Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Freely available drones: Uexkull

One of the first sets of CDs that I pre-ordered was when my primary CD dealer was Soleilmoon Records in Portland. I even went to visit them once when I was in Portland on business, and they were the source for most of the odd music I found in those times. The store went on to found its own label, but originally it was only a distributor. Sometime in 1990, they sent out a special flyer advertising a forthcoming 11-CD set, called Anckarström. I can't remember what timeframe they projected, but it ended up being almost a year before the CDs arrived, along with an apology that there were only ten CDs, rather than the promised eleven (the eleventh, a collaboration between Adi Newton and Andrew McKenzie, was released on LP in 1994, nearly five years after the original flyer). But the packaging was great. Each CD was in an oversize cardboard wallet, with only the artist's name in a black banner on the front and a label logo on the back. Inside, each page had a wallet, a vertical one on the left that held a poster or other printed material, and a horizontal one on the right that held the CD. The album credits were printed on the left-hand wallet, and the right-hand wallet had several lines of continuous text, printed as if an excerpt, all in some language I don't understand (probably Swedish).

Even then, from the ten CDs, the ones that appealed to me the most were the drones. A favorite from the set was a long piece by Zbigniew Karkowski entitled Uexkull, and accompanied by a very evil looking photo poster by J. Cynimbo, a sacrifice of a virgin with lots of occult symbolism. The piece itself is a little over an hour long and presents a number of noisy drone scenarios sequentially, four or five for the piece. Each section runs for about 10-15 minutes, then slowly crossfades to the next. Underneath the whole piece is a gorgeous deep resonant drone, with a tone quality almost like a didgeridu, but without any of the rhythms that come from a human performer, just a slight repeating oscillation. This deep drone opens the piece, then appears by itself at various other times. Its recurrence provides a few moments of peace amidst a couple of very rich and noisy blocks. We get air-raid sirens wrapped in buzzing sounds, screaming mechanical birds, and angry mutant insects from a bad sci-fi movie, all processed into a slowly evolving potage. Karkowski studied with Xenakis and created Uexkull in part using the Upic system in Paris that Xenakis pioneered. The influence shows strong similarities to Xenakis' early electronics works, such as Bohor and Concret PH.

Karkowski didn't do a lot of drone pieces (although I have my no means heard all of his work). He participated in a group effort with Bilting and Phauss on a release on Kim Cascone's Silent label, which explores similar ideas (Phauss also had an Anckarström album), but these were among his earliest releases. I have other Karkowski albums that are a very different sort of electronics, and some that are orchestral. He's still very active, now residing in Tokyo, and performs around the world (though I haven't seen him anywhere near Arizona lately).

The Anckarström albums were a one-time pressing. I saw them occasionally for sale as singles in better record stores, but eventually the albums were re-released on other labels or went out of print. The Hafler Trio's and John Duncan's contributions were released on Staalplaat, and Karkowski's was reissued on Audio Tong (whence the cover photo above). It's again out of print, even on Audio Tong, so the label has made it freely available as a high-quality AIFF file, mp3s at various bitrates, and as an Ogg file. It's hosted at the Internet Archive, without the x-rated artwork.

Hat tip: Free Albums Galore.

Monday, August 27, 2007

How to play inside the piano

One of my recently discovered joys-of-Netflix is that they carry new music DVDs released on the Mode label. Mode has long been a premiere souce for new music, with an early emphasis on the New York school composers, and now including many first recordings from across the US as well as Europe and Asia. They have also been one of the first new music labels to release material on DVD, including opera, concerts, and short films. A while back I rented a DVD of four movies by or about John Cage, and currently we're watching Margaret Leng Tan playing and discussing George Crumb's pathbreaking piano suites Makrokosmos, volumes 1 and 2.

Crumb has a unique place in the history of post-WWII piano music. I remember when the Makrokosmos series was released on vinyl, and it was a very different perspective on contemporary music from both the Darmstadt and New York composers. I was very excited about Crumb's music, and bought the scores for Makrokosmos II and his earlier Five Pieces for Piano. Makrokosmos is a gorgeous and unique (and oft-reproduced) score. Both volumes are exquisitely drawn, with some of the pieces in non-standard layouts, such as the one on the DVD's cover, taken from Agnus Dei, the last piece in book two. He was the first to popularize, if not introduce, many extended techniques for playing inside the piano, including pizzicato, glass tumblers, sheets of paper, chains, playing the beams, etc. The techniques are related to Cage's prepared piano, but Cage generally modified the piano's timbre by weaving objects between the strings of a single note (such as coins, screws, bolts, bamboo shoots, and pencil erasers), which then stays fixed for the duration of the piece. Crumb's preparations are more dynamic and often require a different sort of performance technique. Crumb's piano works are a sensuous and delicate music that never sounds like anyone else.

Leng Tan is, by her own admission, a virtuoso of extended techniques on the piano. She has previously recorded Crumb's Five Pieces as well as a number of Cage prepared and toy piano pieces. Although here she's in concert dress, the performance seems to have been filmed in a bare backstage room, with breaks between the pieces (which you can see from the presence or absence of scores and various preparations) and no audience. The film's director, Evans Chan, indulges in some occasional trickery, with odd lighting and color effects. But with Makrokosmos, the pianist is always moving, whether to pluck the strings on the inside of the piano or using the various props. So the camera is also always moving, following Leng Tan closely, using frequent double exposures to show her hands and her body simultaneously. The film is a very effective view of Leng Tan's excellent and dynamic performance.

The DVD also includes a 45-minute conversation between Leng Tan, Crumb, and Don Gillespie from Crumb's publisher, Edition Peters. Although it seems pretty ad hoc sometimes, there are some real nuggets in here. Leng Tan provides some context for the extended techniques, comparing the canonical three B's (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) for classical composition with the three C's for extended piano techique (Henry Cowell, Cage and Crumb). She could have found one more C with Curtis Curtis-Smith, who developed the bowed piano with his 1973 piece Rhapsodies, but that's a minor quibble. There's also a fascinating anecdote about one of the pieces that quotes Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu. Crumb had originally quoted a Rachmaninoff piece, but he had to re-compose a week before the premiere because they couldn't get the rights to the Rachmaninoff. And we thought sample theft was new to the digital era!

Crumb's piano music remains somewhat controversial, even now, thirty-five years after its first performance. Many pianists, teachers and technicians don't like playing on the inside of the piano, believing that the piano strings will become damaged because of the oils in the pianist's hands. But the pieces have a life of their own, and many improvisational pianist, such as Sophie Agnel and Andrea Neumann, use these techniques in their own work. Mode has done a great job with this DVD, capturing not only the music, but the visual performance as well.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Yes, there is a quiz

Matthew Guerrieri over at Soho the Dog has a quiz in honor of the new academic year.

1. What's the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in Ives' Concord Sonata.

2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.

Not a genre I follow very closely, but I like Yo Yo Ma's Obrigado Brazil, where he played tangos with a number of Brazilian classical and jazz musicians.

3. Great piece with a terrible title.

Feldman, I Met Heine on the Rue Furstenberg.

4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?


5. Who's your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)

Marion Zazeela.

6. Terrible piece with a great title.

Assuming we have to pick a classical piece, which means that Keiji Haino is not a viable source of titles, I'll go with Stockhausen, In the sky I am walking.

7. What's the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?

Blue Danube Waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey

8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.

Anything involving tenors.

9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?

Sam Cooke.

10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.

Ad Reinhardt.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Synthesis from a diary

Most of the time, when I find a new discovery in the INA-GRM sound, a recognizable style of electronic music, often derived from Pierre Schaeffer's first musique concrète in the 1950s, the artist was active in the 1970s and 1980s, but his or her records were released in limited editions back in the day and never received any kind of circulation. The Icelandic label Creel Pone specializes in this mini sub-genre, duplicating the original releases as closely as possible except the LP is replaced by the CD (and the packaging reduced in size). Few are the releases of new work and new composers, but the Italian label Die Schachtel recently released a collection of pieces by Angelo Petronella that sits easily next to the French masters. As far as I can tell, this is his first release under his own name, although he participated in a new music/improv release from 1979 that has been given a deluxe reissue package, also from Die Schachtel.

Sintesi da un Diario (Synthesis from a diary) clearly inhabits the same sound world as Bernard Parmegiani and his colleagues. You can easily hear one big difference between this album and those from the seventies, and that is the precision Petronella gets from his material. This factor alone would make the album worth hearing — it sounds great, way better than most reissues, even after remastering. Razor-sharp sounds are carefully placed in space, even in the two-dimensional stereo reduction that comes on a CD. On headphones, you can hear sound gestures whirling around, coming from all directions. In addition, more than a lot of earlier composers, Petronella combines field recordings with electronic sounds in unusual and creative ways.

The album comprises a seven-part suite Insieme sonoro in quattro tratti e tre innesti (soundwork collection in four sections and three connections), preceded by the standalone piece, Voce e macchina (Voice and machine). Big Tibetan chants open this piece, intercut with delicate typewriters, helicopters, and other mechanical sounds. The two types of sounds carry on a dialogue that ranges in turn from ominous to sultry, sometimes morphing into each other.

In the suite, field recordings play a major structural role. Each of the four sections of the suite (named Tratto 1 through Tratto 4) incorporates the sounds of children playing, and each of the three connections is based around a different thematic, whether it's the illusion in Habitat of opening a window to the sounds outside, the conversations in Lamento, and the vocal phonemes in Un canto. Throughout the suite, the sounds swirl and blend together, precisely placed in space and with different degrees of resonance used to create visions of great depth. Electronic sounds seem to grow out of the field recordings, especially during the sections using the sounds of the children.

Many commentators have dismissed this album as derivative of the INA-GRM sound, but I think this perspective misses the point. Musique concrète remains a viable musical language with many different styles, and currently practiced by several artists (one thinks of Francisco López, Chris Watson, Michael Northam, and Steve Roden, to name only a few for whom field recordings are a rich source of sonic building blocks). Artists like Petronella keep the genre alive, and the technological advances in the studios over the last couple of decades make Sintesi da un diario a superb example of contemporary concrète.

Friday canyon-blogging

We've been traveling again, so I haven't posted much this month. And last week I went hiking up Peppersauce Canyon, where I got the picture above. The mountains are really green — we've had a fair amount of rain this summer (a good thing), and it really shows.

More blogging on music real soon.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Busy seances...

I'm still working my way through all of the New Music Seances I mentioned recently. The Sleepwalker's Shuffle concert was very much in the hypnotic vein for a while, including a beautiful Meditation by Jonathan Russell, a appealing new work by a composer heretofore unknown (at least around here). Then came three Disklavier pieces by Conlon Nancarrow. I've heard Nancarrow's studies for player piano before, but I've never owned any of his records and don't know his music well. It renders dubious my comment in the Ravel post that music that moved on different timescales was rare. Such busy music! Study No. 3 seems to have quite a few different time scales, or at least different tempi, unconnected to each other on any beat, strong or weak. Of course, no human can play this complex music, which is why he wrote the pieces for player piano, (now the Disklavier). But with the player piano's sharp timbres, which serve to keep all of the different lines audible, his work also makes for a very demanding listen. It refuses to stay in the background. Its inhuman virtuosity is dazzling, overwhelming, brilliant.

Kyle Gann has written a book on Nancarrow and mentions him often in his blog. I see a strong parallel between these Nancarrow pieces and a recent Tzadik release by MC Maguire, Meta-Conspiracy. Gann met Magiure at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and was so impressed that he wrote a long post about him earlier this year. I listened to small excerpts, then bought the CD when it came out a few months ago. When I listen to the whole CD, Meta-Conspiracy is just as busy as these Nancarrow pieces. I can see why Gann recommended it. A Short History of Lounge for piano and computer every bit the wild ride that Gann described.

New Music Seances

Aficionodos of new piano music should check out the recordings from two new music seances over at the Internet Archives. Sponsored by the new music community Other Minds, there have been seances in 2005 and 2007 at San Francisco's Swedenborgian Church, which seems to be a lovely spot (photos from this years event may be seen here), and focus on hypnotic and spiritual new music. The primary performers are pianists Sarah Cahill and Eva-Marie Zimmermann with occasional assistance from violinist Kate Stenberg. The stellar list of composers includes early classics such as Scriabin, Webern, Antheil, Ives and Cowell through mavericks such as Rudhyar, Hovhaness, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Rzewski, Harrison, to recent compositions from Ronald Bruce Smith and Dan Becker. There's even some ragtime from Bolcom and Albright, and some disclavier compositions.

The format for the seances is three concerts in one day, one at 2:00, one at 5:30, and the last one at 8:00. All three concerts from both seances are posted. Two of the 2005 concerts have been available for some time, but the third 2005 concert and all of the 2007 ones are fairly new. They are all available for streaming from the Internet Archive links given above. Complete programs for both seances are available at the links under the dates.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Bells! I can hear bells!

A few posts ago, I mentioned J. T. Fraser's philosophical investigation of time, Of Time, Passion, and Knowledge. Early on, Fraser identifies a hierarchy of layers where time behaves differently. At the lowest layer, which Fraser calls atemporal, events take place in periods less than two milliseconds; their temporal separation is simply not possible for human perception. The next layer up, prototemporality, is for events that take place in the 20-50 millisecond range. These events can be counted, but not placed in a temporal order. In the eotemporal range (around 130 milliseconds) events can be counted and placed in succession, but there is not enough of a present to establish a preferred temporal direction. The nootemporal layer defines our present, with memory and expectation, personal identity, and the whole symbolic apparatus that defines us as human. The biotemporal layer incorporates aging and death. Each layer has its own laws that apply consistently for the events that occur during the respective timeframes, and each layer has its own set of indeterminacies, which must be resolved at a higher layer.

Fraser's different time scales are an apt metaphor for the piano piece that's been taking a lot of my practice time recently, Maurice Ravel's La Vallée des cloches (Valley of the Bells) from the Miroirs piano suite of 1905. The piece moves at different time scales, slowly enough to be easily audible, which makes it unlike any other work to my knowledge (lots of music moves at different time scales, but it's generally much quicker, and therefore not as easily comprehensible). Ravel supposedly was inspired by sounds of all the different bell towers in Paris ringing at midday, and he successfully captures the feelings of distance and proximity, as well as differences in size, of the different bells.

The opening measures set in motion five different bell sonorities, from the tinkling of a tiny carillon, to a pair of descending fourths that go ding-dong, a single low tone, and a set of three repeated tones that strike the hour (and which are repeated thematically throughout the piece).

Ravel was quite specific in his directions to pianists that each of the timbres must be different, and all within a mysterious pianissimo. (Ravel's own performance on a reproducing piano is available both at emusic.) Bell sounds continue through the piece, and what gives me the sense that the time scales are different is that each bell is independent of the other. They don't meet up on the downbeat, which, since Ravel changes meter fairly often, is a bit of a moving target anyway.

Although all music is an art that takes place in time, individual musical works generally adopt a single approach for their duration. Minimal music, for example, maintains a constant, motoric rhythm that carries the listener through the piece, and the tension comes from heaing melodic and harmonic fragments shift in and out of phase. Drone music slows time down, striving for an ever-present now that is stretched indefinitely into the future and past. But even at its most linear, music embraces all of Fraser's layers, appealing "to processes conscious and unconscious, both biological and noetic, and draws on elements predictable as well as unpredictable."

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Plate Tectonics has published my review of Plate Tectonics, a release of live ambient music by the German group Níd.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The gift of time

We left behind nearly 80% of our books when we moved to Arizona last year. Prime candidates were books we had both read, which generally meant fiction. We used to seek out local bookshops when we traveled, often coming home with fairly hefty bags full of new books. We would drive for five hours to get to Borders when Borders was the local bookstore in Ann Arbor. It served a large and vibrant university community, a world class bookstore if there ever was one. It isn't the same since it joined the corporate book world. On the west coast? Let's go to Portland so we can go to Powell's! It occupies an entire city block and is still a world class bookstore. I browsed for small press fiction, postmodern essayists, philosophers and novelists (preferably in translation), in addition to the literary equivalent of B-movies in hard-boiled crime, international thrillers, and world creation sci-fi. My wife also likes novels, plus cookbooks and other kinds of non-fiction, so we accumulated books. Eventually, most of the books actually got read. As we jettisoned books, the ones we had read and would be unlikely to reread were the first to go.

The unintended consequences were that we are left with a bookshelf that looks like we're a couple of great thinkers, since the fun books got read and the serious books were saved for another day. The other day is now, and it's interesting to read the books that I bought twenty and thirty years ago. There must have been some kind of seed that led me here, and although I scratch my head at some of them, there are some that are like a message from my younger self, that recognized something essential about these thinkers.

The book that got me started on these reminiscences is by J. T. Fraser, who founded the International Society for the Study of Time. I don't remember when I acquired Of Time, Passion, and Knowledge (probably shortly after I read Heidegger's Being and Time), but it is a real gift from my past to my present, one of those rare books that will continue to resonate for years to come. He identifies several different layers of time, and the transitions and conflicts between them. With these layers in mind, his discussions of clocks and how man came to measure time, how and why the human mind developed and evolved, the different perspectives on human learning throughout recorded history, are all worthy of further study and reflection.

Jonathan Kramer, whom I've mentioned before, devoted the final chapter of his seminal work The Time of Music to a consideration of Fraser's theory of time as conflict. This chapter is quite dense and was always a bit of a puzzle, but now I should be better prepared.