One-track minds: Michael Winter and Catherine Lamb

Monday 26 April 2021

single track is a really arresting piece that appealed to me immediately,” begins the Another Timbre proprietor’s blurb. Same, dude; same. “A seven-part canon which starts fast and gradually slows down over its 45-minute duration:” that’s exactly what it is, no more, no less. Having recently praised the creative use of algorithms in composition, I need to salute Michael Winter’s work here. The linked interview is an instructive example of the challenges in working with such an approach, which would otherwise seem to be nothing more than following a predetermined path. The idea is simple, strong and immediately grasped both when read and when heard, yet the means of make the idea aurally manifest seemed to test the bounds of possibility. It’s an unheard element that often fuels the tension and interest in music like this, where the clarity of conception is at odds with the difficulty of its execution.

Winter sets the ensemble of seven musicians – all biased towards the lower registers – an exhaustive series of permutations of six notes, sequenced in canon. The perky repetitions of harmonically consistent material recall the high summer of minimal compositions and process music, but the freshness of the piece gives it something new to contribute instead of sounding retro. This would seem to originate in the use of mathematical procedures to introduce quirks that would otherwise have been at the mercy of subjective caprice. First listening, I had forgotten that as each new instrument enters the others slow down and wondered if some electronic sustain effect was in use, introducing a halo of prolonged tones over the regular chatter, until that halo steadily engulfed the ensemble as the musicians are transformed from activity to stillness. The musicians are from a Mexican ensemble named Liminar and I understand why Winter speaks so highly of them. Each plays this unbroken span of constantly counter-intuitive moves in coordination with each other in a way that never obscures the conceptual clarity for the listener, yet do so with a solidity that never makes the simple material seem facile.

My previous exposure to Winter’s music is limited to a piece on the West Coast Soundings album with other students of James Tenney, including Catherine Lamb. I’ve discussed Lamb’s music more often, here and elsewhere, but maybe not as much as it deserves. For the past few years, much of the work I’ve heard has made use of spectral synthesis, harmonically enhancing ambient sound in accord with the instruments. Her latest release on Another Timbre, Muto Infinitas, is a long work for two musicians without electronic alterations. It’s strange to hear Lamb’s music again without that resonant aura, here made all the more stark by the severely constricted range of pitches for most of the piece’s length. For a long time, the duet of Rebecca Lane on bass flute and Jon Heilbron on double bass scarcely moves beyond the least noticeable differences in pitch. Both play in just intonation tuning, requiring the use of microtones (Lane uses a Kingma flute capable of quartertones beyond the usual alternative forms of fingering). The most noticeable changes come in overtones and beating frequencies that emerge from the playing, as the microtones and timbral profiles of each instrument interact – sounding like an Alvin Lucier piece.

In the latter stages the pitch range opens up a little and, by the end, a little melody breaks out. Apparently Lamb has been interested in the “long introduction” as a music form for a while, but the piece’s structure also strongly recalls Tenney’s Critical Band. Muto Infinitas has been in one form of development or another for about five years, honed in its composition and its performance practice. It was written for Lane and Heilbron, both experienced practitioners of this musical style, performing and composing. It’s a piece they’ve made their own as much as Lamb’s and this recording may capture just one phase of a continuing evolution. For the listener, this version runs the risk of being too focused on the performers’ experience at the expense of our own. For some people it may fascinate, but I found the prolonged delay in introducing tangible activity, followed by increasingly (relatively) hurried movement made the ending perfunctory and sounding like a destination, displacing the presumed emphasis on the journey. In other words, I wish it were shorter, or paced in some way that didn’t make me feel like it was delaying gratification.