Reduced circumstances: Bondi & d’incise

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Cyril Bondi and d’incise’s collaborative work with various enembles, including the large Insub Meta Orchestra, has been documented here in recent years. How has lockdown treated them? Well, it’s been ups and downs, it seems, as you might expect. Diminished opportunities to work as a group has forced them into making music on a smaller scale. La lavintse (de Asís​-​Schiller​-​Tantanozi​-​Tataroglou​-​Winter) continues in what appears to be a similar vein from last year’s Levitas: an ensemble playing strangely curtailed compositions that build their character in the small differences of limited means. It’s all acoustic this time, with Clara de Asís returning on guitar, joined by Christoph Schiller on spinet; Marina Tantanozi on flutes with Mara Winter on medieval flutes, and Tassos Tataroglou on trumpet. The four tracks are distinguished by a delicate interplay of small sounds, less mysterious than Levitas but with an elegant transparency. Guitar and spinet intertwine for the first piece, later acting as a very subtle percussion while the distinction between the winds becomes more and more blurred. Tataroglou’s trumpet becomes more noticeably present as the ears adjust. By the last track, a discernible shape to the composition has vanished completely, with the musicians feeling their way through the sounds, one at a time.

While Bondi and d’incise describe La lavintse as “a brief moment of sunshine” in 2020, their September recordings with the Insub Meta Orchestra are remembered as “not fully satisfying”. “Being an orchestra means much more than music to us,” and the necessities of the pandemic broke the 30-odd piece ensemble into smaller chunks to be assembled later in the studio to make the three pieces heard in Ten / Sync. As before, the processes at work are often discernible while being no less intriguing for revealing so much of their inner working to the listener. The logic of Tutti-Soli alternates a large goup chord with a single note sustained by one member once the others have stopped. Presumably, each musician chooses their note, creating a dense haze contrasted with an arbitrary note by a random instrument, sounding like a new wrinkle on the methods used in some of Cage’s late compositions. Sparge would appear to be a slow, circulating chord sequence in which parts of the sequence are skipped in turn, creating a refrain that almost repeats itself without ever being quite the same, a lulling sense of security which is never anchored in true certainty. The longer À la Denzler is less yielding to interpretation, with a sinister ticking underpinning the whole work, softened but never appeased by sustained notes from individual members of the orchestra, in single file or in groups. Lockdown may have pressed them into greater ingenuity here, but hopefully they can reform in full force soon.

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.

Hyazo v Levitas

Monday 17 August 2020

Just had a couple of weeks off, going nowhere, of course. Listening to this 2020 release hyazo by Cyril Bondi, Pierre-Yves Martel and Christoph Schiller, the same trio who have us tse a few years back and the brilliant awirë with Angharad Davies in 2019. The three pieces on hyazo are a purportedly different proposition from those previous albums, with each of the pieces here a more controlled composition – two by Schiller, one by Bondi – than an improvisation. The ensemble is much the same as before, with Bondi on harmonium, Martel on viola da gamba, and Schiller on spinet, with the usual additional of pitch pipes. While tse and awirë made use of compositional restrictions on their improvisations, hyazo shifts the balance and allows improvisation within a more encompassing compositional conceit. Where tse and awirë built their improvisations out of limited pitch gamuts, hyazo‘s three pieces use entire, pre-existing music as a reference point: Bondi’s title track is based on a saxophone solo, while Schiller’s Palestrina is self-explanatory. Perhaps the more elaborate structure has cramped the musicians’ style a little too much, perhaps their instrumentation and style is so distinctive… For whatever reason, while hyazo has that same impersonal beauty as their previous work, it’s hard to distinguish these three pieces from them, or indeed from each other.

A couple of weeks later, Bondi released another, larger piece, this time in conjunction with his regular collaborator d’incise. Levitas (Lane, De Asís, Mécanique, Majkowski, Garin) is another group effort that had me worried I was in for more of the same, again. Wrong, wrong. No explanatory notes are given here, but it seems that Bondi and d’incise are the composers but (supposedly) do not play here. The five piece electroacoustic ensemble are listed in the title and includes Rebecca Lane on bass flute and Clara de Asís on electric guitar, with other musicians I’m not familiar with. The true identity of Golem Mécanique, credited with “voice, tapes, electronic”, remains a mystery. The music itself is equally mysterious, falling into sections and episodes that betray the initial impression of a monolithic exercise in the minimal. Various poses and and attitudes are taken up, toyed with and discarded in a seemingly capricious way, with a solemn playfulness that keeps you guessing to the end, wondering if equilibium will be restored if the whole thing is going to blow up. It’s refreshing to hear something this imaginative, with some searching musicianship, permanently incongruous.

On being won over: Alvear-Bondi-d’incise, NEF

Wednesday 20 May 2020

These came out over the last two months so may as well be classed as lockdown listening: the sort that relocates the attention. Both are from the Insub label, who have been turning out some monumental work lately. Neither of these are on quite the same scale, but still impress with the boldness of their conception and imaginative execution. Ocho pretextos is a set of short trios worked out by the performers in joint residences one spring in the distant past of 2019. Cristián Alvear on guitar, Cyril Bondi on percussions and d’incise on electronics; these three have become regulars on this site in one guise or another. Despite this, they keep coming up with new ways to surprise me.

The compositional nature of these pieces is immediately clear: each one works on a sort of grid of regular, repeated sounds, allowing for more ornate details to fill in the gaps. The other joint compositions I’ve heard by Bondi and d’incise are for larger forces, with variety generated by a small set of simple conditions. Here, more free play seems to be allowed within the constraints of repetition, giving each piece a greater or lesser degree of tension. What would normally sound like free improv gains a new perspective from a regular pulse that cuts across their playing. From one track to the next, the slow pulse transforms from a steady foundation to a jarring interruption, harshly strummed or snapped guitar chords mixed with insistent percussion.

I know nothing about NEF, not even why they are called NEF: the three musicians here are named Rodolphe Loubatière, Pascal Battus and Bertrand Gauguet. Seven improvisations, of the sort that are weathered and well-seasoned, always alive but never restless. Each ‘act’ of Intervalles builds up a series of complex textures from a variety of subtle tonal colours that never resolve into anything too pretty or too pat. The sonic intrigue makes sure that things never get dull and I was going to say that if you like that sort of improv you’ll love this, but then I checked the personnel again. The instruments listed are snare drum, “rotating surfaces”, alto saxophone, and nothing else. How did they make this? Where the hell was the sax? They’re even better than I thought.

Parts: 180º, d’incise

Wednesday 18 September 2019

I’ve been listening to a lot of music released as parts lately. In some cases they are definitely extracted from a larger performance but at other times it’s less clear whether I’m hearing excerpts or separate ‘takes’; either way they depend on editing as much as performance for their musical structure. You wonder what may have been rejected or excised, from either the performance or the session. In this type of recording, there is always a subliminal awareness of a wider context in the background, in a way that doesn’t typically happen while watching a movie, for example.

This popped into my head while listening to a new record out on Splitrec called submental by a group called 180º. I’ve been all over this record just lately because 180º is a trio made up of Nick Ashwood, Jim Denley and Amanda Stewart. Ashwood is new to me but I’ve loved the work of Denley and Stewart for years, both solo and in various groups, particularly as part of legendary ensemble/collective/happening Machine for Making Sense. Here, the eight tracks were recorded over two days, track lengths ranging from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes. Presumably as usual, each piece was improvised with perhaps some loose coordination agreed beforehand, but not necessarily honoured in execution. The three are credited simply with acoustic guitar, bass flute and voice respectively, but there seems to be a hell of a lot going on besides. Bowing and scraping sounds, fluid drones, rattles and pops – is Stewart making that electronic creaking noise herself? I keep listening closer and I’m starting to believe they can actually make these sounds unaided: breath, flute and rubbed strings, struck instruments and oral clicks merge in mysterious ways that build up continually changing, complex aural textures. Stewart’s typically fragmented texts here disappear almost completely into pure sound; all three get deep into the grain of their respective axes, evoking profound expression without ever imposing it. They’re at the top of their game here.

There are parts to this new LP by d’incise, jointly released by Insub and Moving Furniture, but in a different way. Assemblée, relâche, réjouissance, parade collects two 2017 compositions for organs and bowed metallic objects, recorded and mixed by the composer. A L’Anglard de St-Donat is a suite of four “songs” with tune and tuning based on a mazurka by Alfred Mouret. I suspect that even listeners familiar with said mazurka may struggle to recognise it. The bowed metal and organ are partners in a set of slow dances, winding around each other to a sparse accompaniment of percussive sounds. The odd intonation, detourned folksong and reedy sounds are reminiscent of Pancrace’s The Fluid Hammer. I’d like to know more about the tuning system used here. There seems to be some method at work in how each piece begins, progresses and ends, a version based upon the original. This engaging little suite is followed by Le désir, a contrasting pair of longer pieces in which undulating loops of electric organ form an ostinato upon which a type of solo is performed on bowed metal sticks. They fit together suprisingly well, with the bowed objects seeming to rise up out of the lower organ sounds, a slow florid ornamentation that floats between flutes and reeds. The tension is retained throughout by the regular pulsation of the organ on tape forming a sinister backdrop that keeps threatening to crowd out the soloist’s lyricism, itself already carved out of the most marginal material.

Similarities and differences: Cyril Bondi & d’incise, Magnus Granberg

Monday 20 May 2019

Listening to the latest release by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, it’s easy to hear similarities with their previous releases with the Insub Meta Orchestra. The sound pulses and flows without any overt movement or direction, each moment self-contained. Here are three shorter works, Mem, Aleph, Lassis, each around ten minutes. The twist is that each is played twice, first by quartet The Pitch (clarinet, vibraphone, pump organ and double bass), then by Bondi and d’incise on various small organs with Mike Majkowski on double bass. The differences are subtle, with the latter trio sounding softer, more homogeneous without the percussion to add articulation. An echo, diminuendo. The shorter durations and consequent reduction in scale gives each piece a more definite, almost subjective shape. It’s pleasant listening, but that pleasure is sequestered within a comfort zone. It sounds more modest, but that may be because I’m coming to if after hearing their other recent album of deconstructed dub under the guise of Diatribes.

When I wrote about Magnus Granberg’s last release, Nattens skogar, I compared his music to late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. This new CD, recorded with his regular group Skogen, again contains a single ensemble work. Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn is nearly an hour long and features nine musicians but retains the starker sound-world of the quartet in Nattens skogar. It begins with a scraping sound punctuated by two chords on prepared piano. The consistently low volume levels throughout belie the sharp relief of the sounds being played. This low but distinct relief continues throughout; a slow, irregular rhythm of percussive sounds, some electronically amplified, against a faint background of string drones, electronic buzzing, field recordings, or silence. At one point, a high keening can be heard from either a violin, a recorded bird, a bowed vibraphone or feedback, or possibly a combination of the above. Where earlier works by Granberg presented a continuity of sound, here the interplay of sound and silence builds a more complex image, making each new sound’s introduction or withdrawal all the more striking, whether it’s bursts of line noise or recordings of wildlife. I’d described Nattens skogar as “the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed” and Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn continues that development, where the overall image grows more mysterious even as each element comes into clearer focus.

Debasing the Coinage of Popular Usage: Alan Courtis, Diatribes

Monday 1 April 2019

After hearing so many stripped-back works for solo guitar, it makes a fun change to get sent a guitar album that is cranked and processed halfway to heaven. Alan Courtis’ (bloke from Reynols) solo album Buchla Gtr mashes together one of those 80s-retro Steinberger headless electric guitars with a 60s-retro Buchla modular synthesiser into a seamless whole. The recordings were made over a week at EMS in Stockholm back in 2014 and then reworked over the next few years. As a double LP, each side presents a contrasting tableau of drones and buzzes that morph from ecstatic to sinister and from chilly to decadent. It’s a salutary lesson that the grey area between amplified guitar sounds and electronic oscillation is to be embraced rather than feared. If you were a spotty teenager who got off on Metal Machine Music, (No Pussyfooting) and Sonic Youth’s EPs then this album is a useful affirmation that your youthful tastes didn’t always suck.

Still speaking of guitars: I was at a Julia Reidy solo gig a while back and started thinking about how popular music gets used as material these days. Once, tropes from rock or jazz would be incorporated into other musical styles to act as a signifier of that genre; now, the substance is reworked into new forms. Reidy strummed a 12-string acoustic with live processing and drones provided by the laptop at her side. Chords were prolonged, removed from conventional structural function, sense or context. The point of focus became the tension between the sound in the moment enjoyed for its own sake and the potential for where it might turn next.

I don’t want to use the term ‘deconstructed’ to describe this style as it’s too often used as the smokescreen for ill-conceived pretentious food and even more pretentious music. I’ve just checked again and thankfully the blurb for Diatribes’ new release Echoes & Sirens doesn’t use it either. Here, the subject is dub, filleted and collaged into something that is decidedly not dub, however much one may be struck by a passing resemblance from time to time. No guitars here, except for the bass. A real horn section, with organ, drums and electronics that largely behave in the expected manner. The four tracks, each ten minutes long, imply that some other game is being played here, as does the fact that Diatribes is the duo of Cyril Bondi and d’incise, whom I have reviewed in various guises before.

There is a concept at work, according to the sleeve notes. Each track takes a classic of early 80s dub as a starting point and reworks elements of each by adopting techniques used on sound systems by MCs at the time. I have no authority to judge how successfully the album may be “considered as four imaginary moments of a sound system night” but that’s not the point as far as I’m concerned. While the material and technical concepts may be borrowed from popular music, the method by which they are adapted and applied to a new situations sounds entirely original and the whole thing sounds fresher when heard free of expectations to be true to an imagined model. Or, perhaps this is less an act of collage or d-d-deconstruction and more a cubist representation, incorporating time and subjective experience to move beyond simple mimicry. Each track focuses on a different approach, building up a chorus of echoing brass in ‘Dub fire will be burning’, stringing everything along a line of hi-hats on ‘Tell me, what do you see’, or chopped fragments in stuttering loops on ‘Continually’. A lot of these manipulations sound like they were captured in performance with a lesser degree of electronic manipulation later on, which is pleasing.

Solos: Félicie Bazelaire, Ferran Fages

Tuesday 26 March 2019

I’ve been listening to some new releases by d’incises, working in collaboration with various composers and musicians. (This is the guy who’s part of the Insub Meta Orchestra.) L’épaisseur innombrable is described as a “double bass solo by Félicie Bazelaire, based on a composition by d’incise”, which suggests a more esoteric process of transformation than a simple transcription or arrangement. (The packaging tells us nothing more than the above quote.) A thirty-six minute double-bass solo, L’épaisseur innombrable maintains a consistent level of activity throughout, inviting comparisons to Stefano Scodanibbio’s solo pieces or Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a. Unlike these two examples, Bazelaire does not give us constant, motoric activity. Much of the piece maintains a steady alternation of long and short, like a heartbeat. On one level, it’s soothing; paying closer attention unmasks darker undercurrents, the alternating harmonies by turns wistful and portentous. Later, the pace broadens out further into sustained tones, a glacial rallentando. Bazelaire’s realisation of this piece creates the skeletal outline from some long-lost slow movement from the late romantic era.

I got some exciting new releases from Another Timbre but I first have to give some time to Ferran Fages’ CD from the end of last year, Un lloc entre dos records. Fages plays his own composition for solo acoustic guitar and sine tones. It took me a while to come around to this one. I’ve heard a few great recordings in recent years by Cristián Alvear and Clara de Asís, playing severe, restrictive compositions for the guitar. Perhaps keeping those in mind a little too much made this piece seem to not quite gel for a while. Unlike, say, a piece by Alvin Lucier, guitar and sine tones are kept separate – no psychoacoustic trickery to enjoy here. After an opening section of widely spaced dissonances (semitones displaced across octaves à la late Feldman) a long passage of sustained sine tones reduces the harmonic and timbral palette to almost nothing. The guitar resumes, with strummed, dense, unresolved chords. The mind struggles to reconcile the parts into a whole. This piece is part of a trilogy exploring different guitar tunings, and Fages refers to Feldman in his other pieces in the series. Feldman worked in a subjective way that resisted an overall logic, but his audience has now become accustomed to his way of listening. Un lloc entre dos records suggests a new type of listening at play and, despite the Feldman references, Fages’ piece suddenly became more sympathetic when recognising the connections to the type of wandering aesthetic heard in some of Jürg Frey’s solo pieces such as guitarist, alone. Fages approach comes from the inside, as a guitarist, with a more forthright harmonic language made from the retuning of open strings.

Insub Meta Orchestra: Choices & Melodies

Friday 25 May 2018

Insub Meta Orchestra: Choices & MelodiesRight at the end of last year I wrote about a CD of two pieces by the Insub Meta Orchestra; a fine disc that showed what can be done when a simple but smart rule is applied to a large group of musicians to interpret simultaneously. The same group has now released an LP/download of two more pieces, recorded around the same time. Two choices: each player shall make either of two sounds and may change every five seconds. Autonomous melodies: each player may play a free melody, of just three or four notes.

These two open compositions, again by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, show what can be achieved when creativity is constrained in a way that may be considered extreme. Of the Another Timbre disc, I observed that it “reveals more of the musicians; not of their ‘personalities’ but of their understanding of how to give music life.” This LP continues the theme but explores it in ways not heard on the previous album. If the listener were to compare the two, they would notice striking differences appear straight away. Two choices works with unpitched sounds, forming a thread of complex sound that constantly changes timbre without a change in character. In fact, the exact nature of the sound remains elusive throughout. With some 32 musicians all making sound at the same time, with electronics, acoustic instruments and voice, no single timbre will ever come into focus. They are all presumably playing softly. Any change of an individual musician may only be perceptible as part of a group, but the exact combination of sounds that change cannot be known. The overall perception of the sound will be affected by how the individual sounds interact with each other.

On the flip side, Autonomous melodies takes a different direction; it’s loud and lurches through a repeating melody that can still never be quite pinned down. The sleeve notes even refer to it as “a kind of alien piece in the orchestra’s esthetic”. The pitch of each note becomes a complex chord that is never resolved. Obvious elements frequently reappear, but there are so many of them that they never settle into a context. It all ends up sounding like a single, protean voice that echoes and reverberates through a melody that remains simulataneously distinct yet undefinable.

It’s a powerful demonstration of indeterminacy applied to large groups. In both pieces, each musician’s interpretation, taken separately, would be noticeably different in content but obviously the same in structure. Taken simultaneously, a strange reversal happens: the content is unified but the structure becomes unknowable, other than through explanation.

Working With Limitations: Insub Meta Orchestra

Saturday 30 December 2017

13 unissons: thirteen groups of two to three musicians each, playing one note in unison. Each group may play whenever they want but never with more than three or four groups playing together.

27 times: four larger groups each play at three different moments. In each moment, each musician must play a sound three times in sequence on three occasions, the same sound each moment.

Simple enough? The scores for the two pieces that fill this new release on Another Timbre are sufficiently clear and succinct to fit in a tweet. Every musical score could be described as a balance of restrictions against possibilities. The pieces played here by the Insub Meta Orchestra have heavy restrictions placed on them by simplicty, but allow for an unexpected amount of detail to emerge.

A critical factor here is the orchestra itself: 32 musicians, including voice and electronics, provide a wealth of timbral and textural variety, opening up the reductive score to an unexpected amount of complexity. A smaller ensemble could also give a satisfying performance – in a more severe, minimal style – but here the diverse instrumentation is the point. Cyril Bondi & d’incise, who have previously collaborated on projects such as Ryoko Akama’s places and pages, have here coordinated and composed works that provide a rare maximal interpretation of the minimal. To a casual listener, any sense of a single, top-down rule governing each performance would not be evident.

With its overlapping single tones and accidental harmonies, the sound of 13 unissons shares many traits with Cage’s late number pieces. (The absence of potentially short, loud or other punctuating sounds indicates a key difference in the composition.) The longer 27 times presents an even more haunted atmosphere, and is more distinct. Sounds emerge, make their presence felt, and then fade from consciousness, only to reappear later. In the meantime, the instrumentation and the groupings of sounds have changed, so that a succession of moods are established and then transformed. Some musicians choose to play very softly, even compared to their colleagues. This adds a beautifully subtle sense of shading to each relatively louder sound when it is repeated.

It’s unusual to assemble such a large group as this on an ostensibly ‘open’ form of performance; even more so to take all that musical talent and sublimate it into a focus on giving finer nuances to a single, coherent body. This disc elegantly negates the usual paradox of applying limitations to give freedom to the performer. In this case, the removal of overbearing notation or programmatic continuity reveals more of the musicians; not of their ‘personalities’ but of their understanding of how to give music life.

More from the guitar: Sarah Hennies, d’incise, Cristián Alvear, Clara de Asís

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Earlier in the year I raved about Cristián Alvear’s album of Jürg Frey’s music for guitar. I’ve now been sent two new recordings by Alvear, again both for solo guitar. On the Frey album, I noticed Alvear’s intense concentration and colouration he brings to the sound of unamplified, classical guitar. These two new releases intensify that effect even further.

Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) is a 40-minute work for guitar by the Swiss composer d’incise. Like the Frey album, this has also been released on Another Timbre. It’s a curious piece, simultaneously very loose and tightly constrained. In his interview on the Another Timbre site d’incise mentions his unfamiliarity with the instrument. The score calls for the instrument’s sound to be modified in some way, yet also puts the onus on the performer to become familiar with recordings of other music: Machaut, various folk musics, Neil Young. Any resemblance to this music in the composition is detectable only from a highly distilled understanding of technique. The guitarist works through a series of small, closely-observed effects. The material is carefully limited and how it is used is left open to some interpretation. It’s casually thorough in its exploration of intonation, tone colour and external affects, in the way that Morton Feldman’s music is in exploring the space between semitones.

There’s a second recording of this piece, available as a free download through Insub. Clara de Asís plays Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) on an electric guitar. Both versions are clearly the same piece, with similar overall shape and disposition of material. When examined more closely, comparison of the two reveals striking differences, followed by unexpected similarities. Asís plays with sensitivity and imagination equal to Alvear, each finding ways to evoke sounds from their respective instruments that are obviously different in origin yet still clearly alike in their understanding of the music. As an example, Asís’ version ends with the quietest gestures set in a thin halo of feedback hum. Alvear ends in an equally muted way, allowing the acoustic instrument’s natural resonance to come to the foreground. If you like the Asís version, you’ll want to hear how Alvear interprets it, too.

The Mappa label “from a God‑forsaken place on south of Slovakia” has released another Cristián Alvear recording, of Sarah Hennies’ Orienting Response. This is another 40-minute solo workout, written for Alvear. It’s available as a download or, for some reason, a cassette in a wooden box. I don’t get the thing with cassettes these days, it seems so conspicuously materialistic. I’m sure being Slovakian isn’t an excuse.

The cassette format does mean, however, that you get two 42-minute performances of the one piece. It took me a while to work this out. It also took me a couple of listens to figure out that the piece was for solo acoustic guitar (I’d somehow got into my head it was a duo with harp) and the guitar was unmodified (I was getting confused with the d’incise). It was obviously thus my own fault for not being too impressed after the first listen: an unconnected sequence of dry, repetitious exercises. After correcting my mistakes and realising that I’d been hearing things that weren’t actually in the recording, I knew it needed to be listened to more closely.

In her notes, Hennies mentions attempting “the same kind of focus and intensity I have created with percussion instruments using an instrument (the nylon stringed guitar) that is naturally not well-equipped to produce the type of timbres or high dynamic levels that I have worked with up to this point.” Each of the six sections specifies a rigorous playing technique: “Play as accurately and consistently as possible but with the assumption that “mistakes” are inevitable.” Alvear’s eminently well-suited for this challenge; it makes the Frey and d’incise seem fanciful.

Strange paradox at work here: you’d expect that the better you are at playing it, the less interesting it would get. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The substance of the piece is sufficiently stark that otherwise negligible differences become the subject of the music, much in the way that some of Alvin Lucier’s pieces work. The two performances here, seemingly identical at first, are in fact very close but quite distinct in detail and structural proportions. The score notes that “all timings and tempi are approximate and flexible”; I’m wondering how Alvear achieved this in performance.