Thursday, March 25, 2010

Running with the wolf

Francisco López is one of the most prolific sound artists active today. Since his earliest releases, more than twenty years ago, he has released well over a hundred albums and has rejuvenated musique concrète through extensive use of field recordings and other types of found sounds. I wrote about Wind [Patagonia], one of his overt field recording albums, here a while back. For as many López works as have a recognizable and sometimes even fully credited provenance, there are albums where he provides no clue whatsoever on the sounds' origins, in notes or in the works themselves. In addition, many of his pieces are untitled and packaged in the most minimal way possible — clear jewel cases, plain white cardboard — obscuring any real-world referents as much as possible in packaging as with sound sources.

The line between abstract sound object and discernable documentary is continuous, and one of López's first releases in 2010, one of his most evocative sound works to date, takes an oblique tangent to both paths. Released on the isolationist label Glacial Movements, Amarok participates in similar visual imagery as the rest of the label, with the beautiful abstract Bjarne Riesto photograph Flight gracing the cover. There's also a suggestive Inuit connection with the album's name, Amarok being a gigantic wolf in Inuit mythology. López provides no additional clues, no indication of his sound sources in the rather sparse notes, and no obvious sonic referents in the music. With a single track over an hour long, Amarok has a narrative quality that is unusual in López's longer work.

Amarok is dominated by three loud, complex sections that are separated by interludes with varying degrees of tranquility. The first mountain is exactly the sort of great cavernous crescendo I have come to expect from López. Periodic subsonic booms and percussive noise bursts introduce an ominous, murky tension soon after the beginning. A second long section builds further, with breathing sounds and a low rattle suggesting the titular giant wolf growling deep from the back of his throat. While López's trademark resonances fill the background, muffled voices and watery gurgling drift into a soft hum like the arctic wind. There's movement even here, oscillations in space, volume and timbre becoming very quiet, audible only on headphones, and eventually, not even there. The last of the three loud sections starts with an accretion of overtone drones, with circling winds, a deep tumbling, and noises that conjure images of ghost sailors on phantom ships sometimes audible through the fog. This very complex and glorious set of sounds launches into a final quiet drone section.

Anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary drone will have heard some of López's music. His pieces overtly based on field recordings seem to keep their popularity, perhaps because of the high level of activity inside the sounds or the inevitable challenge of picking out small details for identification games. He's also created unsourcable works, nearly featureless expanses constructed from white and pink noise generators sensitively filtered. characterized by the juxtaposition of extended monolithic sound blocks, without any obvious connection between them. Amarok is neither of these. With complex, thick sound masses that draw us to López in the first place, it also has substantial continuity and development, unified perhaps with some of the same sound objects used in the different sections. It has the kind of organic development that I hear in López' naturalist works, sonic fields alive with possibilities. And it has a balance between onslaught and silence that's essential in a long form, all of which make Amarok one of López's most significant works to date.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A different imagination

One of the reasons I was attracted to Cage's music at an early age is that he famously declared to have no feeling for harmony, a sentiment I recognize clearly in myself. A few years ago, I had a piano teacher who claimed that he could hear the tonal structures in big romantic symphonic works, a feat I find staggering. Despite many years of enthusiastic and studied involvement, I can't hear key changes or any of the other great harmonic movements that constitute nineteenth-century tonality as demonstrated by Schenker, Rosen, and numerous other well-respected musicologists. While this hasn't impaired my enjoyment of listening to music generally, I believe that my inability to hear the elements widely proclaimed to be the very essence of the music steered me to a music that didn't hold these values with as much importance.

Nicholas Cook starts his book Music, Imagination and Culture from the observation that the majority of listeners don't hear the formal structures of classical pieces, despite the near ubiquity of program notes and education that leads us in this direction. He spends considerable time providing evidence from ad hoc and formal academic psychological studies as well as his own experiences, many of which I lived as well. But rather than approach this discrepancy as a problem that needs to be solved, Cook finds that it is one of the defining attributes of musical culture.

Deep structure commentators often draw on language metaphors for music, divided into phrases and sentences, but the language comparison is rooted in production. Looking at reception, the comparison falls apart. The knowledge required to produce music is extremely complex, but generally irrelevant to the listening experience. Piano fingering is a superb examples of a detailed and deep musical competence that is completely unnecessary for a listener, completely essential for a pianist. More generally, the asymmetry between production and reception for music is "embodied in the very means by which musicians imagine sound as music" (85). An examples of non-musical imagination is the dreaded earworm, a piece of music that gets stuck in our head in an endless cycle of half-choruses and melodic fragments. Cook dissects these fairly well, showing that they aren't really complete pieces of music, just isolated fragments in a dream-like state. A musician has a whole other imagination portfolio, a multiplicity extending beyond simple technical matters and extending all the way to the deep structure so highly touted in theory and musical criticism.

At least within the context of western art music , the great stimulus for the musical imagination and the depositor of the deep structure is the score. But the surface details vary from one performer, or even from one performance, to the next. Every performance becomes an improvisation, a marked contrast from an electronic realization or a recording, which is the same every time. "A fluent performance means that the notational symbols are stripped off their burden of signification and then jettisoned" (129). This is especially true for chamber music, where the performers achieve a level of synchronicity that is absent from a complex orchestral composition, such as Stockhausen's Gruppen, where the individual performers have no innate sense of what role they play in the overall musical fabric.

The western art music culture tells us what's important, what to listen for, based from the musician's perspective, but doesn't account for the way people really listen to music. Cook calls the former 'musicological' listening ("whose purpose is the establishment of facts or the formulation of theories") to distinguish the 'musical' way, "listening to music for purposes of direct aesthetic gratification". Virtually all academic music psychology and perception research speaks to musicological listening, which we all do when we read a score along with a performance, or even listen to music in preparation for a review. Of a completely different order is the deep, immersive trance we get alone in our headphones. Although we engage in many types of listening, at best the musicological listening should enhance our musical listening, not substitute for it. This is why music appreciation classes don't have much success in teaching people to enjoy music. "To think that one can understand music in some abstract, symbolical sense that can be separated from such aesthetic participation is simply to misunderstand the whole nature of the enterprise" (186).

Placing the value of music on its abstract relationships as specified in the score does more than evade how people actually listen to music, it emphasizes notes, intervals and fancy chords as if they are more than notational conventions with no objective foundation in reality. Violinists and singers, unconstrained by the equal-tempered system, demonstrably diverge from the rigid tuning systems, simply based on what sounds right at the time. These unspecified intonational variations are what separate the good from the great, the mechanical from the human. The score is discarded, left behind as the music is created. The confusion arises between the rationalizations and the tools used for creation, and their inchoate effects, where the musical significance is found.

Music, Imagination and Culture is available from Amazon, as a paperback, for $74! Check your local university library instead. Thanks to the anonymous commenter way back when who recommended it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chopin and Cage

Much is being made of 2010 being Chopin's 200-year anniversary. I hope there's as much fuss in 2012 for John Cage's centenary.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An other mind

This past weekend, my wife and I flew to San Francisco, where we attended two of the three concerts from the 15th Other Minds festival. Focussing primarily on new chamber music, the concerts also featured electroacoustic composer Natasha Barrett and an ecstatic jazz performance by Kidd Jordan with William Parker and Warren Smith. But the majority of the pieces we heard maintained the composer/performer dichotomy that is one characteristic of classical music, and it was a real treat to hear recent works, all of which were new to me, performed at such a high caliber.

The opening work was Jürg Frey's second string quartet, performed by the Quatuor Bozzini. Frey is one of the Wandelweiser composers, a loose-knit group based in Germany whose aesthetic aligns with the quiet stillness often associated with Feldman and late Cage. This quartet, almost a half-hour long, is composed entirely from the gentlest possible bow strokes, each one around five seconds long, played without vibrato, as if the bow barely brushes the strings, and followed by a silence of almost equal length. All performers play together, so the piece is a series of very quiet chords. I've never heard such an extended tranquillity performed live before, and the performance was completely riveting. Some of the strokes seemed so quiet that a sense of pitch was missing, and they became more like breathing or whispering. Minute changes in register became major events, as were the slight glissandos introduced in the later sections of the piece. The violinists and violist performed standing, which is unusual in my experience, but I think it was probably quieter than if they had been sitting in possibly creaky chairs. The Quatuor Bozzini has recorded this piece, so I can look forward to hearing it again.

The second and third pieces were by Chou Wen-Chung, born in 1923 in China but a resident of the United States since 1946, and unfortunately unable to attend the festival due to health reasons. We heard one of his most recent works, a chamber piece for a double trio of winds and strings, Twilight Colors, and his only solo piano piece, The Willows Are New, from 1957. Twilight Colors, performed by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble and conducted by David Milnes, was very intimate, with relatively few tutti passages. Inspired by Chinese calligraphy, many of the gestures would start with one instrument and be completed by another, often the counterpart in the other trio in the same register. For example, a melodic gesture would start with the bass clarinet and be taken up by the cello, played in such a way that the timbres would merge. It was a very effective and beautiful piece. The Willows Are New, played by Eva-Maria Zimmermann, is also calligraphically inspired, with brushstroke movements across the entire range of the keyboard, especially in the deep bass. Chou's two pieces, although in a completely different tradition from Frey, were slow and tranquil, continuing the intimacy established in with Frey's quartet.

The closing work on the first night was Kafka Songs, composed by Lisa Bielawa and performed by Carla Kihlstedt on violin and voice. With words taken from Kafka's journals, Bielawa has composed a suite of seven pieces, and Kihlstedt's performance was quiet and dramatic, a powerful conclusion for the evening. Kihlstedt has recorded these pieces for Tzadik, and has also been a member of the experimental rock group Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and the chamber jazz group Tin Hat, all of which sounds like it would be worth checking out. Unfortunately, given that we had to hit the ground for a very early flight, I was so relaxed by the end of the concert that I didn't take any notes for a more cogent review.

The second evening was more extroverted, featuring two pieces by Natasha Barrett, spatially distributed through the auditorium on eight speakers placed on the stage and on the ceiling. The first was an excerpt from her longer work Trade Winds, a narrative piece centered around a Norwegian sailing vessel, and incorporating sea chanties and some spoken narrative from an interview with the retired captain of the ship. The second piece, Kernel Expansion, was a bewildering amalgamation of sounds and transformations, difficult to absorb on a single listening, but very much in line with the Montreal-based empreintes DIGITALes label which has released most of her solo work. Barrett was the primary attraction for me and this festival, as I had read about her work with spatialization and have a couple of her CDs. But frankly, even though I enjoyed the music, the spatialization was a little disappointing because of our seat placement, where one of the speakers was directly overhead and therefore a bit skewed aurally. I'm not sure how one might solve this problem.

Kidd Jordan played two pieces, but ecstatic jazz is one of my least appreciated art forms, and I couldn't hear any connection between the players. As a side note, my wife didn't like any of the second concert up to this point, as the electroacoustic sounds came suddenly out of nowhere, an effect that has never impressed her very much.

The final two pieces were by another composer new to me, Paweł Mykietyn from Poland. With Epiphora for piano and tape, and especially his String Quartet No. 2, the evening was salvaged. Epiphora, performed again by Eva-Marie Zimmermann, begins with the sound of a nuclear explosion ("very cheap in Russia," said Mykietyn during the panel discussion, hopefully tongue in cheek), out of which emerges the piano. A series of chords leads to passages where the live pianist plays with and against the recorded one, the origins of the sounds blurring into each other. The quartet, performed by the Del Sol String Quartet, was dazzling, constructed mostly from rhythmic hocketed harmonics, at times sounding less like a string quartet than a deranged ice cream truck. Both pieces were well worth another listen. Few recordings of Mykietyn's music are available, although Kronos has recorded this quartet on a DVD. Other Minds has made some of their previous festivals available for streaming; one can only hope that they do the same here. (UPDATE: they have: first, second and third evenings.)

The final concert had world premieres by Gyan Riley and Carla Kihlstedt (for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet) and two pieces by Tom Johnson. I was sorry to miss it, but I had an opportunity to chat with Johnson and bought a copy of his book, Self-Similar Melodies. I look forward to future festivals.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Brisk Five from Slow Six

There are a couple of ways I could introduce Tomorrow Becomes You, the third album by the Brooklyn-based quintet Slow Six. Christopher Tignor, who writes the music, is a software designer by training, and his instruments are both more and less than fancy GUIs, ways to transform live sound in a group context, instruments that require the same kind of practice as their acoustic counterparts. A video linked from their website shows Tignor transforming in realtime sounds from guitarist Stephen Griesgraber, performing a piece from Slow Six's previous album, Nor'easter. One could also point to Brooklyn's rich musical environment, where a loose-knit collective performs regularly in different configurations as Slow Six, Redhooker, Wires Under Tension, and hopefully many more interesting projects to come.

Alternatively, I could focus the genre-straddling aspects of the group. The musical press treated their earlier work as an unusual melding of classical and rock. John Diliberto, the host of the long-running Public Radio soundscape program Echoes, famously tagged them as "Arvo Pärt meeting King Crimson." I find this description a bit hyperbolical, and at best applicable to the group's first two albums of electronic chamber music. Listeners introduced to Slow Six through Tomorrow Becomes You may think that Pärt has been apprehended and exiled back to Siberia, primarily through the addition of percussionist Theo Metz, who completely changes the character of the music. While the earlier releases were predominantly atmospheric pieces for keyboards and strings, Metz's muscular beats propel this album full steam ahead into rock territory. As violinist, Tignor carries over the string leads from the previous incarnations, together with Ben Lively sharing violin performance and Stephen Griesgraber on guitar. Rob Collins plays Fender Rhodes, supplying harmonic underpinning and an additional lead voice as required.

The album's opening track, The Night You Left New York , starts with quiet repeated pizzicato notes on the violin, slowly bringing in a gentle accompaniment and a sketched countermelody on the guitar, rocking around a simple harmonic loop. This opening could have appeared on earlier Slow Six albums, but the distortion increases, and then the drums kick in for an instant upsurge of the energy levels. Twin violins and the electric guitar swirl around each other, melodic structures repeating, reminiscent of an imaginary minimalism, each note perfectly placed to create a whole larger than the sum of its parts, while the Rhodes provides the harmonic underpinning. The odd meter becomes more regular in the piece's final section, broadening out for an exhilarating conclusion.

The two-part Cloud Cover builds up by accretion as well, from a static melodic fragment over a hovering minor harmony, driven by Metz's solid rhythmic work. A twilight hush brings in the second part, a sustained drone with buried radio voices deepening into points of light from the Rhodes and slow, drifting melodies intertwining from the strings. The voices, harmonized by one of Tignor's software creations, carry over to Because Together We Resonate. Slowly the music settles into an antique hymn-like melody that conceals within itself odd metric accents, while the voices burble throughout.

Another two-part work, Sympathetic Response System, brings back Metz's driving pulse again, with skittering electronics forming the opening background. A repeated guitar lick drives the piece into a solid groove, the pizzicato violins pulsing like a vintage Tangerine Dream song updated with contemporary electronica. An occasional bridge played on guitar in part one becomes the foundation for part two, creating a joint figure with the Rhodes. Slowly the electronics give way to the twin violins, and eventually the full band, accelerating into another animated conclusion.

These Rivers Between Us closes the album with another piece like the opener, powerfully driven by looped melodic figures from the violins and guitar. After a strong opening section with full harmonies, the violins drop back to short pizzicato figures accompanied solely by the drums, a quiet rhythmic section full of tension for Griesgraber's eventual distorted guitar. The varied instrumental textures coalesce to a moving and exhilarating finale.

If the rhythmic drive and the violins recall the King Crimson of Larks' Tongues in Aspic, the interlocking instrumental textures have much more in common with post-rock groups like Explosions in the Sky or Mogwai. In the absence of a dedicated bass player, the low frequencies are handled by Collins' Rhodes as part of the harmonic resonance, which directs the listener's focus to the intertwining melodic lines. Griesgraber's guitar is more delicate, more blended and more collaborative than a typical rock lead. Nevertheless, this is high energy music with twisted interweaving melodies, irregular metric accents, and mysterious nocturnal atmospheres, a confident and strong album in a different and promising direction from their past triumphs.

Tomorrow Becomes You is released on Western Vinyl and is available on CD directly from them, as well as through most digital distributors. The album's superb final track, These Rivers Between Us, has a peculiar video on YouTube.