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.

Two on Redshift: Linda Catlin Smith and Paramorph Collective

Friday 22 December 2023

Haven’t been writing much lately because I keep listening. Each time I listen changes what I want to say. The Canadian Redshift Music Society has released a new set of chamber pieces and solos by Linda Catlin Smith, performed by the Thin Edge New Music Collective. I’ve discussed Smith’s music a number of times before, but Dark Flower is the first album not made by musicians in Apartment House on the Another Timbre imprint. There’s not much duplication of pieces here: a revised version of Wanderer comes across in darker hues in Thin Edge’s interpretation than the Apartment House version, and the pieces which are new to me also contain shadows in the playing and recording. This doesn’t obscure Smith’s music so much as throw it into a more dramatic relief, pushing the emotional implications a little further while adding emphasis to the interplay and alternation between the instruments’ voices. The tenderness in Smith’s writing comes to the forefront in pieces like the Duo for 2 Cellos from 2015, played with haunting beauty here by Amahl Arulanandam and Dobrochna Zubek; the romantic angle given to all the works here are tempered by the sombre edge in the Collective’s playing, as well as Smith’s language, which is too harmonically direct to allow for indulgences and restrained by the use of counterpoint and a preference for the Mosaic over the Long Line.

Another piece by Smith appears on the Redshift album All we’re made of is borrowed by Paramorph Collective. Thought and Desire is a work of recurring phrases for a pianist who is also required to sing near the end, played and sung here with disarming simplicity by Kim Farris-Manning. Unlike Thin Edge, this collective is a bare minimum of two, the other half being An-Laurence Higgins who adds voice and guitar to the keyboards. The album, for the most part, continues in a vein of gentle quirks, with two quiet pieces by Rodney Sharman overbalanced by a large chunk of time given over to Margot George’s Fruiting Bodies, a droney processional for bombastic electric guitar and majestically synthesised organ that lands somewhere between Harold Budd and Hans Zimmer. It’s hard to tell how seriously we should take its Hollywood grandisoity, elongated either to submlimation or absurdity. Same goes for the shorter interleaving works composed by Paramorph themselves, in which earnestness is marred by overripe theatrics but then played off in a coda as just the two of them being goofy.