Another Timbre: Spring to Summer

Tuesday 29 June 2021

The Another Timbre label has adapted a solid practice of releasing albums by new or under-represented artists and then following through with further recordings to establish their presence. The latest batch includes their first release of compositions by Barbara Monk Feldman, in what appears to be only the third disc to date that is dedicated entirely to her music. Verses is a collection of works for one, two and three musicians, sharing an intimacy of scale and a delicacy of touch. In the opening Duo for Piano and Percussion, the former is shadowed almost imperceptibly by the latter, with chimes and mallet instruments acting as a treatment of the piano, altering the colouration and adding faint echoes to disturb the background. That delicacy never lapses into preciousness, as Monk Feldman keeps the balance of sound and silence in constant tension, always holding energy in reserve and only occasionally letting short, lyrical flourishes burst forth. In the solo Verses for vibraphone, the instrument’s signature decay is measured out or drastically cut short, allowing sounds to sustain only to beat against subsequent notes. The GBSR Duo (George Barton, percussion; Siwan Rhys, piano) are joined by violinist Mira Benjamin on the longer The Northern Shore and it’s here that they truly excel in guiding the ear from one instrument to the next as the music passes through the scenery with unhurried but determined pace.

Ballad is the fifth Another Timbre disc to feature Linda Catlin Smith. Just two pieces for cello and piano here, from 1994 and 2005. The latter work Ballad is an extraordinary, incongruous 45 minutes. I said of an earlier collection of Smith’s music that it was high praise to call it more of the same; this is not the same. Besides the length and the dream-logic in the way it changes from one section to the next, the duet repeatedly conjures up new combinations of tone that could not be expected. At times playing in unison, at others letting high piano melody stagger above lugubrious pizzicato, or fragmentary folk tune over steadily repeated chords, the two instruments are united in that neither seems to be quite certain that it is itself, if not the other. Cellist Anton Lukoszevieze and pianist Kerry Yong play with a distanced solemnity somewhere between rapt and dazed, reinforcing the otherworldly experience.

If there are shared values to be observed between the four albums here, then Oliver Leith’s Me Hollywood is perhaps the outlier. The five pieces here expand upon the impression made by last year’s recording of the long good day good day bad day bad day, pursuing some of the tendencies heard there to more extreme ends. The characteristic melancholy is there, expressed through greater or lesser degrees of reticence in pacing and a deliberate, fuzzy vagueness in the ensemble pieces’ harmony and phrasing. Members of the Explore Ensemble infuse the sound with an appropriate remoteness even as Leith tempts potential, less au courant musicians into sentimentality. His gentle musical language is tempered by deploying it as an armature for ironic wit (whether this is self-awareness of defensiveness remains to be seen). Electronics are used in some works either to recontextualise the music or divert the meaning altogether. The title work is presented as a putative soundtrack to banal domestic activities, like a more knowing version of Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast and the conflicted response that may induce in the listener. 664 love songs guaranteed to cure heartache pushes a bass flute into unsteady lyricism while a keyboard sampler expands the ensemble’s palette yet also deflates with bogus pomp. The ludicrous Ten Commandments choir and strings gradually fade, leaving more earnest emotions that are not entirely soothing.

On the other hand, it may be James Weeks who is the outlier here. His previous release on Another Timbre was windfell, a solitary long, frail work for violinist. The five compositions on this new disc, Summer, show a preference for reducing where other composers would normally expand, with a tendency to leave pieces as their simplest, sparest elements. The brief piano piece Durham rests on two slowly alternating notes, which are then harmonised before falling silent. As a kind of counterpart, Düsseldorf is a gauzy depiction of quiet urban scenery, distant sounds heard in succession, disrupted by pealing chimes. Siwan Rhys returns here, on piano and Celtic harp, along with Barton and the Explore Ensemble. At times, things can seem a little too simple: the duets Violet and Violute are played simultaneously, as though interchangeable. The larger works are stronger, with the musicians finding ways to make the music breathe and take on subtle textures even when Weeks deals out the content so stringently. In Summer the piano takes the foreground, its chords draped by alternating colours and a slightly uncanny electronic sheen. Siro’s Garden is a thirty-minute setting of Virgil, but with reciting voices in the background, part of the warp and weft of a slowly expanding texture of interweaving instruments that ripens into contemplative lyricism.

Oliver Leith: good day good day bad day bad day

Sunday 27 September 2020

Damn this is a good title. It feels self-explanatory and yet it keeps you listening for a deeper meaning behind it. As such, it matches the music perfectly as each successive movement adds a layer of sentiment that hovers close to wistful melancholy, gently rocking itself into more troubled depths. Oliver Leith’s good day good day bad day bad day is a forty-five minute duet for percussion and keyboard, played here by the GBSR duo: George Barton and Siwan Rhys. A keenly observed ambiguity presides over the piece, not least in the sounds themselves: a mixture of samplers and instruments such as the waterphone blur the lines between each musician’s role, when heard on record. The inventive use of instrumentation adds depth and complexity, while the duet form of the piece gives clarity. Together, they manage to combine the bright and the plaintive into an indivisible whole. It feels like a piece that will continue to grow and change for the listener, even as a single recording.

This is Leith’s longest work to date yet its musical language is more direct (compared to the handful of pieces heard to date). There’s a simplicity that appeals to the listener in the manner of the populist wing of the minimally modern composers, but with an emotional sophistication which just deepens with each successive listen, where so many others would quickly wear themselves out. The piece does not necessarily get darker as it proceeds, just more sweetly inextricable in the complexity of its mood. The piece welcomes you in as it refuses to explain itself, like a favourite love song that gratifies your need for sadness. At the first performance, Barton and Rhys played on stage surrounded by domestic furniture, as though in their living room, “a private thing, a home space, some mugs, a rug, maybe a lamp in the middle of a concert hall.” The two musicians play with an evenness and interior calm that makes the music’s formal structure and changes in instrumentation flow naturally without apparent effort. They make it all seem inevitable, even as the outcomes remain unknown, with a transparency that makes their playing inseperable from the music.

Aisha Orazbayeva: Music for Violin Alone

Thursday 14 May 2020

The idea of violin, or of any musician, alone has taken on a new meaning in the last couple of months. It has further associations for Aisha Orazbayeva, a fine violinist who has spent “two years of creative silence” while starting a family. Her new release, Music for Violin Alone, was recorded in an empty house in early April as all work for the forseeable future was cancelled. The collection of seven brief pieces forms a closely woven suite that draws together themes of isolation and self discovery; the experience of a musician reorientating themselves, learning new ways of hearing and playing.

Orazbayeva opens with her interpretation of Angharad Davies’ Circular Bowing Study, an immersive exploration of a single technique that leaves performer and audience in a different place from where they started. After this act of orientation into a deeper understanding of timbre, the following 18-century pieces by Bach and Nicola Matteis Jr. have a clean, clear sound while still revealing their reliance on the violinist providing tonal colouration to give them life. Bach’s suites and sonatas for solo strings have long stood as exemplars of writing without accompaniment, and Orazbayeva’s interpretation of the Largo from the C Major Sonata frames the absences of sound, where the listener fills in the outline. It’s an introspective performance, accomplished without pulling the phrasing or pacing out of shape. Oliver Leith’s very recent Blurry Wake Song allows for greater pauses and more reticent phrasing, giving a greater melancholy weight to its repeated cadences on double-stops.

The extended span of James Tenney’s Koan is played fast, like Matteis’ arpeggios. The challenge of how to present Tenney’s process/exercise as a composition is addressed by Orazbayeva with a concentrated flourish. Ingeniously, the constantly rising intervals are transformed into becoming a vehicle for the real material of this recording, as tiny variations in timing and intonation are exposed and transformed into a kind of inadvertent cadenza. The following piece, John Cage’s violin arrangement of Eight Whiskus, was, like Koan, dedicated to Malcolm Goldstein. The Goldstein recordings I’ve heard of each are much more… well, demonstrative of the freedoms allowed in bowing and intonation. Orazbayeva’s version of Cage takes us back to her Bach, where the directness of the melody fuses with the subtlety of construction, each interpreted with a deeply nuanced but deceptively understated performance. The collection ends with Orazbayeva’s own Ring, a haunted study of close-miked bow on string.

The past two weeks has been spent making my own music and listening to recordings others have been putting out during lockdown. I hope to write up more of these over the next few days.