, sound or reference. Silences are frequent, often seeming longer than the sounds.

Is it music? Yeah. With its pedagogical structure, somewhere between rote-learning and indoctrination, meagre sound resources and emphasis on language, Coles teases that he’s testing the boundaries of what might be considered musical while retaining the essential form and content. What really confounds the listener’s appreciation of this music is that it is impossible to ignore. It’s too alienating and intrusive to leave as a background, but almost too exhausting to listen to it closely. To take the piece’s apparent expectation seriously at face value, is to buy into a deeper conundrum that Coles is implicitly raising in his music, skewering the bien-pensant notions of music and language sharing some ineffable bond. As with any diligent pursuit of the idea, the more doggedly one pursues the supposed connection the further it recedes – this thwarting of assumptions may be the most challenging part. The album ends with two shorter pieces, each presented as applied learning from the first work: two more dream fragments with more verbal context yet also with greater periods of sound alone, perversely rendering both more disorientating that what has gone before.

Two Types of Jürg Frey

Friday 26 May 2023

Jürg Frey just turned seventy, which might mark a time to take stock of his work so far. It seems to describe a process of steady development, gradually transforming without any sudden turns. Two new releases focusing on recent ensemble works confirm this view: Borderland Melodies on Another Timbre collects works from 2019, 2021 and a 2020 revision of a work from 2014 which display definite but subtle changes in compositional approach. The Apartment House ensemble turn out for Frey again, featuring Heather Roche on clarinet and Raymond Brien on bass clarinet. The opening title work augments them with violin and cello, each sadly tiptoeing back and forth from one pairing to another until halfway through when a piano interlude appears, then withdraws, without ceremony. From there, the second half seems to proceed slower than the first, as any sense of development or momentum no longer matters. It’s a solemn adagio that that firmly engenders a pensive mood out of its two-note patterns, even as Frey doesn’t seem to be pushing the sounds around too much.

The clarinets are joined by string trio for L’état de simplicité, a work parcelled into four movements. The titles here are all descriptive of the music: À la Limite de sens plays with extremes of range, starting low then staying high, most breath provided by the rasp of strings; Toucher l’air is as faint as possible without dissolving into the imperceptible. La discrète plénitude allows the grouped sonorities of the instruments to play chords that sound quiet but full, then concludes with bare melody of plucked strings with punctuating chords in Les zones neutres. The ideas are the essence of simplicity, even poverty, but in his maturity Frey seeks to flesh out the basic concepts into music that pleases the senses at least as much as the mind. The concluding piece Movement, Ground, Fragility is a half-hour work which unites all the above instruments with unpitched percussion that fills Frey’s silences with a crosshatched background for seemingly selfcontained pitched sonorities. Once again, things change halfway through when the previously inert, unmatched shapes start to fit together in a way that accumulates momentum almost despite itself. Having reached a certain point of development, it quickly fades out instead of seeking a summation.

If you’re familiar with Frey then it all starts to sound a little too familiar, until you start to think about the instruments and realise you’re hearing them as a composite, neither in a functionally expressive role nor as pure “sound in and of itself”. Frey has reached a point where he employs techniques from previous generations of forward-thinking composers in ways that still sound fresh without reducing the instrument’s role to that of a vehicle for transmitting either pitch at one theoretical extreme, or timbre at the other. Elsewhere’s latest disc of Frey’s music is the 51-minute chamber ensemble work Continuit​é​, fragilit​é​, r​é​sonance. Completed in 2021, the piece reunites tow of his repeat collaborators, Quatuor Bozzini on strings and Konus Quartett on (don’t panic) saxophones. Frey has composed quartets for each before, and now he has meshed the two together in this expansive work, with no compunction about letting the full ensemble flow, nor with restrictions on the instruments’ inherent sonorities. In Frey’s own intimate way, it maintains the heft and sweep of a chamber symphony, laying on phrase after phrase of ensemble playing and steadily building things up to an inverted climax where the music suddenly stops. An extended, slightly muted coda follows, which simply ends without a resolution. Does it sound too full? It’s not correct to say that Frey is getting indulgent, for he has been so before, only in his earlier work it was with silences and repetitions. These pieces aren’t breakthoughs or revelations like I Listened to the Wind Again is, but they serve as a consolidation of his art.

More noise, but distant: Andrea Borghi, Evan Lindorff-Ellery

Tuesday 23 May 2023

People keep finding sounds to play with. Andrea Borghi has made the eight pieces on his Palsecam EP by working with VHS tape recorders and their tapes. It reads like a gimmick or an ideas-piece relying less on sound and more on the concept of meta-commentary on dead media and obsolete technology, but it doesn’t play that way. Borghi eschews directness, preferring to use his given means as a technical limitation to guide his process at least as much as his own taste. He ekes out small, faded sounds with a dull electronic patina, keeping the scale of each piece small to concentrate the reduced palette of effects into something detailed but thin. The sounds are fleeting and elusive, refusing to let much stay around or assert its presence enough for your mind to get it in focus. It’s intriguing when you notice what’s going on, letting each moment pass by, although not intriguing enough to attract your attention in the first place, unless you’re tipped off to the gimmick.

The two pieces on Evan Lindorff-Ellery’s Swollen Air are titled Electric Guitar Feedback Field Recording iPhone Objects Contact Mic and Amp Hum Electromagnetic Feedback Field Recordings Contact Objects Mic Handling minimal edit, which gives some insight into the prosaic approach taken here. The two sides of this tape are all about documenting process, using intervening technology like phone recording to dirty up the sound as he coaxes something approaching music from obstinate and limited means. The listener shares in the artist’s process: side 1 ends with Lindorff-Ellery sitting in his hot, stuffy room blowing his nose after feeding bursts of static through his amps; side 2 finds him struggling to maintain momentum as his chosen method proves ultimately unrewarding. I salute his patience but would have appreciated him handling the situation with less equanimity. Perhaps in a live situation it would work better, as he’d have to juggle with the complicating factor of simultaneously holding audience expectations at bay.

Semi-tonal: Petr Bakla, Bekah Simms

Sunday 21 May 2023

The curiously named Late Night Show collects three piano-oriented pieces by Czech composer Petr Bakla. I’ve heard one piece by him before, the orchestral There is an island above the city which I described as “pursuing the more sinister implications of settling down in one place”. The principle applies here too, with each piece taking an idée fixe and drawing elaborating details from it through increasingly close examination rather than through extension; deduction instead of induction, as it were. The pianist Miroslav Beinhauer is the soloist in all three works and his supple playing gives each piece an insidious warmth that draws the listener in to music that could sound obsessive and alienating in harder hands. Bakla’s writing and arrangements help immensely to create this sound, of course; the pair’s skills are demonstrated most overtly in the closing piece, No. 4 for solo piano, which in the second half unexpectedly opens out into florid runs of notes layered with expressive chords, producing a rewarding complexity that feels like a discovery for composer, pianist and listener alike.

This relaxation of musical strictures may be down to the piece being Bakla’s oldest composition on the album, from 2013. The most recent is his very unconventional Piano Concerto No. 2, written in 2021. Miroslav Beinhauer is accompanied by eight members of Brno Contemporary Orchestra, with Pavel Šnajdr conducting. Beinhauer reiterates an ambiguous, rising scale (shades of Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet) set against hocketing low winds, brass and strings that come and go, transforming the stillness into a pulsating, shimmering surface of dark facets which occasionally catch a flash of light. Major Thirds from 2016 is in fact for piano and string quartet and may be the most striking work here, with Beinhauer and the Brno soloists dwelling on an arpeggio that rises and falls without any significant release until any consideration of pitch is irrelevant other than as a vehicle for other musical attributes to establish themselves as the subject. At times the strings slide in pitch, combining with the piano to create complex tones and multiples, at others they provide staggered layers of accompaniment, divided into pairs with one duo playing so softly as to sound like an electronic reverberation of the other.

The blurb to Bakla’s album describes him as working with sounds more than notes, and this could also apply to the Newfoundland composer Bekah Simms, whose style is a type of splintered, or blasted, expressionism using technique to dramatic effect (cf. Lim Barrett Saunders Romitelli). Bestiaries is a brief survey of three ensemble pieces from 2019-20. The performers here – Cryptid Ensemble and Ensemble contemporain de Montréal – keep the energy levels high throughout while still holding the structure tight so the driving force of Simms’ writing never stagnates into pure indulgences of timbre. Foreverdark has amplified cellist Amahl Arulanandam suitably grinding and groaning against an electronically-enhanced ensemble, while Bestiary I & II puts soprano Charlotte Mundy behind the mic with a similar setup. While keeping to the same atmosphere, the vocal work takes a slightly gentler approach and avoids the temptation of strained histrionics, a surprising achievement in itsef. A work for smaller chamber ensemble, from Void maintains the haunted gothicky sound and disturbing noises without the aid of electronics.

Noise versus Noise

Sunday 14 May 2023

I thought something had gone wrong. I’ve been taking a little noise holiday, away from the likes of Jürg Frey for a bit, and figured it was time to get around to the first compilation issued by Party Perfect!!!, another one of these composer collectives who take their irreverence seriously (see website for details). PP-01 begins with an untitled work by Michelle Lou: I know her stuff, right? Finely observed electroacoustic phenomena, that sort of thing. Instead my ears got blitzed with a barrage of harsh electronic noise that made me initially think I had a corrupt file or put on the wrong track. Turns out that Lou’s untitled is a four-part digital electronic suite of ruthlessly clipped and distorted audio that gleefully assaults the senses for forty-seven minutes. Parts of it sound like when you try loading a non-audio file into a media player to see what happens, and I’d like to think some sections are precisely that. When you get past the initial shock, you start to notice the details carved into this brutalist sound scuplture which, together with performative flourishes of bravado, sustain the piece beyond the deadening effect of relentless sonic bludgeoning (cited as an inspiration in the accompanying booklet). After Lou’s piece, there’s another two hours worth of electronic compositions by Stefan Maier, Michael Flora and Other Plastics, each just as abrasive and confrontational. The booklet includes recipes, too; they’re vegetarian, but one is for a barbecue sauce so…

Trombonist Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø has produced a pair of works on Dystopian Dancing that attempt to push solo performance techniques beyond the defined constraints of the instrument. The first was recorded in 2019 and exploits the close amplification of his trombone with air and microphone artifacts to produce unstable constructions that haphazardly flip between pitch and noise. Oversaturation and use of plastic mouthpieces and mutes add to the quasi-electronic atmosphere but in the second half it reverts to an improviser’s comfort zone of exploring extended low-end snorks to play for time. The second piece was made about a year later and projects material from the first into an electroacoustic collage that stays lively for longer, particularly when normal brass sounds re-emerge towards the end, commenting on the chaos with a queasy mock fanfare.

Noise of a completely different kind comes from Jacques Puech’s cabrette. A cabrette is a small French bagpipes, for when regular bagpipes aren’t irritating enough. Gravir / Canon pairs compositions for the instrument by Guilhem Lacroux and Yann Gourdon respectively. In the former Puech overdubs himself with constantly ascending scales at different rates over a steady, clacking rhythm that resembles a kind of folkloric take on James Tenney’s For Ann (Rising), but with the cool psychoacoustic effects replaced by a manic exhilaration that’s both uproarious and a little scary, especially as it just keeps on going. In Gourdon’s Canon Puech is joined by four other cabreteers to play overlapping patterns in a staggered formation as suggested by the title. The gestures are more relaxed here but even so it shares with Gravir the same dogged, obsessive pursuit of a compositional idea until the excessiveness becomes the point. That, with the massed nasal timbre of the pipes creates a bracing, febrile work that you can get a high out of if you’re in the right mood while simultaneously driving your housemates up the wall.

Catherine Lamb: divisio spiralis

Sunday 23 April 2023

After blowing off going to gigs all year I actually made it all the way to Wigmore Hall to hear the JACK Quartet play Catherine Lamb’s divisio spiralis, composed for them in 2019. It’s a long work, just about ninety minutes, punctuated by pauses. The string quartet play with amplification but no other types of electronic processing that Lamb has often used to augment the harmonic space of her music. The quartet plays in just intonation, gradually opening out from a narrow band of frequencies in the higher range, introducing more readily discernible melodic fragments before slowly sinking to the lower depths of their instruments. The melodies and chord changes are plaintive and cadential, particularly as they only briefly rise before gradually tending downwards. The JACK Quartet played this with stoic bravura, using thinned-out, vibratoless tones that nevertheless filled out the sounds with the harmonic spectrum Lamb would have hoped for, with clear ringing pitches, beatings and other (psycho)acoustic phenomena quietly present throughout. Besides its length, it’s a difficult and conflicted work, in which system and sentiment share an uneasy cohabitation. In the moments it evokes rarefied folk music, it renders the surrounding sections indistinct, and never quite balances its apparent wish to be both demonstrative and impassive. This creates a curious state in the listener where you’re never quite certain what you’re hearing at any given moment; you have to keep your ears open and note the strengths and vulnerabilities as you find them. That’s an admirable achievement in itself, but her more recent string duet I heard at Cafe Oto last year resolved these elements into a stronger and more coherent work.

Quick takes, mostly warm

Monday 17 April 2023

Seán Clancy: Ireland England. It’s been ages since I’ve listened to any 70s German synth-rock, so listening to this reminded me of hearing analogue synth space-grooves for the first time. A free-flying piece that maintains focus even as pulsating arpeggios and airy drones fade in and out for longer than most Krautrockers could manage, anchored by a seriousness of intent. This is a single take recorded drecitly to a handheld device, also on video with text projections for the piece’s insipration.

Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo: ELP. Listened to this blind and thought it was some wide-ranging noise improv by a bunch of precocious adolescents with a lot of energy, complete with a quaint sample to kickstart the whole shebang. Turns out Palumbo has a long and distinguished CV and this is a solo affair made as part of a project relating choreographed movement to sound. I’m glad that sophistication doesn’t come through, lest it dull down the flawed but lively tangle heard here, but disappointed the title isn’t a reference to Tarkus.

Henning Christiansen: Op. 1984 (160C) Goodday Mr. Orwell, Green-Ear-Year. Having been overwhelmed by the five-hour montage of Op. 176 Penthesilea I did not expect this. Christiansen and his local guitar hero son play a gig together and holy shit invent the Boredoms a year early, right there on stage. The punters are not pleased; neither is the tortured ghost of B.A. Zimmermann when they summon his presence.

Ed Williams: Decomposition Study. Two organists (Christoph Schiller and Anna-Kaisa Meklin) play counterpoint on an organ of 16th Century design, tuned in sixth-tones. Microtonality nerds hoping to geek out to nuances of intonation will find themselves frustrated as Williams adds another compositional premise, with himself and three other assistants – well, obstructionists, really – systematically messing with the wind supply; basically like a John Cage organ piece only somebody hired Stan Freberg, Mark E. Smith and Eric Morecambe to man the pipes. Timbre, tone and dynamics break up in non-intuitive ways that seemed understated on first listen, overstated on the second.

3 by 3, 1 by 3, 1 by 2.

Thursday 13 April 2023

There are some new Jürg Frey albums about on Elsewhere and Another Timbre but I’ll get to them later. Circles, Reeds, and Memories (Elsewhere) documents a concert in Limburg late last year by the trio of Germaine Sijstermans, Koen Nutters and Reinier van Houdt, playing one of their compositions each. I’ve discussed other pieces by all three individually, so here we get to compare their styles more directly. Even while there are strong resemblences, you can detect Sijstermans’ disciplined approach, Nutters’ slow accumulation from the smallest array of pure sounds, van Houdt’s tendency to narrative and slowly developing drama. The trio play clarinets, harmonium, small organ, all blending in ways which I’m sure we’re used to now, although Nutters seems to give Sijstermans more prominent work to do on the clarinet than in her own pieces. The new wrinkle here is the presence of ‘objects’ and tape recordings which rumble underneath the otherwise smooth surface to produce interesting blemishes; or it may be the presence of an audience in the chapel. Neat twenty-minute chunks to sample each composer’s work.

Is he rambling? Giovanni Di Domenico, I mean. The album’s credited to the trio of Domenico, Silvia Tarozzi and Emmanuel Holterbach, but Domenico gets composition credit and, more crucially, “later completed” the work with editing and more of his piano in post-production work. L’​Occhio Del Vedere (Elsewhere) is a one-hour piece for microtonal piano, frame drum and piano with the scale, dynamic and interplay of instruments that all resemble late Feldman, but the impetus here favours performance over composition. The harmonic language is similar too, with the piece beginning with an ascending piano scale echoing Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet and Tarozzi’s piquantly tuned violin recalling his propensity for pointedly enharmonic notation. Those resemblences end as the piece tends to drift from one idea to another, a more relatable wandering than Feldman’s formal decisiveness. There are moments when that relatability becomes a weakness, with passages that seem to go nowhere but are too forgiving to command your attention. The real kicker is Holterbach’s large frame drum, which softly hums and throbs behind the violin and piano duet, producing strangely oscillating subharmonics that push everything back into the uncanny again.

Biliana Voutchkova and Sarah Davachi are definitely not rambling in their Slow Poem for Stiebler (Another Timbre), a tribute to the composer Ernstalbrecht Stiebler. Back in 2020 Another Timbre released an album of Voutchkova performing Stiebler, including his violin solo Für Biliana. This duet by Voutchkova and Davachi combines violin, voice and reed organ to stretch short moments from Stiebler’s composition into long, long held sonorities that let harmonies and overtones float around inside each extended phrase. It’s a fittingly odd way to address Stiebler, as his late work such as Für Biliana has seen him moving away from the intensely examined harmonic stasis of his best known pieces, even venturing into florid but creaky improvisation. Voutchkova and Davachi capture both the improvisation and the stasis – even as their piece is notated it expects great flexibility from the performers – with music that is equal parts meditative and analytical.

Lizzy Welsh: The Target Has Disappeared

Sunday 9 April 2023

The latest release on Discreet Editions comes from Australia. Don’t be fooled by the cover: The Target Has Disappeared features contemporary composers at the more provocative end of the spectrum, each with a work for solo baroque violin performed by Lizzy Welsh. Why baroque? “Gut strings are perfectly imperfect. They contain so much complexity that has been ironed out of sound through the modern use of steel.” The grain of the instrument’s voice, the violinists touch and intonation, are at the forefront of the three works here. Alexander Garsden’s Chaconne (for I) concentrates on fleeting arpeggios, breathy and skittish, gathered into phrases that fade in and out again like slow breathing. The simple structure of contrasting pulses draws out the tension in the material as it hovers between pitch and string noise. Samuel Smith’s archive is a longer piece which elaborates on these ideas, adding to the complexity of pitch by retuning the top string to an overtone (7th partial) of the bottom one. Harmonics abound, with the gut strings compounding the nominal purity of timbre. Welsh makes the most of the wide variety of attack and dynamics at play in this piece, creating a visceral sense of layering between counterposed voices, strongly differentiated by character and spatial presence.

All three works were composed for and premiered by Welsh, recorded here after several years of working with the composers and their music. The final work presented here adds sounds besides the violin. Natasha Anderson’s The Target has Disappeared is a reflection on personal loss that premiered with visual projections in 2018. In its present form, a short, simple melody is underpinned by electronic sounds which serve both as commentary and quiet obstruction to the soloist. By this means, the first half of the piece resembles a concerto, with the two forces often alternating instead of working together, keeping Welsh’s solo reticent and fragmentary. Instead of building, the piece reduces its means; in the second half the electronics have slipped away and Welsh holds long, single notes on the violin while softly singing. Voice and instrument are each gentle but raw, filling the supposedly inert material by being alive to its own vulnerability. Anderson’s electroacoustic compositions have been a bit scarce in commerically available recordings and I’m not aware of many pieces by Smith or Garsden floating around out there so this new release is most welcome.

Three threes always

Sunday 2 April 2023

I don’t want to be nasty. Almost all the music I discuss here raises ideas that interest me and I want to engage with, even if I dislike it. I’ll usually delete the dismissive comments made in draft because I’m approaching these as an artist as much as a critic; nobody’s getting rich in this genre so there are no real mercenary or cynical efforts to dismiss as unworthy. Having said that, appreciating the craft of a piece of music is a different thing entirely from trying to give it the respect of considering it as a work of art. Keep this in mind if I carp that Bruno Duplant and Seth Nehil’s collaboration the memory of things doesn’t beat you over the head with attempts to be stunningly original in form or medium – most things don’t need to be. Not familiar with Nehil at all but Duplant’s work with him here has produced a trilogy of very slick aural collages, each about the same length, which allude to sounds rather than present them directly, much in the fashion pioneered by Brian Eno’s On Land. Anything too specific is overlaid with a patina of clicks and crackles, which will strike you as either too calculating to induce nostalgia or as a means to direct you away from ambient vagueness. It’s another marker of Duplant’s eclecticism in his musical practice, which values intellectual curiosity over a firm identity.

Les Capelles documents the very first time Garazi Navas, Miguel Angel Garcia, Àlex Reviriego and Vasco Trilla played together as a quartet.” I’m always dubious of these things where improvisers get together and expect some magic to happen right off the bat. It puffs the spurious ideals of spontaneity and authenticity that hamper improvisation as a medium. No matter how good it sounds, you always wonder how much it better it could have been after some more work together. The above quartet play accordion, electronics, double bass and percussion respectively, all in that evocative style where everything sounds electronic even though it isn’t until the accordion shatters the illusion. As with the Duplant/Nehil album, there are three pieces here of equal length and I would take it as a compliment to the depth of the acoustic performance that it took me a while to get stright in my head which album was which. They do not bore, and it’s all played in a chapel in Barcelona so it sounds lovely.

I’m listening to a set of three pieces all about the same length (again?) by Erik Blennow Calälv, with pianist/composer Lisa Ullén, Finn Loxbo on guitar with Ryan Packard on percussion and electronics to accompany Calälv’s bass clarinet. They’re all experienced and judicious improvisers, so I presume there’s an openness to the scores to allow the slow but free interplay that flows through each piece. Each piece – Bi, In yo & Iwato – is apparently based on a traditional Japanese scales, but what with the overall texture and Ullén’s prepared piano goddamn it sounds just like Magnus Granberg to me. I mean, that’s great and all, but still. The smaller scale adds to a more accessible intimacy, so if you’re pressed for time then this album’s a good way to get a surrogate Granberg fix in more manageable chunks.