Tagged: conceptual

The Payoff

Pierre-Yves Martel
Estinto
CANADA E-TRON REC ETRC025 CD (2016)

Estinto is an interesting title for this disc, as it means “extinct” or “(a debt) paid off”. However, what or whom Pierre-Yves Martel is paying off with this single 54 minute piece of music is not acknowledged. Treble viol and harmonica played simultaneously by Monsieur Martel, in a room, while sitting on a chair, probably; whilst being recorded by Ross Murray. It’s kind of like a pulsing sub-Wandelweiser silence-followed-by-signal-followed-by-silence piece; so if you imagine a guy sat there on his chair playing harmonica and treble viol simultaneously for 54 minutes. More like durational performance art, which arguably you might prefer to experience on dvd.

If you look at his website he is presenting himself more as an artist – it’s that ubiquitous term: “sound artist”, rather than “musician” although he does say that “he also works outside of instrumental music altogether, using a variety of objects rife with new sonic possibilities, from contact-mics and speakers to motors, wheels, surfaces and textures.” Like the label, he is Canadian; from Montréal I believe? The label is based not far away, in Hull, Québec. It is a piece of work that has a little trouble with its own existence outside of the artist’s head… I hesitate to use the word “conceptual” because there isn’t really much of a concept here. Clearly he’s playing with silence – the idea of using silence as a compositional tool which as I said before, is an idea I think he may have seen used by members of the Wandelweiser collective – although its equally possible that he came to this way of working in his own logical or logistical process of development – it is interesting to me (for reasons that admittedly have nothing to do with this disc before me) that Wandelweiser have gained or encouraged a reputation for using silence or quietness when quite a lot of their output is undeniably maximalist; Michael Pisaro’s A Wave And Waves for example – you couldn’t get much more maximalist than that, or at least this is the Greg Stuart rendering of it that I’m thinking of.

Pierre-Yves Martel’s work here is aimless, lacks the thrust of development and is somewhat repetitive. There are only two major changes that happen; although as an architectural tool compositionally this strategy works well. Overall, perhaps it could occupy the function of background music for an art gallery, say, were it not for the fact that sonically, it is so strident. This is a challenging piece. Do I applaud the artist’s decision to produce this piece of work? Yes. Yes, I do. Will I listen to it again at home for pleasure? I’ll let you know.

Sad Music for the End of the World

The fourth in a related series of releases from the UK small label A Year In The Country is The Quietened Bunker (Dawn Edition), which is labelled Audiological Transmission Artifact #4. As ever, it’s a showcase for contemporary electronic and ambient music. If you’ve followed the others in this AYITC series, you’ll understand these compilations are themed on notions about England and its forgotten, sometimes obscure, history; one previous release looked at the vanishing villages of the countryside, while another proposed a fanciful idea about schisms in the fabric of time, and suggested that 1973 was the year when everything went wrong in Albion. The Quietened Bunker is about military installations.

If pursuing this historical subject, it would be feasible to survey what’s left of coastal defence forts, pillboxes and other buildings from WWII, but our compilers are interested in the Cold War, and the existence of now-abandoned bunkers which were originally built in case of a nuclear attack. The compilers explain this in the insert, and they’ve also done their research into the network of underground monitoring posts, which were needed to report on such attacks; from here, they muse on the possibility of a populace living under the threat of “annihilation”, make a few mildly subversive remarks about the government and the power base that caused this catastrophe to happen, and conclude that “now it can all seem like a dream from another world”.

AYITC aren’t really troubled by hard factual data, and decline to cite dates, grid references, or even specific places in the countryside where we might find such bunkers (as Joe Banks / Disinformation might have done in the 1990s); the project is simply a cue for vague and rather banal sentiments, expressed in allusive texts and ambiguous music. I realise I make this same mean-minded quibble every time when I get these records. Even so, as a listen, The Quietened Bunker is strangely satisfying; each of the nine pieces creates a definite mood or atmosphere, and sustains it through subtle changes. Some are alarmist and paranoid in tone, some are wistful and melancholic, some are so wispy and washed-out you can barely discern their grey, fading tones. Only ‘Crush Depth’ by Unknown Heretic comes close to a watered-down form of industrial music that might seem appropriate for a record about concrete bunkers and atom bombs. The programming is very good, creating a sequence of music that “feels” right, suggesting some sort of narrative progress towards a dismal nuclear winter, and signposting several moving elegiac farewells along the way.

Featured on the comp. are such previous favourites as Polypores, Keith Seatman, Time Attendant and David Colohan, and others beside. Sad music for the end of the world, imaginary soundtracks – though probably more suitable for The Bed Sitting Room (1969) than for Threads by Barry Hines (1984). From 12 July 2016.

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?