Tuesday, May 3, 2011


With the recent posting of my review of Beautiful Ghost Wave, this blog will be on hiatus for an undetermined while due to other commitments. By the same token, I will no longer be able to accept promotional releases for review at Classical-Drone. I hope to continue writing for furthernoise.org, which recently posted my review of Netherworld's Glacial Movements release, Over The Summit.

Without proper review, let me signal a couple of online releases that have caught my ear. Dave Seidel sent me a link for his releases as mysterybear, all concerned with acoustical phenomena and microtonality. I already had his release Elementals in regular rotation, and I can also recommend Complex Silence 12, both sets of shimmering binaural microtonal drones.

Similarly, David Mekler wrote me about his folding drones, designed for deep meditation and introspection, released as the three-part Realignment Series. Your meditational mileage may vary — typical new age melodic massage music is more like Bambi to the folding drones Godzilla. I've only heard the first set so far, which gaze into the void and greet the ineffable with an amorphous roar.

I had also meant to comment on the passing of Lucette Bourdin, a composer of serene late night ambient music. Many of her works are freely available at her site and on various other netlabels. Some of her Earth Mantra releases, including Timeless Shore and Silver Moon, are in our regular somnolent rotation.

The list is too short for all the sounds worth pursuing, but that's all for this moment. I expect to resume later this summer.

UPDATE (November 2, 2011): Closed for somewhat longer duration. I have amicably parted ways with furthernoise.org, so at this time there is no new music writing. I'm closing comments at this point as well. Many thanks for all the great music.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ghost Noise

Goh Lee Kwang, who runs the Herbal International label, contacted me earlier this year with an invitation to review Jason Kahn's recent CD Beautiful Ghost Wave. I have a few CDs with Kahn creating fairly static textural improvisations using percussion and electronics with like-minded musicians Jason Lescalleet and Toshimaru Nakamura. My only prior exposure to his solo work is the opus for sine waves and room overtones, Miramar, another slow moving piece. Two realizations of his graphic piece, Timelines, are posted at his site, chamber electronics exploring slow textural changes. So I was unprepared for the ever-changing stream of static and analogue electronic noise that forms the building blocks of this work.

Chaotic roaring sounds, squalls of feedback, short waves and short circuits populate an ever shifting soundscape, never settling on one sound for very long. After a fairly chaotic opening, most of the transitions in the first third of the piece are in layers, where textures separate into component parts that fade in and out. When sudden transitions occur, it's almost always to drop out most of the noise, leaving some kind of quiet pixellation or simply a single tone without any background. Even amidst the roar, I found a delicacy in the sounds that is absent from a lot of noise music I've heard, overtones and activity inside the sounds, harder-edged rustles, even semi-melodic feedback.

Periodically Kahn makes audible movement around the space, footsteps and other ambient room noise. Even the opening gesture, an immediate attention grabber, includes a clatter that sounds like Kahn manipulating some strange tabletop bed of electronics. So I followed the suggestion, combined with his experience in improv, that this was in large part a recording of a live event (some transitions are too sudden and dry to be live). For the duration of the 37-minute piece, the pacing seems spontaneous, as the transitions lead into sound fields where he settles for a while, making micro adjustments, simultaneously crisp and indistinct.

Kahn generously provides liner notes for the piece on one of the CD's inside panels and at Herbal International, a welcome change from so much content-free packaging. My review practice generally dictates that I set such text aside until after several listens, so I was very surprised to read that the basic material for the piece was recorded over a year and then composed from sound files on the computer. He also mentions his deliberate dramaturgical intent, creating a sense of expansion and contraction as well as a feeling of open systems, where the music doesn't resolve but could continue well past the end of this particular physical manifestation. Indeed, the Wire magazine has posted a live version of the piece recorded early in 2011. Whether this tendency toward narrative is an anomaly in Kahn's output, or a signal of a new direction, it's a refreshing, bracing, and impressive composition.

A Beautiful Ghost Wave is available on CD directly from Herbal International as well as Erstdist.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ghostly Context

Compilation albums are intentionally a mixed bag, sometimes nothing more than a couple of big names strewn among introductory artists for a quick attraction to a new label. At their best, they contribute a complex and multivariant perspective on a pre-defined theme and become more than the aggregate of their individual tracks. Ghostly International, a "record label and art company" based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been releasing compilations in its SMM series since 2004, and its latest installment is a double LP SMM: Context. Like its near namesake AMM, SMM has no published meaning, and Ghostly uses the series for "gentle, texture-focused instrumental music." And unlike most comps, the majority of SMM: Context's contributors are established artists that should attract the notice of contemporary post-classical ambienteers.

The first side of the LP set opens with a short track from Goldmund, delicate arpeggios played on harp and piano with quiet added resonance. Leyland Kirby peeks out from his current low profile with a lovely nylon-string guitar melody run through some echo patches and accompanied by his trademark warbling ambience. Svarte Greiner closes the side with a little sense of menace on Halves, melodic fragments in a high range combined with dark string ensemble pads in the bass. His backgrounds get a little noisy, like feedback or bowed metal, or a series of quick ripples, abrasive reflections with cinematic suggestions. The only new name in the collection is Christina Vantzou, whose track 11 Generations Of My Fathers opens side B. Vantzou has worked extensively in video and toured with Adam Wiltzie for the Dead Texan, but this is her first track released under her own name, a poignant song where piano and field recordings open up distant recollections. And I've written before about Michał Jacaszek, who contributes the beautiful track Elegia that starts with a simple piano melody and slowly layers field recordings, voices, strings and effects into a startlingly full sound. The side concludes with Cornelia Amygdaloid from The Fun Years, whose loops and muted, detuned power chords are buried under an avalanche of vinyl static, the closest track to glitch in the collection.

Side C has two layered drone pieces, the first one, the tranquil Three Parts by Danish producer Manual, shifts through extended breathy tones that merge into each other. Then Aidan Baker layers his processed electric guitar, building through a two-note oscillation in Substantiated, a track that spends its last half in dissipation as the melodic fragments fade into dust. Rafael Anton Irisarri opens side D with Moments Descend On My Windowpane, a cozy acoustic piano song accompanied by gentle drones and tiny crackles. The calm continues with Kyle Bobby Dunn's peaceful harmonies on Runge's Last Stand, whose long phrases take off from the same motif but unwind through several melodic and harmonic variations, like gusts of wind across a pond. The set closes with Peter Broderick's melancholy Pause, perhaps based on a steel-string acoustic guitar performance, with overdubs on electric, and very much in keeping with the rest of the side.

SMM: Context is available directly from Ghostly, either as a limited LP, CD or download at 320 kbps. It's also on iTunes with a different track order. Finally, a DJ named felte has created a mix podcast from the album, freely available.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Cunningham Legacy Tour

Saturday night, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company's Legacy Tour came through Tucson with an evening of three dances spanning nearly fifty Cunningham's creative choreography. Let me state at the outset that I don't follow contemporary dance with anywhere near the avidity with which I approach music, so I don't have the vocabulary or experience to say much technically about the dances. My primary interest was that Cunningham was Cage's life partner, and Cage was the company's first Musical Director, and remained a Musical Advisor to Cunningham's troupe from its inception until his death in 1992. Seeing the dance, however, opened up a whole side of Cage that I had never seen before. I was completely entranced and exhilirated by the three dances that the group performed last night, and I feel very fortunate to have attended this glorious performance.

The opener was 2007's XOVER (pronounced 'Crossover'), one of Cunningham's last creations, set to the only Cage music we heard all evening. From the orchestra pit, John King, Takehisa Kosugi, and Jesse Stiles each performed a version of Fontana Mix on electronics. From stage left, Aurora Josephson performed her realization of Aria. Unfortunately I couldn't see what the electronics performers were doing, but Josephson was amazing, snatches of recitation in English, French, and Italian, bird calls, gargling, and who knows what else. I thought I heard Kosugi's violin in the mix, and several times orchestral and other recordings emerged from what was generally the same types of electronic noise that we hear on old Cage and Tudor recordings from the period. Sometimes the percussive attacks were quite loud, and sometimes I thought I heard some kind of tuned percussion instrument with a contact mic. The dancers were all dressed in white, and the background was a huge painting by Robert Rauschenberg, sort of geometric red rectangles with some fairly detailed sections, largely on a white background and a brightly lit stage. The choreography centered around two couples, whose actions were sometimes nearly identical to each other, and sometimes wildly divergent. And they would break off into solos, or add several other dancers (there are a total of eleven dancers for this piece) into little set pieces. I was quite taken with the interplay between the music and the dance, which often were seemingly at odds with each other.

The second work was the earliest, Crises from 1960 with music from seven of Conlon Nancarrow's rhythm studies for player piano. Only five dancers here, dressed in red and orange against a black stage in another Rauschenberg design, and I continued to find the motions completely engrossing. Narrative dance pieces have never appealed to me, but these fluid movements seemed as little vignettes out of a continuous stream.

The sole work in the second half was BIPED, a 45-minute piece from 1999 with music by Gavin Bryars. The stage, like for Crises, is dark, but it looks like narrow beams of light ascend from floor to ceiling, not only in the back of the stage, but up front too. Then the ones in front fade in and out, and as the first few minutes pass by, the light on half the stage looks a little odd, then the columns in front start to move. It turns out there's a transparent screen at the front of the stage, and as the piece progresses, the projections become more elaborate. At first, the columns break off into lines, which in turn form colored geometric patterns. But then there are dancers, their bodies visible from outlines, like skeletons made from flames of light. Cunningham collaborated with Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar to create an animation technology that captured the dancers' movements, but not their physical appearance. And there are up to thirteen dancers on stage too, dressed in very strange shiny costumes that looked like some kind of plastic. At one point, some of the dancers donned opaque cloaks, which blurred their figures even more Bryars' music, for violin (Kosugi), cello (Loren Dempster) and electric guitar (King) was a full string sound, by far the most traditional music of the evening. I was surprised to see that there were only the three musicians for how orchestral they sounded. Bryars' description of the piece suggests that the other instruments I heard were pre-recorded.

The combination of the newest dance with 1960s-style electronic music which opened the concert may have disoriented my sense of chronology, but I could not detect any difference in Cunningham's choreography between the early and late works, the way Cage's music was completely different between the early live electronic music and the number pieces he composed in his last years. No doubt I was receptive to the dance because of Cunningham's place in contemporary music. There was certainly a spectacle quality, especially in BIPED with so much simultaneous activity. Perhaps I enjoyed it more than other modern dance companies because of the live performances of the music I enjoy. In any case, the performances touched the mysterious transcendance of the observer in mute wonder, a performance that I will always remember. The Cunningham Legacy Tour continues the rest of the year, in the US and abroad, and the group will disband after a New Year's Eve performance this year in New York. Complete details are available at the Merce Cunningham web site, and I cannot recommend it too highly.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sweet Cello

My latest side trip into the world of J. S. Bach is a paperback I picked up on a whim at our local indie bookshop: The Cello Suites by Canadian journalist Eric Siblin. I was previously unfamiliar with these suites except from guitar or lute transcriptions. Emusic has an excellent recording by Pierre Fournier on DGG Archiv for a decent price, so I availed myself of the opportunity. A wise move, because both book and music are excellent.

Siblin first encountered the cello suites at a recital selected by chance during the unwinding of a pop music critic stint at the Montreal Gazette. The program notes mentioned that no original manuscript of the suites has been located, and Siblin's journalistic interest was piqued. Nine years later, Siblin published his book, a parallel biography of Bach and Pablo Casals, the cellist who introduced the suites to the world. Bach wrote six cello suites, so Siblin divided his book into six parts, one for each suite. The suites each have six movements, following a standard sequence, starting with a Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and concluding with a Gigue. The fifth movement varies between Minuet, Bourrée, or Gavotte. Siblin also subdivided each chapter into the suites' six movements, three for Bach, two for Casals, and reserving the ultimate gigue for the story of his quest.

Siblin shifts perspective in the Bach chapters so that the cello suites are never far from view even as his attention wanders over a wide range of topics, from biography of Bach and his descendants to reception history. Scholars place their genesis during Bach's tenure at Köthen, where he wrote much of his virtuoso keyboard and secular music. So Siblin has a chapter on the political forces that had caused excellent musicians to migrate to Köthen from Berlin, an example of a historical context that Siblin deploys throughout the book. A Near Eastern flourish in the prelude to the fourth suite leads to a digression on whether Bach might have ever heard Jewish music. Each chapter has an entertaining or illuminating anecdote, and together they give a multi-dimensional perspective on these suites.

The Casals chapters of necessity covered world history since Casals was an outspoken peace activist after the experience of WWII and the Spanish Civil War. He discovered the suites while he was foraging used sheet music stores in Barcelona when he was thirteen, and they became a lifelong trademark work. He made his first recording of the suites in 1936 while in exile to England, when the Battle of Madrid was raging. After the war, he refused to play in countries that supported, or even recognized, Franco, including the United States. He broke his vow only in 1958, when he performed in Manhattan as part of a United Nations concert, alarmed by the threat of nuclear war.

The personal reflections in the gigue chapters gave the book a depth of character that went beyond the biographies (and in Bach's case, informed speculation) of the two musical giants. Siblin learned a prelude on guitar, joined a community choir to sing a cantata, and even took a couple of cello lessons, all to get a deeper appreciation for Bach's music. His drive, coupled with the dual biographies, propelled the book forward, made me eager to read another chapter. Siblin's background in journalism informed his writing and made the book easier to read. Between his writing style and the short chapters, The Cello Suites is an entertaining read that I could read late at night when a scholarly book would have required too much concentration.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Electroacoustics from Iceland

One of the joys of reviewing is the unexpected, the music that I never would have found, except for the promotional copy that arrives in my inbox. Such a case is a young Icelandic electroacoustician, Bjarni Gunnarsson, whose first solo album, Safn 2006-2009, was released last year on the Belgian microlabel Lamadameaveclechien (the lady with the dog, in French). Gunnarsson is a member of the duo Einóma, who has a parallel release on Lamadameaveclechien, a 12-inch EP beatfest, Tvenna. He comes to music from a strong academic background in computer science, with some time spent at CCMIX in Paris studying with Gerard Pape and Trevor Wishart. He is also a masters student at the Institute of Sonology studying "Connective Compositional Environments," a method of working on several structural levels simultaneously.

Here's how Gunnarsson describes his research:
The central question for my research is how to define musical processes as operational objects, how these objects can interact in a network of objects and how this can create a flexible and adaptable composition environment. Each object would respond to well defined high-level methods and general parameters making the non-linear transition between time scales possible. The composer is here an important component of the network and guiding its behavior.

I didn't find this description until after hearing the music several times, but it's completely apt for the album. It's almost like Pierre Schaeffer's sound objects woke up and started walking around. I found myself selecting certain sounds as characters in the drama that unfolds over the course of the album. In particular, several tracks feature a stick percussion sound, something like a tom-tom or a taiko drum. It signals sectional changes in Aftur; steps out for an expressive, virtuosic closing to Blindi; initiates various sound events in Udrun and Dried Up; drives Time Out forward with a ghostly drum'n'bass. The interaction between the drum and various electronics opening Dried Up would bring to mind a human interaction, except that the skittering electronics sound so alien that I could not imagine any kind of instrumental origin.

The artist's brief statement on the label web site says that "the sound material varies from voices, violins and percussive sounds," so perhaps voices take on a character role as well. They are most prominent on Blindi, where a wordless female choir provides some of the most ethereal drones on the album before they are buried under the effects and lost in white noise. But this is the only track where voices are identifiable as such (except for a brief whisper in Dried Up). But another character is almost a process more than a sound, the transition from pitch to pulses made famous in Stockhausen's Kontakte. Gunnarsson uses this sonic splintering to great effect on several pieces, peeling elements from the drone in layers, possessing them to melodic dissipation, as new sounds emerge to replace them.

If voices, violins and percussive sounds are the source for all of the sounds on the album, the timbral variation is even more astounding. I suspect that he uses original designed sounds as well. The music reminds me also of Parmegiani, specifically in the way both artists create percussive sound objects and exploring their resonance. In any event, the album has seven tracks, all in the six-eight minute range. The artist sent me a download, but the CD is available in two limited editions, by itself, or with a different cover packaged with the Einóma EP. As far as I can tell, it's available only from the label, which also has a couple of streaming clips. It deserves a wider distribution, and fans of new electroacoustic music should definitely check it out.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Musique Concrète for the Eyes

It's been a while since I last reported on the gems I've found inside Netflix that travel the same waters as yours truly. And I've found a nice one, My Cinema For The Ears, directed by Uli Aumüller and featuring mostly Francis Dhomont and a bit with Paul Lansky. The film's continuity and direction come from watching Dhomont work on a piece entitled Another Spring, which was released in 2003 on Dhomont's album Jalons.

Another Spring takes off from the Spring concerto of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. Each concerto in Vivaldi's set has an accompanying sonnet printed in the score, sometimes as a suggestion to the performer, sometimes a propos of nothing in particular. Dhomont parses the Spring sonnet for all the references to things that make noise, then he captures the various sounds and uses them in his composition. One of the sounds that Aumüller follows is the "barking dog" allusion over the viola section in the score at the beginning of the second movement. So we follow Dhomont into the field, literally, where he captures a shepherd dog's bark, and back into his studio, where he blends the bark with the viola strokes in a commercial recording. After the Lansky interlude (where one segment is filmed with a doggie-cam), Dhomont has to persuade violist Jean René to create a savage sound, closer to nature. He uses the dog montage we're following, and Dhomont of course adds René's viola to become part of Another Spring as well. The last section of the film is an animation video by Robert Darroll with the completed piece as the soundtrack.

Around this skeletal continuity, we have a couple of extended conversations about composing, about using environmental sounds, which sounds are interesting or not, etc. These segments provide a conceptual framework perhaps for the uninitiated, and the two interlocutors, Christian Calon and Lansky, each bring their own perspectives.

The glory of the film, though, is the editing and more abstract sections set to works by Dhomont and Lansky. Parts of it recall Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisquatsi, especially during Aumüller's urban montages. But the nature segments are vivid and abstract, using field recordings to retain the referent for the viewer or creating parallel transformations with the music. There are a couple of extended sections without dialogue where Aumüller gets very creative. The Princeton segment with Lansky and Dhomont having coffee is a virtuoso editing job, talking heads interspersed with clinking spoons and soundtracked with Lansky's Table's Clear, which was created with exactly these kinds of sounds.

It turns out My Cinema for the Ears was released on Bridge Records and is still in print. One piece by Dhomont (En Cuerdas for guitar and tape, not Another Spring) and three by Lansky are included on an audio-only page, all four pieces in stereo and all four available on other albums.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sounds of Venice Continued

Enrico Coniglio first came to my attention in his collaboration with one of my favorite drone ambienteers, Oöphoi (whose work deserves a couple of articles here, but another time&hellip). He has been kind enough to keep me apprised of his work, and some time ago I received a couple of packages of CDs from him containing releases from different projects. Coniglio has deep roots in Venice, and he continues to project a strong sense of place through field recordings and album imagery. But through his work I have discovered a larger collection of ambienteers from Italy, a sense of place that comes from the community of musicians.

His release Sea Cathedrals on Silentes (an affiliate of the classic Italian ambient label Amplexus) is a collection of five drone works, ranging in duration from six minutes to twenty. His collaborators include his cover photographer Manuel P. Cecchinato playing crystals, singing bowls, and a custom-made analog synth with Paul Klee's Archangel drawing engraved on copper as its touchplate; Massimo Liverani on guitars, loops and treatments; and Manuela Bruschini singing wordlessly on the title track. The two tracks featuring Liverani's loops are the two shortest on the album, set in the middle between longer, more atmospheric works. On Till, a muffled phrase repeats with added resonance developing into little melodic fragments that gradually supplant the loop's original focus. Similarly, on The Lost Cargo, the resonance from a single crystal stroke slowly takes on a life of its own as overtone whistles trail into flute sounds. Coniglio's drones and field recordings provide a gauzy curtain around the loops and extend the album's continuity to the longer soundscapes.

The twenty-minute title track, which opens the album, combines isolated chords in a synth drone with single percussive strokes and processed (or perhaps electronic) seagulls. The drifting harmonies and languid pace that encircle monumental blocks of sound recall Debussy's sunken cathedral, a century-old parallel evocation of underwater temples. Sandbanks combines distant wavering microtonal clusters and processed crickets into a rich buzzing, propelled by arhythmic techno-style blips and a whistling reminiscent of the bird calls from the title track. Sylos, the album's closer, is another long stretch of murmuring drones punctuated with deep crashing events and layered with the album's most recognizable field recordings. Single bell strokes, like temple bells, introduce sections with cavernous voices, reverberating in a public space like a train station. Spacious and unassuming yet filled with tiny details, Sea Cathedrals is a release in the classic ambient framework, honoring varying levels of attention.

If Sea Cathedrals is Coniglio's pure ambient release, on the second volume of his Topofonie project, Salicornie, he indulges his romantic and melodic side. An extended paean to Venice released on the Irish label Psychonavigation, Salicornie is framed by the gorgeous title track, which begins with a gentle Debussy chords rocking back and forth, then features the breathy trumpet of Arve Henriksen, cello by Patrik Monticelli. The rhythm picks up, sounds familiar, and like a sudden parting of the curtain everything is accompanied by orchestral samples from Ravel's Bolero. This song could fit comfortably on softer mainstream instrumental radio. But the theme disintegrates back into hazy, languid echoes of Gershwin, which in turn become the background for a stroll around the Piazza San Marco, with tourists, strolling musicians, church bells. This in turn fades into "disintegration loops" from Nigel Samways, a blurry conclusion to the first four tracks. The theme from Salicornie later appears in an interlude led by Monticelli, and at the end with a full group calm and melancholic reprise.

The melodicism continues across the entire album, from the wistful chords on Alpen Tower pt. 2 (a continuation of a song from the first volume) as well as The Girl From Murania, a beautiful standalone piece which features Henriksen and Monticelli alongside of Coniglio's bent-note guitars and gentle percussive beats. This track, like the main theme, could easily be a strong candidate for radio play. But the field recordings aren't buried in the mix, as they are on Sea Cathedrals, they're prominently displayed. Fondamente Nova incl. 130 cm s.l.m. includes creaking wood and ropes from a sailing vessel that could fetch an unsuspecting, lulled listener back from the brink of slumber. Often the phonography is subordinate to the music, yet still communicating strongly a sense of place, as when the sustained, melodic synths of Bateon dei morti float on layers of water and sea birds. The combination of field recordings, ambient layers and romantic melodicism make Salicornie considerably more dramatic and conceptual than Sea Cathedrals, a more structured and post-classical side of Coniglio's music.

Besides performing and composing, Coniglio is also a curator of a collection of ambient tracks from various Italian musicians on the theme of Underwater Noises. Aside from Coniglio, most of the names are new to me, although I reviewed an album by Obsil for furthernoise.org a few months ago. There is a nice variety across the compilation, from Ennio Mazzon's dreamy rain-soaked drones to Cop Killin Beat's glitchy atmospherics and submerged loops. I liked Paolo Veneziani's Inside the Edge, where a thin melodic thread traverses a cavern of watery drips and rustling percussives. Obsil's sudden transitions between field recordings, squiggly electronics and poignant piano loops stands out from the sustained drones featured prominently on several tracks. Everyone's taste will determine which tracks will be the favorites, but I found the entire compilation very listenable throughout. Underwater Noises is a joint release between the Lost Children netlabel and Ephre Imprint, where it is available as a limited edition CD-R. My only complaint about the comp, a minor one, is that none of the web sites have links to the artists, which defeats one of the purposes of the collection.

To close this survey of Enrico Coniglio's recent work, let me also mention a composition of raw field recordings he recently made available on the Portuguese media label Crónica. Recorded with binaural microphones in one of Venice's Basilicas on a typical feast day, it combines random group noise, prayers and organ music as Coniglio wandered the crowd. The twenty-minute composition, in three parts, is available here as part of Crónica's podcast series. Check out some of the other pieces while you're there.

Sea Cathedrals is available directly from Silentes. Salicornie is more widely distributed as a CD and is also available as a download from all the usual suspects.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

February Furthernoise

The February issue of furthernoise.org is out, where I have two reviews: Chance Reconstruction by M. Ostermeier, a post-classical artist creating unusual work with piano and electronics; and the first volume of some nice droney Soundscapes from Edward Rizo. More info and links to the artists, plus other reviews and a new compilation of exclusive live tracks, at furthernoise.org.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Long Surround Migration

This week I completed a long-held goal for my studio, which was to enable surround sound listening. The path to this goal was unfortunately fraught with a couple of hidden perils, compounded by my piecemeal upgrade to various home audio installations of differing manufacturers and capabilities. I document them here as a cautionary tale.

The first piece of equipment was a Sony Multi-Channel Receiver, the STR-DG910, ready for 7.1 output, nicely equipped, I thought at the time. I installed this in my new studio when we first moved here in 2006, already contemplating surround sound for audio. Then, a year later, the CD player in our living room died, approximately three days after the warranty expired. Labels like Montreal's Empreintes Digitales were starting to release DVD Audio albums, and many classical labels use Super Audio CD. As it happens, Marantz makes a universal player, the DV7001, which would handle both. So I bought one of them and transferred my existing five-CD changer to replace the dead one.

Now, we've seen competing standards over the years — beta vs. VHS for example. Here's another one: DVD Audio vs. SACD. The original SACD specs (which I understand have been modified in a later version) prohibited the digital transfer of raw audio information, which led Marantz to engineeer their player to send the audio information on analog outputs, one for each channel plus one for the subwoofer. For whatever reason, Sony expected multichannel input on the HDMI or digital coax. Although the Marantz had these outputs, to quote their manual, "All DVD-Audio and all Super Audio CD audio are output only through the analog outputs" (my emphasis). So, several hundred dollars and much gnashing of teeth and various bulletin board inquiries later, still only stereo capability. I picked up a couple of discs in each format as test cases. I was pleased to find that Empreintes Digitales puts 320kbps mp3s in data partitions on their DVD-A discs, so I listened to them on the computer and the iPod.

Life goes on. In Arizona, the summer heat withers any wood on the outside of a house, window frames for example. Our house, about ten years old when we bought it, has two windows on the west face, and no amount of stain, or later paint, would hold for more than a season, and the wooden window frames were falling apart. So we decided to replace them. One of them is in a bedroom that we use for our TV, so we decided to remodel the whole theater room, upgrade the old 27-inch tube to a flat screen LED, complete with surround sound. Earmarks are a wonderful thing, it turns out, as a Marantz SR5005 Receiver and an extra set of surround speakers found their way into the budget, targeted for my studio, while the new theater took the Sony. We got everything at Best Buy and hired the Geek Squad to install it, including attaching the TV and Blu-Ray players to the internet for streaming Netflix. So the Geek Squad installed my surround system as well. All hooked up, ready to test, toss on the DVD-A for Jóhann Jóhannsson's beautiful piece for ensemble Virthulegu Forsetar, lots of brass and electronics, easy on the ears for the uninitiated. Gorgeous! Magnifique! Glorious Surround Sound! Then Stockhausen's Stimmung on SACD. Hit a few buttons on the remote, then it works! Check! Thanks guys, very happy, bye bye! Now get out so I can put on Robert Normandeau!

And here was gotcha number two. No matter what I tried, Robert Normandeau's DVD-A Puzzles would only play in stereo, front left and right only. Despondency. Long day, try again tomorrow. The next day, I called Marantz tech support. Sorry, if it plays anything in surround sound, the problem's in the DVD. Okay, I have another ED DVD-A, Pete Stollery's Un son peut en cacher un autre. Stereo. WTF? Well, let's look at the Normandeau in the computer — and up comes a menu and the DVD Player application. Hmmm. I have a home audio system, a receiver, a SACD/DVD player, and AirTunes to play iTunes. What's missing? Video. Indeed. Confirmed with a little portable TV. Now that I could see what I was doing, it was easy to find my way to Normandeau's multichannel output. Joy in Mudville! On to the Stollery! Stereo. But the menu's different, and as it turns out, there isn't surround sound on the Stollery disc, just a higher bitrate stereo. And Empreintes Digitales does provide this information on their site, in the DVD Audio spec box on the right hand side of the album detail page. I just never paid attention before. But the upshot is, either I attach a cheap, small TV monitor, or learn the magic set of key sequences on the remote to navigate through the menus. I don't think it ever occurred to designers of DVD-A discs that there wouldn't be a video capability on the target systems.

All ends extremely well, though, largely because all of my regular CDs play through the surround speakers. This is especially good, otherwise all this expense would benefit less than a tenth of a percent of my CDs. And their share has been diminishing in the overall music collection because of all the downloads. But to hear them through the surround speakers is truly amazing, it fills the room with sound in a way I've never heard before. But barring exploration of further system settings, it's only for music from the Marantz player, which means that the quality of sound for music from my computer is greatly diminished in comparison. I look forward to hearing so many of my CDs again with the enhanced sound, and I can already see that it will change my listening pattern back to favoring the CDs, saving the digital audio for other occasions that favor portability and availability over sound quality.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Capitalism ruined the Beatles

Somewhere over the holidays I saw a notable-2010 book list that included Peter Doggett's account of the Beatles after their breakup, You Never Give Me Your Money. Not a bad read, but be forewarned that there is little discussion of music in the book. The solo post-Beatles albums show up as milestones in the unending legal battles that consumed the group starting in the late 1960s, while they were still releasing group albums. Even as late as 2009, with two of their members deceased and four decades after the band's demise, their label EMI and Apple Computer each paid dozens of lawyers to squabble about the percentages they would get from the remastered recordings on iTunes.

The primary reason to mention the book here is to note the stark contrast during the 1970s between the Beatles and their armies of litigators and Cornelius Cardew's hard line Marxism which he practiced during the same period. Cardew, of course, was only too aware of the conditions facing workers during the miner's strike in the mid-1970s as well as the winter of discontent later in the decade. Neither of these events fazed the Beatles, living by this time in isolated opulence. One could not find a better example of the forces against which Cardew struggled than the sad disarray, personal and professional, where the Fab Four found themselves. Doggett, who also hosts a Beatles blog, has done extensive research tracking down obscure details, dispassionately revealing a rather seamy underside to their glittery success.

Generative Kayn

At the encouragement of fellow Roland Kayn aficinado Massimo Ricci, I had another look at the liner notes for Kayn's early vinyl releases, which are posted on his site. Despite my earlier comments on the paucity of material in English, there is some English explanation in each set of liner notes. It's pretty clear from the documents that Kayn developed a generative music systen, nearly twenty years before Brian Eno popularized the term with his speech at the Imagination Conference in 1996. Consider this description of Kayn's 1977 piece Makro, selected somewhat arbitrarily from the liner notes from Kayn's discography:

The concept for realizing the composition MAKRO involved the construction of combined control circuits, in an approach to the theory of the 'black box'…. Only the inputs and outputs leading into, out of and back into the box (circular relationships) made it possible to control internal processes probabilistically by means of external intervention, and to derive standard behavior from the dependency of the input and output signal.

The functions of the aggregates operating inside the 'box', combinations for instance of frequency divider, product modulator, flipflop circuit, amplified and reverberating machine, could not be regular with regard to direct manipulation. My idea was to impinge upon and test selforganizing systems on the basis of stimulus and reaction. The specific aspect of the concept was the generation of situations which had not been pre-programmed. In terms of control technique this meant that systems had to be invented which consist of a group of transference terms with points of intersection.

Wikipedia lists four different perspectives on generative music, and Kayn's seems to fit more in the biological/emergent model, in which an "ecology will perpetually produce different variation based on the parameters and algorithms used." He sets loose a population of circuits that acts indeterministically on whatever sound he introduces, one of the external interventions he mentions in passing. We can hear romantic orchestral music sometimes straining to get through, but his sampled sounds, uncredited, reportedly ranged as widely as the Hafler Trio. Most importantly, his systems are self-organizing, with a goal to generating music that isn't pre-programmed.

Kayn used his circuit aggregates to remove his ego from the compositional process, similar to the creative forces that drove John Cage into his more well known version of chance operations. Kayn ended up in electronics, perhaps because he didn't have a sympathetic performer like David Tudor to help realize his instrumental visions composed from bizarre graphic symbols and considerable performer latitude. Rather than inspiration from Zen, however, Kayn found his muse in cybernetics, an engineering discipline with computer applications more ready to hand which gave him the electronics background for his acoustical experiments. It would be interesting to know how Kayn adapted to the digital era, whether he was able to create the same runaway pack of circuits in software, and what processes differentiate his enormous suites of electronic works. Hopefully his papers will land in some university archive, where interested parties can discover more about the origins of his otherworldly music and where he can get the credit for generative music that he deserves.

The image is from the Institute for Sonology studio at Utrecht University around 1977, when Kayn composed his Makro project there. It is taken from the liner notes for the vinyl album Makro, cited above.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Drone Classics — Gaku-no-Michi

Jean-Claude Eloy's epic electronic work Gaku-no-Michi has long been on my short list for drone classics. Composed at the NHK Studio in Tokyo (like Stockhausen's Telemusik) in 1977-78, the 1979 double LP was one of my favorite electroacoustic works from my first hearing. But the four sides were only an excerpt, somewhat less than half of the total. Nevertheless, they grew in stature through its early inclusion in the Avant Garde Project (RIP) and its re-release on Creel Pone. Eloy and I had a brief email exchange several years ago where he informed me that a complete version was in the works, and it finally appeared late last year. The focus changed significantly with the restoration of the missing material, adding many more voices and concrete sounds into the greatly improved sound mix, revealing the epic dimensions of the work. In addition, Eloy made various liner notes available as PDFs in both French and English on the label's web site, including an excellent description of the piece and various technical credits.

Eloy started out with more straightforward compositional output, with works for orchestra and larger ensembles. Pierre Boulez released a recording of Eloy's 1963 piece Equivalences with his Domaine Musical Ensemble, and Eloy also studied with Stockhausen during the 1960s. In the turbulence and dissatisfaction of the late 1960s, Eloy sought inspiration outside the European avant-garde, and his first major electronic work Shanti ('Peace' in Sanskrit) uses concrete texts from Sri Aurobindo, Mao, and Eldridge Cleaver, and meditation sounds related to Indian, Tibetan, and Japanese voice forms. Shanti led to an invitation from the electronic music studio at NHK-Radio, Tokyo. Three extensive visits and 1200 studio hours later, Eloy produced the four-hour "film without images for electronic and concrete sounds," Gaku-no-Michi, with the title roughly translated as "The Ways of Music," or "The Tao of Music."

Although the piece isn't meditation music in the strict Zen or Yoga sense, the long sections of slowly evolving tones put the listener in a deep, reflective state. This was especially true for the vinyl release, which favored the contemplative second part with two of the four sides and skipped the more chaotic third part entirely. Tokyo, the opening section is represented on vinyl with what Eloy identifies in his notes as the third phase, a continuous dense and teeming mass of electronic sounds. But in the complete version, we hear what precedes as an inquiry into Japanese sound, overtly thematizing the geography much more intensely than the excerpts I've known before. Similarly, the last major section Kaiso is represented on vinyl with the long sequences of the first part. In the complete version, the sustained sounds that close side four continue to the readings from the annual Hiroshima ceremony in French, English and Japanese. This sobering sequence is the upbeat to the work's final extended lament.

The restored material provides a completely different narrative shape to the piece, way beyond the suggestions from the previously released excerpts, thereby providing a more substantial meaning for the "film without images." The vocal interludes alter the pacing completely, from long extensions to a nearly immediate comprehension. The Japanese sound inquiry from Tokyo, for example, moves from an abstract section to a slow voice intoning "what is...", but in an accent so that the possible meaning is deferred. Not until the transitional section is complete and we hear a different voice asking "what is, for you, Japanese sound?" with lots of ambient noise, as if the interrogator is taking a survey on a street corner. The answers from the crowd are drowned back into Eloy's modulated electronics, but the moment remains pivotal in a shifting perception of time. The vocal interludes provide a different modality beyond time perception and a static mode of being, interspersing an active, participatory focus through everyday, spoken language.

Despite the album's proclaimed completeness, a concert performance of Gaku-no-Michi has some unusual features that the CD release doesn't try to duplicate. To encourage a more focused listening experience, Eloy constructed an electronic prelude, interlude and postlude that play continuously before the concert, during an intermission, and after the concert, events presumably cued with lights and that discourage applause. The CDs don't artificially segue into each other, but present each major section of the work as a complete track (the opening prelude Pachinko gets its own track, but the interlude and postlude are blended with their antecedents). Even without the concert experience, the CDs stand alone very successfully and should restore Gaku-no-Michi to its leading position for electroacoustic music as well as the beginning of a long overdue retrospective for its composer. Eloy has also released the complete version of his other completely electroacoustic piece, Shanti, and has projected releases for electroacoustics and soloists. The Eloy CDs are available in the US from Mimaroglu and Erstdist; at the time of this writing, they are not available legally as a download.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Roland Kayn, 1933-2011

Another of the great pioneer electroacousticians passed away this week. Roland Kayn was a part of the early electronic improv groups, Nuova Consonanza, with Ennio Morricone, Franco Evangelisti and Aldo Clementi, but his mark came with huge electronic epics that he started composing in the mid-1960s. One part of his Cybernetics project was released on the legendary DGG Avant-Garde series of LPs, and in 1970 Kayn released a 3-LP set of a 148-minute work, Simultan. By the late 1970s most of his work was electroacoustic, all of it big: Makro (released on 3 LPs) in 1977, Infra (released on 4 LPs) in 1979-80, Tektra (released on 6 LPs and later reissued on 4 CDs) in 1980. He created his own label, where he has released 15 albums of his music, 13 of them electroacoustic, all but one as 2-CD sets, none of them reissues of the LPs. He adapted marvelously to the digital age [see update below], increasing his output dramatically, with 220 of his 287 works composed in his last decade, all of them electronic. In 2009 alone, he composed 30 electronic works for a total of over 36 hours of music.

Even as I am staggered by the quantity, everything that I've heard by him transports me to a different place, and I always look forward to his works when they appear in the iPod rotation. I suspect that his work in cybernetics led him to some kind of generative system, but most of the documents on his web site are in languages I don't read (Dutch, German, Italian, etc.). Hopefully more detailed information will become available in English about his music.

[Update, May 7, 2011] To clarify, based on an email from Ilse Kayn, the digital age may have coincided with Roland Kayn's last decade, but his music was always analog. The productivity burst was due in large part to his retirement, which gave him time, space and peace to compose.

Monday, January 3, 2011

2010 in review

2010 was a strange year for me and recorded music. I traveled to some major U.S. left coast cities and visited some world-class record stores, expecting to do some serious CD bingeing. The second trip involved two smaller stores, one of which I visited quite profitably in 2004. Unfortunately, both stores had shifted to fairly small CD displays, having switched largely to vinyl and used items, and the excursions ended up as a letdown. Whether or not as a direct result, I virtually stopped buying CDs for nearly six months, with only eight CDs purchased between the end of May and the end of November. Part of the rationale was that I have a lot of CDs of great music, and that I'd like to spend more time with individual pieces. I see that Richard Pinnell has pledged to listen to the same piece every day and write about the experience of getting to know the piece intimately. I cannot say how much I admire this approach. He selected Luigi Nono's only string quartet, Fragmente, Stille, and while I'd love to follow the same path, although probably not with the same piece, it seems so impractical. I look forward to seeing how Richard handles it.

My overall new music acquisitions were down by 30% from 2009 — if it weren't for emusic, where I refused to let the downloads get swept up at the end of the period, I wouldn't have hardly picked out anything new. Even so, with emusic's revised pricing schedule this year, the same amount of money spent yields only half as much music.

Moving forward with this blog, I need to face up to the reality that I cannot review every promo CD or download that arrives in my mailbox. I publish occasional reviews both here and at furthernoise.org. I have heard some wonderful music from promotional releases, which I most certainly would not have found any other way and for which it was a pleasure to write a review. All of the music I review for furthernoise.org is promotional, but my intent for Classical-Drone was to write about music I liked, including music I already have as well as music I haven't heard yet. In addition, in 2011, I intend to review more netlabel releases. I have a release on a netlabel, and I should do more to promote their vitality. Fortunately there is no shortage of excellent ambient and drone releases, so I'm sure I will have plenty of choices. But a consequence is that I will write many fewer reviews from promotional CDs and downloads in 2011 than I did in 2010.

The unfortunate downside is that some unsolicited CDs that I've already received will go unreviewed. I've never run a label, but I'm pretty sure nobody gets reviews for all of the promos they send out. My sincere apologies if it happened here. If we've been in touch via email, your review is still in the pipeline.

As for my favorite new music of 2010, as in other years, my awareness of release dates is generally low, so I can't say exactly when these albums first appeared. Links are to my reviews, the list is ordered by acquisition date.

  • Altus, Winter Embrace III
  • Language of Landscape, Memories Fade Under A Shallow Autumn Snow
  • Lexithimie, Leontopodium
  • Slow Six, Tomorrow Becomes You
  • Keith Rowe, Live at Amplify 2008
  • Leyland Kirby, Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was
  • Valentin Silvestrov, Symphony No. 6
  • Francisco Lopez, Amarok
  • Nils Frahm, Wintermusik
  • Salvatore Sciarrino, Sui poemi concentrici
  • Kyle Bobby Dunn, A Young Person’s Guide to Kyle Bobby Dunn
  • Balmorhea, Constellations
  • Ben Frost, Theory of Machines
  • Pisaro & Stuart, July Mountain
  • Ludovico Einaudi, Nightbook
  • Celer, Dying Star
  • Goldmund, The Malady of Elegance
  • Michael Northam, Solar Night
  • Peter Adriaansz, Waves
  • Jean-Claude Eloy, Gaku-No-Michi (complete)
  • Scott Cortez, Twin Radiant Flux
  • Ann Southam, Simple Lines of Enquiry
  • Cornford & Rodgers, Zinc [extracts]