Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 highlights

It's that time of year again, where we enumerate the year's highlights. Here's my top 20, in chronological order of acquisition, so there is no guarantee that they were issued this year. The Calefax Reed Quintet's version of Bach's Art of Fugue was released in 2000, but it has quickly become my favorite rendition of that work, well worth tracking down. I posted about a couple of these albums during the course of the year, but I didn't get to review as many CDs here as I would have liked. I have also made no attempt to delineate by genre. My reissue of the year is unquestionably the Bernard Parmegiani box set.

  • Katatonia, The Great Cold Distance (Peaceville)
  • Gavin Bryars & Philip Jeck, The Sinking of the Titanic (Touch)
  • Huntsville, For the Middle Class (Rune Grammophon)
  • Earth, The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull (Southern Lord)
  • Mark Wastell, Amoungst English Men (Absinthe)
  • Werner Durand, Remnants from Paradise (Absurd)
  • Brendan Murray, Commonwealth (23five)
  • The Necks, Mosquito/See Through (ReR)
  • Erik Enocksson, Farval Falkenberg (Kning)
  • Morton Feldman, The Viola in my Life (ECM)
  • Frank Bretschneider, Rhythm (Raster-Noton)
  • Mathieu Ruhlmann & Celer, Mesoscaphe (Spekk)
  • Darshan Ambient, From Pale Hands to Weary Skies (Lotusspike)
  • Janek Schaefer, Extended Play (Line)
  • Kalte, The Lanthanide Series (stasisfield.com)
  • Stray Ghost, Losthilde (Highpoint Lowlife)
  • Parts & Labor, Receivers (Jagjaguwar)
  • erikm & Thomas Lehn, Les Protorythmiques (Room40)
  • Jacaszek, Treny (Miasmah)
  • J. S. Bach, Art of Fugue (Calefax Reed Quintet) (MDG)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Drone Classics — What??

Back in the vinyl days, the Wergo label was a treasure trove for new music fanatics, and for a while I picked up everything on the label I could find. One of these Wergo releases was probably the first drone record I ever heard, a split record with two productions from the Electronic Studio of Swedish Radio, Stockholm, Folke Rabe's Was?? (What??) and Bo Anders Persson's Proteinimperialism. Each piece occupied one side of the LP. Both pieces are long and static and date from 1967, but they sound much less dated than most electronic works from the period, and completely different from the usual Darmstadt-oriented Wergo productions.

Persson's work is more of a loop experience than a drone, although it ends up sounding a lot like Alvin Lucier's landmark piece I Am Sitting In A Room. Inspired by the work of Terry Riley, the piece is basically the two words "imperialism" and "protein", strung together and run in a loop for twenty-five minutes, subjected to layering, reverberation, echo, various filtering and other sundry sound altering devices that were available in 1967. Although the words are comprehensible at the beginning of the piece, they mutate into its resonant frequencies by the midpoint, becoming clear again by the end. 1967 was an extremely political time, and Persson chose the words in response to imperialistic food practices from the big Western grain companies.

In the late 1960s, Persson was the guitarist in a trance-rock group Pärson Sound, whose long drone jams recall the classic krautrock groups Faust and Can. Live recordings from 1967 and 1968 surfaced a few years ago on CD, also available on emusic. Pärson Sound evolved through a few other incarnations to end up as Träd, Gräs och Stenar (Trees, Grass and Stones), whose glory years were in the early 1970s but who still concertizes periodically. In the last decade or so, they have played to support guitarist Oren Ambarchi and Japanese freak-out group Acid Mothers Temple, touring with the latter in Japan. Persson, born in 1937, has recently retired from the band that occupied so much of his musical energies. Proteinimperialism was his only foray into sound composition, and is unacknowledged on any of the web sites relating to Persson's rock bands.

Rabe's piece is a more pure drone, and for various reasons, has had a more favorable reception history. For one thing, Rabe was more active in electronic and classical music than Persson, serving on the staff of the Swedish Institute for National Concerts and the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation for more than thirty years. He plays jazz trombone and operates as a freelance composer, with several choral, instrumental and symphonic compositions to his credit. He also toured What?? at various times over the years, and in 1997, Dexter's Cigar, a reissue label curated by David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke, reissued the piece on CD. The reissue included not only What?? its original form, but also a half-speed version, and therefore twice as long, that Rabe used occasionally in performance.

At first hearing, What?? moves in similar sound worlds to Eliane Radigue. Both composers use electronic sound generation to maintain a purity of tone that is completely different from field recording drone artists like Michael Northam and Jonathan Coleclough. They are both from the same generation (Radigue born in 1932, Rabe in 1935), and they both have connections to the early state-sponsored electronic music studios in Europe. Both composers examine miniscule changes unfolding over long periods of time and were inspired by such practices in non-Western music. But while Radigue's work focuses on meditational aspects, Rabe's work, while not oblivious to the peaceful nature of the results, is specifically harmonic, melding enharmonic partials to reinforce their inner hierarchies and produce certain sonic illusions. Each overtone in What?? is individually composed, resulting in a shimmering mobile of sound, climaxing in a glorious chord that fills the harmonic spectrum, with the higher partials gaining prominence for the first time in the piece. The half-speed version operates like a fractal, permitting a closer examination of the details in the original, but at the same time exposing a completely different set of sonic crevices.

Since the original Wergo LP is long out of print, the Avant Garde Project has released Proteinimperialism in lossless FLAC format on a compilation of Swedish electronic music. What?? is available directly from Dexter's Cigar as well as other online vendors such as Mimaroglu, Aquarius, or Forced Exposure.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cathedral reviewed in Vital Weekly

Frans de Waard has this to say about Cathedral in a recent issue of Vital Weekly:


There is no relation, family that is, between Caleb Deupree and Taylor Deupree, other than a musical one. Deupree recorded this work over the period of one year, using piano, field recordings and processing. Hard to believe that is a piano at work here, but well, of course, its processed. That explains thing a bit. Its slowed down, torn apart, ripped to pieces, and then glued back together, using the computer as its concrete, and the various sound blocks as its building stones. One majestic piece of drone music, made from all of these piano sounds and nocturnal crickets, moulded into a piece of dark atmospheric ambience. Music that is not unlike its peers, say Monos, Mirror or Andrew Chalk, more than say all things microsound. Its there, its present, its thick, its layered, its audible - all those things that a lot of microsound isn't. Having said that this is a nice work, clocking at the cool twenty minutes, which I think is the right length, its also a work that hardly holds surprises for the lovers of the genre. Perhaps they don't want any, in which case they can start downloading right away. They won't be disappointed.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Canyon Blogging

Today we hiked up Romero Canyon, a very popular destination in a nearby state park. Although the trail goes all the way to Mt. Lemmon, site of the southernmost ski resort in the United States, we stopped at these lovely pools, where the water flows pretty much all year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Happy birthday, Deutsche Grammophon web shop

Last year around this time, I wrote a short post about the Deutsche Grammophon web store. For their one-year anniversary, the store has upgraded several features, and gotten a new look, showing a continuing commitment to a superior download experience.

The feature that probably excites the DGG marketers the most is an album cover browse feature. Similar to iTunes' cover flow view, the album covers are displayed at the top of the page and scrollable with a mouse wheel. It's a nice feature if your computer has the appropriate hardware and processing power, but for old laptops with touchpads, they still provide an album list view as well. And, like iTunes, some covers are missing, typically on the older releases. Nevertheless, it's a slick enhancement. Another new feature is the ability to stream a release for a week for a fraction of the cost of the album, which DGG will include toward the whole album price if a user decides to purchase the album, either download or physical release.

One of the common complaints from audiophiles about download releases is inferior sound quality. DGG addresses this complaint by making some of its releases available in lossless FLAC, at a slight premium. For the moment, this only applies to fifty releases, mostly classic albums with a heavy selection of their download-only live releases. It also applies only to entire albums, although users can still download individual tracks or multi-movement works as 320 kbps mp3s. There aren't any standards yet on downloads for better than CD quality (AFAIK, only Trent Reznor has taken this path on the recent Nine Inch Nails album The Slip), so for the time being, this is as good as it gets.

For me, the most positive aspect of the enhanced web store is the presence of some formerly out-of-print releases, which was one of my issues the last time I wrote about the DGG web store. Although my example from last year, Luigi Nono's Y entonces comprendio, is still unavailable, there are some signs that the archives are opening. Some old LaSalle Quartet pieces (the Ardittis of the 1970s), Mauricio Kagel's Exotica, the Kontarsky brothers' Bartok and Stravinsky album, are all now available as download-only, 320 kbps mp3s. The out-of-print releases aren't only the 20th century pieces, but extend to many of the classic performances of standard repertoire and the wonderful DGG Archiv releases of early music. I would have liked to see the original album notes included, even if they are simple text or html files (the Naxos approach), but this is a great first step.

Recent years have been tough for the record industry, but the enhanced DGG web shop gives me some signs of hope. The simple fact that the storefront has been upgraded shows a continuing commitment to a future where downloads form a greater part of the revenue stream. FLAC and streaming show a flexibility with regard to user's differing requirements, and I imagine the DGG executives will be watching to see which options positively impact the bottom line. The download-only releases of out-of-print albums is an investment in the long tail, a feature that only a company with deep archives can provide (and DGG was founded in 1890, so their sound archives should be extensive). Most importantly, if their efforts are successful, one can only hope their sister labels at Universal (especially ECM, which Universal distributes) start high-quality download shops, complete with all of the cover art and liner notes.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Post Reich

Despite the occasional report of classical music's demise, the term is growing in popularity to describe hybrids with other genres of music, which often get tagged as "post-classical". Without trying to insert myself into the debate, some of my recent musical discoveries seem independently to take inspiration from the music of Steve Reich, in particular his tendency to work with repetitive motifs, clear compositional strategies, relatively simple harmonies, and looping structures.

Walled Gardens by itsnotyouitsme was recently on the New York Times' holiday gift guide for classical music, a staggering head-scratcher seemingly based on the performers' resumés rather than the music on this album. The group's two performers, Caleb Burhans and Grey McMurray, are both stalwarts of New York's new music scene, and Burhans is a charter member of the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound which performs Reich's music regularly. Three of the four pieces on Walled Gardens are loop pieces, similar to Pedaltone, but primarily for violin and electric guitar, with a little bit of Burhans' countertenor voice discreetly doubling the violin.

On Throne Built for the Past, a gently arpeggiated guitar line sustains a violin lead over an irregular meter, as the duo aggregate little electronic noises in the background, growing to quite a squall. Great Day starts with a four-bar rhythm on pizzicato violin and chordal guitar fills, growing into a full band sound. A Moment for Nick Drake is more fully notated (it also exists as a solo piano piece), based around a fingerpicked guitar with a violin lead that grows in complexity as the piece continues. The stunning finale (with a great title, We Are Malleable, Even Though They Seem To Own Us) grows from a short minor-key pizzicato motif to a majestic mass of drones. I am continually astonished by the variety of textures that loopers can get from a small number of performers, so even though I wonder about the NYT review's bewildering categorization, I have to concur with its positive assessment of the album.

Classical music is also a reference point for certain new ambient musicians who use more acoustic instruments and share the same fondness for repetition and loops. One such composer is the Polish musician Michał Jacaszek, whose recent album Treny seems to share with itsnotyouitsme a common inspiration in the music of Steve Reich. Treny has eleven pieces, most in the five-minute range, that share a common structural paradigm, setting up some kind of simple ostinato, then adding other instruments in layers. The originating patterns can be short melodic lines, two-note oscillations, or even a succession of nearly identical downbeats. Much of the album's beauty comes in the layers, where Jacaszek uses piano, harp, violin, cello, and wordless female vocals, sung by Maja Sieminska. But what makes Treny unique is the electronics, which go way beyond the simple treatments often associated with acoustic instruments in the ambient world. For example, on Powoli (Slowly), he uses perfectly timed piano samples, some of which may have the attack completely stripped, and each of which has its own resonance. The changes in background noise become an additional timbre that defines the rhythm of the piece. On Lament, dry clicks combine with little sounds played backwards to create subaquatic effects that support the lush foreground music in the voice and strings. Treny translates to 'Trains'*, perhaps a reference to one of Reich's most famous pieces, Different Trains, but certainly quite different from the fast-paced, railroad-running, comin-around-the-mountain music typically associated with trains, but gorgeous and tranquil chamber pieces with electronics.

Walled Gardens is released on New Amsterdam Records and is also available on iTunes and emusic. Treny is released outside of Poland on the Norwegian label Miasmah and is available for download from Thrill Jockey and Boomkat (the latter in either mp3 or flac). The webcast of Steve Reich's 70th birthday celebration at the Whitney Museum, including several pieces performed by Alarm Will Sound and Caleb Burham's piece Amidst Neptune, is available here.

*Couldn't have been more wrong on the translation. See comments for details.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cathedral of Drone

Last spring, the netlabel Webbed Hand released a String Ambient compilation that included an excerpt of Cathedral, a drone piece I made a few years ago almost entirely from piano samples. Today the netlabel Treetrunk has released the entire 20-minute piece, available for streaming or download at the Internet Archive.

If you're not familiar with Treetrunk, it's run by Thomas Park, the primary musician in the project Mystified. Among the fine releases on the label are several variants on the Constant theme, a series of long-form drone pieces using a "less-is-more" approach. Among the artists who have released Constant albums (which have appeared on Webbed Hand, the TZP Drone Company, and the Drone Download Project as well as Treetrunk) are Mystified, Stephen Philips, and Phillip Wilkerson. Fine drones all, and well worth checking out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Natural inspiration

The latest issue of furthernoise.org has my review of two Richard Lainhart albums: a reissue of his early work White Night, and his most recent release, The Beautiful Blue Sky.

Monday, November 17, 2008

International dark ambience

A couple of years ago, two electronic musicians from the opposite sides of the planet met on an internet electronic music forum and decided to trade some music files and see what happened. The result is Memory Geist, produced by Steve Law from Melbourne and Bakos Sirros from Athens, both of whom have extensive resumés and myriad musical projects. Memory Geist's first album, Funereal Cavern, was released last year on the long-standing Italian label Musica Maxima Magnetica.

Although much of the duo's solo work comes from the dance floor, Memory Geist takes its inspiration from a somewhat darker ambience. Long-form sounds sweep across the sound pallet, underpinned by deeply resonant bass drones. Abstaining from the clichés of the genre (such as creepy voice samples or massive reverberent percussives), overall the album is much more peaceful than many of its contemporaries.

The album's three tracks blend into each other while retaining their own separate identity. Shadowy Periphery functions almost like a preview for the rest of the album, a short sketch with filtered sweeps and long resonant bell tones. Much shorter than either of the other two tracks, about half way through it introduces a slow, metallic rhythm whose echo will be taken up later on. Deepest Reaches continues the sweeping sounds, but incorporates a slow, patient melody that meanders through nearly the whole twenty-minute length of the piece. Little insect sounds like crickets add to the nocturnal character, and Sayaka Yabuki's wordless vocals add an ethereal texture, blending seamlessly into the various electronics. Tiny percussive sounds characterize the half-hour-long title track, mutating from quiet bird-like chirps to a more organic, watery ambience. Gently moving sustained sounds predominate, with large swells increasing to the occasional large roar, becoming expansive and shimmering as subliminal subterranean waves roll through. The metallic rhythm from Shadowy Periphery reappears a couple of times, including a slower variant near the end as the music becomes progressively quieter.

Funereal Cavern is available directly from Musica Maxima Magnetica.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Generous beauty

Professor Gann has a recent post on compositions that freely give their beauty to listeners, right on the heels of his keynote address at a new music festival where he cites Jonathan Kramer's The Time of Music in connection with the Absolute Present in music. Kramer's book is the first theoretical book that I've read that discusses drones, one of my favorite books, as I've mentioned before. But in addition Gann's post on beauty encapsulates one of the reasons I like drone music so much. The best drones (and the best ambient music generally) provide so much beauty that I feel like I'm wallowing in it. And for all of my inquiring into the elusive whys and wherefores of music, the search for beauty, calm and peace that I get from listening and performing remains one of the constant joys.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Historical listening

Recently I stumbled across Peter Szendy's Listen: A History of our Ears through a recent interview with the translator, Charlotte Mandell (worth reading in its own right). His sensuous book inquires into the rights of listeners, who has the right to music, and what a listener can do with music. The discussion leads from the evolving history of copyright to arrangements and finally to different types of listening.

The historical context for copyright, when the publishers were faced with performances on mechanical instruments such as barrel organs or music boxes and, eventually, player pianos, makes for some interesting openings to contemporary practice, with its widely varying degrees of artistic control of listening behavior. For an extreme but current example, the rock band AC/DC won't sell their recent album on iTunes because they don't want users to purchase (or probably even listen to) single songs outside of the album's context. Contrast this attitude with David Byrne and Brian Eno, who made all of the multitracks available for two songs from their landmark album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. It has become commonplace for recordings to contain instructions for listening, most typically that several copies should be played simultaneously (e.g., Boris's Dronevil or Zaireeka by the Flaming Lips — respectively two and four synchronized CDs to be played simultaneously; or Charles Curtis's Ultra White Violet Light and Bernhard Günter's two Monochrome albums — both with four tracks that may be freely combined).

But computer music management and freely available audio software have democratized listening behaviors. Listeners create and publish playlists and mixes, with varying degrees of Big Music approval. Respected reviewers like Vital Weekly's Frans de Waard admit to normalizing ultra-quiet albums like Francisco López's Untitled #150 in order to make them audible. Szendy writes about John Oswald's "manipulative listenings" that resulted in his banned Plunderphonics CD (although failing to note that lossless music files are available on Oswald's site, on a strictly not-for-sale basis of course). Every serious listener can compile examples from his or her own experience.

From the use of recordings as source material for new compositions, the next logical step is an arrangement of a piece of music for different instrumental forces. Szendy calls arrangers "listeners who have written down their listening" and uses Walter Benjamin's rather esoteric essay on translation as a prism to view Liszt's and Wagner's arrangements of Beethoven's symphonies, and Schumann's and Busoni's writings on arrangements. I won't try to summarize Benjamin's thesis — I'm not sure I can. Szendy's discussions of the nature of a musical work tie in with Lydia Goehr (whom he cites), but he puts a terminus on the value of arrangements with Schoenberg (who vehemently rejected Busoni's concert arrangement of one of his opus 11 piano pieces), without taking into consideration the plethora of arrangement types that we have today. He mentions Monk listening to Ellington, but surely jazz explores arrangement types and attitudes in detail (Coltrane and Richard Rodgers? Miles and Cyndi Lauper?). What is the relation between songs and their covers? And still within the western art music tradition, how about open works? How does a realization differ from an arrangement? Clearly composers like Feldman had an image in their mind when they composed open works, so the idea of the Work existing outside a given performance is as strong today as it was for Liszt and Beethoven.

But we might say, along with Adorno (with whom Szendy's book closes) that pop and jazz are entertainments, representatives of a fallen listening and a degraded notion of a musical work. An expert listener grasps all of the past, present and future moments into a "fully adequate mode of conduct [that] might be called 'structural hearing.'" Szendy traces the development of this attitude, from Mozart through Schoenberg (again), showing its history with the implicit contingencies, leaving listeners with the ability to select from different modes of listening based on the time and the work.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Préludes tous seuls

Along with Daniel Wolf and Phil Ford, I've found it somewhat difficult to concentrate what with all the election sludge in the air.  Arizona permits early voting, so we've already cast our ballets.  I no longer need pay any attention to the proceedings (at least Tuesday evening).  

So in the meantime, I have found an alternative listening to Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier that I would never have occurred to me before iTunes playlists:  only the preludes, and play them in Chopin order (up the circle of fifths instead of chromatic ascent).  Everything sounds completely different, as varied a program as one might desire.  As far as I know, this hasn't been programmed anywhere, but it's no more unorthodox than the current sacred practice of playing the whole set of preludes and fugues in order.  Bach intended them as teaching pieces, after all, not for performance.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Friday Canyon Blogging

On the road again, this week at Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. The national park is on the Diné (Navajo) reservation, so access to the canyon floor is only through a tribal guide.

One of the reasons I like canyons is that every one is completely different. Canyon de Chelly is wide and flat, with farms scattered around and a road up the middle. It used to be flatter. Edward S. Curtis has a famous photo (reproduced on the cover of Marianne Wiggins' novel The Shadow Catcher) taken in Canyon de Chelly in 1905, and you can see the wide, treeless riverbed underneath the canyon walls.  In the 1930s, the CCC planted cottonwood, olive and tamarisk trees to control erosion, but they have taken over, sucked up all the water, and in many places caused deep washes where the water passes through. Now the park service is trying to eradicate all of the olives and tamarisks in order to restore the canyon to its prior state.   

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Steady-state prose

Last month, the National Books Critics Circle held a panel at the New School on "Merging Genres," and two of the panelists posted articles on the subject at the NBCC blog. Robert Polito included a long list of books that "operate along the seams of poetry, fiction, and essay," one of which was Lynne Tillman's American Genius, A Comedy. The novel, narrated by a middle-aged woman named Helen who is residing in some kind of group institution. Polito thinks it's an artist's colony, but I saw no evidence that Helen was actually making anything. On the contrary, she seems to be escaping her daily life for a period, and although she is free to come and go as she pleases, I had more of an impression of a sanitarium of some kind. In any event, her account reminds me of Samuel Beckett's obsessive characters, placed in ambiguous dwelling places, telling a story full of trailing dependent clauses that rob the thought processes of any kind of decisiveness.

For most of the book, nothing happens. Helen keeps returning to the same thematic material over and over, until it seems less like a symbolic event and more like the eternal rise and fall of the tide. And it struck me that if novels are similar to musical works, American Genius, A Comedy is like a lot of contemporary drone music. For Helen, images and thoughts fade in and out, loosely attached by a thin and nearly random thread of association to whatever was in her mind before. And drone music slowly recycles some basic material, avoiding specific events, creating a placid steady state. Helen's narration is sprinkled with found objects, impersonal snippets of text that she has absorbed unreflectively into her consciousness, with an obsessive detail on dermatological issues and the Medical Sex Dictionary that she has found in the institution's library (and whose presence inclines me to a medical asylum of some kind). Drone music also uses field recordings obsessively, often processing them beyond all recognition of their origins, so they become a subliminal symbolic presence known only to the composers.

Eventually, of course, novels are different from music, and Tillman's static text has a conclusion and a goal that strongly contrast with the ever-present murmur of drone music. Helen's obsessions are her guardian spirits (the "genius" of the title), and title shows that Tillman is connecting Helen's insular institutional sojourn with much larger currents in our society. A prose art form like a novel channels our thoughts more directly than music, while music provides an unfocused access to the threshold of symbolic experience.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The song isn't the same at all

Recently I've been drawn more than occasionally to a genre blend of electro-acoustic improvisation (EAI) and song forms, a no man's land represented in my recent listening by two groups: Autistic Daughters, and The Magic I.D. The former is a trio led by New Zealand guitarist Dean Roberts, along with bassist Werner Dafeldecker and drummer Martin Brandlmayr, both from Austria. The Magic I.D. combines the talents of Christof Kurzmann on laptop, Margereth Kammerer on guitar, and clarinetists Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke. There is a lot of history for these seminal performers, who have been at the forefront of possibilities opened up by technology and music for the last decade.   Dafeldecker was a charter member of the lowercase (as it was called at the time, the mid 1990s) improv group Polwechsel and has played with nearly everybody even remotely associated with the scene.  Kurzmann has a background in journalism and broadcasting and was one of the earliest laptop improvisers.  In 1999 he launched the Charizma label, still active and home to several releases whose myriad influences cross the entire spectrum of western music, composed and improvised.

Although both groups present themselves as pop music, it's easier to pare away more commercial song elements that are missing from Autistic Daughters' release Uneasy Flowers. Sometimes the music seems unrelated to the lyrics, as if the group set up some kind of improvisational background and Roberts tosses a little sprechstimme into the mix. Since I got the album from emusic, and neither Kranky (US release) nor Staubgold (EU release) release cover art on the web, I think I'm missing a lot from the lyrics. Other reviews and interviews have indicated that this album is a chapter of a continuing story that started with Roberts' solo albums, but Roberts' voice is often so buried in the mix that I can only pick out phrases, and not enough to get any particular meaning. Most often there isn't a melody to speak of, more like a recitation. The group often sets up drone-like atmospheres that serve as interludes between the songs, overdriven guitar chords in shifting harmonies with hissing cymbals and laptop noise, repeating in a loop. When a melody hook does appear, or a song-like structure that one can recognize, it's a memorable event.

If Autistic Daughters' perversion of the power trio aligns the group obliquely to a rock tradition, the absence of a rhythm section and the inclusion of two clarinets in The Magic I.D.'s album Till My Breath Gives Out almost recalls the classical lieder tradition. The album cover provides much more information about the music than I could find for Autistic Daughters, so I can safely report that the extra-musical references are literary and widely scattered, from revolutionary Assata Skahur to Argentine poet José Hernández and American poet Douglas Crase. The music is considerably gentler than A.D., with Kurzmann deploying the laptop both as background and looped rhythms, and the clarinets providing soft, sustained harmonies, sometimes merging to seem like a single instrument. Where Uneasy Flowers integrates the performers into a single complex and noisy sound, the guitar, clarinets and electronics on Till My Breath Gives Out remain delicately distinct.

EAI differs from jazz improvisational forms by subsuming the performers into a collective sonic texture, whereas most forms of jazz provide the performers with opportunities to step out as individuals. In pop music, many lyricists tend to see the music simply as accompaniment, with instrumental interludes serving as a break between verses when they are present at all. Autistic Daughters and The Magic I.D. find unique solutions on both sides, improvising a collective instrumental element while interweaving a more poetic lyric. With straight EAI, especially on recordings, my mind wanders (as it does during most instrumental music), and it's difficult to distinguish structural and ornamental events.  But on these releases, the song elements provide the direct access to the musical framework, bringing the arrangement into a sharp focus, so that repeated listening can more easily bring out musical details and provide a moment for lyrical reflection.

Both albums are available from better record stores and the usual suspects, and The Magic I.D. is also available directly from Erstwhile Records.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Long term music

In my last post, I mentioned that Neal Stephenson's recent novel was at least partially inspired by the millenial year clock currently in design at the Long Now Foundation. There are a couple of musical parallels. La Monte Young's performances can last for several hours, and some fully notated pieces (such as Morton Feldman's second string quartet) do the same. Several years ago, Scandinavian sound artist Leif Inge slowed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sufficiently to require 24 hours for a complete performance. 9 Beet Stretch has been played several times since its initial concept in 2002, both as installations and as a concert. The most notable long-form project currently underway to my knowledge is the organ performance of John Cage's ASLSP that takes the inspirational abbreviation "as slow as possible" beyond the capabilities of human comprehension. Starting on the composer's birthday in 2000, a performance in Halberstadt, Germany, is projected for 639 years, with a metronome mark of quarter-note = four months (only one month if it's marked staccato). Tone changes, when specified in the score, occur on the fifth day of the month.

Somewhere in between these extremes lies the work of Craig Colorusso, whose MB 89 is a continuous piece that spans the greater part of his life, with spaces between performances treated as musical rests (video excerpt above).  He realizes and acknowledges the presence of MB 89 in his life, although he continues to perform other music as well.  First presented as a weekly radio broadcast at the University of Massachusetts over ten years ago, MB 89 has evolved into a timeless environment, including light and sculpture in an installation, from which Colorusso performs a drone on bass clarinet with various digital delays.  He had an installation earlier this year in Las Vegas, which I unfortunately missed, but he will have two performances at the end of this month in Wisconsin: Saturday, October 25 at The Borg Ward Collective in Milwaukee, and on Sunday, October 26, at the Escape Java Joint & Art Gallery in Madison.  If you're in the neighborhood, wander in and check it out.

Friday, October 3, 2008


I've been spending the last ten days immersed in Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem, to the detriment of much music making or contemplation. At slightly more than 900 pages, and with Stephenson's imagination, there are a lot of themes and ideas at work. Briefly, Stephenson was inspired by the Millenium Clock of the Long Now Foundation to imagine a world (not Earth) where such a clock is enclosed in a monastic environment, separated from the rest of the world (called the 'Saeculum' in Stephenson's wonderful invented vocabulary) except for a brief period every year ('Apert'). In addition, other areas of the monastic ('mathic') complex are only opened once every ten years, once every hundred years, or even once every thousand years. Inside the monastery, the monks ('avout') can see civilizations rise and fall outside their walls, but except for the brief carnival-like annual periods, there is very little interaction.

Music plays a large role in the discourse about the novel, with the ritual chanting of the monks getting a fair amount of attention. Composer David Stutz has written a number of chants inspired by the novel, which is available on a CD from the Long Now Foundation, and some of which are sampled at Disquiet. But the chants are really only a part of life in the monastery, and events in the world outside the walls ('extramuros') form the plot of the novel, about which I won't say much other than it's great space opera. But the part of the novel set inside the walls is essential for appreciating the mindset of the monks, with their unusual vocabulary (definitions are scattered throughout the novel, with a glossary at the end) and the kind of philosophical musings that one would imagine in an environment isolated from 'the infinite clown-fight that was Saecular politics' and other worldly concerns. I found the novel's ambition refreshing, and at only 900 pages (compared to the 2,600 in his previous work, the Baroque Cycle), a fairly quick read.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Horatiu Radulescu, 1942-2008

On the heels of news of Mauricio Kagel's passing last week, today I read in the Rambler that the spectralist composer Horatiu Radulescu died yesterday. I make no claims to understanding Radulescu's music, which always seemed very much on the fringes of classical music practice. Although he wrote for conventional instruments (including five piano sonatas and a piano concerto), he captured my imagination with his works for sound icons (grand pianos retuned to a "spectral scordatura," mounted on their sides and bowed) or for massively large numbers of identical instruments (e.g., Byzantine Prayer for 40 flautists using 72 flutes, or Infinite to be cannot be infinite, infinite anti-be could be infinite for nine string quartets). Needless to say, his work is poorly represented on disc, although various out of print works are available at the Avant Garde Project, a site devoted to 20th century classical works digitized from LP and unreleased in other formats.

N.P.:  Radulescu, You Will Endure Forever (piano sonata no. 5), performed by Ortwin Stürmer.

Photo by Guy Vivien from Edition RZ 4002, Infinite to be... by the Arditti String Quartet.

Friday canyon-blogging

Today's photo is from Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita mountains, south of Tucson. This is the first hike I have taken in this range, and the terrain was completely different from other mountains in southern Arizona. Everything was very green and lush, with an abundance of water. We took a side trip to see this waterfall, which was audible from the old mining road we followed, although not visible until we crawled through a bunch of brush at the side of the road.

Monday, September 22, 2008


A while back, a meme about 20th century musical events spilled over into NetNewMusic and Startling Moniker, where I mentioned the Pink Floyd concert at the Berlin Wall in 1989.  A kind correspondent traded me the VHS tape of the event for a couple of CDs, so let me correct my initial impression to point out that it is only Roger Waters, and no other members of Pink Floyd.  I saw Waters' Dark Side of the Moon tour a few years ago, which was elaborate, but nothing like this.

Like many of us who kept Dark Side of the Moon on the charts for 14 years (the longest of any album in history), I was a big Floyd fan and had several of their albums on vinyl.  But except for one song (Comfortably Numb), The Wall never appealed to me, and although I picked up The Final Cut, I really stopped listening to any post-Animals work.  The Wall was too depressing, too bound up in the overdosed rock star world, a sentiment that was confirmed by the Alan Parker movie.

But it's been years since I thought about any of this.  Watching the movie of the Berlin Wall concert, my initial reactions were the magnitude of the spectacle and the staggering implications of performing this piece in this place at this time.  The film's conclusion, the performance of The Tide is Turning (not part of the original album) with all of the guests on stage, was an overwhelming moment of hope, that something wonderful would happen with the dismantling of the Iron Curtain.   And yet, watching the movie now, not even two decades after the depicted events, possibly in the midst of another sea change as consequential as the Berlin Wall, it feels like the tide has indeed re-turned, back to the greed of the power brokers lining their own pockets while the rest of the country burns.  Plus ça change....

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Noisy stone spirits

Back in the vinyl days, one of the most abstract artists I collected was Ralf Wehowsky (a.k.a. RLW), who was at the time part of the group P16.D4. Their low-fi sounds were part of the reaction in the 1980s to the overly slick pop music, similar to punk but without the rock elements. What I found especially interesting was their continuous recycling of sonic material for various kinds of transformation, which went way beyond what any other pop groups were doing and most closely approached Stockhausen's transformative works like Kurzwellen, Prozession, and Spiral. (Wehowsky goes into some detail about these transformative methods in a 2005 interview in Paris Transatlantic.) P16.D4 released a double LP Nichts Niemand Nirgends Nie!, where side 4 reworked sides 1 through 3, and which provided the source material for three additional CDs by Wehowsky and various collaborators. He later hooked up with Bernhard Günter, founder of the label Trente Oiseaux that reintroduced extremely quiet music to the avant garde, and another landmark in my personal history into the sonic unknown. Although P16.D4 was anything but quiet, Wehowsky and Günter released a couple of collaborations before going their separate ways in the mid-1990s.

So enamored was I of Wehowsky's projects that I fervently collected his albums through the 1990s, and wrote his biography and most of his album reviews at the All Music Guide. The culmination of my fascination was the five-CD set Tulpas, where 47 different musicians or groups provided interpretations or glosses on his work. I followed him a bit longer, but he released a couple of albums that I didn't like very much, and with the exception of Yang Tul, a vinyl-only collaboration with Andrew Chalk and Eric Lanzillotta, none of his work has made it into my iTunes library, and until writing this post, I haven't listened to any of his work in years (a gap which has now been rectified).

Return of the Stone Spirits, a recent collaboration with Anla Courtis, crossed my desk this summer, and it has been a real pleasure reacquainting myself with Wehowsky. I still wonder about his musical identity — many of his albums are collaborations that bear so little resemblance to each other that I wonder if they incline more to the collaborator than to Wehowsky. I was previously unfamiliar with Courtis, who is most well known as the guitarist of the experimental Argentine group Reynols. But this album is loaded with what sounds like guitar feedback, even though only two tracks have guitar credits, and is in general a much more noisy, continuous assault than anything else I've heard from Wehowsky. (Is Reynols like this? The little that I've heard from them has been drones, not like heavy rock guitar at all.) Even more amazing is that this album is primarily a set of live improvisations, with "no sound-transformations ex post facto," although one track consists of two improvisations in layers. Contrast this with Wehowsky's other recent collaborations, which have often been through the mail, often without even meeting his collaborators face to face.

I should say a few words about the track titles, which are somewhat unusual. Although the album title is in English, the six tracks alternate between titles in German and Spanish. Even more curious, two of the German titles are chapter headings in a book by the nineteenth century German mystic Jakob Lorber: Wege Zur Besserung Der Naturgeister (Ways To Improve The Natural Spirit) and Die Stärkung Des Gemüts Und Der Inneren Sehe In Der Bergwelt (The strengthening of mind and inner marriage in the mountains). The references are worth pondering, but inscrutable and inconclusive. The Spanish language titles aren't any shorter (e.g., Un Pequeño Hombre Gris Con Cara Cuadrada Y Ojos Luminosos (A Small Gray Man With Square Face And Luminous Eyes)), and any mystical references therein escape me.

As for the music, the overwhelming first impression of the album is that it roars. The first four tracks are all loud, with great buzzing sounds of overheated amplifiers, wide frequency spectrums, all variations on the great thundering drone. Whether the pair play guitars, coils, or ethnic violins, the results are a great squall of sound, moving around on the inside but without much reference to musical elements like melody, pitch or rhythm. The two Lorber-titled tracks (two and four) are relentless, constant, but the other two build from amplifier hum to great climaxes. The third track, which is the layered one, sounds like air raid sirens before it's through. The fifth track is a much quieter affair, all small sounds, scratching and scraping, percussive and mostly non-pitched. Wehowsky is credited with a kalimba, but it's not played in any manner that would be recognized back in Africa.

On the last track (...Mit Ihren Weidenringen Die Steingeister Zu Fangen, IYI*), which is also by far the longest, Courtis plays sampler and Wehowsky plays CD scratch, the only tracks where these instruments are used. Given Wehowsky's history of transformation, it sounds like they are using their previous improvisations as sound sources. Even when it gets loud, as it does about half way through, it doesn't have the same overdriven feeling as the first four tracks, but feels more a step removed. And I think I hear the small sounds from track five behind a low frequency burble at the beginning. Pure speculation on my part, but this music calls for reflection and deeper listening, as well as a continued investigation of Wehowsky's current work.

Return of the Stone Spirits is available directly from Beta-Lactam Ring, as well as many of the usual sources.

*= In case You're Interested. Sorry, I've been reading a lot of DFW lately.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

R.I.P. Zazou and Wallace

A few days ago I saw a couple of notices about the passing on September 9 of Hector Zazou, a French musician and, primarily in recent years, producer of various eclectic albums. I would compare him to Hal Willner for his collections of unusual musical pairings and collaborations. His album Songs from the Cold Seas is in regular rotation on our iPod, an anthology of songs about northern oceans, eleven songs in eight different languages, featuring (among others) Björk, Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry, the Finnish quartet Värttina, and Siouxsie (without the banshees). His album Sahara Blue was similar in nature, and featured Bill Laswell, David Sylvian, Ryuichi Sakamoto, all working on songs based on poems of Arthur Rimbaud. He also worked with pianist and composer Harold Budd, African musician Bony Bikaye on a couple of excellent albums, and his catalogue features orchestral and chamber works as well, dating back to the early 1970s. His early albums with Joseph Racaille as ZNR were released on Recommended, Chris Cutler's seminal label that funded the releases with subscriptions, and my earliest introduction to creative and outside music. Anyway, Hector Zazou was a very talented musician, and he will be missed.

Then today, in the morning paper, I see that the author David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Friday. I'm currently reading his book on mathematical infinity, Everything and More, and Infinite Jest is one of my landmark books (you can see it occupying the top shelf of my bookcase here). His writing has been an inspiration to me, although I cannot possibly duplicate his tongue-in-cheek asides, or his wayward diversions into generations of footnotes. Nobody else could get me through the dense mathematics as he has done in Everything and More. For some reason, his writing has resonated with me as few other contemporary authors, most of whose attempts at humor I find to be soulessly glib. A sad day for American letters.

Update:  n.p. Sahara Blue.  Beautiful and creative set of songs, I'm sorry it languished on the shelves.  Imminent import to iTunes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cage and the Dream Syndicate

For the last couple of months, I've been slowly working my way through Branden W. Joseph's recent book, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage. Inspired by the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, Joseph seeks to document the minor history starting from Conrad's work in the early 1960s with John Cale and La Monte Young in the Dream Syndicate, and concluding with his film and video work in the 1970s. With detours through Young, Henry Flynt, sculptor Robert Morris, and filmmaker Jack Smith, Joseph situates Conrad's work in response to the challenges that John Cage established in the 1950s, starting with a lack of any kind of transcendent meaning or intention on the part of the composer, which in turn leads to a more constructive attention and experimentation on the part of the listener. On a broader scale, Conrad et al. also responded to Cage's challenge to the power relations involved in music creation, as well as the dismantling of the boundaries between different artistic disciplines.

I've written before about how indeterminate pieces challenge the performer more than the listener, for whom the single auditory experience insufficiently demonstrates the open-ended nature of the compositions. Joseph's detailed discussion of the performance and reception history of the various conceptual pieces illuminates a word-score repertoire that exemplifies this perspective change. These included not only La Monte Young's famous efforts to feed hay to the piano, or to "draw a straight line and follow it", but word scores from Conrad and Flynt as well. It's hard to imagine that these pieces were actually performed, but the combination of sound and theatrics, as well as the ideas behind the works, made them relatively successful. The premiere (at Harvard) was followed by a performance in New York at Yoko Ono's loft, where Cage was in attendance. I can see Stockhausen's word pieces From the Seven Days and For Times To Come in the same vein, but more often I've seen word pieces that are fairly specific instructions (such as the Lucier work discussed in the post referenced above).

Because of Conrad's participation in the Theater of Eternal Music and his seminal recording with the German rock band Faust, I had always considered him primarily as a musician. But to my surprise, he appears to be more well known as a filmmaker; he is currently a professor at the University of Buffalo's Department of Media Study. A major part of his artistic journey was his work with visionary filmmaker Jack Smith. Although Smith was also a performance artist, connecting with the conceptual art movement, he provided the opportunity for Conrad's first film work, including the sound on Smith's most famous movie, Flaming Creatures (available online at UbuWeb Film — a truly astounding work, I can understand why it was banned). Smith's visionary films overflow with distorted images, and Josephs uses them as examples of Bataillian excess. I read a lot of Bataille back in the day, and often tried to find musical examples, stopping when I got to John Oswald's Plexure as the alpha and omega of musical excess. Avant-garde video and cinema are way outside my areas of interest or expertise — they alter my perception and not pleasantly — but Joseph's account made interesting reading. Unfortunately none of Conrad's film work is online, at least anywhere I can find it.

The book was slow going mostly because the detailed discussions involved artists for whom this book was my introduction. The only artist discussed here in any detail that I knew before was La Monte Young, and mostly through later compositions. I had read some of his conceptual pieces, but nothing about their performance and reception history. Morris, Flynt, and Smith I knew only by name. But the focus of the book wasn't biographical with respect to these artists, but more of what they found challenging in Cage's writings, and how they responded to him. Joseph's accomplishment is to have documented an Conrad's anxiety of influence, what led him to become the artist that he is. It shows a steady fractalization of the narrative, that the closer one looks, the more complex the story line. The Deleuzian model, with different striations and unexpected tendrils to parallel histories, is an apposite framework, and Joseph admirably confirms the original theories with Conrad's specific historical example.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Two articles at furthernoise.org

The September issue of furthernoise.org is published, where I have an overview of three recent Hypnos releases and a review of Mathieu Ruhlmann and Celer's tribute to the research submarine Ben Franklin.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

That was then...

Scott @ Musical Perceptions has an interesting meme: what musical performance of the 20th century would you most want to either witness or take part in? I've always had a time travel fantasy of hearing the great composer/pianists play, just wondering what they really sounded like, but since Scott specifies 20th century, I can't go back and hear Chopin or Liszt. Fortunately, for the imaginary traveler if not the real one, there are a number of legendary 20th century performances whose records, for as much as I like them, are a bad snapshot of the original concerts.

Two spatialization events spring to mind, never to be duplicated in a recording.
  • The original staging of Xenakis' Persepolis in the ruins of the palace of Darius, at night, played over a hundred loudspeakers spread through the ruins, with fireworks, choreographed torch runners, natural fire, and huge projectors.  Kinda sticky politically, but still.   
  • Actually, there were several Stockhausen events to make me yearn for time transport.  He played a series of concerts in the caves of Jeita, Lebanon, where he placed 180 speakers among the rocks and played his electronic and intuitive music in the inner dome of the caverns.  Or, the performance of Sternklang, with five groups of musicians spread around a park, sometimes taking musical material from one group to another with torch-lit runners. Gentle Fire, the new music/improv ensemble with Hugh Davies, was one of the groups.  Or the Expo 1970 world's fair in Osaka, where Stockhausen performed daily for a period of months in a special auditorium designed to his specs. 

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday canyon-blogging (Grand style)

Since I started this blog, I've had the occasion to show some of the canyons that I have explored in southern Arizona. But it has taken us two years to get to The Canyon in Arizona, a wonder of the world, the Grand Canyon. What an amazing place, and we barely scratched the surface. We hiked to Skeleton Point (and speculated that the name comes from the hikers who got there and couldn't make it back), then took a mule trip six miles into the canyon, to Plateau Point, where I took the picture in this post. That's the Colorado River in the distance, still quite a distance away.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The concept of a musical work

An anonymous comment from my post on open forms a while back referenced Goehr for further thought about the specificity of scores and musical works. More recently, Greg Sandow got more specific, recommending Lydia Goehr's book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works in his series of posts about classical and pop reviews. Talking about musical works seems such an ingrained part of our vocabulary, but it is refreshing and a bit bracing to read a discussion of what the phrase really means. I've always thought about musical works in the same category as Justice Potter Stewart's famous phrase about pornography — I know it when I see it.  Naturally a precise definition is very slippery to grasp, and Goehr's  book is an excellent articulation of all of the subtleties and tensions inherent in the concept or definition of a musical work.

Since Goehr is primarily a philosopher (although she's also the daughter of British composer Alexander Goehr, so she has sufficient musical background for the topic), she discusses in some detail the definitional aspects of a musical work. Her central claim is that a musical work isn't an object that can have a fixed definition, but a concept with both original and derivative uses, all of which are continuously emerging. The work concept functions as an ideal, something that lives out there as a limit but is rarely if ever attained in practice.

The biggest virtue of Goehr's philosophical treatise is that it places the work concept into a historical setting, starting from a time when the concept was not in place and showing the reasons why composers and musicians began to use it. It really comes as no surprise to find that the work concept emerged around 1800 as part of the romantic movement, and was part of an effort on the part of musicians to gain more economic autonomy for themselves. Bach, and to some extent even Mozart and Haydn, were employees, producing functional music on demand (for example, Bach's cantatas were all written for specific Sunday services). There was little consideration that a work had any particular structural or artistic integrity as a whole, so Bach was able to reuse any and all of his material as the occasion demanded, as well as borrow anything that might be useful from other composers (which is why there are so many works of uncertain authorship, in addition to pieces on acknowledged themes from other composers).  Like so much else in the classical music world, Beethoven is the signpost for the changes, a convergence of theoretical and practical concerns around 1800 that set the eternal image of the creative genius who passes on his work, which will survive intact despite the vagaries of specific performances.

But, like so much else in the classical music world, at Beethoven we are stuck. Goehr spends some time discussing recent challenges to the work concept, both from inside and outside the classical music establishment. Cage and Stockhausen are mentioned, briefly, in their roles as theoreticians. But nobody has found a different way to talk about music, so we get the work concept when we discuss improv, pop, and world artists, despite vast differences in historical and cultural background. The romantic ideals have taken over the concert stage, so we get the incongruous spectacle of African drummers recreating indigenous dances for motionless listeners in a darkened auditorium. The issues of artistic autonomy and legitimacy that drove the romantic ideology in 1800 are still with us today. It was sobering to consider that musicians two centuries ago had to persuade the civil powers of their worth, even as music sought to free itself from the spectre of usefulness.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Once again, serious fiction worth reading

I've nearly stopped reading serious fiction since I've acquired a miserable track record picking books that I like. Instead, for the most part I find myself reading crime fiction, which has the virtue of not taking as long to read, or as many brain cells to appreciate (plus, the excellent nearly-local bookstore The Poisoned Pen always has great selections and recommendations). The last literature that I enjoyed was nearly a year ago, which I wrote about here. But a fortuitous impulse purchase a month ago at Moby Dickens, an amazingly good bookstore in Taos, New Mexico, has led me to Marianne Wiggins, whose novels are so enthralling that I've already read two of them, and I'm awaiting delivery of a third.

Her 2007 novel The Shadow Catcher was the impulse purchase. With a blurb promising a mystery and an Edward S. Curtis photograph on the cover, I was taken in with the suggestion of some kind of tale of the old west. Couldn't have been more wrong, but what I found was a Calvino-esque novel where Wiggins is a main character in the novel, one of whose current efforts is to sell her novel about Edward S. Curtis (the very novel we're reading) to Hollywood for a screenplay. (I'm not giving much away here, this is all in a very early chapter.) The writing here is dazzling, turning on a dime from settings across time and space, with digressions that spin off into separate plot lines. Rarely have I read a novel that plays with fairly avant-garde concepts in such a readable and entertaining manner.

Working backwards, the second Wiggins novel I read was Evidence of Things Unseen, a 2003 novel nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her protagonist here is also a photographer, one Ray Foster, this novel is a much more straightforward narrative than The Shadow Catcher, covering Ray's life starting from his service in World War I and proceeding for the next forty years through his subsequent life around Knoxville, Tennessee.

I don't want to spend any time giving away much about the plots here, because there is a lot of plot in both novels. Despite some implausible coincidences at the ends, they both manage to find a symbolic sense of closure, all the more powerful because my sense of the novels at midpoint was, where the hell is this going? Both novels deal with children whose incomprehension of their parents' behavior becomes part of their personal neuroses as adults. Both novels use photography to meditate on the differences between the photographic art that fixes time in place and the novelistic art that evolves across time. Both novels communicate a specific historical time and place through the accumulation of small details, so that I got a very real sense of what the culture of the time and place might have been. And both novels have very strong characters, men and women, none of them ideal but all very tolerant of their imperfections.  Both novels have reassured me that there is still good writing out there, and good stories worth telling well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Xenakis realizations

Iannis Xenakis was one of the great composers, along with Stockhausen, Boulez, and the rest of the European avant-garde, when I was first learning about new music back in the 1970s. Dutifully I bought albums of his music and his piano scores. But I was most impressed with his electronic music, not surprising considering where my tastes turned out. There was a Nonesuch LP of his Electro-Acoustic [sic] music that I played until it wore out. The music on the LP has been reissued on CD, and the music is as impressive today as when it was originally released in 1972. His later electronic pieces, Persepolis and La Légende d'Eer, were equally imposing and remain among my favorite musique concrète.

It took several other purchases to make a disappointing discovery, that I didn't really take to his instrumental music as much as his electronics. Even though I picked up a half dozen or so CDs over the years, none of his instrumental music has arrived in my iTunes, which basically means that I haven't listened to it in several years. While I admire and respect his work tremendously, the last Xenakis CD I bought before the one under discussion here was five years ago, one of a set of works for large orchestra conducted by Arturo Tamayo.

What prompted me to buy the recent Neos CD of Xenakis' keyboard works was that instead of being performed in the usual manner, the five pieces on the CD (limiting my discussion here to the three piano works, but there are also two for harpsichord) were MIDI realizations by the conductor Daniel Grossmann. Now, I've done my own MIDI realizations of piano compositions.  I posted one by Dennis Riley here a while back, so I have no inherent bias against the technology. There's even considerable history in recording using MIDI piano. Herbert Henck participated in Klarenz Barlow's album of his piece Çoğluotobüsişletmesi (unfortunately not reissued on CD), where Henck performed the piece on one side, and a computer realization was on the other. More recently, Carolyn Yarnell released a MIDI realization of her beautiful piece The Same Sky on Tzadik, while pianist Kathleen Supové released the same piece played on piano.

Certainly Xenakis's piece are sufficiently complex to warrant a computer realization. The score for Herma contains notations for three different pitch classes, which he uses for set operations (intersection, union, negation), as well as specific dynamic marks ranging from ppp to fff (but not including p, mp, and only one mf), often combining very loud and very soft notes simultaneously. Evryali creates textures from simultaneous but apparently separate lines, often requiring four staves (and even five, in one passage) to clarify the relationships to the pianist. And Mists, which ranks among the largest piano scores simply in terms of physical size, combines Herma's pitch classes with complex rhythmic hemiolas and cryptic pitch class notation. British composer Brian Ferneyhough writes extremely difficult music because he wants the performer's struggle to be audible in the performance, and Xenakis is sometimes in a comparable position.  (I haven't seen any computer realizations of Ferneyhough's music, which might be more appropriate than Xenakis.  But then, Ferneyhough is still around and might choose to prohibit such a development.)  And yet, there are several recordings of live pianists playing all three of these pieces, which suggests that as difficult as they may be, they aren't completely impossible to play.

The instinctive reaction to Grossmann's album is that he's cheating, that a professional pianist ought to be able to perform Xenakis's piano music without having to resort to software solutions. Grossmann's response is in the liner notes (actually written by composer and Xenakis specialist Tom Sora), in an essay entitled "Complex — Unplayable — Authoritative". I won't go into the details, but Sora gives several rationales supporting the claim staked in his title. (You can find the essay online at Neos.) The question is whether the music is as convincing as other recordings.

One of the major differences between Grossmann's recording and real pianos is the amount of resonance in the sound clouds, where the pianist plays lots of notes, both very loud and very soft, with the sustaining pedal down. In Grossmann's recording, you hear every note, i.e., the resonance is very subdued. In Claude Helffer's recording for Montaigne, the cloud is much more cloudy, with the loud notes poking through the murk and the soft notes merely contributing color. The liner notes refer to one passage (marked "+A nuage 5 s/s" in the score, around a minute into the piece) as requiring staccato notes "to sound simultaneously with another layer containing notes that are to form a compact cloud by means of the pedal," but my score doesn't have any such staccato markings.*

Also, using the computer, Grossmann is able to use stereo effects that a single piano cannot. He uses panning in some of the more contrapuntal sections to help distinguish the various lines, such as in the arborescent sections of Mists. Even though the panning effects are most audible with headphone listening, it contributes to the same ends as Grossmann's resonance decisions. Essentially, Grossmann has opted to emphasize Xenakis' pitch relations instead of the more textural ones that Helffer achieves. This is not necessarily due to the nature of a MIDI realization. His software (unfortunately not credited, but perhaps that's just the curiosity of a former geek) probably has a setting for the amount of sustain resonance.

There is no question that Grossmann's realization plays faster and more precisely than a human, especially in Evryali, which is in fact impossible to play as notated (it includes a high C# which a half step higher than the notes actually present on hardware pianos, although it sounds like Grossmann might have found one). Examples in Evryali abound: the tremolos near the beginning, which are played in canonic imitation a few beats removed from one another, even the overall speed (which is 20% faster than Helffer's). It's one of the few places in the three pieces where you know it's a machine. But the passage is so fast and so precise that it calls attention to itself, look at me, I'm a computer! In Helffer's recording, he fudges over the passage a little bit, creating a more coloristic effect, and one would never know there was canonic imitation. Evryali comes closest to Ferneyhough's ideals, and is for that reason perhaps the best justification for a computer realization.

Each potential listener will come to grips with a MIDI realization of these works. Purists will doubtless avoid the CD altogether since it goes so much against the current performance traditions of classical music. One could argue (as Sora does) whether it best represents Xenakis' intentions. Surely Xenakis knew the range of the instruments for which he wrote, so the difficulties (even the impossibilities) had some other motivation. I've mentioned before my belief that much contemporary music is written for the performer rather than the audience, and this is as true for Xenakis' piano music as for any of the open works mentioned in that post. Grossmann spent years creating his realizations, as a human performer would have to spend a comparable amount of time to solve the difficulties in the score for him or herself. I don't believe that Grossmann's recording is any closer to "what Xenakis intended" than Helffer's or any other performance, but his approach has its unique perspectives on a fascinating body of work.

*A footnote in James Harley's Xenakis monograph alludes to some controversial corrections to the score of Herma, which may account for the difference. In any event, these "corrections" are not widely disseminated.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The voice of reason, receding....

Recorded music has become a battleground with the copyright laws a primary weapon. Even people with a marginal interest in the music business have encountered copyright issues, and with the ubiquity of unlicensed downloads, most of us have had the opportunity to define our position, even if we keep it to ourselves and use it as an internal guide of conduct. One of the more interesting and informed sources for copyright issues has been the Copyright Blog by William Patry, a specialist in the field for more than a quarter century and currently working for Google.

Sadly, Patry is shutting down his blog, both for personal and professional reasons, as he explains in his final post. The sad truth:

Copyright law has abandoned its reason for being: to encourage learning and the creation of new works. Instead, its principal functions now are to preserve existing failed business models, to suppress new business models and technologies, and to obtain, if possible, enormous windfall profits from activity that not only causes no harm, but which is beneficial to copyright owners.

More than ever, I want ever dollar I spend on music to benefit the independent artist, and I have strengthened my resolve to avoid major label releases as much as possible (thankfully a relatively easy task, given the pap that constitutes the bulk of them).

Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Monk Mink Pink Punk

Monk Mink Pink Punk, one of the more interesting zines from back in the day, has migrated to the web. Along with some music reviews, its most recent issue has, a great interview with Michael Northam (whom I admire tremendously and who has been the subject of a couple of posts here) and musical chameleon Jim O'Rourke. Hat tip to Startling Moniker.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Age of Complexity

Kyle Gann has a recent thought-provoking post on complexity in music. After outlining two complementary attitudes commonly found for new music (1. complex new music is incomprehensible, and 2. complex new music has its admirers, who should be permitted to do so), he asks the key question, "how much complex, opaque music can the world afford? How many more complex, opaque pieces can I be expected to internalize in my life than the couple hundred or so I've already absorbed?" He points out that he acquired a taste for a lot of the complex music he admires in his younger days, and no longer feels compelled to listen to a new piece multiple times as he might have done thirty years ago. Rather, he finds great virtue in simplicity, in composers who make their ideas as appealing as possible on first listen, so that listeners want to keep returning to the piece to learn it better. I'm greatly simplifying his points, so interested parties should of course read the whole thing.

I nodded in recognition during most of his points. I too have a greater fondness for the Stockhausen and Boulez pieces that I had on vinyl back in the day, whose scores I own and have studied (although not to the degree of Professor Gann). I want very much to admire the spectralist composers such as Murail, Grisey and Radulescu, but have found them fairly challenging and difficult to approach (not to mention that their scores are hard to locate and very expensive). I listen to a great deal more music now than in most of my adult life, and I still have a fairly large stack of CDs in shrinkwrap sitting on my desk.

Perhaps this article resonates so well because I've been listening to a new Xenakis CD (about which more in a future post). Gann describes the process for digesting a new CD which mirrors my own, which is that music that has an immediate and visceral impact is the music I want to hear again. If I like it enough, I import it into iTunes and it goes in the rotation on my iPod. Most of the CDs that I've written about on this blog are in this category (although there are a couple that were sent to me for review). I truly believe that everybody has their own criteria for a visceral impact. I get it from drones, ambient music, electroacoustics, and a couple of other genres. I don't get it from ultra-complex music like Xenakis' instrumental works (although I love most of his electronic pieces). My new Xenakis CD had a harpsichord piece on it, and my reaction was immediate and visceral — I guess I should have said "positive" as well. The fact is, there is so much new music out there that nobody can hear it all, much less listen to it. There is no reason anybody should subject him or herself to music they find unattractive more than once.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Suncrows from Italy

One of the best drone albums I've heard recently is a 2006 release by Stefano Pilia, The Suncrows Fall And Tree on the Massachusetts-based Sedimental label. Pilia is most well known as a member of the Italian improvisation group 3/4HadBeenEliminated, where he plays electric guitar, double bass, various unspecified acoustic instruments, and field recordings. The group's first album, a 2003 self-titled release on Bowindo, is much closer to The Suncrows Fall And Tree than their more recent release on Hapna, where his guitar is much more prominent as such. The first album is more drone-based, while the aesthetic on the group's second album seems closer to the queasy listening of Biota, a very active amalgam of studio wizardry and idiosyncratic, mysterious improvisation. The Suncrows Fall And Tree is also quite different from the prepared guitar improvisations on Pilia's earlier solo release, Healing Memories and Other Scattering Times, which was released on the New Zealand label Last Visible Dog. In fact, one would hardly suspect the presence of a guitar on The Suncrows Fall And Tree at all.

Split into two untitled pieces (almost as if it were intended for a vinyl release), The Suncrows Fall And Tree doesn't follow the common pattern of many ambient drone artists. For one, Pilia specifies on the cover to play it loud, and there are some abrupt transitions that are guaranteed to shock the listener out of whatever comfortably numb blissful state where he or she might have drifted. For example, the first track has a long fadeout, where the glorious and shimmering drone slowly becomes quieter and almost thinner, as the low frequencies in the drone are removed little by little. More than thirty seconds of silence separates the final fadeout from the first sounds in part two, which is the booming of an ocean wave. Wake Up!

Many drone artists use field recordings, often processed beyond any semblance of recognition. By contrast, both parts of The Suncrows Fall And Tree have extended sections in the middle that are unadorned field recordings, both featuring something miked very closely, but that remains unidentifiable. Despite the clear presence of crows and other birds along with church bells in the background, between the various crackles, static and other mysterious noises, the inability of the listener to identify precisely all of the sounds makes for a slightly unsettling atmosphere.

Pilia's drones are themselves quite diverse. The opening of part one is a deep, rich, fully resonant drone, but it grows to a climax like being inside a jet engine by the time of the first field recording episode. This complexity is mirrored at the end of part two, where a buzzing, almost metallic drone becomes overlaid with white noise, releasing a giant roar of sound. The end of part one has short melodic fragments buried in the mix, and there is a lovely section in part two extending the resonance of single piano notes (with the attacks removed or otherwise modified, another eerie touch).

With The Suncrows Fall And Tree, Pilia has created an electroacoustic work that uses drones as a major compositional tool, but to achieve effects that are striking and unusual. Avoiding sonic gestures associated with one or another school of electroacoustics, and not creating a work entirely of blissful ambience, Pilia has concocted a very impressive electroacoustic debut. I look forward to his continued success in this arena. The Suncrows Fall And Tree is available from Mimaroglu, Forced Exposure, Erstwhile Distribution, and other fine record stores, but not through the typical channels of digital distribution.