Shorts: Mostly Black Covers

Sunday 28 April 2024

Rodney Sharman: Known and Unknown (Redshift). My exposure to Sharman’s music is small and spotty: when describing his works for voice and guitar performed by the Paramorph Collective I lumped them in with that album’s predominant vein of “gentle quirks”. Known and Unknown brings together a selection of his piano pieces, performed by Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa. It helps to expand general awareness of the composer’s wide-ranging output, if only to a certain extent. The scattering of miniatures and compact pieces suggests, not entirely accurately, a preference for the small-scale. The short works range from affectionate pastiches, each with their own personal insight or mischievous twist, to bracing abstractions. The three sets of Opera Transcriptions are revealing, as the ‘transcriptions’ range in attitude from dreamy to acerbic; the third set ends with the pianist narrating a disturbing reminiscence of Claude Vivier. Gay identity is a recurring theme in Sharman’s music: the Vivier episode is echoed later in the larger piece The Garden, an overt and explicit “pocket opera” for vocalising pianist. Beside the inventions upon opera and Sondheim, it’s fitting there’s also a brief celebration of Michael Finnissy’s 50th. Iwaasa’s own queerness informs her collaborations with Sharman, with her interpretations matching his wit and also, in the case of The Garden, compounding it by effectively playing it in drag. The other substantial work is the title piece, commissioned by Iwaasa as a memorial to her mother; built out of descending chords, the forthright harmonies in sombre arrangements leave Sharman as a still slightly enigmatic character.

Sasha Elina: Different Songs. Vol 1 (self-released). Elina sings songs at home in her room, with faint outside noises sometimes intruding. The songs are small, sung in a small way. Eva-Maria Houben’s My Sweet Love and Seamus Cater’s Early Riser are without accompaniment, Elina’s voice up close and high-pitched, without vibrato or steady control of pitch, in the manner used by indie pop singers to convey earnestness. I’m predisposed to dislike people singing as though they are smaller and weaker than they really are and at some points it feels too affected, recalling the songs used in TV advertising by phone companies in the 2000s to convince you they were harmless. The accompaniments for the other songs were recorded remotely, merged in the recording: Tim Parkinson plays piano on the two Tomás Cabado songs, each very brief and reduced to the most essential elements without becoming simplistic. These work because there’s no room for Elina’s singing to be misinterpreted as cute, making the sweetness both strong and strange. Cabado in turn provides spare electric guitar for Johan Lindvall’s Five songs for voice and guitar, with each note and word placed with consideration and caution to create a cycle in microcosm that’s affecting without ever resolving its mood. Moment by moment, these pieces can reward microscopic attention and I expect that’s the intention behind the album, but with nine songs in just over twenty minutes, it comes across as being so slight that it’s trying to disappear completely.

Alfredo Costa Monteiro: Suspension pour une perte (Dissipatio). I’ve previously heard Monteiro in duet with Ferran Fages, performing with “resonant objects” and electronics. His solo work Suspension pour une perte employs this technique with a vengeance, taking a recording of a “broken piano” and treating it with gobs of reverb enhanced with electric organ seasonings. It’s a stark, solemn work that starts with deep, sonorous blows on the piano frame and carries on in a single-minded essay of abrupt, dark blocks of sound. The struck sounds give way to ominous rumbling in the low strings, fading into clusters of organ drones. Silence also plays a critical role, both between sounds and in letting each stroke of black ink reveal its inner colours, making a composition that never retreats into goth ambience while supporting itself as a musical structure for nearly forty minutes.

Ben Zucker: ( )hole complex (per/formance/eration) (Sawyer Editions). This one really pissed me off at first, not just because of the title. A soprano sax/clarinet duo named Garden Unit (Cameron Roberts and Julia Ansolabahere respectively) play this Zucker composition that wibbles on for damn near an hour, with no particular goal and no particular rush to get there. The two smallish voices trade timbres and hesitantly noodle for short periods of time before getting distracted and trying something else. Nothing seems to stick; they stop, and try again. Sometimes they boldly launch into a cringey jazz riff then immediately check themselves, attempts at minimalist quiescence quickly run out of puff. Their attitude is unreadable, as to whether they’re freezing up in panic, noble in their stoic forbearance, or just plain oblivious. A month later I came back to it to explain exactly why it sucks, only to immediately become intrigued. The piece is a bravura study in entropy and decline, exhausting all momentum yet somehow sustaining itself without resources through perpetual stalling, an endless dwindling away that never seems to hit bottom. It fearlessly shits down the blithe charade that music comes naturally and makes everything about the artform seem all but impossible: it can’t go on, it goes on.

Rocktober! (Part 2): Bill Nace, Ferran Fages et al., Dimuzio / Wobbly / Courtis

Monday 25 October 2021

Closing out the month of electric guitars, of sorts, with a couple of reissues and two new items. I’m not sure how I got this first one as it got downloaded to my hard drive without any identifying marks in its folder, so I ended up listening to it blind like some oldtimer in a back issue of The Wire. Two electric guitar noise solos about 12 minutes each, but clearly superior to the standard random scuzz-fest. It’s probably lo-fi but the colouration varies enough to make me suspect that there’s intentional deployment of heavy mid-range in places for effect. Even amongst the outbursts of furiously articulated noise there are moments of stasis which are relatively prolonged, given the small scale of the recordings, which underline the the musician’s keen ear for tone, a kind of Lärmfarbenmelodie. It really shows who’s in control when the guitarist can summon up some truly thunderous sounds out of a nasty buzzing and then resolve it all neatly with an abrasive filigree. It’s only after playing it twice I googled the filename and found it’s a reissue of Bill Nace’s Solo Guitar 2 / One Note cassette from 2008, now on vinyl, possibly just as limited edition, I dunno.

The other reissue is one of two Ferran Fages compilations. Both are gentler, with a heavier emphasis on the atmospherics, than his two recent solo releases. For John Ayrton Paris was originally released under the name Taumatrop, his duet with percussionist Eduard Márquez. Recorded one day in 2013, the 25-minute piece pairs percussion with Fages’ electronic drones which had started out on guitar but on this occasion approach pure sine tones, combining in different registers to form harmony, timbre and percussive air. Low cymbals and tam-tam sounds augment the soft bass drone, with struck and electric sounds played like a slow, solemn guitar solo.

Cuhda is a duet of similar dimensions, assembled over a longer period of time and finished this year. The duet LLUMM has Fages back on electric guitar, with Alfredo Costa Monteiro on “resonant objects” and electronics. It’s described as “an electromagnetic environment”, which seems appropriate as plucked percussive objects are amped and reverbed against guitar drone. Struck and bowed objects produce sounds which merge with distorted guitar, each pitch distempered by upper partials that preclude clear harmony, with one or two startling exceptions. While it’s as portentous as For John Ayrton Paris, Cuhda shows a greater presence of the musician’s hand in performance, with sounds more clearly sourced in human activity. Where the earlier work presents sounds without complication, Cuhda disturbs the surface by introducing pauses, changes of mind and a fallibility in how each sound is made. It’s particularly unusual how this feeling-out process is preserved in what is the more deliberately constructed piece.

The other new release is Dimuzio / Wobbly / Courtis’s Redwoods Interpretive, which I think comes out this week. It’s a jam-packed little LP which throws together Alan Courtis‘ electric guitar with Thomas Dimuzio’s synths and samplers and Jon Leidecker’s digital doohickeys, all soaked in electronic weirdness. It opens with a succinct burst of abused amplifier fuckery that gets played out into a psychedelic vignette. This punk/prog crossover sets the queasy tone for the rest of the album, a phantasmagoria of electronic genres which morph and bleed from one cultural reference into another. The prevailing mood is that of one of the more outlying examples of 1970s German soundtrack album, but that in itself is a reflection of its eclecticism and otherworldliness. Guitar, modular synth and MIDI controlled devices ping-pong sounds back and forth over distorted loops of electronic chatter. Another three tracks each carve out a strange imaginary landscape, before the side-long ‘Old Man of the North’ blurs them all together. Starting out sounding like a desultory duet of detuned Fender Rhodes and shortwave, things steadily pick up until treated sounds are happily echoed and flanged in the best UFO epic style and then get whipped up into a densely analog-sounding morass before curdling into sour drones, finally resolving into something recalling a… church organ? It doesn’t make sense when you hear it either, which is the fun of it. Each listen so far has revealed new details, like a good trip should.