“No matter what we do it ends by being melodic.” Ryoko Akama & Georgia Rodgers

Sunday 19 December 2021

From the 1950s Christian Wolff quote above to Jürg Frey playing Wandelweiser, once we have acquired a new perspective we cannot help but appreciate disparate elements in a wider context. The principle applies both to hearing music and to making it. Ryoko Akama’s Songs For A Shed, part of the latest batch of releases on Another Timbre, throws itself fully into melody after she had entertained the idea on her previous Dial 45-21-95. Both albums feature work commissioned by Another Timbre, played by the ensemble Apartment House. These new pieces started as a set of pieces for pianist Philip Thomas, with the proviso that all the pieces be pitch-based. Sadly, Thomas has been too ill to perform the pieces here.

A new impetus for plain speaking came from the lockdown which followed soon after the commission. “I was very interested in documentary kind of things…. There wasn’t much continuity; it was like, okay, I did this yesterday, I need to follow it up.” Despite works having titles like melody and this and that, Akama still creates compositions which display a subtly fluidity in the pacing and ordering of events. Some of the pieces here are in a kind of kit form, where components may be selected and arranged. The musicians of Apartment House make these ensemble works into cohesive fields of overlapping and simultaneous fragments: a collective, emergent voice. In the solo piano pieces, Siwan Rhys’ playing speaks with a quiet directness, even as Akama has her at one stage practically quoting “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman”. The long a shed song which ends the album has composer and pianist studiously compiling minor details with understated seriousness, making the piece in retrospect seem grander than it should be.

I think that September is the first readily available larger collection of pieces by composer Georgia Rodgers. Eight works here spanning 2010 to 2021 from what Marketing would describe as an Emerging Composer. I first heard her Three Pieces for String Quartet live back in 2017 and described the triptych of studies in pitched and unpitched bowing as “elements of various trends in late 20th Century music distilled into a secure but distinct musical language.” More recently, she has been working with environmental field recordings, collaging them into pieces combining instrumental and electronic sounds (Tonewood and Line Of Parts). September focuses on works for small ensemble or piano, showing how Rodgers has been trying out a variety of styles and approaches in the service of a fundamental character behind all of her music.

Influences in style can be heard from time to time: Laurence Crane in 2019’s ensemble piece September, 2017’s violin and piano duet St Andrew’s Lyddington sounding a little too much like Feldman. Common to all the pieces is a desire to achieve a flat, affectless surface, approaching a subjective purity so that the music may be better appreciated as phenomenological act. The Three Pieces for String Quartet are recorded here, displaying this effect with pitched and unpitched sounds alike. The brief electronic work Logistic from 2010 fits together hoarse quasi-pitched sounds. I only just found out in the interview that came with this album that Rodgers has a background in science and architectural acoustics, which makes sense; so does her interest in Tom Johnson.

The ensemble pieces here, again played by Apartment House, typically rely on repeated phrases to establish harmonic stasis over continuity while processes of counting and permutation work themselves out. At their best, they have an oblique, gnomic character that implies more than is said, particularly in 2016’s Masking Set where Sara Rodrigues artlessly sings vowels against Bridget Carey’s viola and Anton Lukoszevieze’s cello. The most recent piece is from this year, written for pianist Zubin Kanga. Like Masking Set, Ringinglow lays off interference between closely-pitched sounds, but here the piano is paired with sine tones. There’s a connection to the late Alvin Lucier’s music, but with Rodgers the music appears to be centred on the musician more then the process. Kanga’s reiterated chords become louder and more insistent as they spread out across the keyboard’s range, while the electronic tones recede and then swell in greater proliferation. It’s an unexpectedly dramatic turn for the composer, leaving us wondering where this might lead to next.

Ryoko Akama’s ‘Dial 45-21-95’; Jon Heilbron’s ‘Puma Court’

Tuesday 14 January 2020

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

Peter Gena, in conversation with Morton Feldman

A couple of years ago, Another Timbre released a vast recording of Ryoko Akama’s places and pages, “a collection of fifty texts to be performed at random places”. At the time, I described it as “reminiscent of Cage’s Song Books, Ferrari’s audio travelogues, Fluxus happenings, yet it sounds like none of these.” Another Timbre founder Simon Reynell has commissioned a set of pieces from Akama to be performed by the ensemble Apartment House. The collection, released on CD with the title Dial 45-21-95, is very, very different. There are notes. Pitches, even. Melodies.

Akama recently visited the archive of Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Seated at a piano with the archive director’s baby on her lap, a brief lullaby came to her. “Everything else started from that moment.” The pieces in this collection are a response to Kieslowski in a similar spirit to his films. They are simple and direct, but nothing is obvious. A plain quality that won’t tug on the emotions but allow them to roam freely. The responses are intuitive but cannot be explained.

Apartment House invests these slender scores with a distinct life and character in ways that never strain for a particular effect; each piece has a unique quality while never breaking the prevailing mood. The music is beguiling in a way that keeps inviting the listener to pay closer attention, while never making demands. Some pieces blend sustained tones between instruments in a slow melody, others draw together loose scraps of sound into a whole. One rumbles ominously, while the brief piano lullaby I’m just so-so stands out for its charm, having acquired gentle accompaniment on violin and alto flute.

Jon Heilbron is an Australian who lives in Berlin but spends time in Norway, where he made this recording. That probably doesn’t matter. His two compositions here, both titled Puma Court, are double duets: two double bass players (including Heilbron) joined by two hardanger fiddlers. Expectations of how this music will go – interweaving harmonic drones and resonances – are quickly thwarted. Is someone whistling? Bowed harmonics and the sympathetic resonator strings on the fiddles should fill the upper regions of the spectrum, but other sounds intrude. Tapping and clicking sounds punctuate the surface, while the two sets of instruments exchange chords. At times, all bowing ceases, giving way to tapping and idle whistling; sometimes near, sometimes distant, as though some of the musicians have wandered away for a while.

The reverberant space of the church they recorded in adds a futher dimension, but the composition and performance makes these pieces special. What could be an exercise in rarefied folk music or “minimalism” is transformed by allowing new complications and disruptions to occur, all of which are accommodated into a coherent but subtly complex shape. Puma Court One alternates between low and high sonorities before the plot thickens, ending with an extended coda of harmonics. Puma Court Two is more sombre, even as the basses’ harmonic playing takes a more predominant role throughout, adding a muted tone to the fiddles’ range as the players recede into ragged whispering.

Ryoko Akama: places and pages

Tuesday 29 August 2017

This is a vast work, in duration and scope, made from the briefest notations. It shows that there is so much more to be explored in and understood by the term ‘minimal’ in music. Akama states simply that “places and pages is a collection of fifty texts to be performed at random places”. The texts are as gnomic as any score by George Brecht, La Monte Young or Yoko Ono in the high times of Fluxus. There seems to have been a resurgence in text scores lately, or perhaps a rise in people who know how to play them. Akama’s texts are exceptionally brief, in a way that simultaneously risks an interpretive free-for-all yet also seems forbidding in its plain lack of information. They do, however, place an emphasis on procedures, either in performance (one simply states “forty-four: walks”) or structure (“fifty overlaps”). She has published an essay describing the pieces and thinking behind them in more detail.

Another Timbre has released the recordings Akama made in various locations around Switzerland over one week last summer as part of a group with Cristián Alvear, Cyril Bondi, d’incise, Christian Müller and Stefan Thut. Over two and a half hours, forty-five of the fifty are presented. The realisations range from solos to sextets, using musical instruments, found objects, field recordings; the locations range from the recording studio to the streets. From such insubstantial slips of writing comes a sonic landscape big enough to get lost in. The musicians’ ingenious interpretations can sound in turn like a flight of inspiration or a solution to a puzzle. In the mosaic-like arrangement of pieces, this album takes on the semblance of an aural movie in which a band of explorers make a quixotic survey of their surrounds, with only a roughly-sketched map for guidance.

Some patterns seem clear on casual listening while others remain unknowable. Brief vignettes intrude, certain themes and settings reappear, new elements are introduced and these simple little pieces accumulate a history and a complexity not previously considered. There are aspects reminiscent of Cage’s Song Books, Ferrari’s audio travelogues, Fluxus happenings, yet it sounds like none of these. As the joint project of six artists, it allows for a variety of distinct approaches while maintaining an overall coherence. The more overtly musical segments put the less obvious ones in a new light, admitting a broader range of sounds as music. In turn, when the ‘music’ returns it is heard as one of a range of possible activities permitted by the score. Taken as a whole, places and pages shifts back and forth between categories: composition, performance, documentary, collage, field recording. It is a true composite.