Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Life Unfinished, Finished

Christmas morning I finally finished John Tilbury's Cardew biography, Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished, having saved the final, political years for my third extended session with the book. In the 1970s, Cardew turned away from the avant-garde music that had gained his reputation, and began writing more populist music that would be useful in mobilizing the troops for the imminent revolution. Most of his energies during his final decade were for the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), a Maoist organization (despite its name) until Mao's death and almost immediate repudiation in 1976. He wrote songs for the Party and fielded a couple of big commissions to exercise his compositional muscles, but otherwise his musical efforts were directed to performances at party congresses, rallies, and strikes. Tilbury speculates that Cardew had reached the highest levels of a revolutionary group whose threat was taken seriously by the British government. Enough suspicious and unresolved details about his death in 1981 from a hit-and-run accident remain for Tilbury plausibly to suggest an assassination.

The earlier observed thematics of Virtue and Morality reach a culmination in Cardew's work writing songs for the Party. The interplay between warring tendencies in his aesthetics, music as individual creation or music with a specific purpose, is a central theme of the last decade. When Cardew first became involved with the CPE (M-L), the Scratch Orchestra was still active, and Cardew and others in the group wanted to use performance occasions to further a revolutionary cause. The debate over to what extent music should be subservient to the Party line eventually led to songs with lyrics whose political line made no concessions to poetry, or even singable diction. But to proclaim the primacy of individual creation is to fall back to bourgeois ideals, promoted by capitalism to ensure that any opposition is diffuse and ineffective. Cardew combated this tendency in his art music by composing to a strict agenda, even in his art music. The large piano set of the Thälmann Variations, for example, was programmatically based on the life of proletarian hero Ernst Thälmann, and Cardew considered diverging opinions to be pointless rubbish. "You've got to get to the heart of things and find out what actually is the case. And when I play this music I'm saying to you what actually is the case.... Nobody is going to tell me any different" (850). If it were generally true that only the composer's intention mattered, I'd probably stop listening to music. The Party's struggles to accommodate Beethoven are at once illuminating for an example of its Jesuitical tendencies and opaque for what the discussion revealed about Beethoven.

Composer's intention, form vs. content, and especially music's relationship to external events, all of these aesthetic discussions were dominated by Marxist-Leninist politics. As the Party sought to understand, and eventually to manipulate, how music affects people, Cardew actively engaged these issues, and the choices he made in response carried life-altering consequences, both for himself and for people in all walks of life, not just other musicians. Tilbury was Cardew's contemporary, born the same year and sharing many of the same musical and political activities, making him perfectly placed to observe and report. Both men grappled with their aesthetic choices, with all of the ambiguities that come with the long-term engagement that is our lives. Tilbury expresses the uncertainty of the turbulent times that he shared with Cardew, writing entire paragraphs in the interrogative, seeking perspectives on the correct line to take on whatever issue was at hand. The ambivalence comes from a fellow traveler, the sense of companions growing older together, the intertwining of Tilbury's trajectory with Cardew's. Tilbury articulates the ambivalence without judgment, accepting with respect the individuals involved, the different strata of emotions that place us on our specific path. He identifies his own inner relationship to Cardew and the Party being neither stable nor consistent over the decades that he worked on the book, and thankfully he didn't try to make them all conform in a final grand stroke of editing. Tilbury is an ideal chronicler, close enough to the subject to have traveled many of the same roads, yet able to maintain a distance, sometimes ironic, always sympathetic. The detail and reflection together give the book its heft, but I have read no other book that describes what it means to be a musician as well as this biography.



The Party's struggles with Beethoven start on page 860. Tilbury's meta-reflection starts on page 978.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sound toward the light

René Daumal was a mystic and writer in interwar France, a fertile time for the imagination even if it was highly unstable economically and politically for most of Europe. Born in 1908, his early years most famously included a bit of drug experimentation, specifically inhaling carbon tetrachloride, which gave him a glimpse of a higher reality. Although he later renounced external stimulants, he spent the rest of his life searching for the spirit that he glimpsed in his trances. In the late 1920s, he and a few friends created a literary group, Le Grand Jeu, parallel to the surrealists but eventually diverging over Daumal's more spiritual aspirations versus Breton and surrealism's engagement with Marxist politics. After exploring several religious traditions, Daumal found a home with Hinduism, learning Sanskrit well enough to translate some of the sacred texts into French. His spiritual work eventually led him into the circle around G. I. Gurdjieff, whose disciples were Daumal's teachers until his death from tuberculosis in 1944. In addition to many poems and essays, Daumal also published a novel in 1938 entitled A Night of Serious Drinking and left a second novel, Mount Analogue, unfinished. Published posthumously, it later became one of the sources for Alejandro Jodorowsky's allegorical film The Holy Mountain.

Sound artist Michael Northam's most recent release, Solar Night on C40 cassette from the Malaysian label Mirror Tapes, is directly and overtly inspired by Daumal. This isn't the first time Northam has cited Daumal for his music. More than ten years ago, Northam's collaboration with John Grzinich The Absurd Evidence was named after a book of Daumal's essays. The album included as an epigraph "tem gwef tem gwef dr rr rr," the unpronounceable word that Daumal heard in his mystical trances immediately preceding the recognition of eternal truths. On Solar Night the significant quotation is from one of Daumal's early prose poems, given in French on Mirror Tapes' site and recited in English in the music. The texts are set in a passage describing the reversal of the speaker's perceptive faculties, which enables him to see the true world that lies hidden behind the encircling daylight existence.

In many works Northam's primary source material is field recordings, and so with Solar Night. In addition, some of the sound sources are from Northam's live performances during the summer of 2010. I imagine Northam's performances to be similar to Jeph Jerman, who performed in Tucson last winter, and years ago with Northam, and — small, natural objects, rattling and rustling into intricate environmental textures. Remarkably, when I listen to Solar Night, I hear the spontaneous performances, rooted in active and direct communication, quite clearly amidst the various layers. In fact, I thought that there was less processing of the individual layers here than on most previous Northam works. The field recordings, such as the ferocious weather in Bathing in the Golden Wrapper, were detailed and crisp. Other layers seemed to have a more human agency behind them, so I could imagine that it was produced live, in real time. Inevitably, some layers resisted such anthropomorphic fantasies, but I listened to them all the more attentively for the ambiguities.

Solar Night is released only on cassette, with two tracks making up the episodes that comprise each side. Episode A opens with the aforementioned Bathing in the Golden Wrapper, the stormy field recordings subsiding into a watery swamp, getting its complexity from the layering. The first Daumal quotation leads into the second piece, Mask of the Sun, a gentle resonant drone, full of delicate bells and flutes, boundaries between natural and processed completelly blurred. But there's a fire crackling away in the background, more or less audible throughout the whole piece — here we are, sitting around the campfire in the woods, enveloped in Northam's unearthly performance.

Episode B opens with a walk through a Tunnel passing through environments both natural and perhaps not so much. Accompanied by birds and insects, flutes and bells, the walker's steps parallel Daumal's spiritual journey, toward the light. Insect sounds are especially prominent, dancing through the field that needs to be heard on headphones to be truly appreciated. The last piece, Sonorous Skin, sets up a watery nocturnal environment that provides the background for an intense electronic loop, the most alien sound on the tape so far. The album closes with a second Daumal reading, "i am the seer of the night an auditor of silence a silence dressed in a sonorous skin."

Although all four pieces work with shimmering, continuous textures, Northam ends them fairly abruptly, with little twists that open the pieces outwards rather than simply drifting back into nothingness. These endings give the pieces a lift, leaving the listener more suspended and aware. Like Daumal, Northam is embarked on a spiritual journey, for which Solar Night is not only a demonstration, an immersive invitation to find the light behind the natural world.

Solar Night is available directly from Mirror Tapes. Daumal's portrait illustrates this online translation of one of Daumal's essays.

Captain Beefheart, RIP

Sad news today that Don van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, passed away. I was a Zappa fan, and Beefheart sang Willie the Pimp on Zappa's first solo, Hot Rats, which rapidly became my favorite song on the album. Zappa had also formed two labels, Straight and Bizarre, and I picked up everything they released. One of earliest releases was Beefheart's monument, Trout Mask Replica. If this was Straight, I couldn't imagine what was released on Bizarre. Even Beefheart's other albums don't sound anything like this one.


Monday, December 6, 2010

December at Furthernoise.org

The December 2010 issue of Furthernoise.org was published today, and it includes two of my reviews, both featuring Australian music. The first is a review of Gail Priest's Presentiments From The Spider Garden, an extended web of unanticipated exotic territories formed into a long suite. The second is an overview of the first four releases on the Melbourne label Vicmod, which together show off the possibilities of modular synths old and new.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Piano and classical drones


When I set up this blog nearly four years ago, I envisaged the Classical and the Drone as twin poles between which I would concentrate my humble observations. The intersection of these two worlds certainly exists, for example La Monte Young and Alvin Lucier, but the last time the two came together around here was about a year ago with Sunn O)))'s drone metal combined with classical instruments. I have recently discovered Peter Adriaansz, a younger composer from Holland who's also the artistic director of The Hague Percussion, firmly in the classical world, whose work in the past couple of years combines piano and drones in a way that I find inspirational for my own music.

I originally encountered Adriaansz through Xavier Pestova's repertoire list of music for piano and live electronics. His score for Waves 1-4, for piano, ebows, sine waves, and live delay, was posted on his site, a fascinating and thought provoking excursion which led me to my local guitar shop for my first ebow. Since that time, I reviewed Richard Lainhart's recent CD Cranes Fly West, which uses a grand piano and nine ebows (Adriaansz, in this score, only calls for three), which increased my interest level. And earlier this year, the Dutch Ensemble Klang released a CD of seven of Adriaansz's Waves, including one of the solo piano works and six further excursions into drone piano in combination with reeds, trombone, percussion, violin, and electric guitar. As far as I can tell, it's the first CD release of any of his music, hopefully a harbinger of future installments.

Adriaansz's works page contains thirteen Waves, divided into four sets, and two of the four sets are performed here in their entirety, each movement recorded in a single take. Waves 5-7 open the album and were written for the Ensemble Klang during a period where Adriaansz had done some work with microtonality and was now furthering his investigations into vibration and resonance. Wave 5 divides the ensemble into generating and responding instruments. The piano and ebowed guitar generate tones that are further sustained and modified by the reeds, brass, and percussion. Wave 6 devolves around a single pitch, adding microtonal variations of specific proportions on either side, generating elusive beating harmonies, especially at a fairly good volume. Wave 7 sets up a quiet ebowed drone before it's interrupted by monumentally deep bass notes on the piano, trombone and low reeds. The low fundamentals elicit lots of overtones, making this one a very rich sound world. Higher partials are added explicitly as the piece progresses, with the piano articulating slow octave arpeggios that provide a faint rhythmic anchor in the harmonic blaze.

The second complete set is Waves 11-13, originally written for Peter van Bergen's Loos Ensemble, and played here by two reeds, percussion, guitar, ebowed piano, and violin. Adriaansz has put up a sample score for Waves 11-13, so it's a little easier to see what's going on, and Adriaansz has also posted article with a fair amount of detail about the pieces. Waves 11 is all sustained sounds, dreamlike with surges but no attacks. Waves 12 is highly punctuated with dissonant piano chords and resonant gongs, whose overtones are carried by the sine waves and other sustaining instruments. And in Waves 13 the piano chords are spread out into individual notes stretched across three octaves, spawning subtle moving harmonies.

Between the two sets of Waves, the ensemble programmed a set of three miniatures written in a more conventional style, Nu descendant un escalier. They reminded me strongly of the classic Hat recordings of the Maarten Altena Octet, so I was little surprised to see in Adriaansz's work list that three of his pieces were in fact commissioned by and written for Altena's ensemble (sadly unrecorded as far as I can determine). The album closes with one of the first set, Waves 3 for amplified piano, sine waves and live delay.

Work in microtonality often leads to electronic solutions, and Adriaansz has developed an unusual hybrid of live electronics with the Klang Ensemble. The album has a guest credit of Juan Parra on live electronics on these three sets, and it sounds like it includes a long digital delay to prolong the already stretched tones. Several of the Waves include a part for fixed and moving sines, which further color the harmonies. In practice, the sines draw out an emphasis in the overtones of the acoustic instruments and contribute a sheen to the harmonic overtones. In addition, the acoustic instruments are amplified, which provides another opportunity to place them into an overall context.

As a glance at his scores will demonstrate, Adriaansz has discovered new ways to communicate his microtonal works through an open notation that focuses on the essential chromaticism that he seeks, while deferring specific timbres and entrances to the performers. One of its ancestors is Cage's time bracket notation, where an event is simply given a range of time in which it occurs. Adriaansz uses the metaphor 'live sculpting,' which suggests a mobile, shifting perspectives over a fairly sparse sonic field, but provided a freedom to the musicians to create the complete sound in its own time.

In addition to the usual sources, Waves is available through the Ensemble Klang's web shop where, powered by Bandcamp, all the tracks are available for streaming in their entirety. The sales blurb says that the CD comes with a booklet, which encouraged me to purchase the CD rather than the download. However, the download that came after the CD purchase had a PDF of the booklet in the zip file, but I don't know whether it's present on the download alone purchases. The booklet is all in English and includes an article about Adriaansz written by Bob Gilmore, an interview between Adriaansz and the Ensemble Klang's Artistic Director and fellow composer Pete Harden, and short bios of the composer and the ensemble. Adriaansz writes about the Wave series in an article in English, How I Became A Convert, on his use of microtonality.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A seasonal performance

Our first high cultural event of the season was last night at the University of Arizona's UAPresents, violinist Robert McDuffie and the Venice Baroque Orchestra playing the Seasons Project: Antonio Vivaldi's Four Seasons in the first half of the concert, and Philip Glass's second Violin Concerto, entitled The American Four Seasons. McDuffie commissioned the concerto with exactly this pairing in mind, but during the early sketches, McDuffie and Glass differed on which of the concerto's four movements corresponded to which season. Rather than make a statement in the titles, the movements are simply numbered one through four. McDuffie and the VBO are touring the US with this program through November 19, a great opportunity to hear Glass's new concerto in its intended context.

The Venice Baroque Orchestra consists of five first violins, four seconds, three violas and cellos, a double bass, a lutenist, and a keyboard player who played harpsichord in the Vivaldi and a Yamaha MO-8 synthesizer in the Glass. The string players all stand in a semi-circle (except for the cellists, the only ones seated), and there was no conductor for either piece. Everyone was dressed in black, very elegant. Seeing the entire ensemble standing piqued my curiosity and suggested that this concert would have more immediacy and excitement than I usually expect from a classical concert, that the performers approached this in the spirit of a pop concert.

I'm not familiar with the Vivaldi concertos, but the performance was beautiful and most likely a bit idiosyncratic. I thought it was a very romantic performance, more flexible tempi than I expected, even though the VBO is considered a period orchestra and probably plays with more rather than less historical information. It's a typical Baroque convention to mark piano and forte in the score, so perhaps the romantic swells in volume were a contemporary interpretation. The string writing for all parts was masterful, with the sections displacing and complementing each other. I especially liked the solo passages, where McDuffie would start by himself and then be joined by two or three other players. In one passage, the leaders of the first and second violin section seemed to echo McDuffie's melodic lines, slippery little fragments of sound whose shape and timbre seemed centuries ahead of their time.

One of the other common subgroups was a trio with the lute player and the lead cellist. The lutenist was seated front and center, much more prominent and audible from our seats than the harpsichord, so it played a more important role in the continuo, at least from our seats. The lutenist was really having fun, a joy that communicated through all the performers. One of the movements was a song for the lute and strings, and McDuffie pulled out a chair and sat down, stretched out his legs, and listened with a beatific smile on his face.

The individual movements were very dramatic, with the standing orchestra's rhythmic swaying keeping the overall mood light and upbeat. But a side effect was that they would finish a fast movement with a dramatic flourish, which elicited an enthusiastic round of applause. The program didn't break the concertos into movements (although I later gleaned from the notes that each concerto has three movements, fast-slow-fast), so I completely lost track of which concerto they were playing. I don't think it mattered to them, and contributed to the effect that this was more of a pop concert than a classical one.

If everybody was just out having a good time during the first half, the second half was more serious. Gone was the lutenist sidekick, leaving McDuffie alone on center stage. The auditorium did not use a spotlight, and since he was further forward as a soloist in the Glass work, his eyes were completely hidden in shade by the stage lights, which were all overhead. A tall man in black, with no eyes visible, suggestive of the uncanny in his Halloween evening performance! And even in his fast movements, Glass's music doesn't dance the same baroqueries, so the performers body language was more serious as well.

But as beautiful as the Glass concerto was, I missed a conductor, most noticeably during a fast passage in the first movement where the keyboard seemed a bit out of sync with the strings. The orchestra spent much more time making significant eye contact with each other than they did during the Vivaldi, which made me think they weren't entirely comfortable with the piece. Fortunately I never felt an uncertainty after the first movement, so maybe someone was having a bad night. The work is written for strings and synthesizer, but as far as I could tell the timbre of the synthesizer never changed. It sounded like an electric piano, and it was used for punctuation and rhythmic precision, the keyboard music that Glass has written since his earliest work.

Since the concerto has no cadenza per se, Glass wrote a prologue and three songs for solo violin, which can either stand alone or between each movement of the concerto. McDuffie has been playing this piece for a while, and his performance throughout had great depth and feeling. Glass has already released a recording of McDuffie and the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop, who played the concerto's European premiere in April 2010. But this tour is a great chance to hear the work live, an unusual opportunity and a great concept. The remainder of the tour is on the US West Coast and then some dates in New England. I encourage anyone close to one of these shows to check it out.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Music in utopia

Settling back in after travelling involves finding various pieces of life and picking them up again. One of these pieces is John Tilbury's Cardew biography, which I've mentioned before. Needless to say, this wasn't a vacation book because of the FAA's continued enforcement of luggage weight restrictions. So this past week I've picked it up again, reading about the Scratch Orchestra, a semi-ragtag but seminal group which grew out of Cardew's irregular position teaching experimental music at the Morley College starting in 1968. Cardew was never an important figure for me in my early years, but the set of people who were involved in the Scratch Orchestra is truly astounding. Many of the composers who first came to my attention on Brian Eno's Obscure label, David Jackman (later of the drone group Organum), and of course AMM, were all there.

Besides the who's who aspects, I'm fascinated by the utopian nature of the Scratch Orchestra. Tilbury, who performed with the group, captures the essence of the freeform era, describing the travelling, the guerilla concerts, instrumentation made on the cheap (or even better, with 100% found objects), expressing a joie de vivre that made me feel that I was there. At the time, I was in high school, but even there I felt a loosening of the societal strings, a newfound freedom, that went beyond simply moving into young adulthood. Even at my school, in the four years that I went from grade 9 to 12, the dress code relaxed from a mandatory jacket and tie to nearly anything goes, which meant sandals and bell bottom jeans. Tilbury's prose brought all of this back.

But the late 1960s were also a time when revolution was in the air, even if its inevitability hasn't exactly turned out as foreseen. But I remember that too, even from my idyllic prep school enclave in upstate New York, followed by an Ivy League college elsewhere in New England (where I completely missed out on the opportunity to spend time with Christian Wolff, an encounter for which I clearly was not ready). Parallel to the Scratch Orchestra's freedom being eventually channeled (one might say curtailed) into a revolutionary rigidity of strict Maoism, their trajectory matches that of my own idols at the time, the French literary avant-garde group Tel Quel, whom I studied assiduously and who took the same route after a trip to China in the mid 1970s. I suppose that Maoism was eventually discredited as a solution. Even though the issues that Cardew and company faced haven't gone away, Tilbury's gift is that he makes the questions real all over again, almost forty years after the fact. Tilbury remains politically committed (he refused to concertize in the US after Bush's invasion of Iraq), and I look forward to reading how all this plays out.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dark economics


Brian Pyle's solo spinoff from the Starving Weirdos, aptly-named Ensemble Economique since Pyle played everything himself, released its third album this past summer, a gorgeous vinyl package in Amish Records' Required Wreckers series. Standing Still, Facing Forward moves away from the Ensemble's more industrial earlier releases, with a sound built up from bowed strings, winds and environmental recordings, overlaying slow melodic fragments to create thick vibrational textures. The vinyl format is an appropriate choice, as it provides the opportunity for two extended suites instead of the continuous sequence on compact disc, and each side has its own character.

Side one opens with With You, At Brandy Creek, a melancholic elegy played mostly on cello, multi-tracked into a dark and woody choir. Pyle avoids a classical sound by reducing the vibrato in his playing and using a sustained bowing, so the various melodic lines combine into a thick alluvium. The melodies themselves hover around a few notes and fairly small intervals, and the bass line plays in a steady dirge-like rhythm. He adds a little percussion on Chamber of Light, wind chimes over a surging tremolo in the cellos. The strings build into a rush of traffic and environmental sound, a resonant blast where the listener can barely pick a melody out of the wind. The final track on side one, Strangler Figs, is darker, with percussive crashes intermingled with rain, thunder while flutes hover around a minor second and the cellos weave a subliminal parallel.

Side two is considerably more ominous, opening with a ritualistic Angkor Wat, In The Mist. The strings from side one are replaced with brass, flutes and percussion, with prominent declamatory horns taking the foreground, restlessly circling around three adjacent notes. There's a very creepy bird, barking incessantly and persistently in its own robotic rhythm, while the whole piece is underpinned by surging metallic waves. The darkness continues with Night Escape On Water, The City In Flames, strings and percussion that build to a thunderous roar. The thick and close textures include various indistinct noises and strange overtones in the background as the plaintive melody summons disturbing cinematic images. The album closes with On The Threshold, Through and Through, where flutes and a sustained reedy notes struggle to be heard above environmental sound and noisy overtones before the piece quietly fades out.

Standing Still, Facing Forward is available digitally from the usual suspects, but the vinyl packaging is superb. It includes little information about the recording, but a lovely sixteen-page booklet of aquatic reflections in pencil by Stacie Jane Meyer, dark and murky images that visually parallel the music. It's available through various distributors, or directly from Amish.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Canadian reminiscences

Back in the spring I reviewed a two-CD set by Brooklyn dronemeister Kyle Bobby Dunn purporting to be an introduction to his music, but if someone really wanted to approach Dunn's music from out of the blue, his more recent limited edition Rural Route No. 2 might be a better place to start. Dunn is originally from Canada, and this release is from an unusual source, a print shop and publishing house in Toronto called Standard Form operating on behalf of the Canadian art community, part of whose output is a series of three-inch CD-Rs in an ongoing Rural Route series.

Dunn places the two tracks on Rural Route No. 2 in spectral sightings from his Albertan childhood, and both pieces avoid his occasional noisy tendencies in favor of a dreamlike serenity. The first track, Dissonant Distances, is a fairly consonant and serene set of circulating drones, with nearly melodic frequencies moving in short fragments in the foreground. A quiet section has a ghostly echo, voices from the ether, maybe even distant pop radio, but disappearing in a rumbling resonance. The second track, Senium III, is oddly more dissonant, a series of alternating chords with strange and otherworldly overtones. It continues with regular changes every five to ten seconds, not really fast enough to be rhythmic, but a slow lullaby whose regularity is a sonic representation of the final period in our all-too-short lifespan. Both pieces have a soft focus, with wistful variations in brightness, memories that remain just out of reach.

Rural Route No. 2 is still available as a CD-R directly from Standard Form, or in digital formats from the usual suspects.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Furthernoise for October

The October 2010 issue of Furthernoise features two reviews of mine: Distances by Obsil and Cranes Fly West by Richard Lainhart. Lots of other interesting items too, including Alan Lockett's overview of the recent Thomas Köner reissues, including my drone classic Permafrost.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Languishing in the sun

Over the past year I have reviewed three albums on Glacial Movements, an label from Italy that furthers the exploration of isolationist music. The label's most recent release is The Art of Dying Alone from bvdub, who DJed in some of San Francisco's deep trance and techno raves in the 1990s before relocating to China, where he worked as a translator and recorded this album. The artist's moniker derives as a nickname from his initials (Brock van Wey) and not from any overt dub influences on his music, which in this case is a spacious ambient album of gentle loops and sustained crystalline strings and voices.

At first listen, and despite the rather bleak track titles, I found it difficult to place this album in an isolationist context. The six tracks, ranging from eight to twenty-one minutes, are all very thick and lush, languid sustained string pads often underpinned with gently moving beats. I felt that I was in the tropics rather than the glaciers. The album's instrumentation is unspecified, but wordless ethereal female vocals give tracks like No More Reasons Not To Fall a light and fluffy feeling, white clouds on a sunny day. Van Wey builds the tracks gradually from short loops on guitar, voice or piano, accumulating layer upon layer swirling into a hypnotic soup. Nothing From No One starts from gentle piano meanderings set against the background rustles of a late-night, nearly empty bar, before the last gesture loops to an infinite repeat, sustaining sounds gradually filling the spectrum, yet the original seed remains at some level of audibility. A guitar loop in No One Will Ever Find You Here shows its seams with a slight rhythmic hiccup, which propels the music forward with a sense of urgency, always slightly ahead of itself.

The title track, which closes the album, is especially poignant. The female voice is especially prominent, from the sustained choral voices in the opening to a sighing solo briefly separating herself from the crowd. Unlike the other tracks, which proceed by accumulation, the chorus here is an introduction to a harp and voice duet. The voice here almost sounds like lyrics, dancing a slow elegy with the harp and piano. This piece gets thick too, but at its height the voice is still prominent with disembodied syllables, female sibilants almost sounding like banshees above the quiet piano and sustained pads.

With all of its layered profusion, The Art Of Dying Alone is a maximal sort of isolationism. Perhaps the album's cover provides a clue. As with the other Glacial Movements releases, it's a gorgeous photo by Bjarne Riesto, but it's the first time that a Glacial Movements cover has featured any kind of human trace, a lonely fishing cabin on the edge of a snowy inlet where the artist comes to make his last work. Van Wey has captured the wistful culmination of an imagination, dying alone in a land of midnight sun.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Back from the journey


We've returned from our travels, two weeks in Peru with organized tours in the Sacred Valley and the Peruvian Amazon and a side trip down the desert coast with a flight over the Nazca lines. Besides the hundreds of photos to sort through and the treasured time at Macchu Picchu, we are especially grateful to the guides who showed us so much of their country, introducing us to local artists and experiencing, however briefly, a culture completely different from our own.

A stack of new music awaited my return, so music posting should return real soon now.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Step away from the computer

We have major travel rapidly approaching, and my access to the internet will be sporadic at best. I'll post a picture if I can, but comment moderation is unlikely. My iPod is stocked with new music and some old favorites in anticipation of some long plane flights. I've treated myself to some noise cancelling headphones, so I hope to hear some late Feldman, maybe the studio recording of Grisey's Les Espaces Acoustiques. I've got Rifkin's version of Bach's B minor mass, Golijov's La Pasión Según San Marcos, couple of Bruckner and Sibelius symphonies, some broadcast recordings of Arvo Pärt's choral music, symphonies by Vasks and Tüür, …. I find myself drawn to classical music on airplanes, and I have high hopes for these new headphones for actually being able to hear the music.

Highbrow reading material is Céline's Journey, which I read in French during my university years, but this time in the Manheim translation; and George Prochnik's In Pursuit of Silence. I won't even contemplate the convoluted rationales of reading this book while listening to noise cancelling headphones. Somewhat fluffier fare, new fun reading from Carl Hiaasen and Don Winslow.

See you in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Quietly Dying Star

Celer is the musical offspring of Will Long and Danielle Baquet-Long, a husband and wife whose posthumous discography now runs into the dozens. Typically their ethereal drones are composed from highly processed recordings of environmental sound or acoustic instruments such as piano, violin and flute. Their recent album on Dragon's Eye, Dying Star, is both one of their most subdued sonically, and one of the sparsest in sonic origins, using only an analog synthesizer and a mixing board. Granted, analog synthesizers can produce a wide variety of sound, but the sound world here is remarkably consistent, a steady pitch with gently hovering overtones. Volume is generally low and events are few, a thinning or thickening of the harmonic texture and an occasional ringing emphasis in the overtones. The surface calm and relative homogeneity seems especially apt for an album entitled Dying Star.

Although the album is divided into eight tracks, there is only subtle audible differences to distinguish them in the listener's ear. Celer often uses track boundaries for purposes other than delineating musical divisions, and the track titles read like one of the poems that have graced other albums or Celer's blog. Track boundaries are an unusual playground for sound artists. The Hafler Trio, in its long search to challenge perception, released CDs where the track layout didn't correspond in the slightest to the sequence of individual pieces. But I don't think this is Celer's motivation, which almost seems more like an acknowledgment of the essential disordered quality of the spiritual and emotional states presented by their music.

Yet despite the seeming placidity of the Dying Star's trajectory, the album's most poignant moment comes at the beginning of the final track. Flickers (Goodnight) is the only track that doesn't begin in silence, but instead is crossfaded directly from its predecessor. Even more significant, its continuing drone is overlaid with the only two even mildly percussive events, aptly characterized by the flickers in the track title, coming at the very beginning of the track and echoed about forty seconds in. These two events, so quiet as to be barely suggested, and appearing only after forty minutes of quiet undulating drones, are Dying Star's hidden treasure. Is it the dying star finally imploding, creating a brief flash all too easily overlooked? Has the listener drifted into an oblivious somnolence and heard it only in his or her dreams? Celer makes a call to the listener's attention and imagination and thereby elevates this release to one of their best.

Dying Star is released on Dragon's Eye and is available in their shop or from various distributors worldwide.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bach Transcriptions at the BBC Proms

I've written before about the joys of Bach transcriptions, and one of the BBC Proms concerts this year programmed a delightful set of Andrew Litton conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming for a few more days here. In addition to ever popular works like Respighi's version of the Passacaglia and Fugue, the program includes a suite by William Walton and new commissions from younger composers Alissa Firsova and Tarik O'Regan.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Expression from Raw Objects

Musique concrète is enjoying a resurgence from phonographers, taking to the sonic environment with portable recorders and excellent microphones and using the results to create a variety of unique sound works. My previous exposure to Vancouver sound artist Mathieu Ruhlmann has been through works where field recordings were part of the texture, but where long unbroken threads were more prominent. His previous release, for example, Tsukubai on the Mystery Sea sister label Unfathomless, is nearly all composed from sustained sounds with barely audible small sounds as if in the distance. On his new album, as a leaf or a stone, the drone becomes one voice among many and is often completely absent, and the small sounds are sharp and crisp. But where Tsukubai started life as hydrophones and water, Leaf's sonic sources are a disparate collection of field recordings, obscure instruments like the ukelin and the shruti box, and household objects such as a turkey baster or a coffee grinder.

Since the drone's role in the sound world becomes supportive rather than assertive, the myriad other sounds can be heard. It also means that Ruhlmann is able to create more narrative structures, with the different layers participating with occasional silence as much as with their audible contributions and with changes in sonic scenery occurring more quickly than in drone or dark ambient works. The busy layers, short and sharp sounds, cluster into scrapes and rustles. Sustained layers can hover quietly in the background or rumble through like passing trucks. Voices drift through on a couple of pieces, drawing the listener further in. Some sounds recur in more than one piece, like a plot thread weaving through the album as a whole. Ruhlmann has done an excellent job at keeping all of the objects separate in the sound field, each crackle and rustle clear and distinct.

Musique concrète theorists debate whether a sound object should display the worldly baggage of its origins or should be sufficient unto itself. Ruhlmann lists the sound sources for each individual piece on the inside cover of the album, thus enabling the listener to grapple with the dilemma on his and her own. I find a curiosity about the sounds when I listen, satisfied by these credits, but being able to assign an origination label doesn't illuminate, merely permits the aural attention to refocus on other perspectives. Each of these six vignettes, ranging from four to seven and a half minutes, is a separate journey, sharing a microscopic level of amplified detail and a wonder at the hidden glories around us. Many field recording artists use processing to obscure the details, but there is so much detail here that I suspect that Leaf's sources are fairly raw, with judicious editing for each layer rather than processing the sounds beyond any recognition, an impression solidified with the epigraph from French poet Francis Ponge praising "expression on behalf of the raw object (with no a priori concern about the form of that expression)."

As a leaf or a stone is a limited edition available directly from Afe Records.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Two more at furthernoise.org

I have two reviews in the August 2010 issue of furthernoise.org: a collaborative soundtrack between Per Boysen and Erdem Helvacioğlu, and a new music lounge jazz trio, the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Drone Classics — Weather Sky

While virtually all of the albums in my occasional drone classics series have been painstakingly composed over an extended period of time, it is of course not uncommon for artists to perform and compose drones on the fly. One strand of drone performance stems in part from the live electronics work from the 1960s: Cage and Tudor, Stockhausen, and collectives like AMM. Keith Rowe, tabletop guitarist of AMM until 2004, since the late 1990s has found a different set of musical collaborators playing a style of music known as EAI. Groups with stable memberships are rare in this circle, but Rowe has dueted with Toshimaru Nakamura on four different albums since their first pairing on 2001's Weather Sky.

Nakamura plays an instrument of his own invention called the no-input mixing board, where no external sound source is connected to the inputs of the board. This is not to say that there aren't various effects connected to the outputs, but its basic vocabulary is carefully modulated feedback. It meshes well with an instrument of Rowe's invention, the tabletop guitar. Descended from the electric guitar and still capable of producing notes that remind the listener of its ancestry, it spills across the table with acoustic and electronic preparations, plectrums, and even other sound producing devices. Each of them independently developed an aesthetic of stillness and an acceptance of accidental sounds that has found different manifestations over the last fifteen years or so.

Weather Sky was recorded on June 11, 2001, at a theater in central France, two long tracks framing a short one in the middle. Each of the three eponymous pieces (Weather Sky #1, #2 and #3) is anchored by a steady drone. Unlike many drone works, the steady tone emphasizes high frequencies and both acts like a canvas for other textural events often composed from tiny fragments of sound spinning an elaborate sonic pirouette, and as a magnet for surrounding high frequency noise generated by Rowe's shortwave radio. #1 tops out at forty minutes, but is held together through the occasional appearance of an abrasive squawk that pierces its way through the layers of atmosphere. Rowe seems to aim his shortwave for static textures based on the infrequent appearance of recognizable sound objects, but sometimes this piece seems like a meditation on the various sections of Stockhausen's Hymnen with the exploration of shortwave textures and the squawks that seem so otherwise out of place. #1 builds from a quiet beginning through a couple of significant texture changes, culminating for the last third in a brighter, louder texture, strident and absorbing. It ends with suggestions of feedback leading suddenly to a nocturnal, flickering above distant shortwaves.

#2 is only five minutes long and begins abruptly, an excerpt from a longer improvisation that has clearly had time to gather steam. It opens with a much thicker sound than anything in #1, a climactic moment and its aftermath as the alarms lose energy, replaced by static, out of which emerges various cross-rhythmic clicks, metronomic dance music hiding in the fog.

The final piece starts with as beautiful a textured drone as one is likely to find. Its surface placidity and subaquatic activity bring to mind a pond in an urban park, where the distant industrial rumbles make themselves more felt than heard. Set in this shimmering wash is a dazzling timbral melody that moves from pulses to percussion, splitting frequencies in fractalized gestures. As with the other two pieces, a constant drone runs through the whole piece, merging sometimes with overtones from ominous low drones like circling airplanes as the texture thickens with deep growling bass noises. Shortwaves return toward the end, forming a background for spattering clicks in the rhythm of the beginning of a rainstorm. A stroke of temple bells and the texture immediately thins to a series of monolithic static pulses.

Weather Sky is a formative moment in what Rowe's biographer-in-progress Brian Olewnick called "the drone-oriented work he was prone to in the first half of this decade." Indeed, I hear an underlying entropy in some of Rowe's music, as it tends towards a turbulent chaos, with raw gestures mingling with electronic murk. But his drones, composed of shortwaves and static, shimmer, suggesting mysteries lying behind. Their second studio album together, 2005's Between, includes an exquisite and seamless interplay of overtones in the track Amann that closes the two-disc set. All of Rowe and Nakamura's duo work, which also includes live sets from 2002 and 2008, is released on Erstwhile and is still in print, available directly from there as well as from most of the usual suspects.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Willem Breuker, 1944-2010


It might be odd to find a memoriam here for Dutch bandleader Willem Breuker, who died today, but I have a special fond memory of his music. Probably in the early 1990s, hanging out on the Zorn List, I explored some of the byways of European jazz, and eventually came to Breuker's Kollektief. Maybe the first CD I got was Heibel, which came packed in a cheese box. But the second one was Sensemaya, a CD nearly sometimes disparaged by Breuker lovers because the group performs more standard repertoire than straight improvisational jazz. Among these was a beautifully recorded crooning ballad sung in Dutch, Diep in Mijn Hart, a danceable foxtrot with the most sensuous trombone solo that instantly transported me to the fairy tale land of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Kollektief on this album was augmented by a 12-piece string ensemble and a couple of soloists, and the recording was impeccable. I fell in love with this song, still one of my favorites and on my iPod even now. Several albums later I realize that this was uncharacteristic music for Breuker…

I should also mention the Acousmatrix series of electronic music CDs that his label, BVHaast, released. Seminal electronic pieces by Henri Pousseur, Luc Ferrari, Gottfried Michael Koenig, and others, were all available through Breuker's effort.

So today, I'm having a beer and a listen to Heibel in his memory. R.I.P, Willem Breuker.

I haven't seen any obituaries in English yet, just this death notice from Radio Nederlands. I'll post an obituary link if I find one.

Update: here's an obituary in the New York Times.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

De Natura Sonorum 2 and 3

The second and third movements of De Natura Sonorum share hidden origins in direct response to the orchestral tradition in western art music. Accidents/Harmoniques (Accidents/Harmonics) was originally envisioned as a parody of Instrumental Music ("with a capital I", says Parmegiani), and Géologie Sonore (Geology of Sound) took a specifical inspiration from Arnold Schoenberg's Klangfarbenmelodie, opus 16, no. 3, the famous orchestral work that emancipated tone color as a common set of pitches rotate around the orchestra. Both movements originated with orchestral samples, largely obliterated in the published work, although oblique traces remain.

Accidents/Harmoniques, spelled throughout this book without the intervening slash, is based around the note A, the standard reference note for tuning, heard at the beginning of orchestral concerts. "I wanted to call this movement: music (or maybe a certain music, I don't remember any more). In any case, it's around the notion of 'music' that my ideas crystallized." Parmegiani tried all kinds of samples from orchestral and jazz records, constructing blocks, chords and groups into aggregates and agglomerations. Virtually all of this work was discarded, leaving only the idea of the 'A' backbone, around which he grafted a few remaining sampled chords and isolated sounds from classical and exotic instruments. One of the other candidate titles for this piece was "Patchwork," but he found he was starting down a path where satire nearly became the principal theme, not where he wanted to go for De Natura Sonorum. The authors see an ironic revenge of the marginalized electroacoustician, isolated from the classical music establishment, creating a promethean and utopian metamusic "capable of humbling and supplanting instrumental music," an opinion shared by another theorist, Michel Chion, in his untranslated 1976 book Les Musiques Électro-acoustique.

The final product, constructed fairly quickly once the initial researches were discarded, was similar to Incidences/Resonances, a continuum interrupted by various events. "I played two tracks in parallel, and sometimes I decided that such and such an event was going to interfere with the timbre in the continuum, and other times it wouldn't. It all happened very quickly." He knew in advance that he wanted to proceed toward a complete anarchy and chaos, and he even introduced an aleatoric sequence near the end. Most of the sound sources were from various records and tapes, with very few original recordings. Instrumental sounds came from violin, double bass, flute, trombone, piano, horn, vibraphone, baritone sax, bandoneon, crumhorn, and various percussion instruments. The chaotic sections near the very end were based on an orchestral recording playing an aleatoric sequence pizzicato, superimposed several times to obtain a very dense texture. These sections are bounded by recordings of wood blocks, slowed down to conserve the sudden, clean attacks but creating a thicker and more imposing event. The wispy materials in the treble around 3:40 are a recording of a Beethoven string quartet run through a ring modulator. He used a synthesizer to create the continuum sounds, often accumulating different partials to get different timbres and splicing them together to get the variations. There's an especially audible example of this at 1:30.

Géologie Sonore has two separate inspirations. One is an image of the earth seen from an airplane, where one can see the ground without details of the exact forms, simply the passage of global forms, dark or light colors, etc. The other is the twin musical inspirations of Arnold Schoenberg's orchestral piece opus 16, no. 3 (the famous chord-color piece) and John Chowning's seminal FM piece Turenas, one of whose aims was the exploration of continuous timbral modification. As with Accidents Harmoniques, Parmegiani started with an hommage to orchestral music, using samples from Schoenberg, Debussy and Verdi, but these were obliterated in the final piece. Instead, there was a long period of sound gathering to create a catalog of wefts (trames), a technical term from Pierre Schaeffer's groundbreaking theoretical work Traité des objets musicaux. Schaeffer's work is still not available in English, but Michel Chion's commentary, translated by John Dack and Christine North, defines a weft as "a type of excentric sound of prolonged duration, created by superimposing prolonged sounds … which are heard as groups, macro-objects, slowly developing, scarcely differentiated structures."


Parmegiani provides the following descriptive inventory of the wefts that he used (which I have slightly abridged):
  • Meta-instrument: an orchestral continuum in which the instruments follow one another through successive dissolves, a sort of continuous metamorphosis. The sequence was recorded live from the radio, then flattened and rendered unrecognizable through montage. Master weft, present almost throughout the entire movement
  • Keyboard + organ: the keyboard of the electric organ, a continuous sound obtained by pressing all the keys on the keyboard, sped up
  • organ + ring modulator: the preceding sequence treated with a ring modulator = a slow ascending movement of the mass
  • harmonic trumpet: a continuous trumpet sound captured for an earlier piece, Jazzex
  • orchestral foundation: an enormous non-tonic agglomerate. A recording of a symphony orchestra making a continuous rumbling or murmuring, elongated through successive dissolves of the recording with itself.
  • Meta-instrument: the initial sequence slowed down and played backwards
  • Martenot + ring modulator: Ondes Martenot treated with a ring modulator to enlarge the sound spectrum
  • Transparent Screen: an electronic continuum from the video evoking millions of grains emanating out from a dense center
  • violin + notch filter: a violin treated with a notch filter for a slow variation in the timbre

For each weft, Parmegiani created a graph, marking the various colors, dynamics, and tessituras on a temporal axis. Armed with all of his wefts, he started the painstaking creation of a series of pre-mixes. He avoided putting timbres from similar families in the same groups, but in general he tried to make the transitions between the wefts as interesting and sensitive as possible. He ended up with over a dozen different reels of tape, which he had to mix down to three in preparation for the final mix. Unlike other movements, where he was able to create short sequences and splice them together, the final mix for Géologie Sonore had to be done in a single pass. In hindsight, he would have liked more diversity between the different colors, more flagrant transitions, but he was unable to put enough bite in any of the transpositions; the technology of the time was too limiting.

The image is an excerpt from the mixing score for Géologie Sonore. I am unable to match this image with anything specific in the music.

This post is the most recent in a very occasional series about L'Envers d'une oeuvre, by Philippe Mion, Jean-Jacques Nattiez and Jean-Christophe Thomas, published in 1982 by Éditions Buchet/Chastel and INA/GRM. The first post in the series has an overview of the book. Click here to get them all.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Open Bach

For as much as I love, have written about, and continue to listen and perform the music of John Cage, I'm equally drawn to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, in many ways Cage's polar opposite. Cage composed with chance operations, and some of my favorite Cage works (like the number pieces) produce sound events differently at every performance, epitomizing what has come to be called "open form." Bach's music presents an inexorable logic, to the point with his fugues where the harmonic and contrapuntal possibilities are contained within the first few measures, which might be considered the ultimate closed form.

Yet Cage selected Bach's The Art of Fugue as an early example of indeterminate music in his lecture "Composition as Process" because it was originally published as an open score, each voice on its own stave and with the instrumentation unspecified. "Timbre and amplitude characteristics of the material, by not being given, are indeterminate," he wrote. "This indeterminacy brings about the possibility of a unique overtone structure and decibel range for each performance of The Art of Fugue." And indeed, contemporary recordings of the work exist for orchestra, keyboard (piano, harpsichord and organ), string quartet, wind quintet, saxophone quartet, and many other combinations. Despite a now prevailing scholarly opinion that The Art of Fugue was written for keyboard, its open score has seemingly licensed a timbral imagination that exceeds the normal orchestral transcriptions that one finds for Bach's organ works. (The orchestral versions of The Art of Fugue that I've heard are in fact relatively colorless compared to, say, Schoenberg's transcription of the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue or Webern's magnificent transcription of the ricercar from A Musical Offering.) And I confess, I have embarked on my own set of realizations on the computer, having completed four of the set to date, half simulating acoustic instruments and half for overtly synthetized sources.

One of the most commonly known trivia about The Art of Fugue is that the last fugue in the set, a quadruple fugue erroneously entitled "fuga a tre soggetti" (fugue on three subjects) in the first edition, was unfinished at Bach's death in 1750. The first edition, published by Bach's sons a few years later, closes with the music trailing off into nowhere and a note in the handwriting of C. P. E. Bach, "N.B. While working on this fugue, in which the name BACH appears in the countersubject, the author died." The vast majority of The Art of Fugue recordings perpetuate this message, breaking off in mid-phrase. The first editors stuck in a chorale that Bach dictated from his deathbed to terminate The Art of Fugue, but it's clearly unrelated to the rest of the work and therefore seldom recorded.

In a gesture that might be seen as hubris, some musicians and scholars have attempted to complete this fugue. My love of Bach was instilled by the English composer, musicologist and critic Donald Francis Tovey, whose 1924 edition of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier includes detailed and entertaining commentaries for each piece. This edition, still in print from the Royal Schools of Music in London, was the first Bach music I studied, and his commentary was as much a part of the education as learning the music. I knew Tovey had published a completion in 1931, but it's fairly difficult to locate even though his monograph Companion to The Art of Fugue is available at many used book shops (generally for an exorbitant price). After several unsuccessful attempts at obtaining Tovey's completion through inter-library loan, I finally located one fairly cheap from a used bookseller in England, and it's now part of my library. Tovey wasn't the only one to attempt a completion of Bach's final fugue. Probably the most well-known version is by the composer and virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni actually incorporated the whole fugue into his Fantasia Contrappuntistica, a massive twelve-part piano piece published in 1910. I've got a recording of the piece, and it sounds a lot more like Busoni than Bach, and I'm a bit repelled by the piece's virtuosic nature.

The most recent scholarly research puts forward that Bach was considerably more open about The Art of Fugue than even Cage had thought, specifically that Bach deliberately left the final fugue unfinished as a puzzle for performers to complete. Bach left us other puzzles, including but not limited to the "quaerendo invenietis" canons from The Musical Offering. Printed on a single stave but with two clefs, a tenor clef right side up and a bass clef upside down, Bach's directive to "seek and ye shall find" incites two performers facing each other across the score to devise a solution. An organist from New Zealand, Indra Hughes, uses numerology, handwriting analysis, and solid detective evidence to support his thesis that Bach had a solution to the final fugue, which I find fairly compelling. Bach wrote many of his works for didactic purposes, and Hughes suggests that The Art of Fugue belongs in large measure in this category, a compendium of fugal technique, so that the completion of the final fugue was left as an exercise for the students.

Tovey and Busoni may be the most celebrated final fugue finishers, but recent years have seen other performers release their own completions. The Henle edition of The Art of Fugue was edited by harpsichordist Davitt Moroney, who includes his version. Organist Michael Ferguson from St. Paul, Minnesota, published one and has included it in an organ recording of the entire The Art of Fugue. The Hungarian composer and organist Zoltàn Göncz also used higher mathematics to demonstrate its permutational matrix. His version of the score comes with an endorsement from Györgi Ligeti, who taught counterpoint and fugal technique. Hughes' thesis doesn't include a completion, but he extends the numerological analysis to show how long he thinks the completion should be, along with where the four themes should show up, both normal and inverted.

So, as I hinted three years ago, my summer project is an orchestration of this final fugue. It's one of Bach's longest fugues, so I still have plenty of time to decide whose completion I'll use — I've always been curious to hear Tovey's. But who knows, maybe I'll compose my own….

Monday, June 21, 2010

Seven musical virtues

Not much gets done during a summer in Tucson. It's just too hot. Repeated days of triple digit temperatures encourage reflection rather than action. And last Sunday morning, I enjoyed simply sitting and listening to one of my guilty pleasures, Otto Klemperer's 1961 recording of Brahms' Requiem. So it's taking me more time perhaps than usual to work through music books. Besides the Parmegiani book that I've already mentioned, in between fluffier reading I straggle chapter by chapter through John Tilbury's truly massive biography, Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished. Tilbury's writing is complex, detailed, and thoughtful, but refreshingly absent is the convoluted style that I often find in academic publications.

Cardew played with the seminal inprovisation group AMM from 1966 until around 1971. Tilbury's chapter on this period describes the morality of AMM performances, a term I seldom encounter in a musical context with the more typical lofty ideal being spirituality. In connection with the type of improvisation practiced by AMM, Tilbury cites Cardew's seven virtues that a musician can develop: simplicity, integrity, selflessness, forbearance, preparedness, identification with nature, and acceptance of death. The first five make sense in the context of an improvisation group like AMM, where everyone contributes equally to an overall sound texture. But the last two? These look a lot more like prescriptions for living a certain kind of life rather than playing any kind of music, and their inclusion in the list casts the other elements in the same perspective. Yet identification with nature underlies much of the music I like, even if it's composed in the studio. Music based on field recordings, drone and otherwise, arguably comes from an identification with nature, but composed music seems fairly distant. And how should one interpret an acceptance of death as a musical virtue?

Meanwhile, over at Post Classic, Professor Gann has a couple of recent posts examining his career in retrospect, and finds that in his mid-50s, all of his publications and compositions have not brought him any closer to the kinds of leisure-time goals that are probably fairly normal: travel, free time, kicking back with a drink and a smoke on the back porch. Athough my own personal odyssey shares virtually nothing with Gann's and I admire Gann for having more success in music than I ever could, I recognize the same sense of struggle through my 30s and 40s trying to figure out where my life was heading. Here I am, the same age as Gann, assessing the unavoidable fact of puttering through blogging and slowly developing music, but reveling in the personal discoveries. It isn't going anywhere, which is okay. But sometimes when I play piano, or even work intently on a computer piece, thoughts of past and future dissipate into a fully lived present. Perhaps an acceptance of death is the simple recognition that the pleasure that I take from musical practice, from listening and writing, is sufficient unto itself.

The Cardew virtues are on page 312 of Tilbury's biography.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Rieman review in furthernoise.org

The June issue of furthernoise.org has my review of Eric Glick Rieman's Trilogy from the Outside. Rieman plays a prepared electric Rhodes piano, a unique instrument that combines the electronics with mechanical noises from the original instrument, a very interesting set of music. The review has links to Rieman's site and sound samples.

Rich in Tucson


Tucson's Solar Culture Gallery had another great show last night, the ambient artist Robert Rich. He played a continuous 90-minute set with more rhythm than I typically associate with his music, many passages underpinned with a tribal beat, which must have been pre-programmed since I didn't see Rich make any action that would have produced drum sounds other than hitting a couple of keys on his laptop. His albums have often given me the feeling of a nocturnal jungle, with lots of small avian and insect sounds seething in the mix, and this feeling was enhanced by a bright green, continuously moving light show behind him. For the electronic part of his setup he had an analog synthesizer from Synthesis Technology, a couple of keyboards, a small Apple laptop, and a mixing board. He would use these instruments to set up different kinds of textures, which became the ground for his lead instruments: a variety of flutes (perhaps constructed from wood, but some of them looked like PVC pipe) and a pedal steel guitar, both plucked and played with an ebow. Having seen him perform, I can now recognize these instruments on his other live albums; they are all over the three-CD set of concert recordings Humidity, for example. On a couple of occasions, he played brief interludes on exotic percussion, including a waterphone. Solar Culture has a superb sound system, so the music was at the right volume, loud but not deafening. The gallery is in Tucson's warehouse district, with train tracks close by, and he even incorporated the train whistles into the set. He chatted around the merch table before the show and was happy to answer questions afterwards, very pleasant and easy conversations. This was a memorable concert, and 2010 is shaping up to be a great year for live music.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The ruined cathedral

Enrico Coniglio is based in Venice, Italy, where he trained as an urban planner, and his music has deep roots in his environment. I reviewed one of his collaborative works a while back, and this year he released Songs from Ruined Days digitally on the Touch sublabel Spire. At first glance it seems like an odd alliance, since Coniglio's only traditional instrument is the guitar and Spire is all about the pipe organ. But Coniglio is operating here as an aural observer, composing this 45-minute work from field recordings, some of which include a pipe organ. Songs from Ruined Days is a poignant indictment of commodification and the resulting dilution of cultural identity, where the pipe organ acts as a symbol of the paradise lost.

The origin of Songs From Ruined Days is a collection of field recordings from industrial sites and cathedrals, both of which Coniglio sees in a state of crisis. The industrial samples feed into deep, buzzing drones with a full sonic spectrum, an aural equivalent of a dense fog through which we occasionally hear incomprehensible voices and other traces of human activity. Sometimes sustained organ tones underpin this fog, materializing quietly, merging into slow melodies and hushed harmonies. Sometimes, it's just static, atmospheric crackles and the oscillation of distant traffic. But three times out of this haze emerges unadulterated liturgical music, startling in its clarity, beauty, sadness and tradition.

These interludes of sacred music bring a sense of holiness to the music, yet these songs are as ruined as the industrial wasteland that surrounds them, corrupted by human frailty and unable to offer any spiritual nourishment. The pipe organ plays a hymn in the first interlude, faintly accompanied by its congregation. The reverberant space around the organ informs us that we're in a cathedral, and we should have a massive choir celebrating in song. Instead, a few voices, out of tune and out of sync, struggle to carry the message. The second interlude is for a choir alone, but they emerge from street noise and transient conversations, a distant rehearsel punctuated by air brakes and other industrial noises. Choir and organ join in an offertory in the final interlude sequence, the organ setting up a beautiful, clear chorale to the Virgin Mary, Kyrie Eleison and a concluding organ postlude. Even here, the liturgical music is overlaid with conversations and street noises, the sound of nobody paying attention. Lord have mercy indeed.

Songs From Ruined Days isn't Coniglio's first piece dealing with the environmental state of the Venetian lagoon and its surrounding industrial park. Field recordings from the factories show up in Abibes, his podcast for Cronica, and the pollution in the lagoon a subtext in Sapientumsuperacquis, a podcast for Touch Radio. Listeners shouldn't be surprised that some of the drones in the earlier work bear more than a passing resemblance to this one, but the overt symbolism of the liturgical music moves Songs From Ruined Days away from a pure ambient work and into a class of its own.

Songs From Ruined Days is available as a 320 kbps mp3 download directly from Touch.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Galactic Kayn

Roland Kayn is one of the few remaining old school electronic music composers, with a resumé that includes working at the NWDR studio with Herbert Eimert in the early 1950s and live electronic improvisation in the 1960s with Gruppo di ImprovvisazioneNuova Consonanza and a side-long electronic composition, Cybernetics III, in the legendary DGG Avant-Garde series. Backed with Luigi Nono's amazing Contrappunto Dialettico Alla Mente, one of my first exposures to Nono's work and still one of my favorites.

To say that Kayn is still active at age 76 is an understatement — his output for 2009 alone consists of 30 electronics works for a total of over 36 hours of music, and his catalog currently numbers 284, many of which are multi-part suites. The longest individual work in 2009 was opus 256, a 22-part suite entitled A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound, almost fourteen hours in total. It's being broadcast, in its entirety, on Conzertzender, a Netherlands net radio, two sessions of seven hours each starting Saturday at midnight Amsterdam time. The first half was on May 22, and the second will come on May 29.

I admire Kayn's music tremendously, and what I managed to hear in the last broadcast had strong family resemblances to his work on both CD and bootleg downloads LP. Anyone who's interested in hearing some of his most recent work should check it out this coming Saturday. Midnight Amsterdam is 3:00 pm on the USA West Coast, and a seven hour time span provided ample opportunity to check it out.

Friday, May 7, 2010

De Natura Sonorum 1 and 4


De Natura Sonorum thematizes contrasting binary pairs, one of which is stated at the outset with the first piece, Incidences/Resonances. Excerpts from the interview:

I wanted to check out the different ways that concrete elements could combine with electronic elements, always seeking a certain homogeneity. It was about making composite objects, where the attack was concrete and the "resonance" electronic. In spite of the artificial operation of the montage, I stayed within the natural logic of the percussive objects (percussion-resonance).

In this piece, concrete sounds only appear as points, and everything that is prolonged is electronic. Anyway, the sounding objects that I used don't have long resonance, or very interesting either. They obey the law of rapid decay, well known and rather banal. When all is said and done, striking a crystal glass (one of the sources in the piece) and removing its attack is nothing more or less than a very poor resonance, almost pure, which one could create electronically. So it's the sharpness, the attack, that's interesting. This is why I sought in this piece to play with a variety of different attacks.

Another investigation, another starting point for this piece: the sudden interruption of an incident into a resonance (or a continuum). These incidents are "foreign bodies" that interfere with the development of the sound; taken from a material different from the continuum (for example a crystal strike in a long metallic resonance), the foreign body perturbs the continuum in different ways; in general by modifying the harmonic web, thickening, doubling, … sometimes completely changing the continuum.

An incident may or may not have any consequences on the musical passage, like the "false note" in the traditional system (that doesn't lead to a modulation). There are, in Incidences/Resonances, two or three sounds that are sufficient unto themselves. They are 'incidental.'

The technical specs provide the concrete sources (crystal glasses, a triangle, metal bowls, a bronze bell, and a sine wave generator), struck with all manner of percussions (wood, metal, glass, plastic, rubber, fingers, fingernails, &hellip). The electronic sounds form the drones, fabricated after the concrete attacks and superimposed to create microtonal beats. Through microscopic editing of the original sound material and judicious use of reverb, Parmegiani created a wealth of composite percussion strokes. One of his resonance constructions would tighten the gap between the beginning and the end, removing the instrument's natural resonance in the middle of its decay time. One other interesting sidebar is that the opening sequence (from 0:04 through 0:45) was remixed and reused later, from 1:30 through 2:30.

Parmegiani explicitly contrasts Incidences/Resonances with the fourth piece in the series, Étude Élastique, a comparison the authors explore further in a brief interview annotation. (A second annotation touches on the foreign bodies and hot philosophical issues around hetero- and homogeneity.) Incidences/Resonances was composed systematically, like an étude, whereas the latter ( the étude in the title is deceptive) was composed more intuitively. The Étude Élastique came to Parmegiani "so quickly that I didn't even notice myself working" and claims to remember little about its genesis. So the authors instead jump right into the technical notes, "the precise description of all of the operations for realization, from the capture of the sounds to the final mix." There were five sound sources:

  • balloons (baudruches), inflated and deflated, which are rubbed, twisted, struck with fingers (dry and wet), nails, the palm, etc. It's worth noting in passing that the translation of "baudruche" in the original CD notes was "goldbeater's skin", referring to a membrane from a cow or sheep used to separate layers of gold leaf. But in common French usage, the word indicate rubber balloons, and the translation is corrected in the notes accompanying the box (although "baloon" is misspelled).
  • a zarb (the Persian percussion instrument also known as a Tonbak or Doumbek.
  • this same zarb played into a grand piano with the sustain pedal up to capture all the resonance. Some of these strokes can be heard without much manipulation around 2:15.
  • an electric organ with all the keys held down and manipulated with a wha-wha pedal. One of his actions was a sforzendi created by opening the pedal quickly, followed by a gradual closing; these actions can be heard without much manipulation starting around 4:20.
  • a synthesizer to generate white noise and sine waves.

The authors extensively catalog the manipulations, transformations, and major structural points, with all of the lists cross referenced. For example, the first section, up to a zarb stroke merged with a white noise resonance at 1:35, features a sound he calls "white sparks" (flammèches blanches). In one of his sequences on the electric organ with the wha-wha pedal, the pedal was played irregularly in order to get agitated and complex sequences. These were further transposed up, "contracted in time for their global forms to emerge, which at normal speed were too distended to be perceptible" and mixed independently onto two tracks, superimposed as the left and right channels.

The authors identify transposition as one of Parmegiani's primary manipulations in Étude Élastique. Some of his balloon sounds were slowed down to make the inner rhythms distinguishable. These became some of the percussive sounds in the first 95 seconds, where they gradually merge with the less manipulated percussive sounds from the zarb. Electroacoustic composers frequently strive to eliminate audible transitions between different types of material, at an extreme becoming the slow music of Éliane Radigue where transitions are eliminated almost altogether. The theme of inaudible transitions is a big part of De Natura Sonorum, audible in almost every piece and undoubtedly assisted by Parmegiani's research into Pierre Schaeffer's morphologies. Balloons transposed up are part of the textures in the second half of the piece, where the sounds are blended with the organ sforzendi, and which I hear as a marked contrast with the white sparks from the beginning. Both the balloon and organ transformations are examples of how Parmegiani uses speed to unveil the internal workings of a sound, and they give another dimension to the elasticity of the piece's title.

In the annotated interview, the authors probe Parmegiani's conflicting information about the piece's genesis and reveals some aspects of his creative process. He remembers clearly the idea of independent tracking, and that he had tried unsuccessfully to create white spark sounds from a white noise generator. Meanwhile, he also had some recordings of percussionist Jean-Pierre Drouet playing the zarb, and made an intuitional connection between Drouet's zarb playing and his own balloon manipulations that he describes as a certain "touch". If the analogies and memory conflicts seem a bit confusing or irrational, nevertheless these are the mental operations that galvanize the creative endeavor.

The image is the first two minutes of Parmegiani's listening score for Étude Élastique; click it to see a larger version.

This post is the most recent in a very occasional series about L'Envers d'une oeuvre, by Philippe Mion, Jean-Jacques Nattiez and Jean-Christophe Thomas, published in 1982 by Éditions Buchet/Chastel and INA/GRM. The first post in the series has an overview of the book. Click here to get them all.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Post-rock night in Tucson


Last night we went to see a post-rock twin bill, Balmorhea (from Austin, Texas) opening for Mono (from Tokyo) at the local club Plush. In general I feel fortunate to find local concerts from groups I admire, and unfortunately last night there was a serious conflict. The Solar Culture Gallery had the drone rock group Growing, which I'm sure would have been great. But we picked the post-rockers, for which we have no regrets whatsoever.

Actually, it's almost a misnomer to call Balmorhea "post-rock," brought about in this case by their concert association with emblematic Japanese tour partners. Balmorhea's instrumentation, especially on their studio recordings, is nearly all acoustic, and their music would fit more comfortably with post-classic musicians like Max Richter or Nils Frahm (recent European tourmate). The two head men, Rob Lowe and Mike Muller, played acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, banjo, percussion, with a three-piece string section (violin, cello, bass) and a drummer. I'm not familiar with enough of their music to say what they played, but the set was quite varied, from quiet acoustic fingerpicking to energetic, minimalist music with a strong rock beat. The strings provided a great set of drones, with the violinist arpeggiating the high overtones. There were still seats at the back of the bar when we arrived. But as the floor filled up our view was occasionally and variably blocked, so I'm not entirely sure what everyone was doing at any particular moment. We had a beer with Muller for a bit during the break between sets and talked about a wide range of topics, and of course I picked up their latest CD.

Mono, pictured above, took the stage with little fanfare or announcement, progressing from tentative melodies to a full onslaught of sound, immersiv, ecstatic, loud. We abandoned our seats back by the bar and came forward to the stage. The two guitarists sat on stools, so the only one moving was Tamaki, the slender bass player who eyed the audience deadpan, swaying gently with the music and in complete contrast to her increasingly frenzied partners. There were no vocal microphones on stage at all. The two guitarists had banks of foot pedals, set on a board in rows. The pieces seemed long, slowly building up tension and volume, layering melodies on top of shifting harmonic drones. When I thought that they had reached a maximum, they kept going deeper and louder, making them nearly cathartic. One of the pieces climaxed with one guitar in squalls of feedback, finally setting the guitar on the stage and manipulating the foot pedals manually. I have several Mono albums, but it's exhilarating to hear them at the proper volume.

Since this was our first visit to Plush, let me mention a quick endorsement for the club. Sometimes rock shows can be found in real dives, but Plush was classy, with a well-stocked bar, a couple of patios, and good parking. Mono was touring with Pelican the night we arrived in Tucson, nearly four years ago. I missed them that night, so I also get a certain symbolic grounding from last night's tremendous show. Now if only my ears would stop ringing….