Block Rockin’ Summer Slam, Part 2

Monday 15 August 2022

Getting back to Germaine Sijstermans’ Betula: each of the compositions is written for a small minimum of pitched instruments, mostly without getting too fussy about type or number. Only one seems to specify that the instruments should sustain. All the instruments used here, can (Rasten plays guitar with an ebow). The musicans here produce a tour de force of ensemble playing, making each of Sijstermans’ intensely focused studies on small variations reveal a unique character while never deviating from a central principle. They embody stillness at its most alert, alive to incipient motion, when so much of this style of playing heard elsewhere can seem merely inert.


By comparison, two other discs I’d heard earlier, Hope Lies Fallow by Johnny Chang & Keir GoGwilt and Landmarks by Katelyn Clark & Isaiah Ceccarelli, now seem almost extroverted. Having previously been one half of Illogical Harmonies and Viola Torros, Chang teams up with GoGwilt to create violin duos that seem modern and ancient at once. Each piece is a solo composition, three each for the two string players. Their references are Hildegard von Bingen and Orlando di Lasso. In making something new they excavate something old, adding to it by creative subtraction, as though details have been effaced by time. Their slow, attenuated counterpoint is bowed raw but soft. Performed in a church in Auckland (Aotearoa), Chang even has his pieces recorded from further away, making them more frail and remote. For the last three pieces they are joined by Celeste Oram’s voice, haunting the music wordlessly as another layer of echo. Ceccarelli and Clark have previously presented some duos with organetto, but Landmarks gives an entire album to their work with various organs and percussion, this time credited as joint compositions. The church atmosphere prevails, with deep cowbells and bell plates complementing the keyboards, but the duet here brings out the more ancient, ritualistic aspects of European religion. The set begins dramatically with rich chords, gongs and rumbling deep bass drum, but each of the longer works becomes slower, turning into almost drone-like processionals. There’s an improvisation on ‘Kyrie Eleison’ that is more about sublimation than augmentation. It all ends with two brief, gnomic episodes respectively on organ and percussion alone, with no synthetic resolution.

I ventured outdoors again last week to see the rather odd improv trio of John Wall, Mark Sanders and John Edwards at Cafe Oto. Edwards on bass, Sanders on percussion, Wall on laptop working digital synthesis and processing of live sounds (tech permitting). I’m calling them odd because they don’t run the usual gamut of extended licks and technical obligations that dominate the genre. With your eyes shut it can be hard to tell who’s doing what at times, as they each turn their instruments into means of exploring boundaries between attack and decay, pitch and noise. As a group, they seem most interested in ways of ferreting in between the others’ sounds, settling down into them before breaking them apart. There was a focus on computer music and electronics on the night, with the other acts being Tom Mudd demonstrating a semi-chaotic synthesiser using feedback resonators to elide from detuned chorales to coloured bursts of static, and a too-rare chance to hear some of James Clarke’s compositions for manipulated orchestral samples. In some ways, these pieces resemble drawings of his works for live musicians, stretching and extending gestures and sonorities as a way of opening up microcosmic structures.

I’ve worked my way back from purity to newness, so I need to briefly mention a new release on Tripticks Tapes by guitarist/composer Matteo Liberatore. Lacquer strongly draws on noise rock, to the point that I’m not sure if there isn’t an electric guitar involved somewhere at some stage of this album described as “analog synthesis”. The riffs and the aggression are there, as are the attacks in the sudden injection and withdrawal of heterogeneous layers of noise. Some of the off-kilter patterns strongly resemble stomp boxes left to their own devices in a closed circuit, which gives the racket a youthful exuberance. The noise may be cheap but it’s the sophistication with which Liberatore cuts and pastes it all together that prevents anything outstaying its welcome or, more importantly, gives each piece the substance to be taken seriously and not as just a throwaway goof.

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.