Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ghostly Context

Compilation albums are intentionally a mixed bag, sometimes nothing more than a couple of big names strewn among introductory artists for a quick attraction to a new label. At their best, they contribute a complex and multivariant perspective on a pre-defined theme and become more than the aggregate of their individual tracks. Ghostly International, a "record label and art company" based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been releasing compilations in its SMM series since 2004, and its latest installment is a double LP SMM: Context. Like its near namesake AMM, SMM has no published meaning, and Ghostly uses the series for "gentle, texture-focused instrumental music." And unlike most comps, the majority of SMM: Context's contributors are established artists that should attract the notice of contemporary post-classical ambienteers.

The first side of the LP set opens with a short track from Goldmund, delicate arpeggios played on harp and piano with quiet added resonance. Leyland Kirby peeks out from his current low profile with a lovely nylon-string guitar melody run through some echo patches and accompanied by his trademark warbling ambience. Svarte Greiner closes the side with a little sense of menace on Halves, melodic fragments in a high range combined with dark string ensemble pads in the bass. His backgrounds get a little noisy, like feedback or bowed metal, or a series of quick ripples, abrasive reflections with cinematic suggestions. The only new name in the collection is Christina Vantzou, whose track 11 Generations Of My Fathers opens side B. Vantzou has worked extensively in video and toured with Adam Wiltzie for the Dead Texan, but this is her first track released under her own name, a poignant song where piano and field recordings open up distant recollections. And I've written before about Michał Jacaszek, who contributes the beautiful track Elegia that starts with a simple piano melody and slowly layers field recordings, voices, strings and effects into a startlingly full sound. The side concludes with Cornelia Amygdaloid from The Fun Years, whose loops and muted, detuned power chords are buried under an avalanche of vinyl static, the closest track to glitch in the collection.

Side C has two layered drone pieces, the first one, the tranquil Three Parts by Danish producer Manual, shifts through extended breathy tones that merge into each other. Then Aidan Baker layers his processed electric guitar, building through a two-note oscillation in Substantiated, a track that spends its last half in dissipation as the melodic fragments fade into dust. Rafael Anton Irisarri opens side D with Moments Descend On My Windowpane, a cozy acoustic piano song accompanied by gentle drones and tiny crackles. The calm continues with Kyle Bobby Dunn's peaceful harmonies on Runge's Last Stand, whose long phrases take off from the same motif but unwind through several melodic and harmonic variations, like gusts of wind across a pond. The set closes with Peter Broderick's melancholy Pause, perhaps based on a steel-string acoustic guitar performance, with overdubs on electric, and very much in keeping with the rest of the side.

SMM: Context is available directly from Ghostly, either as a limited LP, CD or download at 320 kbps. It's also on iTunes with a different track order. Finally, a DJ named felte has created a mix podcast from the album, freely available.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Cunningham Legacy Tour

Saturday night, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Legacy Tour came through Tucson with an evening of three dances spanning nearly fifty Cunningham's creative choreography. Let me state at the outset that I don't follow contemporary dance with anywhere near the avidity with which I approach music, so I don't have the vocabulary or experience to say much technically about the dances. My primary interest was that Cunningham was Cage's life partner, and Cage was the company's first Musical Director, and remained a Musical Advisor to Cunningham's troupe from its inception until his death in 1992. Seeing the dance, however, opened up a whole side of Cage that I had never seen before. I was completely entranced and exhilirated by the three dances that the group performed last night, and I feel very fortunate to have attended this glorious performance.

The opener was 2007's XOVER (pronounced 'Crossover'), one of Cunningham's last creations, set to the only Cage music we heard all evening. From the orchestra pit, John King, Takehisa Kosugi, and Jesse Stiles each performed a version of Fontana Mix on electronics. From stage left, Aurora Josephson performed her realization of Aria. Unfortunately I couldn't see what the electronics performers were doing, but Josephson was amazing, snatches of recitation in English, French, and Italian, bird calls, gargling, and who knows what else. I thought I heard Kosugi's violin in the mix, and several times orchestral and other recordings emerged from what was generally the same types of electronic noise that we hear on old Cage and Tudor recordings from the period. Sometimes the percussive attacks were quite loud, and sometimes I thought I heard some kind of tuned percussion instrument with a contact mic. The dancers were all dressed in white, and the background was a huge painting by Robert Rauschenberg, sort of geometric red rectangles with some fairly detailed sections, largely on a white background and a brightly lit stage. The choreography centered around two couples, whose actions were sometimes nearly identical to each other, and sometimes wildly divergent. And they would break off into solos, or add several other dancers (there are a total of eleven dancers for this piece) into little set pieces. I was quite taken with the interplay between the music and the dance, which often were seemingly at odds with each other.

The second work was the earliest, Crises from 1960 with music from seven of Conlon Nancarrow's rhythm studies for player piano. Only five dancers here, dressed in red and orange against a black stage in another Rauschenberg design, and I continued to find the motions completely engrossing. Narrative dance pieces have never appealed to me, but these fluid movements seemed as little vignettes out of a continuous stream.

The sole work in the second half was BIPED, a 45-minute piece from 1999 with music by Gavin Bryars. The stage, like for Crises, is dark, but it looks like narrow beams of light ascend from floor to ceiling, not only in the back of the stage, but up front too. Then the ones in front fade in and out, and as the first few minutes pass by, the light on half the stage looks a little odd, then the columns in front start to move. It turns out there's a transparent screen at the front of the stage, and as the piece progresses, the projections become more elaborate. At first, the columns break off into lines, which in turn form colored geometric patterns. But then there are dancers, their bodies visible from outlines, like skeletons made from flames of light. Cunningham collaborated with Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar to create an animation technology that captured the dancers' movements, but not their physical appearance. And there are up to thirteen dancers on stage too, dressed in very strange shiny costumes that looked like some kind of plastic. At one point, some of the dancers donned opaque cloaks, which blurred their figures even more Bryars' music, for violin (Kosugi), cello (Loren Dempster) and electric guitar (King) was a full string sound, by far the most traditional music of the evening. I was surprised to see that there were only the three musicians for how orchestral they sounded. Bryars' description of the piece suggests that the other instruments I heard were pre-recorded.

The combination of the newest dance with 1960s-style electronic music which opened the concert may have disoriented my sense of chronology, but I could not detect any difference in Cunningham's choreography between the early and late works, the way Cage's music was completely different between the early live electronic music and the number pieces he composed in his last years. No doubt I was receptive to the dance because of Cunningham's place in contemporary music. There was certainly a spectacle quality, especially in BIPED with so much simultaneous activity. Perhaps I enjoyed it more than other modern dance companies because of the live performances of the music I enjoy. In any case, the performances touched the mysterious transcendance of the observer in mute wonder, a performance that I will always remember. The Cunningham Legacy Tour continues the rest of the year, in the US and abroad, and the group will disband after a New Year's Eve performance this year in New York. Complete details are available at the Merce Cunningham web site, and I cannot recommend it too highly.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sweet Cello

My latest side trip into the world of J. S. Bach is a paperback I picked up on a whim at our local indie bookshop: The Cello Suites by Canadian journalist Eric Siblin. I was previously unfamiliar with these suites except from guitar or lute transcriptions. Emusic has an excellent recording by Pierre Fournier on DGG Archiv for a decent price, so I availed myself of the opportunity. A wise move, because both book and music are excellent.

Siblin first encountered the cello suites at a recital selected by chance during the unwinding of a pop music critic stint at the Montreal Gazette. The program notes mentioned that no original manuscript of the suites has been located, and Siblin's journalistic interest was piqued. Nine years later, Siblin published his book, a parallel biography of Bach and Pablo Casals, the cellist who introduced the suites to the world. Bach wrote six cello suites, so Siblin divided his book into six parts, one for each suite. The suites each have six movements, following a standard sequence, starting with a Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and concluding with a Gigue. The fifth movement varies between Minuet, Bourrée, or Gavotte. Siblin also subdivided each chapter into the suites' six movements, three for Bach, two for Casals, and reserving the ultimate gigue for the story of his quest.

Siblin shifts perspective in the Bach chapters so that the cello suites are never far from view even as his attention wanders over a wide range of topics, from biography of Bach and his descendants to reception history. Scholars place their genesis during Bach's tenure at Köthen, where he wrote much of his virtuoso keyboard and secular music. So Siblin has a chapter on the political forces that had caused excellent musicians to migrate to Köthen from Berlin, an example of a historical context that Siblin deploys throughout the book. A Near Eastern flourish in the prelude to the fourth suite leads to a digression on whether Bach might have ever heard Jewish music. Each chapter has an entertaining or illuminating anecdote, and together they give a multi-dimensional perspective on these suites.

The Casals chapters of necessity covered world history since Casals was an outspoken peace activist after the experience of WWII and the Spanish Civil War. He discovered the suites while he was foraging used sheet music stores in Barcelona when he was thirteen, and they became a lifelong trademark work. He made his first recording of the suites in 1936 while in exile to England, when the Battle of Madrid was raging. After the war, he refused to play in countries that supported, or even recognized, Franco, including the United States. He broke his vow only in 1958, when he performed in Manhattan as part of a United Nations concert, alarmed by the threat of nuclear war.

The personal reflections in the gigue chapters gave the book a depth of character that went beyond the biographies (and in Bach's case, informed speculation) of the two musical giants. Siblin learned a prelude on guitar, joined a community choir to sing a cantata, and even took a couple of cello lessons, all to get a deeper appreciation for Bach's music. His drive, coupled with the dual biographies, propelled the book forward, made me eager to read another chapter. Siblin's background in journalism informed his writing and made the book easier to read. Between his writing style and the short chapters, The Cello Suites is an entertaining read that I could read late at night when a scholarly book would have required too much concentration.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Electroacoustics from Iceland

One of the joys of reviewing is the unexpected, the music that I never would have found, except for the promotional copy that arrives in my inbox. Such a case is a young Icelandic electroacoustician, Bjarni Gunnarsson, whose first solo album, Safn 2006-2009, was released last year on the Belgian microlabel Lamadameaveclechien (the lady with the dog, in French). Gunnarsson is a member of the duo Einóma, who has a parallel release on Lamadameaveclechien, a 12-inch EP beatfest, Tvenna. He comes to music from a strong academic background in computer science, with some time spent at CCMIX in Paris studying with Gerard Pape and Trevor Wishart. He is also a masters student at the Institute of Sonology studying "Connective Compositional Environments," a method of working on several structural levels simultaneously.

Here's how Gunnarsson describes his research:
The central question for my research is how to define musical processes as operational objects, how these objects can interact in a network of objects and how this can create a flexible and adaptable composition environment. Each object would respond to well defined high-level methods and general parameters making the non-linear transition between time scales possible. The composer is here an important component of the network and guiding its behavior.

I didn't find this description until after hearing the music several times, but it's completely apt for the album. It's almost like Pierre Schaeffer's sound objects woke up and started walking around. I found myself selecting certain sounds as characters in the drama that unfolds over the course of the album. In particular, several tracks feature a stick percussion sound, something like a tom-tom or a taiko drum. It signals sectional changes in Aftur; steps out for an expressive, virtuosic closing to Blindi; initiates various sound events in Udrun and Dried Up; drives Time Out forward with a ghostly drum'n'bass. The interaction between the drum and various electronics opening Dried Up would bring to mind a human interaction, except that the skittering electronics sound so alien that I could not imagine any kind of instrumental origin.

The artist's brief statement on the label web site says that "the sound material varies from voices, violins and percussive sounds," so perhaps voices take on a character role as well. They are most prominent on Blindi, where a wordless female choir provides some of the most ethereal drones on the album before they are buried under the effects and lost in white noise. But this is the only track where voices are identifiable as such (except for a brief whisper in Dried Up). But another character is almost a process more than a sound, the transition from pitch to pulses made famous in Stockhausen's Kontakte. Gunnarsson uses this sonic splintering to great effect on several pieces, peeling elements from the drone in layers, possessing them to melodic dissipation, as new sounds emerge to replace them.

If voices, violins and percussive sounds are the source for all of the sounds on the album, the timbral variation is even more astounding. I suspect that he uses original designed sounds as well. The music reminds me also of Parmegiani, specifically in the way both artists create percussive sound objects and exploring their resonance. In any event, the album has seven tracks, all in the six-eight minute range. The artist sent me a download, but the CD is available in two limited editions, by itself, or with a different cover packaged with the Einóma EP. As far as I can tell, it's available only from the label, which also has a couple of streaming clips. It deserves a wider distribution, and fans of new electroacoustic music should definitely check it out.