Has it Started?
Un/even And One
RUSSIA INTONEMA int018 CD (2016)
Swiss cellist Stefan Thut debuted his score Un/Even and One in St Petersburg in 2015 with a bevy of (somewhat more) local musicians who do a top job of sounding like they aren’t there. A short Youtube clip reveals much to this theory: for the 5-strong assembly, virtue is expressed in restraint from virtually any physical movement at all; just a young lady pushing a box around in the foreground while five instruments receive attention only spasmodically. I sense that the concept behind Thut’s scoring is one of meticulous refinement; that of distilling full bars and phrases into the merest of gestures, upon the blank canvas of near-silence. We should not be surprised to learn therefore of Thut’s affiliation with the Wandelweiser group, for whom such matters are a preoccupation.
Silence is, in fact, is one of two canvases common to Thut’s work. The other is ‘the box’. There’s one drawn on on the cover, with semi-explanatory text describing how Thut ‘joined the sounds from transcribed language played through the surface of a moving cardboard box’ to add to the enigma. As I understand it, the musicians’ fingers were prerecorded rubbing words into the surface of cardboard boxes, which recordings were played back during the performance, effectively encompassing the space in conceptual cardboard. The value of the symbol of the empty-box-as-pure-potential is appended by the actual movement of the box throughout the performance, its location at any given point conferring on each musician the right to play.
Over 40 minutes, silence intersperses with sounds barely identifiable: low-volume cello massage and rummaging beneath a layer of tape hiss; a mass of slippery shadows, exhaling emphysemically and pierced by sine waves in a dark basement that yawns with an ancient hunger. What the recording may lacks in terms of immediatism, it at least makes up for by stirring the imagination.
Is It Over?
Mind Is Moving IX
RUSSIA INTONEMA int017 CD (2015)
Something of a go-to for less voluble composers, guitarist Denis Sorokin facilitates a recent work by another of the Wandelweiser composers, Michael Pisaro, for the novel combination of electric guitar, radio, stones and whistling. No prizes for naming the other, unnamed ingredient as silence (or a recorded approximation of) in immodest volume. The piece was refined in performances over two years (2013 to 2015) before being deemed medically fit for recording, in which: you’ve guessed it, the instruments/sound sources are addressed only sporadically between far lengthier and more considered pauses.
That the hapless listener might come unstuck is occasioned by the fact that the performer’s means of interpretation and the composer’s means of evaluation are equally nebulous. At what point is the performance deemed ‘acceptable’ and how is the listener to know when the standard has (not) been met? When the form of the piece stands so readily to baffle, it is difficult to gauge and this much is neither divulged nor easily relatable. However, one senses such judgements rely at least partially on attaining the ‘Goldilocks’ balance between pause and play that ‘the listener’ stops wondering whether the piece is contiguous and/or continuing. Reaching this sweet spot presumably necessitated a good deal of fine tuning of both composition and intuition.
Thus, the recording takes its place in Pisaro’s ever-satisfying catalogue, alongside fine companions such as 2016’s Melody, Silence by Cristián Alvear. Along with the Stefan Thut CD, it also brings further respectability to the Russian label Intonema, based in St Petersburg, where many of these performances are recorded. Limited edition run, needless to say.