Troubling histories

Twenty of Another Kind

A lengthy triple-CD box set of microtonal minimalism is Twenty Ten (12K1066) by the New York composer Kenneth Kirschner, offering over three hours of music across four very long compositions. The music gradually becomes fainter, quieter and more washed-out as you progress across the set; while we may start out with 23 minutes of detailed and enjoyable Gamelan-like tinkling-note music, by the middle of disc two we are set adrift in a mysterious sea of silence which is occasionally punctuated by long tones from strings and horns, and not sure where the horizon may be nor when we shall return to dry land. We’re back on relatively safer ground with the third disc, which across 50 minutes provides a delicate mix of filtered piano notes, scraped and plucked strings surrounded by ambivalent computerised ambient washes, in a thoroughly abstract and non-narrative composition where every element is judiciously positioned with the loving care of a minimal art-gallery sculptor who only works with white bedsheets, muted fluorescent lamps, and thin copper rods. Piano, strings, horns, and celeste are among the instrumentation, and Kirschner carefully assembles and edits his elements inside the computer to create his precisely-timed effects. The music moves very slowly, it does rely on long duration, and sometimes makes use of pre-ordained rules as part of the composition; but his love of detail, sumptuous (in their own miniaturist way) sounds, and ear for microtonal events marks out Kirschner as a composer who is quite some way from the traditions of “old-School” New York minimalism. A firm believer in Creative Commons, he makes all his music freely available as mp3 downloads from his website.

Transversals of the Day

Also in the area of avant-garde composition, we have the double-CD set Faint (CREATIVE SOURCES RECORDINGS CS 088) sent to us in June 2011 from the School of Music and Sonic Arts of Queen’s University in Belfast. Here a trio of academically trained conservatoire musicians play free improvisation, Pedro Rebelo on the piano, Franziska Schroeder on the saxophones, and Steve Davis on the drums. In between the restless, skittery, and atonal improvised music, the young Portuguese composer Rebelo creates his electro-acoustic treatments derived from the performances, and the set is intended to create interesting contrasts between these two musical modes. I found the entire exercise rather dull and lifeless, and, with its track titles such as ‘Toward less probable states of concentration’, ‘Causalities and Transversals’ and ‘A crowd must be fully individuated’, even a little pretentious. Rebelo’s electro-acoustic variations on the music are clever and I like the way he compacts highlights into short textural bursts, but even so he can’t seem to inject enough energy to transcend the fundamental stiffness of the original recordings.

Open Air Festival

An unusual entry in the catalogue of UK folk singer Sharron Kraus is In The Rheidol Valley (MORC RECORDS MORC #57), for which she collaborated with Michael Tanner of Plinth, United Bible Studies, Tex La Homa, and Pantaleimon; in fact Tanner played on her album The Fox’s Wedding. The album is as much a musical release as it as a document of their rural ramblings, when they simply went for a walk in this undisturbed part of the Aberystwyth countryside with their instruments (including perhaps an autoharp, drum and some small bells), sat down and improvised these slow and lonely instrumental pieces. The recordings are extremely modest and quiet, so gentle that you feel a light summer breeze might cause them to evaporate instantly; and the open-air feel translates onto disc wonderfully. Perhaps the most evocative instance of their work is the 53-second piece of ethereal beauty simply called ‘Valley Bells’, which is like a breathless comment on the beauty of the landscape expressed simply by a single tiny percussion instrument. I also like the beautiful ‘Valley 5’, which feels like an English version of a Popol Vuh tune. All too soon, everything fades away and slips through the fingers like Elvish gold, a dream in the mist of the Welsh landscape. Exists as a limited press vinyl LP and was released 17th May 2011.

Dachau Blues…and Greys

Another field recording based work, but with quite a different intent from the above, is the double-disc set Gurs/ Drancy/ Gare de Bobigny/ Auschwitz/ Birkenau/ Chelmo-Kulmhof/ Majdaneck/ Sobibor/ Treblinka (GRUENREKORDER GRUEN 085 / BRUIT CLAIR RECORDS BC06) created by Stéphane Garin and Sylvestre Gobart. The two discs are compilations of recent field recordings made at these sites of Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres across parts of Europe (France, Poland and the Ukraine); the package comes with several monotone photographs, and the artists intend to “draw up a sound and photo picture” of these zones. I must stress that their work has serious artistic intent, and is nothing to do with certain “industrial” musicians who, in the past, have flirted with Nazi and death-camp imagery simply for its shock value. No, the idea behind this release is to explore memories of the past, collecting recordings from these camps which are now monuments and memorials, making edits and assembling short incomplete and inconclusive episodes, and finding out what might be revealed. Since many of these sites are now museums and used as educational places for school field trips, quite often we hear troops of visiting school children; at other times we hear machinery, cars, trains and other vehicles; also the voices of guides of curators, gently discussing matters. Mostly though we hear a strange and indescribable grey murmur, a distant rumbling, which (given the context) cannot help but be strangely moving. The inserted portfolio of grey photographs are equally evocative in like manner. The artists say they wish to “call up what cannot be seen any longer” and “show that there is nothing left to see”; the recordings are named, quite simply and starkly, with factual locations and dates, and there is no attempt to build a narrative from these disjointed segments of information. This approach starts to raise many troubling questions about the nature of our collective memory, and casts doubt about the meaning of history, our ability to remember things at all. Oddly enough I write these lines after seeing the retrospective Gerhard Richter show at the Tate Modern, and some of his powerful paintings (also working with shades of grey, very coincidentally) touch on quite similar themes, attempting to excavate buried memories; I’m thinking especially of his 1965 portraits of Uncle Rudi and Herr Heyde. In all, this is a very interesting release which I recommend.

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