Monday, August 16, 2010

Bach Transcriptions at the BBC Proms

I've written before about the joys of Bach transcriptions, and one of the BBC Proms concerts this year programmed a delightful set of Andrew Litton conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, streaming for a few more days here. In addition to ever popular works like Respighi's version of the Passacaglia and Fugue, the program includes a suite by William Walton and new commissions from younger composers Alissa Firsova and Tarik O'Regan.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Expression from Raw Objects

Musique concrète is enjoying a resurgence from phonographers, taking to the sonic environment with portable recorders and excellent microphones and using the results to create a variety of unique sound works. My previous exposure to Vancouver sound artist Mathieu Ruhlmann has been through works where field recordings were part of the texture, but where long unbroken threads were more prominent. His previous release, for example, Tsukubai on the Mystery Sea sister label Unfathomless, is nearly all composed from sustained sounds with barely audible small sounds as if in the distance. On his new album, as a leaf or a stone, the drone becomes one voice among many and is often completely absent, and the small sounds are sharp and crisp. But where Tsukubai started life as hydrophones and water, Leaf's sonic sources are a disparate collection of field recordings, obscure instruments like the ukelin and the shruti box, and household objects such as a turkey baster or a coffee grinder.

Since the drone's role in the sound world becomes supportive rather than assertive, the myriad other sounds can be heard. It also means that Ruhlmann is able to create more narrative structures, with the different layers participating with occasional silence as much as with their audible contributions and with changes in sonic scenery occurring more quickly than in drone or dark ambient works. The busy layers, short and sharp sounds, cluster into scrapes and rustles. Sustained layers can hover quietly in the background or rumble through like passing trucks. Voices drift through on a couple of pieces, drawing the listener further in. Some sounds recur in more than one piece, like a plot thread weaving through the album as a whole. Ruhlmann has done an excellent job at keeping all of the objects separate in the sound field, each crackle and rustle clear and distinct.

Musique concrète theorists debate whether a sound object should display the worldly baggage of its origins or should be sufficient unto itself. Ruhlmann lists the sound sources for each individual piece on the inside cover of the album, thus enabling the listener to grapple with the dilemma on his and her own. I find a curiosity about the sounds when I listen, satisfied by these credits, but being able to assign an origination label doesn't illuminate, merely permits the aural attention to refocus on other perspectives. Each of these six vignettes, ranging from four to seven and a half minutes, is a separate journey, sharing a microscopic level of amplified detail and a wonder at the hidden glories around us. Many field recording artists use processing to obscure the details, but there is so much detail here that I suspect that Leaf's sources are fairly raw, with judicious editing for each layer rather than processing the sounds beyond any recognition, an impression solidified with the epigraph from French poet Francis Ponge praising "expression on behalf of the raw object (with no a priori concern about the form of that expression)."

As a leaf or a stone is a limited edition available directly from Afe Records.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Two more at

I have two reviews in the August 2010 issue of a collaborative soundtrack between Per Boysen and Erdem Helvacioğlu, and a new music lounge jazz trio, the Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Drone Classics — Weather Sky

While virtually all of the albums in my occasional drone classics series have been painstakingly composed over an extended period of time, it is of course not uncommon for artists to perform and compose drones on the fly. One strand of drone performance stems in part from the live electronics work from the 1960s: Cage and Tudor, Stockhausen, and collectives like AMM. Keith Rowe, tabletop guitarist of AMM until 2004, since the late 1990s has found a different set of musical collaborators playing a style of music known as EAI. Groups with stable memberships are rare in this circle, but Rowe has dueted with Toshimaru Nakamura on four different albums since their first pairing on 2001's Weather Sky.

Nakamura plays an instrument of his own invention called the no-input mixing board, where no external sound source is connected to the inputs of the board. This is not to say that there aren't various effects connected to the outputs, but its basic vocabulary is carefully modulated feedback. It meshes well with an instrument of Rowe's invention, the tabletop guitar. Descended from the electric guitar and still capable of producing notes that remind the listener of its ancestry, it spills across the table with acoustic and electronic preparations, plectrums, and even other sound producing devices. Each of them independently developed an aesthetic of stillness and an acceptance of accidental sounds that has found different manifestations over the last fifteen years or so.

Weather Sky was recorded on June 11, 2001, at a theater in central France, two long tracks framing a short one in the middle. Each of the three eponymous pieces (Weather Sky #1, #2 and #3) is anchored by a steady drone. Unlike many drone works, the steady tone emphasizes high frequencies and both acts like a canvas for other textural events often composed from tiny fragments of sound spinning an elaborate sonic pirouette, and as a magnet for surrounding high frequency noise generated by Rowe's shortwave radio. #1 tops out at forty minutes, but is held together through the occasional appearance of an abrasive squawk that pierces its way through the layers of atmosphere. Rowe seems to aim his shortwave for static textures based on the infrequent appearance of recognizable sound objects, but sometimes this piece seems like a meditation on the various sections of Stockhausen's Hymnen with the exploration of shortwave textures and the squawks that seem so otherwise out of place. #1 builds from a quiet beginning through a couple of significant texture changes, culminating for the last third in a brighter, louder texture, strident and absorbing. It ends with suggestions of feedback leading suddenly to a nocturnal, flickering above distant shortwaves.

#2 is only five minutes long and begins abruptly, an excerpt from a longer improvisation that has clearly had time to gather steam. It opens with a much thicker sound than anything in #1, a climactic moment and its aftermath as the alarms lose energy, replaced by static, out of which emerges various cross-rhythmic clicks, metronomic dance music hiding in the fog.

The final piece starts with as beautiful a textured drone as one is likely to find. Its surface placidity and subaquatic activity bring to mind a pond in an urban park, where the distant industrial rumbles make themselves more felt than heard. Set in this shimmering wash is a dazzling timbral melody that moves from pulses to percussion, splitting frequencies in fractalized gestures. As with the other two pieces, a constant drone runs through the whole piece, merging sometimes with overtones from ominous low drones like circling airplanes as the texture thickens with deep growling bass noises. Shortwaves return toward the end, forming a background for spattering clicks in the rhythm of the beginning of a rainstorm. A stroke of temple bells and the texture immediately thins to a series of monolithic static pulses.

Weather Sky is a formative moment in what Rowe's biographer-in-progress Brian Olewnick called "the drone-oriented work he was prone to in the first half of this decade." Indeed, I hear an underlying entropy in some of Rowe's music, as it tends towards a turbulent chaos, with raw gestures mingling with electronic murk. But his drones, composed of shortwaves and static, shimmer, suggesting mysteries lying behind. Their second studio album together, 2005's Between, includes an exquisite and seamless interplay of overtones in the track Amann that closes the two-disc set. All of Rowe and Nakamura's duo work, which also includes live sets from 2002 and 2008, is released on Erstwhile and is still in print, available directly from there as well as from most of the usual suspects.