Tagged: classical

The neoN Demons

Striking set of contemporary avant-garde music by the Norwegian Ensemble neoN on their self-titled debut album (AURORA ACD5084). The confidence, enthusiasm and boldness of their playing is remarkable for a debut set. Jan Martin Smørdal and Julian Skar formed the Ensemble around 2008, recruiting from fellow musicians trained at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo; they’ve been playing concerts ever since, mostly in nearby parts of mainland Europe at venues and festivals, but in 2016 they made it to New York. There are nine musicians, two composers (both represented on this album) and a conductor.

All five pieces are worth noting. ‘Travelling Light 2’ is composed by Kristine Tjøgersen; it “might take place inside a camera lens” according to the sleeve note by Jenny Hval. I found it a fascinating conundrum in musical form. Huge gaps where you least expect it punctuate the weird microtonal sounds. Mini-droning effects from woodwinds, obsessive whines from strings and percussion. The composition deals in vaguely obsessive repetitions of a phrase, or an idea. I can’t quite grasp it. A wonder in miniature, aided by the strong dynamics of the performance.

Jan Martin Smordal composed ‘My Favorite Things 2’, a “game of other people’s memories” according to Hval. To me it resembles a clunky steam engine from the 19th century being constructed in sound and lurching into life. A chamber piece that “shunts” along in an endearing manner. Piano and percussion act as the pistons, the flute and woodwind provide the steam. I like the unexpected pauses, the broken metres, the crisp sounds. But the whole album is beautifully recorded that way.

It’s no surprise to the world that we can consider Oren Ambarchi, the Australian musician who developed his own unique sound on the amplified guitar, a composer nowadays. He worked with James Rushford on ‘Monocots’. This is a wild and wacky one…sound effects of water are poured into a carafe and the mysterious gasping whispering lady is briefly glimpsed. An acoustic guitar wanders around in a detective novel. Vibes and flute create wonderful plangent chord shapes in the background. This “develops” a bit better than what we’ve heard so far. A real structure to it, but an oddball one, which is why I keep thinking of it as a detective film noir or mystery novel. If Morton Feldman had been asked to score Farewell My Lovely…this might have been the result. Highly unusual and very special. Now I must check out the Wreckage album (2012) by this pair, on the Norwegian Prisma Records label.

For their fourth outing, the Ensemble have a crack at one of the Grand Bosthoons of Minimalism, the great Alvin Lucier (who bestrode the Lovely Music label like a gigantic Bird and Person). We feel bound to expect a certain degree of ascetic restraint. The players do not disappoint on their rendition of ‘Two Circles’. The 18-minute piece feels like a dream of New York streets and how they used to be in the 1960s. Maybe they were cleaner, longer, narrower, and emptier. They never were that way in reality, but in this dream music anything is possible. If you accept that premise, enjoy the long shadows cast by odd shapes and all in black or white. Lengthy tones sustained and explored to create very tasty dissonances and flavours in the air. Strings, woodwinds, vibes – all merged into brilliant morass, a cloud with solid steel edges. Probably the “best in show” ribbon should go to this majestic slice of modernity.

But there’s plenty surprises still to come, on the final piece ‘Kunsten A Tvile 2’ composed by Julian Skar. Here the ensemble get pretty manic as they effectively turn themselves into a crazy typewriter operated by the world’s most breathless stenographer. The piano and percussion section emulate the keys of that outsize device. Around us we have strings and woodwinds creating a nightmare of unfinished work, forming its own wild tornado right there in the office. This the sort of thing that Sam Pluta and Wet Ink Ensemble should have a stab at, or associate themselves with in some way. The piece is structured to deliver to very alarming upbeat sections with the frantic typewriter effect, and these are surrounded either side by clouds of avant-garde ambiguity. But the wailing woman won’t be placated either.

This really is a very rewarding set, extremely well recorded and produced to a very high standard by all concerned. I feel that Ensemble neoN have a very clear intent and have spent a lot of time honing their craft. The results should do much to reinvigorate contemporary music, an ambition in which I hope they succeed. From September 2016.

Till We Have Faces

The Norwegian Ensemble Song Circus are a seven-piece of vocalists, led by their artistic director Liv Runesdatter. Their Anatomy Of Sound project appears to be an ongoing thing for the years 2014-2018, and involves working with a number of modern composers…they’re trying to get into “the very microlevels of sound anatomy”, as they would say, which involves working away at microtones with their voices, exploring certain acoustic spaces, and the timbral qualities of certain objects. On the particular release we have before us (2L RECORDS 2L-117-SABD), they perform a 12-part suite called Landscape With Figures, composed by Ruben Sverre Gjertsen, a contemporary Norwegian composer. There’s a longer 70-minute version which involves and orchestra and live electronics, but this is the 44-minute version for vocalists with live electronics, a work whose full realisation involves a complicated set-up in the performance arena, where the vocalists and other musicians are positioned in the audience, and careful microphone placement is needed along with a large loudspeaker for acousmatic playback. Clearly this “Landscape” is very much about “spatial awareness” in a big way, which may be one reason why it appeals to the members of Song Circus. This may also account for why the record has been released on a Blu-Ray disc and an SACD on this package. The former probably allows 5.0 surround-sound playback for those who have the right set-up at home (I don’t, sadly), and permits a truly immersive experience. Even so, the sound on the normal CD is pristine and sharp to an extremely high degree. Gjertsen has studied the work Trevor Wishart and Brian Ferneyhough, and absorbed their ideas about “systems of notation and composition”.

Buried somewhere at the heart of these whispering voices and atonal vocal acrobatics, there may be some textual material derived from the work of James Joyce. It’s hard to make it out though, and it may also be mixed up with other texts from Demian Vitanza, the Norwegian novelist. While there’s a nice set of anagrams using the words “Finnegans Wake” printed in the booklet, I’m not sure is this is anything more than an addendum. James Joyce’s words and ideas buy kamagra online with paypal have been used in avant-garde music for some time now, most famously perhaps by Luciano Berio for his Ommagio A Joyce, composed in the late 1950s, and there’s also John Cage’s Roaratorio from 1979. I’d like to say Landscape With Figures is a worthy addition to the canon, but it doesn’t really succeed when measured up against either of those two predecessors, or against the work of Joyce itself. However, representing Joyce may not be the central aim of Gjertsen, and the cumulative effect of these mysterious fragmented voice murmurs and splintered electronic sound is quite pleasing. However, it also feels oddly old-fashioned; this could easily have been released in the mid-1960s on the Music Of Our Time series.

The second work on the disc is Persefone, composed by Ole-Henrik Moe, another Norwegian modernist who is also a classically trained violinist. This work calls for five female voices, who also lay “an orchestra of wine glasses” – the so-called “glass harmonica” that can produce pleasing high-pitched continual sounds. The Persephone of classical mythology was, among other things, the queen of the Underworld – a notion that is most likely to have preoccupied the mind of Moe when he created this slow micro-tonal work. Landscape With Figures sounds positively bustling with activity compared with this largely static set of haunting, abstract murmurs and howls. The voice of Persephone is a many-layered beast, like that of a thousand owls and sad lonely wolves.

Throughout both pieces, Song Circus perform flawlessly. In fact their performances are almost inhuman in their clinical perfection, and if we add the super-human clarity of these recordings and the very alien, abstract nature of the music, I sometimes wonder what there is left for us to enjoy. Somehow there is a certain pleasure to be found in the coldness of this work, and the remorseless way the music is executed, which may not be anything like what Liv Runesdatter and her crew intend. I think the faceless woman on the front cover is very telling, a visual index of the near-anonymous music inside. From 8th August 2016.

The Encrypted Gallbladder

Courtesy of the lovely Petter Flaten Eilertsen we received a bundle of goodies from Oslo. Included in the bag are four cassettes on the Kassettkultur label, proudly announcing their return after a “four year hiatus”. Among the releases is one oddity by Jono El Grande, a Norwegian composer who is entirely new to me. On the strength of Der Tod Der Gegenwartsmusik (KULT 016), however, we’re ready to award him the laurel wreath for madcap of the year, given his endearing zany antics on both sides of the tape. What greeted us was two short suites (circa. 11 mins apiece) of lively and demented stuff that freely mixes styles – pop, classical, jazz – with no reverence whatsoever, and a great sense of fun and discovery. In places it reminded us of Frank Zappa, back in the days when he knew how to have fun too; we say that because of Jono’s penchant for speeded-up tapes, strange voice interludes, excessively complex orchestration, and “impossible” speeds for musical performance. It’s possible perhaps that this work is mainly done by sampling and computer editing, but that matters not one whit when you’ve got such a tasty pizza with so many delectable toppings, served to you by a hilarious waiter on roller skates and dressed as a gorilla. Take a look at the cover art…also drawn by Jono El Grande…and you’ve got a strong visual equivalent of the music for your mental stomach to digest. This amiable loon seems to have spent much of his waking life forming “imaginary” bands and crazy music in his own mind, starting with The Handkerchiefs when he was aged ten, and a number of bands that only existed for one night – including The Terror Duo, Black Satan, The Pez Dispensers, and Acetaded Beat – before disappearing in the sky like so many fireworks. Be sure to seek out his earlier releases on Rune Grammofon and Rune Arkiv, if you find this polymath loopiness to your taste. From 19 July 2016.

Amateur Chromatics

Another slice from the Stille Post (BÔŁT RECORDS BR R010 / MONOTYPE RECORDS mono100) box set by Alessandro Bosetti. CD02 is Gesualdo Translations, Bosetti’s take on the amazing music of Carlo Gesualdo. This Italian renaissance composer was famed for his bold harmonies and use of chromatics in his madrigals, and although neglected for a long time in the history of serious music, was reclaimed by Robert Craft and others and came to be regarded as a kind of forerunner of modernism; indeed I’ve even read a fascinating book called The Gesualdo Hex (by Glenn Watkins) which makes a convincing case for seeing Gesualdo as a precursor to serial and 12-tone composition.

Gesualdo also continues to fascinate a modern audience because of certain sensational details in his private life, for details of which I refer you to your own research. I’m fairly sure Bosetti knows about all this, but here he’s chosen to push the music through a daring experiment involving non-professional singers, in a sort of serendipitous crowd-sourcing action…he passed through the streets of Napoli, a place where Gesualdo is known to have lived and composed, and asked random people he met on the streets (and in cafes, churches, and markets) to participate. They would sing along as best they could to a recording of a single voice played back to them on headphones. Since the madrigals – taken in this instance from the famed fifth and sixth books of Gesualdo, regarded as his best and most experimental works – are multi-voice compositions, this clearly involved a lot of hard work by Bosetti in disaggregating the individual voice parts, and then re-assembling the parts from the taped results gathered in from his street singers.

The rich and complicated results on this record, some 45 minutes of heavily-edited suites, expand the “original chromaticism” of Gesualdo… “microtonal shadings are brought into the mix”, is Bosetti’s enthused claim, because the untrained singers, though often spirited and giving it a real go, are not really managing to hit the right notes at all. “Approximate renderings” is how he politely describes it. Additionally, further contextual field recordings from the streets are thrown in – people simply talking, chatting, bartering…along with cars, car horns, and other bits of guitar and keyboard music sourced from I know not where. All of this produces a delirious mix of sounds, assembled to a logic only Bosetti understands, and creates something new which is both familiar and strange at the same time.

A Gesualdo purist would probably be dismayed at the “bad” singing and take exception to the utterly fragmented mosaic-like approach of Bosetti’s assemblage, but taken as a whole lump of stew it’s a totally compelling experience. He calls it “a meditation on the practice of screziatura”, and screziatura is an Italian word which approximates to “mottling” or “speckling”…he may be thinking of a particular painterly effect, because I think one of the other pursuits of this genius polymath is the study of certain renaissance painting techniques, and composing or discovering musical parallels for them…how ambitious can you get? He also of course enjoys the random essence to the work, saying something about “the erratic nature of musical pitch”; and like everyone’s favourite mentor, John Cage, he is to some degree is allowing chance to guide his odyssey around the pathways of Naples and the people he met to produce these musical statements. Highly original and striking sonic coup here…

Whither Canada? Part 2

Another three items from the Canadian Ambiances Magnétiques label representing aspects of modern music mostly from Montreal. As it happens these arrived before the last batch, on 24th February 2016.


Calling yourself Ensemble SuperMusique is bound to raise high expectations in your audience, but the team of Jean Derome, Bernard Falaise, Joanne Hétu, Danielle P Roger et al are clearly consummate musicians. Perhaps they mean that the music they play is some form of “hyper-music”, or “meta-music”, rather than implying they have super powers. On Les Accords Intuitifs (AM 222 CD), the players perform in various combinations with woodwinds, electric guitar, percussion, synths, violin, piano, bass guitar, and the human voice. The turntablist Martin Tétreault joins them for two pieces. Together, they play their interpretations of compositions by Malcolm Goldstein, Raymond Gervais (avant-garde conceptaluist and creator of multi-media pieces), Yves Bouliane (bass player in Le Quatuor De Jazz Libre Du Québec), Bernard Falaise, and Joanne Hétu (noted in the last batch) – all of whom are Canadian, with the exception of Goldstein who is half American. All of the works are quite challenging to listen to, full of dissonances, tensions, and yawning gaps; I kind of like the way that classical modernism, free improvisation and contemporary rock noise all seem to meet up in the same room, but the conversations they hold are very forced and mannered, as if they were total strangers trying to be stiffly polite to each other.


The composer Simon Martin was highly taken with an art exhibit he saw in 2005 and tried to convey his feelings in music. On Hommage a Leduc, Borduas et Riopelle (CQB 1616), he’s expressly paying his tribute to the Canadian painters Paul-Émile Borduas, Borduas’ tutor Ozias Leduc, and the sculptor / painter / lithographer Jean-Paul Riopelle, and he’s engaged three different Canadian ensembles to realise his visions. The Trio De Guitares Contemporain play ‘L’Heure Mauve’, and they pluck and strum single notes on their classical guitars with a certain single-mindedness which to my ears is an attempt to recast the pointillist technique into music; like seeing the brushstrokes of Seurat dot themselves onto the canvas one by one. In fact, the composer is trying to recapture the effects of light on foliage, to get to the heart of one of the things that motivated Leduc to paint in the first place. Next, Quasar quatuor de saxophones blow an impressionistic breeze on ‘Projections Liberantes’, producing many subtle and pleasing overtones in their slightly dissonant overlapping drones. This piece is attempting to say something about the voyage of self-discovery undertaken by Borduas, and proposes 11 minutes of gradual dawning realisation in sound. Lastly, the Quatuor Bozzini raise their violins, viola and cello in the most dramatic piece on the album, called ‘Icebergs Et Soleil De Minuit – Quator En Blanc’. That title alone is evocative enough, and the nerve-shredding tautness of this icy, minimal piece is served well by it. Isabelle Bozzini and her team create astonishing atmospheres and microtonal contrasts in this 17-minute chiller of dissonance and Beckettian emptiness. Simon Martin’s intention here was surprisingly literal – he simply wanted to represent Riopelle’s Iceberg paintings in sound, a series the painter worked on in the 1970s. Worth seeking out images of these stark monochrome oils with their sharp strokes of black, white and grey. And if you want to hear more of the Quatuor Bozzini, they’ve also made records of James Tenney, John Cage, and Steve Reich.


Quasar – the Quasar Quatuor De Saxophones, to give them their complete name – also have a solo record of their modernistic saxophone work, Du Souffle (CQB 1617). They tackle works by Canadian composers Philippe Leroux, Gilles Tremblay, Jimmie LeBlanc, Claude Vivier and Louis Andriessen. All convincing material and well played too, though LeBlanc’s Fil Rouge strikes a chord on today’s spin, perhaps because of its extreme compression; very short segments in this 8-part suite, of which one lasts just 7 seconds, but still manages to say something with a few well-placed toots. I’ve tried reading the composer’s explanation of Fil Rouge, but it loses me with its abstruse inter-textual associations. With the other pieces here, it’s notable how many of them stand on the cusp of turning into big-band jazz; there’s something about the chord changes, the awkward attempts to “swing”, and the occasional forays into “complexity” that feel like a laborious attempt to score something which any member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra could easily have played at the drop of a fedora. This jazz leaning is most evident on Facing Death, the 1990 composition by Andriessen, which explicitly attempts to pay homage to the music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He originally composed this recasting of complex Be-Bop music for strings, knowing full well that “bebop is not at all idiomatic for string instruments”. It kind of misfires in this woodwind arrangement too, but Quasar acquit themselves well with their efforts, and there’s no denying the heartfelt sentiment behind Andriessen’s work. I just wish it didn’t make jazz seem so “worthy”, like some sort of improving text which we have to study, rather than simply dig.

Whither Canada? Part 1

Herewith some items from the Canadian Ambiances Magnétiques label representing aspects of modern music mostly from Montreal. Arrived 7th March 2016.


Joane Hétu is a vocalist and sax player, renowned on the Montreal free improvisation “scene”. Her Famille (AM 225 CD) is a selection of concert recordings made between 2009 and 2015; the Mercredimusics @ Casa Obscura series of concerts might be the Canadian equivalent of Company Week, dedicated to free improvisation. Certainly, the team-up-with-anyone spirit nurtured by Derek Bailey is alive and well in Canada, if these snapshots are anything to go by. There’s a long list of fellow improvvers on the sleeve here with which Joane has thrown down her vocal and woodwind exploits, including a few names we recognise, such as Pierre-Yves Martel, Philippe Lauzier, and Alexandre St-Onge. Not every track is an outright winner for me, but the subdued mysterious mood running through this album is very intriguing, and my preference is for those cuts which whine and drone exquisitely without anyone appearing to exert themselves very much. Joane Hétu’s sax work is adequate, her voice work is far more distinctive, and while her errant hooting may be an acquired taste her murmurs and pained squeaks are strangely satisfying, in spite of their minimal content. So far a picture emerges of Canadian improvisers being capable of far more restraint than you might find, let’s say, during an evening with Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker.


Speaking of Pierre-Yves Martel, I was reminded of his astonishing record Continuum when I heard Émilie Préfère Le Chant (AM 223 CD), a solo release by Émilie Girard-Charest, and wondered if this talented violoncello player had spun in his orbit or come under his influence to some degree. Her self-composed ‘S’offrir’ is an exquisite dream of near-silence: as with Continuum, there’s the same concern with maintaining a rigid posture while playing and doing nothing to disturb the enchanted mood. The other interpretations of works by contemporary composers are slightly more “busy” and would veer towards the now-conventional dissonance and randomness, were it not for the exciting electro-acoustic effects (I think) in evidence on such strange weirdies as ‘Espoir Squelettique’, written by Maxime Corbeil-Perron. ‘Altered Gray’ by Frederik Gran is another one that seems to have electronic elements bundled in the package, and is equally puzzling in its uneventful, hard-to-follow structure. Arid spiritual journeys await the listener here, with only a few drops of cold water offered for relief along the trail, and it’s never clear what the destination is or when we’ve actually arrived. Joane Hétu (see above) composed the title track, an angular and unpleasant piece that requires much dragging and stabbing of the strings to perform it.


More desiccated modernism by Quattor Bozzini as they perform Momento (CQB 1615) by the depressing post-serialist Aldo Clementi. This Italian composer who died in 2011 seems to have regarded his work in purely academic terms, measuring his success as a series of “contrapuntal exercises”; critics, when attempting to summarise it, apparently tend to reach for metaphors of decay. Clementi strove to compose music that describes its own gradual extinction. One imagines he was happiest when watching the sands run out of an hourglass, and then retiring to bed replete with the satisfaction that another day had been wasted. These various canons and other pieces, ranging in date from 1968 to 2005, brought a deathly pallor to my skin, induced short breathing, and made me dream of wandering 19th-century parlours with no windows and heavy green wallpaper everywhere.


Contrabass player Nicolas Caloia has been working for years to try and blur the edges between composition and improvisation, and bring together high art and low art in a single enticing package. To that end, he has worked with several improvising players and attempts to “channel” their energy in his compositions. On Les Bonnes Histories (AM 226 CD), he does it with the flautist Jean Derome, the clarinettist Lori Freedman, and two vocalists – Gabriel Dharmoo and Geneviève Letarte. Sad to say success has not been manifested here. I can’t find much evidence of channelled energy, or indeed any movement at all in these sluggish suites. And I’m all in favour of blurring cultural distinctions in the name of reaching a wider audience, but why then does Caloia’s work remain so cryptic and inaccessible? A confusing, broken narrative may slowly emerge for the patient listener, but the point of this work remains very obscure for me; everything proceeds at a leaden pace, and the information seems deliberately veiled and clouded in pseudo-mystery. The cartoony rebuses with their captions, including a human intestinal system, a red-brick bridge, and a large eye with clouds floating nearby, don’t lighten the mood, nor explain anything very much. I remain completely alienated by this overly-intellectual and torpid music.


Mikrokosmos: Quartetski Does Bartók (AM 224 CD) is a much more successful instance of the cross-fertilisation and bridge-building which I assume Nicolas Caloia is aiming at. This Montreal five-piece (confounding expectations raised by their name that they might be a four-piece) strive to reinterpret classical music in a contemporary setting, and on the evidence of this release they do it very well, producing a listenable and entertaining experience. Pierre Yves-Martel (bass, synth) and Philippe Lauzier (woodwinds) are present, along with the electric guitarist Bernard Falaise, the violinist Joshua Zubot, and the drummer Isaiah Ceccarelli. Images of their stage set make Quartetski look like a cross between a chamber ensemble and a rock group, and their music delivers precisely that – original melodies and arrangements reshuffled into accessible modernistic arrangements, with a jazzy swing feeling, dissonant noises and scrapes from the violin, loud rockist segments from the guitarist, and even free improv elements from the woodwind section. A lot of stop-starts, quick changes, and poised dynamics allowing each musician to shine; the brevity of these pieces, and the slight air of genial clunkiness in the playing, also made me think of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. I’m not at all familiar with the works of Bartók, and a purist classical buff might give a more cautious reception to this album (or even retreat from it in horror), but ignorance is bliss and I’m finding this a pleasant spin today. When Michal Libera does cultural mashups for his Bolt Label, he’s trying to get the audience to ask deep and searching questions about the meaning of things we previously took for granted; Quartetski are simpler, and they just want us to enjoy good music in a new setting, with fresh ears. If you want more of this, they “did” a Prokofiev album in 2007 for Ambiences Magnétiques. Fine work.

Composing by Framing


Jed Speare
The Wounds Of Returning: Sound Works II 1974-1983

We received our copy of this Jed Speare compilation in March 2016. We now find that this unique American phonographer sadly passed away in May this year. Since there are not many compilations or instances of his work available, and you’re not fortunate enough to own Sound Works 1982-1987 released by Family Vineyard in 2008, then this collection from Farpoint Recordings deserves your immediate investigation. It’s published as a CD with a large fold-out printed in full colour with photographs and annotations.

The 1982 LP Cable Car Soundscapes, released by Folkways in America may help you situate his work in context. It appears to be a species of documentary recording crossed with journalistic tendencies, telling a story with its collage of sounds and voices. Christopher DeLaurenti has described Speare’s skill as “composing by framing” in his recent tribute; “interviews are edited with phrases carefully sequenced not only for “the story” but for the mood, humor, and the irony inherent in the then-imminent phasing out of San Francisco’s once iconic cable cars.” 1

I found that view helpful to understand ‘Écrier’, a substantial 1983 work which opens this collection. It’s a set of field recordings collected over three days, and the composer uses familiar musique concrète techniques of aural transformation and repetition. It was recorded at a French psychiatric hospital and comprises recordings of the building, with its echoey corridors and hard floors (you can almost see the linoleum or parquet flooring in these vivid recordings), but also recordings of voices of three patients. “The doctor knew that these voices were special”, reports Speare diplomatically, and with considerable empathy he deploys his recordings of these “remarkable speech patterns” in the body of the work. Without prejudice, we are drawn into the world of the institution and catch a glimpse of the innermost lives of these inmates, with their strange repetitions and murmurings. I am sure it wouldn’t be far off the mark to find parallels with Fred Wiseman’s 1967 film, Titicut Follies.

‘Mettle of Metal’ is an extract from the Cable Car LP noted above. Starting out as pure documentary of mechanical sounds, it soon enters a zone of profound transformation to create mesmerising, dream-like images of abstract cable cars. The subtlety and craft of this work is extraordinary and represents a very honest sound portrait; Speare does not call attention to himself, or his techniques, but keeps us focussed on the subject and the sounds. In his notes here Speare tells us the project was originally sponsored by a commercial company, but he sold the rights to Folkways because he knew they would keep it in print in perpetuity. 2


Another lengthy work here is ‘White Strand’, a 1983 piece of which we hear some 22 minutes of excerpts; it’s slightly more conventionally “musical” than some of the other sound art on this collection, and documents a performance event in San Francisco with the artists Rob List and Wendelien Haveman. In these beautifully muted and muffled recordings we can make out an accordion, piano, percussion and strings playing short phrases in overlapping loops, generating a sort of spastic minimalism; like Terry Riley’s In C performed by grasshoppers. Speare may or may not have been adding his slowed-down recordings of a ferry boat to this event, but he remains largely silent and mysterious as to his exact contributions. “The sounds in my work…become obscured through the transformative process working with them.” They did it in a roomy loft space in a neon production shop in SF, and it seems important that they were able to occupy the entirety of this space. ‘White Strand’ is a compelling piece of gorgeous, naturalistic noise; I can see why Christopher DeLaurenti is inspired by Speare, and we could also see parallels with work of fellow American Jim Haynes.

In company of the above, the extraordinary ‘Crib Death of an Astronaut’ seems uncharacteristic, but it’s still an exciting three-minute mash-up of noise, produced mainly by the process of tapes passing over the playback heads at high speeds. Rehearsal tapes of 1980s band Flipper, and noises from the Moon Cresta arcade game, are layered into this heady rush of sound. It’s one part of a collaboration between Speare and the performance artist Reverend Billy, who preaches evangelistic messages against the excesses of consumerist society. I think this eventually became a multi-media theatre piece called Automystica-American Yoga, of which this ‘Astronaut’ piece, with help from film-maker Perter McCandless, was one segment.

Also here: two musical compositions for chamber instruments Speare wrote in the 1970s, ‘Canto’ and ‘Espy’; and the short but astonishing ‘Idiolect II’, a voice piece that gives us a glimpse of Speare’s work in the 1976 group Philadelphia New Language Actions; it may appear to be improvised voice work, but is in fact a carefully orchestrated set of vowel sounds and consonants prepared by Speare.

A true pleasure to be introduced to the work of this impressive phonographer and ecologist; a set like this can only hint at the depth and breadth of his work and many collaborations, but it’s a very good place to start.

  1. Source: A Tribute To Jed Speare, newmusicbox.org.
  2. You can purchase a custom CD, cassette or download from folkways.si.edu.

Last Hope

Another set of high-concept releases from Michał Libera in his Populista series for the Bôłt Records label. Once again the over-arching idea has been expressed as a triptych of three related records.

The so-called “Winter Triangle” comprises three albums, each with a different take on the Winterreise song cycle of Franz Schubert. I’ve had to do a little research into this famed early 19th century piece for piano and voice, as I’m completely ignorant of Schubert. I find it’s a series of songs based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, and a romantic contemplation on the theme of unrequited love or lost love. The poems tell little stories, full of symbols; Müller had all the idealistic passion of a young man, while Schubert was close to death from syphilis when he wrote it, and generally fed up with life, accounting to some degree for its melancholic caste. The work has become embedded in our culture, widely perceived as a grand statement of sorrow and unhappiness, with wintry imagery everywhere standing for the desolation of the heart. Small wonder why it’s endured and proven popular; to some performers, it’s become more than just a piece of music, but something akin to a fact of life, so profound is its effect on both musician and audience.


Even I can tell it’s quite a leap of faith from these mannered and expressionistic lieder to the first of our Libera trilogy. Richard Youngs performs Parallel Winter (BR POP15) on guitar and zither, punctuating a continual circular guitar theme with his broken lines of poetry, sung in a very limited range in a plain and unfussy voice. Youngs caused quite a stir in 1990 with his Advent and Lake albums (the latter recorded with Simon Wickham-Smith) released on the No Fans label; one of them was singled out by Alan Licht as a significant piece of Minimalism to rank with the best of La Monte Young or Philip Glass. Whether or not one agrees with that provocative claim, one can see a certain minimalist influence on Parallel Winter; it’s as though Youngs has taken two bars of a Donovan song, and extended them through repetition and small variations, into a single 33-minute piece. Youngs recorded it in December 2014 at a live show at the Komuna // Warszawa theatre, and made an announcement to the audience about the number of lines in his song corresponding to the exact number of days of Winter remaining. The significance of this eludes me, but it has something to do with “enduring” the most painful of the seasons in the same way we sit through this painfully boring tune. On some days, I might characterise this as a form of “broken” folk music, not unlike the “broken” rock music played by Jandek (whom Youngs has accompanied with his bass playing). If there are stories and people buried in his ice-cold lyrics, they don’t exactly leap out of the frame to greet the listener. A dull ache descends on the soul, which we might mistake for a trance induced by the mesmerising simplicity of these rhythms, or it may simply be boredom.


The second item may be more recognisable to cultured music-lovers who know Winterreise better than I do. At any rate, all 24 song titles are here, and there are 24 index points on the CD. However the singer Barbara Kinga Majewska and the pianist Emilia Sitarz are presenting, in collaboration with Michał Libera, a very radical reinterpretation of the work; described with no false modesty by Libera as “a far reaching interpretation…bold and consequent”, which has something to do with finding “new tensions and new interrelations existing in Schubert’s cycle”. Be prepared for post-modernism by the pound…we don’t even get a song until track four, and before that it’s another exhibition of fragmented consciousness, not far from Youngs and his broken folk song. Near-silence opens the CD…there are small pointillist piano notes dotting the void, not unlike a piano work by John Cage…we even hear the creak of the pedals and the piano lid. It’s as though the work is deliberately drawing our attention to the mechanics of a classical salon performance. When the songs do finally get underway, there’s no denying the force of the performance or the technical ability of the two women here. But I wonder if their version of ‘Den Lindenbaum’, originally a poem about a comforting tree reminding the lover of happier days, is meant to be rather sarcastic in tone; Majewska belts it out in a rather snide manner, like a dutiful boy scout making fun of a patriotic song. Other songs exhibit a great fluency with many styles (all of them quite mannered); the breathless rush of ‘Ruckblick’ is verging on Punk Rock screech, and the decadent defeated tone in ‘Die Post’ is a superlative piece of character-acting in song. Then there’s ‘Wasserflut’, which I don’t think is even part of the original cycle; a fascinating piece of near free-form piano chording almost like deep-frozen Cecil Taylor, with a forlorn vocal that lies on top like a scrap of newspaper drifting in the wind. As can be deduced, this version of Winterreise is clearly taking a lot of liberties: incomplete texts, songs missing, the wrong order, inclusion of external materials, and a deconstructionist approach to both piano and song. Yet I am prepared to believe it somehow gets closer to the truth of Schubert’s intentions than any given conventional recording. This record thus continues the notion of rule-breaking, as established and manifested in numbers 10 to 12 in the Populista series.


If both of the above records seem “over-cluttered” to you, then you’ll enjoy the record by Joanna Halszka Sokołowska; over one hour of her solo singing, with no guitar, zither, or piano to distract you. Eventually it will dawn on the listener that she’s repeating a single phrase over and over in an endless loop, not unlike the John Cage infinite repetitions of Satie in Vexations. This singer last came our way in August 2015 with the utterly perplexing record MSZA which she made for this label, again under the auspices of Libera, which may or may not have been a reinterpretation of the music of Robert Ashley. If nothing else, I do admire the purity of her performance of Winterreise; a live recording with no edits, no rehearsals, and no studio processing. She sustains the mood of utter melancholy with a concentration that must require a will of iron, and not a single note is missed. At times, the poise and assurance with which she delivers each ice-cold line of text is so perfect she seems to be channelling the spirit of the doomed lover on which the whole song cycle is based. There’s a “thoroughly camouflaged conceptual content” guiding her every move, Libera assures us, and according to him whatever it was that caused Schubert to take an interest in folk song form, well, Sokołowska comes directly from the same source.

I suppose you need to hear all three of these to get the full effect of the conceptual triptych which Libera is proposing, much the same as the other three-parters in this series. Less semantically rich than we’ve come to expect from the Populista records, but still just as thematically sound and conceptually very taut and precise in their execution. From 12 February 2016.

Northern Lights

Erik Friedlander

Erik Friedlander
Illuminations – A Suite For Solo Cello

This album, released on Friedlander’s own imprint, contains pieces of music titled variously; ‘Prelud’, ‘Madrigal’, ‘Chant’, ‘Cham’, ‘Tarantella’, ‘Fantasia’, ‘Pavan’. Each track title has its style appended to it. It’s like a mini music lesson? A Pavan is an English 16th and 17th Century court dance, popular as a wedding march, for instance. Although “Cham” has stumped me – perhaps it’s a reference to the masked dance associated with some sects of Buddhism? Answers on a postcard…

Bold, baroque and maximalist. It runs the gamut, alright. Although its all very “musical” – Friedlander has mastery of extended technique I’m sure, but he doesn’t demonstrate very much on these recordings. There’s even a smudge of fingerstyle folk melody here and there. Friedlander is NYC-based and in fact describes himself as a “…veteran of NYC’s Downtown scene…”. Indeed, his resumé includes work with John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Dave Douglas and Courtney Love. That’s an impressive set of credentials.

Friedlander’s website has this to say about Illuminations; it is “…a magical solo CD that weaves inspirations from ancient book making with ritual dance movements and Renaissance vocal forms…” There is no information other than production credits on the sleeve, so I’m struggling with the reference to ancient book-making, but this in no way hinders my enjoyment of the music.

The third track, ‘Siddur’, is full of suspense. Keeps the unity and sense of purpose of each type of piece, showcasing technique for sure, but without the saccharinity or old-fashioned references, particularly ‘The Virgin and The Unicorn’; track 9. Not a step wrong. Strong material; bold and beautiful, which should easily find its way into other solo cellists’ repertoire if there’s any justice in this world. You may have come across his work on the soundtrack of Nothing On Earth; a TV documentary about photographer Murray Fredericks’ exploration of the ice caps in Greenland – Friedlander is in trio mode with Satoshi Takeishi on percussion and Shoko Nagai on accordion and piano – and the material here is a lot more jazz-inflected than on Illuminations. Interesting abstract coloured-pencil drawing on the sleeve by Vanessa No Heart, who appears to be a book jacket designer by trade.

Zeit und Sein

Kenneth Kirschner

Kenneth Kirschner
Compressions & Rarefactions
USA 12K 12K1083 CD (2015)

It is a known phenomenon that the menstrual cycles of two women cohabiting will quickly assume the same rhythm. In any given situation, bodies occupying the same space must conform to the law of dynamic equilibrium if they are not to find themselves rejected, regardless of the nature of the relationship in question. For someone who lives in the countryside, the contours of that environment must become as intimate as a lover amid the stillness that would prove unbearable if not befriended.

A corresponding survival strategy must be employed in the city, in which the constant hubbub is something most of us filter out as we go about our business in as easy a manner as if we were living in a quiet suburb: symbiotically conforming to the urban pulse. However, New York City – ‘the capital of the world’ as some put it – has never been short of composers for whom the perpetual din acts as something more than a distraction; rather, something to be reflected back into the never-ending state of play.

In spite of their superficial differences and respective muses, Minimalist composers such as Glass, Reich and even Feldman have all made it their business to internalise and collectively refract such unshielded chaos through monumentally proportioned works that offer us listeners some perspective both on the ultimately conservative order of chaos itself and on the perspective of the artist for whom the tumultuous backdrop acts as a canvas for a very specific point of focus; one to which we must be attentive – perhaps exclusively so – if we are to recognise the grandeur of their architecture.

The New York composer Kenneth Kirschner takes his place unselfconsciously among these ranks. His compositions, five of them collected here, appear to go nowhere for very long periods of time; up to two hours in fact, without rumour of destination. It is the rhythm of a city that never sleeps. His terminations are merely the voice of a body exhausted and surrendering to the need for sleep, where even in retirement one does not simply ‘forget’ what has been heard (for it has never died away) and imperceptibly our entire nervous system has quietly accommodated their subtle movements and intrigues as it proceeds into whatever preoccupation that follows.

This is not to say that Kirschner’s music lacks variety: one can quickly discern this fact by skipping through the tracks. In three of the pieces, miniature orchestras perform polyphonic contortions within a dark, indeterminate space; truncated suggestions of phrases condensing and dispersing at a maddening crawl, eliciting genuine sympathy for the musicians who appear to be on the verge of freezing solid. Perhaps this is why the compositions end without resolution, as they do.

Except the performance is illusory: working with as little as a single violinist, Kirschner has recorded, manipulated and layered the performances – which must still have been no picnic for the performers – into a new (or ‘New’) organism with a microtonally detailed nervous system – one capable of both withstanding and even influencing that of the surrounding climate, or at least that of the willing participant. We are invited to peer into the cracks between layers; the thawing icicles of piano and percussion; the respiratory silences between bars, where we may encounter the spectres of our own sleeping selves. In the process of listening to these pieces, we may lose all sense of time and all expectation of conclusion, for when all is said and done all we are left with, ironically, is the date on which each piece was recorded.

Two of the pieces fall short of thirty minutes and these are on the CD. Three further can (and should) be downloaded following purchase, which is where the real substance is to be found. It is as though Kirschner would taunt us for our materialism; our coveting the tangible object, when it is our desire that possesses us. By engaging with his music we are expected to relinquish such urges and partake in the play of elements – the ‘waves of pressure and absence’ – that we would otherwise forsake.

A potent symbol for us therefore is the empty glass, which forms the sound source for ‘July 17, 2010’. By no means unprecedented in the field of electroacoustic music, the vessel offers the sound artist a vast range of tones and textures, and Kirschner draws extensively upon this throughout the piece, as it tunnels and condenses around us, reducing our perspective to that of the sand grain itself as the glasses’ atomic structure regresses back to that of constituent elements whirling in their lonely orbits.

The second piece on the CD, ‘April 16, 2013’ stands alone as a distinctly musical statement: a warming sun-shower of tuned percussion parts that bathes us after what has preceded and in preparation for the epic that is to follow. While enjoying this, we might lay eyes upon artist Kysa Johnson’s supra-mathematical calligraphy, which adorns the CDs all-too-diminutive sleeve and which provides the music’s conceptual underpinning. Like the music, it alternates between compression and rarefaction, but it does so with a view of carefully adjusting the rhythm of the spectator, ultimately blurring the distinction between perceiver and perceived. In the end, it is universal law that succeeds and we are restored.