Monday, December 31, 2007

Looping guitars

I've always felt a strong connection between the electric guitar and loops. Starting with the pioneering work of Fripp and Eno's 1973 album No Pussyfooting, many different artists have used guitars and loops to support many different creative styles. In the ambient vein, guitar artists like Andrew Chalk, Jeff Pearce, or the group Stars of the Lid have manipulated the guitar with nearly infinite sustains and created slow blissful drones that completely mask their origins in six strings. By contrast, the Swiss group Pedaltone puts the physical aspects of playing the guitar right out front, capitalizing on the vocabulary of the electric guitar to create an album that is both rhythmic and unruffled. The two-person group, Michael Bearpark and Bernhard Wagner, play guitars, effects and loops on their 2005 self-titled album, composed of two long multi-part suites, Overwritten and Der Doppelgänger.

Overwritten opens with a short, gentle melodic fragment that almost instantly is transformed with various rhythmic distortions. Sustaining tones appear in layers through the drifting ambience, occasionally with an attack, but mostly soft entrances in a cloud of notes. It builds using various rhythms, vamps, using melodic and harmonic fragments to tell its story, eventually fading out with relatively vigorous chords.

Der Doppelganger's opening gesture is a riff that lasts almost ten seconds, alternating between two suggestive harmonies that will color the rest of the piece. Ethereal melodies intertwine with the languorous rhythms as they slowly recede into the background, leaving only the harmonic underpinnings. One of the performers solos without any looping or echo processing underneath all the layers a couple of times during the suite. The overall tone becomes a bit more abrasive and buzzing as the suite progresses, but the harmony is almost always present while the rhythmic underpinning mutates into a pulse with soft accents, probably from tapping on the guitar body.

One of the most appealing aspects of this album is its tactile nature, that you can imagine two people playing it. It has a live, improvised quality that doesn't sound like most computer-based work, where the instruments are often no longer recognizable, and players seem to be mysteriously absent. Although there are occasional solos, most of the time the performers build slowly evolving textures with understated rhythms and enough of a suggestion of a primary loop to hang the suite together. The recording keeps all of the different layers clear and impeccably captures the performers' interaction, both live and through subsequent studio manipulations. Pedaltone is an excellent album of guitar-based ambient music, balancing drifting with rhythms and distortion with clarity.

Pedaltone is available directly from its label, Burning Shed.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Hans Otte, 1926-2007

Another passing this month was the German composer, pianist and radio producer Hans Otte. Born in 1926, Otte studied with Paul Hindemith and Walter Gieseking. He recorded Hindemith's Four Temperaments for piano and strings back in the 1950s, but made his primary career as a composer. There isn't much information about him readily available in English, but apparently he was strongly influenced by Cage. This influence is audible in his most well-known work, the piano cycle Das Buch der Klänge (The Book of Sounds).

A set of twelve pieces, The Book of Sounds is one of the great works of piano minimalism. For some of the pieces, Otte defines a rhythmic pattern on a particular chord at the beginning, then merely notates the notes that change in the chord. "It is up to the player's creativity to introduce the sound figures which are to be repeated with such diversity that their nature develops freely" (from the introduction in the score). The set follows Cage's suggestion, and lets the sounds be themselves, filling the time and space without directing the listener's attention to a goal. The pieces are fun to play, without being overly virtuosic, and perhaps less well known than comparable pieces by Glass and Adams.

The Book of Sounds has two releases on CD, one performed by the composer on Kuckuck, and by the eclectic German new music pianist Herbert Henck on ECM. In addition, Sarah Cahill played one of The Book of Sounds at the first New Music Seance in 2007, which is available for streaming at the Internet Archive. The score is available from Celestial Harmonies, which is coincidentally right here in Tucson.

Photograph of Hans Otte by Silvia Otte.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Computer woes

A few days before taking a week vacation, I attempted upgrading my computer to the latest version of its operating system. What a disaster! Two days later, with all due thanks to Apple support (who were really very helpful — I just wish I hadn't needed them), I had my system back, but the computer spent a couple of days thinking it was 1976. In addition, I had to perform an archive-and-install, which lost all user information. I hadn't considered the effect that all of this would have on iTunes, namely, that it no longer recognized my computer as being authorized to play the songs I had bought from the iTunes store, so it deleted them from the iTunes library and my iPod as soon as I attached the latter.

My backups were intact, so it was no problem to retrieve the music files, but after spending another couple of days trying to restore the iTunes library metadata, I've given up and created a new iTunes database. I have a couple of 'smart' playlists that use the least-recently-played field — toast. I'm hoping this solution solves the many problems I've had with my old iTunes database, but I won't be able to work on it any more until after vacation.

The whole affair makes me rethink the digital music solution. Although I like iTunes well enough, when it goes to the dogs, I realize how fragile the whole setup is. I've decided that the fragility is underemphasized in all of the debates about CD vs. digital. I was planning to buy a couple of new (digital) albums for the trip, but decided against it until I can satisfy myself that the system is stable. I'm still pulling data from the backup iTunes library, and don't have room on the hard drive for a backup of the new library in addition to the live copy and the original backup. Fortunately, iTunes didn't harm any of my original CDs, but then, I'm running out of room for them too. Maybe I need to stop acquiring new music (wait, didn't I say that a year ago?).

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen, R.I.P.

I saw in the news today that Karlheinz Stockhausen passed away on December 5. It is difficult to overstate how important and formative Stockhausen was for me, although now it is difficult to put my reflections into any kind of organized form.

A late night (and consciousness altered) listening to his big electronic work Hymnen turned my listening tastes forever away from the saccharine pop music that was so prevalent, then and now. Never before had I heard such a large scale work that used so many different kinds of sounds. I thought it was a movie for the ears, and had a flash recognition many years later at Jérôme Noetinger's series of that name on the Metamkine label. Stimmung was a relatively late acquisition, and demonstrated that he still had the capacity to astonish. The quiet vocals on the overtone series of a single note were one of the earliest drones I had ever heard. The two works represent two poles of my current listening tastes.

His book-length interview with Jonathan Cott, Conversations with the Composer, was my constant companion for a couple of years, to the point of pushing it on people who had no interest at all. I made my own index of the book so I could quickly track down references to specific works.

Back in the vinyl days, I had more albums by him than by any other composer, seeking out missing recordings for years, my own search for various holy grails. I didn't complete the set of intuitive music, From the Seven Days, until the advent of CDs, when I ordered a set from the composer directly. This was before the internet, when I had to request a catalog through the mail, but he accepted checks drawn on US banks (but not a credit card). The other grail recording was the two-lp set of Kurzwellen, which I finally found at a library and taped, writing out the extensive liner notes by hand.

I traveled to New York to see a New York Philharmonic concert where they played his Jubilee Overture, a work so minor in his output it still hasn't been recorded. In later years, I lost interest in Light, his big opera (which takes seven days to perform). But his use of a wide variety of different sound sources within the same piece, his acknowledged (albeit uniquely personal) spirituality, his pioneering use of mobile forms and improvisation with live electronics, all are threads that I continue to follow, in music that I play and music that I hear.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Spanish piano

On Sunday, courtesy of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, the Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino played a virtuosic recital, tearing up the piano with works by Albeniz, de Falla, and Liszt. As exciting as these pieces were, the highlight of the concert was a world premiere of Francisco Lara's Cuarto Invenciones. Lara is a young composer (born in 1968) who divides his time between England and a tiny village in northwestern Spain. Del Pino added a spoken introduction to the piece, where he related the harsh environment in Lara's isolated location to the piece. Indeed, the first invention combined a delicate whirling in the right hand with an irregular chordal melody in the left, which del Pino compared with the constant wind and the more solid features in the landscape. The four inventions were composed as a tribute to the memory of the pianist Miguel Frechilla, and in the second invention, this took the form of a spiritual conversation with the departed. The first half of the invention was played conventionally, but during the resonance of a thundering chord, del Pino inserted a strip of Blu Tack onto the middle register strings, which muted the pitches and turned the piano more into a percussion instrument. As the invention progressed, more and more of the notes gravitated to this region of the piano, so that by the end of the piece, the sound was like the knocking during a seance, amplified by the resonance of the instrument. It was an uncanny and electrifying effect. The third invention was short and ferocious, leading to the finale, which del Pino compared with the last movement of Chopin's second sonata. The whirling movements from the first invention returned, creating a short but dizzying effect. Throughout all four inventions, each hand played a completely independent line, using flexible rhythms and fluid melodies. It was a beautiful piece, which I'd love to hear again. Lara is definitely a composer worth watching.

The Lara piece was third on the program, after two dances by Granados, the second book of Iberia by Isaac Albeniz, and preceding Manuel de Falla's Fantasia Baetica. The Albeniz and de Falla pieces are both virtuoso showpieces, late romantic works with strong Spanish colors. Even though the Lara was not easy, it was a welcome contrast from the rippling effects and impressionistic harmonies. The second half of the program was all by Franz Liszt, starting with the three Petrarch sonnets from the second book of Années de Pélerinage, and concluding with the Spanish Rhapsody. Années de Pélerinage is a beautiful set of pieces, contemplative and passionate. They were a relative oasis of calm before the sparkle and thunder of the Spanish Rhapsody, one of Liszt's showpieces, which he wrote after a successful tour in Spain. As an encore, del Pino played one of Chopin's Études, a cycle which he has recorded.

I also had the good fortune to participate in a master class with Mr. del Pino on Saturday, where I played Federico Mompou's Cancion y danza No. 5. Del Pino was a very gracious teacher, combining technical specifics on topics such as fingering with more expansive suggestions on phrasing, and even biographical information on Mompou that I hadn't uncovered previously. He pointed out that Mompou, like Bartok, collected folk songs from various regions of Spain, and even though Mompou's harmonies are a bit softer, the dance of the piece will end up sounding more like Bartok than it did before. The dance has a clear alternation between I and V harmonies, which it signals with open fifths in the bass. Del Pino compared these fifths with the sounds of bagpipes and suggested that they ring out accordingly. His emphasis during the session was on the colors of the piece, and making sure that the unexpected elements were, well, unexpected. His work with two other students on a Chopin waltz and a Beethoven sonata was equally illuminating. Thanks to Chris Tanz for the photo, which indeed proves that I was there.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Three ways that music isn't like a car

Morton Feldman: 'My past experience was not to "meddle" with the material, but use my concentration as a guide to what might transpire. I mentioned this to Stockhausen once when he had asked me what my secret was. "I don't push the sounds around."Stockhausen mulled this over, and asked: "Not even a little bit?"'

Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu: 'I gather sounds around me and mobilise them with the least force possible. The worst is to move them around like driving an automobile.'

John Cage: '…one may give up the desire to control sound, clear his mind of music, and set about discovering means to let the sounds be themselves rather than vehicles….'