Live Music: David Dunn and Jackson MacLow at Cafe Oto

Wednesday 13 October 2021

A double bill of American Buddhists, my god. At least if there’s any religious knowledge to be picked up here, it’s taught by example (as with Cage, the didactic element is present in parable). Back at Cafe Oto, the first gig in over 18 months with something like normal capacity and an audience all getting in surprisingly early to grab all the seats. This was the fourth gig I’ve been to this year and the third to feature the string quartet incarnation of Apartment House. I’d complain we were getting in a rut but not when they were presenting an hour-long work for string quartet and tape by David Dunn. Dunn is one of those names I’ve heard for years as part of the general millieu of the looser end of American experimental music and I’ve only just realised that I have never heard a note of music by the guy until now. Safe to assume he doesn’t get played enough: ‘The Great Liberation Through Hearing’ was composed in 1995 and received its premiere this weekend. For 25 years the piece has laid on the page as an acoustic experience to be imagined but never heard.

The quartet plays notes based on just-intonation harmonic overtones on a drone provided by a recording of Dunn’s voice, chanting slowed down until each word is stretched over several minutes. (The recording heard was a new software-enabled rendition, the original tape having been misplaced.) There’s a slow articulation of phonemes before each long, trailing drone of bass voice enmeshed with overlapping sibilants and fricatives. The cello plays in the low registers to augment the pitched sound while violins weave harmonics between the waves of hiss. Each prolonged moment takes on its own character. As a concept, it’s straightforward, using simple, strong materials imbued with natural acoustic qualities that work together in ways that continually create interest. Even at this most reductive level, away from any meditative or transcendental considerations, the piece succeeds and Apartment House have filled in another small gap in the post-war avant-garde.

The concert opened with Jackson Mac Low’s The Text on the Opposite Page from 1965. Mac Low’s reputation as a poet sadly confines too many of his pieces to the page when they are expressly meant to be performed, so this was a rare opportunity to hear his verbal abstractions. Apartment House were joined by Elaine Mitchener, who turned the atomised text into a sonic action painting of phonemes and punctuation matched by the strings’ instrumental gestures. Mitchener’s voice is ideally agile for such a mercurial score, supple enough to stretch and bend around each sound and then snap into focus at just the right places, with a presence that is always expressive without tempting the conventional avant-garde vocal attitudes of becoming grotesque or arch.

Apartment House plays Jackson Mac Low

Saturday 29 February 2020

It was great to hear “Is That Wool Hat My Hat?” performed at last. Getting to know Mac Low’s work has often been an exercise for the imagination, reading his poetry on the page and trying to hear it in your head. The layout of his words on the page is often a score as well as a poem, with a greater or lesser degree of explicitness. His introductions, with instructions on how to interpret spacing and typography, simultaneously inspire and frustrate the interested reader.

Which is why I’m so glad Apartment House – appearing this time in the form of a vocal ensemble – dedicated a free evening concert at City University to Mac Low’s work this month. A selection of pieces spanning thirty years, covering the spectrum from speech to music. A poem such as the set of variations “Phone” – given in an exemplary rendition by Miles Lukoszevieze – starts as speech, then breaks up its components into scattered words and syllables before reassembling itself into speech again, but transformed and heightened. At the other extreme, Phonemicon is almost pure sound, presented as a duet of extended singing techniques by LorĂ© Lixenberg and Elaine Mitchener. (The other singers were Leo Chadburn, Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze – the latter two better known for playing violin and cello respectively.)

A couple of pieces from the early 1960s reflected the typical concerns of Fluxus at that time, compiling simple actions on simple objects into an irrational whole. Mac Low gets pigeonholed as a kind of analogue to John Cage; concerts like this show that things aren’t so clear-cut. Syntax and sense were never entirely eschewed by Mac Low; unlike Cage, his words were seldom empty. As seen (and heard) in “Phone”, he still found a lot of use for meaning. Even when selected by chance, allusions are welcome, if not encouraged.

Conversely, his use of spoken word seems to be more musical than much of Cage’s work in the same genre. The earliest pieces in the concert, excerpts from his Five Biblical Poems from 1955, were performed by all the voices at once. Mac Low’s use of flexible time measures of the page results in a kind of verbal counterpoint. The use of repeated, undifferentiated material in “100” from 1961 and 1980’s “Is That Wool Hat My Hat?” allowed variations in dynamics and colouration to come to the fore.

In the pieces from the early 1970s, Mac Low had developed his linguistic notation to morph between word and sound. As performed by Apartment House, these pieces were undeniably music, with sustained phonemes taking on qualities of pitch against the rhythm and timbral variations. Meaning kept returning, whether allowed through chance or guided to some extent. The final work on the programme, “Black Tarantula Gatha” draws upon the early Kathy Acker novel and sets the readers on a set of paths that lets them find a way to move from the confronting and obscene into a reification of the transcendent.