Extradition and friends play Philip Corner, for fourteen hours

Sunday 4 February 2024

Someone expected me to listen to fourteen hours of music by a composer I didn’t like. It’s not that I disliked Philip Corner’s music as such; just that I found it easy to admire it philosophically while never wanting to listen to it. What I’d happened to hear, together with all the praise I’d read, imbued it with a medicinal quality, a stern but necessary purgative for conventional aesthetics, and about as palatable. It wasn’t helped by a number of enthusiasts who dodged the nuances in his thinking to seize upon the bleedin’ obvious (“Yeah dude but have you ever like really listened to a saucepan?”) It all seemed to pursue asceticism as its own reward. This is all wrong of course but listening to the music had never seemed to help; I always felt like I needed to read something before I could get it.

Philip Corner turned ninety last year and the Oregon ensemble Extradition had spent the preceding year or so working up a fitting tribute by performing and recording as much of his music as they could, including a series of concerts in early 2023. They also collected performances of his pieces by friends and associates wherever they could, with all of it gathered together on Extradition Plays Philip Corner. There’s fourteen hours of it. Really, given Corner’s stature and what with still being active at ninety, anything less would be an insult but still, fourteen hours. There are sixty-one performances collected here, of compositions ranging from the late 1950s to the present. The idea of an endurance test fit perfectly with my preconceived caricature of the composer, so I resolved to plough through the whole thing and try to find some points of differentiation, at least.

The ordering is not chronological, but it does begin with the oldest piece here. 2-Part Monologues No. 1 presents two instruments cast as melody and drone, played here by Lee Elderton on clarinet and Collin Oldham on cello respectively. The stasis in the cello holds the unfolding melody in permanent suspense, creating a parallax movement of its own. It sounds very clean and contemporary, while having been composed in 1957. The piece situates Corner at the earliest flowerings of what were to become dominant shaping ideas for new music in the latter half of the century: minimalism, indeterminacy, improvisation, rethinking of tonality and simplicity. The fourteen hours of music demonstrates that Corner has been across all of these ideas for many years, combined with an awareness of the interaction between sound, performer and environment. What’s most striking about the pieces where nature and the environment are at the forefront, is the way Corner balances a respectful approach to the subject while still subjecting it to compositional rigor. No mindless nature worship or ecological superstition here: Loren Chasse’s superb interpretation of the 1999 piece Ear Here with Musician plays with the sounds made by stones and paper alongside a shallow creek, where the actions of human and nature are often indistinguishable. Conversely, works like Presence from 1995 are performed entirely by ensemble, with Extradition using small objects and Corner’s score of durations and continuities to create a complex of sounds reminiscent of a bog at dusk. Acoustic, electronic, manufactured and natural keep blurring into each other throughout this set, for fourteen hours.

Everything Extradition presents sounds much deeper and richer to me than the thin sonic gruel I have been dosed with in previous Corner recordings. The five concerts at the start are a bit rough around the edges in audio quality but serve beautifully as a live document. The remaining thirty-nine pieces by Extradition and others are at least as good, but what matters as much as capturing the sound is the quality of sounds that Corner has inspired in these musicians. Denis Sorokin’s guitar rendition of Lingering Random Chords (after William Faulkner) digs into his instrument’s peculiarities of attack and decay, while Skin Champions takes a Serge modular synthesizer through an abrupt realisation of the text score Continue. When I said there are fourteen hours of this, I should specify that it totals fourteen hours, eleven minutes and twelve seconds. Corner’s wry approach to more conventional music theory appears throughout, from the ruthlessly severe The Art of No-Art series to the strict but free (or free but strict) Just Another 12-Tone Piece. In the latter, Extradition make a complex ensemble composition out of Corner’s instruction that each performer play a 12-tone row, of a type and in a manner of their own choosing. By contrast The Art of No-Art is a vast cycle of compositions made of a single pitch and its octaves. There are hundreds of these things, twelve of which appear throughout the fourteen hours, and they sound both rigorously minimal and expressively pointillistic at once, maintaining momementum despite the lack of harmonic or melodic movement through the tension of the opposing tendencies in their musical language. Extradition et al. play some of these simultaneously, creating new textures and potential counterpoints.

By now you’re probably figured out that I’ve been won over. Just to keep my newfound enthusiasm in check, I’ll note that getting somewhere around the halfway point a few of those dry presentations of acoustic phenomena without context do appear. They are admittedly very nicely presented. One of these is 1982’s Boiling Water – water here boiled by Ricardo Arias – so now I know that Ahti & Ahti, Akama & d’incise were all about forty years late but at least they did something with it. Some pieces, such as An Agreed-Upon Mood Mode “for ensemble with discussion” conflate the thing and the idea about the thing in the same detrimental manner. Before these moments come along, your overall impression will presumably be how everything has been surprisingly good to listen to. There is, after all, fourteen damn hours of this stuff so everyone’s experience will vary. I’ve barely scratched the surface here but hopefully it tells you enough about the variety to be found here, all of which goes towards giving you a much more detailed and complete portrait of Corner as a composer.

With all the diversity in approach, it’s striking how Corner’s various methods are used to achieve consistent ends. Themes weave their way through the collection, of collage (with or without recordings), awareness of multiplicity and uniqueness (through permutation and improvisation), examination of what makes us individuals (compared to another, an object, natural forces). Each new side to his work remembers the others. Where some of Corner’s scores can seem vague or insubstantial at first, the performances by Extradition and their associates show how even his broadest statements are always made with consciousness of specific outcomes, even as those outcomes are undetermined. The score for 2006’s Ultimate Improvisation, performed here by Matt Hannafin, consists of the line “Like nothing else, like never before.” There’s a substantial booklet that provides further details and context for each of the works presented. It’s rare for a celebration of an artist’s work to be also a forceful work of advocacy; Extradition have achieved both in spades. Fourteen fucking hours. I am in awe.

Stolen Symphony: Fluxus & Neofluxus, Part 1

Saturday 30 December 2023

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

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

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

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

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