Tagged: composed

Unorthodox Church

Heavy Training

Arturas Bumšteinas
Different Trains
POLAND BÔŁT RECORDS BR R005 CD (2014)

One name ubiquitous to my eyes of late belongs to Lithuanian composer, collaborator and sound artist Arturas Bumšteinas, by virtue of his having secured space on so many labels of interest to this journal. And to my ears he blends the roles of composer and sound artist very evenly throughout this largely solo effort. The Steve Reich-ian title quickly proves to be a red herring: where Reich’s work of the same title concerned itself with the disparity between certain Jewish experiences during and after World War II, Bumšteinas reformulates the theme (while preserving the Jewish perspective) as a work ‘inspired by Central European cultural landscape’ and all the turmoil, change and redemption this implies. The ‘Different Trains’ are both real and metaphorical, like passing carriages loaded with history, poetry, improvisation and composition of a distinctly religious tone.

Such good-natured appropriation should offer little surprise, considering Bumšteinas once published a book of cocktail recipes in graphic score form a la Stockhausen’s Studie II. And as the first composition (‘Wielka improwizacja’) makes clear, he is quite the organiser. This ‘radio play’ sets off with deceptive linearity: an accented female narrator gives a potted history of Lithuania’s railway system while trains shimmer past in the distance. The significance of this history is twofold: rails connect Lithuania internally and internationally, but at the same time admit all manner of influences desirable and otherwise. Thus it is that with one dread-inducing drone, Mother Russia takes hold of Lithuania (as she has done twice in the past two centuries) and the drama assumes a collage-like aspect, with equal measures of dissonance and benediction distributed across the sharded structure. Such moods reflect the geography: much was recorded in and around the Basilian monastery in Vilnius, which doubled as a Russian prison in the 19th century, becoming a ‘home’ for artists and prisoners of conscience. It certainly shows. Bumšteinas weaves recordings of Church organ, a string quartet, guitar and voices into a narrative that manages to accrue momentum in spite of its fragmented sequencing, but keeps the listener ever at a distance. Monologues and poetry in English and Lithuanian (some old, some new) convey immediacy and remoteness through dispassionate delivery, as if illustrating an ecclesiastical experience chilled by a lunar spiritualism that accepts only the faithful.

An inversion of the original title choice (and Bumšteinas’ chosen avatar), ‘Acceptnik’ flips on its head the idea of the ‘Refusenik’ (i.e. a non-conformist, or someone (especially a Jew) denied freedom of movement) as an expression of the personal freedoms that gave rise to this second piece. It would appear that ‘inspiration from above’ was both sought and admitted, given the piece’s founding on a ‘nocturnal improvisation’ played on the St. Severin’s Church organ in Germany, where one imagines Bumšteinas proceeding wherever whim took him. The resultant overtones issue forth, barely stemmed by struck chimes and the swells of a vaporous ghost-choir, as well as sine waves, field recording and instruments; all distributed in a pattern that provides a relatively linear yet quite uncertain experience, which humbly invites the listener’s acceptance.

While conceivably the ‘easy listening’ finale, ’Pinavija’ unites the cold air of antiquity with the warmth of lamp-lit nostalgia, owing to the delicate and pervasive melody of its harmonium basis, which was sourced from a 78 recording of the Hebrew Sabbath prayer Jehi Rozon. Composed as a gift, the piece takes its name from a flower, akin to which it opens gradually to reveal its splendour, blending the mellifluous and discordant alike (snippets of violin, koto, dulcimer etc.) as it proceeds towards a well-earned crescendo. It is not without incident though: the balance between solemn hymnal and pseudo-shamanic ‘folk’ is shaky at times; a structural uncertainty that wavers like faith under interrogation, though the bracing round of hand-clapping that marks the piece’s final minutes offers at least temporary fortification, as well as another possible Steve Reich reference. Given Bumšteinas’ capacity for repurposing though, it might just as easily function as a note of self congratulation.

Laughing House

Antanas Rekašius / Apartment House
Fonogramatika
LITHUANIAN MUSIC INFORMATION AND PUBLISHING CENTRE MICL CD 089 (2016)

Towering high with over 30 participants, UK’s Apartment House is a substantial set of indefatigable interpreters of international avant-garde in operation since 1995. Apportioning duties across this massive membership, in Fonogramatika they turn their collective eye to a selection of small chamber works penned ‘calligraphically’ and ‘elegantly across the page’ by the Lithuanian composer Antanas Rekašius (1928 – 2003), which the liner notes liken to the capricious splattering of a painter. A relative latecomer to the world of composition (beginning with his final year in law studies), after a determined catch-up Rekašius developed three strands in his oeuvre: dense symphonies ‘for a large, overburdened orchestra’; chamber music with an orchestrally counteractive ‘lightness and wit’; and songs for adults and children, with correspondingly chromatic modes of expression.

Though described by Apartment House’s Anton Lukoszevieze as ‘radical and forgotten’, the composer is evidently held in no small esteem by Lithuania’s cultural decision makers these days, this being a government-sponsored release. Even ‘radical’ Rekašius might have been startled by the standards: the CD is housed in four panels of extra-hard card, with the luxurious matt veneer of deluxe first edition.

Having elected to follow the chamber route (with all of its respective nuances), the musicians encountered a few speed bumps early on, making sense of a lack of specifics such as which percussion to use, though they turned this to their advantage fairly quickly by recognising in this paucity the composer’s wish to keep the music ‘free, fresh and improvisatory, blurring the boundaries between notation and interpretation’ and thus put some healthy onus on would-be interpreters.

No stranger to the kinds of aleatoric methods Rekašius employed in organising his material via repetition, pitch and timbral alterations, the group(s) follow suit in turning out pithy and distinctive variations of each composition’s primary theme, each commanding a very different mood. For variety’s sake, these can be divided into roughly five sections (‘Epitaph’, ‘Atonic’, ‘Phonogram’, ‘Fluorescences’ and ‘Musica Dolente E Con Brio’), each with a distinct arrangement (solo piano and cello, piano and percussion forming the main; the narcotically fine ‘Fluorescences’ being an extended duet for cello and synthesizer). Having discerned the lack of instructions to be a blessing in disguise, the groupings quickly divined their spontaneity and creativity in handling decisions, resulting in what I would suppose to be a sound approximation of the sought-after ‘alien jazz, with mournful melodies, grotesque rhythmic machinations and a sinuous pitch-bending’.

Though outwardly very sombre or otherwise unemotional, the compositional gravity is thus upended by the musicians’ lightness of touch. Saxophonist Frank Gratkowski and pianist Philip Thomas are particularly impressive for their crisp and athletic fingering in surroundings darkened by the brittle timbre of Lukoszevieze’s cello, which dynamics transform the performances from recitals into something far more personal. For instance, Parts of ‘Musica Dolente E Con Brio’ dance like an Alejandro Jodorowsky circus – outwardly spectacular, but infected with a presentiment that something dreadful could happen at any moment.

Which it does: a sudden ending. Which is as exemplary of where the ‘wit’ of these pieces as it gets; not in ‘subtle, winking humour’ but in ‘the crazy japes of vaudeville and Buster Keaton’. At the same time, I sense that this wit would be more evident in a live performance or in the composer’s presence (impossibility notwithstanding) – given his reputation for ‘rich, rapid, emotional and physical transformations, pulling and dragging out of his performers and jettisoning it into the acoustic space’. However, with Fonogramatika Apartment House offer a convincing argument for their authority as exponents of his work.

Gratuitous Violins

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Jean-Luc Fafchamps
Gentle Electronics
BELGIUM SUB ROSA SR397 CD + DVD (2015)

‘These works are not at all for those whose attention is fully focused on the new worlds of sounds made accessible… by a jealous and relentless quest for technology. They target those who want to listen to instruments and not be able to recognise them… because their history has been changed.’

Thusly framed is this intriguing CD/DVD package from composer Jean-Luc Fafchamps and his hand-picked performers; the pomp of such grandstanding highlighting everything right and wrong with this release. He valorises the humbleness of the ‘simple electronic means’ used in realising these two compositions, which to my ears is a technological paucity that barely exceeds the processes of looping and amplification. In a sense it is a ’back to basics’ exercise in compositional resourcefulness where even multi-tracking is held in abeyance. This method might well be said to reinforces the ‘poetics’ of his music, but upon listening the meagreness of ingredients is clearly a virtue, as is the considered involvement of each performer with(in) their respective environment.

‘Beth/Veth’ – which features on the CD – is a single, extended ‘composition’ for piano and metallic objects, the passages of which consist mainly of semi-ornate, cascading naturalism broken by spells of incessant hammering, like a collage of Debussy, Satie, Feldman et al. Pianist Stephane Ginsburgh is a regular collaborator of Fafchamps’ and a reliable presence on the Sub Rosa label. He also has an affinity for Morton Feldman, which should surprise nary a listener. His studious examination of each and every note and phrase is that of the experienced jeweller studying a diamond for imperfections; an enquiry that deepens into jarring segues that lead to more irascible, fitful passages and finally the majestic arrival of gongs that signal the dying minutes. For me personally, it’s a listening experience particularly remarkable at the end of a tiring day.

By no small contrast the DVD is – on paper at least – something I’d not have plumped for if not prompted: footage of a ‘street’ performance for electric viola competing for attention with nearby traffic and initial public indifference; throughout the performance, the camera pans the area to record both the non-event of passing traffic and the growing interest of passers-by. The value of such an event as a recorded document is negligible, though once again Fafchamps’ words are validated by the fact that one has to ‘go to the effort’ of actually playing and watching the thing, rather than lazily clicking on a link. And by the simple means of repeating a brief, ascending phrase amplified ad infinitum, player Vincent Royer further satisfies Fafchamps’ function-over-form mandate; his ramped up layers of screech, swell and delay exhilarating and deafening his surrounding adversities into submission and finally into a round of well-deserved applause.

Stimulating as this all is, why these night-and-day pieces have been packaged as one is unclear: neither a comprehensive ’portrait’ of Jean-Luc Fafchamps, nor possessed of cohesive musicology; one is left to conclude that – self-sabotage notwithstanding – this disparity is the very point. We might also infer a qualified rejection of the many technologies that have encroached upon so much of our lives: social networking and music production for instance. How well it is served by such a manifesto as that quoted above though, I am dubious. For a statement that cries for simplicity, it certainly is wordy. But then who am I to comment?

Arc of a Journey

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French genius eRikm is here again with another of his modernist compositions, the conceptual suite of electro-acoustic music Doubse Hysterie (MONOTYPE RECORDS MONO076). I’ve usually enjoyed his turntabling and sampling actions more than his formal composed music; the latter generally strikes me as cold, stiff and laboured, compared to the fun-loving pyrotechnics of the former. This Doubse Hysterie is an interesting one, however, and offers a variety of approaches across its six movements: lengthy and highly extended digital drones, mostly produced by a form of time-stretching which is eminently possible using today’s editing tools; musical performances, from the string duo of Julia Eckhardt and Silvia Platzer on ‘Hallali’; and a solo Khen performance from eRikm on ‘Bout De Souffle’. The record takes the listener on a train journey, and speculates on the meaning of male hysteria via the works of Freud and a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois.

The time-stretching method is most evident on the interminable ‘Argentique’, which performs the impossible feat of extending a church bell chime for about 16 minutes; the semi-natural drone created extends into the distance, inviting gloomy prognostications. A bell of finality, tolling for the doom of man. ‘Arcus’ and ‘Cirrus’ may be working in similar ways, but at least they’re more maximal and there’s more substance in the sound to cling onto, even though the latter is in danger of lapsing into commonplace sound-file manipulation and over-familiar digital crunch. ‘Hallali’ continues to stand out on today’s spin, maybe because of the icy precision of the string players, or simply because of the resigned melancholy of its emotional stance. ‘Pop Macalogique’ is good too, and may come the closest to realising the composer’s intent, offering a suitable sombre tone for us to enjoy its grandiose, near-orchestral sweep.

As to that intent, Doubse Hysterie appears to have evolved in eRikm’s noggin through a mixture of process and ideas, one inspiring the other. Erikm took a train journey in the Franche-Comte area and, like many passengers these days, listened to stuff on his smartphone. As he would have it, this was “immersive listening” with “audio headphones”, and the fact that the smartphone has a GPS feature is also part of the concept in some way. Not unrelated is eRikm’s practice of taking long-exposure photographs out of the window when he rides the train, resulting in images which he calls “horizontally striated periodicities” 1. One example of these may even feature on the cover here. We can see the parallel between that method of image creation and the music on the CD; at one level, it shows the possibilities of manipulation of digital data, be it for image or audio.

Originally commissioned in 2011 by the Intermèdes Géographiques association, Doubse Hysterie contains nine suites in its full form; eRikm has carefully selected six of them, to create an album length piece and something suitable for home consumption, implying that the actual concert-hall performance was of a much more ambitious order. When he looked deeper into the ecological environment of the Arc Jurassien (through which his train journey took him), his mind made a connection between this geological arc and Arc D’Hysterie, a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois; this chain of thought leads us to one possible conclusion that Doubse Hysterie is “about” the phenomenon of male hysteria. I’m not overly familiar with this psychological condition, but there’s one school of thought that suggests it’s a real thing that is often over-shadowed by its female counterpoint; even eRikm thinks it is “almost unknown and remains a taboo”. Odd; he seems to stand on the cusp of becoming an advocate for hysteria, reclaiming it as a men’s lifestyle option. Maybe he could make it into a political platform.

Decide for yourself how much of this intellectual content has passed into the music; you may not find any nerve-shredding panic-attack mode music, if that’s what you were expecting, but that might not be the point. The central image on the cover could almost be mistaken for a highly stylised human figure writhing in agony during such an attack, but in fact it’s a map of the Arc Jurassien. From 21 June 2016.

  1. Enough pretentious jargon here for you yet? It does make one a tad mistrustful. Why can’t he speak more plainly?

Bags’ Groove

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Impressive and inventive improvised / jazz / composed music from Pascal Niggenkemper, a French-German bass player appearing here with his new sextet Le 7eme Continent. The album Talking Trash (CLEAN FEED CF373CD) contains a wealth of musical ideas, allowing space for free improvisation within certain grids and frames, and the attention to dynamics and tension-inspiring gaps is remarkable. Niggenkemper is well served by his fantastic team of players, including the woodwind player Joachim Badenhorst (with whom he also plays in the trio Baloni), Eve Risser and Philip Zoubek with their two prepared pianos, plus the sub-contrabass flute of Julian Elvira and the clarinet of Joris Ruhl. Notice that’s an all-acoustic line-up, although it seems the woodwind team may employ some amplification; the majority of these strange and alien noises are all generated by human action, breathing, bowing and plucking movements.

Talking Trash is a concept album of sorts, based on Niggenkemper’s reading of alarming news reports of what’s happening in the Pacific ocean these days…apparently we’re dumping so much garbage in the sea, it’s practically formed a new continent of detritus, described by a note here as “an artificial world, in the midst of the ocean, accidentally created by men” and nicknamed the Seventh Continent. “It made me think…” states Niggenkemper, reflecting on the lamentable piles of non-biodegradable plastic we’re stacking up in gargantuan proportions; and as his way of dealing with this depressing “absurd reality”, he created these compositions. It helps to draw our attention to this aspect of world pollution. But he also wanted to create a living sound-portrait, a moving painting in sound, depicting the continent of rubbish and its undulating actions. The accuracy of his snapshots is informed by a pessimistic undertone, highly critical of the horrible wastage we tolerate under advanced capitalism.

Among the many notable musical moments: ‘Gyres Oceaniques’, a striking conversation between the two pianos, one of them providing a solid percussive backdrop while the other executes wild free jazz runs and trills; dark tension and open spaces (voids and vacuums) yawn terrifyingly. ‘Plasticsphere’, a long and melancholic drone piece of understated beauty, where the harmonics of the bowed strings create an oceanic swell, dotted with minimal piano tinkles and whimpers from the woodwind section, making us weep at the imagined sight of a forlorn plastic bag drifting hopelessly in the sea. The second track, whose title is an elaborate grid reference, exhibiting the Evan Parker acrobatics of the clarinets supported by an exquisite piano figure. ‘Ideonella Sakaiensis’, a perturbed squall of a piece suggestive of a storm at sea, amply demonstrating Niggenkemper’s aim to “make this seventh continent sing, hiss, whirr, buzz and scream”.

Talking Trash is a superlative album of contrasts and tensions: abstract soundscapes alongside dense free jazz note-clusters, narrative environment-portraits, taut well-arranged and composed rhythms with free-form blowing and scraping. The sextet perform immaculately and cannot put a single foot wrong, and the recording by Christian Heck and Stefan Deistler is vivid and clear, creating a great-sounding record. Full marks and highest recommendation for this exemplary example of cutting-edge improvised-composed and well-crafted music. From 22 June 2016.

Not A Drone

emmanuel-mieville

Emmanuel Mieville
Ethers
FRANCE BASKARU karu:36 CD (2015)

Emmanuel Mieville studied sound engineering at cinema school, and learned musique concrète techniques at the GRM. He is a guest composer for Framework’s field recordings based shows, on Resonance FM, produced by Patrick McKinley. Ethers is Mieville’s second album for Baskaru; the first being 2011’s Four Wanderings In Tropical Lands. He also has releases on TIBProd, (an album Denki Colors and a split 3” cd with Töre H. Boe), XingWu, Lona records, Obs, and Crónica. Mieville’s chosen tools here are field recordings from Hong Kong, France and Morocco, with a smidgen of saxophone on the final piece, all treated with Max/MSP and Metasynth.

On the sleeve of this release we get this piece of information: “Ethers is an attempt to give an earthy quality, a dense texture to drone music, to lower it from the ‘skies’.” It is always useful to know the artist’s intention, I feel. Now, there’s dense and there’s dense. If you think Ethers is dense, take a listen to something by John Wall. I would probably disagree with Mieville and say I don’t think this is drone music at all – not because I think the intention has failed. It just doesn’t drone. To me, the use of the term “drone” as a descriptor implies a continuous element of some kind; promoting some kind of transcendent or liberating environment in which to react in the moment. This sounds like a field recording album, albeit a very well-produced one. It has a restrained pace but is hardly glacial in scope; but a field recording album nonetheless. I certainly do not mean this as a criticism, but I do find the use of the term perplexing. Maybe something got lost in translation somewhere along the line.

Despite my initial reservations, I find the first piece is titled “Fertile Drone”. Is it rain or waves breaking I hear? There is faint evidence of processing audible; a granular effect results which I can’t say I’m a fan of – I’m not sure what it brings to the table. Why use this kind of process at all? And despite saying I don’t immediately recognise Mieville’s material as “drone music”, I become aware of A Drone around 6 minutes in. Despite this I’m still not convinced. To me it sounds like that immense grey area of field recording-derived processed sound that is prevalent in many art galleries and project spaces of major European cities and beyond. I suppose that’s what I do like about it: it is recognisably part of a continuum.

“Sur le Pont” begins with unprocessed field recordings of workmen’s voices, perhaps. Drills, building site sounds and burning. Plus, the enduring use of water as a sound source. This develops into bowed percussion and the noises made by trains. “Watt Station” features waves on the sea. And a section that sounds like jet engines heavily processed. There is also a synth floating around vaguely. At one point, I think I hear the sound of a tube train but it turns out to be a synth patch. What is the purpose of this music; who is it for? At thirteen and a half minutes, “Island Ferrysm” (sic) could be a lengthy conceptual deconstruction of modes of transport. The raw materials are there – recordings from a ferry crossing, synthesised impellers, propellors, motors and gears. This piece is certainly more intense than the previous material. Ethers as a whole is engaging, but whether it lives up to its own brief, or even whether it should, I just can’t decide.

From the country and the concrete jungle

st1

Two more cassettes from Staaltape arrived 9th May 2016. It so happens both releases are by women, and very coincidentally the imagery on Rinus Van Alebeek’s collaged decorated envelope (which he customarily includes with every mailout) features the faces of women clipped from his vast stack of old magazines.

Patrizia Oliva has created Numen – Life Of Elitra Lipozi, a most beautiful work clad in a smoky black cover with just a single blue butterfly spray-painted on. The A side, titled ‘Danse Des Fantomes’, is dreamy and evocative and makes me a willing dancing partner of the proposed ghosts and spirits. Voices, loops, and even some vaguely operatic elements are refashioned by Oliva into something personal and strange. She’s playing with magnetic tape like a gifted child sets to work with a box of watercolours. I don’t know why musicians (like Michael Nyman) are drawn to the work of Oliver Sacks (this release includes dedication to that deep thinker). But Oliva may be trying, like Sacks, to map the strange pathways of the brain in her atmospheric and charged music.

The B side ‘A Day Long To’ showcases the “Annette Peacock” mode of this performer…vaguely jazzy free singing she emanates from an indefinable part of her singing apparatus, in an inflected and mannered mode…the lonely avant-ness of Joan La Barbara is notched back two degrees and edged a shade closer to a ghostly portrait of Ella Fitzgerald…by which I mean it’s not clear if she’s singing from her mouth, or her brain-waves. Of course the minimal arrangements that back her up are pretty inspired too, making the most of a studio housed in a matchbox and two rubber bands holding everything together. More tape loops and much dreamy unfinished music drifts into the ether. A nice not-quite-there quality, slightly balmy. Oddly the B-side feels to me like separate songs, where the A side feels like a mini-opera telling a story. Not all that’s here is a song; there’s one very effective piece which is extremely abstract, just repeated patterns, sound effects, and whispered / murmured voices, yet it’s uncanny and highly effective in its dream-like mood sustaining of same. The side ends with a fascinating anecdote about synaesthesia, how it’s possible to see music as colours, and how no two people who have the condition ever agree on what the “right” colour is. Interestingly, the condition was first recorded in medical history by another Dr Sachs, this time a German physician of the 19th century.

In all Patrizia Oliva not only has a singular vision but also a very delicate touch in the creation of her work which is determinedly “non-masculine”, which isn’t to say it’s feminine and decorative, but organised along non-aggressive lines, without the usual male need to follow structure blindly and rush to a contrived ending. “Patrizia lives in the country, surrounded by nature,” write Rinus helpfully. “One lady from the old world”. If that’s true, that’s one old world whose passing we will come to regret. Every commonplace remark made on Twitter hastens the death of these old worlds.

The tape by Valerie Kuehne is of a different order. I couldn’t find a title but it might be called Audiozone #3, part of a series; release is just identified by the two sides, called ‘Ball Side’ and ‘Other Side’. Patrizia Oliva is pleasantly balmy, while Valerie Kuehne is an inspired screwball, in the nicest possible way of course. “Valerie moves in the concrete jungle”, writes Rinus about this American performer. Her songs here feature a kind of demented folk-inflected chanting and yawping, for instance the opener ‘Haul Away Joe’, a sea shanty which requires the artiste to remake herself as a crusty nautical cove on board an 18th century rigger. A grotesque opener. ‘The Graviton’ is better, more of a shamanic free-form wailing trip…like a lost ESP Disk recording from such waywards as Erica Pomerance, much free warbling with plenty of percussion and manic performances from her side musicians. ‘Apocalypse Berliner’ is a spoken word recit which gradually becomes more, erm, impassioned…as she describes some situation which sounds like a grave social injustice, her sarcasm shoots through the top of the thermometer and she becomes positively demented with her passion and commitment to the cause. The sort of loopy radical who might have featured in any 1970 Hollywood hipster road movie made in the wake of Easy Rider. Then there’s ‘Long Long Sleep’, which is like a nightmare parody of Edwardian parlour music with its poised and mannered vocalising which over-stresses certain phonemes in an annoyingly pronounced manner. But you can still sense the underlying nuttiness…her cello work, just now beginning to surface among the chaos on offer, is also certainly highly distinctive and evidence of a wild, peculiar talent.

B side of this weirdie in tape form contains ‘Sunshine in the Sunshine’, which is her freakoid take on the Fifth Dimension pop hit, with emphatic singing, chaotic playing from the guest musicians, her mad cello sawing and her frantic attempts to stir up collaboration among all participants. A glorious mess. You’d hate to have her at your birthday party, unless you love to be embarrassed and mortified. A mostly solo work follows, ‘Architecture at Muchmore’s’, with its cracked all-over-the-show melody, and alarming dynamics which require these abrupt shifts of tempo and sudden bouts of intense delivery. Shocking, crazed. Voice and cello only, I think, were used to realise this insight into the cracks of Kuehne’s brain. After this it might be a piece called ‘Leader Eater’ but it’s getting harder to tell one track from another. Part of what we hear sounds like a confrontational performance-art piece that involves yelling at the audience, and further ingeniously complex songs where it’s a wonder she manages to sustain the difficult long tones which the tunes require. I’m a-warming to this release now…Valerie Kuehne is a very acquired taste, but you don’t get this exceptionally high degree of uncut humanity and honesty captured on tape every day. Ably supported by her side players, which include Natalia Steinbach. Alex Cohen, Hui-Chun Lin, The Columbia Orchestra, Matthew Silver, and others, she saws and sings away. Other releases by Valerie Kuehne include Dream Zoo and Phoenix Goes Crazy, both very obscure low-run CDRs.

The tape itself is a provisional attempt at an “album”. Rinus Van Alebeek made the selections and put it together, but didn’t get much in the way of preferences expressed by the creator, who’s presumably so creatively chaotic in her life that she doesn’t bother with bourgeois things like organisation and planning. So “it is not an album by Valerie; it is an album about her”, is the stated claim, along with an attempt to document the “subculture she is a part of”. This provisional aspect is even reflected in the cover, showing details from a notebook, where the track order and even the titles are subjected to much crossing-out and rethinking. Most intriguingly, the result “leads to a couple of obscure passages into 21st century life somewhere in the US.” What in the name of Condoleezza Rice does that mean?

Headless Men and Yeti Attacks

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Simon Wickham-Smith
A Hidden Life And Other Works
BELGIUM TANUKI RECORDS #13 CD (2016)

Back in the late eighties, my discovery of Simon Wickham-Smith was certainly a weirdly circuitous one. The trail began with a rave review of the Lake double set by the mysterioso R!!! and S!!! found in the still sorely missed Forced Exposure zine/kulcha bible. When I homed in on contact details, I did a double take as it showed a Rowlands Castle address, a village which lies three or so miles north of yours truly (!!!). So it took a Boston, U.S.A.-based publication to alert me to something that was freely available for the princely sum of seven quid (!!!), a mere stone’s throw away.

Since then, multiple exclamation marks have lost their novelty value somewhat, but Simon has hit the review sections with the occasional collaboration (mostly with Richard (R!!!) Youngs and comp track appearances on labels such as Pogus and Electroshock. A Hidden Life, initially released in early 2015 as a limited run cassette/download, has now been given a second bite of the apple through the auspices of the Brussels-based Tanuki label. It’s an avant opera, concerning the life and times of the Tibetan Dalai Lama, Number Six: Tshangyang Gyatso. A major interest to Simon, religious themes being a recurring thread throughout his compositions.

It features the strange sprechsang of Joan Stango, readings/narration by French composer Laetitia Sonami, and ‘tapdancer in the sand’/principal wolfman Robert Ashley (no stranger to theatrical and operatic works himself). And it’s his presence as the lama that really lodges in the memory long after the disc has come to its conclusion. Bizarro recollections/visions of six-tusked elephants, zombies, headless men and yeti attacks abound. Backed by steadily percolating/bubbling analogue manipulations, his silkily-voiced ‘ancient of days’ tones could effortlessly sell icecubes to the Innuits or, at the very least, open up the third eye, making this a tantalising visit to a still(?) forbidden zone.

Clip Art

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Thea Farhadian is a musician and composer who also teaches at Santa Cruz. His many activities include playing the violin, experimenting with electronics, and publishing the odd academic monograph. He’s also recently started a record label, Black Copper Editions, of which the first release showcases his duo work with the guitarist Dean Santomeri. Red Blue (blackcopper001) contains 12 instances of their work, straddling that coveted middle ground between composition and improvisation. A lot of musicians claim to achieve this, but it’s clear instantly that the concise pieces on Red Blue are the result of much preparation, containing evidence of structured melody and repeatable elements tempered with more free-form flights.

Additionally, both musicians use unusual tunings, and some “preparations” which in this context may mean inserting objects into the neck of guitar or violin to modify the sound of the strings. “Catchy rhythms, colourful timbres, and iridescent microtonalities” are their avowed aim. Whatever pathways have led them to free improvisation, I would guess it’s not the same route taken by Derek Bailey where the house of Webern and his 12-tone theories loomed so large on the highway. Instead, both Farhadian and Santomeri have a healthy concern with melody and with not alienating the listener too much, and I hear echoes of Henry Cowell (as if rescored for the guitar) and even late Frank Zappa in some of these pieces; parts of ‘Foil’, for instance, kept reminding me of Orchestral Favorites or Studio Tan.

And like Cowell, they don’t the deny the possibility of narrative in their tunes; indeed many of the titles refer directly to things you might see in an art gallery, such as ‘Picture Frame’, ‘House of Colors’, ‘Pencil Sketch’ and ‘Pollock’. When they do attempt a bit of roughed-up atonality, we get ‘Richochet’ with its crocodile clips and scraped strings, but neither musician is fully comfortable with the kind of full-blooded abstract roar we might get from early Keith Rowe, and their efforts at “noise music” are a bit awkward and pallid. Even so it’s interesting how here, and elsewhere, the tension between the need for melody and the need for experimentation produces interesting clashes. From 16 May 2016.

Boxing Match

stefanthut

Has it Started?

Stefan Thut
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.

pisaro

Is It Over?

Michael Pisaro
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.

Son of Rimbaud

marc-baron

Marc Baron
Un salon au fond d’un lac
FRANCE POTLATCH P316 CD (2016)

The clue, as it turns out, is in the title. That “salon at the bottom of the lake” is a quote from Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer, an image much appreciated by the first generation surrealists, who saw the incongruous juxtaposition as a sort of motif for their own practice of collage – and collage is exactly what we’re dealing with here.

Marc Baron is a composer whose preferred medium is good old analogue reel-to-reel tape, cut-up, slowed down, stretched, pre-recorded and otherwise messed about with to produce new sound worlds for your consideration. This latest work unfolds over three tracks. The first, “Un Salon”, is quite linear, a progression of found sounds and field recordings, bursts of piano melody and aggravating clicks that, cumulatively, have a remarkably disquieting effect. I’m reminded of William Burroughs’ weaponised use of tape playback. This stuff can be dangerous, so handle with care.

If the second track, “La Structure”, feels more successful as a collage, it’s possibly because I’m able to hold more of it in mind as once, perceiving it as a whole rather than a succession of interesting noises. Imagine the Multilevel List function in Microsoft Word simultaneously developing consciousness, a voice and dementia. Imagine it shouting “1 point 1, 1 point 2” and so on at you, only it keeps repeating bits of the sequence and forgetting other bits. Imagine this happening under a dangerously buzzing power line, whilst you’re being attacked by seagulls. That’s what this track sounds like, and it’s my favourite of the three

We’re back to the found sound routine for the third track, “Un Lac”, which is just as unsettling as the first. Those clicks are present here too, like the visible stitches of the thread which holds the whole thing together. Now that I think about it, there is a shape to the album as a whole, with these two linear pieces mirroring each other either side of the more structured second piece. The clue was in the title there, too.

All in all, a stimulating wander through the magnetic fields.