3 by 3, 1 by 3, 1 by 2.

Thursday 13 April 2023

There are some new Jürg Frey albums about on Elsewhere and Another Timbre but I’ll get to them later. Circles, Reeds, and Memories (Elsewhere) documents a concert in Limburg late last year by the trio of Germaine Sijstermans, Koen Nutters and Reinier van Houdt, playing one of their compositions each. I’ve discussed other pieces by all three individually, so here we get to compare their styles more directly. Even while there are strong resemblences, you can detect Sijstermans’ disciplined approach, Nutters’ slow accumulation from the smallest array of pure sounds, van Houdt’s tendency to narrative and slowly developing drama. The trio play clarinets, harmonium, small organ, all blending in ways which I’m sure we’re used to now, although Nutters seems to give Sijstermans more prominent work to do on the clarinet than in her own pieces. The new wrinkle here is the presence of ‘objects’ and tape recordings which rumble underneath the otherwise smooth surface to produce interesting blemishes; or it may be the presence of an audience in the chapel. Neat twenty-minute chunks to sample each composer’s work.

Is he rambling? Giovanni Di Domenico, I mean. The album’s credited to the trio of Domenico, Silvia Tarozzi and Emmanuel Holterbach, but Domenico gets composition credit and, more crucially, “later completed” the work with editing and more of his piano in post-production work. L’​Occhio Del Vedere (Elsewhere) is a one-hour piece for microtonal piano, frame drum and piano with the scale, dynamic and interplay of instruments that all resemble late Feldman, but the impetus here favours performance over composition. The harmonic language is similar too, with the piece beginning with an ascending piano scale echoing Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet and Tarozzi’s piquantly tuned violin recalling his propensity for pointedly enharmonic notation. Those resemblences end as the piece tends to drift from one idea to another, a more relatable wandering than Feldman’s formal decisiveness. There are moments when that relatability becomes a weakness, with passages that seem to go nowhere but are too forgiving to command your attention. The real kicker is Holterbach’s large frame drum, which softly hums and throbs behind the violin and piano duet, producing strangely oscillating subharmonics that push everything back into the uncanny again.

Biliana Voutchkova and Sarah Davachi are definitely not rambling in their Slow Poem for Stiebler (Another Timbre), a tribute to the composer Ernstalbrecht Stiebler. Back in 2020 Another Timbre released an album of Voutchkova performing Stiebler, including his violin solo Für Biliana. This duet by Voutchkova and Davachi combines violin, voice and reed organ to stretch short moments from Stiebler’s composition into long, long held sonorities that let harmonies and overtones float around inside each extended phrase. It’s a fittingly odd way to address Stiebler, as his late work such as Für Biliana has seen him moving away from the intensely examined harmonic stasis of his best known pieces, even venturing into florid but creaky improvisation. Voutchkova and Davachi capture both the improvisation and the stasis – even as their piece is notated it expects great flexibility from the performers – with music that is equal parts meditative and analytical.

Reinier Van Houdt: drift nowhere past / the adventure of sleep

Saturday 28 January 2023

It took a long time to come around to this one. Have we all had enough of Lockdown Art yet? I think I wanted to move on, and this thing from Reinier Van Houdt just seemed too much. Two hours long, ten pieces, needs editing, too indulgent, too slick, too simple. As time went by these complaints started to contradict each other in my head and those nagging contradictions started to do the work that the apparently facile quality of the soundscapes concealed. drift nowhere past was recorded in instalments over six months, turning in an aural report on the 22nd of each month during the uncertain languors at the start of the pandemic. The indulgence is tempered by the obligation, the loose structure of each episode an effect of the enforced improvisatory approach. Van Houdt lingers over each of the redolent fragments he has collected, letting each collage play itself out where he could have edited more tightly. Heard in retrospect, it captures those early months of Covid admirably, contemplating what has been lost and what may never return, with no certainty of where the course of events is leading. It presents a series of soundscapes in which events pass by with little recollection of details beyong the overall impression, blurring into a dreamlike passage of time.

The last three years seem to have passed for most people as a void and for me, personally, the past month has gone by as a half-remembered dream. Before this collection was released the elsewhere label asked Van Houdt to make a companion piece, for Covid’s second wave. the adventure of sleep collects four pieces made of more brittle materials, but worked into layers where events are effaced even further than before. Distant sounds and echoes linger as the predominant theme here, steady rhythms instill a suitable torpor that seems to stretch out beyond the work’s thirty-five minutes, evoking the same sort of crowded emptiness that closes in on the mind as it slowly forgets consciousness.

Reinier Van Houdt: Mouths Without A Head

Sunday 9 May 2021

The theme here is prophecy, which may be why so much of the album seems presently unknowable. I’ve been aware of Reinier Van Houdt only as a pianist, interpreting the likes of Michael Pisaro, so hearing him as a composer-performer delivers the unexpected. The first instrument heard is acoustic guitar and piano is added in small doses as the album progresses. Electronic sounds and treatments pervade the music. Van Houdt plays everything himself, in recordings made just earlier this year.

Mouths Without A Head is a collection of fifteen vignettes that work together best when heard as a suite. The download I received mistakenly sequenced the tracks in alphabetical order and so I first heard the album as a collection of potent fragments. In correct order, these fragments coalesce into a quiet but disturbing progression of elements finding stability before dissolving. The point of origin is Orlando di Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum, a set of 16th century motets with 20th century chromaticism. In its most straightforward moments, Van Houdt plays a type of antiphonal chorale of single notes, on guitar or piano or in tandem, call and response. The music is calm but never settles into a fixed tonality. Deep ambient washes rumble below the surface or rise to overwhelm the instruments, electronic static crackles into life just when things seem all sedate.

Van Houdt’s notes talk about the role of the voice in this work, even as it is never heard plain. Stutter therapy tapes of extended vowels are in the mix, all but indistinguishable from wind recordings and synth pads. As prophecy, it is necessarily inarticulate, hinting at ideas that are left to the listener’s conjecture. Digital delay and reverb give one passage an almost New Age sound, while another is a comfy, nostalgic wash of synthesisers reminiscent of 1970s library music. These are little more than illusions, repeatedly dispelled, most emphatically by the “Presocratic Grid”, a long excercise in scratchy electronic noise that overlays its rhythms until verging upon voiced speech. Van Houdt manages these stark contrasts by making each change multiply and confound what has gone before. The most expressive piano playing is deferred almost to the end, followed by the bleakest and most blank of codas. Is this an act of nullification, or clearing a space for the listener’s questions? It’s an album set to grow in your mind with each successive listening.