Tagged: conceptual

Beethoven: A Sonic Translation

Sébastien Roux
Quatuor
FRANCE BROCOLI 18 CD (2016)

Quatuor is an immensely satisfying 1 and skilfully woven four movement electroacoustic suite, which yields fresh sound perspectives and connections with each subsequent listening.

How form is developed and communicated is a problem confronting any composer of electronic or electro-acoustic music. Roux has fashioned an interesting developmental method of his own, which he terms ‘sonic translation’, using pre-existing works (visual, musical or literary), as ‘scores’ for new musical pieces. This method has not only generated Quatuor, but also a piece (Inevitable Music no.1) based on Sol LeWitt’s ‘Wall Drawing no. 260’. LeWitt’s notion that ‘the idea becomes a machine that makes the art’, seems foundational to Roux’s own ‘sonic translations’, and has much in common with the methods of ‘process music’.

In Quatuor Roux has set himself overarching formal or process constrains; firstly, all of the material is drawn from Beethoven’s String Quartet No 10 in Eb Major, secondly, the structure of Quatuor follows that of the original string quartet (sonata form, rondo, scherzo, variations). Roux asked fellow composer, Mathieu Bonilla to transcribe nineteen short fragments of the quartet for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, french horn and percussion. These recordings are the material that Roux then transformed electronically into Quatuor, and Roux’s method of working locates the work within the field of musique concrète. The final overt constraints were that the transcribed fragments from the quartet should appear in the corresponding movements of Quatuor (and in the same position), and that the proportions of each part of each movement should be the same.

Whether similar ‘micro’ specifications apply to the electronic transformations that Roux applies to his acoustic material is less clear, but, on the evidence of his planning for Inevitable Music No.1, it’s certainly possible. I, for one, would love to know how – and through what – he processes his material. It’s one of my small bugbears with electronic / electroacoustic works; I can’t always work out or ‘hear’ what’s creating a sound!

Roux has placed sufficient references and signifiers around the artwork itself to lead us to the expectation that Quatuor will be a serious work of art music, even before a note of music has been heard. Such signifiers include the use both of the Beethoven quartet as ‘material’ and in his adoption of the original quartet’s Italian movement names for his own work, and also the use of the ‘traditional’ technique of transcription whereby the set of forty variations of nineteen fragments becomes, for a while, the most important element of the work; a score – an interpretable set of instructions 2 by a composer to performers (that foundational necessity of the European art music tradition).

By subtly weaving together the transcriptional and the transformational, Roux has found a method of deploying all of the elements of ‘traditional’ music, albeit in artfully re-purposed ways. Glimpses of melody, metre and harmony linger like embers throughout the arc of Quatuor due to Roux’s subtle interpolation of traces of the original ‘real’ instrumental variations with their electronic transformations. Pitch, timbre, texture, dynamics and rhythm are equally present, and these elements Roux deploys with great skill and sensitivity to create an extraordinary, and often very beautiful, flow of dynamic, textural and rhythmic accords and contrasts.

If the work of Bernard Parmegiani or John Wall or Stockhausen’s early electronic works appeals to you will almost certainly find yourself greatly taken with Quatuor. Alternatively, if you are looking for a way into the acousmatic sound world, then I would recommend this album, wholeheartedly and unhesitatingly. I hadn’t come across Sébastien Roux before this review, but I’m very pleased indeed for the introduction.

  1. The fact that seventy or so minutes of sound can be accommodated on a CD seems mesmerising to some musicians and labels, so it is good to see Sébastien Roux resisting this temptation, and producing instead a concentrated focus on a single thirty-six-minute work.
  2. Interestingly, by publishing sets of detailed instructions for the Wall Drawing series, LeWitt left open the possibility that the set of instructions for the artwork was itself the work of art, just as a score is arguably the ‘real’ work of art in European art music. Roux, on the other hand, by choosing to leave at least part of the generational process opaque, points us more directly to the artwork itself.

The Smile You Send

Another segment from the Stille Post (BÔŁT RECORDS BR R010 / MONOTYPE RECORDS mono100) box set by Alessandro Bosetti. CD03 is called A Collection Of Smiles. This is another piece for WDR, dating from 2011. Listening to this one “blind”, it seems at first like a stream of rather banal chatter from the mouths of a pan-international set of middle-class people (Australian, Europeans), not saying very much of substance to each other. In fact, the reality of the event wasn’t far from that. Bosetti set up a “situation” where a group of people would meet in the studio and told to speak to each other for one hour, without any directions as to what they should talk about. Some of these people knew each other, some of them were total strangers. Since the artist was recording every speaking voice on a separate input, at the end of this social experiment he now had in his hands a collection of voice elements which he could splice and rearrange as he saw fit. This is what ends up on A Collection Of Smiles. What may start out as something resembling a document of idle restaurant chatter soon turns into a form of vocal music (the repetitions of certain phrases become evident very quickly, creating a song-like effect with verses and choruses), or a form of abstract sound poetry as the voices pile up in rapid-fire collision edits, resulting in pleasing effects of near-gibberish. Meanings are altered subtly, as unrelated sentences are glued together. Although we might stress that there’s no processing of the sounds; Bosetti isn’t out to transform these voices into monstrous groans, for instance, which could be done by time-stretching. The rapid-fire effect, I’m slowly coming to realise, may be one of Bosetti’s trademarks; he likes a rush of information delivered in a dense parcel, and he expects us to keep up with these changes.

The other major dimension to A Collection Of Smiles is the musical score. Bosetti has noted down certain cadences and changes in timbre in the way his subjects speak, and annotated them, transforming them into a musical score. This score is then played back at certain junctures by a small chamber ensemble, in which I can hear piano, guitar, and I think some woodwinds. The precision and ingenuity with which these musical passages are matched against their spoken-word sources is uncanny, yet Bosetti doesn’t even call attention to it; he does it effortlessly, and weaves the passages into the fabric of the work without us even noticing at first that it’s even happening. The first time I heard an instance of a musician doing this was Harry Partch and his Bitter Music, where he was able to document speech patterns of people he met during his hobo years in America, and recast them as musical phrases. (See the third disc of Enclosure 2, INNOVA 401, 1995)

This leaves us with the possible task of “decoding” the content or meaning of A Collection Of Smiles. But I’m not sure if there is any. On the surface, the work feels like a 50-minute musical approximation of a Twitter stream. There’s something relentlessly upbeat about the self-satisfied tone of these individuals and their jabbering that prompts this observation, and the shallowness of their observations is only increased the more it’s repeated under Bosetti’s editing knife. As directed conversations go, this is clearly of quite a different order to the stoned freaks sitting under a tarpaulin with a piano set up by Zappa for his Lumpy Gravy album. However, the record does once again display Bosetti’s remarkable talent for fashioning dense and complex statements from his source materials, and the “different and ever-changing constellations” he is able to build in mosaic fashion clearly delights him.

We Speak From The Air

Stille Post: Radio Works 2003-2011 (BÔŁT RECORDS BR R010 / MONOTYPE RECORDS mono100) is a boxed set of radiophonic works by Italian sound artist Alessandro Bosetti which we received 21 June 2016. There are four CDs in the box. I’ll try and get through them one at a time, which means the reviews will be distributed. Arcoparlante is CD01 and dates from 2009, when Bosetti staged a game of Stille Post (Telephone) on German radio, with the help of the Klangkunst team at the station. The exact method used for this piece of live performance art isn’t crystal clear to me, but it involves sending “almost incomprehensible radio messages” over the air and having them repeated, transcribed, and re-transmitted. It’s a gigantic game of Chinese Whispers..even the simplest and most commonplace phrase is immediately misunderstood and transformed into polysyllabic nonsense, or some vaguely amusing jumble of words.

Bosetti describes the process as a “gigantic sound poetry generator” and calls Arcoparlante “an electromagnetic feast of misunderstanding on a grand scale”. You can feel the delight in his words as he writes this, pleased as Punch with having created this odd Tower of Babel situation for 50 minutes. I get the “grand misunderstanding” part of this project, some of which is to do with mistranslation between European languages, and lot of which is to do with distortion; what I don’t quite get is who was receiving the messages, how the misunderstandings were relayed back into the process, and whether anyone was even listening to the broadcast. But I don’t expect any of that matters. It’s a compelling listen, mainly because it’s so complex and happens so quickly, and the fragments of ultra-fast gibberish just whizz by like errant birds or insects in the ether. You really need to be paying attention or you’ll lose the thread in short order.

There is a structure to the work – each episode or example of the game is prefaced by an announcement which helpfully numbers the experiment in a frightfully Germanic manner – but this structure seems to break down very quickly, and the underpinning logic is hard to fathom in among the intense swirl of clipped words, phrases, static, music, distortion, and more static. Even so, it’s clear we’re intended to hear this as something “episodic”, like 300 episodes of The Archers compressed into less than an hour. I wonder if there was any post-production editing to bring about this delirious rush of information, distilling a night’s work into CD length, or if it all went down like this on the night. Souped-up John Cagean methods at work…a controlled form of chaos…a great record.

Them!

Ants, eh…you can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em…at any rate, it’s always these six-legged bastards who show up in pseudo-scientific articles when some nincompoop author is clutching for a metaphor for human society. Perhaps it’s because we suppose these tiny black rogues have organised themselves into a hierarchical system, one with a monarch at its centre, and capable of productive activity on an industrial scale we puny humans can only dream about. Then there’s their elaborate communication system, which involves flopping their pathetic antennae about in some way, to relay signals throughout the entire colony. It’s only a matter of time before some smart alec compares that to “The Internet” and starts to make outlandish claims, for instance that “Ants Invented The World Wide Web” or some such nonsense.

I for one have never trusted the ant, and regard these crawling devils with the same suspicious eye as I do most of the smaller creatures who share the earth with us. They’re up to something, and I don’t like it. One interesting trend for many years has been the cultivation of a so-called “ant farm”, which I believe involves creating a mini-colony of these unpleasant monsters inside a glass box filled with sand or porous earth, allowing us to observe the ants plotting their nefarious schemes. These ant farms have proven especially popular among American school children, who proudly exhibit them as “science projects” when they wish to earn points in entomology. The truth is far more sinister, of course…any given ant farm is just a way of proving the inevitability of capitalism, perpetuating the exploitation of labour, and the “need” for a caste system that keeps us all oppressed; and where better to indoctrinate children with this poisonous ideology than at secondary school. It’s all there, in among the ants.

Some of my justifiable paranoia and bile has, I like to think, informed the record we have in front of us – titled Ant Farm (FEEDING TUBE RECORDS FTR241) and credited to the players Elliott Schwartz and Big Blood. It’s a slightly creepy and weird slab of sound art and music, not without its frequently beautiful moments, but mostly issued as a warning against the rise of the ants. The music was originally the soundtrack for an art exhibit, also called Ant Farm, an event which was held in Maine to showcase the work of The Ant Girls, a visual art group including Colleen Kinsella and Dorothy Schwartz. Right there you’ve got a strong thread of “ant-ness” detectable in the genesis of this particular record. I shouldn’t be surprised if The Ant Girls knew more than they were letting on.

Colleen Kinsella is also one half of Big Blood, along with Caleb Mulkerin, and they’ve been making records since 2006, many of them issued as CDRs on their own Don’t Trust The Ruin label. Weirdly, they’re actually a four-piece but only have two members. They probably came under the influence of the ants to arrive at that point. Elliott Schwartz is a veteran American composer whose modernistic (I assume) escapades date back to the 1960s, although he also made a remarkable record with Marion Brown called Soundways, issued in 1973 by the Bowdoin College Music Press. It’s remarkable for its combination of electronic keyboard music with free jazz sax blowing, a combination which always works for me. Schwartz has no traceable connection to the world of ants, and is just guesting.

The Ant Farm record will draw you in at first by dint of its unusual sound – lo-fi, crackly, misted-up recordings as if heard through a layer of aural fog. From these gentle rumbles and purrs, there will emerge strange tunes and eerie keyboard fugues, some of them played on gamelan instruments such as the Baliphone, or other hammered instruments like the Dulcimer. There’s more atmospheric home-brew electronics than you could fit in a shopping bag, and Schwartz plays his heart out when called upon, offering near-classical tunes of intricate delicacy, many of which have a narrative vibe very fitted to telling the stories of these darn ants. For instance, ‘The Queen’s Egg’ or ‘Winged Pile’ or ‘Swarm’. All of these uncanny musical elements – plus some occasional whispery breathy songs on side two – are blended into a seamless suite of gentle, vaguely sinister music of a supreme oddness, leading the listener through that evil maze-like warren that is the tunnel system of the ants. To top it all off, it’s packaged in some gorgeous sleeve art and inners, featuring paintings of – guess what! – ants at work. These images are uncredited on the release but are possibly provided by one of the Ant Girls. Great! From 17 May 2016.

Digital Memories

American-born sound artist Pierce Warneke mostly lives and works in Europe, and has surfaced here before mainly in the context of Emitter Micro, that interesting label that has been home to a few small-run releases in bizarre packaging which contains anonymous, perplexing and alienatingly severe electronic sound art. I often associate him with Berliner Christoph Limbach, and both of them appeared on Four Corners Of The Night, a cassette tape released by Staaltape around 2012. Warneke has now made a superb album called Memory Fragments (ROOM 40 RM479), where he performs electronic music using assorted devices and methods such as the electromagnetic coil, contact microphones, feedback, and a process called “FM and additive synthesis”. And some conventional instruments, including piano and guitar. He’s joined by the bass player Yair Elzara Glotman, Kris Limbach (see above) on percussion, and the saxophonist Pierre Borel. In addition to this, there are field recordings gathered from America, Portugal, France and Germany folded into the equation.

The set is thus far from minimal or severe, and instead offers a rich set of complex and intriguing tones for the listener to explore and move around inside. With a descriptive paragraph explaining something of the origins of this work, Warnecke uses an entire thesaurus of terms which mean more or less the same thing – the message that comes across is constant change and reworking, suggesting he manipulates his sizeable gobbets of sound like so much plasticine, remoulding them into toy farms, cities, office workers and Noah’s Ark configurations like a grown-up child ought to do. A large number of contemporary sound artists are into the “reworking” thing these days; I suppose it’s much easier to tinker with sound files in the computer than ever before, and while some of them may hope to align themselves with the early geniuses of musique concrète, quite often they simply produced reams of over-cooked murk and spew, which has been baked in the innards of a laptop for far too long.

We can’t level that accusation at a single track, or a single moment, on Memory Fragments; every musical utterance has a certain weight, and there’s a solidity and crispness to the sounds that is impressive. Although events do tend to coagulate into a continuum of some sort, it’s never a mindless or boring process drone; and the strange weightless journey into space is mapped with a series of very distinct and separated sound events, acting like milestones. It’s a very exciting and inexplicable noise.

There’s also a certain solemnity to the music, as if every utterance were delivered by an undertaker wearing a large top hat and a grave countenance. This may have something to with the ponderous track titles; each one nearly a sentence, or title of a book chapter (a book one never hopes to read), and to boot they’re arranged under two headings, suggesting the book is a two-volume monster of epic sweep. The trend of these titles reads like an attempt to describe the phenomenon of memory itself, clasping at concrete images that might capture it in some way. In that context, the phrase “built on folds and braids” seems especially resonant. The puzzling cover image (uncredited) may also be an attempt to pin down the elusive idea of memory into a visual form; curlicue twisted rags of cloth or paper spin in space, or are arranged in something resembling a grid.

Warneke is attempting to say something about the human mind as a recording medium. The brain can replay memories, but it might do so in a faulty manner, so that the memory never matches the actual experience. This volatility interests him, and the record Memory Fragments expresses this idea by “taking samples (sound, images, objects) of a physical space and then placing them in an imaginary process of transformation and transience that slowly erodes these digital memories until disappearance”. From 25 May 2016.

Horrible Gas Emissions

Italian composer SEC_ (i.e. Mimmo Napolitano) has landed here a few times, notably with his exciting and severe Outflow record where we admired the “measured control, economy, tautness, and selection” in the compactness and editing; and the old-school tape-recorder approach delighted Paul Morgan on 2013’s Moscaio album, even though he complained “there’s no doubt [SEC_] has successfully created an alien, unnatural soundscape, but I found that it takes a few listens to be able to comfortably inhabit it.” Here today is Mefite (TOXO RECORDS tx07), a highly alarming and disorienting composition, which like Outflow also contains a near-overload of information, and which like Moscaio successfully induces strange sensations of loathing and dread.

Mefite has a classical theme, inspired by the Roman fertility goddess (called Mephitis in English) who was often associated with water, swamps, and volcanoes; some scholars think she’s the personification of the sulphurous gases which were naturally emitted by these geographic features. Our man Mimmo is 100% sold on the myth; he describes the Ansanto Valley with some relish as a secret cult location where “horrible gas emissions…kill those who go too close”. These themes are bolstered by the murky cover images, portraying inhospitable rocky areas, perhaps riddled with lava streams and poisonous gases.

To articulate the voice of Mephitis, Mimmo has enlisted the talents of M. DellaMorte, who intones her vengeful words through a distorting filter as if speaking to us mere mortals using the broken telephone receiver of The Gods. She may have got the job based solely on her surname, which translates as “Of Death”; hopefully she’s a gothic beauty with stunning black hair, a wan expression, and prominent cheekbones. The texts she’s speaking were derived from a film about insects by Peter Liechti, which in turn was inspired by a book bearing the chilling title Diary Of A Mummy by Shimada Masahiko. Apparently it’s a macabre story about death by starvation, told in diary form. Brrr…but I do like this multi-layered approach to culture, allowing one subject to illuminate another; juggling the nested ideas seems like just the sort of complex exercise that SEC_ would enjoy, given his elaborate music.

This barrage of information reaches a head near the middle of Part 2 of the composition, creating an overload of unnerving sounds in which the relentless voice continues to chatter implacably. Matter of fact there are multiple speaking voices, generating nightmarish sensations. I should count myself lucky I only have a CD; the original performance in Naples was a multi-channel operation, involving radios and speakers with a live vocal performance. Small wonder the inhabitants dreamt of death by volcano that night, some of them reliving the last days of Pompeii.

I had an idea that European electro-acoustic composers of the 20th century also liked to do occasional updates on Greek and Roman myths, but I can’t find any examples now to support this claim. Even so, one senses that SEC_ is following in a good tradition, giving free vent to his tortured imagination through these strong themes, and creating powerful music thereby. Very good! From 28 June 2016.

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.

Arc of a Journey

doubse-hysterie

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?

Dysfunctional Organs

wurmloch

The Quellgeister #2: Wurmloch (INTERSTELLAR RECORDS INT039) LP by Austrian artist Stefan Fraunberger is part of his Quellgeister series…he does it by performing on “semi-ruined organs in deserted churches”. At one level what we hear is a fascinating wheezy acoustic drone, as he attempts to force sound from these old, broken devices. He’s not attempting to make music or play hymn tunes, rather create a conceptual form of sound art. The tones he creates are quite eerie, and the distressed keys and dilapidated pipes are clearly generating just the sort of effects he’s seeking. Even the performances are “broken”, refusing conventional form and veering from recognisable modular chords to freely-improvised passages and moments of purely abstract noise. So far, very rewarding and highly unusual set of rather disconcerting half-musical sounds emerge from Wurmloch, and we could probably locate Fraunberger in a lineage with other artists who discover ruined pianos in odd places and try and force a noise out of them, such as Russ Bolleter or Annea Lockwood.

Stefan Fraunberger is doing it in Transylvania, in churches that are about 300 years old. One of the things that interests him is the profound changes history and migration has wrought in this area, whose German population have mostly moved on since the collapse of the Berlin wall, and where the small villages are now inhabited by Sinti and Romani gypsies. The churches he visits were built during one of the many Ottoman wars, and are more like fortresses. Fraunberger sees the buildings, and the organs themselves, as the last surviving remnant of a forgotten purpose, a “pre-modern, forgotten future” as the press notes have it. He proposes to reinhabit and colonise this admittedly rather vague zone with his own modern, radical ideas, through the possibilities of sound…the record is a document of his spontaneously created “organic sculptures”. While “organic” is an overused word in our field, it’s entirely appropriate to the all-acoustic nature of this sound art, music which is somehow aspiring to reach the “abstracted spirit of electronic music”. Not just because it involves wood and other natural materials and the passage of air wheezing its way through the pipes in irregular bursts, but something of the rottenness and decay of the organ itself has passed onto the grooves. You can almost see the dust, smell the mould.

Visit Franunberger’s website for further examples of his forward-looking and rather abstruse ideas about art and language, and its place in society…through his extensive travels, he seems to be trying to discover things about the meaning of contemporary culture through signs of change and decay, and finding clues in the most unlikely places. The photo of heavily-rusted satellite dishes is strangely evocative in that context, for reasons I can’t explain. From 3 May 2016.

Everything’s Going Jackanory

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English pastoral moods, themes, and whimsy on The Quietened Village: Dawn Edition (AUDIOLOGICAL TRANSMISSIONS ARTIFACT #2), an 11-track compilation of contemporary artistes from the micro-label A Year In The Country. They present the work in two different editions, a Night edition and a Dawn edition, but the audio content is the same, just the packaging varies (the Night edition arrives in a box). Everything is hand-made, textured papers are favoured, and little chunks of ephemera including a small badge and a stringed tag are attached. I like the care and attention in the packaging, which is described in extensive detail on the label website, but I find the actual imagery is severely impoverished; the cover, which looks like it might have started life as a nice bit of photo-collage work, is printed in such a light grey that it seems to be fading away before our eyes.

This is probably the whole point, however. The project is setting out to produce a “reflection” on lost villages of England. We are invited to muse upon matters of coastal erosion (village has fallen into the sea), villages no longer featured on maps, or cases where populations are evicted and when they come back it’s all changed. As to that last one, the paragraph that describes it is clearly referring to Imber, yet doesn’t name it explicitly, resorting instead to flowery phrases like “great conflicts between nations”. Imber was indeed evacuated during the second World War and never recovered from its careless treatment at the hands of the MOD; another record, oddly enough made by the Norwegian guitar duo kÖök, covered similar ground, and is noted here. They drew very pessimistic conclusions.

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This vagueness (I suppose they would prefer to call it “allusiveness”) on the part of A Year In The Country is evidenced throughout the album. Only two tracks here actually dare to name an abandoned village; there’s ‘The Drowning Of Mardale Green’, referring to a place in the Lake District that was submerged underwater due to a reservoir blunder by Manchester Corporation; and ‘Lost Villages of Holderness’, referring to parts of the East Riding in Yorkshire that were lost to erosion. I discount David Colohan’s reference to the Mitta Mitta, as this is a small town in Australia, and doesn’t seem to fit the overall theme of Englishness. Evidently, the music on The Quietened Village prefers to evoke, rather than to deal with specifics of geography or history; and likes to mix reality with imagination, fictions and myths, as demonstrated by the press release with its reference to The Midwich Cuckoos, and “dystopic tales told and transmitted in times gone by” – a sentence which, while lyrical, would not have earned its author a pass mark in CSE History.

The music itself, mostly instrumental, is pleasant enough. If the musicians share any common ground, I’d say it’s that they are trying to trigger memories and associations in the listener, and doing so mostly by pastiche and quotation. In this, they are not far apart from their nearest rival, the well-established Ghost Box label with its loving recreations of a fictional England refracted through memories of incidental music on BBC television emerging in some undefined period between the Suez crisis and the joining of the European common market. Two cuts which to my ears most closely resemble the Ghost Box “style” (admittedly a very broad church) are ‘Playground Ritual’ by Polypores, and ‘47 Days And Fathoms Deep’ by A Year In The Country. The latter is a pleasant folk-y tune presented with slightly treated sounds, and it fades away sadly into the sound effect of the blowing winds. to illustrate the passing of a lost village. The former has a clunky synth tune acting in quite an agitated manner, with richly evocative sounds; I like its slightly dark undercurrent, the vague creeping noise approaching, which may be taken to stand for encroaching modernity threatening the old ways.

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From here it’s a stone-throw to some good old Radiophonic Workshop quotes; our good friends Howlround have made a career from quoting BBC music in clever and well-informed ways, and their ‘Flying Over a Glassed Wedge’ does not disappoint, reminding us of incidental music for Dr Who episodes that never existed. ‘Day Blink’ by Time Attendant, is likewise of a sci-fi bent, using distortion and unusual synth sounds punctuated by random beats. Time Attendant is a great name, but sadly time-keeping is not in their skill-set. Like much of the work on this compilation, it’s an attractive but poorly-composed piece, lacking form or direction or a satisfactory conclusion. Cosmic Neighbourhood’s ‘Bunk Beds’ is likewise littered with quirky electronic sounds, in a nonsensical confection that ends the comp on a note of whimsical fun.

The Rowan Amber Mill have made more of an effort to compose and arrange music; their ‘Separations’ reminds me of a Dolly Collins arrangement from Love Death and The Lady, lean and spare, and given the context that’s not a bad association to have. 1 The Soulless Party have their ‘Damnatorum’, a pleasing tune rendered in a sort of minimal romantic classical style. Only the synthetic string keyboards let this one down slightly. ‘Damnatorum’ is a strong title too, and let’s not forget the film made of The Midwich Cuckoos was called Village of the Damned. Another track with classical leanings is Richard Moult’s ‘Quopeveil’, where the piano and oboe produce a very tasty and unusual combination, even if the melody is very uncertain and comes out haltingly. It feels a bit precious, strained; as if striving to be mistaken for a British Light Music classic.

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David Colohan’s ‘At the Confluence of the Mitta Mitta & Murray’ relies almost entirely on a “nostalgic” ambient drone to achieve its effects; it’s in the same general area as Sproatly Smith and their ‘Lost Villages of Holderness’, a piece which makes extensive use of sound effects such as ocean waves, seagulls, wind, etc. It feels a bit glib, but the juxtaposition of these recordings with the nostalgic music works well. The second half of the piece shifts dramatically to a “modern” folk song, sung in a charmless style.

For other musicians who have tried to capture the charms of the United Kingdom’s imaginary past, see Hidden Rivers (i.e. Huw Roberts) who idealised the Welsh countryside on Where Moss Grows; Nigel Samways, at a stretch, with his Nuclear Beach and Temple of the Swine; and Jon Brooks, with his 52 for the label Clay Pipe Music. From 6th April 2016.

  1. Somehow I expected a few more explicit references to English folk music. Maybe it’s because the title reminded me of The Imagined Village, which is a hyper-critical book by Georgina Boyes, amounting to a direct attack on the person and work of folk song collector Cecil Sharp. Boyes wanted to disabuse us of any notion we might harbour that folk music is “ancient” or produced by unlearned rustics; she aimed to debunk myths. The phrase “The Imagined Village” was then lifted by Simon Emmerson of the Afro Celt Sound System and applied to his multi-cultural music project. Allez savoir pourquoi.