Bait/Switch: Ian Power, Adam Zuckerman

Thursday 14 December 2023

Some music starts out as one thing and ends up another, some music appears to be about one thing when it’s really about something else. Then, there’s Ian Power’s Ave Maria: Variations on a Theme by Giacinto Scelsi (Carrier), a piece whose title belies the complex switches in perspective on its subject matter, beyond an act of homage or an essay in style. The piece, written in 2009, was recorded last year by pianist Anne Rainwater. Scelsi’s prayer is one of a set of three he composed in 1972, a typically austere work of repeated phrases initialy written for solo voice. Rainwater is indeed obliged to sing a rendition of Scelsi’s original piece at the start, while accompanying herself in unison on the keyboard. The idea of ritual as a task, and its associated demands, is already established here, with a secluded, unpolished recording that draws out the imperfections in her voice and her instrument, with the soft creak and thud of the piano’s hammers. The subsequent variations play on the obsessive side of Scelsi’s art, with the piano alone repeating the prayer in harmonisations that get thrown against an insistently reiterated high pitch, before condensing into loud clusters of sound echoed by forceful use of the pedal on the lower strings. The strangest variation is not marked as a variation at all, but as an Interlude that suddenly wrenches the composition into a different focus. The pianist is required to repeat the theme, but to press the keys silently. Background becomes foreground in a breathless negative space, substance made of incidental noise, with the added jeopardy of sounding a note by mistake: any such mistake must then be repeated thirty-six times. The interlude becomes a fraught hiatus in the music. Scelsi always demanded an inner calm for his music, presumably to heard it as well as play it, and this pairs with the experience that even his finest music can be a bit of a chore. In Power’s version, penitence and apprehension is shared by performer and audience. Even with frailties mercilessly exposed, Rainwater’s playing remains both strong and dutiful in equal measure.

It’s telling that after repeated listenings to Adam Zuckerman’s STARPERMEABLE (Nueni) I still flip back and forth between thinking he’s too precious and he’s too sincere. A composition for “at least three musicians and processed field recording playback”, it makes no effort towards momentum, direction or movement. Each of its eighteen short sections are made of delicate and languorous melodies slowly overlapping to produce clouds of sound that veil the internal movement of pitch, so that its changes require closer attention. Each of these moments is separated by silence, confounding attempts to find continuity or coherence. The musicians frequently hum together, adding both to their serenity and our distance from them. The field recordings are noticeable only by the absence of the musicians: there are three interludes of six minutes each, making nearly half the piece’s entire length, where the only sound is that of the open air at almost imperceptible volume. Contradictions abound: it’s both too natural and too contrived, both seeking to inspire interest by actively repelling it. It starts to resemble Scelsi in that way it needs a mind at peace to be receptive to it, but whether for contemplation as an idea or as a phenomenon remains a mystery. The musicians do play very prettily though, while it lasts.

Block Rockin’ Summer Slam, Part 1

Monday 8 August 2022

When you listen to a lot of new stuff at once you start lumping pieces together, which is great for developing an authorial conceit, not so good for the music, and very bad for ever finishing writing about it. It’s best to remember that music never ends.

Last time, I was thinking too much about newness; now I’m thinking about purity. Since the late 20th Century a narrative has emerged, of schools of composers working under the thrall of lessons learned from minimalism by way of Morton Feldman, with an insidious spiritual imperative, either religious (Pärt) or secular (Wandelweiser). Material reigns supreme (sez Feldman), construction is kept at a minimum. The material is always ‘on camera.’ There’s a difference between purity and authenticity, but when that spiritual imperative meets digital audio the two can get confused. The lingering minimal influence becomes a way of transmitting authenticity with as little artifice as possible. Listening to the pieces discussed here reminds you that lack of artifice is not the same as lack of skill.

Well, really, Ian Power’s pieces ain’t all that pure. The collection Maintenance Hums begins with a duet for piano and percussion that clatters about with obtuse, single-note arpeggios dogged by a lone cowbell that eventually takes over with numbing hammering. There’s a sly humor in the three pieces here that, depending on your musical taste, either teeters on the edge of grating on your nerves or just shoves you over that edge immediately and keeps on plowing ahead. aspirapolvere, sega, spettro, tenere, possedere is a trio for accordion, saxophone and guitar that emphasises mechanical apparatus while trying to make each instrument sound like a cheap melodica combating blasts of distortion and feedback. Power himself plays the solo BUOY (after Laurence Crane) with what sounds like an organ coerced into life by a vacuum cleaner, except the organ here is in fact electric (und Kagel und Hoffnung sind auch dabei). For his Edition Wandelweiser release, Diligence, he smartens himself up to appear more reverent, but the two solo works presented here still have messy edges to their slow, widely-separated and often repeated sounds. The cello piece occasionally triggers obscuring smears of electronic schmutz, while the clarinet piece makes its material and development from periods of ragged note-bending, smudged attacks and self-conscious repetitions that come across much as rehearsals.

Some of Power’s music, with its aesthetics of deconstruction and warped pedagogy, reminded me a little of Tim Parkinson. Deconstruction really isn’t a fair term for Parkinson, despite external appearances of pieces like his opera Time With People. For his solo and chamber pieces, the musical language isn’t overtly self-referential, except through the tacit admission that musical language is itself arbitrary. As I listen to more of Parkinson’s music, the more it changes, as with the new collection of recordings by Apartment House, put out by Another Timbre under the revealing title an album. The previously discontinuous-sounding phrases and patterns have started to take on a sort of internal logic, inscrutable to observers. This is not a function of maturation: the phenomenon can be heard in both violin and piano piece 1998 and violin and piano 2017. The latter makes fuller use of chorale-like sounds while the former leans towards sparse, high notes – a critic could draw a line of development from one to the other in either direction, were they to confuse which was which. A lot of this may be down to Apartment House, here specifically violinist Mira Benjamin and pianist Siwan Rhys, whose attentive playing captures both the delicacy and the indifference, like a work of nature. That wayward and arbitrary phrasing that once sounded like Wolff now more resembles Wolpe. So this is really reconstructive music, although Parkinson is building something new out of the old, rather than something old in his own image.

Sylvia Lim is a younger composer who is developing her own idiosyncratic language, a mix of pure acoustic phenomena with peculiar methodology. In her album of five pieces, Sounds which grow richer as they decay, the opening track is unfortunately the dullest, with her Piece for three tuned cowbells never becoming more than an inert set of studies in timbre and rhythmic texture. In the shorter vignettes that follow, things get promisingly weird. The piano piece flicker, played in Texas by Alvin Leung, takes a quirky approach to muted strings, ornate yet artless. Cellists Christopher Brown and Natasha Zielazinski played the duet Reordering the Unconsumed in London, producing strange sounds that fall away into electronic-like reverb. The title work is most striking, using a beaten harp and two trombones to extend noise into held tones, producing a grotesque of Scelsi at his most hieratic. The unlikely acoustic combinations are less bizarre in the longer Colour Catalogue: Whites, where flute, bass clarinet and cello produce overtones of each other, alternating in pairings in a succession of fading panels. This last piece suggests we can look forward to imaginative ways of forming more complex works in the future.

I’ve been catching up on some large releases on Elsewhere this year. Most recent is a double-decker by composer/clarinetist Germaine Sijstermans. Betula is a collection of ensemble pieces that emerged from her recent performance practice with a close group of fellow musicians. This kind of practice can lead to development into elaboration or refinement into purity; Sijstermans has taken the latter path. The ensemble, recorded here over a few days in September 2019, is an all-star band of performer/composers who take a like-minded approach: besides Sijstermans’ clarinet there is Antoine Beuger on flute, Rishin Singh on trombone, Johnny Chang on viola, Fredrik Rasten on guitar and Leo Svirsky on accordion. On the seven pieces ranging from seven to thirty-one minutes in length, “the six musicians’ sounds overlap with each other while slowly moving forward in parallel.” On the first listen, everything seemed so refined and pure that each piece sounded the bloody same. On the second hearing, it all opened up and each piece took on a distinct character, with a marked difference in timbre and coloration, even when the instruments stayed the same. What’s most surprising about this change was not that it happened but that it took place so quickly. I want to go into more detail about Betula but this will have to wait until next time.