Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Seven days, forty years ago

In a recent interview at Paris Transatlantic, composer/improviser Richard Barrett commented that Stockhausen's recordings of his text compositions, From The Seven Days (Aus den Sieben Tagen), "represent one of the pinnacles of achievement in improvised music," a remark which has generated a fair amount of discussion on the IHM forum. I've expressed my great admiration for these recordings before, but the IHM discussion has prompted me to listen to them all again.

Stockhausen wrote the fifteen texts that comprise From the Seven Days during a period of intense personal crisis in May, 1968, parallel with a highly turbulent moment in European history. They were his first foray into purely text-based compositions, although since 1964 he had been touring with his ensemble on compositions more and more sparse in their construction. As far as I can tell, the first public performance of any of the works was in December, 1968, when Stockhausen and his touring group, augmented by a couple of Parisian musicians, played It in a concert in Brussels. In May, 1969, he performed Set Sail for the Sun in Paris during a series of concerts dedicated to his work, and recorded this piece and Connection for the Harmonia Mundi label (still available digitally from the usual sources, although credited to Diego Masson and the Ensemble Musique Vivante). Later that summer, at the annual Darmstadt composition school, he recorded, concertized, and lectured on eleven of the pieces, recordings that were later issued on Deutsche Grammophon LPs and which are currently available as a seven CD set on Stockhausen's own label. (The set also includes a recording of Gold Dust which was made in 1972 with a different ensemble.)

Starting at the beginning of the series, one quickly becomes aware of Stockhausen's vocalising. Stockhausen was a musical visionary and a great composer, but I've always had a hard time with his vocals in these pieces. In Right Durations he chants and murmurs through the background, but in Downwards he really hogs the microphone, declaiming the text of the piece in multiple languages and making various other subvocal noises. The music is generally interesting enough to overlook the occasional chants in other pieces, but in the recording of Unlimited, one of longest intuitive music recordings he made, he reads a text by Sri Aurobindo during the entire piece. In July, 1969, Stockhausen and his group performed Unlimited for an entire evening at an outdoor concert in St. Paul de Vence , but hopefully it was less tedious than this accompanied lecture. I can't see a rationale in the instructions for this reading, but perhaps he had taken an inspiration from John Cage, who had most likely brought the scores to his 10,000 things pieces to Cologne in 1960. This was a collection of timed pieces for pianists, string players and percussionists which could be performed simultaneously, and included 45' for a speaker. But Cage's subject matter was considerably more fragmented and less preachy than Aurobindo's spiritual text, and Cage did not always intend for the speaker to be understood, more of a texture than a message.

The spiritual message exemplified in Unlimited is the most prominent theme of the text pieces. It is the aspect that received the most press at the time, and the foundation of the attraction of the recordings to myself and probably many other listeners during the culture shock years around 1970. One of the other spiritual expressions is a direction to seek other rhythms to play, which shows up in five of the twelve pieces selected for recording. Downwards, for example, directs the players to play vibrations in the rhythms of your cells, molecules and atoms, while Night Music seeks the rhythms of the universe and of dreaming. These texts generally define a number of different rhythms which the performer should play individually, then transform and interchange them one for another. Many commentators have understood these directions as an extension of Stockhausen's serial thinking as expressed in his writings in the 1950s, e.g., "the basic conception may have become clear: first of all, to arrange everything separate into as smooth a continuum as possible, and then to extricate the diversities from this continuum and compose with them."* But the 1960s were long past any overt interest that Stockhausen had for serial thinking; instead, his composed work was in what he called moment form, "states and processes in which every moment is something personal and centered; something that can exist on its own, which as something individual always can be related to its surroundings and to the entire work."** A vague definition perhaps, but more in keeping with the spiritual aspects of the work. And the intuitive music sounds a lot more like Stockhausen's moment form works, such as Kontakte, a fully composed piece from 1958, than it does like his early serial ones.

And ultimately, it's the sound of these works that still holds Barrett's interest as well as my own. Simon Reynell commented very astutely about this in the IHM thread, which has prompted me to ponder this question more closely. Stockhausen gets an electronic sound even when most of the ensemble is playing acoustic instruments, and the overall electronics are really primitive. This tendency is very evident on the first recording of It, which is performed entirely on acoustic instruments (depending on what you consider a shortwave radio). Of course, Stockhausen encouraged the performers to explore timbral possibilities, so the sounds themselves are unusual. He made sure that the performers took occasional timeouts, which caused the overall textures to evolve. Another defining characteristic is the ensemble's use of percussion and very short sounds from non-percussion instruments. Stockhausen had always been interested in points of sound, and this texture is used a lot in these pieces, to the point where melodic instruments play percussive sounds. For example, one of the few electronic instruments was a viola with contact microphone, and Johannes Fritsch played short, rough, pizzicato sounds, which Stockhausen probably filtered to sound even stranger. But it is the similarity in general phrasing and texture between the intuitive music and passages in Kontakte and Procession that I find striking, so that it is completely fair to say that Stockhausen used the intuitive music to create new Stockhausen music, and to do it more quickly than the fully composed works. And he was only able to do so because he had been extensively touring with these musicians for five years, playing his graphic scores. In these scores, not only were the directions a clear precedent for the directions in the intuitive music, but the earliest one, Procession, specifically directed the performers to transform and interchange fragments of Stockhausen's notated music. This also explains why no other ensembles who plays these scores produce anything like Stockhausen music (although the Swiss new music group Le Car du Thon has made some very nice recordings freely available).

Stockhausen composed a further seventeen texts that were published as For Times To Come (Für Kommende Zeit) in 1970, but these pieces are performed much less frequently. Even Stockhausen's label has only released recordings for seven of the texts, six of which are fairly recent; only one of the five recordings from this set that Stockhausen made in the 1970s are among the reissues. Stockhausen's music changed completely in the early 1970s, away from the collaborative work with his ensemble in the 1960s and returning to fully notated works, away from the pointillism of the 1950s toward a new love of melody as exhibited in the first major work of the new decade, Mantra. By the end of the 1970s, he turned his attention to a different seven days, his massive week-long opera Light (Licht), and the intuitive music experiment was well behind him. Given Stockhausen's reported autocratic personality, it was inevitable that he would want to regain sole ownership of the composer's chair, but at least we have the recordings, fascinating documents today as they were forty years ago.

* Music and Speech, in Die Reihe, number 6, page 64, paraphrased by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen.

** Stockhausen, Texte I, page 250, cited by Jonathan D. Kramer, The Time of Music, page 207.

Stockhausen photo from the Stockhausen Verlag.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Small sounds and ecstatic drones

Seldom does Tucson get the kind of live drone shows that seem to appear regularly in Chicago and New York, but this evening we were blessed with performances by Jeph Jerman and Sun Circle, a duo of Greg Davis and Zach Wallace. The Solar Culture gallery, which presented the show, has been the subject of some controversy recently as its landlord changed rather abruptly from the state of Arizona to a local developer, but tonight's show is a hopeful sign that the gallery will continue its concerts, especially of the more avant variety.

The warmup was a short soundwalk led by local sound sculptor Glenn Weyant, through the railroad yard behind the gallery, into the dormant industrial park across the tracks, and then under the tracks to get back home. When we returned, Jerman had started his set, gently dancing around the gallery wearing a leather fringe jacket, where the fringes all had rattles and other noisemakers attached. He sought creaks in the old gallery floor, then slowly shed the jacket and evolved his performance through a number of different textures. Wooden rattles gave way to squeaky rubber, seed pods, pebbles and sticks manipulated in his hands, then deepened with larger stones that he rolled on the floor, creating deep rumbles because of the uneven texture of the wooden boards. He played pine cones, plucking the scales and then dragging them across the floor. The performance concluded with Chinese health balls, also rolled across the floor, punctuated with gentle strokes on temple bells. I was completely entranced, and the performance had a clear arc. By the time he dragged the pine cones around, especially a very large one, I was so tuned into his actions that it seemed very loud. I've got a few Jerman recordings, but this was the first time I have seen him perform, and the recordings make so much more sense now. My description doesn't do his performance justice, and I cannot recommend enough seeing him live.

By any absolute scale, however, Sun Circle's subsequent performance made Jerman's seem like a whisper. Billed correctly as "ecstatic high volume drones," Davis and Wallace extinguished all lights in the gallery except for a single yellow bulb on the floor, then turned on an electronic Tambura-type drone. Seated cross legged in the middle of the gallery, they both blew mizmars, Turkish reed instruments, into microphones (using their shoes for microphone stands), generated cascades of overtones. Although at first they played the mizmars in unison, they moved out of sync to increase the complexity, and the performance concluded with the tambura fading out, leaving only the nasal sound of the reeds. For an encore, Jerman, Davis and Wallace performed a short set on Tibetan bells, cymbals and a couple of gongs, variously bowing and striking them. Not bad for a Monday night in the southwest!

The photograph is Jeph Jerman's setup, taken before the show.

Echoes of Syros and Derivative reviewed

I have two reviews in the latest issue of Echoes of Syros, a live concert recording by Deep Listening trombonist Stuart Dempster, ambient Tuba player Tom Heasley, and prepared Rhodes performer Eric Glick Rieman; and Derivative, a set of ambient guitar instrumentals by Remora based on short fragments from various rock, soul and pop inspirations. Sound samples are available along with the reviews.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A new isolationism

What makes ambient isolationist? In the early 1990s it was a reaction against the highly rhythmical, ornate, more-techno-than-ambient music that, oxymoronically, was often used for dancing. Stripped to the most minimal, artists like Thomas Köner created very quiet, slow moving music that seemed like the sound of absence. Polar regions seemed an apt metaphor, a featureless, flat, wind-swept landscape. And unlike the deserts, bleak landscapes that have inspired other musicians, polar regions are uninhabited, removing the vestiges of aboriginal civilizations that haunt Steve Roach and his desert ambient colleagues. In 1994, Virgin Records released a 2-CD compilation entitled Isolationism that tremendously expanded the acceptable range of music covered by the term. In particular, it opened the door to paranoia and despair, looking at isolation as a social term, and moving toward other environments, inner as well as outer, where an individual could be isolated. But one label which has retained the far, cold north as inspiration, ironically from Mediterranean Italy, is Glacial Movements, self described as "glacial and isolationist ambient." Their first album was a compilation, Cryosphere, released in July 2006, and their schedule has proceeded as slowly as the ice portrayed on their covers and alluded to in the label's very name.

In May 2008, the label's fourth release was Mick Harris' first full-length album as Lull in nearly a decade, Like a Slow River. Harris should need no introduction to long-time ambience enthusiasts from his work in the early 1990s with Bill Laswell, and perhaps from his various ambient metal (speaking of oxymorons) projects such as Napalm Death and Painkiller. But Like a Slow River is very much in keeping with Glacial Movements' stated aesthetic — long, slow textures, an absence of melody or rhythm, few points of reference. This is especially true of the opening track, Whiteout, where everything blurs into various shades of white noise, marked with high-pitched gusts of wind. But each track is distinct, from The Sheet's deep bass rumbles that come in surges, eventually permitting glimpses of soft melodic fills, to the gentle oscillating drones of Treeless Grounds, which has fewer landmarks than Whiteout, if that's possible. Lull's isolation is peaceful, meditative, a turning inward for our most private thoughts, faint glimmerings, and the remainder of the previous night's dreams.

The label's sixth album, Cloudlands, hit the streets this spring under the name Aquadorsa (or perhaps Aqua Dorsa, both spellings are on the web site). It's also unclear whether this is an ongoing project, but in any event the album pairs relative newcomer Enrico Coniglio with one of the most venerable names in deep ambient, Oöphoi. Unlike some of Oöphoi's other collaborations where both artists share an expertise in slow moving drones, Coniglio adds an unexpected layer of noise, borrowing liberally from 12k glitch and Raster-Noton crunchy rhythms. Pieces like The Pond Reflected Her Smile are still characterized by Oöphoi's languid harmonies, where Coniglio's slow click percussion adds an unusual grit. The scratches on Zero Gravity would sound completely at home on well-played vinyl, blending with the subaquatic melodic loops and continuous bell resonances. The music could be considered a departure from the glacial and isolationist rubric, considerably more active and melodic than Lull's subliminal soundscapes, perhaps the label's venture into the more social aspects of isolation. For an oblique perspective, Coniglio's solo work Glacial Lagoon, available on the Laverna netlabel, is a deliberate investigation of the loss of identity in the post-urban landscape colored by his residence in Venice. Where Glacial Lagoon is considerably more glitchy than Cloudlands, the collaboration with Oöphoi brings to the music a wistfulness, an emotional longing previously absent from the genre.

Glacial Movements releases are available digitally from all of the usual suspects, but the CDs are packaged in beautiful digipaks with artwork by the Norwegian photographer Bjarne Riesto that is considerably more than the single image CD cover that comes with downloads. Only half of Riesto's photo is visible on the Aqua Dorsa image above, as the rest is spread across the entire gatefold. Lull's cover is especially effective, an image of white ice that is displayed in context of gorgeous, lush, full color arctic sunset on the inside.