Sunday, December 31, 2017

Even sillier than normal (which is silly enough), given the increasingly circumscribed nature of what new releases I got around to hearing this year, but here's a list of those recordings which I especially loved in 2017. As ever, huge thanks to the musicians and label owners involved. Your work is enormously appreciated.

(alpha order)

Ryoko Akama - Inscriptions  (Suppedaneum)
Ryoko Akama - Places and Pages  (Another Timbre)
Cristián Alvear/Seijiro Murayama - Karoujite (Potlatch)
Antoine Beuger - Ockeghem Octets  (Another Timbre)
Olivia Block - Olivia Block (Another Timbre)
Andrea Borghi  - Sostrato  (Marginal Frequency)
Christopher Butterfield/Quatuor Bozzini - Trip  (qb)
John Cage/Christian Wolff  - CC  (Huddersfield Contemporary)
Isaiah Ceccarelli - Bow  (Another Timbre)
Joda Clément/Mathieu Ruhlmann - Kindred  (Marginal Frequency)
Seth Cooke  - Triangular Trade   (Suppedaneum)
Alfredo Costa Monteiro/Miguel A. Garcia - Aq’Ab’Al  (Mikroton)
Pascal Criton - Infra  (Potlatch)
d’Incise - Ukigusa  (Suppedaneum)
Charles Duvelle/Hisham Meyet  - Photographs of Charles Duvelle  (Sublime Frequencies)
Morton Feldman - Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello  (Another Timbre)
Fraufraulein - Heavy Objects  (Marginal Frequency)
Jürg Frey  - l’âme est sans retenue  (ErstClass)
Jürg Frey  - Collection Gustave Roud  (Another Timbre)
Jürg Frey  - Ephemeral Constructions  (Edition Wandelweiser)
Miguel A. Garcia  - Argiope  (Insub)
Will Guthrie  - People Pleaser  (Black Truffle)
Haptic  - Ten Years Under the Earth (Unfathomless)
Eva-Marie Houben - Organ Sonantinas and Drones (Edition Wandelweiser)
A.F. Jones - Four Dot Three to One  (Kendra Steiner Editions)
Alan F. Jones/Derek Rodgers  - CEDARS  (Sedimental)
Irene Kurka  - Chants  (Edition Wandelweiser)
Eric La Casa  - Paris Quotidien  (Swarming)
Graham Lambkin/Taku Unami  - The Whistler  (Erstwhile)
Mike Majkowski  - Days and Other Days  (Monofonus)
Catriel Nieves/Joe Wheeler  - Balance  (Marginal Frequency)
Jérôme Noetinger/Anthony Pateras  - Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be at All (Immediata)
Michael Parsons/Apartment House   - Patterns of Connection  (Huddersfield Contemporary)
Anthony Pateras/Erkki Veltheim  - The Slow Creep of Convenience (Immediata)
Michael Pisaro - Resting in a Fold of the Fog (Potlatch)
Éliane Radigue - Occam Ocean 1 (Shiiin)
Keith Rowe/Michael Pisaro  - 13 (Erstwhile)
Burkhard Schlothauer - More Chamber Events (Edition Wandelweiser)
Grisha Shakhnes  -  choice ambience  (Disappearing Records)
Grisha Shakhnes  - Ghosts  (Disappearing Records)
Linda Catlin Smith - Drifter  (Another Timbre)
(Various) - The Seen, Volumes I-V  (Confront)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Grisha Shakhnes - Ghosts (Disappearing Records)

Grisha Shakhnes - choice ambience (Disappearing Records)

I've been listening to and greatly enjoying Shakhnes' music for close to ten years now I think, both recordings issued under his own name as well as under that of his alter-ego, Mites. One thing that's always struck me is a certain underlying consistency in his general sound-world: continuous sound, highly grainy, sooty and dark, oil mixed with sand late at night reflecting glints of blue and yellow incandescent lighting. But within that world there's also an ongoing expansion as heard on these cassette releases.

'Ghosts' begins with a siren in the near distance and funnels into the kind of low, dirty rumble I've come to expect from Shakhnes, several layers thick, streaming but always varying within its flow. He introduces cyclic elements here though: what sounds like a marble or small plastic ball rotating around the rim of, say, an oil barrel and then some deep groans and thuds as from an ancient, grimy turbine. It's intensely atmospheric, easily transporting the listener to a different place, uncomfortable, possibly dangerous, but endlessly absorbing. Somewhat surprisingly, birds are heard on the second track, 'resilience', over muffled motoric sounds that impart a vague water ambience, as though near a dock, soon overtaken by a more insistent, slightly acidic electric drone. I also pick up a hint of the battered, mangled tapes that Jason Lescalleet used to deal in and, on 'a little fine tuning', the wonderful ghost piano images of Asher's, but in each case a push further on those ideas, again totally beguiling. Conversation heard through many plies of distortion (again, sounding as though from tapes left on the street for several years), obscure ambient rustles and rumbles, birds again, music from next door, a wonderful "musical" loop buried deep and, overall, a fine feeling of simply letting things play out, patiently letting tapes unspool to reveal what's there. Ending back in the street. A fine release.

The two tracks on 'choice ambience' occupy much the same territory, perhaps even derive from some of the same sources. But there's a greater sense of Shakhnes' immediate space, as though recorded from a room that looks out on trees (there are birds) but also overlooks, say, a construction zone with generators humming. At the same time, someone is moving about in the room, creating a small squall of noise therein. A great deal of air and resonance, though fluctuating into more claustrophobic and dreamier areas. Side B, 'let it perish', retains something of that buried melodic loop from 'Ghosts', this time dimly perceived under a wash of sound--I get a feeling of windblown snow though, considering that Shakhnes operates out of Israel, that's probably not very likely. A pulsing, ringing tone dominates for a while as the previously existing environment continues apace, slowly morphing, never calm. As said, I hear something dreamy going on and, again, this wonderful willingness to take one's time, to allow matters to unfurl, accepting what happens to "intrude". Both cassettes are full of excellent, thoughtful and tough-minded music.

You can hear for your self at the Disappearing Records bandcamp site

Monday, December 18, 2017

Seth Cooke - Triangular Trade (Suppedaneum)

If it hasn't been done already, someone should write an article on Joseph Clayton Mills' label, Suppedaneum. There are seventeen releases now, all of them at the least very interesting, a number of them--like the current item--pretty great. The focus of the label has been on scores and other accompanying material, often given at least equal weight to the audio portion of the release and Cooke's 'Triangular Trade' is no exception.

It arrives with a "title page", more or less, and eight 8 1/2" x 11" laminated pages containing words and images referring to the trade of its title, a system which transported slaves and goods between Europe, the Caribbean and West Africa from the 16th through 19th centuries with repercussions (not to mention extensions) felt and experienced to this day. Bristol, where Cooke resides, was the focal port of the English slave trade and the first page of the release centers the image of a plaque recording the fact, surrounded by related statuary and inscriptions, excerpts of text from London Posse's  'Gangster Chronicle' and apparent news items concerning lack of public funds for Hartcliffe, a very poor section of Bristol. Subsequent pages--they're not numbered and presumably the order doesn't matter--include historical documents revolving around the slave trade, news clippings concerning the legacy of slave trader Edward Colston who seems to still be regarded as an honored father of the city (Colston Hall being, I take it, the main music hall in Bristol), a portion of an article on the effects of climate change in the Fertile Crescent and much more. These are presented in an often fragmentary manner, roughly scissored from printed documents, rarely entire, offering a kind of dizzying picture, perhaps reflecting the confusion and lack of clarity in the thinking of the local citizens about their city's role in their history and, more importantly, the benefits the white citizens have reaped and continue to reap as a result of the slaving practices of their ancestors.

Cooke's sound sources on the disc include field recordings from three points near Pero's Bridge in Bristol (as well as from London and Liverpool docks), Ghanaian shells, djembe-feedback and more including (not that I could pick it up) a bit of Mahavishnu Orchestra's 'Planetary Citizen' "convoluted 184 times". It's one long piece, about 46 minutes, but very wide-ranging. It begins with overlaid harsh, scraping/ringing tones, sometimes buttressed by (apparent) dockside recordings and distorted speech--desolate, sorrowful and keening. This section continues until about 15 minutes in, when the heavens open up in storm and we hear the words of John Newton from his 'Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade', published in 1788 (not sure of the source here, possibly a television program titled, 'The Fight Against Slavery'). The sounds subside, once again nautical in nature: clanking, echoey metals, churned water. These soon cohere into a relatively pure tone, those echoes still in the background, that subtly pulsates, until an explosion knocks everything apart, a wave overturning a boat, perhaps. The feeling of depth, of largeness is quite strong, Cooke, developing a convincing, if abstract, panorama of not merely a scene, but an expanse of time and history. That complex, sine-like tone returns, more insistent and darker, spiraling and drilling holes in one's eardrums. Very gradually and in harrowing fashion, this tone mutates into a human-sounding cry, a kind of ghostly wail from the bowels of some cavernous depths, a piercing, accusatory call from Bristol's past to the unlistening, willfully ignorant present.

A powerful, grippingly realized work that should be widely considered.


Monday, December 04, 2017

Michael Parsons/Apartment House - Patterns of Connection: Instrumental Music 1962 - 2017 (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)

I'd always wanted to hear more of Parsons' music. With Cardew and Skempton, one of the founding members of The Scratch Orchestra, his own pieces were minimally represented on recordings, with only three previously listed at Discogs (I had the split disc--with Cardew--of Tania Chen's readings of his work and recently found the Tilbury; have yet to hear 'Piano Music 1977 - 1996' on Experimental Music Catalogue). This release, two CDs worth, not only spans virtually his entire career (he was born in 1938) but also covers a fascinatingly wide range of approaches as well as instrumentation.

The CDs encompass thirty-nine tracks (including three alternate takes) and aren't assembled in chronological order or, apart from certain groupings, any discernible system, so for a listener like myself who comes in with few prior conceptions of what the music is apt to sound like, it can be a somewhat disorienting experience initially. The very first piece, 'Dispersal' (1999) is a pointillistic work for small ensemble, something of a Webern extension, very soft and digestible, a lovely version of the sort of post-serial construction that's not all too uncommon. However, the next track, 'Rhythmic Canons', composed only a year prior, harkens more to the irregular, interlocking processes explored by composers like Louis Andriessen, though again with great delicacy and beguiling smoothness. 'Percussion and Glissandi' (1999) enters still another territory, softly sliding strings bending around pinpoint wooden block taps. A trio of short piano works performed by the always superb Philip Thomas and dating from 1962 - 1968, return to that post-serial area, though with an elusively lyrical aspect that reminds me somewhat of Christian Wolff. Around this point, we think that perhaps we have Parsons' approach more or less corralled and then 'Highland Variations' (1972) is sprung upon us. The longest track here at almost twelve minutes, it's an astonishing and captivating set of for strings (which do a fair imitation of pipes). Presumably written for reasons similar to those stated at the time by composers like Cardew, Rzewski and others, to shift from more abstruse forms to those derived from folk and worker's music with the intention of making it more accessible to the non-highbrow audience, it's a brilliant set combing drones with repeated melody fragments, unabashedly Romantic and utterly absorbing.

The music continues to expand from there, into the delightful 'Fourths & Fifths' (1990) for solo flute (Nancy Ruffer) consisting of "simple" patterns reminiscent of Tom Johnson, a set of wonderful Bagatelles (as fine as Thomas plays them, I'd love to hear Tilbury's rendition) and much, much more. I'll just mention a few others: the mysterious 'Concertante 1' (2014), a brooding work featuring heavy piano chords over shifting strings and reeds plus occasional surprising explosions of electronics (Kerry Yong), a rare appearance of such here; several more piano pieces from the early oughts, cool and crystalline; a rich, intense and moving work for solo cello, 'Talea 3' (1999), performed by Anton Lukoszevieze; a Skempton-ish solo piano work, 'Variations' (1971); and the final selection, 'Three Tallis Transcriptions' (2003), yet another engaging surprise.

It's just a fantastic collection overall, not only providing a seriously needed compendium of Parsons' music but doing so extraordinarily well by virtue of the talents of Apartment House. Highly recommended.

John Cage/Christian Wolff/Apartment House/Philip Thomas - CC (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)

Cage's work, composed in 1957-58 and combining both graphic and conventional notation, has been recorded often enough although, reading the excellent accompanying pair of essays by Martin Iddon and Philip Thomas, one quickly comes to understand the virtually infinite range of realization possibilities the piece affords. Between the decoding and arrangement of parts for the piano, the ensemble and the conductor (who is, apparently, quite capable of foiling any advanced preparations of his musicians), the entire proposition seems as daunting as it is freeing. Perhaps unduly influenced by the graphics included here on the cover and well known as a classic example of the territory, it's very enticing to hear the work as the wandering of the pianist along a series of pathways, through woods, fields and cities; delicate, even whimsical for the most part but rubbing up against enough sharp branches and burs to keep him on his toes. Describing it otherwise might be something of a fool's errand. On the one hand, it "sounds like" any number of post-1950, quasi-aleatory works: sparse for the most part--though there is a section about a half-hour in where the playing, especially the piano, is very dense and convoluted--fragmented, consisting of superficially unrelated sounds, extended technique expositions, etc. On the other, though, as difficult as it is (for me) to quantify, there's a specificity about it, a "Cageness" (or Apartment House-ness) that seems quite unique and immediate. Chalk it up to excellent choices being made, I suppose, to scarce few missteps, to maintaining a thin but pervasive tissue of sound, even in the silences, that allows the music to attain an organic aspect that feels alive, even pulsating. Fine work.

Wolff's 'Resistance' is brand new, commissioned by Apartment House and, among other things, displays the political awareness that has been part and parcel of his work for 50 years; apart from its title, the work incorporates a snatch of one of Cardew's workers' songs ('Revolution Is the Main Trend') and a transcription of Pete Seeger's 'Hold the Line'. The initial impression, after the Cage, is how much more traditionally composed the Wolff piece is. As I find with his music generally, there's a surface comprehensibility that dissolves the closer I listen, becomes watery in its difficulty of being fully grasped. This, I find, is endlessly enchanting. Written for a minimum of eleven instruments 'including at least 1 wind, 1 brass, 1 string, and solo piano', it's fairly lush in color, the contrasting tonalities conveying something of a garden imagery. Brass is more prominent than in the Cage, brief flourishes, burbles and even semi-fanfares emerging here and there. The piece is full of surprising moments; sometimes, it's almost like walking down a hallway and opening doors, hearing what sounds are emanating from within. The general cast of the music becomes more diffuse as it progresses through the middle section, wafting tendril-like, disappearing around corners. Unison lines pop up occasionally, like a short song or march, but quickly give way to less figurative motifs including, some 35 minutes in, a wonderful, slightly sardonic whistling section underlaid by tuba. Nothing lasts very long, however. As we arrive at the Seeger transcription, one has the feeling, perhaps, of disparate troops, citizens, having been organized, brought together from a multitude of locations and trades, cajoled and impelled to form the resistance of the title. A marvelous work and performance and a very strong addition to Wolff's oeuvre.

Huddersfield Contemporary Records

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Al Jones has been issuing music on his Marginal Frequency label since 2016. Unfortunately, for this listener, most of it is on cassette. I haven't had a working player in more than ten years and never really liked the medium so won't be rectifying the situation. Happily, Al has obliged my inadequacy and sent me burns of some recent releases, all of them at least interesting and he's also put out some fine stuff on good old vinyl, so some brief thoughts:

Starvation Time - House of Dust

Steve Flato (Guitar, Bass, Drum, Electronics, Synth), Jeff Williams (Vocals, Lyrics, Guitar) with drum samples from Travis Johnson. I kind of chuckle at myself listening to this as it's so far away from my normal likes...but I like it very much. A deep repeating throb that's downshifted once to, with great simplicity, summon forth a range of pop allusions, overlaid with a wonderfully chaotic welter of splintering noise and mutilated vocals. Maybe it's partly the audio clarity where I expect to encounter sludge; there's a surprising transparency here, extremely spatial. This first track morphs into a slightly more standard but still extremely enjoyable guitar/cymbal-tap driven piece, with somewhat less distorted vocals that sounds, I don't know, like what The Golden Palominos might be doing today if they were still good; totally absorbing. "We Were Seeds" settles even more deeply into the groove, chugging along with shimmering guitars offset by excellently paced percussion breaks, then revving up once again. "Bone Seeker" (great title), tones things down just a bit; it's almost stately, although discontent clearly simmers underneath, a regular beat winding through a haze of guitar and electronics, baleful, gray, Williams' vocals slowly becoming more and more intense and frenetic. Not sure where on any rock spectrum one would place this (dark prog?) but it's one of the best rock-oriented releases I've heard in years. 

Catriel Nievas/Joe Wheeler - Balance

No instrumentation is credited (I don't think--as said above, I don't have the cassette, but nothing's listed on the Discogs entry) but the six tracks seems largely made up of field recordings with a gradually increasing presence of electronics and some guitar. And despite those tracks, I hear the recording more as a single piece (a suite, in any case) that shifts focus back and forth from the everyday world (kids playing, vehicles, random clatter--there's a portion on the fourth track that startles me every time I hear it--I swear someone just entered the house, talking in Spanish) to the more hermetic territory of post-industrial electronics. It's a solid, sinewy and thick voyage, absolutely riveting. There's a somehow convincing quality to it; nothing feels forced everything flows--not smoothly but logically after a fashion. The pacing and layering-in of both recordings and effects is imaginative on its own and even the clear acoustic guitar on the last track seems as though it had simply been patiently waiting its turn. A really fine recording--I think the first I've heard from either musician. Eager to hear more.

Clara de Asis/Bruno Duplant - L'inertie

Two drone pieces provided by electronics (maybe guitar from de Asis, maybe other sources), both quite lovely. "La Paresse" has a tonal nature, though retaining nicely spiced lines to offset any sweetness overload. Several layers, one shimmering rapidly, one or two unspooling slowly and luxuriously, perhaps more. One gets the sense of some "hidden" melodic material  in there, some Riley-esque patterns buried deeply enough to leave only the vaguest of traces. In "La Lenteur", it' the smoothness of tooled metal, cooler and fluctuating in a queasier fashion, in microtonal pitch shifts that almost sound as though sourced from bandsaws, though swaddled in gauze, all over long, deep throbs. There's a subtle change of focus a few minutes from the end, just briefly, but the music then swings around to a similar setting, an adjacent workroom perhaps, the low tones deepening, gathering force. An impressive performance, one of the better drone-type recordings I've heard in a while.

Fraufraulein - Heavy Objects

How nice to have some new Fraufraulein! Anne Guthrie (French horn, objects) and Billy Gomberg (electronics, bass guitar) have a special way of creating all-but-casual soundscapes from found materials and horn snippets, often subtly underlined by Gomberg's essentially melodic take on things. There's a relaxed feeling, walking speed, but extremely observant, choosing sounds with a balance of care and nonchalance. There's a sense of a pure field recording that happens to contain musical elements as part of the environment, as when the (I think) small horn burps bubble to the surface about 12 minutes into 'One of Us Always Tells the Truth'; very engaging. Firecrackers in the street begin side two, 'When We Evaporate', sharing space with muffled bass plucks and soft, wistful horn lines, all soon blending with the general, urban ambience outside the window. More small explosions, as though recorded on July 4th or Chinese New Year, airplanes passing, distant radio. Toward the end, the bass becomes a bit more insistent, even establishing a rhythm, Guthrie's horn wafting atop, a very fine coalescing of all that's transpired before. Excellent work all around, a real treasure. More, please. 

Joda Clément/Mathieu Ruhlmann - Kindred

'Kindred' begins, quite unexpectedly, with a marvelously obscure cover of Eno's 'Taking Tiger Mountain' (the duo assisted on this track by Judith Hamann, cello and voice; Alexandra Spence, clarinet; Cristián Alvear, guitar; Al Jones, lap steel guitar, voice; Gregory Moskos, piano; and Tim Clément, tapes), burying the original beneath swaths of gentle sound and the hazily bent vocals where the tune's melody is limned. It's the start of an enjoyable journey, the music acquiring more of a crust as it goes . as Clément and Ruhlmann take over. "Against What Light" is chillier, bits of windblown grit coating the sleekness, a voice explicating revolutionary theory (perhaps in homage to the mind of Cardew's tiger), gulls, low moans. Side Two opens with the length 'Between Regions of Partial Shadow and Complete Illumination', picking up where the last track left off, more meditative at first but soon becoming nervous, agitated, the crackles and hums providing more tension than solace. Voices appear again, but they're eerie, more disembodied, swirled into the hum which churns along, very enjoyably, until the inevitable dissipation. The concluding track, a footnote titled, '*', continues the general flow, seeming to want to circle back to the beginning before veering suddenly into thorny high pitches and ending abruptly. Very, very satisfying work.

Michael Pisaro, Samuel Duncombe, Steven Andrew Flato, Celeste Oram/Wen Liu/Johannes Regnier

Four works composed for and played on the (apparently) well known and regarded Spreckels Organ in San Diego, California (see image below) and issued by Marginal Frequency in LP format (yes! Their first such!). Pisaro's 'Secular Reason', performed by Justin Murphy-Mancini, is unusual for him, and not only due to the instrumentation. He uses what I'd call very "traditional" pipe organ sounds: the rich, thick chords that I think most of us recall from our youth, and/or perhaps horror films. He sets out, for the most part, three chord sequences, high-low-high, in varying but fairly close pitches. They're like isolated portions of fanfares or chorales and cause a certain amount of (intended?) discomfort as the listener wants to place them in a larger context but is not allowed to. Until, several minutes in, an underlying chord, briefly, ties matters together. After a short silence, the chords have splayed out into a wider pool before a recursion to a version of the beginning pattern, stretched out and underlined. I've found there's often more to glean from Pisaro's scores than meets this listener's ears and would be curious to see what was up on this one. A final, lengthy chord that attenuates as it lingers brings to a close this odd piece, simultaneously making strong reference to tradition (the sounds utilized) and the new (its structure).

'An Inside-out Map of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion', by Samuel Dunscombe (also played by Murphy-Mancini) explores the innards of the instrument. The sounds--thin whines, airy rushes, crackles and more--still retain vestiges of "organ-ness" and more, of extreme power and force. One feels like a tiny organism caught within the pipe system, buffeted around by its inner workings. A wonderful enveloping and mysterious piece. Steve Flato (showing great range traveling from the previously reviewed Starvation Time to here) contributes a marvelous work, 'Face South Toward the Storm', a darkly eddying piece (played by Jared C. Jacobsen) where muted, tense chords vie with electronics to create a somber, misty place. In the shadows, though, vaguely Messiaenic chords emerge, glowing and hopeful. About midway through, there's a beautiful dropout and a renewal of clear, lovely tones, almost ethereal. A really great piece, maybe my favorite thing heard from Flato over the years. 'Artificial Horizons' is co-composed by Celeste Oram, Wen Liu and Johannes Regnier (performed by Jacobsen with the addition of vocalist Mary Glen Fredrick). It's a little all over the place, having some almost theatrical sounding riffs near the beginning, changing into spacier, ring-modulator-type of sounds, then introducing the spoken text. There's a repeated two-note "melody", with variations that pops in now and then to give a common thread. It's an interesting piece, maybe a little unfocussed, but something I'd very much like to hear expanded upon; it sounds almost like an extract from a much longer idea.

A very fine release overall, in any case, offering equal amounts of (unusual) challenge and reward.

Marginal Frequency has become an extremely fine imprint with ten releases as of now and, hopefully, many more on the way.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Jürg Frey - l'âme est sans retenue I (ErstClass)

Jürg Frey - Collection Gustave Roud (Another Timbre)

A fine convergence of all things Frey occurred recently--the release of the above two major recordings was remarkable enough but, on a personal level, I had just listened through the virtual entirety of his recorded work, and was therefore more than primed to experience these new additions. (Small caveat: Betsy and I were asked to translate into English the Gustave Roud journal extract used in the piece, 'Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind', on the Another Timbre recording, which we did with assistance from Jürg.)

The two recordings are from widely separated points in Frey's career and the innocent listener might be hard-pressed to think they were hearing work from the same composer. Frey's electronic/field recording music has been less thoroughly documented over the years, though one of the pieces more or less contemporaneous to the ErstClass release, 'Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit, Räume 1 - 8' was issued on eight discs by Radu Malfatti's b-boim label in 2010 and, indeed, is one of my very favorite releases of the past decade. More directly connected to this recording, b-boim also issued, in 2008, 'l'âme est sans retenue III' which, at 66 minutes, is like a mini-version of the ErstClass (though with notable differences) but if my copy is accurately inscribed, there were only 76 copies printed so it hasn't been widely heard. The original source recordings for these pieces were made from 1997 to 2000 and consist of, at least as far as I can tell, "simple" recordings outside, in public spaces in Berlin, which are then worked on to a greater or lesser degree (I hear more of that in the b-boim than the ErstClass recording, but it might just be a matter of the sources), never enough to cause severe distortion or to render them at all unrecognizable. There's a certain woolliness about them, a haze of atmosphere about which more below.

Though the general sound world is similar between these pieces, the structure is not. In 'Weites Land...', each "room" is presented in a single, uninterrupted 40-minute section. For the listener at home, there's a certain convenience in this arrangement: hearing one room, changing the disc to get to the next. On the new recording, a single work is spread over five discs, totaling six hours. There are no "end points" for each disc but since the piece contains ample sections of silence, that's not much of an issue. The audible portions, as in the b-boim version, are presented in relatively short segments, often lasting 15-20 seconds, alternating with silences the length of which varies quite a bit, from a couple of seconds to, guessing (I haven't measured), over five minutes. One of the things this listener needed to get past was the temptation, difficult to resist, of mentally timing the segments, to see if there was any regularity or pattern in place. A fool's errand. I do wish that somehow it could have been documented in a single-episode format, as the periodic disc changing somewhat interferes with the experience of such an overwhelmingly massive and, in a certain aspect, undifferentiated work. That's one of the points of fascination, in fact, the counterbalancing of general similarity (in the audible portions) with specific, though subtle, differences. I take for granted that there are no actual repetitions of material, though I couldn't swear by it. There are also clear instances of difference, including the sounds of church bells, automotive vehicles and obscure, very vague suggestions of music. [Before the concert in Cambridge of Frey's music, I was able to ask him a few questions about the work and 1) was able to determine, unsurprisingly, that none of the audible material is repeated and 2) that while certain "systems" may have been present in Frey's mind, the application was fairly loose. So, if he had, as an example he used (I may not be remembering exactly) an idea of time spans ranging in the pattern, 2-3-4-3-2, he might do it but not while counting exactly so he'd end up with imprecise sequences. As well, he mentioned that indeed there was music being played in the distances during some of the recordings.]

But enough about the elements, what about the experience of hearing? Well, it's unlike most anything else you're apt to encounter. I often make visual analogies (as does Frey, incidentally, often with regard to some association with landscapes) and here, a have the recurring image of street scenes shot with an old movie camera, maybe circa 1910, scenes where there may or may not be any particular activity occurring. Periodically, the camera's aperture closes, quickly but not so abruptly, remains closed for some seconds or minutes, then reopens on another scene, having moved only slightly or traveled a significant distance. Alternatively, sometimes the visuals are not cities, but clouds, the silences blue sky. Though if clouds, more likely contrails than naturally occurring ones; there's something manmade about the sounds, an urban hum pervades. The air vibrates with echoes of generators, automobiles, electric lights; there's a certain sizzle. Then can shift focus and hear, for instance, ocean water advancing and receding between beach rocks (enhanced when a distant gull call can be discerned). Many ways to hear and all of them, for me, oddly active. One might have guessed that work like this would be somehow relaxing, meditative but I don't find it so at all. I remain hyper-alert, trying to hear as deeply into the sounds, establish relationships with the silences and then, of course, listening to the silences (my environment; the heat coming on this cold day offers a weak approximation of Frey's sounds). No placid dozing off here. It's difficult music, sometimes reminding me of a quasi-similarly hard piece by Frey which I'd just heard performed in Cambridge, '60 Pieces of Sound' which, in turn, reminds me of Gerhard Richter's Color Chart paintings. That Frey piece, though, as well as the Richters, are oriented in regular fashion; in '60 Pieces of Sound' you have sustained tones of about eight seconds followed by silences of about sixteen. In 'l'âme est sans retenue I', it's as though far relatives of those sounds have been released from those strictures, allowed to float up and, while still separate and distinct, enabled the spaces between to expand or contract, buffeted randomly by the wind.

How one listens to a work of this length and seemingly tenuous construction is left up to the listener to determine. I've listened with concentration, distractedly, from two rooms away while reading and, despite my assertion above, dozing off. The music works in different ways, depending, and I've by no means exhausted the possibilities.

Frey's composition, 'Ferne Farben' appeared on an earlier Another Timbre release, 'Grizzana', and was also performed in Cambridge on November 8 by the ensemble Ordinary Affects (Morgan Evans-Weiler, Luke Martin, Laura Cetilia and J.P.A. Falzone) along with Frey. It's an extremely quiet work and the acoustic sounds are supplemented by taped ones, also at extreme low volume, more than enough so that it was next to impossible to determine whether what one heard emanated from the speakers or outside the venue. A fantastic work, I was thinking while listening that it could serve as a kind of bridge between the music heard on 'l'âme est sans retenue I' and that which appears on 'Collection Gustave Roud'.

Along with the general notion of "landscape", the words of Gustave Roud (1897 - 1976), a Swiss/French writer/poet, have served as a longstanding source of inspiration for Frey. This is a superbly curated selection of such works, maybe the finest single grouping of later Frey pieces I've heard. Three are somewhat short in length (about 8 - 15 minutes) and are written for similar trios: clarinet/cello/piano, violin/clarinet/piano and violin/cello/piano. These bracket to much longer pieces, 'La présence, les silences' for solo piano and 'Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind' for soprano, trumpet, cello and percussion.

A favorite aspect of Frey's music, for me, is his total lack of fear to deal with material that might be called conventionally beautiful, short melodies and sequences that "pull at the heartstrings". 'Paysage pour Gustave Roud' (Frey, clarinet; Stefan Thut, cello; Dante Boon, piano) is a particularly moving example of this, the two, three and four note passages just breathing with both melancholy and serene acceptance. As in a landscape, and in common with much of Frey's music in this area, there's a perfect balance of the expected--the way you expect a meadow to continue over a hillside--and the unexpected, as when a path disappears or a rock formation looms into view after an innocent turn. He often sets up small patterns of rhythm or melody, lasting just long enough for the listener to get comfortable, think, "Ah, I know where this is going" then, always gently, he shifts things, extends the duration of a beat, inserts the slightest bit of sourness into a sweet series of notes. This always strikes me as so true to life, always causes shivers of delight and recognition. The set of descending two-note patterns near the conclusion is just devastating. Such a fine work, hard to stop listening.

'Haut-Jorat' (Andrew Mcintosh, violin; Frey, clarinet; Boon, piano) is a suite of five brief passages. It's a bit more somber, more astringent than the previous work, the five sections interrupting any sense of languidness though each is slow, quiet and doesn't feel rushed. More like a set of glimpses through a window out into a cold and lovely landscape, a fleeting thought captured. In a way it reminds me of a tiny re-orchestrated, sliver of 'l'âme est sans retenue I', a similar feeling of the opening and closing of an aperture. Very lovely. 'Ombre si fragile' (Mcintosh, Thut and Boon' closes the two-disc set but echoes the first two pieces in general demeanor. Though sparer and more episodic, the sense of melodicism remains, the strings often playing together in grainy harmonics, the piano offsetting with darker commentary. There's a dusk-like feeling imparted and the piece ends with a lovely lack of resolution, simply evanescing.

These three works surround two of substantially greater length, both profound. I'll say outright that 'La présence, les silences', played here by Dante Boon, is one of the finest pieces for solo piano I've heard in years. For my money, it should be part of the contemporary repertoire. Boon, of course, is an amazingly sensitive pianist and, according to Frey, plays the 41-minute work entirely from memory. Describing it is difficult without falling back into landscape tropes. It's not quite "slow" but is exceedingly patient, shifting from lengthily repeated single notes to bright chords and back, again beginning to give a hint of recurring patterns but never quite getting there. (As has happened in other recent, quiet piano pieces, the action of the pedals--or key levers?--is quite audible. This may be a distraction for some but I find it to be like a ghostly echo, a soft response to the notes and don't mind it at all). It's almost like one, slowly unfurling melody, with few signposts (perhaps only those repeated notes) as reference, more like a path leisurely walked upon but closely observed. Musically, I hear some vestiges of Satie's Rosicrucian period, the 'Ogives' and others, but that's very tangential. The music absorbs utterly.

Frey uses extracts from Gustave Roud's journals that cover a long period from 1916 - 1971 as the text for 'Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind' (Colourless Clouds, Happiness, Wind), as well as a text of his own, in German, performed by Regula Konrad (soprano), Stephen Altoft (trumpet), Stefan Thut (cello) and Lee Ferguson (percussion). The Roud text is an interesting combination of the everyday, very plain spoken/written and the subtly unworldly. In doing the translation, Frey didn't want any poetic license taken, instead asking us to (possibly) unearth the poetry contained in those basic terms. It was an odd venture, sometimes disorienting as when one could in no way get around the phrase, "J'entends une fanfare" ("I hear a flourish of trumpets"). And, at least to some extent, Frey deals with this literalness in the music, as becomes startlingly clear with the above example. It's not an easy . piece, lasting over 48 minutes and having a slightly more sour tonality than the other works on the album, but it's just as rich. Konrad's soprano has a hornlike quality and meshes wonderfully with both cello and (at first) subdued trumpet. I find the music less "pathlike", more stationary, as if the listener is sitting observing the landscape, and the weather, instead of walking through it. The tones are ghostly, foglike, at least for much of the piece. When that flourish of trumpets arrives, with accompanying snares, it has the shock of a thunderclap in blue sky (easily twenty times louder than anything heard previously in Frey's recorded catalog) but serves as a fine tonic, an understanding about the variation in things, even when one has learned, as I feel Frey has, to view matters with more serenity and acceptance. It's a complex, marvelous work, one that has unfolded in many different ways each time I've listened.

Both recordings are inherently outstanding and, too, serve as indicators of the range and vision of this remarkable composer.


Another Timbre

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A few thoughts, nothing so earthshaking, on the performance of Éliane Radigue's music at Issue Project Room on October 20, with Laetitia Sonami, Carol Robinson and Rhodri Davies.

In the liner notes for 'occam ocean' (Shiiin eer1, also picked up at the concert), Radigue writes:

"I do not renounce my electronic work, though I never accomplished anything that completely satisfied me. The end result was always a compromise between what I really wanted to do and what I was technically able to do using the means available. Conversely, with these musicians, I was finally able to hear, for the first time, the music I call my 'sound fantasies'."

The three works presented ranged from electronic (with voice), to live electronic to acoustic and to some extent, not wanting to extrapolate too much from a single evening, bore witness to the accuracy of those remarks.

The first piece was 'Mila's Song in the Rain', an extract from 'Songs of Milarepa', which was originally released in 1983. It's scored for electronics (Radigue) and voices: Tibetan reading and singing by Lama Kunga Rinpoche and Robert Ashley reading an English translation of the text (at the concert, this was simply played over the sound system, not performed live; I assume the same recording as on Side A of the Lovely Music release). Radigue's sounds, as is generally the case, were confined to a relatively narrow area but varied subtly and imaginatively within that band. Still, I found myself wondering if, over the course of its 19 minutes, it would have gripped my attention for the duration were it not for the spoken words. The Tibetan was, to my ears, inherently interesting  both for its strangeness (to me) and the way it was half-spoken, half-sung, very beautifully. Ashley's text, on the other hand, delivered with his typical, wry, midwestern drawl, was amusing and, as Mimi Johnson mentioned in her opening remarks, satisfyingly grounded in the day-to-day. But the electronics, if listened to "separately" (not how the piece was designed, of course) seemed slightly limited, however attractive and well-deployed. Nothing major, but the thought arose.

Next, Laetitia Sonami performed 'OCCAM IX', a 30-minute work, on her self-designed Spring Spyre, pictured below:

This was the first time I've seen Sonami play. I don't know the details of her instrument but clearly, her strokes, plucks and taps on the seemingly rather elastic strings, all but inaudible "acoustically", were greatly amplified by the connected devices, generating a gentle humming that fluctuated and lightly throbbed. Again, great subtlety and touch were in force and for a while, about 15 minutes, I was reasonably captivated. But...eventually it felt as though I had gleaned what there was to be gleaned, that I had heard the instrument's limitations (at least as used on this evening), that there were only so many plies to be penetrated. I don't think this impression had anything to do with Sonami's abilities, more a limitation of the instrument. Obviously, even if this is the case, other instruments might offer far greater depth but again, the thought nagged at me. I've no idea how Radigue determines the approximate length of her work; this piece was about 30 minutes. Always an issue with music like this, here I thought it could stand some reduction.

The second half of the concert  was 'OCCAM RIVER XVI", performed by Robinson and Davies. The latter played a standard concert harp, bowed, using both one and two bows. Robinson wielded a birbyné, an open-holed, Lithuanian reed instrument with a wooden body and cow horn bell from which she had removed the reed. [note: Carol informs me that although the reed is detachable, she does indeed utilize it in performance]

In the notes to 'occam ocean', Robinson states that its sound is "unstable" and it's delightfully so. I've no idea of its loudness potential, but played softly as was the case here, it has a wonderful, breathy, ghostly tone--think of, perhaps, a woodier sounding clarinet. While the piece was, as with most (if not all) of Radigue's in the OCCAM series, centered around one pitch, the vagaries of the acoustic practice, intentionally or otherwise, allowed for an enormous amount of variation. Perhaps it has to do with how much one's ears (my ears, in any case) can differentiate between pitches, timbres, etc., and it could also have to do with the specific instruments involved but whereas in the Sonami-played work, I thought the range exhausted after a certain point, with the harp and birbyné, I felt as though I could have listened for twice its 50-minute length and still not have begun to plumb its depths and complexities. The grain, the was like looking at a stone or piece of wood and always seeing more no matter how deeply you penetrated. While in Paris, I was fortunate to witness a performance of Radigue's 'Naldjorlak I, II and III', with Charles Curtis, Robinson and Bruno Martinez, one of the most powerful concerts I've ever experienced. Some of the effect was surely enhanced by virtue of sitting about six feet directly in front of the trio, especially Curtis. During the first section, in which he performed solo for about an hour, I was utterly absorbed into his instrument, thrown into an apparently infinite whirlpool of sound, with structures emerging and disappearing in seconds, an astonishing range of colors and more--all in the context of more or less a single, wooly pitch, a wolf tone as I was to learn, something I'm told cellists are trained early on to avoid. Here at Issue Project, if not to quite as strong a degree, something similar took hold, especially with regard to the variations each musician injected. Davies, "simply" drawing the bow(s) back and forth over one or two strings, between micro-alterations in pitch and fluctuations in dynamics, elicited a vast and clear soundscape within this ostensibly narrow constriction. Robinson, either due to the birbyné's inherent instability or her own intuition (both, I imagine), shifted the base pitch ever so slightly, but in context significantly and sometimes let a given series of phrases trail off in ghostly vapors, small, light filagrees of tone, immensely moving. She would also vary the sound even more subtly by raising or lowering the instrument. Between the two sound sources, each remarkably complex in themselves, the listener has a virtual abundance of sonic riches in which to delve. To these ears, the rewards of Rdigue's music are substantially greater with the acoustic instruments than with the electronic ones, at least in my experience. I don't know that this would necessarily be the case, that sufficiently complex programming shouldn't allow for degrees of detail well beyond what human ears can distinguish, but something comes through Curtis' cello, Robinson's birbyné and Davies' harp, some level of aesthesia, that I haven't experienced in other forms.

I should add that on first listen to the Shiiin release (which in addition to Robinson and Davies, features violist Julia Eckhardt), the above still holds true for me, even though when filtered via CD, an essential physicality is necessarily lost.