Music We’d Like To Hear: Systems

Sunday 26 May 2024

The latest Music We’d Like To Hear this weekend was a de facto launch for Scott McLaughlin’s album we are environments for each other, with the second half of the programme being a live performance of we are environments for each other [trio] by violinist Mira Benjamin and pianist Zubin Kanga. I’ve discussed the piece before, but experiencing it live reminds you that music heard purely as sound is a separate phenomenon from witnessing it being played. Benjamin, with a five-string electric violin, picks out tones to bow softly which either enhance or interfere with the pitch of the piano strings picked out by Kanga with a magnetic resonator. Kanga shifts the electromagnetic pickup to another string in response, leaving Benjamin to choose whether or not to stay on her pitch or move to another note. Heard live, the delicate exchange between the two musicians becomes clearer – in particular, their good humour as they trade pitches and plot their next counter-move against each other. It also shows how the piece depends on each musician knowing their instrument inside-out: literally, in Kanga’s case, as the keyboard is never touched, all activity focused on the selection of strings. With amplified violin, Benjamin’s own physical input is also minimal. Conversely, the audience’s attention becomes so captivated by the performers that it becomes harder to notice the subtle changes in pitch and timbre that make the musical substance of the piece (I may be speaking for myself here as I happened to be seated close to the action). The performance was considerably longer than the recorded version, partly as the live setting supports the slower unfolding of events, but it also helped in allowing me to settle in and start properly hearing what was being played.

The first half was a new composition by Rie Nakajima titled indecisive and perhaps, although she qualified this by saying it was “not really a composition, rather a situation”. Nakajima was working with a group of musicians with highly developed skills in improvisation – Billy Steiger, Marie Roux, Pierre Berthet and Angharad Davies – and allowed them to do pretty much as they pleased on the tacit understanding that they each shared a fine sense of responsibility and wouldn’t step all over each other. In a way, the piece was a social system like McLaughlin’s, only without set coordinates but with collective anonymisation. Nakajima is also a sculptor, with the concert coinciding with a solo exhibition of her work. Violins were present, but heard only occasionally and faintly: most sounds came from small objects or lightweight kinetic devices made by Nakajima, whose electric motors caused erratic soft noise. There was a lot of high-level craft on display in the use of sounds by the musicians as they moved around the space for the performance. It’s not because the sounds were all gentle, or the machines were clever in an almost whimsical way (an open umbrella with motorised wires irregularly tapping on the canopy), but this isn’t the first time I’ve come away from a Nakajima wishing for something more besides pleasant sounds. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting agnosticism over whether or not a piece should have a point and mistaking it for complacency.

Takuroku Roundup No. 3

Friday 19 June 2020

The new music from Takuroku just keeps coming. This is London’s Cafe Oto download-only label for a series of pieces recorded by artists around the world waiting out the Covid-19 lockdown. It’s turned into a superb indicator of just how much music is being made out there; a relatively small niche, in this case, has opened up to reveal a wide range of practices and approaches with a common defining trait of inventiveness and curiosity. Toshimaru Nakamura’s Nimb #62 is a shining example of his trademark no-input mixing board method, creating mutating feedback patterns that start out with an almost funky rhythm. Things settle down after a while into a steady wash of off-white noise, with subtle colourations that gradually darken into a low, ominous hum that keeps threatening to break out again into discordant beats.

I’m trying to group things by superficial similarity here, as though I’m exercising some kind of critical skill for comparison. Ken Ikeda’s namaewamad@nai is another electronic work of similar dimensions, taking digital synth sounds and applying heavy dub effects to them. It’s a journey into a crepuscular netherworld, where King Tubby is half-morphed into Terry Riley. Drumlike sounds loop and overlap before dissovling into pulsing abstractions. Ikeda feeds sounds in to his effects box and them leaves them to slowly die away: it seems that much of the time we are listening only to the echoes of a sound that has long since passed. Like an overgrown ruin, it exerts a melancholy fascination, each sound forever beautifully fading away.

It’s got to be hell being a drummer living in self-isolation. There are a few percussion-heavy releases here, but I’ll quickly pass over Ikuro Takahashi’s Friu. A promising opening of descending cymbal rolls turns into a suite of sound-sculpture-like studies of individual percussion instruments, followed by a long exercise with a see-sawing oscillator that just made me glad when it was over. Solo percussion albums are fraught with dangers like these, which makes Valentina Magaletti’s A Queer Anthology of Drums especially welcome. Eight short pieces that deftly combine percussion instruments with electronics (of the analog bleeps and field recording variety), each managing to quickly establish a different mood and, more importantly, a sense of space. The temptation to crowd out the stereo field with pyrotechnics is resisted in favour of a restrained but distinct palette of sounds that draws the listener into each miniature. It’s reminiscent of Will Guthrie’s much-loved People Pleaser album, but cast in a more reflective mood.

I’ve just finished listening to Rie Nakajima’s Karu Kuru so I’ll talk about it now, too. It creates its own space, as well; as it needs to, for Nakajima’s toys and motorised objects to drift to and fro, making sound as they go. It’s a percussion album too, a loose arrangement of vignettes compiled into a single track. The sounds are mostly gentle, with the small contraptions accompanying her gestures giving the performance an almost whimsical air. It could all wander off into being twee, but Nakajima uses the machinery’s inherent indifference and the somewhat abstruse sonic capabilties of her array of objects to keep things focussed. Then there are darker elements, groaning friction sounds. The most intriguing section is at the beginning, where tiny chimes repeat an ascending major scale against a constant clockwork chatter. The incongruous juxtaposition of music and non-music at its most elemental implied something more than an exercise in musical craft was at stake, but this isn’t followed up.

Music We’d Like To Hear, 2019 season (part 2)

Tuesday 6 August 2019

(Part 1 here.)

Music We’d Like To Hear‘s latest season continued their bold approach to reappraising recent music. The second concert began with a live performance of Timing by Phil Harmonic (aka Kenneth Werner) – a piece which had only existed up to now as a recording of a one-off, unscripted studio performance in 1979. Two performers on electric keyboards play chords, each telling the other when to change. It seems like nothing more than a simple excercise, but the performance revealed deeper implications. Each musician, and the music, is dependent on the other’s actions; yet neither can control what the other may do, only when they shall do it. Each knows what to do, but not when they may do it. In one way it is like one of Christian Wolff’s open scores where the musicians can only progress by consensus, but with an adversarial element. Each musician has the power, should they choose to do so, to subvert and disrupt as well as to collaborate. The spoken imperative to “change now” takes on a greater burden for the audience. Francesca Fargion and Tim Parkinson’s performance used a transcription of the same chords from the recording but in this piece, timing is everything.

I went to a fine performance of Alvin Lucier’s Chambers at one of these gigs a few years ago so it was slightly surprising to see it get another airing, except this was a completely different interpretation. The basic concept of filtering sounds through different, small acoustic spaces was reinterpreted by Rie Nakajima and Lee Patterson in a much broader way. Much of the sound was non-electronic and unamplified, particularly Nakajima’s. Any concave object or surface was considered as a potential acoustic filter for the transmission of sounds; even the sound of an open or hollow object against another surface is determined by the shape, down to a bottlecap pushed across the floor.

The gig ended with Enrico Malatesta performing Éliane Radigue’s Occam XXVI, circumnavigating a pair of cymbals with a violin bow, occasionally holding a frame drum to resonate above the cymbals’ surface. There’s a kind of meticulousness in these pieces in which the perfection of the player’s gestures in producing an immaculate surface of sound becomes fascinating in itself. Here, the music again seemed like a technical exercise but this time I struggled to find anything deeper. Radigue’s long history of work with synthesiser drones should mean that the apparently simple surface of harmonies reveal a more complex interplay of shifting overtones, but perhaps here the lack of precise control over the instrument’s harmonic spectrum and the overfamiliarity of bowed percussion sounds work against the odds of the listener finding an aural epiphany.