Tagged: conceptual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dysfunctional Organs

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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.

Humanity Is Being Evacuated

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Quite nice record of electronic drone music from Marc Kate in San Francisco. It’s rather dark in mood and he calls it Despairer (FAILING FORMS FF02). What he’s despairing about is the state of the world today, and specifically the so-called “tech culture assault” that is affecting everyone and everything. I suppose by this he’s referring to the growth of IT software, social media, and internet companies, a phenomenon which it’s probably pretty hard to avoid today, but especially if you live in San Francisco. What concerns Marc Kate is that in our rush to become good e-citizens, “humanity is being evacuated”. As a counter-measure, he proposes to use technology itself to strike a blow for the human race, hence this all-synthetic record of digital drone.

The slow-moving and melancholic music here has clearly been assembled with considerable care, and great attention is paid to tiny shifts in timbre and mood. I also like the way he avoids the “ambient blend” which is such a common problem in this area, by which I mean the way it’s possible to overmix one’s tones and colours and end up with a muddy paintbox of very samey music. By contrast, Kate strives to keep his sounds nicely separated and distinct, and overall there is a clean, polished surface to all the resonating music on Despairer. Meanwhile, the elaborate titles are mini-exercises in intellectual fun, and give further clues as to the concerns and worries that keep Marc Kate awake at night: ‘All of the books we burned’ is a very extreme reaction to the growth of Kindle and Project Gutenberg, but perhaps it’s a good oppositional stance to adopt to call attention to the current “digitise-everything” madness. And ‘I Would Do Anything For You. Except Listen’ could be read as an indicator of how the core values of human relationships are gradually being eroded by the superficiality of social media interaction, and the way it reduces our attention spans to minus zero. I may be reading too much into these titles. As for ‘Abject-Oriented Ontology’, I have no idea what this means, but it’s a snappy phrase for sure.

Well, Marc Kate’s fears of technology dehumanising mankind are not especially new, and such phobias have been around for as long as we’ve had science fiction stories, but it’s to his credit that he turns the condition into a very personal and heartfelt emotion, placing it squarely at the centre of his work. There’s also the classic “head covered in lard” cover photograph, which reminds me of the sadistic Laurel & Hardy short film Tit For Tat, where the unfortunate grocer has his head pushed into an entire drum of lard. I think it would be great if Marc Kate could turn this lard episode into a piece of performance art with his own music playing at loud volumes. This action might just be enough to start a chain reaction, ultimately bringing about the collapse of 25 start-up tech companies in SF. Let’s hope. Lawrence English did the mastering; which is apt, as at times it feels and sounds like something he would have released on his Room 40 label. From 4th April 2016.

At The Least

Guardian Weekend Remix

Here is the latest set from Martin Archer’s vocal group Juxtavoices, whose distinctive work has reached us before on Juxtanother Antichoir from Sheffield. This particular piece Guardian Weekend Remix (DISCUS 54CD/DVD) is presented here in three versions, one of them on a DVD. It seems to have its origins in a piece of visual artwork created by Michael Szpakowski, itself comprised of or making use of printed words; the choir used this as their “score”, along with some prose instructions from Archer. There are organisational rules about forming into colour-coded trios, and rules governing repetitions and duration. In both method and execution, there’s a slightly “retro” feel to Guardian Weekend Remix, and it can’t help but remind one of Luciano Berio or Stockhausen. Tom Phillips, the English painter, has also composed similar works translating his Humument paintings, themselves derived from printed texts in a book; Irma, released on Eno’s Obscure label in 1978, is one such opera.

Where the previous release was a showcase for a number of different approaches and styles which the choir are capable of, this one concentrates on Sound Poetry. I went scuttling off to check my book Text-Sound Texts edited by Richard Kostelanetz in 1980; the flap copy summarises sound poetry as “language that coheres in terms of sound rather than syntax or semantics; it is composed to be heard.” One creator spoke of “phonetic poems…we totally renounce the language that journalism has abused and corrupted. We must return to the innermost alchemy of the word, to keep poetry for its last and holiest refuge”. I mention that this since the reference to journalism seems apposite, in the context of the Guardian Weekend. On the other hand, I may be assuming quite wrongly that Szpakowski created his artwork from cut-up texts derived from that newspaper. 1 From what I can glean, most of Szpakowski’s works in the series are visual collages rather than text cut-ups; the one that appears as the cover art here is simply playing with anagrams.

There’s a lot of repetition structured into the work. This leads to tedium quite quickly and could be one reason why I find Guardian Weekend Remix such a difficult listen. But I also give short shrift to the over-dramatic manner in which some of the singers comport themselves – stressed regional accents and underlined phrases, that make them sound like ham actors belting out their lines in summer season. It’s as if they’re straining themselves to bring meaning where there is none, to compensate for the lack of content in Szpakowski’s scrambled gibberish. However, the repetition is deliberate, and Archer writes that he likes the idea of “locked loops of language” and “the meaningless ravings of a cast of characters”. He dreams that the choir are spirit voices attempting to communicate a message of vital importance to the living, and they can’t. Well and good, but I’m not sure if this insight is intended as a slight on The Guardian itself (any attack on that hideous middle-class organ would be welcome), or a more general observation on the limitations of language itself. I like to support Archer’s work, but found this release very unsatisfactory. From 14 January 2016.

  1. A gallery of images from the Remix series can be seen at Flickr.

Out of Twenty-Four

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Intensive exploration of the possibilities of the saxophone in modern music on Infinite Jest (GRUENREKORDER Gruen 156). The duo Mark Lorenz Kysela and Nikola Lutz, calling themselves Invading Pleasures, are consummate players dedicating to pushing envelopes and expanding the boundaries of what is considered possible to play on the saxophone. To that end, here are six compositions and situations set up to test their mettle, including works by Uwe Rasch, Malte Giesen, Remmy Canedo, Joseph Michaels, and Lutz herself. They treat the sounds of their instruments extensively with live electronics, play multiple instruments at the same time, and draw no lines between composition and improvisation. The works here are heavily annotated, but these notes mostly describe the elaborate processes involved in their creation; one of them uses graphics scores derived from photographs, another piece doubles up the instrument pitches with “Midi sounds and meaningless speech”. Still another boasts that it is “about sound meta-annihilation, abstract violence, broken lines and tempo shifts” and goes on to quote Georges Bataille. In short, I know when I’m outsmarted; this release is far too intellectualised and hyper-musical for me to derive much enjoyment from it, and while one can admire the skills on offer and the unusual sounds created, the operation feels far too poised and contrived, and the music emerges as something cold and clinical in its perfection. The work doesn’t appear to be about anything, other than the process by which it was created, and the musicians’ ability to play it. From 26 January 2016.

Exclusion Zones

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Nuclear power plant disasters were the starting point for Fictions (AUSSENRAUM AR LP 004) by Bruno Duplant, a French musician whose work straddles the fields of electro-acoustic composition, field recordings, and sound art; he performs on several instruments too, including the double bass, percussion and keyboards. We hear two side-long pieces on this LP, one named for Prypiat, the Ukranian city that was abandoned in 1986 following the Chernobyl disaster and has been a ghost town ever since; and the other for Futaba in Japan, likewise evacuated after the damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011 caused by major earthquakes.

We should state upfront that Bruno Duplant has personally visited neither of these two places. His sound art here is a work of pure imagination, and he intends each piece to “investigate the relationship between fiction and reality”. This has involved a heroic feat of brainpower. He set out to ignore the “reality” of these sites, and wanted to somehow transform them into completely fictional statements, informed to some degree by a semi-science fiction idea about “exclusion zones”. This might have been inspired by the Tarkovsky movie Stalker (everyone and his brother takes ideas from that film), but apparently it wasn’t. Duplant is well aware that several sound artists have already visited these sites, notable among them Peter Cusack with his Sounds From Dangerous Places project. Conversely, Duplant wants to see if he can remake (or at any rate reimagine) Prypiat and Futaba in some fashion, using the medium of sound. To that end, he did not use sounds sourced from either area. What sounds he did use is not revealed to us, but rest assured they “originally had no relation with these places”.

This concept, and the process, read well on paper and Fictions is a highly promising premise. The results on the LP however do very little to live up the concept. To begin with, both sides are nearly identical in surface and form; a meandering, low-key drift around an uncertain droney soundscape, littered with slightly intriguing details and abstract shapes. We can’t find much difference between the two. Why do they warrant being cast as two separate fictions? Secondly, what are the “fictions” he is trying to spin? It’s far from clear. Both sides create the impression of nothing more interesting than a sleepy pastoral farmyard in the middle of summer, where all the farmhands have left and there’s nothing much going on; in desultory fashion, Duplant’s mikes explore the barn to examine some rusty machinery, while flies and crickets make low-key noises in the heat. In draining Prypiat and Futaba of their original significance, history and resonance, Duplant has failed to replace these core elements with anything more substantial in return.

Nothing objectionable about the sounds that Duplant makes, but if we didn’t have the supporting context there wouldn’t be much of interest to this hum-drum release. I’m completely in favour of a musician (any artist) seeking to reimagine the world, or parts of it, on their own terms so that it matches their own vision; exhibit A, Salvador Dali with his paranoiac-critical paintings, which may be mannered and pretentious, but at least he made the effort to impose his vision on reality in a highly convincing manner. Conversely, Duplant evidently isn’t able to live up to the challenge he has set himself. From 25th January 2016.

Last Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dance of Death

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The record by Ryan Choi The Three Dancers (ACCRETIONS alp060CD) is a strikingly unusual piece of improvisation…it’s not often we hear the ukulele played in the context of free music, and not only that but Choi has his own highly idiosyncratic approach to playing it. He’s a young fellow born in Honolulu where he still lives; it’s interesting to me that he’s adopted what I would regard as a “traditional” instrument from that part of the world, and turned it to his own ends. Interesting to me, as I’m a collector of reissues of old Hawaiian 78s recorded in the 1920s and 1930s by Sol Hoopii, King Benny Nawahi, Jim and Bob (the Genial Hawaiians) and others; those records were I think originally “sold” to the audience as novelty items in a market rich with country and blues records, but they have an infectious charm and energy, plus the musicians were all consummate craftsmen capable of producing exciting effects from their ukes and slide guitars. Ryan Choi may not play recognisable melodies, and in fact his fractured music is much more in keeping with the uncertainties of today’s end-times, but he does have the energy of my pre-war Hawaiian heroes. The Three Dancers just crackles with life, even when the sound is understated and spare. There may be electronics on here on one track, but Choi is far from being a noisy improviser.

He’s also not averse to things like repetition, patterns, rhythms – said rhythms sometimes being buried in the midst of his complex uke lines and clusters, but emerging none the less to give each piece here an undeniable inner energy. I like to highlight this because repetition, patterns, and rhythms are so often regarded as “the enemy” by some hard-core improvisers who make no concessions to audience pleasure. Choi uses these forces in service of his central concept, which is to make a dance record, or at any rate a record “about” dance in some way; the title is directly inspired by the Picasso painting of 1925, hanging in the Tate Modern, a jpeg of which I happen to have on my screen just now. Many of Picasso’s details are appropriate to the music we hear; the patterns on the curtains either side of the frame, the rather wan colours of the dancers’ skin, and in particular the jagged saw-edge shapes carried so threateningly by the ambiguous figure on the left hand side. Her face, incidentally, was inspired by a mask from New Guinea; if you decided to fly westwards from Honolulu, you’d be in Papua New Guinea in just 20 hours. This may not have any bearing on anything, of course. Choi has evidently picked up on the spikiness of Picasso’s painting, as reflected in the twitchy energies of ‘Apollon At Eros’.

He may even have found a way to reflect something of the darker side of that image; it was painted after a three-way love triangle that ended badly, and the suicide of one of Pablo’s friends. Choi’s ‘Three Dancers’ is the most dissonant of the three pieces here, and also the most unusual in its surface sound. At first I thought he was using backwards tapes, or playing the entire recording backwards; it’s more likely to be a combination of his highly aggressive technique – he attacks the strings like his fingers were a swarm of hornets – with some form of electronic manipulation. It’s an eerie, unworldly sound. Here, more than anywhere on the record, we have the sense of the Danse Macabre which underpinned the original painting, the sense that the three figures are drawn into a vortex of negative energy from which they can’t escape. Their very limbs are entangled in this nest of psychic tendrils, and Ryan Choi has found a way to express this darkness in sound.

While this is a short record – around 20 minutes, meaning it might almost have fit on to a three-inch CDR – there is, as other commentators have observed, a great deal of musical energy compressed into it. Choi plays the baritone ukulele, with percussion and electronics, and also did the sketch on the cover; it’s as if he asked a stenographer to describe the Picasso painting in shorthand, and this was the result. This record marks his return to music after several “gap years”, but apparently he’d been thinking about the work since around 2001. Very good. From March 2016.