Friday, September 26, 2008

Horatiu Radulescu, 1942-2008

On the heels of news of Mauricio Kagel's passing last week, today I read in the Rambler that the spectralist composer Horatiu Radulescu died yesterday. I make no claims to understanding Radulescu's music, which always seemed very much on the fringes of classical music practice. Although he wrote for conventional instruments (including five piano sonatas and a piano concerto), he captured my imagination with his works for sound icons (grand pianos retuned to a "spectral scordatura," mounted on their sides and bowed) or for massively large numbers of identical instruments (e.g., Byzantine Prayer for 40 flautists using 72 flutes, or Infinite to be cannot be infinite, infinite anti-be could be infinite for nine string quartets). Needless to say, his work is poorly represented on disc, although various out of print works are available at the Avant Garde Project, a site devoted to 20th century classical works digitized from LP and unreleased in other formats.

N.P.:  Radulescu, You Will Endure Forever (piano sonata no. 5), performed by Ortwin Stürmer.

Photo by Guy Vivien from Edition RZ 4002, Infinite to be... by the Arditti String Quartet.

Friday canyon-blogging

Today's photo is from Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains, south of Tucson. This is the first hike I have taken in this range, and the terrain was completely different from other mountains in southern Arizona. Everything was very green and lush, with an abundance of water. We took a side trip to see this waterfall, which was audible from the old mining road we followed, although not visible until we crawled through a bunch of brush at the side of the road.

Monday, September 22, 2008


A while back, a meme about 20th century musical events spilled over into NetNewMusic and Startling Moniker, where I mentioned the Pink Floyd concert at the Berlin Wall in 1989.  A kind correspondent traded me the VHS tape of the event for a couple of CDs, so let me correct my initial impression to point out that it is only Roger Waters, and no other members of Pink Floyd.  I saw Waters' Dark Side of the Moon tour a few years ago, which was elaborate, but nothing like this.

Like many of us who kept Dark Side of the Moon on the charts for 14 years (the longest of any album in history), I was a big Floyd fan and had several of their albums on vinyl.  But except for one song (Comfortably Numb), The Wall never appealed to me, and although I picked up The Final Cut, I really stopped listening to any post-Animals work.  The Wall was too depressing, too bound up in the overdosed rock star world, a sentiment that was confirmed by the Alan Parker movie.

But it's been years since I thought about any of this.  Watching the movie of the Berlin Wall concert, my initial reactions were the magnitude of the spectacle and the staggering implications of performing this piece in this place at this time.  The film's conclusion, the performance of The Tide is Turning (not part of the original album) with all of the guests on stage, was an overwhelming moment of hope, that something wonderful would happen with the dismantling of the Iron Curtain.   And yet, watching the movie now, not even two decades after the depicted events, possibly in the midst of another sea change as consequential as the Berlin Wall, it feels like the tide has indeed re-turned, back to the greed of the power brokers lining their own pockets while the rest of the country burns.  Plus ça change....

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Noisy stone spirits

Back in the vinyl days, one of the most abstract artists I collected was Ralf Wehowsky (a.k.a. RLW), who was at the time part of the group P16.D4. Their low-fi sounds were part of the reaction in the 1980s to the overly slick pop music, similar to punk but without the rock elements. What I found especially interesting was their continuous recycling of sonic material for various kinds of transformation, which went way beyond what any other pop groups were doing and most closely approached Stockhausen's transformative works like Kurzwellen, Prozession, and Spiral. (Wehowsky goes into some detail about these transformative methods in a 2005 interview in Paris Transatlantic.) P16.D4 released a double LP Nichts Niemand Nirgends Nie!, where side 4 reworked sides 1 through 3, and which provided the source material for three additional CDs by Wehowsky and various collaborators. He later hooked up with Bernhard Günter, founder of the label Trente Oiseaux that reintroduced extremely quiet music to the avant garde, and another landmark in my personal history into the sonic unknown. Although P16.D4 was anything but quiet, Wehowsky and Günter released a couple of collaborations before going their separate ways in the mid-1990s.

So enamored was I of Wehowsky's projects that I fervently collected his albums through the 1990s, and wrote his biography and most of his album reviews at the All Music Guide. The culmination of my fascination was the five-CD set Tulpas, where 47 different musicians or groups provided interpretations or glosses on his work. I followed him a bit longer, but he released a couple of albums that I didn't like very much, and with the exception of Yang Tul, a vinyl-only collaboration with Andrew Chalk and Eric Lanzillotta, none of his work has made it into my iTunes library, and until writing this post, I haven't listened to any of his work in years (a gap which has now been rectified).

Return of the Stone Spirits, a recent collaboration with Anla Courtis, crossed my desk this summer, and it has been a real pleasure reacquainting myself with Wehowsky. I still wonder about his musical identity — many of his albums are collaborations that bear so little resemblance to each other that I wonder if they incline more to the collaborator than to Wehowsky. I was previously unfamiliar with Courtis, who is most well known as the guitarist of the experimental Argentine group Reynols. But this album is loaded with what sounds like guitar feedback, even though only two tracks have guitar credits, and is in general a much more noisy, continuous assault than anything else I've heard from Wehowsky. (Is Reynols like this? The little that I've heard from them has been drones, not like heavy rock guitar at all.) Even more amazing is that this album is primarily a set of live improvisations, with "no sound-transformations ex post facto," although one track consists of two improvisations in layers. Contrast this with Wehowsky's other recent collaborations, which have often been through the mail, often without even meeting his collaborators face to face.

I should say a few words about the track titles, which are somewhat unusual. Although the album title is in English, the six tracks alternate between titles in German and Spanish. Even more curious, two of the German titles are chapter headings in a book by the nineteenth century German mystic Jakob Lorber: Wege Zur Besserung Der Naturgeister (Ways To Improve The Natural Spirit) and Die Stärkung Des Gemüts Und Der Inneren Sehe In Der Bergwelt (The strengthening of mind and inner marriage in the mountains). The references are worth pondering, but inscrutable and inconclusive. The Spanish language titles aren't any shorter (e.g., Un Pequeño Hombre Gris Con Cara Cuadrada Y Ojos Luminosos (A Small Gray Man With Square Face And Luminous Eyes)), and any mystical references therein escape me.

As for the music, the overwhelming first impression of the album is that it roars. The first four tracks are all loud, with great buzzing sounds of overheated amplifiers, wide frequency spectrums, all variations on the great thundering drone. Whether the pair play guitars, coils, or ethnic violins, the results are a great squall of sound, moving around on the inside but without much reference to musical elements like melody, pitch or rhythm. The two Lorber-titled tracks (two and four) are relentless, constant, but the other two build from amplifier hum to great climaxes. The third track, which is the layered one, sounds like air raid sirens before it's through. The fifth track is a much quieter affair, all small sounds, scratching and scraping, percussive and mostly non-pitched. Wehowsky is credited with a kalimba, but it's not played in any manner that would be recognized back in Africa.

On the last track (...Mit Ihren Weidenringen Die Steingeister Zu Fangen, IYI*), which is also by far the longest, Courtis plays sampler and Wehowsky plays CD scratch, the only tracks where these instruments are used. Given Wehowsky's history of transformation, it sounds like they are using their previous improvisations as sound sources. Even when it gets loud, as it does about half way through, it doesn't have the same overdriven feeling as the first four tracks, but feels more a step removed. And I think I hear the small sounds from track five behind a low frequency burble at the beginning. Pure speculation on my part, but this music calls for reflection and deeper listening, as well as a continued investigation of Wehowsky's current work.

Return of the Stone Spirits is available directly from Beta-Lactam Ring, as well as many of the usual sources.

*= In case You're Interested. Sorry, I've been reading a lot of DFW lately.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

R.I.P. Zazou and Wallace

A few days ago I saw a couple of notices about the passing on September 9 of Hector Zazou, a French musician and, primarily in recent years, producer of various eclectic albums. I would compare him to Hal Willner for his collections of unusual musical pairings and collaborations. His album Songs from the Cold Seas is in regular rotation on our iPod, an anthology of songs about northern oceans, eleven songs in eight different languages, featuring (among others) Björk, Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry, the Finnish quartet Värttina, and Siouxsie (without the banshees). His album Sahara Blue was similar in nature, and featured Bill Laswell, David Sylvian, Ryuichi Sakamoto, all working on songs based on poems of Arthur Rimbaud. He also worked with pianist and composer Harold Budd, African musician Bony Bikaye on a couple of excellent albums, and his catalogue features orchestral and chamber works as well, dating back to the early 1970s. His early albums with Joseph Racaille as ZNR were released on Recommended, Chris Cutler's seminal label that funded the releases with subscriptions, and my earliest introduction to creative and outside music. Anyway, Hector Zazou was a very talented musician, and he will be missed.

Then today, in the morning paper, I see that the author David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Friday. I'm currently reading his book on mathematical infinity, Everything and More, and Infinite Jest is one of my landmark books (you can see it occupying the top shelf of my bookcase here). His writing has been an inspiration to me, although I cannot possibly duplicate his tongue-in-cheek asides, or his wayward diversions into generations of footnotes. Nobody else could get me through the dense mathematics as he has done in Everything and More. For some reason, his writing has resonated with me as few other contemporary authors, most of whose attempts at humor I find to be soulessly glib. A sad day for American letters.

Update:  n.p. Sahara Blue.  Beautiful and creative set of songs, I'm sorry it languished on the shelves.  Imminent import to iTunes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cage and the Dream Syndicate

For the last couple of months, I've been slowly working my way through Branden W. Joseph's recent book, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage. Inspired by the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, Joseph seeks to document the minor history starting from Conrad's work in the early 1960s with John Cale and La Monte Young in the Dream Syndicate, and concluding with his film and video work in the 1970s. With detours through Young, Henry Flynt, sculptor Robert Morris, and filmmaker Jack Smith, Joseph situates Conrad's work in response to the challenges that John Cage established in the 1950s, starting with a lack of any kind of transcendent meaning or intention on the part of the composer, which in turn leads to a more constructive attention and experimentation on the part of the listener. On a broader scale, Conrad et al. also responded to Cage's challenge to the power relations involved in music creation, as well as the dismantling of the boundaries between different artistic disciplines.

I've written before about how indeterminate pieces challenge the performer more than the listener, for whom the single auditory experience insufficiently demonstrates the open-ended nature of the compositions. Joseph's detailed discussion of the performance and reception history of the various conceptual pieces illuminates a word-score repertoire that exemplifies this perspective change. These included not only La Monte Young's famous efforts to feed hay to the piano, or to "draw a straight line and follow it", but word scores from Conrad and Flynt as well. It's hard to imagine that these pieces were actually performed, but the combination of sound and theatrics, as well as the ideas behind the works, made them relatively successful. The premiere (at Harvard) was followed by a performance in New York at Yoko Ono's loft, where Cage was in attendance. I can see Stockhausen's word pieces From the Seven Days and For Times To Come in the same vein, but more often I've seen word pieces that are fairly specific instructions (such as the Lucier work discussed in the post referenced above).

Because of Conrad's participation in the Theater of Eternal Music and his seminal recording with the German rock band Faust, I had always considered him primarily as a musician. But to my surprise, he appears to be more well known as a filmmaker; he is currently a professor at the University of Buffalo's Department of Media Study. A major part of his artistic journey was his work with visionary filmmaker Jack Smith. Although Smith was also a performance artist, connecting with the conceptual art movement, he provided the opportunity for Conrad's first film work, including the sound on Smith's most famous movie, Flaming Creatures (available online at UbuWeb Film — a truly astounding work, I can understand why it was banned). Smith's visionary films overflow with distorted images, and Josephs uses them as examples of Bataillian excess. I read a lot of Bataille back in the day, and often tried to find musical examples, stopping when I got to John Oswald's Plexure as the alpha and omega of musical excess. Avant-garde video and cinema are way outside my areas of interest or expertise — they alter my perception and not pleasantly — but Joseph's account made interesting reading. Unfortunately none of Conrad's film work is online, at least anywhere I can find it.

The book was slow going mostly because the detailed discussions involved artists for whom this book was my introduction. The only artist discussed here in any detail that I knew before was La Monte Young, and mostly through later compositions. I had read some of his conceptual pieces, but nothing about their performance and reception history. Morris, Flynt, and Smith I knew only by name. But the focus of the book wasn't biographical with respect to these artists, but more of what they found challenging in Cage's writings, and how they responded to him. Joseph's accomplishment is to have documented an Conrad's anxiety of influence, what led him to become the artist that he is. It shows a steady fractalization of the narrative, that the closer one looks, the more complex the story line. The Deleuzian model, with different striations and unexpected tendrils to parallel histories, is an apposite framework, and Joseph admirably confirms the original theories with Conrad's specific historical example.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Two articles at

The September issue of is published, where I have an overview of three recent Hypnos releases and a review of Mathieu Ruhlmann and Celer's tribute to the research submarine Ben Franklin.