Thursday, January 31, 2008

Drone Classics - Permafrost

In the winter of 1994, I took a winter vacation out of Ohio to sunny Scottsdale Arizona, where my parents had retired. One of the reasons I loved coming to the Phoenix area was that just down the road in Tempe was Arizona State University, which had a wonderful Tower Records store. Before the trip, I picked up a copy of the Wire magazine that had their annual review of the best records of 1993, and used that compilation as my shopping list for the trip. This was the year that Bjork's Debut album made the top of the list, but clocking in at number 28 was a record by Thomas Köner entitled Permafrost. Despite its release on an obscure (and now defunct) Dutch label Barooni, Tower on University had a copy. I bought one, having no idea what to expect.

Well, that's not quite true. I expected something audible. Remember, this was 1994, more than a year before Bernhard Günter started his Trente Oiseaux label, which brought extremely quiet electronic music more into the relative mainstream. I remember bringing the record home and putting it on, then wondering if I had turned the sound off. What the hell is this? Nothing in my listening or performing experience had really prepared me for this album. Even Morton Feldman, who made very quiet music acceptable in the classical world, was relatively unknown, his landmark works not yet widely available (none of his late works were ever released on LP). I had some of his early scores, but Feldman's early piano works are more pointillistic, like Webern, certainly nothing like these quiet drones that I had before my ears.

Six tracks, 38 minutes, and it sounded like there was one long bass note per track. For some reason, despite my initial misgivings, I kept returning to the album. Each track has a restricted number of elements that it sets in motion, each one moving very slowly, such as a single synthesized chord that fades in and out, or a slow undulating trill. Everything is wide open, with lots of high overtones in a bath of ambient white noise. The tracks are all named after features from glaciers and the frozen parts of the world (e.g., Serac, Nival, etc.). A stereotypical image of the frozen north is without features, and Köner's album translates this image into sound, with no sharp edges to provide any sense of distance or destination, where the senses are heightened and even the smallest sound becomes an event. His frozen works are an embodiment of Jonathan Kramer's vertical time, which Köner considers a "gift within our concept of a world that is constantly losing time."

I eventually got almost all of Köner's solo albums. He released four albums on Barooni before moving to the ultra-trendy electronica label Mille Plateaux for his 1998 release Kaamos (MP also reissued Permafrost and another Barooni album, Teimo, as a two-CD set). All of the Barooni albums as well as the long work Daikan cover similar sonic territory, charting quiet and vast soundscapes. He also formed, with Andy Mellwig, the seminal Chain Reaction "subaquatic dub techno" group Porter Ricks, releasing a number of 12-inch dance singles and eventually a couple of compilation albums. The muffled beats show up in some of his later work, especially on some of Kaamos, but even so, the sound world is still fairly bleak.

More recently, his solo work has been more videos and multimedia installations, some of whose soundtracks are collected on the double CD Zyklop, released in 2003. These are considerably more noisy than the frozen soundscapes of the Barooni years, with car horns, distorted voices, and deranged clocks participating in the overall disorientation. Even though Köner's music is often too quiet for a vinyl release, he did put out an album, Unerforschtes Gebiet (Unexplored Area), from an installation based on sounds from a blank piece of film. When the album was later released on CD, it included a bonus track, Les Soeurs Lumières, which included readings on top of his music. The recording on the readings is so clear it sounds like the people are in the room, a significant and startling divergence from his more immersive music. He performs occasionally with Asmus Tietchens under the moniker Kontakt der Jünglinge (a pun on two of Stockhausen's most famous electronic works), and a number of their performances have been released on CD, which I'll discuss in a separate post one of these days.

Köner's solo CDs have fallen into some kind of electronic distribution limbo. Like Barooni, Mille Plateaux is also defunct, and for reasons that I can't explain, some of its albums are available on emusic, and a different set of albums is on iTunes. From two of the original Mille Plateaux releases, Daikan is on iTunes, and Zylkop is on emusic. Permafrost, even though it was released at one time on Mille Plateaux, isn't currently available anywhere (as of this writing, there's a used copy at Amazon going for $195!).

Köner's web site has complete information on his discography and installations, and includes a link to a brand new piece of net art, released this month.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Computers and the time of music

One of the reasons I like Jonathan Kramer's The Time of Music so much is that it's one of the only significant music theory books that accommodates drone music. Kramer devotes one of his final chapters to "vertical music," which he characterizes as timeless music, without linear causality, where each event exists only for itself. Kramer's field of expertise is contemporary classical music, so his examples include early music of Philip Glass, various works by John Cage such as the Variations and Atlas Eclipticalis, some music by Frederic Rzewski, much of the work of La Monte Young and Morton Feldman, and so on. Most of the pieces he discusses are not really drones, but it is no stretch consider them a subset of vertical music.

Earlier in the book, he has a chapter on how technology has changed our view of musical time. This is probably the most dated chapter of the book (which was first published twenty years ago). While Kramer highlights the composer's ability to create more complex works (especially in terms of rhythm) and to achieve an immediacy between a piece's conception and hearing the results, but overall he disparages the computer's ability to create interesting music except in the direction towards increased rhythmic complexity.

Paradoxically, it strikes me how much vertical music seems to require advanced technology. Or, to put it another way, how little drone music uses only acoustic instruments. La Monte Young used brass instruments for The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer. Cage's last compositions, generally called the Number Pieces because the titles are the number of performers, are especially remarkable for the way that, when the instruments have appropriate sustaining capabilities, they create beautiful drones. Saxophonist Ulrich Krieger provides superb examples with John Cage's Four5, scored for a saxophone quartet. Krieger has recorded the piece twice. Cage permitted multiples of the sax quartet, so on one of the recordings Krieger overdubbed himself five times.

Nevertheless, Cage and Young are exceptions. Most contemporary drone music require computers, or at least a good electronic music studio (for the years before computers became ubiquitous). With Kramer's focus on composed instrumental music, he didn't consider the investigations of the micro time scales that a diverse set of musicians have used since the 1950s, as documented in the early chapters of Curtis Roads' definitive book on the subject, Microsound. Other musicians have pursued this and similar directions, all of which contribute to Kramer's timeless music. Michael Northam combines music into hundreds of layers to produce his works of suspended time, an act difficult to contemplate without the aid of a computer. The Hafler Trio's epics sourced from recordings from a single person's voice, ditto. The list could go on, even including more mainstream ambient musicians such as Robert Rich and Steve Roach. While this doesn't negate any of Kramer's work, it shows the opportunity for extending his work into myriad artistic endeavors.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Art of Sounds

Buried in all of Netflix, one can sometimes find some unusual gems. Most recently, I turned up a documentary about one of the founders of musique concrète, Pierre Henry entitled The Art of Sounds. The documentary, by Eric Darmon and Franck Mallet, was filmed a couple of years ago and runs about an hour. It follows Henry through a concert in his home, putting together a new piece, some fascinating footage of his sound library, all with a voiceover from an extended interview. Many of Henry's pieces were composed for ballets by Maurice Béjart, and the film contains several excerpts from the ballets.

While the documentary was interesting enough, the extras were fascinating. First, there is a concert from 2003 of Henry's 1953 piece The Veil of Orpheus. The concert footage is unexciting, basically showing Henry at a large mixing board. At the end of the piece, the camera pans back to show a stage full of speakers of different sizes. One only becomes aware of what's really going on during the subsequent footage of the rehearsel for the concert, where Henry and his technical director discuss speakers in the loft, to the right and left, behind the audience, basically all over the place.

The second big extra is a 20-minute film by Gérard Belkin called Le Candidat. Belkin is listed at IMDB only for Fait à Coaraze, a short film that won the Jean Vigo prize in 1965. But this film was fairly impressive. The surrealistic imagery alternates between political rallies, the candidate and his entourage traveling on a lonely road, and a brief sex scene, but the film is entirely without dialogue, using only Henry's sound montage throughout. Although Henry synchronizes his sound scenes with the ones in the film, within each scene there is no synchronization at all. He supplies only crowd noises during closeup scenes that should have a conversation. The political rallies are accompanied by the Javanese monkey chant. The sound is on equal footing with the image.

The Art of Sounds is part of the DVD collection Juxtapositions, which focuses on contemporary music. A couple of the other DVDs in the series are available at Netflix, and one can only hope that they eventually get them all. The previews included here make them all look fascinating.

Monday, January 21, 2008

John Stewart, 1939-2008

One of my earliest musical memories is listening to the Kingston Trio, a group from the 1950s and 1960s who popularized folk music. I got hand-me-down albums from my brother (who played banjo at the time) and sister, probably to get me to stop listening to much more annoying nursery rhyme records. I even remember the personnel change in 1961, when the founding member Dave Guard was replaced by John Stewart. We still followed the Trio, even preferring the Stewart years to the ones which had preceded, and my sister and I followed Stewart's career after he left the Trio and went solo in 1967.

So it is with sadness that I see that John Stewart passed away this weekend from a brain aneurysm following a stroke. I still listen to his solo albums and have a fair amount of his music on my iPod. Calling himself the Lonesome Picker, he sang in a deep baritone and wrote some wonderful songs, including the hit Daydream Believer. There is a fine tribute to him at the Trio's web site.

Against all odds

Well, I finally finished Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon's most recent novel. Unfortunately, I found its length excessive, even for Pynchon, and would have a hard time saying what the novel was about. The novel is set in the twenty years or so preceding World War I, based around the Traverse family in the coal mining fields in Colorado. The patriarch is killed by capitalist interests, and the novel follows his four children in the aftermath. There is also an airship and its five-member crew, a counterfactual group sort of like Tom Swift, who don't appear to age at the same rate as everyone else. But the plot is too byzantine to matter much, and even though there were some occasional moments of levity, I'm left wondering what else I could have done with the month that I spent on the novel. I loved Gravity's Rainbow and the more recent Mason and Dixon, and would recommend either of those before this one. If you want more details on Against the Day, there are some excellent resources on the net, including an excellent article at Wikipedia, which in turn has links to many other reviews and discussions.

My favorite line from the book, after some characters had a hard night of partying: "Morning came straining in through eyelashes and bootsoles, welcome as a marshal with a saddlebag full of warrants."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A short look at John Cage

The University of Illinois Press has embarked on a series of short monographs devoted to American composers, to which David Nicholls has contributed an excellent introduction to John Cage's life and music. Barely 100 pages in length, Nicholls provides a high-level overview, and in the process he is able to highlight major trends and developments that are underemphasized in more specific and technical books.

Nicholls divides his book into four sections, loosely based around where Cage lived at the time. After covering his early years on the west coast, where Cage studied most notoriously with Arnold Schoenberg, Nicholls gives the most emphasis given to Cage's first stay in New York, in the years leading up to chance composition. Cage decided early on that he would only write music which he could get performed (usually his own ensembles, although he met David Tudor during this period). In the middle period, when Cage moved to Stony Point in the hopes of creating a Center for Experimental Music and during which he toured extensively, the demands on his time were such that he wrote relatively few pieces, culminating in the wide open indeterminate works such as the Variations for any number of performers doing any kind of activity. Nicholls compares Cage's move back to New York City in 1970 with a renewed interest in Thoreau's philosophy as well as an expansion of his creative energies into writing and graphic arts as well as music. He also points out that technology permitted Cage to extend his music composition, using computer programs for the chance operations instead of tossing coins, with the result that he composed more pieces, and for larger forces, than at any time earlier in his life. Nicholls covers Cage's non-musical activities as well, especially his writings and mesostics.

Nicholls' book is not intended for primary research, as a replacement either for David Revill's biography or James Pritchett's examination of the music, both of which were written largely during Cage's lifetime and with his assistance. But in the fifteen years since Cage passed on, scholars and enthusiasts are looking closer at the music and the composer. Through the autobiographical anecdotes in his own writings as well as the book-length interviews that have been published, Cage projected his own mythical image, the story of his life that he fashioned for his own ends. Nicholls, who edited the Cambridge Companion to John Cage, sends the reader back to the music and the writings, with enough critical distance to see trends that remained obscure while Cage was still alive.

It has been several years since I read Revill and Pritchett, and in the intervening time Cage has grown in personal significance. Although the more sensationalistic and theatrical aspects were the early attractors, Cage's dictum to "let the sounds be themselves" has become a catch phrase to represent a large class of music where discrete events don't have any necessary connection to each other. This doesn't means that the music doesn't evolve, but it contrasts sharply with tonal music from the classical period (Beethoven, etc.), where the linear nature of the music means that the beginning of a piece already presages what happens at the end. Cage's music, and a considerable amount of music since World War II, avoids this kind of narrativity, preferring instead a music that reflects the natural world in all of its chaos and anarchy.

Friday, January 18, 2008

January canyon blogging

We took a hike last week into Espiritu Canyon, in the Rincon mountains east of Tucson. After meandering a few miles up the canyon, we had lunch at a large water tank, where the windmill had fallen into complete disrepair, but had been replaced by a solar powered pump, visible to the left of the windmill. Odd to see such modern technology so far from anything resembling civilization (although there were lots of cows scattered around — which made for careful stepping).

Friday, January 11, 2008

Invisible sounds

One of the most interesting releases from 2007 was by the peripatetic sound artist Francisco López, entitled Wind [Patagonia]. It is the third in an occasional series of extended works constructed from relatively unprocessed field recordings from various locations in the western hemisphere. The label description refers to the three releases as the "trilogy of the Americas," but it is not only the sound origins that create a commonality between the works. Each one has a similar cover design and contains an extensive essay on how the work was created, along with the same cautionary warning in all three releases, providing the listener with information about "the background philosophy behind the work and about its specific spatial-temporal 'reality,'" but urging him or her not to access them. All this is very much in keeping with López's long term vision of 'absolute' music. In various essays and interviews, he has situated himself with reference to the work of musique concrète theorist Pierre Schaeffer, who used sound objects without reference to their origins in the 'real' world. López often blindfolds the audience at his concerts to de-emphasize the sounds' relationship to the performer.

López has been at the forefront of sound art for nearly twenty-five years. He originally trained as a biologist, spending considerable time in the Costa Rican rain forest La Selva where the first of the three recordings was made. La Selva is an amazing recording, bringing the rain forest to life through close-miking magic. At several points, the listener can hear insects landing on the microphone and taking off again, along with all of the other richness present in the ecosystem. The second recording was urban: Buildings [New York] captured the sounds of the city's infrastructure, including the World Trade Center. Both albums portrayed a detailed sonic environment, demonstrating the rhythmic and textural possibilities for a musical interpretation.

Although Wind [Patagonia] shares several aspects with the earlier releases, it seems to require a perceptual shift that is unique. It isn't simply that López has moved his focus from the closed spaces of the rain forest and sub-basements to the South American plains. One can hear various creaks and squeaks, but the overwhelming sound source on the album is, unsurprisingly, wind. Movement of air through empty space. The sound of something invisible, something that's not really there. A Google search for wind noise produces results that tell how to minimize and eliminate it. López turns the act of listening on its head by calling attention to the invisible, the ignored, the unseen. Even with this obscured sound palette, López has created a work as varied, as detailed and as rich as the other releases in the series. The great sweeps of white noise from the wind are complemented by tiny sounds from the rest of the environment, rewarding the listener who has successfully transferred the background to the foreground.

López is a prolific sound artist, with nearly fifty releases on CD alone. With his focus on sound objects, it's not always possible to identify his sound sources, but he casts a much wider net than field recordings. Nevertheless, these three albums are among his best and most accessible. Wind [Patagonia] is released on and/OAR, a small label specializing in field recordings, and is available directly from the label as well as from the usual gang of distribution suspects.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

2007 recordings in review

New Years Day. A time to look back over the previous year, note the highlights and lowlights, think about what should be prolonged, what should be discarded. Print and online writers publish their best-of-year lists, and once again I stand back in amazement at all of the music I didn't hear during the year. The Wire's 2007 Rewind issue includes their top 50 albums — I've heard none of them. It gets marginally better in their genre breakouts, where I have two of the Electronica albums and one reissue. On's lists, I've heard one of the top 50 albums and one of the top 20 EPs. The amount of recorded music released every year is simply staggering, and renders somewhat arbitrary these lists, which inevitably can only reflect what the authors have heard (although group efforts like The Wire and presumably have a larger pool from which to draw).

My recollections are somewhat complicated by the changing nature of recorded music, which affected my year more than I had originally realized. It used to be that I would purchase some music at a store, bring home the shiny plastic artifact, and have a physical object that I could see, feel, and variously fetishize. Now, although I still buy CDs (around a hundred last year, I think), I also initiate an exchange of some data on my bank's computer for some data on some server somewhere, with no physical artifacts in sight. Until the end of the year, I wasn't tracking download purchases, so I have to reconstruct these purchases using fields in the iTunes database.

In addition (ahem), not all of the downloads were what the RIAA would necessarily recognize as completely legal transactions. While I make a genuine effort not to download releases that are readily available, I do like to find various out of print albums, often from vinyl albums that I used to own. And occasionally I will read about a group or album, feel a bit nervous about buying something that I really know nothing about, and will download something instead of purchasing it. In these cases, I generally end up either buying the album or deleting it after one listen. But anyway, I have a hard drive littered with lots of music files, many of unknown provenance. So one resolution is to perform better tracking of new music that comes in the door.

But beyond provenance, there's the question of value here. How much of my listening time (of which there isn't as much as I'd like) should I spend with a free bootleg, and how much should I spend listening to something I have purchased? or for which I have a shiny plastic artifact? How about something downloaded legally and freely from a netlabel? I've made the distinction this year between CDs and legal downloads — all of the new music I've reviewed this year was from CD, except for one album where the artist supplied the download rather than sending me the disc — but I'm not sure this distinction is valid any more, except to the extent that the artist often puts considerable effort into the packaging, and a review should acknowledge this effort.

Anyway, I've spent some of the time off during the holidays to clean up my digital library, deleting music that doesn't need to be heard more than once, putting titles on my wish list, etc. Here are some of the albums I enjoyed a lot during the last year, more or less in the order in which they were acquired. Links are to reviews on this blog.