Tagged: composed

The Grand Design

Jean-Luc Fafchamps
YZ3Z2Z1S2, a Five-letter Sufi Word

The work of noted Belgian composer Jean-Luc Fafchamps was hitherto entirely new to this reviewer. Materially, and in terms of attitude, direction and format, however, there is nothing here that would immediately surprise or trouble those with a working knowledge of avant-garde and contemporary orchestral music. Fafchamps’ chosen language, along with its organisation and manner of delivery, sits comfortably with the likes of, say, Harrison Birtwistle, Mark-Anthony Turnage and early Peter Maxwell Davies, or, for that matter, Boulez, even those earlier moves set in train by Messiaen, Schoenberg, Bartók; that is to say in ranging over some kind of drifting admix of Serialism and reactions to it, some measure of atonality, perhaps including appropriations of or allusions to such things as non-Modernist song-forms, folk-ish stylings, etc., even Jazz, even Rock, perhaps including experimentation with electronics, and so on.

This passing sense of general familiarity is, though, successfully tempered with some pleasing detail revealed upon closer inspection. Careful listening draws one into the many intimate scenes which Fafchamps faithfully sets up; which might be comprised of delicate, lacy piano, beautifully trickling onto soft sheets of burgeoning pastoral woodwind, or pillowy, near-comic flights of gymnastic brassy commotion over brooding, malevolent sub-bass. Elsewhere, there are scurrying noises in the undulating undergrowth – the tortured strings of a cello, a viola, a violin. Some passages approach the world of drone music, in being entirely flattened, seemingly mutely ticking, counting out time. Indeed, instantaneous, savage cuts are made to some of these, wherein the listener is brutally thrown back by loud, vertiginous walls of sound. The best of these avoids the simple charge of staged melodramatic ambush, instead creating genuine, intelligent shock and real power. Such shifts confer a healthy dose of dynamism upon the enterprise as a whole, in fact; and this basic to and fro is a key motif of the album itself and perhaps its strongest feature in terms of composition.

Soloists and solo sections shine best overall, in my view. Spotlighted instruments are convincingly stress-tested, and there is a palpable and arresting extremity of technical execution on display; putting one in mind of something like Berio’s ‘Sequenza’ series, or the way Stockhausen treats instruments in his seminal, ‘In Freundschaft’, or, perhaps more exactly, the kind of unabashed virtuosity associated with Free Jazz. Here, one assumes the use of hard-won extended techniques – dextrous double-tonguing of mouthpieces, producing delightful squawks and squeals, the extraction of forced harmonics on brass and strings alike, by over-blowing and over-bowing, respectively. The result is visceral and muscular, and, moreover, expressively human. Most notable here, to my ears, is the trombone of Alain Pire. Added to the feats referenced above, his particular instrument, for its sins, is always threatening to reference its use in comedy. It’s a bit Goons, a bit Tony Hancock; it is the orchestra’s kazoo and Swanee-whistle combined. This humorous veneer lends itself constructively and colourfully to the otherwise fairly solemn proceedings. Jean-Luc Plouvier’s piano is also worthy of mention. His tumbling, muscular arpeggios cover the whole keyboard – during a series of demonstrably physical displays, played seemingly straight from the elbow, maybe the shoulder, with wilful abandon. Here, such bombast is decidedly refreshing.

According to the extensive sleeve-notes, there is some grander plan at work here; in the form of a conceptual system, devised by Fafchamps, which underpins and guides decisions that he made as composer, and which is an integral part of his wider message. This takes its cue from Sufi mysticism, Fafchamps explains, specifically from the 28 letter Arabic alphabet, formed, in turn, of numerical conceits derived from it. I confess both to a complete ignorance about such things and to a disconnection with exactly how these apply to the music itself. Perhaps, in the end, this is no bad thing. Certainly, it is no impediment to appreciation.

Falls of Rauros / Panopticon split: a fine pairing united by a love of and inspiration by nature and Norwegian BM


Falls of Rauros / Panopticon, self-titled split, Bindrune Recordings, vinyl BR020 (2014)

The background to this split album is that A Lunn of Panopticon and the members of Fall of Rauros had spent time in Norway together for various reasons: among other things, Lunn was studying zymurgy (the science of fermentation) as preparation for opening his brewery in Minnesota. The album is inspired by the bands’ visit to Norway and the Norwegian countryside, and their love of Norwegian black metal.

Fall of Rauros contribute two tracks in a melancholic, almost post-metal vein. “Unavailing” is the major track at nearly 12 minutes in length and an epic piece it is too with rapid-fire tremolo guitar and equally hurried percussion alternating with passages of more thoughtful and very insular melodic acoustic guitar melodies. The thin screechy vocals are something of a let-down here as their limited range fails to match the scope and depth of the meandering guitar music. The later part of the track becomes infused with deep dreamy atmosphere and is a deeply intense passage. “The Purity of Isolation” is a calm remedy of almost country or folk post-rock to the intensity of its long sibling and its lyrics suggest a post-apocalyptic healing for humanity through deep contact with and absorption into nature. Here are hope and optimism for a brighter future in which humans accept their place in the natural order of the cosmos, learn true humility and give up their former arrogance and self-destructive illusions.

Panopticon changes musical direction in favour of a more strictly old-school style of raw and furious, all-out attacking black metal with four tracks. “Through Mountains I wander this Evening” practically erases all memory of the previous band’s music with roaring guitars, clattering drums and a seething, menacing vocal all prowling and charging continuously. Having taken total control of your attention, Lunn relaxes a little on the next track with a slower pace and a darkly bleak and mournful ambience with droplets of bluesy raindrop guitar tones among the distorted guitars. After what seems like a (deliberate) near-collapse in the middle of the song, Lunn rallies with a burst of frenzied tom-tom battery and squalling guitar buzz.

“Gods of Flame” is a very war-like track, surprisingly close in parts to commercial melodic heavy metal in the sedate pace and in structure with an emphasis rhythm guitar riffs and melodies. A piano background ambience in the slower sections provides a clean-toned contrast with the constant buzz. There seems to be a strong Burzum influence on the riff loops and guitar trills in the last track “One Cold Night” which is a deeply cold and forbidding conclusion to the album.

Both acts on the split strive to do their utmost but for me Panopticon win out easily for changing its style to a straightforward Norwegian-inspired BM one with none of the bluegrass or other country / folk music elements from previous albums like “Kentucky”. This is quite unexpected for an act of its current stature and with several releases under its belt. Each song in Panopticon’s arsenal is different from the last with parts of “Gods of Flame” not at all much like what I would have expected from Lunn. Falls of Rauros do a good job with their two songs but the one thing that makes their music less than perfect is the vocal: it’s too thin and lacking in variety and range to do justice to their music. Here’s hoping that both bands have gained much from this collaboration in the way of pleasure and new insights about their own music and the other’s music.

Contact: Bindrune Recordings

Agog and Magog

The American sound artist Zan Hoffman impressed us greatly when we heard just one tape of his called Zanstones Fur Berlin, released by Staaltape and noted here. I now learn that another one of his many guises and projects was Krynge, described as a “mutli-collaborative international supergroup” which he masterminded in the years 1987-88, and the CD Spd Kld Spd Rcr (ATTENUATION CIRCUIT ACR 1012) represents the first time that a Krynge cassette has been reissued in digital form. I would guess that Zan produced it by layering and reprocessing contributions from the other home-taping collaborators – Agog, Minoy, and Swinebolt 45 – who were presumably part of the Krynge cabal, although it’s described here simply as “reimagining”. Much to Zan’s credit, he did it all with a four-track recorder, and I agree whole-heartedly with the sentiment that declares he is using the technology as a compositional tool. He succeeds in creating a delirious whirl of sonic information, absolutely teeming with life and vitality and mad ideas rushing past at speeds of mach number. Amazingly, it seems that much of the original source material is recordings of contorted speech, where the speakers themselves – presumably Agog and company – are doing everything possible to distort their own voices, without the aid of technology. They are simply speaking in a weird way. Without exaggeration, it’s fair to state that Hoffman unleashes the hidden inner power that is inherent in everyday events, re-presenting the world as an incredible powerhouse of seething energy. While this raging force may at first at seem a storm of chaos and randomness, you should try and calm down and listen out for the loops and repeated elements which will serve as anchors or index points. And though it may also seem to present a scary view of an unfamiliar world, it’s not an outright evil sound – Zan is not on a mission to terrify us or destroy normality, rather perhaps to reinvigorate our sense of the breathtaking beauty of humanity, of the creation. In that regard I would liken him to Aki Onda, even though they probably use quite different methods, since they seem to share common ground on the way that magnetic tape can not only capture amazing things, but then make them seem even more amazing through distortion and playback. Dreams made into the concrete…since we last wrote about Hoffman and his ZH27 label, it appears he has now made his catalogue freely available here.

Norwegian noisester Gaute Granli is the guitarist and vocalist in Freddy The Dyke, a duo which we mentioned recently in our round-up of Drid Machine tapes, but he’s also made a solo tape called Velkommen Til Forus (SKUSSMAAL SKUMC01) in an edition of 50 copies, which he kindly sent us on 26 November 2013. Where Freddy The Dyke by and large aim for a wholesome and joyful sound experience, solo Granli is much more fractured and inchoate by comparison, with a sense of lumpy ugliness informing each turgid groan. He moans vocally and wordlessly into an echo chamber with sinister intent; his guitar throws out shapeless strums and aimless riffs like a baboon casting coconuts from a tree; and percussion effects stumble blindly about the room like a hooded goblin. When a synth or other electronic keyboard joins in the fun, it’s as though the machine has been possessed by the spirit of Jerry Lewis, or other zany knockabout comedian. This release may not be much more than a chunk of studio doodling and pottering on behalf of Granli, but it’s spontaneous, good fun, and not weighed down with any grim aspects we’d associate with portentous industrial noise. Nor does Granli let any nonsensical concerns about editing, production values or retakes spoil his larking about. As such, we like it fine.

Another fine item from Arturas Bumšteinas, already noted earlier this year with his concept album themed on “Sleep”. For Meubles (CRÓNICA 081-2013), he’s enlisted a small ensemble of players from Poland and elsewhere, called them the Works and Days Ensemble, and commissioned them to perform the three suites of music. Meubles is a concept album about “furniture” 1. By way of underpinning the project theme, each musician was asked the poignant question “If music could be furniture, which piece of furniture it would be?” Their replies – all very imaginative, individual and personal in their interpretation of this vague and open-ended question – result in an almost surrealist catalogue of objects, including a wine cabinet, a stove, a bed, a window, and (my personal favourite) a Billy bookcase from Ikea. It’s my guess that these responses have been the basis for the score of the Meubles suite. I’m all in favour of using unconventional methods to fuel the generation of music. If Stockhausen could write prose instructions for his players for Aus Den Sieben Tagen, then why can’t Bumšteinas get his players to concentrate on a piece of furniture to help them focus on the music production? As the Ensemble perform their (semi-improvised?) parts, the instruments – brass, strings, piano, guitars, percussion and organ – all wrap around each other with the intimacy of a fitted carpet lying snugly in place in a well-appointed room. There are no patterns or melodies that I can discern, but the continual music does hang together in a very harmonious and pleasing manner; no hideous discordant moments await the listener. Slow and syrupy it be, but certainly not formless drone. It’s nice to hear such concord and agreement between people, and it all conveys the pleasant sense of stability that you might associate with a good armchair. From November 2013.

  1. The astute reader will of course be aware of Erik Satie’s furniture music, where the idea was to provide background music for specific events and occasions in salon society, such as drinking tea or playing croquet. Satie’s work is commonly taken, perhaps wrongly, to be the forerunner of ambient music. No doubt Bumšteinas is aware of this too, but he makes no explicit connection to Satie with this composition. Nor to Bill Nelson’s Red Noise, I might add.

Dour Revenants


March of the Dead

Lucie Vítková / Jolana Havelková
Návrh Na Zmenu Partitury

This is a collection of highly interpretative solo performances that pay tribute to the work and influence of 19th century Czech composer and conductor, František Kmoch, who was known for his idiosyncratic take on traditional military march pieces, drawing heavily on Czech folklore and folk songs. These compositions communicated his implacable patriotism, which outside of the music’s local popularity is said to have so chafed against encroaching Austro-Hungarian imperial ideals of the era to the point at which he was even allegedly excluded from pedagogical duties. Our modern-day interpreter, the ‘experimental photographer’ Jolana Havelková, seems at pains to categorise the allusiveness of her ‘alterations’, which metamorphose the written score into a set of quadrilateral abstractions, or ‘graphical scores’: vehicles for one lackadaisical instrumental or other, featuring accordion, organ or harmonica. These attractive, if decidedly unmusical visual spectacles can be found online or in the sizeable expanse of the CD’s fold out insert.

Havelková’s ‘allusiveness’ concerns the music’s consummate vagueness, which might be conceptualised as the imperfection of memory or the memorial. For the realisation – which is as mysterious to me as the language in which it is all named – we have another Czech composer and performer – Lucie Vítková – to thank. Many of her performances took place around Kmoch’s (and her, I assume) hometown of Kolín, in locations significant to the composer, as if to summon (or channel) some vestige both of the composer’s spirit and that of the city itself, to which Kmoch contributed so significantly as to have earned an annual festival in his honour. Monochrome stills of these Spartan surroundings can be viewed at the release’s website, and so silent are they that Vítková must have experienced total immersion in her performance. This is certainly evident in the recordings, though whether the listener also stands to experience ethereal connection with something ‘other’ is another matter entirely. It may indeed be a strained undertaking for the melodically fixated: performances are pruned to the shadow, with few hints of the life in Kmoch’s original compositions: a dour revenant rather than full-hearted renaissance.

Keyed instruments exhibit the more sincere drama on offer: the organ opening (‘Pozdrav Vlasti’) is more bleak than liturgical, though returning in ‘Na Stríbropenném Labi’ in a more demented wise; notes dancing like fireflies in a Svankmejer animation. These sections are among the most eventful, if only by virtue of the curious meandering and ecclesiastical silence. There is also the sustained hammering of a piano in ‘Mesícek Svítí’, barely implies the march and is repetitious in a manner more analytical than exclamatory. By contrast, much of this might be consigned to purgatory: a bath house bevy of female voices cohering wearily in a grey resignation (‘Moravské Lilie’; ‘Moravian Lilies’). It is typical of much of the singing: pained as though briefly free from imprisonment. Similar spaces are devoted to droning accordion, handclaps and sometimes little more than the elements. As an outsider to this austere expression of ‘national consciousness’, it’s difficult to find foothold in this revival project, in spite of the second wind in the latter part of the disc. The motives for its undertaking are mysterious: is it merely the allure of unearthing of a forgotten curio, or an unfolding process of cultural psychoanalysis?


Unprepared Piano

Eliška Cílková
Pripyat Piano (The Zone Of Chernobyl)

The bare-boned performances audible here issue from improvisations on pianos found in Chernobyl. Since 2010, Chronicler Eliška Cílková has made several journeys into the veritable ghost town of Pripyat, once home to 50,000, which was abandoned and looted immediately after the 1986 nuclear disaster. Over the course of three years she located, after extensive foraging, a total of nine pianos in varying states of disrepair: her journey taking her through crumbling schools, apartment blocks and a concert hall. The pieces she recorded possess an understandable lack of veneer, the pianos having stood neglected for some 27 years, and she cautions against expectations of the melodic. Rather, her effort stands as an audio monument to a city ‘that has closed itself to the world once and for all’.

Echoing in the silence of spaces accessible only by those with a special permit, these musical relics sound more distinguished in dilapidation than they might have in their prime and, thanks to the exploratory gestures that dominate the collection, offer an interesting array of dissonances. Many pianos bear signs of senseless brutality, the work of chance vandals. Cílková ‘plays’ the gutted remains of one specimen in ‘House of Art’, a maudlin reminder of the nadir of human whimsy and experience in an infamous part of the world; one alluded to by the mind-reading, wish-fulfilling faculty within ‘The Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s Stalker; a villainous sentiment Cílková practically dramatizes in a semblance of sinister footsteps (and the real strumming of desiccated strings) in the melodramatic ‘Piano Apartment II’, which is a rare moment of near composition amid a Sturm und Drang of metallic clangs, drones and thuds. The commemoration of desolation hits fever pitch in ‘Torsos of Non-playing Pianos’, comprising recordings from several smashed and plundered specimens: all slithering scrapes and next-door knocks, it’s virtually electroacoustic in essence. After three years of research, these thirty-five minutes may constitute a cold and short-lived exercise, but as a reminder of harder times they satisfy almost as much as a Solzhenitsyn novel.

The Green Dome


Many aspects of great interest to Cycloïdes (GD STEREO GD023), a recording made by Jocelyn Robert for Geoff Dugan’s GD Stereo label. Me, I’ve had a soft spot for Dugan’s releases ever since Psychogeographical Dip and The Architecture of the Incidental were released in the late 1990s. That’s right, he’s very concerned with sound art as it obtains in the urban environment, and he’s continuing those preoccupations with psychogeography, situationism and the dérive with this new release, and it so happens Mr Robert shares a lot of common ground with him. This record of piano improvisations is supposed to be asking pointed questions about architecture and music; Dugan declares outright he wants to release “artists whose work challenges the boundaries, rules and definitions of architecture and music”, and Robert fits the profile – he trained as an architect but turned his back on the drawing board in 1989 and has since been pursuing opportunities to position his music in a very specific contemporary urban context. He sees music as a nexus of “physical, political and geographical forces”, rather than inhabiting a stand-alone niche which we might call “fine art” or “culture”. To be honest, I’m not entirely clear how these strategies are enacted by Robert, but he does come close to creating a very interesting contemplative and personal “space” for the listener with this record, much as if he were building a personal dome or canopy for us to wander around in solitude.

This he does by exploiting a particular facet of the Disklavier, a computer-based piano keyboard. When he would play a “wrong” note or make a mistake, it would remain in the Disklavier’s memory; so for Cycloïdes, he kept the mistakes in, and used them as a set of rules to guide his next move in the improvisation. Get the idea? It’s music that’s building on itself, “reaffirming its instant past in an almost cyclic manner”. It’s also interesting, although not remarked on by Jocelyn Robert in his notes, to suppose that there is a constant tension between human (performance) and machine (memory) taking place, a situation where the blind perfection of the computer is almost working in opposition to the intuitive and errant movements of the pianist. I further suppose that this is a situation that might escalate into an absurd cloning process not unlike the scene in Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse’s broomstick slaves get out of control. Anyway, I should have said this at the start, but this is also beautiful music to listen to, and fans of Morton Feldman’s piano compositions should check this out instantly. Brittle, precise, clean, yet very emotional somehow. We last heard this Canadian composer / musician on Monsonic, his 2010 LP of elaborate electo-acoustic layerings. From 11 November 2013.

Speaking Charms

From 25th October 2013, a bundle from Nick Hoffman sent from his Oregon address. This one was even sent in a decorated envelope, and the images of butterflies and bees have a certain charm to be sure, but given Hoffman’s “occultist” leanings they also have a faintly sinister hum to their translucent wings. No matter, I am confident he wouldn’t actively direct a curse against one of his biggest fans.

Primary item is blue and gold cassette by Coppice and it’s called Epoxy (PILGRIM TALK PT26) because, like glue, it sticks to everything and doesn’t melt under high temperatures. The A side, ‘A Defective Index’, apparently refers to the transfer process by which these cassette tapes are produced and indicates that “artifacts” may have crept into the finished product. This is a little vague; am I hearing something that’s the result of an accident, or have the accidents been used to distort the musical recordings in some way? Even “musical” might be stretching things somewhat in this context, but the printed notes do indicate that a series of performances took place in Chicago in 2011-2012, and that at least four people were involved. These were the vocalist Carol Genetti, the composer Sarah J Ritch, and the all-rounder Julia A Miller (composer, electronic music, guitarist, poet, and teacher). They are all Chicago-based, but the Icelandic flautist Berglin Tómasdóttir also took part. Their contributions to the composition ‘Seam’ are represented on the B side ‘A Refracted Index of “Seam” with Girls’. And there’s another reference to “indexing” which I don’t quite get, but I do like the way this mysterious project is gradually disappearing into a mist of hints and allusions. Lastly we give credit to Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer, who are the actual members of Coppice, and perform in Chicago using a combination of electronics and bellows, although here they’re content to credit themselves with “indexing and arrangement”. When these verbal layers have peeled away, we’re left with a fascinating tape of very curious sound art, verging on the cold and inhuman in its utter opacity, with peculiar gaps, distortions, false starts, and very irregular patterns. Clearly there’s a concern with keeping things simple, to a very radical degree. There’s also the sense that the music is being discovered as much as it’s being created. It would be a brave man who would want to guess how this strange music is being built, but it’s utterly compelling to hear. It’s a wild guess, but I think Coppice – and their four gifted collaborators – are somehow finding their way out of many of the cul-de-sacs of modern music, tentatively exploring new ways of playing and composing, subtracting the cult of personality and moving towards a genuinely collective, ego-less work. I’m not exactly sure what I am basing all this on, but hearing this remarkable music gives me high hopes and more confidence for the future.

Secondary item is a purple and green cassette by Double Morris called Best of the Hightone Years (PILGRIM TALK PT25). Duo of Aaron Zarzutzki and Morgan Bausman surprise everyone with these charming home-made guitar-based songs of alienation, boredom and disaffection. They surprised me at any rate, since when Zarzutzki teams up with Nick Hoffman he tends to generate some of the most “blank” and bewildering improvised music I have heard in my life. Double Morris’s tape is by no means blank, but it’s still teetering on the brink of a nameless psychological void. Some hallmarks of these very odd post-post stoner songs: (1) a vague resemblance to USA 1980s underground rock, e.g. Minutemen, Firehose, Dinosaur Jr, as if that genre were reinvented by Mongolian tribesmen after consuming opiates; (2) distortion and poor recording used to deliberately mask the lyrical content, though the precisely-calibrated sense of urban boredom is still detectable in the flat and weary singing voice; (3) no attention whatsoever paid to “rules” of song construction, so songs end up ridiculously truncated with no repeat sections or versification. It’s as though the writer ran out of things to say, or couldn’t be bothered to express them, or even to finish the song. Great! These are very strong qualities which already intrigue me, and I’m certain I will come to love them the more I listen to this tape.

Tertiary item is Bruiser (PILGRIM TALK PT28), a solo CDR by the very wonderful Nick Hoffman, a release which he has cloaked in quite elaborate fold-out packaging where each image, printed across 12 panels, stands alone and makes the wrapper feel like a piece of Fluxus artwork or a conceptual artist’s book, notwithstanding the familiar occult theme here represented by distressed images taken from a book of medieval woodcuts and printed in assorted colours. In fact it’s as if the Hexen DVD had been repackaged by George Maciunas. Musically, these 2008 recordings from Illinois (processed in Oregon in 2013) present a highly baffling tableau of process tones, which appear to have been produced exclusively by computer programming. Hoffman may want to stress the term ‘programming’ so as to differentiate his work from laptop music, a genre which is now ubiquitous and which, although it involves computers, does not necessarily require programming skills. Hoffman’s sound art here alternates between tracts of total gibberish (a computer babbling to itself in its own language), imperceptible yet menacing low hums, and a very harsh crunchy noise of a sort which only the broken and hacked digital toolkit can produce. I’m basing that assumption on most of the similar crunchy outputs I’ve heard from the New York label Copy For Your Records, which harbours many cruel sound-artists evidently bent on wreaking havoc with digital methods and abused machines. Come to that, the first three tracks of Bruiser could comfortably fit that label’s profile, with no loss of earnings for either party. The fourth long track, meanwhile, might also have found a home with Winds Measure Recordings; its pale-white (ghostly) understated tones and carefully layered textures have a pristine beauty that I think Ben Owen would appreciate. But the whole record has a dark side too; I can never put my finger on why, but I feel that each Hoffman release I hear is like a carefully-executed curse against the world, a wizard’s rune or a witch’s spell.

Ben Owen might also appreciate the presentation of Miguel Prado‘s 45RPM single, a lathe cut on clear plastic. Miguel Prado is a conceptual sound artist who I think uses the diary form as a means of documenting his own life and transforming the narrative into his ongoing artistic statement. In short, he’s making himself into his art. His Kempelen’s Lesson (On Voice And Tape) (PILGRIM TALK PT27 / HERESY 04) is the result of mangling and reshaping a spoken word tape, taking great liberties with altering the playback speed, mixing it with musical interludes, and subjecting the whole meshugana lump to even further distortions, in the way of wild edits, unexpected gaps, and other interpolations. The titles ‘Criptolalia’ and ‘Glossolalia-Laden’ refer (respectively) to the development of a private language, and to the act of “speaking in tongues” often associated with certain religious fundamentalists. It’s clear Prado isn’t out to present a lucid scientific lecture on these subjects, but rather to demonstrate them – through his extreme manipulation of the very same instruments and agencies which can be used for voice capture. Just another spoken-word item, you may think? Au contraire, mon brave. This is one of the most chilling instances we’ve encountered in the genre; the whole record just sounds grisly and monstrous. It, like almost everything heard in this bundle, has left me with a vague discomforting chill which has endured for hours.

Pictured: Back Magic‘s Blood Plaza, previously noted here.

Chamber Music?


Uli Rennert
Project S

Working alongside a small unit of regular collaborators, on Project S Uli Rennert applies his traditional compositional skill to a broad range of styles and instrumentation. The work is framed by the history of chamber music and small ensemble composition. Yet, Peter Kunsek’s exquisite clarinet and Peter Herbert’s bass are disrupted by Rennert’s restless instrumental leaps from synthesizer to live electronics, or lap steel guitar. The final product is a sharp pan-modernism where all forms and styles are engaged and all techniques given equal weighting. Found sound drones combine with lyrical viola harmonies and spoken word, which gives way to dense and jarring synthesizer pulses. Avant-garde tonalities recalling Igor Stravinsky and Bernard Hermann are interspersed with atonal electronic sections. Everything from counterpoint to digital sampling is available to access and deftly incorporated by an ensemble with an extensive and close history together.

The pieces are agile and difficult to conceptualise. It eludes general description and sometimes progressed in ways I found awkward or abrupt. But it seems a fundamental misunderstanding to isolate these sections. When everything is emphasised and brought to the surface there will surely be forms which individually frustrate, but are necessary inclusions in the project. This is modern classical music divorced from previous social, societal and historical rhetoric and so with that separation there may be elements which seem out of place. Criticising these sections seems a petty misconception of the bold aims of the music.

The interesting balance between solo sections and ensemble playing often seems more reminiscent of a jazz quartet then a chamber ensemble. Clusters of sound thin out and separate into sudden improvisation. Threads and themes within the music spin and coalesce before fading. Despite Rennert’s lead each member brings something distinct. Previous entries in Rennert’s Project series have used jazz standards as a starting point for composition and even as Rennert deviates from such techniques the model for performance remains.

An accusation often leveled at post-modernism within music is that with access to all forms, without guiding principles or history, the emphasis of everything is the emphasis of nothing; the equality of formal attributes leads to a flattening of all those constituents. Yet on Project S the juggling of these diverse elements is an indication of the skill and imagination of all involved and Rennert’s role as composer and collaborative node. The work is a fascinating response to the dilemma of what orchestrated chamber music is and what it can offer for this generation of musicians.

Five Uneasy Pieces


Virgil Moorefield
No Business As Usual / Five Ideas about the Relation of Sight and Sound

Virgil Moorefield is a Zurich-based drummer, avantist composer and near polymath whose previous projects have found refuge with such highly revered institutions such as Innova, Tzadik and Cuneiform. As a ‘have drums, will travel’ freelancer, he’s collaborated with Bill Laswell, guitarist Elliott Sharp, and The Swans around the time of the Burning World l.p. He was also the sole panel-beater (and that’s no mean feat!) for John Cage’s favourite guitar slinger Glenn Branca, on his herculean “Hallucination City – 100 Guitars” tour which kicked up vast chunks of orchestrated metallic chordage over the heads of the N.Y. populace from 2006 to 2008.

Moorefield’s latest release on the Hinterzimmer imprint is the No Business as Usual c.d. which is coupled with the Five Ideas about the Relation of Sight and Sound d.v.d. No Business… is primarily a showcase for his Bicontinental Pocket Orchestra; a sixtet comprising Aleksander Gabrys on contrabass, baritone saxist Jürg Wickihalder, Taylor Levine on guitar, percussionist Martin Lorenz, pianist Vicky Chow and Ian Ding on vibes and drums. They and their bandleader can all be observed very much following a cerebral/muscular mindset on the title track; a five part commissioned by New Music Detroit and Detroit Per Se. Both of these experiments in post-minimalism edge towards a certain jazz noir in the Naked City feel, purveying in the main an appointment in unease, plotted on graph paper with slide rule, compass and protractor, where the contents, under extreme pressure, are seemingly fit to burst at any moment. Some passages resemble a debut album era Lounge Lizards under the batonship of Steve Reich, while other fragments seem to refer to a more rigid version of Magma’s ever-building dynamics circa Kohntarkosz. The most prominent figures in this unwavering/take no prisoners script are the icily cool vibraphonics of Ian Ding and the high end (and beyond) keyboard attack of Ms. Chow, which appears to be an angry, fingerpointing pianist’s curt riposte to Bernard Hermann’s shower scene nerve shredder from Psycho.


As to the visual side of events, the Five Ideas… shows a number of different takes on how moderne technology can affect the interchange between sound and the moving image (this includes a couple of sub-two minute interludes, possibly fulfilling a latterday testcard function). “River of Color” is the opener and explores/expands on the tonalities originating from the guts of a grand piano when struck and its innards plucked. This generates a series of everchanging vertical bands of colour issuing from a huge bank of screens that almost dwarf the two instrumentalists. “Grainy Film” is based on a sequence of simple guitar shapes which build to nightmarishly kozmik proportions and eventually shake themselves free of their wire on wood connotations completely. The closing “Trio” is a processing overload involving the measured thud of a drumming threesome, which is reconfigured into real-time visuals, while, simultaneously being tweaked into an all enveloping electronic soundscape. Wow.

Within the confines of a fairly understated packaging concept employing the joys of four-panel chipboard lies an undisputed treasure trove of left field thought for ear and eye. Highly recommended.


Get into the GROOVE


Laurie Spiegel
The Expanding Universe

Due to the cost of development and difficulty using the first computers and synthesizers, the narrative surrounding the earliest computer music innovations appears relatively clear. Unlike the development of the Blues or Post-Punk, endless influences, complexities, lack of recordings and overlapping canons produced by anyone picking up a guitar, the development of audio synthesis technology is constricted by availability and condensed history. That narrative elaborates on a handful of technicians and programmers, committed musical amateurs alongside composers, experimenting with vast unwieldy equipment across international laboratories and research groups. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Electronic Music Studios, Cologne’s Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris, The San Francisco Tape Music Centre, to name a handful, all working towards new means to produce and conceptualise sound. I have always found this narrative of obsessive scientists playing with ring modulators and basic coding, competing and collaborating on synthesizers and new systems particularly gratifying despite being an obvious oversimplification.

Laurie Spiegel is a composer, software designer, hardware engineer and programmer who has a prominent position within this narrative of innovation. Her previously out of print début, The Expanded Universe, is here reissued so definitively that it barely resembles the four pieces comprising the original. The extensive and insightful liner notes provide detailed production notes for each track and clearly align Spiegel within this perspective. Her contributions to early computer music and audio technology are well observed and as her reputation as a visual artist has grown so has awareness of her myriad innovations with analogue and digital synthesis.

The entirety of the pieces spread across two discs were composed at Bell Telephone Laboratories using Max Matthews’ Generating Real-time Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment, or GROOVE, system. Matthews, on staff to test the quality of telephone dial tones, is possibly the most significant figure in the history of early computer music and discounting university departments or commercial studios, Bell Laboratories was certainly the period’s greatest private lab concerned with computer audio synthesis and audio research. As AT&T were the USA’s sole telephone provider they were under a great deal of pressure to encourage this type of high-level research and development. GROOVE’s combination of analogue and digital components is the major source of its innovation. Operating from 1968-79, it was a hybrid system with a rudimentary graphical interface. Whilst several similar hybrid projects existed or were in development, Musys at EMS, Xenakis with UPIC at CEMAMu slightly later or Donald Buchla’s work at Dartmouth College for instance, none had yet reached the scale and complexity of GROOVE.

A Honeywell DDP 228 microcomputer, costing the department $400,000 controlled a modular synthesizer. The complex patching possibilities of the modular unit was controlled by keyboard or algorithm input, realisable in real-time rather than the drawn out process usually necessary for computer composition. Such synthesizers were notoriously difficult to keep in tune and extremely responsive to changes in temperature and using the computer to initiate control values effected on the modular addressed this in some way. Twelve voltage controlled operators, seven voltage controlled amps and two voltage controlled filters; GROOVE could enact continuous changes to sound not conceptualised as notes or scales, potentially reproducing the complex sounds of bowed or wind instruments. It also stored musical data for later editing and operated as an extremely rudimentary graphical sequencer of the type that dominates electronic music production now. Each user would have their own unique configurations and could effect these immediately. In many ways the supremacy of MIDI and graphic sequencing in contemporary electronic music, although emerging from systems like GROOVE, makes this music seem much more alien and expressive.

Spiegel cited GROOVE as ‘the ultimate hybrid modular synthesizer’, embracing the limitations of composing for something so fragile and unstable that it would inevitably become redundant. The Honeywell was discontinued in 1978 meaning the end of the system as a cutting edge unit for composition. In 1991 a compilation of Spiegel’s work entitled Obsolete Systems was released. Playing with the image of these vast and ancient mythologised technologies, it provided an interesting counterpoint to Spiegel’s otherwise relentlessly progressive and innovative approaches, such as her work with ‘intelligent’ compositional tool Music Mouse. The music on The Expanding Universe was already ‘outdated’ by its release; a brief glimpse of an alternate form that could never reach fruition. The piercing sine waves, real-time alteration and graphical sequencing were by 1998 reproducible in extremely basic form on hand-held game consoles.

If this was the case, why does The Expanded Universe possess such a reputation or warrant returning to once more? As the product of experiments with a single piece of technology it establishes its own novelty as a metric for quality. But why should we canonise a work eclipsed by the rapid pace of innovation it contributed to? Spiegel followed GROOVE and left Bell Labs in 1979 whilst continuing to develop both hardware and software environments for composing with computers. Neither then nor now has she expressed an interest in nostalgia or deifying previous technology. Similarly, Emmanuel Ghent’s work with GROOVE is often perceived as being both more substantial and innovative than Spiegel’s, yet outside of dedicated discourses his name is unknown (interestingly he also served as Spiegel’s private musical tutor in the 1970s).

This reissue addresses these issues by framing those original four pieces not as a ‘lost’ anachronism, but as the culmination of an astonishing and vital process we can now access. The focus on this narrative of technical innovation, although satisfying, obscures Spiegel’s incorporation of her background performing on banjo and lute. The first pressing of The Expanded Universe was issued by PHILO records, a company established to distribute folk and traditional music. What distinguishes Spiegel’s work with GROOVE from someone like Ghent is that it does not feel out of place in that context. The surrounding material presented here confirms the unique balance and tension alluded to on the original; generating immediate and communicative ‘folk’ forms on a system that required moving between two rooms.

Clusters of notes pulse and swell, gradually modulating and phasing between one another as attack and decay are varied and clipped square waves are drawn out like meticulously organized finger picking. It remains striking that the composition reflects the idiosyncrasies of the system as drawn out by Spiegel. GROOVE processed only voltage data; Spiegel is disconnected from ideas of notation or divisions of improvisation and composition. The music is literally programmed and automated, making the arpeggios, harmonies, complexity of form and emotional affect even more beguiling. Adding to the sound palette are a handful of strange percussive experiments; bell tones forced into complex polyrythms imitating Sub-Saharan Africa’s traditions, as well as swelling drone pieces that connect with later Kosmische traditions.

Spiegel deviates from, but also enriches that narrative of early computer music. The expression of traditional modality within this idiosyncratic and irreplicable technology, as well as Spiegel’s incredible compositional clarity mark The Expanded Universe as a strange and brilliant anomaly.


Golden Spirits


Wadada Leo Smith & Louis Moholo-Moholo

AACM, Creative Construction Company, Mbira, Golden Quartet, Organic, Silver Orchestra…The Blue Notes, Louis Moholo Unit, Culture Shock, Spirits Rejoice, Viva La Black, Brotherhood of Breath, Isipingo…I’m fairly sure that if you were to compile a no-stone-unturned list of the musical endeavours of American avant jazz trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith and fellow jazzer and South African master percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo, it would girdle the earth with ease. After all, these two have been leading their own bands for nigh on fifty years apiece (!) But although the duo have occasionally played together since the nineteen-seventies, the Ancestors set on the Finnish Tum imprint marks their first ever recording together.

This c.d. takes in two scored works by Smith, one by Moholo-Moholo and two rather fascinating excursions into the realms of improv. Ancestors stacks up exceptionally well, even when using the Mu album by Don Cherry (w/ Ed Blackwell of course) as my benchmark in horn’n’drum. The duo’s expertise is as you’d surely expect; extensive and enclopaedic and can easily hold and captivate the armchaired listener for the duration. Immediate highpoints are the almost expected jagged splotches of jazz expressionism in “Jackson Pollock – Action” and the at times, stately themes of “Siholaro” with its rolling war drum rhythm bed. In fact, the time-keeping on show is a revelation. Louis’s stickwork and well considered sense of dynamics can range from powering along a track like “No Name in the Street” with the merest tick of Swiss watch precision, to the rolling thunderclouds undepinning “Moholo Moholo/Golden Spirit”. The improvised title track is the main focus of events, surely by dint of its twenty-five minute plus (!) duration. Snaking curlicues of brassy colour (the only modifications being a brief use of the mute…) are complemented by a busy gallery of drum techniques which are topped ‘n’ tailed by exotic chimes which finally come to a close with the the drummer’s recitation of a number of much loved jazz figures from jazz past.

There’s attractive packaging and ultra-copious sleeve notes which include a nice photo of the duo, both pictured with smiles on full beam – fit to crack their jaws if truth be told. But after producing the self-assured dialogue in thought and deed, who could expect otherwise? To sum up? …This is just so much more than breath control and supple wrists!!