Tagged: composed

The Whole World Is An Enigma

Christopher Chaplin is an English composer who formed a connection with Hans-Joachim Roedelius, dating from the time when he did a live performance of his work in Austria. The pair seem to have enjoyed a number of collaborations since, starting with an appearance on the Late Junction radio show, and then the release of the King Of Hearts album in 2012. John Norman noted that release here, finding it a somewhat hit-or-miss experience, but when it did succeed the music impressed with its “secret mutterings of the insides of things” and strange juxtapositions of sonic elements. Today we have before us Je Suis Le Ténébreux (FABRIQUE RECORDS FAB58CD), a new Chaplin composition for the Viennese label Fabrique Records. That’s him on the cover looking like a strange reverse-Messiah figure, a glint of madness in his wide-eyed glare. Once again contributions are featured from the veteran Cluster-Harmonia genius, who adds piano and synths, and his voice. There’s also spoken word and narration from Christine Roedelius, the French soprano-actress Judith Chemla, and the poetess Claudia Schumann, who also supplies texts that are central to the theme of Je Suis Le Ténébreux.

As to this theme, it’s based on the so-called “Enigma of Bologna”, an epitaph written in Latin on a Roman tombstone, sometimes known as The Aelia-Laelia-Crispis Inscription. The tombstone was discovered in the 16th century (the album erroneously claims it was written in the 16th century), and since then has grown into something of a puzzle; some 18 lines of text packed with paradox and contradictions, alluding to a figure that’s neither male nor female, nor hermaphrodite. By the late 17th century, anguished scholars had already come up with 43 different solutions to the riddle, claiming variously it was a description of “the rain, the soul, Niobe, Lot’s wife, or a child promised in marriage that died before its birth.” Another view said it described an animal (a mule or donkey) rather than a human being. Later interpretations have found elements of alchemy, psychology, spiritualism and philosophy buried within this compacted text; Jung wrote about the Enigma, and so did the French writer Gerard de Nerval 1, in two tales Pandora and Le Comte de Saint-Germain; de Nerval is further referenced (however briefly) by Claudia Schumann’s poetry on this album.

As befits this “enigmatic” theme, Chaplin’s record is music that’s shrouded in darkness and layers of hinted meaning, and vague allusions scattered throughout the texts which are sung, spoken, whispered, or otherwise handed over to the listener in packages that themselves must be unwrapped and decoded. English translations of Latin and German are provided in the booklet (whose pages, by the way, are all black backgrounds) to help with the decoding process, but it’s likely that Chaplin wishes to protect the mystery of this strange riddle. The music, a studio-bound assemblage of synths and pianos, is mostly a sort of complex and progressive electronic drone with highly sinister connotations, but carefully structured to avoid any sort of conventional musical resolution. Each piece just continues to march grimly through a void, shrouded by veils of unknown blackness, with no clear end or destination in sight. Yet there’s still a sense of drama; in places, as though we’re hearing a stripped-down version of a Purcell opera, recast for post-modern times with a huge dose of irony and stripped of all context.

“Not much can be said about the enigma, other than it holds a certain fascination”, writes Chaplin in his sleeve note. I wondered why I found myself slightly disappointed with this apparent blithe indifference of his. Perhaps I’d be happier if he showed the same sort of feverish obsession with his text as those early scholars who devised 43 different interpretations of it. At times Claudia Schumann seems more engaged with meaning than he is, especially on the final track ‘The Enigma (Reprise)’, where the solemn intonations of both the Roedeliuses add a certain weight to the texts. There’s also much to be said for the other Roedelius contributor, Rosa Roedelius, who supplied the art pieces which are photographed on the covers. They resemble little raviolis of various size, and are no doubt intended as puns on the female genitalia. If The Enigma Of Bologna does indeed contain themes of sexual ambiguity, Rosa’s sculptures seem to have hit the target first time, and more effectively than Chaplin’s cautious, measured treading. Even so, this is an unusual item which you may wish to investigate. From 20 September 2016; also available as a double LP.

  1. The French romanticist who took lobsters for a walk.

Air Piano

Japanese musician Teruyuki Nobuchika has a job composing TV and movie soundtracks, but also performs his own non-commercial works, and has been building up a small discography. One such is Still Air (OKTAF 013), released by this German label and packaged with abstract cover art by the painter Mischa von Wegen. Eight short instrumentals which at first spin seemed to be situated too conveniently in the “ambient” drifty zones – pleasant sounds often bordering on the tasteful, framed in pieces which might be too diffuse to contain anything of any value. However, I rescind that view on today’s spin; there’s a lot of detail and ideas going on in these deceptively simple pieces, which are tautly structured to conceal their clever changes, and they make a small journey almost without us even noticing, arriving somewhere that’s interesting and ambiguous. Nobuchika does this with the subtle use of loops and repeated pulsing patterns, sometimes interrupting the flow with a judicious piano trill, an interjection which has earned him the “classical” tag from other reviewers. Still Air manages to suggest stories and forward movement, rather than simply settling for pleasant “atmospheres”, and Nobuchika has put a deal of compositional effort into constructing and polishing these ingenious miniatures. From 20th September 2016.

Philip’s Corners

The lovely music of Philip Perkins first came our way in 2015, when we noted a copy of Mr Anyhow, a set of gorgeous assemblages more or less in the “sound art” box…Perkins is a gifted audio technician but also a serious student and performer of contemporary music, and has a unique and imaginative approach to the way he assembles his sources. This is reflected once again on his new record It Gets The Corners (FUN MUSIC FUN N5), a record subtitled “Still Alive in the Studio 2014-2016”. No clues are given anywhere to what we might be hearing, or how Perkins created it, and that’s pretty much the way he wants it; and titles like ‘egg3’ or ‘water4’ aren’t exactly lucid in their explanations or very forthcoming as clues. That said, it’s fairly evident there are field recordings somewhere in these “corners”, but the process that’s more relevant is the assembly, the threading together and overlaying of multiple sound elements to create a very compelling sequence.

I think this might just be one of Perkins’ most notable traits in his work, and he’s more interested in this assembly process than he is in changing or radically transmuting sounds. If there is much in the way of sound-mutation going on here, in the manner of a classical electro-acoustic musician, Perkins is not calling attention to it. Listening to It Gets The Corners is thus more like engaging in a conversation, a two-way dialogue with a fascinating brain, whose very thoughts and impulses are almost visible to us through this vivid sound art. This is particularly so on the long track ‘Wreath’, where we can follow a rich and divergent chain of thought for 20 minutes and be led down many interesting tangential side-alleys and byways. But there’s much to be said for the shorter 3-minute tracks which follow, highly compressed sonic snapshots which present a surreal and distorted view of the worlds outside his window.

Unlike some highly academic composers with their stilted, overthought works of musique concrète or layered phonography, Perkins is genuinely fascinated by the world and wants to do justice to its beauty, with his very natural and honest portraits of contemporary life. His microphone reaches into the corners where others cannot go. From 26th September 2016.

Long Lunch Break

Yannis Kyriakides
Lunch Music
NETHERLANDS UNSOUNDS 55u CD (2016)

Writing in 1971 about William Burroughs’ then-latest book The Wild Boys, reviewer Albert Kazin 1 could easily have been anticipating this novel collaboration – almost five decades on – between Cypriot electroacoustician Yannis Kyriakides, Dutch percussionists-for-hire Slagwerk Den Haag and ‘contemporary vocal specialists’ Silbersee, when he remarked that Burroughs ‘gets astral kicks by composing in blocks, scenes, repetitive and identical memories galvanizing themselves into violent fantasies, the wild mixing of pictures, words, the echoes of popular speech’. In fact, he might as well have written this very review.

Though based on Naked Lunch’s dense and confounding narrative fugue, in Lunch Music Kyriakides has taken stock of the many ‘straight’ accommodations of Burroughs’ work over the years and sent them packing: no samples set to trip-hop nor dour thespian recitals here: ‘Smell Down Death’ signals this fact by mulching WSB’s dry croak into a queasy quicksand in the opening minutes, from which state it never quite recovers. He follows suit with the text, filleting all ‘rational’ syntax into words, syllables and vibrations in a ‘polyphony of voices’ that’s expected to approximate a reading of the book. In a pleasing convergence of scientific method and artistic inspiration, this digital arbitration was achieved by applying a frequency analysis algorithm to the text to determine its most commonly used nouns. No prizes then for predicting that lexical items like ‘boy’, ‘ass’, ‘cock’ and ‘death’ form the book’s rhythmic foundation and thus that of what we hear.

‘Words, horrid isolate words, those symbols of our enslavement, are replaced by the a-b-c of man’s perception of simultaneous factors–the ability to drink up the “scanning pattern”.’

Silbersee, like a well-lubricated (soft) machine, regurgitates this as grammarless glossolalia with a honeyed bounce to their vascular lyricism; chewing on words with the gusto of nightmarish Beach Boys on Groundhog Day. Their repetition of solitary words annuls all connotation and supersedes much of Slagwerk Den Haag’s physical percussion, as in ‘Boy’, where the eunuch mantra-fying of said signifier magnifies the grotesque comedy of the subject. ‘But repetition, that fatally boring element in Burroughs’s “cut-ups,” turns the coupling into an obsessive primal scene that never varies in its details’.

Compounding such in(s)anity, ‘La La La Terminal State’ closes the set as the heat closes in: the moribund choir locked in a loop of unlovely ‘La’s while a world driven mad by insectoid whirring and kosmiche ascension squeals to a stop; while mumbles of WSB-as-godhead make one last attempt to corrupt corporeality. Along the way, electroacoustic processing is pitted against Kalahari work songs; radiant radio static rains from open windows onto chattering street urchins; shotgunned spraycans reform in reverse time. Any part of this corroded tableaux might have been spliced into a Moroccan marketplace in Naked Lunch – the chaos is discomfiting, but reassuringly authentic.

In the spirit of reverent desecration, Kyriakides spears the mutant barbershop crooning with snippets of ‘50s pop hits like The Brothers Four’s ‘Greenfields’, which dissolves and devolves likewise into a vomitous assemblage of fruitless plucking and digital churn. Kazin diagnosed what is ‘essentially a reverie in which different items suddenly get animated with a marvelously unexpectable profusion and disorder. Anything can get into it, lead its own life for a while, get swooshed around with everything else’. As if part of a throbbing organism with the connectivity of Interzone’s gelatinous membrane walls, the voices speak ‘through one another’ in one glutinous mass: words within words within words – a vehicular pile-up process Kyriakides terms ‘mediumship and possession’.

To outward appearances, such shamanism is a messy business, where qualitative distinctions become indistinguishable ‘…like the embroidery of a cruel dream’. Naked Lunch is an uncomfortable read at the best of times, and Kyriakides is due kudos for neither concealing this fact nor reducing his interpretation to a linear event, as did David Cronenberg’s film adaptation. Whether for legal reasons or those of reverence though, his decision not to name the project directly after its subject does suggest a lack of conviction in his methods, which are experimental at least by the standards of others who’ve burrowed into the same works. By filching the master’s methodology – ‘inserting one scene into another, turning one scene into another’ – and remixing the text as a collage of suprasegmental sound, Kyriakides cuts to the novel’s filthy heart the way others haven’t.

  1. This and all subsequent quotations are taken from the same review.

Orion’s Belt

We’ve previously heard a solo record by the French viola player Frantz Loriot, the 2015 album Reflections On An Introspective Path, which is an interesting benchmark of the extremes to which he’s prepared to go when he’s pushing to find new sounds on his vicious, biting stringed device. Good to see he’s found some like-minded fellows to make music with on Orion (WIDE EAR RECORDS WER022), where he’s joined by four other players to form the quintet Im Wald. Actually the above doesn’t properly represent the release, which is in fact composed and led by Tobias Meier, the Swiss composer and saxophonist. I just hapen to like Loriot, so we have to dive in somewhere.

Meier’s a real maverick when it comes to occupying and colonising that disputed space that lies between composition and improvisation. “He is interested in architectural gestures,” according to his own web page, “the scenarios and methods of design, the setting of tonal coordinates, along which the music gradually develops.” I kinda like this approach which seems to see music making as something similar to drawing a map, trying to tame the wilderness with grid references and longitudes. I might think he likens it to using CAD software, a process which also relies on plot points to create drawings and images, but such a suggestion would overlook the all-acoustic nature of this Im Wald record.

The other players include Matthias Spillmann, who is blowing constrained and taut passages on his trumpet as though his own life was in danger. You’d think he had a gun to his head and was bound and gagged in the basement of some masked kidnapper, petrified with terror. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad way to elicit a performance of great tension from any improviser. I might even advocate a programme of kidnapping improvisers on that basis, or even do that just for the hell of it. Loving these deathly Spillmann trumpet tones. He’s another Swiss guy who also puffs the flugelhorn and is well represented in many jazz bands, mostly appearing on the Swiss label Unit Records.

Additionally there’s the cello work of Nicola Romanò, and the bass of Raffaele Bossard. I’m not sure which of these sawing dudes is responsible for the lovely bassoid creaks and drones that underpin these tension-filled performances. But they both add a palpable air of menace to the whole Orion album, as though we’re waiting in slow motion for some dreaded event to pass, which we can see looming before us on the horizon. Both these guys are Swiss too so it looks like Loriot is the token French player here, even if he is also half Japanese.

Two of the tracks here refer to star formations (‘Nebulae’ and ‘Orion’) and immediately suggest the vastness of space. The music also creates space. This must be where the architectural gestures come into it. Carving up space like a town planner. The idea is “open and multi-layered sound fields”. We need more of these in the world, if this is anything to go by. If produced more actively, such fields might open up all sorts of possibilities for education, politics, and the environment. They would certainly help free the mind, give a man a chance to think. Meier is trying to bring together tiny musical gestures and large blocks of a grand design together in the same schema. To convey this, he uses the metaphor of a forest. Others, myself included, use less familiar metaphors, but the end result is the same. Meier somehow manages to keep his work creeping along with a slow but undeniable force, like the power of eighteen snails harnessed to a wind farm. He calls this an “agile organism”, but I call it liquid jelly…jelly laced with explosives that release their energy in a long, protracted ka-boom.

It takes rare skill to maintain this level of control and discipline for long periods of time, and these five fire-eaters are just the boys to do it. Although these understated acoustic drones may appear unassuming at first, you’ll soon be drawn into the zero-gravity zones they create, and find yourself exploring a vast realm of the unknown. Issued in a nifty screenprinted box and an art print foldout, with notes by Berni Doesegger, a mini-essay which he calls “The Space Of Music”. A slow-burning package of woodwind and string goodliness. From 21st September 2016.

Turk-men-istan

Various
An Anthology Of Turkish Experimental Music 1961-2014
BELGIUM SUB ROSA SR390 2 x CD (2016)

Of all the creatures in the animal kingdom the award for longest gestation period goes to the alpine salamander. Typically lasting between 2-3 years it is – by human standards anyway – a monumentally lengthy process, during which time human offspring will have found its feet, voice and possibly got tired of constantly using the word ‘no’. Possibly.

Even this majestic feat of patience is but a drop in the ocean compared to the gestation period of electronic music in Turkey. By one recent account, some 33 years passed between conception and the first stirring of life in this seemingly sluggish scene. Said source – currently under review – is Sub Rosa’s An Anthology of Turkish Electronic Music, and sports 29 specimens of said scene, year zero of which being 1961 – when Bülent Arel issues his ‘Postlude from Music for a Sacred Service’; a standard but stimulating piece of early Musique Concrète from a collaborator on Edgard Varèse’s Deserts. The high watermark of 2012 is relatively recent, follows a period of unprecedented aridity, and sees all manner of young composers busy talking up their game.

Fig.1: distribution of Turkish music by year of composition (Source: Sub Rosa)

If the above graph serves as any indication, all life signs mysteriously dropped off between the years of 1961 and 1994, when a deep state of hibernation was briefly broken by the irruption of Mete Sezgin’s ‘Subconscious Memories’ – an Oval-esque miasma of dubby, glitched-up piano; one very much of its time, though preceding that internationally loved act’s breakthrough 94diskont by a whole year. Two further pieces would break the calm of the near-dormant ‘90s before the new millennium would usher in a flurry of artistic activity. No mention is made of what was taking place during this time, so perhaps the popularity of rock gods like Erkin Koray and Baris Manço was keeping more experimental endeavours at bay.

The anthology’s compiler’s postulate no reasons for this epochal silence, but they do single out two composers for having provided the groundwork for the ‘great wave’ of the 2000s and beyond. ‘Arel and (Ïlhan) Mimaroglu did not have immediate followers’ they explain, ‘the explosion happened later’.

Much later, as it turns out – over three decades later – and and as a result of some serious schooling: many of the featured composers are active in academic environments or else involved in coding or sound design. Little evidence of a connection between this movement and the putative forefathers is evident. Meanwhile, only three of the featured composers are women, suggesting that electronic music is a very rarefied and masculine pursuit in modern-day Turkey.

It will therefore come as little surprise that in spite of the ‘multifaceted nature’ of this ‘profusion of music related to an urgency to live and think freely’ attested to by the label, even attentive listeners will find the experience a largely homogenous and undifferentiated one; one that issues from the head much more than the heart. One that goes on like a middle aged man’s story that has neither twist or conclusion.

Granted, not all or indeed much of it is discernibly boring: indeed, one might conceivably taken with the elemental simplicity/iron lung acousmatica of Tuna Pase’s ‘Nefes’ (one of the three female-composed pieces, and a stand-out on the second disc of ‘Ambient’ pieces’) or the deep-diving droneology of Tolga Tüzün and Nilüfer Ormanli’s (also a female) respective contributions. Sub-atomic particle exchanges, machine gun blasts, echo pedal mysticism, adulterated nature recordings, isolationist string treatments with a whiff of the aboriginal: amid textures violent and subtle (and their attendant political subtexts of similar diversity (‘Democracy Lessons’, ‘The Monopoly of Victim Status’, ‘I Want To be A Suicide Bomber’…)), one may survey many a simulacra of scarred, scored and smoothed out scenery, perhaps reading in these lines stories of suffering and social trauma. On a purely aesthetic level however, a good deal of patience is required.

Returning to our graph for a moment, there is a visibly disproportionate representation of pieces from 2012 (thirteen, as it happens, nearly 50% of the total), with a modest spread of activity in surrounding years. The underlying message seems to be that Turkish Music is happening NOW, though in electronic music years 2012 is already history.

However, I do suspect the appendage of the indefinite article ‘An’ to this anthology is indicative of this collection’s status as one of many possible and that many further nuggets might yet be brought to our attention. Whether the geographical provenance itself provides a sufficient pretext for assembly is one question that needs addressing. On the strength of the statistics herein, is there any space on our shelves for An Anthology of Electronic Music from Turkish Female Composers?

Murder at the Disco

Here’s the latest sound missive from Rinus Van Alebeek. Although he regularly sends us things from his Staaltape label, we haven’t heard a solo tape by this fellow since January 2016. That item was quite obscure and I am still not sure what its title was, although it involved a collaging from his tape collection. The same observation might apply to the current cassette. The reason I think this is because of the note appended to the inside of the wrapper, stating “all sounds and words that are used can be found on the tapes that are part of my collection”, although this isn’t exactly a lucid or revealing statement in terms of what it indicates. It would be like me saying you can find the answer to the meaning of life on a page in a book in my library. It may well be true, but which page?

The A side is called Don’t Talk At The Disco, a 2014 composition which was put together in Italy. It apparently encloses six separate suites, with subtitles such as ‘Helmets and Gasmasks’ and ‘A romantic’s vision on death and the afterlife’. I’ve enjoyed this side enormously. It seems to be Rinus doing what he does best, assembling sounds that on the surface appear to be fitted together with a random logic. Yet the connections are there, and seem to make some kind of subconscious sense, even though I frankly own I have no idea what Don’t Talk At The Disco might be about. It proceeds at a leisurely pace, sometimes causing the listener to feel like one is floating about the grass on a sunlit day. A pleasant dream state ensues. Some identifiable sounds, some murmured speech, some intelligible speech, and sounds which are hard to name. Some piano music, near the start, injecting a sense of nostalgia. Tape manipulation, wrong-speeding, spooling sounds. Church bells, the sounds of the sea. A lot of silent passages. No outright loud noise; Rinus isn’t out to shock or confuse anyone with alarming juxtapositions.

This is a highly successful instance of audio collage which shows how it’s possible to bring out connections, meanings, allusions, and resonances in a very subtle manner, yet causing quite a powerful effect on the listener. Even feeling mystified, as I do, is surely a legitimate response. I’m always impressed how Van Alebeek achieves this strong result by such imperceptible means. I have an image of him lifting up delicate tape segments with tweezers, assembling them with the care of an entomologist handling dead insects.

“You might remember finding Don’t Talk At The Disco in your postbox”, remarks Rinus in his letter. “That was a release heavy with time-consuming collage artwork.” I don’t recall receiving anything like this in the mail, but he calculates that the price tag for each unique copy ought to have been 253 Euros (about £215 based on today’s rate), given the amount of effort he put into them. Realising he’d never recoup that money, he gave all the copies away instead. I mention this as another cryptical sideline on today’s item, hoping it might shed some light on this artist’s attitude to his work. I wish more creators would take a leaf from his book; so many are career-minded, have their eye on a main chance, or are simply too “grabby”.

While Rinus has alluded to pop music in previous releases – for instance The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, and Buddy Holly – I can’t find any such themes on Don’t Talk At The Disco, in spite of the title promising some sort of observation on the music realised during that fascinating period that peaked around 1978. The B-side does contains flashes and fragments of disco music, however, even though it might not be part of the same theme as the A side. Entitled Elvis, Ein Volk it seems to be a very unusual meditation on the Elvis Presley phenomenon as refracted through the associative method of Van Alebeek tape assembly. It was created two years after the A side, and realised in The Netherlands, yet it has many of the same surface effects – including the sad and slow acoustic piano music, the sounds of the sea, the murmuring speech, and the squealing tape manipulation sounds. To some degree it sets up a “correspondence” with the A side, through throwing out these similar noises and themes as a kind of call-out. There are also some snippets of dialogue, spoken in drawling American accents, by pundits reflecting on the cultural importance of Elvis, though these utterances feel quite isolated in the sea of sound-art, odd field recordings, and general ambience of mystery that surrounds them.

If submitted to a conventional music radio station as a documentary collage on Elvis, this release might not be accepted by the editorial board with open arms. However, I like to imagine that (as ever) Van Alebeek has somehow gotten closer to a more profound “truth” about popular music than a million banal documentaries on the subject that begin and end with a visit to Graceland. What that truth may be, however, I’m unable to articulate for you. Can Van Alebeek’s texts help? All he will comment on this piece is that it’s “A sad tale of political power struggles, diagrams, and road accidents”, which is a highly puzzling remark. 1 From 25th August 2016.

  1. Of course, historical scholars will be quick to point out that “Ein Volk” is the start of one of Adolf Hitler’s notorious slogans – Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuehrer. But I think this is just a small detail; there’s no substantial evidence here that Rinus is drawing parallels between pop music culture and totalitarianism, in say the rather heavy-handed manner of The Third Reich N Roll.

Attack and Decay

Some lovely organ music played on a church organ on the record Organ Safari Lituanica (INTONEMA int019). The release is credited to Arturas Bumšteinas, the excellent Lithuanian composer and conceptualist, although the actual organ improvisations are played by Gailė Griciūtė. From what I can make out, the concept is down to Arturas Bumšteinas…it’s part of a much bigger project which he calls Organ Archipelago. Five radio programmes were commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; these broadcasts make use of an archive of organ recordings which Bumšteinas has previously gathered from Lithuanian towns and villages, and then extended the music into improvisation, and radio drama. The improvisation part is supplied by five musicians from across the globe – Africa, Japan, and Russia are all represented. There’s also some fragmented story-telling going on, using voice actors, and some of it seems to be based on a book by Arthur Russell Wallace. So many layers. This is what we’ve come to expect of Arturas Bumšteinas…he’s a right one for mixing up many cultural sources of information into a dense wodge of conceptual spaghetti, and expecting the audience to keep up with him as they untangle the strands. Or perhaps he’d rather liken it to baking a layer cake, and we have to roll up and cut ourselves a slice, evincing surprise as each new stratum of jam and cream is exposed to our hungry eyes.

The above is not fully represented on Organ Safari Lituanica however, and I just added all that in to give you some context. For this record, Arturas Bumšteinas continues to claim “composition” as a credit, but as noted all the music is actually played by Gailė Griciūtė. I suppose it’s really a Gailė Griciūtė album, but maybe we’re entering into a John Cage / David Tudor area of similar tension, and I don’t wish to cause trouble. Gailė Griciūtė is a talented composer, visual artist and conceptualist in her own right. I’m not here to review her music to day, but if you visit her website the first thing you see is an old upright piano against a decaying plaster wall. Right on, girl! I think that image speaks volumes about her musical plan. To the left of that image you see a picture of the woman herself, and the poise and dignity with which she comports herself throughout life is evident. Some of her exhibits, as described on other pages, are highly intriguing multi-media installation pieces, involving sculpture, projections, live performances and pre-records…and seem to be based on interesting scientific ideas and observations. For instance: “Linger On Your Pale Blue Eyes explores the quest for freedom of a scientist through observing the rhizomatic unfolding of her inner monologue.” Not often we get a Lou Reed lyric and rhizomatic unfoldings together in the same sentence.

Judging by her performances here, evidently she’s also a great keyboard player and improviser, and I could happily listen to this strange curlicued music all day, if required. Really digging the weird mixed chords and unexpected explorations of melody lines. Invention just seems to pour out of her. Excellent stuff.

I’m still unsure where the Organ Archipelago concept comes in to all this. Neither can I interpret the odd cover image, which shows a detail of a hand whose fingers are picking at a piece of decayed wood. Perhaps this summarises (or even documents) what was found when they did the tour of the Lithuanian churches. Maybe all the organs are decaying. That would make a good observation about the state of the world today. Our organs are atrophying, like our brains and our hearts. From August 2016.

Thou shalt like an airy spirit go

Another release from the Norwegian label 2L (Lindberg Lyd) again spares no expense in bringing us the work printed on a Blu-Ray disc and an SACD in a single package. This time it’s a new work by Maja S.K. Ratkje, our favourite Norwegian genius all-rounder, who has now set herself the challenge of composing new music that showcases her own voice, as as she puts it “include my sound as a voice performer”. In case you need reminding about her skills in this area, we have noted a few examples of her astonishing work as part of the all-female group Spunk, for instance on Das Wohltemperierte Spunk, Adventura Botanica and Live In Molde, not to mention her work with Slugfield, and on Treasure Hunt…but it’s one thing to do the voice extemporising thing in a free-improvisation context. Today’s record, And Sing…(2L-124-SABD), shows the possibilities afforded by performing with the Oslo Sinfonietta and with CIKADA, an Oslo-based ten piece chamber ensemble led by Christian Eggen.

The second piece on the disc, Concerto For Voice (Moods IIIb) has its origins in an earlier piece from 2004, in fact her first composition for working with a large ensemble and pitching her voice against it. This was commissioned by Radio France; she solved one basic problem by amplifying her voice, so it could be heard over the orchestra. But it also allowed to play with the differences between acoustic and amplified music; if she could make her own whispering be heard against the sound of a loud orchestra, it might go some way to “explore the mismatch between what one saw and what one heard”. Ratkje revisits the piece for this recording; she tells us about the elements that form the composition, which include “spectral chords”, which she arrived at by analysing the sound of a tenor saxophone; and a motif based on certain common frequencies found in multiphonics. On top of this “harmonic backdrop”, we have orchestral noise and percussion doing its best to interfere with the smooth progress of the piece, and introducing rhythmic patterns.

This dry description tends to confirm that Ratkje sees composition as a way of handling forms and putting elements in the right place. What’s interesting to me here is that she would say she’s doing traditional composition, following the “orthodox form” for a voice concerto which simply pitches a soloist against an orchestra. It doesn’t quite prepare you for the wild and eerie sound of Concerto For Voice (Moods IIIb), whose dynamics are extreme and whose contents are explosive; the orchestra sways and flies around like a gigantic atonal beast, an ancient sailing ship fully-rigged with a cargo of unknown dimensions. Maja’s contributions to the controlled storm consist of strangled gibberish and throatal squawks…unbearably high-pitched squeaks and howls…and sometimes more contemplative murmurs, introverted sighs, and wordless expressions of emotion. To round it all off is the sound of a typewriter being used on stage as a percussion instrument, clacking in at certain quieter moments. But also it’s used with the express intention to say something about the human voice itself; she sees that typewriter as her “sidekick”. What does that mean? Perhaps she’s inviting us to read its mechanical chatter as a form of speech. Or a machine producing letters and words, that are on the way to being vocalised.

It really is an astonishing combination, both as a technical tour de force (her impeccable vocal skills) and as an intense musical experience, which at times borders on the terrifying. I have the impression that Stockhausen, himself no stranger to using voices and choral music, would have given his right arm to arrive at such a successful formalised expression of ideas as this. He could have got there, but it would have been a lot of hard work on his part, writing, composing, thinking. I don’t know much about Ratkje’s working methods, but this music feels natural, unforced; I’d like to think it comes to her quite easily.

The disc contains another long piece “And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep”, a detailed analysis of which defeats me at the moment. My superficial impression is that it’s no less complex and demanding than the above, and it seems bent on slowly winding up tension in the listener to boiling point. All I’ve gleaned from the notes is that the voice element is done by loudspeaker playback (Maja herself was not present) and that the title comes from Shakespeare, though that may not be important. It may seem at first glance that is music is more about form than content, but I’m not sure that’s the case; I think meaning, emotion, and depth just pour out of Maja S.K. Ratkje, whether she’s performing or composing, but (unlike some windbag male composers of the 20th century) she just doesn’t feel the need to explain it to us in words.

As with the other 2L release, the exceptional quality in the sound recording and playback is well worth your attention, and hopefully may set a new benchmark for the recording and pressing of classical music releases. From 8th August 2016.

Modern Day Jazz Stories

A sumptuous jazz-based release from Martin Archer, the UK composer, bandleader, improviser and wearer of many other hats. Story Tellers (DISCUS MUSIC DISCUS 57CD) contains two CDs generously laden with highly enjoyable English electric jazz, packed with melody, swing, and passion, and bound to appeal to anyone who enjoys the so-called “Electric” Miles records, Keith Tippett’s big bands of the 1970s, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, the Escalator Over The Hill record, and such like. I’m always impressed when I hear a powerful Charles Mingus record and assume that it must be an 18-piece orchestra playing, then am pleasantly surprised when it turns out to be a quintet. I had the same sensations when I learned just six players were responsible for Story Tellers, and from what I can gather most of this material is heard as played in the studio, and there is very little post-production work. The band are Mick Somerset, Archer, trumpeter Kim Macari Stone-Lonergan, vibes player Corey Mwamba, guitarist Anton Hunter, and percussionist Peter Fairclough. All, as it happens, are accomplished bandleaders in their own right. Some are familiar names; Fairclough and Mwamba played on Archer’s Engine Room Favourites record in 2015, for instance.

Speaking of that release, Archer continues his pursuit of the AACM aesthetic, and remains convinced of the value of that high watermark in American jazz. Speaking about it in the context of this project, he says he particularly wanted to arrive at music that was “improvised and personal to the players”, but also wanted to ensure it could be repeatable, with close attention paid to a structural form that would allow this. A certain tension between spontaneity and structure. As ever, Archer tellingly points out that “AACM musicians solved this…issue several decades ago”.

Part of that structure could be the “literary” theme, which adds a frame of sorts; it divides the music on Story Tellers into six Books, each with chapters, and each book telling the story of a particular imagined character. Well, more like an archetype perhaps; for instance, Mick Somerset plays the role of “The Wounded Healer”, Archer is “The Casuist”, and so on. Some of the ideas here may have been inspired by or provided by Mick Somerset, who – though he plays a wide array of wind instruments and percussion – is a self-confessed outsider who works “on the periphery of jazz music”, and is feels more at home with words and stories. The Books are carefully structured, so that each one follows a set pattern – always starting with a stated musical theme to introduce the character, and including a solo section, and a coda. Further, the Books refer to each other, quoting musical phrases from the other Books as appropriate, to suggest cross-pollination and collaboration between the characters. Though what they’re playing is jazz, Archer has pretty much created a classical song cycle; “you could say…[it] comprises six versions of the same piece” is his take on it.

The aim with this book structure and array of characters is not to tell a story in a conventional sense; rather I take it as a metaphor for the collaboration itself, an expression of the way that the players co-operate and interact with each other, “infecting” each other’s themes with their own. This could be further taken as a metaphor for all music (all successful music at any rate), where the joy of creation becomes a shared activity, and not merely a selfish indulgence for one person, a charge that has often been levelled at lead guitarists taking excessive solos in rock music, or any self-indulgent player who merely satisfies their own needs, ignoring the other players, and even ignoring the audience. Conversely, the good vibes of this group transfer directly onto the grooves here – “we had a ball making it”, to use Archer’s own expression – and will pass onto all who hear it. From 10th August 2016.