Monday, July 30, 2007

Other people write about drones, too

There's a nice article about drones (sadly, without a byline) posted at the webzine Textura, originally printed in the hard-copy magazine Grooves. Although its starting point is La Monte Young and his Theater of Eternel Music, it mentions a fair number of other drone practitioners, including the Loop Orchestra, Greg Davis, and Minit. Perhaps a bit too much emphasis on glitch electronics for my taste, but an interesting article nonetheless.

Hat tip: Robert Gable's aworks blog.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Orchestrating The Art of Fugue

Periodically I come back to Bach's late work, The Art of Fugue, through a new recording, which almost inevitably means a different orchestration of the work. The first edition, published shortly after Bach's death, was printed in an open score, with each voice on its own staff (contrasting with keyboard music, where multiple voices are printed on two staffs, one for each hand). Instrumentation was unspecified, but since most of the work is playable on a single keyboard, several great Bach interpreters have recorded it. I had Charles Rosen's piano recording on vinyl back in the day, and Glenn Gould recorded it on a pipe organ. The Emerson String Quartet released an excellent version of it a few years ago, and I've seen recordings for brass and sax ensembles, guitars, and various period ensembles.

Somewhere in my readings on the work, I read about an orchestral performance in Germany in 1928. I can no longer find the reference, but I have always pictured The Art of Fugue performed by an orchestra if not the size of Gustav Mahler's or Richard Strauss, would at least be capable of providing the many variations in color as Mahler and Strauss. I imagine having small instrumental groups within the orchestra play different pieces, using the different timbres to provide connections across the whole work.

For a while I've had the set from Neville Marriner and soloists from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, where he worked with a string quintet, three winds, and two keyboardists. There's a little too many solo harpsichord pieces for my taste, but Neville's orchestration (which he prepared with Andrew Davis, who also played keyboard) for the ensembles were very nicely done. Recently I added a recording from 1965 by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Karl Münchinger. I read a review that said it was "unabashedly romantic", so I thought, why not. It is indeed beautiful, but it's mostly for a string orchestra, at least as far as I can tell. The liner notes talk about the work, but not about the orchestration of this particular version. I couldn't hear any winds at all until the canons, more than half way through, and even then, the winds are only used on a quarter of the pieces or fewer. Still not what I had in mind, but I'm glad I picked it up.

Since the instrumentation was unspecified, John Cage cited The Art of Fugue as an early example of indeterminate music. Certainly the lack of specificity has probably given us more different versions of this than of any other work, by Bach or anyone else. But I have to keep waiting for the kind of orchestral transcriptions have been done for Bach's big organ works. Some of Stokowski's big orchestrations, or Schoenberg's monumental orchestration of the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue, or even Webern's absolutely masterful and delicate orchestration of the Ricercar from The Musical Offering, are more what I have in mind. Webern used soloists from each section of the orchestra, doubling only the violins, and passed the melodic voices around from instrument to instrument. Only in the last few measures do all the instruments play at once. Schoenberg, on the other hand, used a huge orchestra, including a fairly sizable percussion section. But such an orchestration of so large a piece is impractical, at least until someone comes along with a library of orchestral samples and a lot of time on their hands….

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Perils of Organization

Periodically I will get an organizational bug and think about sorting my books again. We had them all arranged back in Dayton, separated into fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. When we got here, they went on the shelves with no thought towards ordering, only towards a house free of boxes. Little by little, some order has crept in, sort of a reverse entropy. First to get sorted was the music books — not completely ordered yet, but at least all the books by or about Cage and Bach are together on the same shelf. So today I tried separating fiction from non-fiction. It went all right for a little while, but then I found a shelf whose connections were so delicate, so inimitable, and so serendipitous that I immediately returned to my computer, preferring to idle away time in games and other trivial pursuits rather than question the wisdom of the universe. National Book Award winning travel writer Peter Hessler, philosopher Theodor Adorno, Nobel Prize winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe, and the indescribable William Burroughs shall continue their cohabitation. At least until next time…

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Chamber music in a Tucson summer

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the fine arts season here in Tucson had dried up for the summer. But last Sunday, even without the missing snowbirds and despite the heat, Tucson Symphony Orchestra concert master Steven Moeckel led a piano quintet under the auspices of the St. Andrews Bach Society. The quintet included Moeckel's sister Laura on viola together with siblings Ellen and Robert Chamberlain on second violin and cello. Paula Fan, Moeckel's regular accompanist and Professor at the University of Arizona, played piano. The group played Elgar's Piano Quintet in a minor (op. 84) and Brahms' Piano Quintet in f minor (op. 34). I enjoyed both pieces very much, and the playing throughout seemed more than capable (even though Robert Chamberlain is currently a master's student). The concert was packed, and the audience was enthusiastic. However, the performance was marred by the venue, Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The church is beautiful, with broad wooden beams and a number of lovely stained glass windows done in a traditional style, but the benches were rock hard and the acoustics were terrible. Episcopals spend a lot of time changing position, sometimes kneeling (they are generally the only churches I've found that still have kneelers), and sometimes standing. Churches where the congregation sits all the time seem to have more comfortable seats. As for the sound, perhaps because I was sitting on the far left side, or perhaps because the air conditioning system was too loud, the instruments all blurred together. At times I could see the instrumentalists playing pizzicato but heard nothing. The concert was recorded for a local TV/Radio station, so hopefully their microphone placement had a better sound.

The overall good news is that Tucson seems to be a chamber music town. In southern Ohio, there were a number of venues that had regular solo piano concerts, but chamber music was hard to find. This concert had excellent players and interesting pieces, so I look forward to other groups in the area.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Back from the past

We're back from our second trip in as many months, both journeys to escape the southern Arizona heat. While the first vacation was future-oriented, as we went to a new location (Sequoia National Park in California), our more recent trip was oriented around significant places in my past. Our first stop was Lake Placid, New York, where my family vacationed during my childhood and where I attended high school. The flood of memories was positively Proustian, as I revisited my mother's family's summer home and my high school (dodging current residents at both locations). The photo is Heart Lake from the top of Mt. Jo, an excellent short walk in the woods. From there, we went to the southern coast of Maine. My father's family spent the summers there in his childhood, and two of his siblings still have houses in their families. I saw my aging aunt, as well as some of my cousins whom I hadn't seen in decades. We stayed with my sister, who had rented a house for a week and brought her family. The evenings were spent sitting around after a few cosmo punches, playing cards and word games. One of the most interesting parts of the trip was trading stories with my sister's family about significant events in my own past, hearing perspectives on my own life and how it looked from the outside. At these moments, nostalgia gave way to a more objective, almost historical, outlook, as I put the events into a broader context and came away with stronger family ties and a sense of my own place in the family history.

I see a parallel between the vacations and music. Future music is the (infinite) set of music I haven't heard yet, something I'm always seeking out. Nostalgia in music is a little harder to identify, other than the obvious set of music that was significant in my younger days. There is a standard cliché that we all have "our songs," recalling some largely imaginary halcyon days from long ago. Certainly those exist — I remember a long night with no music other than Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony, and listening to it over and over again. It's still probably the symphony I know the best, although Beethoven's Seventh is close (largely because it was my father's favorite piece — another sentimental remembrance). Music can produce a feeling of nostalgia through recognizable sonic images, such as rain sounds (which can wrap everything in a blurry, Sunday-morning sort of ambience). But I wonder how many works can evoke a sense of nostalgia simply through musical materials.

Such a nostalgia requires many years to establish its history, operating on yet another time scale in addition to the usual ones inside music. One of the few pieces that successfully evoked nostalgia was the closing moments of King Crimson's 1974 album Red, which was the seventh and final album of a series that started with their first, still classic, In the Court of the Crimson King from 1969. These seven albums had four completely different sets of personnel, with guitarist and leader Robert Fripp the only common element. In a smaller context, Red was recorded in summer 1974, and is the third album in a series with Fripp, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums, pared down from a quintet on Larks Tongues in Aspic (1973), a quartet on Starless and Bible Black (recorded in January 1974), to a power trio. But, at the climactic moment of Starless, the longest song on the album and the end of side 2 (days of vinyl, remember), Fripp included wind and keyboard players from the first Crimson incarnation and brought back the mellotron sound of the earlier groups, otherwise almost completely absent from these three albums. It was an incredible moment for me when the album first came out, summing up all of the turbulent years of Crimson's early existence as well as my own coming of age. I knew the instant I heard it that it was Crimson's last album (as indeed it was until Fripp put together another incarnation in 1981, with a completely different sound).

But Crimso continued, and so do we all, looking forward to other opportunities to connect with precursory times, anterior places, and former selves.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Taking stock

Six months ago I started this blog, partially in an attempt to process the high volume of recorded music that I continue to accumulate. After six months, I see that I was overly optimistic to think that I would be able to write about the new recordings I acquire (even though the volume has been reduced to a trickle). However, the blog has led to some contacts with artists whom I have long respected and editors for new reviewing outlets. Writing has its own pleasures, so although I will continue the blog, I no longer will try to write about everything that walks in the door (or that UPS walks to the door).

This means that I can finally open the stack of CDs still in shrinkwrap on my desk and finally enjoy some of my new music. Items that I may (or may not) write about in coming months include:
  • Jean-Claude Eloy — Shanti, a reissue of a long electroacoustic work from the 1970s. His work Gaku-No-Michi, from the same period, has long been one of my favorite pieces, and was one of the first works from vinyl that I digitized when I realized that the lifespan of my old LPs was finite.

  • Michael Prime and Max Eastley — Hydrophony for Dagon. Michael Prime was in Morphogenesis, an improvising electronic group whose heritage dates back to Stockhausen's intuitive music. Prime has several solo releases as well, with an interesting side career of producing music from plants. This work was recorded live, and all sounds were produced underwater.

  • Paul Bradley — Chroma. Most recent work by a contemporary drone master.

  • Erdem Helvacıoğlu — Altered Realities. Helvacıoğlu contacted me through this blog, and as a result, I have discovered this serene collection of guitar pieces recently released on New Albion.
    Update: Ka-ching!

  • Bernard Parmegiani — Chants Magnetiques. Archival release by one of my favorite electroacoustic composers.

  • Francisco López — Lopez Island. Another contemporary drone master, López also uses field recordings to create immersive sound works.

  • Horatiu Radulescu — Intimate Rituals. A spectral composer whose work I find inexplicably fascinating, with a number of works for viola.

  • Angelo Petronella — Sintesi da un diario. Contemporary musique concrète from Italy.
    Update: Ka-ching!

  • Chris Watson and BJ Nilsen — Storm. Watson was one of the original Hafler Trio members whose recent work has been all field recordings. Here he works with BJ Nilsen (a.k.a. Hazard), another phonographer, on recordings of storms.

After all this, I should also mention that blogging will probably be sporadic for a while. We're traveling again to escape the heat, and the high culture performing arts have pretty much rolled up the carpet for the duration. Monsoons should start in the next couple of days, but we're heading east, where they've only had one day over eighty degrees so far this summer.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Drone Classics — Exactly

The Hafler Trio is one of the longest running creative electronic musical acts. The group formed in 1982 with Andrew McKenzie, Chris Watson (formerly of the punk-dada group Cabaret Voltaire), and a possibly fictional third member, a scientist specializing in perception, Dr. Edward Moolenbeek. I found them through their association with the Touch label, for whom they released several works in their first decade of existence. In the early 1980s, Touch was primarily a cassette magazine, with its odd, exotic and powerful compilations centered around ritual, fantasy, and music from other cultures. The music at that time was a bewildering amalgam, deliberately provoking perceptual fragmentation, but already approaching the mysticism that would become their hallmark in more recent years. This period of their work culminated in the two-lp set A Thirsty Fish, released on Touch in 1987 and finally reissued on CD in its complete form by Korm Plastics in 2005.

By the time of A Thirsty Fish, McKenzie was the sole member of The Hafler Trio, a situation that remains to this day. He continued to work against perceptual stereotypes, and started producing the long form works with beautiful and unusual packaging that have become characteristic of his recent efforts. In the early 1990s, he produced (among other releases) a trilogy of albums that included Kill The King, Mastery of Money, and How To Reform Mankind. Each work was packaged in an oversize wallet, and included various photos and booklets in addition to the CD. The perceptual issues were still ever present, which even extended to the track layout. Mastery of Money, for example, contained seven pieces, but 34 tracks, sandwiching 32 extremely short tracks (between one and three seconds in length) between two extremely long ones (46:34 and 27:50 respectively). This track layout was not repeated on the recent Korm Plastics reissue, which followed a more typical layout of one long track for the entire album.

By the late 1990s, his output had slowed, perhaps because of health problems that he announced in 2002, combined with immigration problems as he moved through Denmark, Russia and Iceland (his current residence is in Estonia). He attempted a very expensive vinyl series (seven 10" records that sold for around $75 each), but his only other new releases were documentation of a live event and an installation that took place much earlier. All of this changed around 2002, when he returned with a number of multi-disk releases. The first to see the light of day was a trilogy, released in 2002 and 2003, that was a harbinger of what would follow: elaborate packaging with wallet cases, beautiful white envelopes with silver borders, all enclosed in thin tissue paper. The second extended outing, released in 2003 and 2004, was even more elaborate, two three-CD sets called How To Slice a Loaf of Bread, combined with a third item comprised of two CDs and a DVD documenting its live performance. Amidst other short releases on a variety of media, he has recently embarked on a series of works whose sole sound source is the voice, which brings us to the work under discussion here.

His collaborators on the voice projects that have been released to date include David Tibet of Current 93 (Where Are You?, one CD), Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten (Normally, two CDs), and Jónsi Birgisson (Sigur Ros), with whom he has released three two-CD sets, which I think of as the Exactly trilogy: Exactly As I Say, Exactly As I Do, and Exactly As I Am. All of the voice projects have identical, elaborate packaging: an oversize wallet with the title and attribution on the front cover, along with a brief epigraph from an author associated with mysticism (St. John of the Cross, Rainer Maria Rilke, Milton, Meister Eckhardt, and Sri Ramakrishna), which folds and closes in the back with an unusual diagonal cutout; a four-panel fold-out printed on both sides, containing one panel of credits and seven panels of very short unattributed quotes (his web site displays these like titles of individual tracks, but such subdivisions of the works as they appear on disk are not evident to me); and a large irregular shaped cruciform sheet that folds out to display eight panels containing somewhat cryptic and surreal prose. The panels are unnumbered, which presents a certain free-form nature about where to start reading, but the last page is known by the presence of a signature block and the fact that it is printed in reverse, so that an ordinary reader must hold the page up to a mirror in order to read it.

Finally, the titles of each disc-long work are Sanskrit words, pointing perhaps to an interest in Hindu mysticism. Exactly As I Say's two discs contain Para Bindu (the all-encompassing point that contains the unified consciousness and its manifestation) and Diksha (the ritual of initiation into the worship of a deity). Exactly As I Do's discs contain Shaktipat (the ritual of a guru conferring power to a disciple) and Asis (I couldn't find a reference for this one, but I'm sure it's out there). And Exactly As I Am's discs contain Sam-Dhana (a spell for joining, uniting and healing) and Vi-Parita (the Sanskrit word for inverted, or upside-down).

This elaborate and attentive packaging is merely an introduction to the sounds of the Hafler Trio, which have since its reintroduction in 2003 have been composed in large part of gorgeous, resonant drones. McKenzie isn't the first avant-garde artist to become interested in the voice as a sound source — John Duncan, who collaborated with McKenzie several years ago, has embarked on his own long-term project using voices as sound sources which deserves its own discussion.

Vi-Parita and Diksha are primarily episodic, at least in the sense that they contain a number of shorter gestures separated by silence. There is a long section in the middle of Diksha where sustained sounds form a backdrop to slow pulses that could originate from breathing. A subsequent section is also composed of sustained sounds, but it's relatively active, almost melodic. There's a short gesture, like a sports whistle, that appears in a couple of places in the piece, as if to signal some kind of transition, and the piece concludes with a long static section, similar to the drones in the other works. Perhaps the best way to describe the episodes in Vi-Parita is subdued. For the most part, it's a very quiet piece, similar to the calm in a quiet field. The backdrop is a gentle murmuring, with periodic swells coming in and out of consciousness. Vi-Parita concludes with a quiet, but deeply resonant, sustained drone.

Shaktipat is a more drawn out affair. The voice isn't much in evidence here, except as background during the fade in. The main characteristic of Shaktipat that sets it apart from the others is a rhythmic deep rumbling, perhaps sourced from ordinary speech (as opposed to a chant or sustained vocal sounds). Similarly, Asis is a continuous sustained sound throughout, but the sound has a fluttering quality that is present only on this track.

The two pieces which are closest to pure drones are Para Bindu and Sam-Dhana. For long periods, Para Bindu is about as static as music gets. The voice is recognizable through much of the piece, which consists of a continuous, very slowly evolving, wordless 'ah'. There is a high overtone present, similar to the high tones one might hear in certain kinds of throat singing. The fundamental underneath changes ever so slightly, and only once or twice in the piece is there a visible seam where different sounds fade in and out. Sam-Dhana is perhaps the quietest of the lot. Like Para Bindu, it is composed of long sustained tones and takes a long time to build. But there is a slow, deep throbbing underlying most of the piece, whose tones accumulate to a deceptively peaceful harmony. About two thirds of the way through the piece, an upper voice raises itself out of the mix like a tocsin. Although the overall pace of the work doesn't really change, there is an urgency for a few minutes around this point before the energy dissipates and the work concludes.

The Hafler Trio has a couple more albums based on voice in the works, using artists like Bruce Gilbert (from Wire) and Michael Gira (Swans). With the attention to detail that comes with these, and all Hafler Trio releases, it should come as no surprise that no Hafler Trio albums are available on emusic or iTunes. McKenzie generally doesn't even permit short sound samples to be posted at vendor web sites, and his own site at Brainwashed doesn't contain any samples either. With all of his work, McKenzie exhibits an integrity that is becoming all too rare in much of the music world. I find the Hafler Trio's music to exhibit a remarkable staying power, consistently rewarding while so much music is so highly disposable. Integrity — Exactly.