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.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Nails on the classical blackboard

One of my vacation reads for a recent trip out of the Tucson summer was Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, an examination of anti-intellectualism in recent American history, the dumbing down of our culture. One of her examples is the elevation of pop music to the same level as classical, "as if this particular pop manifestation possesses a mystical and philosophical significance raising it above the level of mere entertainment." Serendipitously, Greg Sandow has had a recent series of posts with the thesis that pop reviews "will be more compelling for general readers, because the music will be connected to the world outside, and the review will show that." Both authors seem to be talking about the same topic, and whereas Jacoby oversimplifies the subject, Sandow takes a more nuanced approach (helped in part by the extensive comments).

Part of the question revolves around the degree to which pop music can be "serious", and to some extent what it means for music, pop or classical, to be "serious." Jacoby takes Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as the standard, but this is a difficult standard for any other piece to attain. She would have a more level playing field with something like his Seven Variations on God Save the King, or even Für Elise. The Ninth Symphony is a massive and complex work, and anyone would be hard pressed to find similar constructions in the pop world, in length as well as the forces required to perform the piece.

But it's difficult to find criteria for what might make pop music "serious," even though individual listeners can offer examples. Is Radiohead serious? Bjork? Is "popularity" any kind of measure? Must all music be divisible into "pop" and "classical"? For many years, I organized my record collection that way, and inevitably there were some questions. My first Laurie Anderson album, United States, was filed under Classical because I first heard her on our local classical station (the New Music America broadcasts in 1982) and because the record was recorded live at a classical music school (the Brooklyn Academy of Music), but her later work showed her more as a pop artist. I had the complete run of Obscure Records; where to file them (they ended up under Pop)?

Since the advent of ubiquitous recorded music, with the ability of an artist to find an audience independent of live events, the boundaries of "pop" and "classical" music have become more fluid, more fictional. I organized my CD collection into pop and classical as well until my wife complained that she could never find anything, and couldn't we please have a finer grain classification. So I split everything up, and we got pop, classical, jazz, world, ambient, electroacoustic (even in the pop/classical split, I never knew what to do with the likes of Bernard Parmegiani, so it always had its own area — my wife never went browsing there anyway), and the largest area was everything else. The equivalent of the Unclassifiable genre in iTunes. My wife liked the new layout, and one day she put some labels on the various shelves. The everything-else section got the label "nails on blackboard". Tongue in cheek perhaps (but perhaps not — I do have a little bit of Merzbow), but I believe it reflects a desire by many creative artists to expand beyond the boundaries of any established genres. Where else would you file John Wall, Hafler Trio, Ryoji Ikeda, Boris, Keith Rowe, and the countless other artists who have followed their own muse? Here are artists that have a most serious intent, but their releases are often limited, certainly not "popular" in any accepted meaning of the word, and don't follow the "classical" paradigm where the composition exists as a separate entity from its recording or performance.

Sandow's and Jacoby's discussions inadvertently miss this mysterious aspect of music, intellectually challenging and virtually invisible to the corporate world. Sandow has recently pointed out that complexity is attractive, that there is an audience for new music whose complexity reflects and comments on the uncertain world in which we live, and being outside of the mainstream is part of the attraction. But both writers focus exclusively on classical music as the top of the hierarchy, instead of simply a node in a rhizome.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bernard in a box

One of my recent arrivals is the new Bernard Parmegiani 12-CD box set, released by the INA-GRM on the occasion of their fiftieth anniversary. It is an impressive set of the major concert electronic works by one of the best purveyors of the French school of electroacoustics, but its value will vary depending on how much Parmegiani one already has. Most of the previously released discs are here, including the major masterpieces La Création du monde, Plain-Temps, and De Natura Sonorum.  The newest material, as well as a couple of early works that were released on vinyl back in the day, is otherwise unavailable on CD. There are also a couple of pieces from the 1980s that are released here for the first time. All told, there is about 38 minutes of music that has been released on vinyl but not on CD, and nearly three hours of music previously unreleased in any format.

In case there are other Parmegiani devotees out there who might be wondering more precisely what's in the box, compared to what they already have, I thought I'd provide more details than the promotional material I've seen. All of the text in the accompanying booklet (in French and English) comes from an INA-GRM publication on Parmegiani in the Portraits Polychromes series, but this is the first time most of it has been published in English (French readers may not find anything new here). There is an interview with Évelyne Gayou which has been significantly edited from its original publication. Lots of pictures, including a snippet from the score for Violostries for violin and tape. The entries on the individual pieces often incorporate Parmegiani's program notes which generally have appeared on the previous releases, but there is often additional commentary from the annotated catalogue in the Portraits Polychromes book. However, even Parmegiani's original program notes have been newly translated into English. The CDs in the box are basically in chronological order from Violostries, composed in 1964, through a piece that premiered in 2007 on the occasion of Parmegiani's 80th birthday.

CD 1 contains Violostries (released on the INA-GRM Violostries album from 2003), Jazzex (released on the 1999 Plate Lunch Pop'eclectic album, which was also released on Fractal in 2004), L'instant mobile (previously unreleased on CD as far as I can tell, but on the vinyl release Chronos), and Capture Éphémère (released on the INA-GRM La Mémoire des sons album from 2002).

CD 2 contains Parmegiani's collage pieces, most of which were released on the Plate Lunch Pop'eclectic album. Bidule en ré is previously unreleased on CD, but was on the vinyl Philips Silver release with Violostries. It's very much in the collage spirit, sourced from old records and some prepared piano. From the Plate Lunch album we have Pop'eclectic, Du Pop à l'âne (Parmegiani's most amazing collage piece, juxtaposing Stockhausen and Zappa, with the Doors and Stravinsky and who knows what all else) and Et après.... It also contains Ponomatopées, a film soundtrack using heavily modified voices previously unreleased on CD, but available on the vinyl Philips Silver Electronic Panorama collection; and Musico picassa, a 1978 tribute to Picasso, previously unreleased as far as I can tell. Musico picassa is very much a collage piece, including several fragments of spoken French.

CD 3 contains L'oeil écoute and La Roue Ferris (both on the 2004 INA-GRM album L'oeil écoute); and Pour en finir avec la pouvoir d'Orphée (on Violostries). Interestingly, when L'oeil écoute was originally released on vinyl, it was nearly five minutes longer. It was originally composed for a video soundtrack, which may account for the time difference. The longer version was released on the Agon label as a mini-CD, but the shorter version is the only one that has been released by the INA. I haven't heard the Agon version, but the track listing matches the sections given in the notes in the box, suggesting that the sections were shortened for a concert release.

CD 4 contains Enfer, which was originally released as part of the joint effort by Parmegiani and François Bayle Divine Comédie. This was most recently released in 1995 as part of Bayle's complete works but has been out of print for many years.

CD 5 contains De Natura Sonorum, identical with the INA-GRM release of the same name.

CD 6 contains Dedans-Dehors (released on Violostries); La Table des matières (1979) and Des Mots et des sons (1977), both previously unreleased as far as I can tell. While La Table des matières is a purely electronic work, the "electroacoustic satire" Des Mots et des sons alternates spoken text with 1970s-style electroacoustic sounds and may be tough going if the listener doesn't understand French.

CD 7 contains La Création du monde, identical with the 1996 INA-GRM release.

CD 8 contains three Exercismes. As far as I can tell, only Exercisme 3 has been previously released, most recently on the Violostries album but also on various anthologies. Parmegiani's catalog lists a fourth Exercisme which was composed on Xenakis' UPIC system, but that is not included here (or anywhere else as far as I know). The first two Exercismes date from 1985. Exercisme 1 is for a trio of live electronics performers with tape, an unusual example in Parmegiani's output. This group, the Trio Instrumental Électroacoustique, released a double LP in 1984. They were one of the electroacoustic ensembles that sprouted up in the mid 1980s along with Italy's Gruppe Nuova Consonanza, Musica Elettronica Viva (founded in Rome but mostly with American musicians), and England's Gentle Fire. The LP is long overdue for reissue, and includes two different Parmegiani pieces from the one included in this set.

CD 9 contains Litaniques (a major electronic work from 1987, somehow previously unreleased), Rouge-Mort: Thanatos (on Violostries), and E Pericoloso sporgersi (a radiophonic work from 1991, previously unreleased). E Pericoloso sporgersi is based on a text written by Parmegiani, and consists of a reading accompanied by electroacoustic sounds. I cannot imagine the work being very interesting if the listener doesn't understand French. The text was published in Portraits Polychromes.

CD 10 contains the Plain-Temps trilogy, most recently released on the 2006 INA-GRM release, but the first part, Le Présent composé is also on Violostries. With Le Présent composé, all of the pieces from Violostries are included in the box.

CD 11 contains four movements from Sonare (the 2002 INA-GRM release had five movements, the last of which is not included in the box); Sons -Jeux and La Mémoire des sons, both of which are on the 2002 INA-GRM release La Mémoire des sons. With Capture ephémère, the La Mémoire des sons release is completely included in the box.

CD 12 contains Immer/sounds (1999, unreleased on CD, released on vinyl as a split with Philip Samartzis as Immersion in 2006); Espèces d'espace (on the L'oeil écoute release, which is now completely incorporated in the box); Au gré du souffle, le son s'envole (2006) and Rêveries (2007), both previously unreleased.

From the major works released on CD, the one most conspicuous in its absence is Chants Magnétiques, released in 1974 on vinyl and last year on CD.

The box has been a bit slow getting to US distributors, although it was listed in the most recent Mimaroglu update and should be available from all of the usual sources very soon.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Supporting music during difficult times

Pliable at On An Overgrown Path has an excellent post on how to support independent and local music during the current economic recession difficulties. His suggestions are excellent, and my ongoing series of drone classic posts is an example of making my own collection work a bit harder. There are always some forgotten gems waiting to be heard again.

Drone classics — Trilogy of the Dead

French composer Éliane Radigue is an anomaly in any enumeration of drone artists. A generation older than most and with a background amongst seminal French electroacousticians, Radigue worked with feedback and tape loops during the 1950s and 1960s with a group of works that are either lost or otherwise unavailable. Although some of these works were quite noisy, her 1971 work Chry-ptus uses two loops which are played up to a minute out of sync, creating acoustic beats and other sonic phenomena. A recent release of this work is on two CDs so the listener can make his or her own versions, plus the original 1971 version and a more recent one from Giuseppe Ielasi.

A third version of Chry-ptus is available through the Other Minds archives of a program originally broadcast in 1980 on KPFA, Berkeley's community radio station, including an interview with Charles Amirkhanian and a performance of her extended work Triptych. In the interview, she says that she is working with time and its perception, bringing sound material from one state to another with a little abrupt change as possible. This thematic has dominated her work since the mid-1970s, culminating in her masterpiece for tape, Trilogie de la Mort (Trilogy of the Dead), a three-part work premiered in 1988, 1991, and 1993. The first part was released on CD in 1991, and all three parts were released as a set on CD in 1998. Ten years later, it's still in print, on Phill Niblock's XI Records.

There are other aspects of Radigue's work besides history that set it apart from other dronemeisters. First, Trilogie de la Mort is program music, with a guide to the movements published in the booklet that accompanies the release. The first part, Kyema, has six sections corresponding to the six bardos, or realms of existence, described in Tibetan Book of the Dead (the Great Liberation through Hearing). Although Radigue doesn't provide any specifics about where the sections begin, I can detect a number of transition points and significant differences in the music that would correspond to the Bardos. Kyema has a number of relatively chaotic sounds, sometimes almost symphonic in scope, which might correspond to the wrathful deities of the sacred prayers, or perhaps the abandonment of grasping, yearning and attachment that comes with the moment of death (described in the fourth Bardo).

The second wing of the trilogy is Kailasha, representing a sacred pilgrimage around Mt. Kailash in Tibet, considered as a path to other spheres of existence. At first listen, Kailasha sounds the most consistently quiet and peaceful of the three pieces, but contains a nearly continuous low frequency throbbing nearly until the arrival point at the end of the piece. The calm is deceptive, and hides a great deal going on in the lowest frequencies. Radigue says that this is the most chaotic of the three because of the "wild bass sounds."

Given Radigue's conversion to Tibetan Buddhism in the mid-1970s, it is somewhat of a surprise to see that the program for the final part of the trilogy is based on Christianity. There are four sections here, each identified with a quotation from a Christian text. I'll note in passing that the quotations wouldn't pass muster in an academic setting — a passage from the Dies Irae is incorrectly identified as from the Requiem Mass, and a quotation cited as from Psalms 37:4 reads more like a verse from the Bardo ("Certainly man is walking among only appearances"), and is completely different from anything in Psalm 37 in my Bible. The other two quotations are from 1 Corinthians 15:55, "O Death, where is thy sting?", familiar to every listener of Handel's Messiah, and from the chorus of section 27b of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. In addition, an epigraph on the CD's back cover is from Christian mystic Thomas Merton, again citing a work that I have been unable to locate. Despite the somewhat questionable source references, the theme of the final wing of the trilogy is rebirth from the ashes, and, as with Kyema, the work divides itself into major sections that might coincide with the program. After a peaceful beginning of a low drone with some amazing mix of overtones, a Phoenix reference of a rebirth from ashes suggests itself, bringing to mind on a great mythological monster guarding the gates of life that quietly returns to its lair, leaving a heartbeat pulse behind, and a return to the peaceful calm with which the movement began.

In addition to the program music, the other major difference from her contemporaries is that Radigue works (still!) primarily with an analog synthesizer, the Arp 2600, rather than digital sources. Drone artists like Jonathan Coleclough, Thomas Köner and Michael Northam work with sounds that cross the entire noise spectrum, incorporating all kinds of white noise from environmental recordings. Kyema has a purity of tone, perhaps analogous to the elimination of distractions that is a key theme of the Bardo prayers on which the work is based. Radigue mentions in the CD booklet how difficult it was to make digital masters of these three pieces, especially the bass frequencies in Kailasha. But there are noisy passages, such as the ones already noted in Kyema. In Koumé, the climactic passage sounds like buzzing insects or crashing cymbals combine with choirs and trumpets blasting, with everything accompanied by a deep rumble. Since each of the three pieces begins quietly and with a fairly consistent low drone, it is easy to be lulled into a blissed out or meditative state, especially if one listens on headphones. But at higher volumes and over speakers, the sound changes dramatically depending on the listener's position in the room.

As I mentioned above, the three-CD set of Trilogie de la Mort is still in print and available from most decent music outlets. It's also available on emusic, a steal given that there is only one track per piece. The booklet accompanying the CD release contains the program notes and essays by Tom Johnson, Claude Mettra and David Behrman, everything in both French and English.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Another take on drones

I've been remiss in mentioning one of my fellow writers for, but in the recent issue Alan Lockett has written a fine overview of Paul Bradley's Twenty Hertz label.  I've mentioned Bradley in passing, one of a set of drone purveyors from the UK that also includes Jonathan Coleclough, Colin Potter, Darren Tate, and their collaborators (which include luminaries like Michael Northam and Andrew McKenzie (aka The Hafler Trio).  Like all articles at, Alan's article includes sound samples, so please check it out.