Friday, December 18, 2009

It doesn't look like Arizona

Because it's not Arizona. We've come across the water to the 50th state for the holidays. Not only is it green, an unusual color for a landscape, but it's extremely humid (as you can see from the haze — that cliff isn't very far away from us). But while we're here, music posting will be non-existent, and other access will be limited. Have a good time celebrating whatever you celebrate, and I'll see you again in 2010.

The picture is from the beach at Waipi'o valley, a sacred site for Hawaiians.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Around and about

Stockhausen's intuitive pieces, From the Seven Days, are more than historical oddities; they continue to interest creative musicians and spur new perspectives. In February 2009, a group of five improvisers whom I've discussed before, including Werner Dafeldecker (of Polwechsel and Autistic Daughters) and Kai Fagaschinski (Magic I.D., among others) performed the most severe of the set, Gold Dust, at a conference on music and poverty, and a recording has been posted at the conference web site. Gold Dust asks the performers to fast and live in silence for four days, then play single sounds without thinking and without conversation beforehand, which the organizers related to the overall theme of the conference. There's been some discussion of this piece at IHM, and the recording is very well done.

Another of my ongoing topics, John Cage, has also been the subject of recent activity. Fellow blogger DaveX of Startling Moniker mostly performs in the radio booth, but he was persuaded to participate in a Cage festival at Southern Illinois University with premiere of Cage's piece Knobs, originally published in the liner notes of the Nonesuch LP of Cage and Lejaren Hiller's HPSCHD. He wrote up his experience here.

And finally, via the Silence mailing list, here's a recording of one of Cage's last works, Four 6, a recording from a concert in Greece devoted to Cage's work organized by Dionysis Boukouvalas. One of the number pieces that Cage composed toward the end of his life, this one leaves the choice of sounds completely open; each performer chooses twelve different sounds with fixed characteristics, which are played within flexible time brackets. Boulouvalas doesn't specify who performed what, but I hear various percussion sounds, an accordion, and a sax. There was a nice album this year that included four British improvisers performing Four 6, to which this recording is an interesting foil. Both Four 6 and Gold Dust demonstrate the dissolving boundaries of classical and improvisational music, and recordings like these ensure that the music stays alive.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What drone musicians do when they're not droning

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a Sun Circle concert, featuring Greg Davis and Zach Wallace. One of the albums I picked up at the concert is Wallace's Glass Armonica, a live recording of an instrument he built based on Benjamin Franklin's design. It's a very nice set of drones, played by four performers, emphasizing the unique set of overtones that come from working with glass. But besides playing mizmars and constructing glass armonicas, Wallace also works with a team on one of the most comprehensive field studies of the Canadian lynx. There's a fascinating article and slideshow here (hat tip: Root Blog).

The photograph of Wallace and a tranquilized lynx is by Ted Wood and is taken from the Nature Conservancy slide show linked above.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Seven days, forty years ago

In a recent interview at Paris Transatlantic, composer/improviser Richard Barrett commented that Stockhausen's recordings of his text compositions, From The Seven Days (Aus den Sieben Tagen), "represent one of the pinnacles of achievement in improvised music," a remark which has generated a fair amount of discussion on the IHM forum. I've expressed my great admiration for these recordings before, but the IHM discussion has prompted me to listen to them all again.

Stockhausen wrote the fifteen texts that comprise From the Seven Days during a period of intense personal crisis in May, 1968, parallel with a highly turbulent moment in European history. They were his first foray into purely text-based compositions, although since 1964 he had been touring with his ensemble on compositions more and more sparse in their construction. As far as I can tell, the first public performance of any of the works was in December, 1968, when Stockhausen and his touring group, augmented by a couple of Parisian musicians, played It in a concert in Brussels. In May, 1969, he performed Set Sail for the Sun in Paris during a series of concerts dedicated to his work, and recorded this piece and Connection for the Harmonia Mundi label (still available digitally from the usual sources, although credited to Diego Masson and the Ensemble Musique Vivante). Later that summer, at the annual Darmstadt composition school, he recorded, concertized, and lectured on eleven of the pieces, recordings that were later issued on Deutsche Grammophon LPs and which are currently available as a seven CD set on Stockhausen's own label. (The set also includes a recording of Gold Dust which was made in 1972 with a different ensemble.)

Starting at the beginning of the series, one quickly becomes aware of Stockhausen's vocalising. Stockhausen was a musical visionary and a great composer, but I've always had a hard time with his vocals in these pieces. In Right Durations he chants and murmurs through the background, but in Downwards he really hogs the microphone, declaiming the text of the piece in multiple languages and making various other subvocal noises. The music is generally interesting enough to overlook the occasional chants in other pieces, but in the recording of Unlimited, one of longest intuitive music recordings he made, he reads a text by Sri Aurobindo during the entire piece. In July, 1969, Stockhausen and his group performed Unlimited for an entire evening at an outdoor concert in St. Paul de Vence , but hopefully it was less tedious than this accompanied lecture. I can't see a rationale in the instructions for this reading, but perhaps he had taken an inspiration from John Cage, who had most likely brought the scores to his 10,000 things pieces to Cologne in 1960. This was a collection of timed pieces for pianists, string players and percussionists which could be performed simultaneously, and included 45' for a speaker. But Cage's subject matter was considerably more fragmented and less preachy than Aurobindo's spiritual text, and Cage did not always intend for the speaker to be understood, more of a texture than a message.

The spiritual message exemplified in Unlimited is the most prominent theme of the text pieces. It is the aspect that received the most press at the time, and the foundation of the attraction of the recordings to myself and probably many other listeners during the culture shock years around 1970. One of the other spiritual expressions is a direction to seek other rhythms to play, which shows up in five of the twelve pieces selected for recording. Downwards, for example, directs the players to play vibrations in the rhythms of your cells, molecules and atoms, while Night Music seeks the rhythms of the universe and of dreaming. These texts generally define a number of different rhythms which the performer should play individually, then transform and interchange them one for another. Many commentators have understood these directions as an extension of Stockhausen's serial thinking as expressed in his writings in the 1950s, e.g., "the basic conception may have become clear: first of all, to arrange everything separate into as smooth a continuum as possible, and then to extricate the diversities from this continuum and compose with them."* But the 1960s were long past any overt interest that Stockhausen had for serial thinking; instead, his composed work was in what he called moment form, "states and processes in which every moment is something personal and centered; something that can exist on its own, which as something individual always can be related to its surroundings and to the entire work."** A vague definition perhaps, but more in keeping with the spiritual aspects of the work. And the intuitive music sounds a lot more like Stockhausen's moment form works, such as Kontakte, a fully composed piece from 1958, than it does like his early serial ones.

And ultimately, it's the sound of these works that still holds Barrett's interest as well as my own. Simon Reynell commented very astutely about this in the IHM thread, which has prompted me to ponder this question more closely. Stockhausen gets an electronic sound even when most of the ensemble is playing acoustic instruments, and the overall electronics are really primitive. This tendency is very evident on the first recording of It, which is performed entirely on acoustic instruments (depending on what you consider a shortwave radio). Of course, Stockhausen encouraged the performers to explore timbral possibilities, so the sounds themselves are unusual. He made sure that the performers took occasional timeouts, which caused the overall textures to evolve. Another defining characteristic is the ensemble's use of percussion and very short sounds from non-percussion instruments. Stockhausen had always been interested in points of sound, and this texture is used a lot in these pieces, to the point where melodic instruments play percussive sounds. For example, one of the few electronic instruments was a viola with contact microphone, and Johannes Fritsch played short, rough, pizzicato sounds, which Stockhausen probably filtered to sound even stranger. But it is the similarity in general phrasing and texture between the intuitive music and passages in Kontakte and Procession that I find striking, so that it is completely fair to say that Stockhausen used the intuitive music to create new Stockhausen music, and to do it more quickly than the fully composed works. And he was only able to do so because he had been extensively touring with these musicians for five years, playing his graphic scores. In these scores, not only were the directions a clear precedent for the directions in the intuitive music, but the earliest one, Procession, specifically directed the performers to transform and interchange fragments of Stockhausen's notated music. This also explains why no other ensembles who plays these scores produce anything like Stockhausen music (although the Swiss new music group Le Car du Thon has made some very nice recordings freely available).

Stockhausen composed a further seventeen texts that were published as For Times To Come (Für Kommende Zeit) in 1970, but these pieces are performed much less frequently. Even Stockhausen's label has only released recordings for seven of the texts, six of which are fairly recent; only one of the five recordings from this set that Stockhausen made in the 1970s are among the reissues. Stockhausen's music changed completely in the early 1970s, away from the collaborative work with his ensemble in the 1960s and returning to fully notated works, away from the pointillism of the 1950s toward a new love of melody as exhibited in the first major work of the new decade, Mantra. By the end of the 1970s, he turned his attention to a different seven days, his massive week-long opera Light (Licht), and the intuitive music experiment was well behind him. Given Stockhausen's reported autocratic personality, it was inevitable that he would want to regain sole ownership of the composer's chair, but at least we have the recordings, fascinating documents today as they were forty years ago.

* Music and Speech, in Die Reihe, number 6, page 64, paraphrased by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen.

** Stockhausen, Texte I, page 250, cited by Jonathan D. Kramer, The Time of Music, page 207.

Stockhausen photo from the Stockhausen Verlag.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Small sounds and ecstatic drones

Seldom does Tucson get the kind of live drone shows that seem to appear regularly in Chicago and New York, but this evening we were blessed with performances by Jeph Jerman and Sun Circle, a duo of Greg Davis and Zach Wallace. The Solar Culture gallery, which presented the show, has been the subject of some controversy recently as its landlord changed rather abruptly from the state of Arizona to a local developer, but tonight's show is a hopeful sign that the gallery will continue its concerts, especially of the more avant variety.

The warmup was a short soundwalk led by local sound sculptor Glenn Weyant, through the railroad yard behind the gallery, into the dormant industrial park across the tracks, and then under the tracks to get back home. When we returned, Jerman had started his set, gently dancing around the gallery wearing a leather fringe jacket, where the fringes all had rattles and other noisemakers attached. He sought creaks in the old gallery floor, then slowly shed the jacket and evolved his performance through a number of different textures. Wooden rattles gave way to squeaky rubber, seed pods, pebbles and sticks manipulated in his hands, then deepened with larger stones that he rolled on the floor, creating deep rumbles because of the uneven texture of the wooden boards. He played pine cones, plucking the scales and then dragging them across the floor. The performance concluded with Chinese health balls, also rolled across the floor, punctuated with gentle strokes on temple bells. I was completely entranced, and the performance had a clear arc. By the time he dragged the pine cones around, especially a very large one, I was so tuned into his actions that it seemed very loud. I've got a few Jerman recordings, but this was the first time I have seen him perform, and the recordings make so much more sense now. My description doesn't do his performance justice, and I cannot recommend enough seeing him live.

By any absolute scale, however, Sun Circle's subsequent performance made Jerman's seem like a whisper. Billed correctly as "ecstatic high volume drones," Davis and Wallace extinguished all lights in the gallery except for a single yellow bulb on the floor, then turned on an electronic Tambura-type drone. Seated cross legged in the middle of the gallery, they both blew mizmars, Turkish reed instruments, into microphones (using their shoes for microphone stands), generated cascades of overtones. Although at first they played the mizmars in unison, they moved out of sync to increase the complexity, and the performance concluded with the tambura fading out, leaving only the nasal sound of the reeds. For an encore, Jerman, Davis and Wallace performed a short set on Tibetan bells, cymbals and a couple of gongs, variously bowing and striking them. Not bad for a Monday night in the southwest!

The photograph is Jeph Jerman's setup, taken before the show.

Echoes of Syros and Derivative reviewed

I have two reviews in the latest issue of Echoes of Syros, a live concert recording by Deep Listening trombonist Stuart Dempster, ambient Tuba player Tom Heasley, and prepared Rhodes performer Eric Glick Rieman; and Derivative, a set of ambient guitar instrumentals by Remora based on short fragments from various rock, soul and pop inspirations. Sound samples are available along with the reviews.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A new isolationism

What makes ambient isolationist? In the early 1990s it was a reaction against the highly rhythmical, ornate, more-techno-than-ambient music that, oxymoronically, was often used for dancing. Stripped to the most minimal, artists like Thomas Köner created very quiet, slow moving music that seemed like the sound of absence. Polar regions seemed an apt metaphor, a featureless, flat, wind-swept landscape. And unlike the deserts, bleak landscapes that have inspired other musicians, polar regions are uninhabited, removing the vestiges of aboriginal civilizations that haunt Steve Roach and his desert ambient colleagues. In 1994, Virgin Records released a 2-CD compilation entitled Isolationism that tremendously expanded the acceptable range of music covered by the term. In particular, it opened the door to paranoia and despair, looking at isolation as a social term, and moving toward other environments, inner as well as outer, where an individual could be isolated. But one label which has retained the far, cold north as inspiration, ironically from Mediterranean Italy, is Glacial Movements, self described as "glacial and isolationist ambient." Their first album was a compilation, Cryosphere, released in July 2006, and their schedule has proceeded as slowly as the ice portrayed on their covers and alluded to in the label's very name.

In May 2008, the label's fourth release was Mick Harris' first full-length album as Lull in nearly a decade, Like a Slow River. Harris should need no introduction to long-time ambience enthusiasts from his work in the early 1990s with Bill Laswell, and perhaps from his various ambient metal (speaking of oxymorons) projects such as Napalm Death and Painkiller. But Like a Slow River is very much in keeping with Glacial Movements' stated aesthetic — long, slow textures, an absence of melody or rhythm, few points of reference. This is especially true of the opening track, Whiteout, where everything blurs into various shades of white noise, marked with high-pitched gusts of wind. But each track is distinct, from The Sheet's deep bass rumbles that come in surges, eventually permitting glimpses of soft melodic fills, to the gentle oscillating drones of Treeless Grounds, which has fewer landmarks than Whiteout, if that's possible. Lull's isolation is peaceful, meditative, a turning inward for our most private thoughts, faint glimmerings, and the remainder of the previous night's dreams.

The label's sixth album, Cloudlands, hit the streets this spring under the name Aquadorsa (or perhaps Aqua Dorsa, both spellings are on the web site). It's also unclear whether this is an ongoing project, but in any event the album pairs relative newcomer Enrico Coniglio with one of the most venerable names in deep ambient, Oöphoi. Unlike some of Oöphoi's other collaborations where both artists share an expertise in slow moving drones, Coniglio adds an unexpected layer of noise, borrowing liberally from 12k glitch and Raster-Noton crunchy rhythms. Pieces like The Pond Reflected Her Smile are still characterized by Oöphoi's languid harmonies, where Coniglio's slow click percussion adds an unusual grit. The scratches on Zero Gravity would sound completely at home on well-played vinyl, blending with the subaquatic melodic loops and continuous bell resonances. The music could be considered a departure from the glacial and isolationist rubric, considerably more active and melodic than Lull's subliminal soundscapes, perhaps the label's venture into the more social aspects of isolation. For an oblique perspective, Coniglio's solo work Glacial Lagoon, available on the Laverna netlabel, is a deliberate investigation of the loss of identity in the post-urban landscape colored by his residence in Venice. Where Glacial Lagoon is considerably more glitchy than Cloudlands, the collaboration with Oöphoi brings to the music a wistfulness, an emotional longing previously absent from the genre.

Glacial Movements releases are available digitally from all of the usual suspects, but the CDs are packaged in beautiful digipaks with artwork by the Norwegian photographer Bjarne Riesto that is considerably more than the single image CD cover that comes with downloads. Only half of Riesto's photo is visible on the Aqua Dorsa image above, as the rest is spread across the entire gatefold. Lull's cover is especially effective, an image of white ice that is displayed in context of gorgeous, lush, full color arctic sunset on the inside.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Maryanne Amacher, 1943-2009

With sadness I note the passing of Maryanne Amacher, a sound artist whose work impressed me the first time I heard it many years ago. She will no doubt be best remembered for her massive multi-room installations, which she populated with "sound characters" whose interaction she considered in narrative terms. Sadly, I never had a chance to hear any of these, but her recorded work is very powerful on its own terms. The installations defied documentation on record for decades, but some of her work started appearing on compilations in the mid-1990s, notably the Asphodel Sombient Trilogy. Eventually John Zorn persuaded her to release a solo CD on Tzadik, Sound Characters (making the third ear), in 1999, followed by a second one almost ten years later, Sound Characters 2 (making sonic spaces).

The aspect of her work that initially attracted me was a phenomenon known as otoacoustic emissions, where the inner ears generate additional tones to what comes out of the speakers. Even on a home stereo (heck, even on a car stereo, the only listening location at the time with sufficient privacy), my ears bristled and quivered, unlike anything I had experienced before or since. Several passages on her Sound Characters exhibit this phenomenon, which of course relies on sound circulating in a space and is thus completely absent on headphone listening. Sound Characters is a sort of compilation album, containing material from a couple of different installations as well as some piece apparently composed just for the CD. Sound Characters 2, on the other hand, is a documentation of one installation, at the outdoor plaza of the Palacio de las Bellas Artes Museum in Mexico City, presented as a complete narrative. While the liner notes for the first CD follow the typical Tzadik six-panel standard, there is a sixteen-page booklet with the second, complete with photos and diagrams and several essays about the installation (although you might need a magnifying glass to see much in the diagrams). Both CDs are still in print, and it's been a pleasure to hear them again.

Her wikipedia page has already been updated several times since her death yesterday, and someone has already started an online archive to document her work. The only real obituary I've seen so far is from the Chicago Reader, and Kyle Gann also has a nice remembrance of this singular and amazing artist.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The road to Paradise

Another photo from our road trip last week. There actually is a very small town in Arizona called Paradise, and we took the one-lane dirt road across the Chiricahua Mountains to get there.

The Sound of Love

If music contains the power to evoke our emotions, what is the sound of love, the most fragile and most sincere of emotional states? Celer's brief but prolific musical trajectory circles this question, adopting a mystical perspective towards living and working through a fragile existence. Their recent CD Brittle was recorded last winter but released just a few weeks after Danielle Baquet-Long's untimely passing in July. Their source material is all acoustic instruments — piano, violin, cello, harpsichord, whistles — but connections between individual sounds and their origins are as fragile and tenuous as the emotions they seek to describe.

Western music is based on a model of tension and resolution, an establishment of expectations and the delayed gratification for the ultimate cadence. But Brittle is carefully constructed to remove all traces of conflict and difference. Even when their individual sounds combine into consonance or dissonance, nothing is ever established as a home base. Even when a pretty chord rolls around, there's no function, no direction, any more than when the elements of a mobile drift into a pleasing shape. Sounds are pure, without attacks, drifting and of long duration. The listener quickly turns off expectations, dismantles the entire cultural listening apparatus, and bathes in the music's warm glow.

The program notes for Brittle outline some of Celer's always interesting working methods. Their drifting ambient music is an outgrowth of using open forms, creating small pieces that combine in various ways to create a larger work. Nacreous Clouds, their 2008 release on and/OAR, was composed of 37 short tracks that encouraged shuffle mode, creating a different listening experience each time. Brittle shares the earlier album's sound world but is one long track that was originally comprised of many smaller fragments. One imagines that the resulting piece is one of several possibilities, that in a parallel universe the Brittle release would have been sequenced differently. But where Nacreous Clouds displayed its seams, little moments of silence between each track, Brittle is a continuous stream of music, and the nineteen separate tracks that lie at its origins are completely erased, blended into a complete unity.

The normal musical vocabulary is insufficient to describe Brittle, so a reviewer struggles to find appropriate metaphors. Perhaps like fire light, the music is always moving, always flickering, never settling into a constant sonic wash. Or like the water in a mountain stream, moving over rocks, a continuous variation of sound, light and shadow. By removing musical landmarks, Celer demonstrates the fragility of existence, and Brittle becomes an environment for meditation and prayer. The peaceful work completely merges with its environment with nearly three minutes of room ambience, subtly framing the delicate sounds that have preceded, leaving the remaining music solely in the listener's imagination.

The disc itself is adorned with a quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours, and the gatefold wallet cover includes an brief, elegiac essay. It is available directly from Low Point, from Celer's shop Floor Sugar, and from a great source for Celer recordings, Infraction Recordings.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Full disclosure

There's a lot of activity in the blogosphere about new FTC rules for disclosure, which take effect December 1. Although the rules are targeted at larger fish than the micro editions that appear in my posts, I believe full disclosure is generally a good idea. So here's mine.

Through my activity as a reviewer for, I occasionally get unsolicited promotional materials, usually CDs but occasionally vinyl (which, for the record, I can't play) or downloads. Presumably record labels send out more review CDs than they get reviews, because I get more CDs than I can review for's publication every two months; the remainder are reviewed here as time permits. Sometimes artists contact me via email, either from, mailing lists where I hang out, or through this blog (I'm never sure which) and ask whether I would be interested in reviewing their material; sometimes but not always I accept. Most often I write about albums that I purchase with my own funds, the stated goal of this blog from its alpha post. In the future I will add the label "promo" to posts indicating that I received the music for promotional consideration, and as time permits I'll add the same label to past reviews. Note that all of the reviews I've published in were promotional CDs or downloads.

I have never received a promotional copy of a book, although my Bruford article a while back prompted an offer from another rock biography publisher (which I declined). I'd like to say that I've bought every book I've reviewed here, but most of the academic ones are very expensive, fortunately available at the University of Arizona's music library.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Maps and a stronghold

Katherine Norman's book on sound art, which I wrote about a month or so ago, prominently featured maps as a tool for personal discovery. I have always loved maps, even as a kid, poring over atlases and letting my imagination wander. I still collect maps, using visits to the local outfitter as an excuse to find some other representation of the surrounding regions. Surprisingly, they disagree on road surfaces, sometimes even on locations, and the names for the obscure back roads seldom match what's printed on paper. And when it comes to trails, printed information can be little more than recollections. We visited one trailhead that stated specifically: no commercial map had been redone since a devastating fire in 1994, suggesting that a genteel trail hike could migrate into a bushwhack around any corner.

Our move to Arizona opened a whole new field of possibilities. Locations on maps evoke murky historical events whose cultural accumulation is overlaid with hundreds of western movies, moving whatever tenuous historical fact into the realm of image and myth. One of the first landmarks that captured my attention here was Cochise Stronghold, a pass through the Dragoon Mountains where the Apache leader held out for many years, able to escape to the east or west as circumstances dictated, and commanding a long range view of the surrounding plain. Like the Chiricahua Mountains, the next range to the east (and named after Cochise's tribe), visible in the photo above some fifty miles away, the Dragoons are loaded with breathtaking rock formations. I've been a bit intimidated to visit the stronghold because some sources indicate that four-wheel drive is required, but since we've traded our completely impractical convertible for an SUV, earlier this week we finally decided to check it out.

We can report that the roads to the stronghold, at least from the east side, are paved almost all the way, with just a few miles of improved dirt road to a campground at the trailhead. Although even a week ago we still had temperatures over 100 degrees, autumn has finally arrived to southern Arizona, so we had a most excellent hike to the top of the pass.


My article on Toru Takemitsu's visionary graphic score Corona for Pianists has been published at Néojaponisme. I had originally intended to post it here since it dovetails with many of my recent posts about open form, but it overlaps nicely with Néojaponisme's interest in creative endeavors outside of established genres.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Classical drone metal

Although I don't usually write about major label releases, Sunn O)))'s Monoliths and Dimensions blends contemporary classical music with experimental metal with stunning results. Most of the press surrounding the group focuses on their loud and ritualistic concerts, with the group dressed in monk's cowls and the stage filled with fog. Concerts are fine if you live in London or New York, but here in the desert, their recordings are the only evidence one is likely to hear. Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson have been the core members since the group's first recording nearly ten years ago, and their albums have relied on an increasing number of guests drawn from other avant-metal groups, such as the Melvins, Earth and Boris. But on Monoliths and Dimensions, they enlist the services of a wide range of creative musicians playing acoustic instruments more commonly associated with the classical world.

Typically classified as drone or doom metal, Sunn O)))'s core is a very loud duet between detuned guitar and bass, playing more or less in unison. The sonic detritus resulting from extremely high volume and the guitar's extraneous noisy artifacts, such as the crunch on the attacks or the inadvertent vibrato resulting from reduced tension on the strings, produces long and deep resonances and interference tones that fill the space with ultra-physical waves of sound. And thus begins Monoliths and Dimensions as well, an instant assault with a deep monophonic riff, gradually accumulating subtle resonance until a brief window ushers the entrance of Attila Csihar's incantatory voice. Impossibly deep, Csihar's gutteral pronouncements seek their own cadence, deviating from normal rhythms until they sound like a new language, intoning the legend of Aghartha, the city at the center of the Earth. The "thunderous resonant clouds" that open Csihar's lyrics gradually are mirrored in the accompaniment even as his delivery remains static. Clusters from strings (violin, viola, two double basses), piano and winds (clarinet, English and French horns) swirl to a "spinning thunderous vortex", when the rock instruments drop out, leaving the music to become dissonant, watery and evanescent. Conch shells and a hydrophone replace the strings and winds, together with the amplified creaking of a rope straining under an unbearable tension.

Although Csihar continues with his intonations on the next two tracks, he is augmented by choirs, female on Big Church and male on Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia). Big Church is highly ritualized, the women wailing incomprehensible syllables while Csihar overdubs several layers of murmuring. Nothing here is intended to be understood, but the lyric sheet provides the single Hungarian compound word associated with deconsecration. Again, brass and strings back up the choir and multiple guitars. Hunting & Gathering uses only brass to supplement the male chorus and Csihar approaching as close to the blues as this album comes. Epic in scope, both of these choral pieces recall the elemental forces of Carmina Burana, adding the electronic feedback which only increases the raw power of the music.

After these two incantatory rituals, the last piece, Alice, is an instrumental affirmation that leads through chaos to an otherworldly calm and peace. Taking a cue here from the spectralist music of Iancu Dumitrescu, the guitar and bass gestures merge with a chamber orchestra comprised of brass (three trombones and French horn), strings (violin, viola, three double basses), winds (oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto flute) and harp. At first, the chamber orchestra provides spectral overtones for the rock instruments, chords and gestures that start deep and electronic but swelling with the acoustic instruments into mid and upper ranges, reversing the typical resonance where the high notes fade the soonest. Eventually the trombones move to the foreground, providing their own harmony and counterpoint amidst the thickening textures while the rock instruments mark the beginnings of phrases. The final quarter of the piece is for the chamber orchestra alone (apart from Oren Ambarchi's motorized cymbal shimmering in the background), and the piece closes with a beautiful trombone solo from legendary jazz veteran Julian Priester. On its own, Alice is remarkable enough, but in its position on this album, it borders on ecstasy.

Although Monoliths and Dimensions is available as a download from the usual sources, the CD booklet has complete credits and lyrics, essential if you want to understand Csihar's vocalizations. The booklet cover is a translucent overlay on top of a Richard Serra painting, and there are some photos of the group at an Aztec temple and individual cyanotype portraits in primitive, gothic settings.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Processed guitar

My review of New Works for Processed Electric Guitar by Richard Lainhart and Hakobune is published at

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The art of listening

Part of Brian Eno's ambient music manifesto was that "Ambient Music must be able to accomodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular." Quite often my mind wanders during a music performance, invaded by myriad isolated thoughts from recent internal and external events. Nevertheless, either through increased familiarity or a serendipitous awakening, repeated listenings provoke new insights, perhaps because of some random mental association with some element in the piece. Books, by contrast, enforce a linearity only mildly adjusted for chapter shuffling or other superficial devices. Composer and writer Katharine Norman manages to portray successfully a scattered listening experience in her book Sounding Art, which is also one of the few academic music books that discusses contemporary musique concrète.

These written decentering strategies are quite clever. Take, for example, the two chapters on noise. The first one, after setting out a number of noise definitions (unwanted and irrelevant fluctuations in the signal, unwanted and irrelevant sonic fragments in our subconscious, etc.), mirrors the interruptions in the text, her essay intermingled with lyrics from a Sarah Vaughan blues and definitions from the OED, Foucault, Glenn Gould and Derrida. The footnotes for this essay encircle the text for the second noise chapter, making the two essays virtually impossible to read with any kind of linearity. Elsewhere, an article on Francis Dhomont's exploration of the unconscious mind, Sous le regard d'un soleil noir, is printed in four columns and needs to be read in landscape mode, and an extended interview . And the book comes with a CD with 34 examples, essential to an understanding of her arguments, but which make the reading even less straightforward.

Fun with typography isn't exactly new, although it's still unusual to find in an academic work. Fortunately, the printing devices enhance the intellectual arguments, establishing a parallel between different modes of reading and listening. Her most dazzling analytic sleight-of-hand comes using Leonardo's Annunciation and works for instruments and tape by Jonathan Harvey and Luigi Ceccarelli to illustrate a multitude of polarities: acoustic/electronic, performance/emanation, performer/tape, etc. The whole discussion turns on metaphors of flight that lead to images of other places, turning on the reversibility of metaphor, where the two poles play the role of the real and the ideal alternately. In her own contemplation of music and space, Norman cites Gaston Bachelard (also one of Takemitsu's favorite authors), whose vision of poetic contemplation went beyond any specific sounds.

Metaphorical space isn't the only listening strategy that Norman investigates. Two chapters discuss soundscapes and field recordings, making a map to the world — metaphors of travel culminate with a wide-ranging and sprawling interview with Hildegard Westerkamp on field recordings. The transcribed conversation retains the hesitations and odd subject changes that mark conversations in the wild, full of the kinds of distractions that one might encounter on a sound walk.

The more discursive chapter on field recordings starts with R. Murray Schafer's soundmarks for an extended rumination on music and maps, both of real-world destinations and inner landscapes populated with memories and emotions. It seems strange to speak of maps and nebulous personal recollections, since most maps seek to provide direction through a solid field of knowledge for an uninformed petitioner. But not all maps strive to provide such straightforward direction. Following her previous discussion of metaphor reversability, a musical map, whether or not composed from field recordings, aims for an emotional response, working around and through the listener's private pantheon of memory. The music here is the petitioner, and each listener hears his or her own direction through the monuments and events in the piece. (The mapping metaphor is further complication with the use of liner notes, essentially a story that provides a map for the musical work.) Norman uses examples from field recordings and works by Barry Truax, Paul Lansky and Francisco López to sift through mapping perspectives, all refreshingly non-academic.

Norman is also a composer of instrumental and electronic works. Her album Transparent Things has an unusual format: three solo piano works (played by Philip Mead), two works for electronics, and one for piano and tape. Many of her electronic works incorporate voices from interviews and media samples, an important disembodied layer that is also one of the important topics in the book. Her tape piece Hard Cash (and Small Dreams of Change) is available on emusic, immune as of this writing to emusic's new album pricing practices and thus available as a single track download.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Too much music...

Keith Jopling over at Juggernaut Brew has a recent post about managing large and ever-growing music collections. He accurately describes the oversupply problem, and then he presents a prioritized five-category approach:
  • The back catalogues of my recently discovered favourites.
  • Play all the classics at least once a year.
  • Listen to more music that’s ‘different’.
  • Give the old masters more time.
  • New stuff when the hype has settled.
  • I found this list gratifying because it's fairly close to my current practice, although it's hard to quantify what's sufficiently 'different'. Jopling mentions boutique labels to explore such as Nonesuch, Real World and ECM. That's all very nice, but at least around here some music is too different to be under consideration, even for one listening.

    I've written before about using playlists to manage new music, but it's always interesting to see how other people approach this problem.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009

    Long dark night

    For a number of reasons, it's been a while since I posted. First, I have been writing, but for other outlets. I'll post links when the articles are available. Second, I've been struggling with a dying computer, so I now spend the first half hour or so of every session trying to get everything up and running normally. All very disheartening, but I've ordered a new one, so this problem should go away in the next couple of weeks.

    And finally, we've been traveling, to northern Arizona, specifically to Monument Valley on the Navajo reservation. The best way to see this massive series of rock formations is in a jeep, and there are a number of companies who will take small groups out. Although there is a road that goes through the park, I wouldn't take anything less than a four-wheel drive vehicle on it, and in addition there are vast sections of the park that are closed to vehicular traffic except for the licensed guides. We took two tours, including one at sunrise where I took the picture at the beginning of the post.

    Posts about music will return, real soon now.

    Sunday, August 9, 2009

    Standards for "good" music

    As usual, Professor Gann nails it — the whole valorization question that I've wrestled off and on, whether a musical work is "good" or not. I've never really been able to tell, because a whole lot of music that a whole lot of people think is Tony-the-Tiger-Great leaves me bored witless. And while I'm willing to concede that craft and skill exist, music still has to speak to me, and so much music appreciation comes down to taste. And Gann goes deeper, a registry of specific musical virtues such as innovation, craftsmanship, depth, which in turn can appeal more or less to specific listeners, depending on their backgrounds and, well, taste. Nobody owns a value hierarchy on these virtues:

    There are no objective standards. But there is an infinity of objective facts, there is a quasi-infinity of musical virtues, and no majority or plurality has the right to proclaim that we all have to content ourselves with the music that embodies their particular favorite virtues.

    Kyle Gann: musicologist, composer, bullshit-detector. As they say, read the whole thing.

    Sunday, July 19, 2009

    Pousseur on film

    A few years ago, Belgian composer Henri Pousseur donated all of his papers to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Switzerland. For his fourth trip to deliver his archives, he was accompanied by filmmakers Guy-Marc Hinant and Dominique Lohlé. The resulting documentary, Hommage au Sauvage, was released on DVD by Sub Rosa's video branch, OME. Most of the film is Pousseur seated in the back seat with the camera fixed in the same position, talking about various topics from the history and theory of the avant-garde to his views on aesthetics and the open work. Most of the chat relates to his music, although he also recounts a few personal moments of special significance. There are some sequences filmed at the Sacher Foundation, going over some of his papers with the archivists. What comes across most vividly in this 52-minute film is Pousseur's engaging personality and his incisive attitude.

    Four interludes present his music directly. Two of them use selections from his electronic works Scambi and Trois Visages de Liège with a succession of images. There's a longer section of Pousseur rehearsing a very short string quartet (Piccolo Ricercare, about 2.5 minutes long) and its performance by the Quotour Musiques Nouvelles. At the time of filming, this was Pousseur's most recent work, and the rehearsel fragments illuminate the melodic aspects of the piece that were so important to him, but often easily lost in the abstractions and the angles.

    I've written before about Pousseur's approach to open works, and the filmmakers get some interesting discussion about one particular problem, how to make an open work for more than one musician. One of Pousseur's solutions was the piece Les Ephémérides d'Icare 2, a 1970 work for unspecified soloists and ensemble. For the fourth musical interlude, he goes over a few pages from the score, then provides commentary from the old LP recording (unfortunately not reissued on CD).

    The DVD, which is available as a purchase from the usual suspects or as a rental from Netflix, comes in both NTSC and PAL formats (on each side of the disc) and unfortunately has no extras. Archival footage of his musical theater would have been most welcome, or a moderately restored version of the ensemble work Les Ephémérides d'Icare 2 together with its score. In any event, another nice addition to the Pousseur legacy from Sub Rosa.

    Thursday, July 16, 2009

    Outside the inside piano

    My instrument, the piano, with its twelve equally tempered notes per octave, has a critical historical role in the foundation of the underlying harmony and melody of most music that we hear today. So I take special notice of artists who use the piano to undermine these lofty aims, a challenging task that generally relies on the performer moving away from the keyboard and exploring the inside of the piano. With the advent of electronics and amplification, it is possible to distort significantly the familiar piano sounds and attain non-pitched noise on the instrument. The exemplar here is David Tudor's 1967 recording of Cage's Variations II using the inside of the piano and contact microphones. Perhaps because tradition is so hard to break, or because the keyboard repertoire for piano has so many masterpieces, few musicians have deviated and truly rethought the instrument and its possibilities.

    One such musician, who now works entirely inside the piano, is Andrea Neumann. Based in Berlin, Neumann has been working this unusual perspective for over a decade, devoting herself enough to commission a special instrument without keyboard, dampers or pedals, reducing the instrument to the frame, strings and soundboard. Unfortunately I can't find a picture of her modified piano, but on nearly every recording the mixing desk gets equal billing, so it probably has a fair amount of circuitry built in. She participated in a flurry of improvisational group outings at the beginning of the decade but has been largely absent from the EAI recordings in the past few years, despite numerous live appearances at festivals around Europe. Recently Absinth Records released her second solo effort, a numbered edition of a single piece, Pappelallee 5 (the name of her studio).

    Pappelallee 5 is a natural extension of Neumann's only other solo, a mini-CD entitled Innenklavier released in 2002. Innenklavier (Inside Piano) has three pieces that explore the instrument's range, from single plucked notes with varying degrees of feedback to rolling scrapes that fill the audio spectrum with unpitched noise. The second piece in particular directs noisy rasps and crackles to different channels, alternating with stretches of digital silence. The silence/noise dichotomy of course goes back to Cage as well, but Pappelallee 5 extends Innenklavier 2 by using room ambience, ordinarily a flavor of silence, as a defining compositional element. Neumann's studio is in a house mostly occupied by musicians, so room ambience includes audible traces of her neighbors at practice. Room ambience changes independently of Neumann's inside piano, providing a secret depth best appreciated on headphones where one's own room ambience can be minimized.

    The crux, however, is Neumann's gestures on the inside piano, which bring focus to multiple levels of background. Sometimes subtle and sometimes extending into wild, dramatic squalls in crystalline relief, they contrast sharply with the muffled appearance of the conventional instruments. Guitar, flute, trumpet and acoustic piano all pass through, a melodic counterpoint to Neumann's electronics that sets the piano's tonal and melodic history traditions outside and down the hall. Placement in the mix adds significant levels of complexity, audible splices adding richness and texture. Neumann plays with audio artifacts that most engineers try to discard, and in so doing has created a dazzling piece of contemporary musique concrète.

    Pappelallee 5 comes in an oversize gatefold package and includes a statement from the artist. It is available from ErstDist or directly from absinthRecords, and is limited to 300 copies.

    Saturday, July 11, 2009

    Primal elements

    The July issue of has my review of an audio-visual album entitled Elements by the Melbourne-based sound artist Abre Ojos.

    Thursday, July 9, 2009

    Goodbye, Dani....

    With great sadness for the missed opportunities but immense appreciation for her serene and peaceful music, I note that Danielle Baquet-Long of the duo Celer passed away yesterday.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009

    How long is your sentence?

    From a call for submissions:

    If your work is accepted, we will then request a three-sentence bio…. We prefer your bio sentences to be more Hemingway than Foster Wallace when considering length.

    Hat tip: TuScene.

    Sunday, June 21, 2009

    Pousseur and open electroacoustic music

    Three months after his passing, post-war composer Henri Pousseur finally got an obituary in the English-language media. The article mentions in passing a new project devoted to the composer, the Scambi Project at Middlesex University in England. Run by John Dack, a specialist in musique concrète, the Scambi Project is collecting documents relating to Pousseur's open-form piece for tape. Composed and described by Pousseur in the late 1950s, Scambi was intended from its inception to be a mobile form, and Luciano Berio made a version as well as Pousseur's more available realization. Part of the goal of the Scambi Project is to enable new realizations, and the site includes three new versions from graduate students in the Sonic Arts program.

    The documents are a treasure trove for Pousseur enthusiasts, and range from scholarly papers by project team members to interviews and transcribed lectures by Pousseur from the last decade or so. His keynote lecture from an Open Work symposiuim at Goldsmiths College not only discusses Scambi, but also his Eight Parabolic Etudes in some detail. This collection of eight long works produced in 1972 (released on four CDs, also available at emusic and iTunes) showcases the possibilities inherent in analog electronic music, and were later reworked by electronica artists Oval, Philip Jeck and Main for a live concert and subsequent CD release.

    I've documented by own enthusiasm for Pousseur here on a couple of occasions, and the Scambi Project is a welcome addition to the available material. I still hope for a CD release of Pousseur's piano music, which he composed throughout his career and which would make a varied and interesting recital.

    Saturday, June 20, 2009

    Plastic canons

    One of the most thorough electronic music packages I've ever seen is the boxed set of "The Complete Tape Music of Dick Raaijmakers," which includes three CDs and a 200-page hardbound book of bi-lingual (English and Dutch) notes explaining the pieces. The pieces date from 1959 to 1996, and although a lot of analog electronic music sounds a bit dated, I find Raaijmakers' work not only listenable, but very prescient. In particular, I am fascinated by a series of five canons from the mid-1960s, all of which sound much more like static or noise than any of their contemporaries. The canons are artifacts from some fairly intense research that Raaijmakers performed on sound morphology. While the research and its results are explained reasonably well in the book accompanying the CDs, I stumbled across a publication Cahier M from the Orpheus Institute seminars in Belgium, where he goes into much more detail in a series of four lectures subtitled "A Brief Morphology of Electric Sound."

    Raaijmakers had two major guiding lights for this research, the artist Piet Mondrian and the pioneering photographer Étienne-Jules Marey. In the 1880s, Marey developed a photographic gun that planted consecutive actions in a single image, which he used to show real-world actions, such as birds in flight and a man jumping off a chair. Forty years later, as a major theorist for the Dutch artistic movement Neo-Plasticism, Mondrian advocated an electronic music structured into sequences of primary tones (characteristically identified as red, yellow and blue) and non-tones (chromatic, atonal noises, black, grey and white), devoid of harmony or any sort of romantic characteristics. From Marey, Raaijmakers took the idea of presenting a single object from multiple perspectives. From Mondrian, he not only took the tonal concept, but Mondrian's spatialization of sound, not merely the horizontal and vertical but a diagonal approach. Raaijmakers wanted to construct pillars of sound that could be viewed from any angle and whose characteristics would change accordingly. Mondrian's work fits into a long history of mixing sonic, visual and architectural metaphors. The 1960s were a fertile time for spatialization as well — think of the work of Stockhausen and Xenakis from this period.

    Of course, canonic procedures were nothing new to the 1960s, having a long history back before Bach. But Raaijmakers started from a single point of sound, so short that no specific pitch could be perceived. He strung multiple points together to create larger sound structures, which he then overlaid with each other at different time scales, creating larger and larger blocks. Despite the increased complexity and the archaic titles in Latin, any canonic procedures he uses are largely inaudible, and the raw material sounds like static. Taking inspiration from Mondrian's severe restrictions, Raaijmakers' canons sound like the absence of music. The closest sonic resemblance is the crunchy parts of William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, harvesting the sound from old, decaying tapes. Raaijmakers's first canon serves as a model: spiky sonic aggregates alternating between two channels, without pitch, harmony or any discernable rhythm. Raaijmakers calls the second one a black-and-white copy of the first (it's a canon about printing, a copy of the first with reduced information). The third is accelerated, with the sounds overlaid to create timbral differences, but it is still an extremely restricted sound palette. The fourth is a subtraction canon, where increasingly large holes appear in the original material, again recalling Basinski. The fifth is based on an old LP of Edith Piaf, emphasizing the surface noise at the expense of the underlying sounds — it could easily pass for turntablist/looper Philip Jeck.

    Starting from Mondrian's neo-plasticism, Raaijmakers ends up with a different view of sound than the moving horizontal and vertical waveforms that we see in most audio editors. Mondrian's sound had depth, a third dimension whose appearance (and audibility) altered depending on the perspective of the composer and/or listener. Repetition patterns which may appear orderly and periodic when viewed from one angle may be completely invisible or barely recogizable when perceived from elsewhere. The pattern may be altered, translated ("the shift of a given quality in a straight line with respect to other qualities"), until the pattern morphs into a new shape, a new pattern to be used for the next round of changes. Sound artist Ralf Wehowsky translated a single set of parameters for his album When Freezing Air Stings Like Ice, exemplifying Raaijmakers' deep morphological connections. Neoplasticism combined with Marey's superimpositions, and the resulting abstract, liquid forms anticipated Xenakis' architectural sound sketches and countless graphic scores.

    Raaijmakers' work is available digitally, without the explanatory notes, from iTunes and emusic, but the book is a huge asset to understanding this pioneering work. Despite the collection's title, many of the more recent works are recordings of fairly theatrical productions, so enough is lost already without missing the explanations for the absent visuals.

    Monday, June 1, 2009

    A drummer's confessions

    One of my earliest musical memories: in high school in a small town in upstate New York, the local variety store had a small area up front reserved for records, where a tenth grader, already with a penchant for the unusual, finds a striking album cover, a red face with wide eyes and very white teeth, mouth wide open, looking behind in fear, much more effective on the large 12-inch LP cover than its reduction to CD. There began my long fascination with King Crimson. Five albums over the next five years with five different lineups, save for the guitarist Robert Fripp, brought them to a core group whose album Larks' Tongues in Aspic remains one of the rock pinnacles. The drummer on this celebrated album, Bill Bruford, entered my awareness for the first time (I was happily oblivious to his earlier group Yes). Bruford remained with the mighty Crim through the three albums from the mid-1970s, then three terrific albums in the early 1980s, and even into the groups first incarnation in the 1990s. In between Crimson resurrections, he had solo rock albums, then ventured into jazz with his group Earthworks, which itself made ten albums with various lineups over the better part of two decades. I counted on Bruford to make quality music, no matter the surroundings, and followed him to unknown albums whose only recommendation was his presence.

    So it was with some sadness that I read of his retirement earlier this year. But after all, he will turn 60 in 2009, which is a fine retirement age, and I certainly know from experience that at a certain age the hands stop doing what the mind tells them to do. But Bruford, whose intelligence has manifested itself in interviews as well as his music, has published his autobiography, loosely in the form of a FAQ, as entertaining and frank a view of a professional popular musician as I've ever read. Bruford has had the good fortune to participate in full-time groups and one-off sessions in both rock and jazz, and his observations on the differences are astute, and not especially flattering to the rockers. But he also provides unusual illumination on the difficulties of maintaining a personal life (he remains married his adolescent sweetheart) and the trivial minutiae of maintaining a stable income as an independent creative performer.

    Bruford is unafraid to examine his professional life in light of cultural studies scholars, from sociologists Simon Frith and Howard S. Becker to pop music theorist Richard Middleton. He even cites Chris Cutler, the drummer and theorist from Henry Cow who created a model of self-sustaining independent music with Recommended Records in the 1970s, and whose career makes an interesting parallel with Bruford's. Although he finally returned to an all-acoustic kit in the later Earthworks, in the 1980s King Crimson Bruford was virtually synonymous with Simmons electronic drums, and he considers his experience with them in light of Frith's work on storage and retrieval technologies. The inevitable mismatch between musician and audience appreciation of the musician's efforts becomes a validation of Becker's Outsider, participating in an insular community with loyalty only to other musicians (except when the band is falling apart).

    Many of Bruford's admirers will doubtless come to this book seeking gossip on the powerhouse rock groups in which he served, Yes and King Crimson. While there's a bit of that, the autobiography isn't the National ProgRock Enquirer, and gossip mongers may be disappointed. (An excellent source for King Crimson history is Eric Tamm's monograph on Robert Fripp.) Much of the book is about the distinctly unglamorous work to maintain equilibrium for his chosen specialization, which is performing challenging, forward directed music in a group for a live audience. As such, his music is diametrically opposed to my own (solo, static, electroacoustic music created alone in my studio), but Bruford's insights about the frustrations and incentives to make music are an articulate comparison to Susan Tomes' book about performing classical chamber music.

    Thursday, May 7, 2009

    20,000 and counting

    My iTunes library reached 20,000 tracks this week with the addition of Black Sleep by Jasper TX, alias for the Swedish musician Dag Rosenqvist. A while back, I wrote about the Polish composer Michael Jacaszek, whose album on the Norwegian microlabel Miasmah was at the time only available electronically at Boomkat and Thrill Jockey. I was pleased to see that Miasmah releases are now available at emusic, so I celebrated with a continued exploration of the music from this fine label.

    Drone Classics — Night Passage

    Decaying telephone poles in the distant Australian outback, a desolate landscape, populated only by a few scraggly shrubs and an unrelenting wind. Into this forsaken desert, I imagine an intrepid scientist with portable recording equipment, capturing the sounds of the wind and the wires before the whole structure collapses into dust. Thus I have always pictured Alan Lamb, a biologist who made a couple of albums for the Australian label Dorobo back in the 1990s, primarily using telegraph wires. Conveniently, the album cover artwork was suggestively vague, which left me free to imagine recording circumstances that were probably wildly distant from the truth.

    Long string instruments by necessity are semi-permanent installations, and a few artists have made them a specialty. In the US, the most well-known practitioner is probably Ellen Fullman, who has been building and performing on such instruments since 1981. In Europe, Paul Panhuysen has been mining some of the same territory, and down under, Alastair Galbraith. All three artists build their own instruments, with the strings attached to some kind of resonator. Lamb is unique as far as I know to construct instruments outdoors, with the wind being a primary (although not exclusive) performer. Most of his recorded work uses a stretch of abandoned telegraph poles that he purchased from the Australian telephone company, christening his instrument the Faraway Wind Organ, on which he made recordings for nearly twenty years before the wires were vaporized by lightning and termites devoured the poles. His recordings were not as simple as putting up microphones to record the wind. He attached contact microphones to every possible surface, capturing ants and spiders walking on the wires, cows brushing against the poles, and eventually interactions of his own devising. He built massive bows for the wires, which he has described, but without providing any photographs.

    His first album, Primal Image, was released in 1995, containing two Faraway Wind Organ pieces from the late 1980s. The title track, 29 minutes long, is both a gradual unfolding of various natural processes and a catalog of the different sounds available from the wind organ. There's too much volatility to be considered a drone piece, although I don't get any sense of a narrative either. Considering that the wind organ is in the outback, there's not very much environmental sound, a few passages of wind and a very occasional bird call. Sounds fade in and out, and there are a number of percussive events that sound like zaps from a nocturnal ray gun. Continuous low hums blend with piercing high frequency bursts, mid range shimmers, and one passage of fearsome ringing sirens. Its companion, a 1986 piece entitled Beauty, is a much more tranquil affair. The zaps are still present, but quietly in the background like a distant electric crackling, focussing more on overtones fading in and out, lingering aftertones, and sometimes a stretched out modal melody in the upper ranges. Lamb explains in the liner notes that the wires are so long and thick that the fundamental is beneath human hearing, so the overtones in our audible range create second-order frequencies that compete for harmonic dominance. They remind me of the audible equivalent of northern lights.

    In a strange sequential turn, remixes from his second album by Ryoji Ikeda, Thomas Köner, Lustmord and Bernhard Günter preceded release of the originals by nearly two years. When the "original masters" of Night Passage appeared in 1998, there were three tracks, two recorded on the same Faraway Wind Organ that he had used for Primal Image, and a very recent one recorded live on an installation at the site of an electron accelerator in Japan. As on Primal Image, the title track is wild and chaotic, but with more enviromental noise than any of the other pieces. The wire vocabulary has expanded from the first album to include a multitude of interwoven scrapes, crashes, whistles, rumbles, creaks and clicks, often layered with a deep harmonic underpinning. The second piece, Last Anzac, is a complete contrast, a slowly evolving exploration of intense spectral frequencies, with infrequent percussive interruptions and ringing high overtone pulses. The final track is SPring 8 from a temporary environmentally sensitive installation, commissioned by the Japanese government to remind us to "venerate Nature and her primal forces no matter how far technology progresses." Lamb's performance on a great bow was recorded live, and ranges from rattles, metallic clicks, booms and scrapes to a rich display of dancing overtones. The Meditation on SPring 8 is the most harmonic piece on the two albums, both a summing up and vision of future possibilities.

    The compositions from two different wind organs is the primary reason that I selected Original Masters: Night Passage for the drone classic, although both albums are superb. The original CDs are long out of print, but may show up as downloads. A few short works have been included on anthologies which are available both at emusic and iTunes. Lamb continues to work with installations around Australia, both solo and in collaboration with other artists and musicians, but sadly few recordings of these installations have been released. A joint effort with Dave Noyze is documented here, and includes a detailed description of the instruments, a couple of photos, and an hour-long recording which displays some of the flavor, if not the grand scope, of the telegraph wire instruments on these two recordings.

    Long wire instruments are unusual and spark listeners' imaginations simply from the scale of the instrument. Lamb's outdoor installations combine this fascination with a primal connection to the environment, too often displaced in an urban museum setting. The half-hour durations of his albums' title tracks are immersive, even though they are spliced together from hours of recordings stretched across several weeks. Telegraph wires present enough of a story to further the images, without revealing too many performance secrets. Despite the rugged outdoor environmentalism inherent in Lamb's installations, the music stands on its own, a reflection of mysterious natural processes that confront us when we step away from the urban world long enough.

    Sunday, April 26, 2009

    Scriabin the miniaturist

    My recently confessed immersion in Alexander Scriabin's music is because he, like Federico Mompou, is one of the great composers of miniatures for piano. The Russian composer-pianist wrote a large number of miniatures, atmospheric little pieces that presage Stockhausen's moment form better than Mompou's. Scriabin's various extra-musical activities may be better known, such as the development of a color keyboard and the grandioise, mystical musical apotheosis that remained in sketches at his death. Musically, a handful of large-scale pieces, ten sonatas and a half-dozen large orchestral works, gets the most attention from critics and virtuoso pianists, but his short works are technically accessible, musically very interesting, and have the additional advantage of being somewhat outside the standard repertoire (unlike the Chopin preludes, the easiest of which are among the first real pieces that piano students are taught). Except for the orchestral works and a couple of juvenilia that were never published during his lifetime, everything he wrote was for piano.

    Scriabin's definitive biography in English, Scriabin: A Biography of the Russian Composer, 1871-1915 in two volumes, was published in 1969 by Faubion Bowers, who also saved the Kabuki theater in Japan after World War II. Its writing style is a throwback to an earlier era of scholarship, with virtually no footnotes and a minimum of jargon. Bowers describes Scriabin's life in all of its soap-operatic detail, and he includes extended translations of Scriabin's notebooks and mystical poetry, but there isn't much in this book about the music or Scriabin's relationship in the turbulent culture of his time (the book clearly predates the cultural studies fashion). But in Scriabin's centennial year, the Soviets opened up some of his archives to western authors, and in 1973 Bowers published a second and much shorter book, The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers. Only 200 pages instead of the biography's 650, The New Scriabin skims Scriabin's life in the first half, then spends the second half on his mysticism, his commentators and his music.

    Unlike Mompou, Scriabin concertized throughout his life, playing his own music across Europe and even for an American tour. My speculation about moment form for Mompou's small pieces was much more of a reality for Scriabin. Although most of his published opus numbers were collections of short pieces, only one of them (opus 11) was a recognizable cycle, and he seems to have published collections based on financial need rather than anything inherent connecting the pieces. On his concert programs, Scriabin treated each piece as an individual to be juxtaposed freely with any other piece, intermingling the sketches with one or two sonatas over the course of the concert. All-Scriabin Russian concert recordings from the 1950s and 1960s suggest that the groupings of short pieces were treated as multi-movement works, and that breaks for audience applause occurred only after larger works such as the sonatas. This practice can create a pleasant sense of drift, as each piece has its own self-contained atmosphere. In my own playing, I combine Scriabin's miniatures with Mompou's and Stockhausen's (the Tierkreis zodiac melodies).

    The turn of the 20th century was a pivotal moment for western art music when the late romantic harmonic language lost all tonal bearings. Scriabin's music exemplifies this shift, from his early works which are very much in Chopin's mold, to his late works which are among the first atonal compositions. He claimed to have a complete harmonic system all worked out, but scholars still debate what's going on harmonically in Scriabin's late work. Although his tonal works have attractive melodies, I find myself drawn to his middle period, when there was still enough tonality to have a resolution, but the coloring is so languid that fatigue doesn't set in. When I hear too many of the early preludes strung together, there's too much tension and resolution, and I find myself rapidly weary. With too much from the late period, I don't hear any points of reference at all. His harmony has a lot in common with jazz, and I stumbled across a big band inspiration from some of Scriabin's late pieces that is a much better album than the name (Scriabin's Groove) and label (Super Bad Trax) would suggest.

    I noted a while back that classical albums aren't sequenced for the best listening experience, but act instead as an encyclopedic reference. This is especially true for a composer like Scriabin. There are a number of complete sets available of Scriabin's sonatas, but they are such dense and complex pieces that I can't listen to 70 minutes of them back to back. The miniatures are grouped together and presented as units as well. Often this circumstance drives me to the download sites, but the miniatures are so short that they are a pretty bad deal on emusic — I would spend my entire monthly allowance on one and a half CDs worth of material. So Scriabin remains somewhat of a guilty pleasure, a composer for performing more than for listening, for savoring in the privacy of my studio.

    The photograph of Scriabin at his piano is by Alexander Mozer, the physicist who worked with Scriabin developing his color keyboard.

    Friday, April 24, 2009

    Works around the blogosphere

    Earlier this week, Phil @ DialM posted a meditation on the nature of the performing self that disappears into the flow of the performance, leading Phil to question the nature of the decisions that comprise a performance, and wonder to what extent these decisions are conscious. Composer and part-time blogger Douglas Boyce took Phil's performance thoughts and related them to composition, moving the consciousness of the decision further into the background:
    Either one is forced to considered every sound-event is the consequence of a choice (conscious or other wise) by a single composer, or consider the composer as part of a tradition of musiking of which this work in its particulars and similarities to other works as a particular instantiation or draft.
    I've posted about the nature of works a couple of times. I can appreciate that musical decisions come from a ground of possibilities, just as the fact that I'm using American English here sets the range of possible utterances in this blog. But our musical intentions, why we decide to play this piece and not that one, how we choose from an infinite set of possibilities to this specific instance, is a choice for which I take responsibility, which I own. There are many factors involved in this decision, some of which I made recently, some of which I made years ago, and some of which no doubt I would be unable to articulate.

    One of the reasons I pursue music is exactly this state of flux. Music is the most participatory art because of these ambiguities. When I study and learn to play a piece by Morton Feldman, I establish a communication with him that is stronger than listening to a CD or reading an interview. Does it matter that my performance of Feldman's won't be as authoritative as Aki Takahashi's, or that her performance will be heard by thousands of people whereas mine will be heard by only a few? The range of performances that will be recognized as "Morton Feldman" is very wide (even including a reduction of an orchestral work to a "power trio" of electronics, piano and percussion), and therein lies the mystery and the joy of music.

    Douglas's comment brought to mind a recent post from Matthew Guerrieri on the famous Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard, which identifies the decision as the discontinuity that separates faith from despair. Given the irrational understandings that let me play and compose, and even though I don't consider myself to be a religious person, Kierkegaard's perspective illuminates why I need to keep paddling even though I'm adrift in a pretty big body of water.

    Tuesday, April 21, 2009

    Scriabin the mystic

    Lately I've found myself immersed in the music of the Russian composer-pianist Alexander Scriabin lately. Born in 1871, Scriabin flourished at the cusp of tremendous musical and social changes before he died somewhat prematurely in 1915. His earliest compositions are very much in Chopin's shadow, including Chopin's favorite genres of the etude, prelude, nocturne, waltz and mazurka, and even a polonaise. But later he became interested in mysticism, specifically the Theosophical Society and the writings of Helena Blavatsky, and his music increasingly diverged from even the loose tonal standards of the late romantics. He continued writing preludes and etudes, but increasingly he called his short pieces poems or gave them unique and sensuous titles (e.g., Desire, Strangeness).

    Faubion Bowers, his biographer, compares his mysticism with offhand remarks from the famous classical composers, but even more, his mysticism reminds me of Stockhausen. To be fair, Bowers wrote in the 1960s before Stockhausen's extra-planetary leanings became so pronounced. Nevertheless, Scriabin envisaged an orchestral work that included an airplane propeller in the percussion section, and Stockhausen composed a string quartet with helicopters. Scriabin's unfinished magnum opus Mysterium, based on Theosophical teachings, took a week to perform, incorporates incense into the stage settings, and ends with transfigured mankind immersed within the birth of a new God, creating a new race of spiritually advanced men. Stockhausen's magnum opus, the opera Licht, based on the Urantia Book's teachings, takes a week to perform, disperses fragrances into the audience, and is a summation of musical and religious thought, intended to "train a new kind of human being … who has never before existed on this planet."

    This is not to say that Stockhausen is channeling Scriabin. The differences between the two composers are profound, and we should not be diverted by the connections between them, amusing as they may be. Scriabin's music inhabits the equal tempered musical world of western art music, dominated by the piano, perhaps the central instrument of this tradition. He ended up finding ways to stretch the vertical, late romantic tonal system into new shapes, harmonic chords that analysts still disagree as to their nature, or even their spelling. Stockhausen had the much finer gradations of the electronic studio at his disposal, so he went beyond harmony and sought the nature of music in time, looking at horizontal time scales that were inconceivable to Scriabin. And where Stockhausen sought to connect with the vibrations of the universe, Scriabin thought that he was the vibration of the universe, more of a megalomaniac than Stockhausen at his most extreme. Arguments in favor of understanding the composer's intent fall short when the intent is so clearly over the top, and as listeners, it is our responsibility to find for ourselves a spiritual message to sober and quiet the mind.